I have never been particularly fond of the sat nav. The printed map, the road sign and a general sense of direction are quite enough for me, aided by a spirit that the journey is more important than the destination. The first time I ever used a sat nav was soon after passing my test; we borrowed my parents to see us through to Whitby. I knew most of the way in a vague sense from train journeys and would surely have arrived there sooner or later. Certainly I knew my way down the A68, which runs from the edge of Edinburgh as far as Darlington, there terminating in a series of roundabouts and English terraced villas. The railway route turned here and ran through Middlesbrough, but I was not sure of its road equivalent. There we turned the machine on and it took so long to load and find a GPS signal that I had already found the road by the time it gave us a display. When it did we were on a dual carriageway, though the display insisted we were in the middle of an empty field.
As mentioned in the Glasgow post I like a simplified route, two or three key turning points memorised and that's all you need to know. This route was simple; south from Sharon's mum's house in Ellon until you reach Aberdeen, then sharp west to Peterculter, after that you're on the road that runs through Royal Deeside which runs right through the middle of our destination, Aboyne. But as we reach Aberdeen Sharon decides to turn on the sat nav on her phone, just to check. We're on a roundabout, and even though I'm confident in where I'm going, hearing the sat nav confidently command that I should be taking another exit instead causes me a momentary panic. In the heat of the moment, I obey the machine. Soon we are headed east of Aberdeen, do a complete loop and end up back almost where we started. But this was only the beginning. The sat nav then begins a tour of a huge network of back roads, and as it's dark and these places were never on my intended route, I become a prisoner to it. I have no idea where we are, so I can only follow. Eventually, after double the length of time it should have taken, we arrive in Aboyne. Later in the hotel room I would look up the route we had just been lead, and would exclaim "Jesus Christ!". Sharon was then asked to never turn that thing on again.
So we arrive at the hotel, the Huntly Arms. It's one of these grand Victorian granite block hotels that you find throughout the Highlands from Pitlochry onwards, built in a different era to accommodate a throng of visitors that have long since departed. The man on the desk has a strange accent that I can't quite place... some sort of German perhaps? He informs us that they have absolutely no record of our booking whatsoever. I show him the printout of the reservation.
"It's not a problem", he says, "we have rooms".
He takes us upstairs and into a small corner room. The heating has been on high and it's suffocating. We throw open the windows while he concedes that perhaps the temperature is a little off here; he could show us another room if we like? I have flu and don't at all mind a glasshouse temperature, but Sharon wants to look. He goes down to the desk and comes back up with a handful of keys, and then he leads us through the corridors of the hotel showing us room after room.
"We have this one, you can see... this one also..."
One of the doors opens up to a four-poster bed, wallpaper with the pattern of bookshelves, and a wonderful large bath.
"I like this one"
"The temperature in here is colder, the heating is not working as it should. I can bring you heater if you wish?"
We find out that he is not German, but Russian. How does a Russian come to be keeping the check-in desk of a hotel in rural Aberdeenshire? Such strange journeys fascinate me, but we never find out.
The flu is closing in on me now. Being ill is not always so bad. In this big world it can be easy to be overwhelmed by choice; there are so many options and possibilities, how can anyone possibly be expected to choose? Whatever you choose, you are missing out on something that you haven't chosen. But in illness those choices are chopped down, pared right back to options as basic as take a bath, read a book, get a good sleep. You don't have to worry about climbing this hill or seeing this castle; it's not possible at the moment. A simple life is the great life, you take your option and you make the most of it and you don't have to worry about all the things you might be missing out on if this were another reality. Tonight I want a hot bath and to finish reading Camus' 'The Outsider', both of which are later achieved.
But first we go to the bar; why not - whisky is medicinal, right? I'm standing there waiting to be served and the barmaid keeps me waiting and then walks straight out of the bar and off down the corridor. When she returns 5 minutes later, she goes into serving someone else whose order was apparently already in progress. Where did she go? For what? When I take the drinks over Sharon laments that she didn't get crisps. I said that I could go back, but joked that it would be another 10 minutes. When I get back up there, the smile fades. The barmaid can see customers waiting, but is insisting on transferring around a hundred bottles of beer into the fridge. One. By. One. All. One. Hundred. Bottles. This is the only task that exists in the world, no plea can divert her from it. 10 minutes was about right, but I have the packet of crisps.
I crawl into bed early, coughing and spluttering. The next thing I'm aware of is a hand shaking me awake at 2am.
"Listen to this, it's been going on for over an hour, I'm going to have to complain and they'll have to tell them to stop or we'll have to move room."
My consciousness is only slowly fading in, but I'm aware of a thumping from the room above. People are jumping around up there, shouting. They sound like teenage guys. Sharon leaves the room and I fade back into sleep.
My next venture into consciousness is moments later; the Russian is creeping into the room, apologising with each step he takes. "There are some young ones up there", he says. Sharon gives her ultimatum of telling them to stop or moving us room. He clearly does not fancy going up to tell them anything, but as we know already, they do have rooms.
My head is that hot fuzz of illness, and I'm dragging on clothes and gathering up belongings. I always unpack my stuff on arrival at a hotel, it's part of the whole routine of it, making this not just any old room, but now MY room. Now I'm stuffing it back in as best I can, and we're out into the corridor. Loud music is blasting, "boom boom boom boom boom". Are they running a club night in here? What's going on? We shuffle to the new room and I collapse onto the bed while the black edges of sleep work back in.
And then out again.
"He's pissed as a fart", Sharon is saying to me now.
"What? Who is?"
"The Russian. He's sitting down there at the desk downing shots. That music is him, that's coming from reception."
Oh the decadence of it all. The faded glamour of an oversized hotel built for a golden era long past, a vast empty building of broken down heating and expensive furnishings. At the turn of autumn to winter when the few customers you have don't even get entered on the booking system, when you're left to man a desk through the night for people who never come, perhaps it's no surprise.
In the morning the desk is empty, despite it being check-out time. I'm not counting on seeing the Russian again for obvious reasons. After a while standing waiting, we see the barmaid from last night passing by.
"Excuse me, can you help us? We're just checking out."
"No", she replies simply.
"No?", repeats Sharon, surprised. There is silence. The barmaid seems to consider the conversation complete. Sharon tries again. "It's just that there's no-one on the desk"
"Well there should be", the barmaid says, and promptly turns around and walks off.
The road leads on through Deeside and into the Cairngorms, through Blair Atholl and eventually home. All I want from my life is journeys like these.