Somewhere off the west coast of Scotland - Sephy
The waves are bigger now. The small craft that was skimming over the sea with merry abandon is now crashing into walls of water - lurching from one wave to the next. There are five of us on here but I seem to be the only one concerned with the weather and the seawater slopping around the floor of the vessel nudging against my shoes.
I don’t know how I can be the only one concerned? Sometimes I look at these people and wonder if I really know them. I’m not even sure we would ever have been friends had life not welded us together. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. The years have tested our group - and it has felt like a marriage at times - something I’ve really had to work at. I suppose that’s why I’m here, why I still come to these annual rites of passage - proof that there are some relationships that this divorcee can still salvage.
We smack into more water and the resulting jolt runs through the group. Kaz is up the front of the boat and I can’t tell if she’s more wet from the spray or the rain. Her yellow cagoule is like a beacon against all the grey and she’s moving her phone around like she’s live-streaming, but she can’t be, not out here. We’re god knows where off the West coast of Scotland. This boat launched from the Isle of Skye but now we’re out in the open ocean any views obscured by the thick mist. It’s a shame because I think I’d find a horizon steadying at this point, a nice fixed line to focus on. I glance back at our host who’s steering the boat. He seems unconcerned about the waves, humming a lilting tune as he turns the rudder this way and that. He met us on Skye and introduced himself as Douglas. He was friendly and as I shook his warm hand and glanced into his deep blue eyes I felt a connection instantaneously. I appraise him a bit too long this time and he meets my glance with a cheeky wink. I turn back to the front of the boat and hope my blushes will disappear before we disembark. My skin has a nasty habit of flushing with my emotions - and not in an attractive way.
I stare ahead and watch Ritchie and Emily, their heads bent together in the centre of the boat. They seem oblivious to everything but each other. Ritchie brought along a cryptic crossword book and they’re both attacking it with zeal. Since meeting at school Ritchie, Emily, Kaz and I have been pitting our wits against each other every year. At first it was quizzes but once the escape room trend caught on there was no going back for us. I swear it’s addictive. The fact that it’s something we all enjoy too well…it’s a nice way to bond without necessarily needing alcohol to lubricate social interactions every single time. We’ve been all over Europe doing it in the last decade. There’s no escape room we wouldn’t attempt - London, Manchester, Birmingham, we even went to Amsterdam one year. Year after year, through university, job changes, divorces and children. The awkward chaos of our 20’s melding into the resigned tolerance of our 30s. God knows what next decade will be like. I read something that there’s a marked dip in happiness around 40/50, they did a study on it. They considered various different factors - jobs, children, partners etc. - But there was nothing conclusive and what’s more the patterns were even found in animals. I look at the waves and comfort myself with the thought that whatever shitshow 40 has for me it’ll be the same experience as an orangutang, plus at least I’m not in a cage.
This year’s escape room is special. Exclusive. We are the first people EVER to test this escape room. A personalised experience. A castle full of secrets. A set of rooms full of puzzles.
Douglas is our host. Enthusiastic and eager to please. I lean back and shout at him over the waves.
‘Have you got any tips?’
He cups an ear and mimes not hearing me. I repeat, ‘Have you got any tips - for the rooms - tips?’
‘Lips?’ His eyes drop to my face and the note of surprise in his voice is welcome rather than awkward.
The wind drops suddenly and it’s like we can finally hear.
‘No, have you got any-’
‘Tips. Ahhh. No, you’ll have to wait and see. I wouldn’t want to spoil the fun.’ He nods his head towards the front of the boat. ‘Here’s she is,’ I turn confused but the mist has parted and I realise he means the island looming large in front of us. ‘A finer beauty you’ve never seen - or if you have don’t mention it in front of her - she gets very sensitive.’
He smiles at his own joke now and I can’t help but join in.
The island is breathtaking. Sheer cliffs, dark and brooding jut out from the churning sea. The waves crash against it like they are trying to play a game with themselves. The Island remains the sensible older sibling, resolutely not engaging. The hills on the clifftops are undulating and the green looks so uniform it could have been rolled out like icing. The lonely caw of seabirds echo against the stone as they wheel above and sit in the cliff. The staccato dots of white bird against dark cliff conjuring thoughts of morse code or some sort of pigeonhole.
The island is small - the part we can see anyway - and the view is stolen by the castle which dominates the space. Douglas is still talking but I’m not really listening. It is beautiful. Kaz is leaning over the boat trying to get the best angle for a picture. Even Ritchie and Emily have stopped talking and are taking in the view. The castle squats over the island like a spider a solid square of turrets and battlements.
No-one’s answered Douglas but he continues anyway warming to his theme, ‘…the wind out here is savage which is why I think it was built wider rather than taller. The island’s no more than a speck really but historians reckon there has been some sort of settlement here since the 1600’s.’
Kaz turns round and shouts to Douglas, ‘Who used to live here?’
Douglas steers us into an inlet and I’m relieved to feel the swell of the water ease slightly beneath us. He pulls up alongside a new-looking jetty, ‘there have been all-sorts here - peasants, warriors, monks-.’
Kaz grabs his outstretched hand and pulls herself up and onto the dock. ‘And now us…’ She strides off the dock and jumps onto the grass thrusting an umbrella into the earth as if it’s a flag, ‘I claim this island for the famous four.’
Emily rolls her eyes, ‘It was the famous five.’
Ritchie laughs at her, ‘Technically you’re the only famous one here Caroline.’
Douglas has his hand out to help Emily but his focus is all on Kaz, ‘You’re famous?’
Emily grabs his hand and hauls herself and her bag out before turning to Douglas. ‘I’m surprised you don’t recognise her. Caroline Chalmers?’
Meanwhile Kaz does a mock bow. ‘You honour me friends.’
Douglas looks blank and Ritchie claps him on the shoulder, ‘She’s a bestselling author mate.’
Douglas shakes his head, ‘Not much of a reader I’m afraid.’
‘Well, you should be afraid.’ Emily is rifling in her bag. ‘You’re missing out. Here.’ She retrieves a hardback book from her holdall and thrusts it into his hands. The cover is red with tiny drawings of pencils spelling out the title.
I recognise it as Kaz’s latest novel, ‘Wisdom of the Young.’ She usually gives us copies when we see her so although I’d perused the blurb in the airport I hadn’t yet bought my own copy. I was pleased to see Emily was obviously so enthused to foist it on others.
END OF EXCERPT