“Excuse me, but were you Kicks Ballantyne, the film star?”
“I guess I still am.”
“Sorry, that sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?”
The young woman stared into my face, apparently confused. “Oh my goodness it really is you, isn’t it? But, I’m sorry, I almost didn’t recognise you because you’re so old now. See, I remember when you were that handsome spy in Staircase to Danger, and then you were the romantic lead in the Western, Gunfight at Dawn, with Sophia Loren…” Then she really kicked me in the teeth by adding: “Aye, my gran was absolutely crazy about you! She saw all your films again and again! She said that in the old days you were really hot!”
Getting recognised happened less and less often these days. And it sure hurts to realise that you’re no longer ‘hot’. But I made the most of meeting my young fan in the high street of Lochtachy, a picturesque village in the highlands of Scotland. She was friendly and gushing and delighted when I found an old PR photo in my pocket and signed it for her, and also agreed to visit her grandmother at her nursing home later that day. There was no point in explaining to the lady that despite my American accent, cosmetically enhanced jawline, perfect orthodontics and genuine suntan, I was every bit as Scottish as she was, and this was where I had been born and brought up.
Pacing around the old village I was surprised to see that it had hardly changed in the sixty years since I had last been here. New buildings and new roads of course, but there was still the old high street and the church and the pub and the school and houses that had been my childhood world.
Since divorcing my fifth wife and retiring as an actor, I had decided to take a break from all my over-protective children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the everlasting sunshine and plastic smiles of Los Angeles. Why shouldn’t I go see Europe once again while I still could, I reasoned? I’m over eighty now and in relatively good health, but who knows what’s around the corner? So many of my old pals are gone now, and despite spending practically my entire life in the States, I had this kinda yearning to see my home again. But sadly, now I was here I didn’t know a soul and felt like a complete stranger. It had been a mistake to come here, but I’d had to do it, for every Scotsman longs to come home, doesn’t he?
But, sadly, it seemed that vacationing alone had been a big mistake. For there’s nothing like walking along looking for memories, to make you feel utterly and completely alone. I had done my best to trace my childhood friends, but after knocking on doors and asking in the library, I had drawn a blank. Even though it was a fairly big village there had never been that many jobs so I figured that most of my contemporaries would have left Lochtachy for employment or higher education, as I had done.
And then I saw her. Just for a split second, I saw the girl who had obsessed me for most of my life, the angel who would forever be sixteen years old to me.
Flora had been the elder sister of my best friend Hamish. She had been the love of my life, my ‘older woman’, and it was one of those platonic loves that were so intense that only an innocent, naïve young boy of ten can feel. When she died the following year of some awful disease at just sixteen years old, I couldn’t believe it, and neither could her poor distraught family. But there you go, that’s life in all its mindless cruelty.
And oddly enough, at every moment of crisis in my life, I had always seen Flora in my mind’s eye, cajoling me to do something, such as pull out all the stops for an audition, or encouraging me to keep sane when I got a divorce, or when a beloved pet died. If there were such things as guardian angels, I guess Flora was mine, for she always popped up to inspire me when she was needed. Boy, if there is a heaven, Flora sure deserves to be up there, living it up, for everyone agreed that she was the sweetest natured girl that had ever lived. I thought back to my mother’s words as she tried to comfort me: “She’s gone from this life, son, but believe me, she’ll always be with us.”
But, hey, it was all kind of nonsense, right? Life after death is surely just a heap of wishful thinking that I guess we all indulge in.
My plane was leaving Inverness airport later that day, so I decided I’d best get on down to the nursing home to see my fan’s grandmother, as I’d promised. But, just like everything else recently, when I got there, it was all kind of a letdown. The lady was confused, and seemed to think I was her long-lost cousin. No one else recognised me either, I guess because none of my films have been screened in years. So I left the place feeling even more lonely and depressed than before.
I got back to Lochtachy and figured on checking out of my lodgings and ordering a taxi straight to the airport.
And then I saw Flora again. Only this time, she wasn’t in my head, she was right there, in the high street. She looked at me once, waved a hand, and then turned and headed off towards Argyle Road. She sure didn’t look like a figment of my imagination, and I began to wonder if this young girl might be related to Flora somehow? A great grandniece, or something like that, maybe? I followed her, but by the time I reached the place I’d seen her, I just caught a glimpse of her going into Dewey’s pub. I followed her inside, but when I opened the door she was nowhere to be seen.
“Bookie! Good God it is you!”
I heard the voice coming from the corner of the bar, and in a moment I recognised my old pal Hamish, who had come across the room and was shaking me enthusiastically by the hand. I figured that Lochtachy was likely to be a bit behind the curve as far as ‘Man hugs’were concerned, so I made do with the warmth of his palm on mine. Hamish had the same face as he had when we were both ten years old, only now he had a lot of lines and no hair at all, and his waistline had expanded as much as mine had done. ‘Bookie’ had been my nickname at school, and no one else had ever used it since those days.
“Bookie Ballantyne, Gracious me, who’d have thought the famous actor would come home again!” joined in another man.
And when I looked up close I could see it was my other best pal, Dougie.
Every weekend of my young life, Dougie, Hamish and I had spent the day at Hamish’s family farm, where Hamish’s dad would provide an old wrecked car, give us lots of tools, and left us to dismantle and tinker around with it. All three of us had adored cars and engines, and we’d all lived for the day when we could learn to drive a vehicle. I can honesty say that those hours in Hamish’s father’s farmer’s field, messing about with old cars, had been the happiest times of my life. Ever since, I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with cars, I always found it was a great way to relax.
The three of us sat down and caught up with our memories and family news, and soon I realised I had missed my flight, so I rebooked for later that evening. Dougie insisted on driving me to the airport so the two of them could see me off.
They took me across the road, and Hamish unlocked a gate and we walked into a field full of classic cars, all at different stages of disrepair. There was a garage building in the corner of the grass, beside which was a 1960 Studebaker, one of my favourite American classic cars in the world.
“Now that we’re all retired, Hamish and I spend most of our time here,” Dougie explained as we wandered along the rows of cars, and I eagerly inspected each of them. “We do up these cars, then sell them when they’re done.”
“We make a wee profit,” Dougie added, “which we give to the children’s hospital in town – you know the place where they were so kind to Flora. . .”
“If only you could stay around a wee bit longer,” Hamish added, genuinely sad that I was going. “If only you could help us out, it would be just like old times, when we were boys, do you remember?”
“Oh sure Dougie, I’ll never forget those days. . .”
“Dougie’s son is an engineer, he can sometimes make parts for the cars that are no longer available,” Hamish went on. “We don’t get here early, or work under pressure or anything, we just roll up when we fell like it.”
“Aye, it’s a bit of fun, and it keeps us out of mischief,” Dougie added. “But I imagine it’s nothing compared to your life in the States. What’s it like, Bookie, living it up? Going to all those glamorous showbiz parties?”
“Not all it’s cracked up to be.” I was gazing at the acres of lovely old cars, itching to get my hands on some tools.
“Hey, you lads, we’ve been blathering on, we’d best look lively to make tracks for the airport,” Dougie said, looking at his watch anxiously. “You don’t want to miss two planes.”
“Not so fast, Dougie,” I told him, as I touched him on the arm. “How about showing me some of these cars?”
See, I figure that in life there’s always going to be another plane. But some things, like friendships, only come around once and then they’re gone forever.
Right around now, with the sun setting behind the hills, and my oldest pals beside me, I felt something I’d almost forgotten existed. I felt happy.
Happier than I ever remembered. . .
That’s when I suddenly recalled visiting Flora’s grave in the old churchyard yesterday morning, and spotting a For Sale sign outside one of the little old stone cottages on Church Hill.
Then I saw Flora again, just for a split second. And this time she was smiling at me before she disappeared.
And at last I knew that I had finally come home. . .