Started July 22, 2008
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Written for Gemma. Happy Birthday!
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Sketches from Scotland

A Series of Short Works from a Holiday in the Highlands

by nlr alicia

<< These stories are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Author’s Note: This page is intended to be a series of brief stories describing a single holiday in Scotland. Like the Postcards page, I’ll add to these as the mood and inspiration strikes. Story suggestions are always welcome.

This first story was written for Gemma who loves bikes.

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Content Warnings: Slashy surges.

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The Sign of the White Hart

Gruinard Bay



Cycling at the edge of the surf where the sand curves away and all one can see to the horizon is rolling green water, it’s a simple thing to imagine oneself a sea bird coasting low over the waves, riding the spray-haunted wind. I took another deep downstroke, stood up in the stirrups and flung my arms wide for the better convenience of catching the southerly breeze.

It was one of those rare moments in life when one knows with crystalline certainty there is nothing that might be added or taken away to make it any more perfect than it was in that instant. I drew in a lungful of bracing air and released it as a whoop of praise for the gray sun behind swirls of clouds thick as putty on that Highland afternoon.

It was as ideal a spring day as nature could devise on the coast of Scotland. The sun wasn’t bright, the air wasn’t warm, the bitter chill of the north Atlantic waters didn’t beckon, yet the sky and the air and the sea were so intertwined it was impossible to believe any slight adjustment could improve the picture. As a Scot born and bred in Inverness I knew as well as any that if a man couldn’t appreciate the beauty in such a day he had no business calling himself a Highlander.

And if there wasn’t enough pleasure to be had in the day alone, I had my dear friend there to share it. Holmes and I had ventured far from the sooty confines of London for a holiday in my ancestral home and, as was our habit of years, each had chosen his own particular amusement and found, by happy chance, they dovetailed wonderfully.

We’d pedaled up from Gairloch that morning to visit the pink brushstroke of sand in the divot of shoreline that marked Gruinard Bay and discovered we had it entirely to ourselves. Taking advantage of the seclusion, I found sport in tracing the edge of the tide, while Holmes was engaged in cataloging the many variations of tyre tracks he could create in the stretch of land from the surf to the foot of the high cliffs that ringed the beach.

I grinned to myself in anticipation of the triumphant flourish with which he’d produce his notebook to show me detailed pencil diagrams of a staggering variety of tread inscriptions – doubtless destined for the pages of a new monograph titled “On the Identification of Twenty-Three Distinct Patterns of Dunlop Bicycle Tyre Tread as Indicated by Passage Over Damp Sand.”

And, I admitted to myself, I anticipated with even greater pleasure seeing his face shining with the exertions of his efforts and brushed with bright color by the bracing sea air.

Lost as I was in such wayward thoughts, luck alone drew my eye to the white spume marking a wave-pocked stone just under the surf and I laughed aloud at the promise that before the day was out fortune would decide what I most deserved was a thorough soaking in the frigid waters and a brisk run through the gauntlet of jellyfish hovering just below the swells.

I gripped the handle-bars and let the pushing surf bend my course toward land. The hiss of water giving way before me was subsumed in the rhythmic thud and sigh of the waves. As I coasted in over wet sand that flew up from my forward tyre as if welcoming me back to the fold of land-dwellers, I cast a glance back along the beach.

Holmes was a singular shape at the far tip of the curving shore. He stood at the water’s edge, the slim, graceful line of his body topped by a windblown shock of dark hair, looking like a cattail in tweeds. I realized he was following my progress and grinned at the thought of the quirked eyebrow he must be casting my way as my exuberant whoop was carried to him on the wind.

As I turned his way, stitching a line along the border of sea and land, Holmes crouched down at the side of his machine doubtless adjusting his Dunlops for another attack. I took the opportunity to enjoy the sight. Watching my friend at work was one of my great joys in life.

The flash of his gray eyes was as welcome a sight whether focused on a footprint in the loam outside a burgled window, a knotty problem of chemistry or a new sonata with a particularly difficult phrase. In fact, as I considered it, I enjoyed watching him at most any pursuit, including idle contemplation of his slippers as he sat warming himself before a leaping fire on a wintry evening.

Seeing Holmes was still fully occupied with his task, I decided I had ample time to take a few more loops on the canvas of pink. I inscribed a wide infinity cipher, marking for memory the feel of the dry sand, so like water as it gave way before the bite of my smooth Palmer tyres, the scent of the sea and the way the sound of the surf rebounded from the towering walls of stone.

I’d made two more swings through the tide before my glance was drawn to the top of the cliff by a flicker of movement. The sight that met my eyes was so startling I swerved and nearly tumbled into the water.

It was a white hart. In the slanting rays of sun it shone against the lowering sky like fairy fire.

The stag stood gazing out on its realm with the bearing of a monarch at the battlements. It was too far above me to make out detail finer than the branches of its antlers, although afterward I had a distinct memory of seeing its great oak brown eyes gaze into mine. Half afraid to look away for fear it would vanish like a ghost, I shot a glance down the beach.

Holmes was still crouched at the rear wheel of his Rover. I fixed him with my gaze as if the weight of it might draw his eyes to mine.

He didn’t look up and I was afraid to call out. There was no question of simply coasting to a stop to enjoy the sight on my own. I did not even consider making a mental note of it to share with him over our supper back at the inn at Gairloch.

Instead I swung my handle-bar to the side, stood up over the saddle, and pedaled like the devil was at my back.

With the southerly wind I knew there was little danger of the buck scenting me and taking to its heels. I took the chance my resemblance to a low flying sea bird would allay its suspicions long enough for me to make the end of beach.

White spray flew up from my front wheel as I coursed back along the sand, the pulsing rhythm of my downward strokes on the stirrups beating counterpoint to the thrum of my tyres.

In a brace of seconds I was near enough to Holmes to make out the flush the wind had imparted to his cheek. He bent in close to the hub of the rear wheel as I slid to a stop less than a yard distant.

He didn’t glance up as I lowered my machine to the sand, resisting the urge to let it drop, and paced across the distance between us.

“Watson, good,” he said, as he adjusted the tension in the chain. “I need a rider with greater mass for contrast. If-”

He glanced up and his words broke off on an indrawn breath. Whether it was at the intensity of my expression or the suddenness of my action, I didn’t know. I simply bent, caught him around the shoulders and pulled him to his feet.

As I propelled him upward he sidestepped to avoid treading on the short-brimmed cycling cap resting on the sand by his knee and nearly stumbled into me. I steadied him against my hip, but didn’t stop to offer explanation, only swung him around so his back was against my chest and pointed to the top of the ridge where the stag stood placidly watching.

I held his shoulders as I leant close. He started as my breath brushed his ear.

“A white hart,” I said softly. “I’ve heard stories all my life but never seen one. They’re supposed to be a portent of…” I hesitated as I tried to put the stuff of Highland dreams into words. “Well, I suppose it depends on what sort of sign you need at the time. It could mean a momentous birth, or success in battle, or the death of a king or the coming of a saint.” I smiled. “Or if you’re not in need of strong magic, perhaps it’s just the sign of a very unusual day.”

As we stood together watching the stag study us in return I noticed my breath, still heaving from my sprint across the sand, was matched by the rapid rise and fall of my friend’s chest.

The scent of his limewater aftershave intertwined with the heady sea air. His fine hair brushed my cheek and I realized on a sudden my pulse was racing. I was half afraid to exhale for fear the moment would vanish if I dared to move.

I felt the freshening breeze rise and shift. I knew it was impossible, yet I would have been willing to swear, and in fact I often did in the years that followed, I heard the chuff of the hart’s breath as it scented the air. Then with the grace of a frigate turning to catch the wind, it passed from view beyond the rim of the cliff.

It was one of those rare moments in life, I thought, when you know with a crystalline certainty there is nothing that could be added or taken away to make it any more perfect. In the next moment I realized I had been wrong once again.

Holmes turned in my arms and touched his lips to mine. I tasted the sea salt on his warm skin and my last rational thought as I lost myself in wonder was a silent prayer of thanks for the magic of a Highland afternoon when each perfect moment was more perfect than the last.

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