‘They come from all over, my guests, you would be amazed. Before COVID 19, we hosted Europeans, Americans, Asians and Antipodeans. Now we welcome folk from everywhere in the UK, and occasionally beyond.
There are the youngsters with huge backpacks, grateful for a lift down from the bus stop on wet days; the elderly couples in rickety old cars (one so dilapidated it was impounded by the Police during their stay); the nervous drivers at the wheel of a shiny hire car who inch in through our narrow gates, breath held.
I have an especially soft spot for the bikers, who roar up our tiny road to dismount like fearsome ninja turtles, peeling off leathers to reveal their frail humanity beneath.
Some guests barely stop to put down a suitcase before sprinting down to Chanonry Point, returning elated or crestfallen, dependent on whether or not the Dolphin Gods have been kind.
Oh, I know running an AirBnB is not for everyone, but I enjoy it. Such a simple transaction, after all, isn’t it? I offer them a clean, quiet, comfortable bed, a hearty breakfast and my extensive knowledge of the Black Isle and Northern Highlands. In return, complete strangers fund my writing time, to the tune of £60 or so a night.
Over the years some guests become regulars: folk with local family who like to keep independent; others who are set in their ways and always come at the same time of year. It’s good to see them.
Clive and Manpreet have come several times now, and I am sure they will be back. On the first occasion they stayed, Clive somehow tracked me down by phone and negotiated direct – and hard – for his two-week stay. I was in two minds, as some of the questions he asked me in advance were unusual to say the least. Oh, but he and his partner had often stayed in the Black Isle before, he said, rattling off a reassuring string of locations and mutual acquaintances. After ten minutes of this I gave in and agreed to host them. It was a late autumn booking too, when guests are much scarcer: and they were bikers and bikers are my favourites.
They arrived that Hallowe’en afternoon astride a throaty Harley Davidson which purred to a standstill in our driveway. I frowned at our resident pair of herring gulls on the chimney, daring them to conduct an aerial bombardment at that precise moment. The birds exchanged glances and sniggered. Later, later.
The first man (broad, hard and muscular, 30ish, dark-eyed and thin-lipped) removed his helmet to reveal a mop of black hair tied back into a pony-tail and a small tattoo of a skull on his neck. Clive. Manpreet, his partner, who was tall, anxious and slender, dismounted after him, careful only to smile and introduce himself once Clive had done so. I am not here to judge any of my guests on their appearance or behaviour, so welcomed them both warmly and showed them into our guest quarters, The Chanonry Bolthole.
I should explain at this point that I bought my house from an elderly friend back in 2003 and extended it when I inherited a small legacy from my mother a few years later. We now live in the new wing ourselves and our guests occupy the old wing. There has been a lockable door in between ever since one oddball wandered into our kitchen uninvited, to conduct a midnight raid on the fridge.
As usual I had arranged their breakfast requirements the night before, but when I knocked on the adjoining door from our own quarters that first morning at the agreed time, there was no reply. I knocked again. Was that a groan? In the end a voice replied and so I opened the door with my usual enquiry: slept well? Anything you need?
Clive loomed into the Bolthole hall from the Meadow Room. I noticed shadows under his eyes. Manpreet, standing behind him, shivered, although the day was quite warm. The pile of steaming hot oatmeal pancakes on the tray cheered them up a bit and afterwards they assured me that they had enjoyed their breakfast. A long journey and a lovers’ tiff, probably, I thought. Guests often arrive tired, wound up and fractious. A few days in the Black Isle would soon sort them out. I smiled and asked them, as I ask everyone, what their plans were for the day.
Rather to my surprise, these did not include a dolphin-spotting visit to Chanonry Point. Instead Clive began to list local burial grounds he wanted to visit: Beauly, Urquhart, Old Cullicudden, Kirkmichael, Cromarty. Manpreet, earning a glower from Clive, added the Clootie Well, an ancient healing spring not far from Munlochy, festooned with the rags of the ailing. When I told them my funny story about hanging underwear in the trees there before giving birth, they both nodded, unsmiling and earnest, as though taking serious note.
As the visit wore on, Clive and Manpreet tended to leave early and return at dusk, speaking very little. I had the feeling that both were avoiding me as much as possible and biting their tongues in my presence. Still curious about why they were staying with us rather than at any of the previous bed and breakfasts they had occupied in the area, I grasped the nettle and asked them about it one morning during their second week.
Manpreet piped up, timidly, ‘Well, you see, it’s the atmosphere…’
Clive looked at him, then at me, and clearly made a choice to continue. ‘Yeah. That one in North Kessock. Remember? Huge. Modern. Amazing view of the bridge. Bloke who let it wouldn’t even cross the threshold himself. Gave us the key and ran. Slept like a dog every night there.’
Manpreet nodded agreement.
Now Clive had begun, there was no stopping him. ‘You know the Hail Caledonia B’n’B in Munlochy? Beautiful garden, lovely old couple – but the house! Something had happened there. Something they weren’t saying. You just mark my words.’
On and on he went. Noises at night in Culbokie. Fleeting shadows in Cromarty. A dark figure at a manse near the ancient distillery at Ferintosh. You name the accommodation, they had experienced something there.
I decided to try to lighten the mood. ‘Well, no chance of anything like that happening here, Clive. No-one has ever died in this house. It was only built in the 1970s, you see, and I knew the first owner. And she died in the local nursing home in Rosemarkie, bless her, not here. A sweet old lady.’
Big mistake. Manpreet looked like he was about to speak but Clive, rebuffed, silenced him with another look and they left for the day. Ach well, too bad.
Later in the week, I found them looking at a display copy of Major Tom’s War. Most guests buy one. Not Clive and Manpreet. Instead Clive announced that he had always wanted to write a book himself.
‘Oh, how interesting,’ I responded, as brightly as I could manage. ‘What kind of book?’
Manpreet bit his lip and looked away. ‘A book about me,’ said Clive, as though I should have known. ‘All about my tormented childhood.’
Oh Lord. I really didn’t want to ask which aspect of his childhood had been tormented. I responded with a lame well, how interesting again and side-stepped into their breakfast choices for the following day.
I saw Manpreet in the garden alone the next morning. He had clearly been detailed to clean the seagull poo off the Harley while the culprits overhead snickered and mocked him. ‘Clive having a lie-in?’ I asked, glad of the opportunity to speak to the quiet one alone.
Manpreet nodded, with a glance at the Bolthole window. ‘Yes. He had a very bad night. He’s really… really sensitive, you know?’
Right. Sensitive was not the first word I would have chosen to describe Manpreet’s slightly sinister other half.
‘It’s the sofa, you see…’ he began, before a movement behind the blind sent him scurrying back inside.
Why on earth was Clive sleeping on the sofa when the Bolthole has two bedrooms and two comfortable beds?
I spoke to my husband about it all that night and was told, firmly, that I always get far too involved in my visitors’ lives and should just ignore it. ‘They’re a couple of oddballs, that’s all. They can sleep on the roof with the gulls for all I care so long as they pay their way.’
On the last morning of that first visit, Clive, his eyes gleaming, asked me about the execution of the Brahan Seer, a local prophet. I told them the grisly story and offered them a quick free tour of Fortrose Cathedral. They were particularly interested in the post-Reformation graves, which display grisly memento mori of skulls and crossbones.
Must be that Harley influence, I thought.
As we left, I pointed out a missing railing where local kids can get in and out after the gates are locked. Useful for retrieving lost footballs kicked over the wall or for a quick fumble behind one of the cathedral yews, I said. Never thought anything more of it.
It was only after they had left us that stories emerged of candle stubs on some of the cathedral tombstones and what might have been a pentangle traced in the grit outside the Chapterhouse. No proof that it was them, of course; but they had seemed in rather a hurry to leave that morning, all the while assuring me that they would be back. Same weeks next year, Vee. Hallowe’en. Mates’ rates, yeah?
In spite of this, a year is a long time. I was not expecting to see them again. It had been a long, hard season and I had decided to block the Bolthole bookings and close up early. If I am honest, perhaps Clive and Manpreet were at the back of my mind when I made the decision, too.
I was working in the garden when I heard the familiar sound of the Harley turn the corner – oh no, surely not, it couldn’t be! – but it was. Clive and Manpreet, who clearly believed they had made a firm booking 12 months before. All I could do was greet them warmly and show them in, thanking my lucky stars the Bolthole was unoccupied.
This time they came and went rather more: extending their disturbing graveyard forays, perhaps. Some days I did not see them from dawn until dusk. I decided against saying anything about the cathedral incident. Probably just a coincidence, or so I hoped.
After a week or so, however, there were reports of lights being seen in the cathedral grounds at night again. I did not want to upset my neighbours, so I kept quiet.
‘OK, Vee. It’s been great,’ said Clive as they prepared to depart at the end of the fortnight. ‘We’ll be back. Same time next year, mates’ rates, yeah? But listen. I need to tell you something. Does an old lady mean anything to you?’
Here we go.
‘An old lady?’
‘Yeah. In a pink shawl.’
‘You see,’ added Manpreet, with a quivering glance at Clive. ‘We only sensed her last time but this time we keep seeing her, too.
‘Yeah. She sits on the old sofa in the Bolthole…’
My late mother’s Chesterfield.
‘…always glaring at us like we’re in her space,’ Clive added, with grim emphasis.
I tried to head him off at the pass and said I couldn’t remember either my mother or the old friend from whom I had bought the house wearing a pink shawl (not strictly true, but I wasn’t going to admit it).
Clive, his eyes bulging, then brought his face down level with my own.
I felt cold.
‘That old sofa,’ he hissed. ‘It’s got a presence, see? I can tell. I can always tell. You need to get a priest in. D’ye hear me?’
‘Yes, yes. I suppose I could ask nice Father Malcolm from up the hill to pop down.’ Over my dead body.
‘Tell him three knocks. He’ll understand. And whatever you do, don’t try to communicate with it.’
Manpreet nodded fervently in agreement. Then, assuring me they would see me the same time next year, they mounted their Harley and were gone.
I stood and looked at the empty road for some time after they had vanished, hoping I would never see them again, but no such luck. Three knocks? What the hell did Clive mean?
At that point a herring-gull with a sense of humour dropped a hermit crab on the roof. Down it rolled, rat-tat-tat, into the gutter. Three knocks. It would have seemed much louder in the room beneath.
I laughed but still felt unsettled. Don’t try to communicate with it.
I walked back into the Bolthole and rested a hand on the flowery upholstery of my mother’s sofa. ‘Hello? Mum?’
All I could hear in response to my whisper was the taunting cry of the seagull pair cavorting on the roof. I sensed… nothing. Not sensitive enough, clearly. And surely any faint echo of my mother or the elderly friend from whom I had bought the house would still be a she, not an it? I felt aggrieved on behalf of these two saintly ladies. If there is a presence in my happy home, I can only believe it is there by choice.
More to the point, if I invite Father Mal in to exorcise mum’s old sofa, he might also forever banish Clive and Manpreet. Until they realise that the campervan which wrote off their Harley on the journey home also killed them both, who am I to spoil their annual holiday?
They come from all over, my guests. You would be amazed.’
Although this short story has its roots in a few strange AirBnB experiences over the years, the characters apart from myself are entirely fictional.
Vee Walker is an award-winning author (and AirBnB Superhost) who lives and works on the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. You can find The Chanonry Bolthole on Facebook as well as AirBnB and follow Vee on Twitter @veewalkerwrites.
You can also buy Vee’s prizewinning WWI novel, Major Tom’s War, from any good bookseller or direct from her publisher, www.kashihouse.com (paperback and e-reader editions now available). A Kashi House discount of 10% applies to any purchase during the Armistice period from 1st – 12th November: quote SALE10 at checkout).
Copyright: Vee Walker 2021 – All Rights Reserved