“You want to go upstairs, don’t you?”
His eyes glint with amusement and prophecy. He knows we won’t stay down here long, down here where it is warm and dry, where we are protected from the bitter winds that run the length of the loch, picking up droplets from the clouds above and the waters below and turning them to needles as they strike our faces.
He greets my smile with a smile of his own and takes my hand.
“Come on,” he says, and pulls me outside and up onto the upper deck that offers neither walls nor roof for shelter. The boat begins to move, facing the wind head on, and he takes a few moments to pull his hood closer around his face, fastening it against the elements. He jams his hands firmly in his pockets, looks at me, shakes his head, and tells me above the roar of the wind and the boat and the beauty all around that I am mad.
I am a child: I cannot sit still. I run up to the front of the boat, beside the cabin, and am nearly swept off my feet. I take photographs. Of the lungs of trees all around us: Scots pine, we are told, Norway spruce – Christmas trees. Of the deep chasm of water that we traverse – the spine between the lungs. Loch Ness. I take pictures of him. Pictures of myself. Pictures of us. In every one, we are laughing. I sit down. I stand up. I am all a-chatter.
Loch Ness. Neither the deepest loch in the British Isles, nor the longest, but holding the largest volume of water than any other natural body – 7.4 billion cubic metres. And, of course, home to the fabled Loch Ness Monster.
“If you still doubt the existence of the monster, consider this,” says the voice-over playing over us. “In 2005, 100 athletes participating in a triathlon in and around the loch were each insured for £1 million against any injuries that might be caused as a result of any possible interactions with Nessie.”
He sidles up close and I can sense the roll of his eyes in the tone of his voice: “Of course, that says more about insurance companies than it does about the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.”
We buy a couple of whiskies from the bar and drink them over a shared peanut butter Kit-Kat. Our mutual love for the combination of chocolate and peanut butter has quickly become a joke, and a Kit-Kat or two has become a padkos staple.
The boat turns back in the direction we have come. I lean against him. We say little, feeling only the warmth of each other and the gravity of this moment-defining moment.
There are other moments, other afternoons, other days. Days of reunion and connection with old friends. Lazy mornings, late-night walks and too much laughter. Clarinets and saxophones, guitars and cajons. Scottish pubs, home-cooked meals, sunshine and rain. Other lochs. Old memories remembered and new ones created.
I call him from the airport before I leave. They’re boarding my plane, section by section, and I can barely hear him over the announcements. “I hope you have someone nice sitting next to you,” he says. “Or even better, no one at all – always nice to have a bit of extra room.”
I hear his words in my head as the cabin crew performs their crosschecks, and gaze at the empty seat beside me. Prophetic again. But rather than grateful for the extra room, I am struck by the absence it contains. It feels like this seat wasn’t meant to be empty. He should be seated here instead, squeezing my hand and telling me, with a smile and a fondness I have never heard before, that I am mad.