THE BACK STORIES
THE MAN FROM THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
You know I told you how my life went pretty crazy? Well here's how crazy. I had my row with the publishers and finally I got them to sign off on the idea of starting out with the back stories of the men and women who made all the difference. I wanted to know about the moments in their lives which shaped their views. What made them choose a side? What made them resolve to make a stand? After thinking about it for a while, I decided as good a way as any would be to go through things chronologically.
And all of a sudden my publishers had a very major change of heart. By now I had Brad as my nominated 'contact officer'. Yeah. Really. 'Contact officer.' For goodness sake. He had a carefully cultivated world weary air when he waved me to the visitor's area of his office. Coffee, Sam? Yes, please. A biscuit? Anything to eat? No thank you. Coffee is fine.
He sat down carefully making sure the creases in his trousers continued to fall in the correct directions. He speed read some notes on his tablet and then eased a well-practiced smile into place.
“So. Sam. We're kicking off with the back stories, right? Oldest first?”
“We are. I am.”
“Cool. How can I help?”
I sipped my coffee and tried to come up with some assertiveness to go with my efforts at power dressing.
“Well, I will need to do some traveling. And I was wondering if there might be a budget for this kind of thing?"
Well, this certainly put a few folds across his tanned forehead. He laid the tablet down and ran his fingers through a mane of carefully groomed hair.
“Ah. Right. Expenses. I see. Well. Maybe if you could give me a flavour of what you have in mind, Sam....."
So I did. And it didn't take very long at all for the creases to vanish. Very soon his expensive teeth were lighting up the room. Now it was all about of course, of course. Nothing was a problem. Everything was possible. And did I need any help with the arrangements?
“No. I think I have everything covered Brad. Just the airfare and a couple of nights in a hotel......”
“.... and taxis and meals and other out of pocket stuff. Just bring me the receipts. Bloody hell Sam, this really is excellent. Remember to bring me photos. Lots of photos. Perfect pre-publicity. Are you OK to do a couple of interviews? Radio probably. Get the public appetite whetted?"
I said I was. He asked when I wanted to go. I said it was all fixed. Next Tuesday. He told me to leave it to him. All of it.
A few days later I arrived at the Delta check in desk at Heathrow and told them I had a ticket to Washington waiting for me. The walking lipstick advert behind the reception desk clacked away at her keyboard and beamed at me.
“Yes. Here we are. Samantha Keating. Could I have your passport please....”
And suddenly it was like being in a dream. My ticket was First Class and the hack from the Hereford Times was suddenly propelled into a whole new world of champagne, leg room and the kind of meal you would expect to get in a posh restaurant rather than an airplane.
A man in a suit was waiting for me at Dulles complete with cap and sign.
“Welcome to Washington Miss Keating. I'm Frank and I will be your driver for your stay with us.”
The weather was biting cold but the plush leather seats were heated. We glided through streets familiar from Netflix and there was a bell boy waiting at the door of the Four Seasons. Frank told me he would be waiting right here at nine o’clock the next morning.
I decided to indulge myself and tried my best not to feel guilty about the size of the bill I clocked up. My room was borderline tasteful and the view was as panoramic as promised by the online blurb.
And of course, I couldn't resist the chance of a gloat. I cracked open a Budweiser from the mini bar and called up Wendel to give it with both barrels. He said I was a posh cow. I told him to piss off.
Frank was waiting as promised the next morning and by now the nerves in my stomach were running on all cylinders. By the time we arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue I was pretty well hyper-ventilating. Would it be like the movies? It was. A Marine complete with the squarest jaw I have ever seen checked my paperwork and called me 'Maam'. Another Marine ran some sort of sniffer gadget over every inch of our shining vehicle.
It took five minutes for us to be ticked off as non-terrorists with a bone fide appointment. Frank actually looked every bit as nervous as I was as he stuck to the 5mph speed limit with white knuckled concentration. More gleaming Marines manned the entrance as Frank leaped out to race me to open the back door.
Christ. Everyone was suddenly calling me 'Maam.” Weird.
Mandy was on the steps and waiting. Her power dressing put mine so far in the shade it was bloody ridiculous. Her face lit up at the sight of me.
“Sam! Great to meet you. We're all so glad you're visiting with us. I'm Mandy by the way. Y'all come along with me. My, it's kinda cold, right? Let's get into the warm....”
Her honeyed tones dripped of the Deep South whilst her clothes were pure Fifth Avenue. I tried to take things in as she guided me through corridors and security checks, all the while filling the air with words of absolute welcome. I wish I could call up a clearer set of memories, but it was all too much like being in a strange dream. Before I knew it Mandy was knocking on a door and a voice from within said for us to come in.
And there he was. James Buchanan who in 2029 had become the 47th President of the United States of America.
He was leaner than on the TV. Without make up, his face matched his seventy years but when he jumped to his feet his energy was that of a fifty-year-old. Jeans. A check shirt. Leather slippers.
No power dressing from the most powerful man on the planet.
And his charm was immediate and absolute, starting with the most familiar smile in the world.
“Sam. Come on in. It's OK to call you Sam I hope? Great. Well, I'm James. It's too early in the day for all that 'Mr President' crap. Here. Take a load off. Coffee? Mandy, could you chase up some coffee...."
I sat and tried to calm myself down and completely failed. I mean for Christ's sake, this was the Oval bloody office.
“They tell me you're writing the story. A 'how the cards fell' sort of thing?”
“Yes, Mr Preside... Umm … sorry …. James. I am."
“And you're chasing down the back stories, right?”
“Yes. I am. I thought it would be good to try and find out why people did what they did. If you see what I mean?"
“Sure do and I am genuinely glad to help. How do you want to play it? Q and A? Notes, or would you rather record?..."
“If recording is OK with you....?"
“Fine by me. Whatever makes you comfortable, Sam. I know this place is kind of intimidating. Took me six months not to feel like an imposter. I still do if I'm honest.”
Mandy arrived complete with silver potted coffee and a $2000 set of teeth.
“OK. Why don't I just tell you? My own words. That good for you?"
And he did. It took him twenty minutes and every time I re-listen to my recording I am always impressed at how succinct he was without for a minute seeming to be.
He took me all the way back to 1980 and a small town called Boone in North Carolina. He said it was named after the David Boone, one of the legendary heroes of the old frontier. Not quite a one horse town, but close. A population of 15,000 and the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around. He was twenty years old. He was the son of the local agricultural merchant and he was determined to see a bit of the world before heading to college to learn how to become a lawyer.
Scotland was his fourth stop after Germany, Italy and Omaha Beach where his grand-daddy had managed survive against all the odds in June 1944.
A ferry to Dover. Two days in London to see all the things a wide eyed American needed to see. Then it was Euston Station and a British Rail night train all the way to Inverness. A cheap and cheerful guest house with a landlady who was the scariest person he had ever met. A night in a pub and accents all around him which were beyond his understanding. The next day it poured with rain as he wound his small hire car through a succession of one track roads, all of them headed north.
“Man, it took me forever. Goddamn sheep on the roads and just a whole hell of a lot of nothing. Took me five hours and I must have gotten lost about thirty times. I guess it must have been about four o'clock when I finally found the place. Rosal. Strathnaver Valley. Way up at the top of Scotland. Ever heard of it?”
No. I hadn't heard of it. But I was beginning to guess.
“It's where my folks come from. It can't have been much of a life. A couple of fields of oats. A few head of cattle. God knows how many of them sharing a hovel with their animals. A peat fire. Damp as all hell. Nothing much to eat in a bad year. But hell, it was the only life they knew I guess.”
He stopped for a moment to look out of his famous window.
“Anyway. Things went to shit, if you pardon my French. The landlords were the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. A real pair of assholes. In 1814 the Duke figured the likes of my people were pretty much economically worthless. They could barely eat, let alone pay the kind of rent the Duke and Duchess figured they were entitled to. The big bucks were to be had from sheep farming. My people were just in the way. So the big house hired themselves a lawyer called Patrick Sellar. The kind of lawyering I learned at college is all about paperwork and due process when it comes to moving on a tenant. Well, Sellar wasn't that kind of lawyer. I guess he couldn't be bothered with court orders and eviction notices. Instead, the sonofabitch turned up one day and got his henchmen to set all the houses on fire. Two hundred and fifty houses. Or crofts. Hovels. Whatever."
Again the window drew his gaze.
“My people must have just stood there and watched their lives burn down to ash. A few days later Sellar burned out some more folks further down the valley. This time his guys screwed up and they lit the place up whilst the mother in law was still inside. Her daughter got her out, but she was all burned to hell. They patched the old lady up and put her in a shed. She died after five days. Sellar was arrested and tried for arson and culpable homicide. Guess what? The bastard walked. Course he walked. The Sutherlands set him up with a sheep farm and he lived happily ever after.
'My folks made their way to the coast and eventually found a ship to make it to the States. Ten of them got on the boat and only six got off in Charlestown. One way or another, they made it to Boone and found a place to carve out a new life. And a hundred and fifty years later I turned up.
'I spent about an hour there. In Rosal. Not that there was a Rosal anymore. Just a few piles of stones and about a million sheep. Here. Check it out. This is one of the pictures I took."
And there it was. A nothing special, black and white photo of a pile of stones in an empty Highland valley. It was never about to win any prizes but it caught the lonely bleakness of the place.
“The picture goes where I go. It is always up there on the wall. It reminds me of where my people came from. What happened to them. What those bastards did. Before Rosal, I was as American as the Superbowl. After Rosal, I have always been part Scottish. Not a big part. Just a corner. A memory. A feeling in the bones."
And now he switched on the lighthouse smile.
“So when the moment came to step up, I stepped up. Course I did. Best thing I've done since I got this job. Can we go off the record?”
“Of course.” I switched off the recorder and his smile widened a notch.
“When things were all in place I came back in here and took a moment. Some 'me' time, right? I poured a big glass of malt whisky and I raised a toast. Know how it went?”
I shook my head.
“Patrick Sellar. Fuck you, asshole.”
He held the world famous smile for a few seconds.
“Ah, shit. What the hell. Put it on the record.”
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I HAVE WRITTEN THIS STORY TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE FOODBANK I MANAGE IN DUMFRIES, SOUTH WEST SCOTLAND. OVER THE COMING WINTER OVER 3000 PEOPLE WILL COME THROUGH OUR DOORS AND RIGHT NOW WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO HELP THEM ALL OUT. MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO HELP US OUT BY BUNGING A COUPLE OF QUID ONTO OUR JUSTGIVING PAGE? I HOPE SO. JUST FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW. I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE REST OF THE BOOK AND IF DO, PLEASE SHARE IT. MARK.