Tick, tick, tick went the wipers. A manic clock, ticking faster as time went slower and more unpleasantly. The rain on the windscreen sang its monotone song, its stupid drumbeat. Fierce, insistent to get in. Now deceptively soft, now blustering to break through again.

"Damn it," swore Roger under his breath. He didn't want to be here. He wanted to be at the golf club, or at home, or even in The City with the pratts from head office, but not here on some godforsaken A-road in the middle of Scotland driving in the blackness through Dante's sprinkler system.

"Damn what?" asked Danielle.

This was the first time they'd talked to each other for an hour.

"Why the hell did your parents want to move to the North of Scotland? I mean, why not somewhere warm like Spain or Florida or even Bournemouth? Somewhere you can reach without flippers. Anywhere."

Danielle pouted, as stern and tense as her husband but without his anger. "You know how my father is when it gets hot. And it's a beautiful cottage. They could never have bought one like it in the South."

"I could have pitched a tent for them in a car-wash. That would have been cheap."

And that would be the end of the subject. Otherwise it could lead on to discussion of whether some of their own minor fortune should be redirected towards Danielle's ageing parents. And that would be guaranteed to bring on an argument.

Silently they listened to the wipers, to the rain, to the hiss of the low-profile tyres. Roger swung the wheel of the big BMW expertly, smoothly rounding the modest corners of the almost deserted road, gunning the motor up the hills, sweeping down into the valleys.

"Darling, you're speeding up," said Danielle, carefully.

"No I'm not." And to prove it, he speeded up. Not because he hated his wife. He didn't, though he was a little bored with her. And not because he was consciously a pig. Simply because this was the way he reacted to things.

They hammered through a corner, stark fencing posts rushing away to the left in the bright pool of the headlights - skinny Cossacks holding shoulders, sidestepping away at speed - made the curve and aquaplaned over twenty yards of standing water on the other side.

Roger slowly braked to a halt, chest heaving, knuckles still tight on the wheel. He stared at the wet, white streamers falling as far as the eye could see.

"What time is it?" he asked, not moving his eyes to the dashboard clock or expensive watch on his wrist.


"How much further?"

"Two hours."

"On a dry day."

They stared pointlessly at the rain, at the fuzzy layer of splashes forming a thin film of mist above the road. A line of cats' eyes stared back at them, as if from beneath a hot, shallow swimming pool.

"I'm not going on," said Roger, calmly.

"All right," replied Danielle, with equally restrained emotion.

"If we come to an inn, a hotel, anything, we'll see if they have a room."

He turned to look at his wife, and thought, quite distractedly, how other men must find her still attractive, almost casually glamorous. Though he knew how much the bills were for that, for the hair that looked naturally blond, still swinging and settling to order, shoulder length, the cut for the thirty-somethings, and the health-club membership, the masseur, the solarium. And all he could see, now the years had removed the sheen, was a pleasant, if occasionally sharp, rather average human being whom he knew very well.

The main road seemed to by-pass most of the settlements, so they took a chance at the next junction and turned off for the village of Roemaur. Three miles, the sign said, but halfway to the village they came across an old Georgian building standing in splendid isolation, with twenty or more cars parked outside and a shield with a white swan above the doorway - the Earl of Stirling Inn. To the left of the big oak door a placard proclaimed, with great economy:





There was nobody in the entrance hall, or in the tiny office a little further along, but there was a very inviting desk-bell - a bright silver thing with a big black button in the centre. It made such a beautiful noise that Roger had the urge to press it twice.

The bell was on an old wooden counter with a flap, and behind it was an office barely large enough for two people to stand, dimly lit by a frosted lampshade high on one side. The rest of the panelled walls were covered in a mess of papers and postcards and folded letters and bits and pieces like keys and a box of plasters and bicycle clips and a false moustache, all held in place by bulldog clips pinned to the wall.

From nowhere - certainly not through the flap - a man appeared behind the counter, a big, rotund gentleman with ginger hair that swept back over his scalp like thin marsh-grass laid flat by the wind. At his collar it changed direction to curl up in hooked tails.

"Aye," he said, the word sung like a dipping glen,"and what can I do for ye?"

"We'd like a room please, with en-suite facilities."

The man stared, expressionless, and although it didn't bother him, Roger felt like he'd been totally assessed by that single statement: what kind of job he did, what kind of car he drove, where he lived, how long he'd been married. But what interested him more was the way the man was dressed. He didn't look the type to cruise the emporiums, more a Marks and Spencer's trousers and old white shirt man, but here he was in a speckless dark charcoal suit, and, if Roger wasn't mistaken, a brand new silk tie, though not one that any beau of great taste would have worn.

"I dinna think we have nae rooms left."

Danielle sighed appealingly.

"We'd like to eat, too," added Roger, moving into business mode, hoping the promise of more money might free up a room. "You know. A few drinks, bottle of wine."

"A bottle of wine?" said the man, raising his voice high on the wine.

Before Roger could continue, the peculiarly smart man was joined by a woman, presumably his wife, entering through what clearly wasn't a wall at the side of the office but obviously a door, and standing beside her husband so the pair of them had to squeeze together like two shopkeepers in a telephone booth.

"Gentleman and lady here would like a room," explained the husband. "And maybe a meal and a bottle of wine."

"And wine?" queried the woman, using almost exactly the same tone as her husband. She too was remarkably well dressed. She was rather shorter than him, with tall hair almost making up for the difference, so heavily lacquered it looked dangerous to touch. But most striking was her cleavage, a full three-belay crevice between four acres of breast, dangerously held in place by a tight white dress. It was no pinup fantasy but it surely demanded attention, which Roger duly gave.

"Well ye'd better give them number 12 then," she said to her husband. Then turned with a smile to Roger and Danielle: "It's a wicked night, and that's for sure."

Her husband, reaching casually for the key without having to look at it, gave them a very broad, multicoloured tooth grin.


However unpleasant the night might be, it had to do all its misbehaving outside, because the inn was more than a match for it. All that could be heard from the warm and cozy bar was an occasional pattering on the windows, sounding no more threatening than a lost kitten scratching at a bolted door. The big log fire spat and crackled reassuringly, letting everybody know it wasn't going to let the nasty wet and cold anywhere near them.

The gin and tonics were warming too, and the wine. The wine. The high-note wine. In Roger's view - and Roger had plenty of views about wine - it deserved far better intonation. More like a breathy murmur from the cherry - red lips of a post-orgasmic sex-bomb.

It was a 1985 Etchart Malbec, a vintage that even his wine-club didn't have access to, and listed on the little bar menu at such a price that it would be a crime not to order an second bottle. So he did. The food too was very acceptable: Aberdeen steak, fresh salad, and french fries that would have shamed many London restaurants - though of course his wife would leave most of hers.

They ate and drank with satisfaction, although a little slowed by their reaction to the rest of the clientele. If the landlord and his wife had at first seemed overdressed, it was now clear they were not. Most of the couples in the bar easily beat them. Half the men wore kilts, with broad leather belts and sporrans and Prince Charlie jackets showing off their wide shoulders. The other half wore their best dark suits, with one, bizarrely, made of black leather. And all nothing compared to the women. From this point on, Roger would always pronounce the word décolletage with a very slight, unintentional, Scottish accent. And the stiletto shoe, now so non-PC in right-on London, was a clear essential for any female still able to stand up in two, whatever her age. For most of the meal Roger had to make an effort to keep his mouth closed while eating.

Danielle, he guessed, would be feeling underdressed in her parental visiting clothes, expensive as they were. She seemed fascinated by the well-formed legs of the kilt-wearers.

"Everything all right for ye?" asked the landlord as he collected Roger's plate.

"Yes," replied Roger distractedly.

"And the chips?" queried the landlord as he took Danielle's.

"Er, delicious. Just too many for me."

"Has there been a wedding?" asked Roger.

The landlord searched around the room, looking for evidence of one. "Aye, there's been quite a few. But not today." And he walked away.

Danielle was the first to break the ice with the locals. She targeted the most attractive woman in the bar, as she often did. A lady a few year's younger than herself, wearing a black cashmere dress with a deep revealing V, and frequently rubbing the heel of her opera pump against her kilted husband's white-socked leg. They were sitting at the table alongside, so Danielle only had to turn and lean to make contact.

"Gorgeous dress. We can't help noticing how smart everybody is. Have we missed a special occasion?"

"D'ye nae dress up when ye go oot, down South?" asked the woman, somehow managing to look friendly at the same time.

"Where 'ye from?" asked her husband, before offence could be taken.

"London," replied Roger.

"Aye, big place." The man nodded. "Had te deliver a load o' turkeys there once. All frozen, like."

Neither Roger nor Danielle was able to follow-up the frozen turkey line, so the man continued, rather intimately. "Have ye got a room?"

"Aye," said Roger. He blinked heavily as he realised what he'd said.

The man turned to a group of four stood in the centre of the room. "Lady and gent from London here got the last room," he announced.

An older woman with a blond interlocking hairdo and big bum squeezed into a tight skirt said, "Is that so, hon?" and turned to give Roger and Danielle the once-over. The foursome smiled and nodded as if to congratulate them.

"Full hoose, then," said one of the men.

"'Tis always better wi' a full hoose," said the other.

"Must be the weather," said Danielle, pleasantly. "We had to stop driving, you see. Are you staying too?"

"Aye, we are that," said the tight-bummed woman. "Number seven."

"Do you have far to drive tomorrow?" asked Danielle.

There was a puzzled silence for a moment. Eventually one of the men said, "Nae. We're all from the village."

"Got to be careful these days," said Roger, raising his wine glass to show what to be careful of.

Four blank faces looked back at him. But the ginger-haired landlord, obviously listening in, leaned over the bar to come to his rescue. "Aye, that's right. Got to be careful, yes." Then turned his attention to a couple leaving the bar, an oldish gentleman in a dark brown suit, supporting the drunken stagger of his much younger wife. "Drive carefully, Maggie. See ye Saturday."

"He has nae got a licence, see," explained a soft, rich voice, a paternal voice coming quite naturally from the white-haired gentleman sitting at the bar. The one lone gentleman in the entire place. Had he been widowed, maybe? Should they feel sorry for him in the company of couples? Danielle smiled awkwardly at him.

"Not since the accident," he added, and turned back to his oversized dram.

Another couple left. More made ready to leave. Roger glanced at the clock. Twenty to twelve.

"Bye Pat, Hamish," shouted the landlord.

"Have you noticed," said Roger quietly to his wife, "they're all finishing their drinks, though the bar still seems to be open?"

There wasn't a full glass in the house. Even those who weren't preparing to leave, like the foursome they'd talked to, were well down their glasses.

Another couple left, and another. The landlord roll-called them out by name.

"When we first got here," said Roger, "You remember, at the desk, it reminded me of that film, The Thirty-Nine Steps, where the hero - what's his name? - and the heroine are booking in at the hotel..."

"Richard Hannay," said Danielle.

"But now its turned into Cinderella, and they've all got to get home by twelve o'clock or they turn into..."

"...White mice?"

"Something like that."

The last dozen or so finished their drinks almost in unison and reached the door in such a pack they had to queue to file through. Roger noticed they weren't wearing coats.

"Our fellow guests," he muttered, then glanced at the clock. Ten to twelve. There was nobody left on the public side of the room except himself and his wife. On the business side of the bar, the landlord fussed over a large tumbler of whisky sitting on a coaster.

"Have ye seen McCullogh?" he asked them, rather fretfully.

"Who?" asked Danielle.

"The elderly gentleman sitting at the bar here." He pointed at the tumbler, then added, as an afterthought, "On his own."

"No," said Roger.

Danielle shook her head.

"Aye. He's gone and hidden himself again," muttered the landlord.

"Oh, leave it dear, leave it," said his wife, tugging on his arm.

The landlord waved a finger at Roger and Danielle with his free limb. "Now don't you go listening to him," he warned. "He talks a lot of nonsense." Abruptly he and his wife whizzed sideways out of view. A second later, half the landlord was back, peeking out at them round another strange disguised door behind the counter. "If ye want any more drinks..." he struggled with the words, "help yerself. There's a pencil and paper by the till." Then he was truly gone.

"Well, how peculiar," said Danielle, eventually.

"Cinderella," said Roger again.

They listened to the fire snap, crackle and pop in its grating, unguarded, hot, but dying down. There was no more pattering on the windows. It seemed that the storm had retired for the night too.

"What a curious place." Danielle took a sip of wine. "But... very nice. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves."

A door creaked open, the toilet door, and the grey-haired gentleman from the barstool cocked his face into the room. "Have they gone?" he asked, in that smooth melodious voice.

"Yes," replied Danielle.

He strode carefully across the room, took up his position at the barstool once again, slugged a draft of whisky and gazed gently at them. "Can ye nae hear the deer barking out there?"

"The what?"

"The deer."

They both listened. Silence.

"Maybe they're busy," said McCullogh.

Roger remembered the landlord's warning and concentrated on drinking his wine, quickly. It had been a long day.

"Are you married?" asked Danielle, getting straight to the point.

"Nae. It does nae fit with my work." And before they could ask about his job he added, "There is but one night ye can get a free drink at midnight in The Earl. This is ma consolation." He raised the tumbler to his lips.

Roger noticed that part of the smoothness of the old man's voice was a slur. He lifted his wine glass and raised his eyebrows at Danielle, signalling that it might be time to drink up. The old man's eyes had unsettled him too. Bright blue and sparkling. Not fitting for his age.

"Are ye nae curious about th' night?" asked the voice.

"Yes," said Danielle. "Yes we are. Why was everybody dressed so... so..."



The old man turned to them on his stool and grinned. "I should nae be telling ye this, but ye've a room here and ye have a right to know. It's the Night of the Rut."

"The Rut?" queried Danielle.


Roger placed his empty glass on the table, loudly.

"What's a rut?" asked Danielle.

"Something wheels get stuck in," said Roger.

"It's th' time deer fall in love wi' one another," said the voice.

Yes, that was it. The country word. Rut. Rutting.

"There's an auld tradition in the village. Goes back a thousand or more years. On th' night the deer fall in love, all the couples in the village reaffirm their weddin' vows."

"Yes, well..." started Roger.

"No," said Danielle, cutting him off; then more softly to McCullogh: "You mean, tonight all the couples..."

"Aye. Exactly." The old man nodded. Excessively.

Danielle leaned back in her chair and laughed. A single, sharp, "Ha!"

Roger glared at her and strummed the table.

"But isn't this area..." started Danielle, "Presbyterian, or Methodist or some other puritan..."

"Lady, this is a good Catholic village," said the old man sternly.

Danielle looked at Roger, then at her wine, and drank a little to show willing. "OK." She turned back to the old man. "So what does the priest think of all this?"

"I am the priest."

"Right," said Roger, rising from the table. Country lore, ancient traditions and religion. If ever there was a combination guaranteed to spoil a good meal, this was it. Just religion on its own could deflate a soufflé. The man was a priest, for Christ's sake. "I think it's time we made a move."

The old man glanced up at the clock. His head wobbled slightly. "Ye've four minutes. Everybody has to be locked together on the stroke of midnight." He'd given up trying to hide the slur now.

"Fine," said Roger, almost glad to be given an exit cue, however weird.

Danielle looked up at him, saw this was the final call, and rose too.


Long chains hung from rafters in the cavernous roof of the corridor, each carrying, pathetically, a tiny lamp no bigger than the frosted shade in the dolls-house office. Dim circles of light spotted the dull red carpet's length, like the opened days from a foil-pack line of pills.

"You just cannae get a straight answer out of these people," said Roger, quietly, in a terrible Scottish accent, as they padded off on their trek down the impossibly long carpet.

"Oh Roger, come on. It may have been a load of crap but it was a wonderful tale."

"He gave me the creeps. As pissed as a priest - no wonder nobody laughs when I use that expression."

"Shhh!" hissed Danielle. She stopped.

Roger stopped after two more steps. He turned back towards her, idly. "No, not more deer."

"Listen," she whispered.

He listened.

It was the sound of a woman. The subdued rhythmic squeak of uncontrolled vocal chords, the primitive moans and grunts of a woman in pleasure.

Roger pointed to the door to his left, Danielle to the opposite side. She moved across. There it was again. "Both," she whispered, gleefully. She tiptoed further down the carpet and stopped by the next door, leaning forward to it in a mock Japanese bow to listen at the keyhole. She gestured for Roger to follow, then hopped away, like a summer rabbit, to a door on the other side. After six doors she stopped and stood, wide-eyed, in the middle of the corridor in a dim pool of light, waiting for Roger to finish the round. "I can't believe it," she gasped. "All of them. All..."

"Rutting," prompted Roger.

He lifted his watch, a Tag Heur, $2000 from New York, and for one of the very few times in his life made use of the fact that it kept absolutely perfect time. "Two minutes to twelve." He lowered it again. He stared into Danielle's big eyes.

"Ruff," he barked, and grasping Danielle very forcefully by the upper arm, he ran her, like a barbarian with its booty, down the last few bright spots of the carpet to their room, Danielle's hair swinging from side to side in its perfect bob, her feet hardly making contact with the floor, and her laughter... her laughter breaking up and out of the silken restraints of adulthood, slipping back to the long corridors between classes, and sounding, to all the deer who might be listening at the knotholes of The Earl of Stirling's ancient wooden door, like the pubescent shrieks and giggles of a happy schoolgirl.

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Copyright Andrew Starling 2000