My nose bled as soon as I collapsed
on my castle bed. Was it from the highs and lows of travel, on two planes, two trains, on a bus and in a cab? Was it excitement? Anger, as I remembered how much the train ride cost?
(It was the rough equivalent of the minimum monthly wage back home.) Was it the fact that I was affronted, alternately, by the cold draught that crept under the doors and the electric wave from my bedside heater?
Over a very welcome welcome dinner earlier, the administrator had warned me about the badgers
that roamed the castle grounds. I certainly knew of the verb, and had seen the animal photographed and illustrated, but had never encountered the real thing. "It can rip chunks
of flesh out of you," Richard the admin announced. Having already lost a good pint of blood through my nose, I decided to arm myself: I would never roam the glen without a walking stick, with which to whip such critters'
backs, and a camera, with which I could capture their image, either in mid-flight or, God forbid, mid-fight.
A wide, deep glen surrounded Hawthornden Castle and ensured its obscurity through eight centuries of existence. Here, in the middle of Lasswade, Scotland, foxes threw growls to force us off their cubs' paths, rabbits flip-flopped out of reach, midges stung and nettles nettled, and the river Esk, on a low churn, wound through centuries of idle wildness. There was no internet, no television. On certain days we were visited by the spectacle of a milky blue fog, laying a ghostly haze on the windows and plunging us further into the dark ages. But some mornings were so clear that we saw, in the distance, draft horses grazing the backs of rapeseed-yellowed hills.
Afflicted by boredom, we once took the locals' advice of a "wee walk"to historic Roslin Chapel, a good trudge away, a huge pain for my short and untrained legs, and penance for my feet in their unused trainers. Two hours later, we found ourselves surrounded by little green men, clucking and shaking our heads in awe among the graves of stony knights templar.
From the top of the steel cage that kept the Chapel well-preserved, we squinted at the castle miles away, hidden by a forelock of forest, cutting a fairytale figure in the glen. Between us watchers, we shared two college degrees, a masters in art history and a doctorate in lit crit (well, I had the one college degree). But there was that same profound thought, coming slow and clear in the crisp air: "Hey, we can see our house from here."
Then, having gotten our bearings, we climbed down, and trudged that way.
Night in, night out, for thirty days, we withdrew to the Castle's drawing room, in the well-lit after-hours of the Scottish spring, to unwind from that day's work over single malt, and augur the next over tea. Even here, the unfamiliar badgered me, in the form of discussions of Sontag's reevaluation of Leni Riefenstahl's fascist filmology, or Walter Benjamin's swansongs, or perhaps even the great (for them) Sir Walter Scott's body of work. And under this deluge, my body, a shade overweight, a tad undereducated, desperately sought its own level.
The medieval work schedule had its distractions. There was Bonny Rigg, a town whose name aptly suggested, to us pretentious writers, something beautiful and something contrived. We admired it for its library, its quiet community and the fact that it was ten minutes closer to Edinburgh.
That city, the Scottish capital, was thirty minutes away by buses 39 and 77, which took us straight through the old town to the center of Edinburgh, where a column of cold perennially kept Princes Street in icy temper. In between gusts of visible breath, as I walked down to the Royal Mile, I wondered how the Scots could wear high kilts and long socks in this climate. A sip of 15-year old Scotch later, I felt like playing a lively tune and showing some leg myself.
There was also a day trip to Glasgow, squeezed between our breakfast (communal, monomanic) and dinner (communal, carbo-loaded). Scotland's largest city was an hour away by train, and in the economy car I found myself similarly squashed-between Scottish football fans and their German adversaries in quiet disguise.
I was met at the Queen Street station by a novelist friend, a Glasgow native. He had told me "Don't worry, I'll find you," when I called him earlier from the Edinburgh train station. It became clear to me how, because I was a full head shorter than most of the crowd and I looked neither Anglo nor Germanic.
Over coffee at the Center for Contemporary Art, my friend proudly showed me a Greek translation of his book and asked about mine. I told him, in perfect reverse smugness, that I was in fact translating it into English right in my head-a feat only Filipinos can perform, thanks to our fish-rich diet and years of faux American culture. He showed me a photo he had taken on his trip to Manila two years before: a dirty streetchild on a cracked and sundrenched Malate sidewalk, lazing away the afternoon. It was the novelist's first trip to Manila-and his first ever into Asia. He warmly confessed to me that it had made an indelible mark on him.
That day I found myself warming to the thought of returning to the castle-my castle for this brief, almost imaginary moment-with its rustling treetops, cawing crows and its nest of quiet writers. Dinner was waiting, a surprise every time, but almost certainly something with cheese, potatoes and cream, over which there would be lively conversation: theories, ideas, images. Afterwards, we would retire to the common room to talk and sit until sunset, unreal at eleven in the evening. Afterwards, a bath, maybe, and another night spent trying to make sense out of my work.
Perhaps badgers awaited me there, too. Nowhere to be found but everywhere hidden, just waiting to feast on my flesh, plump and indelibly brown.