It is the 1st of May, a day I always associate --not with Russian generals on parade showing off the size of their missiles or Morris Dancers chasing pubescent girls around Maypoles (which, when you think about it in Freudian terms, is the British equivalent of the former Soviets showing off their big guns)—but with our Bella washing her face in the May dew.
Bella lived with us in the Isle of Skye and spent the best part of twenty years telling me I should get up before dawn and wash my face in the May dew, as she had done all her life. I should have istened to her, because when she was in her 70s she still had skin like a magnolia petal.
She also had a fairy godmother present at her birth, who leant over her cradle and gave her the gift of luck. There was never much point buying a lottery ticket in Portree, or of even having the draw, because nine times out of ten, Bella would win. You could buy ten tickets, keep nine and hand her one: her ticket would be drawn. She had enough bottles of drink to start an off-license and never knowingly bought a box of chocolates.
Bella believed that tinkers stole babies (but more or less made up for it by being good at sharpening knives), strange men came to look in her windows at night and that someone was sneaking into her cottage to steal things from her. As far as the latter is concerned, she wasn’t completely wrong, as when the floor boards were lifted we discovered small bars of soap, shredded tights, hair, cotton wool, a tattered £5 note and other useful odds and ends, dragged there by a rat building a branch of Boots.
Bella may have had false teeth that fell out if she spoke too hastily and bunions the size of buses, but she also had a sort of ageless attitude to the world, an essentially youthful innocence, which she never lost—perhaps another gift from that open-handed fairy godmother.
One very hot summer’s day, not long after I moved to Edinburgh, I met someone else with the apparent gift of eternal youth. There had been a minor catastrophe somewhere in the city causing traffic chaos and I was on a bus marooned halfway along Princes Street. The bus was packed with hot, unhappy passengers all wedged together and shouting on their mobile phones that they were stuck on the bus, and then that they were still stuck on the bus, and then...you get the idea. I was cursing myself for not walking in the first place and taking a generally janundiced view of humanity when the gentleman sitting on the pull-down seat beside me remarked on the book I had taken out to bury myself in until rescue came.
It was 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' (it was only a book then, not a film) and we got into a conversation about fly-fishing—he was a true enthusiast. Gradually I learned that he had lived, worked and fished all over the world: Brazil, the Urals, Oman, Botswana, Pakistan, Canada, Iceland and a few other points between. When I asked if he was still fishing he told me that yes, he still loved it and was leaving at the weekend to spend some time fishing in a remote part of Estonia, miles from the nearest town of any size.
This gentleman was immaculately dressed in a dark linen jacket and twill trousers--his creases so sharp you could cut yourself on them, the toes of his shoes as highly polished as a pair of mirrors. He held a wooden walking stick with an intricately carved ivory handle and wore the sort of hat that only one man in a hundred can make look good. I just knew he was the sort of man who would have a beautifully pressed clean white handkerchief somewhere about his person. He was wonderfully well-informed and modest and funny with it. He could have, as they say, charmed the birds from the trees—he certainly charmed me. But given his apparent age I could not help remarking on his heartiness in undertaking the trip to Estonia.
‘I hope you don’t mind my asking,’ I said. ‘But how old are you?’
’89,’ he replied in a nonchalant sort of way.
‘Good heavens.’ I exclaimed, not very tactfully. ‘Could I just say that you are remarkably well-preserved. What is your secret?’
He thought for a moment and then replied: ‘Good red wine, good books and the company of intelligent women.’