90. Transvestites Rescued in the Minch
“Tell me about it, Lou,” said Matthew. And she did, standing there at her coffee bar, her familiar, well-used polishing-towel in hand. There was nobody else present, just Matthew, but it probably would not have made much difference had there been strangers there; Big Lou would still have spoken. And anybody, even one who did not know her, who knew nothing of her history of involvement with feckless or downright peculiar men, would have been moved by her story.
“Well,” began Big Lou, “after Robbie and the Pretender left the Braid Hills Hotel that day, they drove up north on the Stirling motorway. Robbie phoned me that evening from that hotel up in Glencoe, you know, the one in the middle of nowhere. They planned to stay there that night. He phoned from the bar.”
“The Pretender likes a drink, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Big Lou. “And when Robbie phoned he said that there had just been a major row in the bar. Apparently the Pretender had started to create a bit of a fuss over some remark that the barman passed as to his outfit. He threw a glass of whisky at him and was chucked out for his pains. So they had to move on. It was misty and Robbie was worried about riding the motorbike in the dark because the lights didn’t work very well.”
Matthew’s eyes widened. “Of course, he was always talking about being out in the heather, like his illustrious predecessor.”
“Aye,” said Big Lou bitterly. “Always talking more or less sums it up. Anyway, they eventually got to Fort William and Robbie suggested that they stay there and the Pretender said that he did not want to stay anywhere where there were likely to be troops.”
Matthew burst out laughing. “Well, really! What century does he think he’s in? And, anyway, there are no troops in Fort William. There’s the mountain rescue people, I suppose, but that’s about it.”
“I think that Robbie had to put his foot down,” continued Big Lou. “So they stayed there overnight in some bed and breakfast. The owner wasn’t pleased to be woken up, I gather, but took them in anyway. But they were thrown out the next morning when the Pretender tried to recruit the owner. He tried to get him to rise up against the English. But the owner was English himself and did not take too well to this.
“So they went on. And eventually they got up to Skye and caught the Uig Ferry over to North Uist.”
Matthew was listening attentively. “To meet up with Flora Macdonald?”
Big Lou shrugged. “I don’t know what they thought they were doing. But that’s where he wanted to be. Robbie telephoned me from Benbecula, which is the last I heard from him. He said that the Pretender had met up with somebody or other and had got drunk with him. He was trying to sober him up. And then the battery on Robbie’s mobile ran out and that was it. They were on their own.”
“So they’re still there?” Matthew asked. “Still on Benbecula?”
Big Lou shook her head. “No. They were probably there for a few days. That was Thursday I heard that, and that was when I heard from him last.” And she reached under the counter for a half page cut from a newspaper. She unfolded the clipping and laid it on the counter so that Matthew could read it.
He picked up the newspaper article. Above the text was a photograph of a smallish rowing boat being towed behind what looked like a rescue lifeboat. There were two figures in the rowing boat: two women, both wearing rather old-fashioned bonnets. The face of the lifeboat’s skipper could be made out quite clearly; he was smiling.
He read out loud the text below. “Dramatic rescue in the Minch,” the article said. “The Uig lifeboat was called out yesterday to deal with a small craft which had been spotted in trouble in the Minch. Reports had reached Uig of a rowing boat crewed by what appeared to be two transvestites getting into difficulty and moving in circles in increasingly high seas. The lifeboat’s efforts were at first resisted but eventually the occupants of the boat were persuaded to accept a line and they were brought in safely to Uig.
“The two occupants of the boat were interviewed by police on landing and a doctor was called. The doctor subsequently detained two men under the Mental Health (Scotland) Act and the two have been taken to Glasgow for further psychiatric examination. The crew of the lifeboat declined to go into further details, but were reported to have been amused by what they regard as a highly unusual rescue. ‘It reminds me very strongly of something,’ said the lifeboat skipper. ‘But I can’t quite put my finger on it.’”
Matthew stopped reading. “Oh dear, Lou. That’s not so good is it? Have you heard from Robbie since they… since they took him away?”
Big Lou shook her head. “I haven’t, Matthew,” she said quietly. “And you know something? I don’t want to hear from him. I’ve decided that this is the end. I’ve put up with all this Jacobite business for long enough because I realised how important it was to him. But now I can’t take any more of it. I’ve had it up to here. I really have.”
She paused, lowering her voice. “And here’s another thing, Matthew: I think the Hanoverians were more democratic. They didn’t have that divine right of kings obsession that the Stuarts had. They were simply better.”
Matthew reached out and touched her lightly on the arm. What words of comfort could he provide? What could he say about Robbie, and the man before, and the man before that? Every one of Big Lou’s men had been hopeless in one way or another. She deserved better – anybody who knew her would agree on that. But love, it seemed, was not a matter of desert. It was random and unpredictable. Unworthy men were taken on by good women, and the other way round. There was no justice in the way in which the patterns of love arranged themselves.
He would have liked to have said to Big Lou: “Don’t worry, Lou. The next one will be better.” But he could not say that, because it would not be true. So they stood there, neither saying anything, and then, after a few minutes, Matthew looked at his watch and told her that it was time for him to get back to the gallery.