The charabanc was a rattling old Humber in worn brown, which smelt of petrol, tobacco and wet moss. The driver was a thin twist of dark leather. He chewed constantly on the ends of the ragged walrus moustache that took up most of the lower half of his face. He inhabited a worn driver’s uniform that had room in it for at least one lodger, if they could bear the insanitary conditions.
“Yer for the school,” he said, his voice as wet and frayed as his facial hair. It was not a question. Why else would we be here? It was cold, pitch black, utterly isolated. I could feel the shapes of the mountains around us pressing in, looming just beyond the reach of the station’s inadequate electrical lights.
Father nodded, and the driver slung my baggage into the back of the bus with a strength that belied his size. Maybe there was someone else in that comedy uniform after all to help him do the heavy lifting. Certainly, he took half the time to do the job that my father had made such a meal of at Inverness.
Finally, we were squared away. My father swung himself into the shotgun seat in the cab, and sat waiting. The driver considered me thoughtfully for a moment, then swung open the driver’s side door and held out a hand to me.
“Yer carriage awaits, mamselle,” he said. I took his hand. It was warm, as dry and hard as old hide. With a courtly bow, he spun me up and into the cab, moving swiftly up beside me and nudging me along the bench. I was comfortably wedged in between the two men.
“Perfect,” the driver burred. “It’s nae the smoothest road up to the school. Cannae be havin’ the young lady bouncing around like an untethered lamb, now.” He grinned at my father. Well, there was an upward shift in the general attitude of the moustache. My father looked back, impassively.
“Let’s get on, then,” he said. “The sooner this is over with the better.”
The driver matched his gaze for a moment, then nodded and turned his attention to the engine. “Aye,” he said, just quietly enough for me to hear. “They usually put it like that.” Then he started the charabanc. The engine fired with a harsh, coughing throb. He smoothly guided it down the single-track road, and soon the lights of the station were swallowed in the darkness.
As the driver had warned, the road was more of a cattle track than a working highway, and we were soon jouncing about like fairground rides, the unoiled springs of the suspension squeaking out a traveling song. However, the wiry Scotsman knew the road well, and smoothly guided the creaking old bus around the worst of the obstacles. Wedged in tightly between the two solid, warm men on either side of me, I was soon lulled into a drowse.
The dull illumination of the Humber’s lights shone barely ten yards in front of us. There was no moon, yet the night was luminous, the stars blazing in the clear dark air. The mountains around us cut that riotous show in half. You saw them only in the way they blocked the sky.
In my dozing state, I had no idea how long it took to get from the station to Cape Wrath. It seemed like moments before the driver nudged me gently in the side.
“Wake up, lassie,” he breathed. “We’re here.”
I looked up. We had stopped before a massive set of wrought iron gates, easily twenty feet tall. The lights from the charabanc splashed over them, sending shadowy grids across the high stone walls on either side. These loomed away into the black, seemingly endless. Rough-finished, impenetrable. Their tops were frosted with jagged shapes that glinted in the feeble headlight glow.
Glass, I realised with a shock. Shards of broken glass. This was like no school entrance I had ever seen. It was as forbidding as a prison.
“Aye,” the driver said. “They always look like that, once they see the gates.” The look on his face was one I had not seen in a very long time. Something like sympathy. Something like pity.
He hopped out of the cab, and swiftly pulled the gates open. They came apart with an unlubricated scream. I would hear something very like that a lot in the coming months. Then we were away, down a narrow avenue lined with gnarled, bare elms, the headlights flaring nightmarish shadows through their empty branches. Talons. Demon masks. Wounds made in light.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, lassie,” the driver said.
And we turned a corner, and I saw the school for the first time.
It was a clawed hand, rearing into the night sky, yearning to scrape the stars out of the velvet black. It was a fortress, an impenetrable obstacle against an unending flood of heathen hordes. It was a prison, a zoo, a madhouse, the castle of an evil wizard, the lair of the witch, the house of the beast.
I reared back in my seat in horror. There was a roaring in my ears, a boom of cannonade, a bellow from the throat of a dragon. I was ten. The furthest I had ever been before was to Oxford on a day trip, and the dreaming spires had overwhelmed me then. Now, suddenly, I was on the north-western apex of Scotland, the air was full of salt and nightmares, and I was being confronted with Gormenghast.
Reader, I fainted. I popped a fuse, blew a breaker and fell into blissful unconsciousness.
“Isnae so bad,” the driver told my father. “Normally they throw up too.”