The motorway is down to one lane in the deepening snow. I’m in a convoy of vehicles making cautious progress as we all head north. Driving home for Christmas.
I reach the Scottish border. The Gretna outlet store, now re-named Caledonia Village, is crammed with last minute shoppers. I take the next exit, heading west into Dumfries and Galloway. That little corner of Scotland that no one elsewhere seems to know much about.
To my left is the white expanse of the Solway. Land, water and sky all one. Across the Firth, there’s a shadow of the distant Lakeland hills, obscured by cloud. Ahead of me, after a day feeding inland, is a skein of pink-footed geese, returning to the salt marshes for the night.
I’m a kindred spirit, westering home to the family small-holding where I spent my summer holidays and where my parents now live permanently, along with my much younger teenage sister, that quirky and late arrival to our little family. Years back, my academic ambitions took me south, and now, established as a University lecturer, I am marooned there, academically established, but usually counting the time until my next visit to Dumfriesshire.
I’ve had a long journey with plenty of time to think. Mainly about the state of the world, and specifically the dis-United Kingdom. The pandemic has served to heighten the differences within the home nations. The Scottish First Minister, if not universally liked, has garnered great respect for her calm, consistent and assiduous attention to COVID issues, day by day. By contrast, the UK Prime Minister has played fast and loose with the rules, dithered and blundered until his incompetence is there for all to see, apart from by those who voted for him. At COP26, the great UN climate summit, he fell asleep in the audience. He makes speeches about Peppa Pig and takes loans, back handers and in-kind largesse wherever they can be garnered. He has led the UK out of the EU and into chaos, ridicule and corruption and seems to have no capacity to engage with the world’s problems in any way other than by sound bite.
At this point I stop myself. Surely over the next few days I can forget the troubles of the nation and the planet. Dumfriesshire will be the perfect place to disengage from the social and other media, read Christmas mystery stories, eat, drink, take long walks, sleep and seek solace and recuperation from the madness of the world.
Banish all other thoughts, I tell myself, and keep on driving.
Near the coast the snow is light, but pushing north into the Nith Valley and the foot of the Lowther Hills, the conditions worsen again. On a straight stretch, a large black car passes me imperiously, its windows darkened and bearing number plates the like of which I haven’t seen before. As it overtakes, my own car slips sideways, momentarily out of control. Any tiredness I feel is dissipated by a sudden prickling of sweat on the back of my neck. For the final miles I’m wide awake, concentrating hard.
The very last stage of the journey is deeply familiar, but also taxing. The narrow lane, thick with ice, the temperature falling. Trees on either side drooping with snow. I’m watching out for that spot in the glen where the road goes perilously close to a steep drop, down to the river below. It also tells me I am just five minutes from home.
On reaching the house, it’s full of light. The Christmas tree by the garden wall twinkles its welcome. I stretch out of the car, shake the motorway from my bones and head for the front door. Unsurprisingly, it’s not locked. Stepping inside I call out, announcing my arrival. I drop my bag and walk into the warmth of the kitchen, which is smelling of winter herbs and pickles. No one there. Then into the dining room, where the stove is lit and makes a warm greeting for this urban flat dweller at the end of a long Winter journey. I call out again, but get no answer.
The place is snug and comfortable, full of Christmas cheer. But my mother, father and sister are nowhere to be seen. I go up to my bedroom, where a side light is on, and fresh towels laid out. Across the landing, the bathroom light glows softly and the bath is still running, a dressing gown folded on the radiator. There are soap bubbles in the bath, but as I stand watching, I notice that the water level isn’t rising. I turn off the tap, puzzled by the optical illusion.
A full tour of the house confirms no one is here. Undeterred, I take a pleasant soak in the bath and change into fresh clothes. Concealing a bag of Christmas presents in the wardrobe, I decide to unpack everything else tomorrow, once I’m settled in.
In the dining room the long table is fully laid. Red candles light up the smorgasbord that has been prepared. It’s an invented custom in our Scandiphile family. Open sandwiches on Christmas Eve. Dark ryebread topped with all manner of delicacies – cheeses, herring, cured meat, eggs, gherkins. All garnished with leaves from the greenhouse. There’s cold beer in bottles next to tall glasses and at the side, shots of acquavit.
With everything clearly ready for the feast, I glance at the time. Almost eight o’clock. Of course, I realise now. Sensing I was behind schedule, my folks have gone off to the Christmas Eve carol service in the village, leaving everything ready to eat on their return, which must be soon I guess.
I pour myself a Pilsner, sit by the stove and am soon in a pleasing family Christmas reverie. My mother, the real brains of the marriage, who’d worked in corporate finance for decades and then jumped ship to head up a homeless charity in the last years of her working life. My father, a career civil servant, expert on the inner workings of Holyrood and St Andrew’s House, the consummate strategist. Then my sister, born in Edinburgh, and privately educated there like me, but now at the local Academy down here, age 15, with plenty of friends, a withering sense of humour and passionate about the environment. With a shared love of the countryside, we are a curious and fortunate crew right enough.
Half an hour passes. I reach for my ‘phone to call one of them. No signal. City living soon makes you forget rural privations. My sister once told me she has to walk halfway up the hill behind the house, just to send a text message. I shan’t bother tonight, and settle back to the beer and the fireside, reflecting on how happy they all seem here.
But after a full hour I feel a niggling worry. It’s probably the snow. No sign of the car, perhaps they are struggling to get back. It wouldn’t be the first time. I try to reach them from the landline, but it’s crackly and unusable. I’m concerned, but not enough to quell my appetite.
I take up my usual place at the table and begin to eat, starting with the hot smoked salmon. It’s delicious. My dad will have prepared it in his prized outdoor oven, to his own ‘secret’ recipe, found on the internet no doubt. Smoky, sweet, and hints of beechwood! As I sip the acquavit, the lights flicker for a few seconds and then settle. The wind is getting up. I proceed to a second smørrebrød. Pastrami this time. Equally good.
Then the lights hesitate again and the house suddenly plunges into darkness. Curiously, the candles have gone out too. Perplexed, I stumble about for matches, disoriented. Then as one of the tapers comes to light, I realise something very strange is happening.
My body is telling me I am no longer alone. My sinews tighten, preparing for threat. I can sense a presence at the table. As my eyes adjust to the candlelight, I see three people shading into my vision. Two men and a woman are seated with me, where my father, mother and sister should be.
None of them looks in my direction, though my eyes are fixed on them. They begin to speak, in calm, quiet voices. I cough to announce my presence, but there is no acknowledgement. It’s as if I don’t exist or am invisible to them. They serve each other with food. Drinks are poured, water only. They appear relaxed, but serious. Respectful of where they are, thoughtful about the dinner they are eating, catching up politely on small talk. Each one looks familiar to me and yet changed in some way I can’t fathom. Strikingly different in features, they have in common a patina of age that speaks of great longevity.
I look in astonishment as I realise who they are. Here, in my parents’ dining room on Christmas Eve are Marie Curie, Pablo Neruda and Nelson Mandela. Three Nobel Prize winners under one roof.
‘Dear friends’, says Mandela, ‘’I can’t tell you how important it is that we are able to meet tonight here in this remote region of Scotland. Forgive the joke if I say that all three of us extremely old people have moved heaven and earth to be here. It has been quite a journey and we have some very serious matters to confirm in the next short while. Tonight, as you know, will be critical to the future of the entire world: no less’.
He continues. ‘We three are agreed that the world faces anthropogenic problems at a scale and complexity that have never been seen before in human history. I hardly need to rehearse them: climate change, declining biodiversity, mass extinction, the depradations of consumerism. To these we can add the deeply rooted issues of religious, political and racist intolerance, the persistence of poverty and of famine. Likewise, geo-political threats, instability, warfare, terrorism and forced migration – all blighting our global society’.
‘Alongside these, Curie observes, ‘there exist the challenges of pandemic disease and the multiple personal, epidemiological, and systemic consequences that flow from it. All over the world there are still gross health inequalities and a shameful failure to apply scientific knowledge to the relief of suffering’.
‘Indeed’ says Neruda, ‘and meanwhile the world lacks global leadership and vision. Its politicians care nothing for poetry, music, art, or literature. They are mired in narrow party perspectives, vested interests and an inability to think beyond the next election. Social democracy opened up a great vision of progress, fairness and equality that has yet to be realised. “What is to be done?” has never been a more pertinent question’.
Mandela leans in to his colleagues. He is clearly primus inter pares. ‘How the three of us have been able to turn to these things in recent months is a matter that can never be understood. Processes have been at work that defy the laws of physics, biology and the whole of nature. Somehow this miracle, for such it must be called, has brought us together’.
He goes on. ‘Through our actions we have set in train a global commitment to change, agreed in secret by the world’s leaders. The details will be announced this evening. Five elements will underly the strategy that is soon to be revealed: compassion, sustainability, equality, tolerance and justice. Our planet is about to tilt on it axis into an new era of world peace and harmony. It is an epiphanal moment as never before seen. If we doubt its importance, just remember: some things can always seem impossible, until they are done!’
Rising to his feet, Mandela brings things to a close. ‘It is now time for us to leave. Five minutes after we depart, our driver will activate an electronic signal that will override all global media of every kind. From pole to pole a message will travel around the world to every village, town and city. It will span the latitudes, Global North and Global South, each continent and every country. It will reach every jurisdiction, government, parliament and Senatus. Crossing deserts, steppes, mountains and forests, across oceans, seas and rivers, our message will be unstoppable and the world will be forever a better place as a result. Thank you, my dear friends, for this time together. Our car is waiting’.
They leave the house, slowly and deliberately with the hesitancy of advanced age. I sit in catatonic silence, stunned by what I’ve seen and heard, not knowing what to think or do. I have just been witness to a secret conversation between three long dead people who have somehow co-ordinated a plan to create a sustainable world of peace and fairness. It had sounded extraordinary, and indeed it was. I try to get my head to a place where I can begin to make sense of what has happened.
Minutes pass, and then the headlights of a car rake across the dining room window. I stagger towards the front door of the house. It is already opening as my mother, father and sister collapse inside. ‘Have you heard, have you heard’? ‘What?’ I ask, unsure how much they may know. ‘We were leaving the church when suddenly the car radio came on by itself, all of our phones started ringing. The same message was on all of them. The world’s population was being called to listen. In just a few moments a global announcement would be made, something to change everything on earth for ever. It wasn’t frightening. It sounded real. Like something truly, truly wonderful’.
‘So we immediately stopped the car on the track, waiting for the news. Then suddenly another car was coming downhill towards us at speed. It must have braked hard. It slithered, hit the fence and then catapulted into the glen, bursting into flames at the bottom, by the side of the river. It was horrible’.
‘At that moment the radio went dead and the announcement never came’.
‘The emergency services arrived amazingly quickly and sent us home, saying very little. They are working there now, but no one could possibly have survived. That car was going fast as it left the road and you know how deep the drop is. But who could possibly have been in it at this time on Christmas Eve? Ours is the last house on the lane’.
My head starts to buzz. Car headlights are blinding my eyes. Words from the dinner are coming back to me. Visions of a dark, troubled world of disease, hunger, poverty, war and oppression are flashing before me. My parents’ voices are growing faint. I am losing consciousness, entering a place where everything is gentle and suffused with ambient light. My sister reaches forward to grab me, as my knees buckle. In what feels like slow motion, I collapse on the floor and drift away.
It is the beginning of a dreamless and long Winter sleep. Despite the Herculean efforts of those Nobel Laureates and the mystery of the Christmas Eve dinner, when I awake, sadly, the world is as it was. Completely unchanged.