Usually it’s when Dad joins Mum and me in the car that we decide where we’re going for our afternoon drive. But today I’ve had somewhere new in mind since I woke up this morning. So off we go.
Soon we’re on a private road with no passing places, only to find there is a tractor coming towards us. Luckily the driver decides to stop and reverse back up the hill. When we catch up with the other vehicle there’s just enough space for our little car to squeeze past.
"Do you know him?" asks Mabel.
"No, my wave was just acknowledging that he’s done us a favour."
The next hazard is a closed gate. I think my coming and going, and the car’s stopping and starting, puzzles Mabel. In any event, she says something about another tractor blocking our way.
"This is the open hillside now, Mum. I don’t think we’ll come across any more tractors. Or gates."
The road is a smooth one, maintained by the council because it leads to a loch that provides the town’s water supply. Dad comments on the isolated location of the cottage that we pass. Then he sees Loch Benachalie shining in the distance and he gets over the reservations that I know he’s had about our coming up here. It’s an archetypical landscape of mountain and loch under a sky that’s suddenly blue. We could be anywhere in the Highlands; yet we’re just five miles from Mum’s care home.
Time for tea. As Dad hands me the flask to dole out, I tell Mabel she’s got a nice biscuit coming up.
"A midget?" she asks, mishearing me.
"No, Mum. You’re having a treacle and coconut biscuit with your tea."
As the three of us munch and sip, Dad tells us he has been here once before, with Mabel’s brother-in-law. They spent a day fishing on the loch. At one point an osprey appeared from the trees to one side of the loch and dive-bombed a heron. The story reminds me that several times this summer we called in at the visitor centre at Loch of the Lowes. There we watched Lady, the female osprey who’s been returning to the same nest-site for twenty-five years. Mabel would get bored after a few minutes of nature watch, so we never stayed long. But at home I kept track of the bird via the website that was showing a video stream from a treetop camera 24/7. Lady is a very old osprey, and when she’d lain on the nest without moving for a couple of days it was assumed she was dying. But to everyone’s surprise, Lady rallied, and in due course two chicks were fledged. Lady will have completed her migration back to Africa now, and will be perched within striking distance of a lake full of tropical fish. Or so I like to think. Mum hasn’t spent a single day lying in bed this summer. Well, she had the two nights in the gynaecological wing of Perth hospital, but she wasn’t ill as such. Another resilient old bird, some might say.
When we’re done with the tea, I drive on, because the road continues along the flank of the hillside. Eventually a farmhouse comes into view.
"I wonder what May and Meg are doing in the house," says Mum, mentioning two of her sisters.
"Do you mean Fernbank?"
Meg has been dead for thirty years, May for forty, but I don’t feel the need to tell Mabel this. Instead I ask: "What do you think they’re doing?"
"I can’t imagine Meg ever having had much time to read. What kind of thing did May read?"
"Cheap romantic stuff," says Dad from the back of the car.
Mabel seems to have nothing to add about her family’s reading habits. The three of us sit in the parked car in silence. When I suspect Dad has dozed off, I lean towards Mum and ask her to whisper into my ear the meaning of life.
"The meaning of life is..." she begins.
Her warm breath in my ear takes me back to when I was a child. I remember the frisson of fear I’d get when Mum would blow the words of a certain nursery rhyme into my ear: "There was an old, old man, who lived in an old, old house..."
"The meaning of life is... death," my mother tells me, in the here and now. But this bleak outlook doesn’t disturb me, because Mum has laughed in a good-natured way as she’s spoken.
"I used to have such happy days," she adds, sighing.
Before I can respond to this, she further adds: "Oh, I still have happy days."
Does she? Has this been another happy day for Mabel? For me? For Ian? I’m still wondering this as I do all the ponderous gate business in reverse.
We don’t meet an oncoming tractor on the way home. Nor are we dive-bombed by an osprey that’s been unable to embark on its African journey. Oh, happy days!