When I was deep in the planning and writing of Welcome to Normal and had my radar set for anything story-worthy, my parents came back from a trip to Spain. They had been to there before, several times, but I think they’re doing it bit by bit, this time based at a B&B in Mollina, Andalucia.
They had seen plenty of the big sights – and Andalucia isn’t short on those – and had the photos to back it up, but my father’s personal moment of triumph came on the minibus when Gary, their B&B proprietor and tour guide pointed out the sign to the small town of Teba. He didn’t know what he’d got himself into. As he drew breath ready to begin an explanation of its significance, my father couldn’t help himself. Deep, deep in his brain is a Scottish boarding school education and, that day, in lieu of Gary’s version of the events of 1330, Gary and my mother had the one-off opportunity to hear my father tell the story, as recorded in Aytoun’s epic poem ‘The Heart of the Bruce’. I’m not sure if Dad ripped out all 60 verses, and I’m smart enough not to ask. I suspect that, once you put a crack in that dam, you get the lot. I’m confident it’s a moment Gary won’t forget in a hurry.
Here’s the essence of the story. It’s quite something. On his deathbed in 1329, Robert the Bruce, the great King of Scots, faced the fact that he had sins he hadn’t atoned for. So, he asked Sir James Douglas, his friend and lieutenant and scourge of the English, to cut his heart from his chest once he had died and take it on a crusade. As the story goes, Sir James did just that and found himself fighting with one of Spain’s King Alfonsos in the Reconquista against Muslim Granada. In 1330, he wore the small lead casket containing the heart around his neck as he rode into the Battle of Teba. But in the melee, he and some of his troops became cut off with no prospect of retreat. So Douglas took the casket from his neck, flung it at the enemy and rode at them, shouting for his men to ‘Follow the Bruce’. They did, and were killed. But the Christian army won the battle and the story sees the heart finding its way back to Scotland and being buried at Melrose Abbey.
It’s a great story and, over the years took on the feel of a great myth. Then, in 1818, the body of Robert the Bruce was found under the site of the former high altar of Dunfermline Abbey. His sternum had been split and his heart was gone. Just over a century later, during a dig at Melrose Abbey, a small beaten-up lead casket was found beneath the Chapter House. It contained a partially mummified 14th-century human heart. The story of the heart appears to be true, and the heart of Robert the Bruce was reinterred at Melrose Abbey in the 1990s.
I wanted that story. I wanted to do something with it, to slip it into something of mine. And where better to start than with two tourists from Australia on a minibus in Spain. Then I started thinking: who do I put on that bus to give me a story? (Sorry, Mum and Dad, but this is where you get bumped from the bus …) I came up with a couple from Brisbane, Greg and Duncan. Greg, a teacher and enthusiast holiday planner. Duncan, an engineer working FIFO-style in a PNG mine and spending little time at home.
But I need other people on the bus too, though not a cast of thousands. Who would be interesting? Yasmeen and Amir, a pair of Pakistani Scots doctors from Edinburgh, would be interesting.
I took my parent’s tour itinerary (okay, Gary’s tour itinerary), I customised it to meet my needs and I spent a couple of weeks cruising the streets of places like Mollina, Ronda and Cordova on Google Earth. Amazing places, heaps of story potential. I often wish I could do the tour, sometimes I think I already have.
Bit by bit, my plan came together. Then the last element fell into place. I decided that the B&B had six rooms and the minibus was a 13-seater, but this week my four characters were the only guests. And therefore destined to have meal after meal together. So, after the first with its agonising silences as two couples who never intended to find each other do their level best to be civilised, Duncan comes up with a plan. At each meal, should another grim lull in the conversation occur, either he or Greg has to tell an outrageous lie about the other, and the other has to go with it. Embellish it even.
By now I knew I had no 3000-worder on my hands, but I had a story I was pretty desperate to tell. So I did, and it ran to 25000 words and finished Welcome to Normal. I had my collection. On the weekend, the book’s reviewer in the Australian called Greg and Duncan’s interactions ‘reminiscent of Hemingway or Raymond Carver’ and called their lying game ‘strange and very funny’. It would be too bold a dream for a writer to hope a single piece of their work would, in the one paragraph be likened to Hemingway and Carver and also be strange and very funny, so I hadn’t dreamt that, though I have to admit those were the kind of marks I was hoping to hit with this story. It’s a reward and a relief to see it read that way.
And there’s another coda too. A few weeks ago, my father turned up at my writing shed with cash in his hand, wanting to buy a book to send to Gary. So, the story has now made its way back to where it started.
The book is only two weeks old, and already I’ve had quite a few people talking to me about the part of Spain it’s set in and the tour, so it’s time to share some details. While Dennis (the story’s B&B proprietor and tour guide) isn’t Gary – I invented the former and haven’t yet met the latter – and the B&B in the story is my own creation too, the sights are real and Gary’s B&B and tours at Tour Andalucia come highly recommended.
The legend of the Heart of the Bruce has inspired many things, not least of which is the image of a heart on the label of Black Douglas Scotch. Just in case you were interested.
Perhaps if I were more of a Scotch drinker I would have been onto this much earlier. I imagine the heart’s there because it was added to the Douglas family crest straight after the battle. Looking at the crest of the Black Douglas himself, most of it seemed to be blank and waiting for something big to come along. Not much could fit the bill better than a king’s heart carried into battle.
Pingback: Welcome To Normal. Hello, Old Friend. | Old, new or true