Ashes and new fires


In September 2001, for the second time of my life, I had crashed down to earth. My businesses in the Middle East were in ruins - I would claim through no fault of my own. But inevitably it's all down to oneself, whether fortune be smiling on your 'baby' or the opposite.They do say that to be a really good businessman you have to bankrupt yourself at least once in a lifetime. I had not actually achieved such a distinction but had come uncomfortably close to it! I had learned at an early age that crying over spilt milk really is for babies and have often been heard to say that none of us deal all our own cards; it's just about how we go about playing them. Besides, we had enjoyed  thirteen mostly good or very good and profitable years.

After a month back in Laundry Cottage from the Middle East I had a phone call from one of my most important Saudi clients; another Arab gentleman who I would certainly have called my friend. Would I care to join him for breakfast in Dusseldorf at the Packaging Show? Of course; just send me £4,000 I responded, figuring that I work for money like everyone else and nobody wants to drag me out to Germany unless he's after something. Anyway, no problem with the money and Mr Obeikan spent most of the time trying to persuade me to go back to Saudi - even Bahrain - for a meet and make up with my ex-sponsor, Faisal. Well, no way. Firstly because I don't enjoy being the second bite of anybody's cherry, second because I would rather have hired a hit man for the cost of the air fare and third, most important of all, because our new and better life was just beginning. Unless something fairly juicy happened for Bibs-industry in the UK we would be migrating to the northern Highlands of bonny Scotland. Whatever happened I would never again set foot in Arabia, a region where I had close-up knowledge of the majority of hotels, airports, cities and towns and no special wish whatsoever to renew my acquaintance with any of them!

In the event nothing overly good did happen for me over that post- Middle East twelvemonths in the UK. I had a few little touches and some promising nibbles but nothing to divert us from our vision of life in the Highlands. Tell the truth I wasn't really trying. In July 2002 we placed an advertisement in the Gairloch and District Times ...  'Wanted to rent. Cottage close to the sea for Writer, his wife and two well-behaved dogs ...  We had three replies so we entrained for Inverness, hired ourselves a little car and drove across the hills in search of our new home. One place proved to be ridiculously small although had the saving grace of being close to a hotel and bar, one was OK but we didn't much like the sound of the owner (anyone who ever mentioned Mrs Thatcher's iniquitous short term rental contract was at once kicked into touch,) and the third was Peace Cottage in Mellon Charles, just along the coast from Aultbea. A lot dilapidated compared with our Headbourne Worthy home of thirteen years but capable of much low cost upgrading and beautifully situated in the middle of a sheep croft close to the sea-Loch Ewe.

Having done the deal with the cottage's owner, Brenda Peace, we returned by overnight bus (a salutary experience all by itself) to Portsmouth via Glasgow and London. Back at home it was clear that we had accumulated far, far too much in the way of furniture and accoutrements over our years in Laundry Cottage and before, so we had a couple of very successful garage sales plus our very first excursions into the exotic world of the car boot sale. I'll not forget in a hurry being directed to our 'pitch' by a very large lady who might have done extremely well as an Auschwitz prison guard. The minute said woman moved off a host of rapacious looking gents turned up to inspect our stock with eagle eye. One of them offered us twenty quid for a box of books. Delighted with such an early success Dee took the cash, whereupon Mrs Auschwitz   came running or waddling back, loudly accusing Dee of 'trading before opening time' - a crime of which we were ignorant (but guilty as evidenced by my lady having the offending twenty clutched in her hand!) Dee was very frightened. How come? Well, she was being physically pinned up against a brick wall at the time and she hadn't even said a word! Me, I was too astonished to raise a finger, a fact that later got me into trouble of my own.

Poor Delia! Her precious household goods and chattels being whittled away for cash in hand. She didn't actually wave them a tearful goodbye but I know she would have felt like it.

Removal day came: September 1, 2002. Stuart and his friend Fraser had rented a seventeen metre furniture pantechnicon for us, which just about made it through Laundry Cottage's gateway if only after some necessary tree surgery. The stuff we had calculated would fit into Peace Cottage was quite literally squeezed into this massive vehicle and our two young men (only one of whom actually had an HGV licence!) set off on the seven hundred mile northbound trek. I gave them a three hour start, figuring we would overtake them somewhere near Glasgow. At last Dee had finished cleaning the house to her satisfaction, the dogs were safely bedded down in the back of the Grand Cherokee and we said goodbye, not without some emotion to our home of thirteen turbulent, wonderful years. I pressed the starter button. Nothing! Dead battery. Eventually I summoned our neighbours and friends, a pair of retired doctors blessed with a set of jump leads. Finally we were off up Bedfield Lane, Dee and I not knowing whether to laugh or cry, scared that the engine would stall on the first roundabout. It didn't. That engine was to remain active until next mid-morning when we pulled up outside our new home. Needless to say, the boys with truck had been there for hours and had by then piled almost all of our stuff willy-nilly into the cottage. They set off back to Hampshire as soon as we arrived, getting there, I was later told, at crack of dawn to return a presumably exhausted vehicle to its owners.I shudder to think of what superspeed record they must have set up.

In silence we looked around at the mess. My heart sank. l'm just going to walk the dogs on the beach, Dee said, then, Oh, my lovely Laundry Cottage. The Jeep actually started and away they went. I set about clearing enough space at least to sleep, convinced that my wife would before the day was closed be demanding an immediate return to the south. It was raining a light rain and the midges were up. When Dee and the dogs returned she looked at me, smiling. (Funny how the insect life barely troubled her) She'd been chatting to a New Zealand lady on the beach. Come on, Bryan, she instructed; Let's go into Gairloch for some fish and chips. In that cafe we made friends with another couple who, that very same day, had 'migrated' to Aultbea from, I think, Manchester. From the cafe window we looked out over a classic multicoloured Wester-Ross sunset. For us it might have been a sunrise. Without saying so there and then we both knew within ourselves that nevermore were we to live anywhere other than in this place.

We had five thousand two hundred and ten pounds in our bank account and a couple of quite small pensions for income. But we had zero debt, our two dogs Sorosh and Mati, a whole new and beautiful world full of wild provender for those who would seek it out, a whole new and beautiful life, some kind of long-frustrated talent to write and to paint - and we had each other. And that, my friends, is one hell of a lot.


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