The day was grey and windy and drops of fog clung to the soft, dark curls surrounding the little girl’s face. She was holding a bouquet of golden daffodils in one clammy hand, while the other clung to the hand of her mother. Her mother’s hand was dry and cracked from washing dishes and cleaning house. The little girl bent down and laid the flowers at the base of a black marble tombstone set deep in the damp grass. Across the face of the stone were carved images that set the little girl’s imagination to work. On the left side of the stone was carved a forest of pines, while on the right was a magnificent castle perched upon a cliff. Between the images was the inscription:
Merk Malcolm 1914 – 1986
Doris Malcolm 1920 – 1990
Mr. Merwin Eldred Schlarbaum hated his Christian name. His father’s best friend protested the name and insisted the baby boy be nicknamed Merky. World War I was nearing its end by the time Merky was four years old, and his father chose to change the family name which tied them to the then-despised Germans. He shed the name of Schlarbaum, whose sound when spoken with a Canadian accent did not reflect its meaning “Tree of Paradise,” and instead adopted his mother’s maiden name, Malcolm.
By 1939 Merky, then known as Merk Malcolm, set out from his home in Campbellford, Canada and traveled with a friend to Europe. Upon reaching Scotland, the Second World War broke out and Merk was stranded for the time being. While using his engineering training as the manager for wartime projects, Merk chose to live in Wick, Caithness on the north-eastern tip of Scotland.
Wick was a tiny fishing town with its harbor open to the cold, blue waters of the North Sea. Thousands of fishing boats came in daily, bearing pounds upon pounds of fresh herring. The docks were steeped in the tangy scent of fish and the sky was blocked out by the swooping wings of gulls.
Mr. Malcolm, upon arriving, took to exploring the town, all four corners of which could be reached within an hour from any point. He stopped in front of a classy hotel and glanced up at the swinging metal sign. The letters, spelling “Station Hotel” stood out clear and gold on a crimson background. He stepped over the threshold and noticed he barely had to lift his foot, the wooden step was so worn by passing feet. Above the light-filled entrance was a glass portico with great metal arches. A chipper old man standing behind the counter greeted Mr. Malcolm with a Scottish accent thicker than pea soup. After paying at the counter Mr. Malcolm was shown to his room. The furniture had a refined but well-used look to its deep mahogany wood. He walked across the room to set his suitcase down by the roll-top desk. The brass plate on the desk said “Mackenzie’s Furnishings” in a curling script.
That night, as Mr. Malcolm lay between the flannel sheets, he realized he could not afford to stay in a hotel for an indefinite amount of time while the war raged on in Europe. The next morning he got up early and walked to the old stone church at the upper end of Wick. It stood overlooking the bridge which spanned the mossy green river that traveled out of the mouth of the harbor. Looking up, Mr. Malcolm saw the river wind its way up through thick, pink and green grasslands dotted with white sheep.
Mr. Malcolm walked into the holy stillness of the church. He had come here to find someone with whom he could stay, because he believed the most trustworthy people could be found through the church. Reverend Sinclair, also called the Reverend R. R., was standing at the back of the church with a handwritten sermon in his hand. Reverend Sinclair was known for his lengthy speeches, one of which was interrupted well before the end by a little girl yelling “Amen, Reverend Sinclair! Amen!” The slight breeze from the open church door ruffled the Reverend’s greying, patchy hair. He looked up when he heard firm footfalls on the cold stone aisle.
“My name is Merk Malcolm,” the young man said with his over-pronounced Canadian vowels. “I was wondering if you could possibly help me find a family to stay with in Wick. I’m working now as a project manager for the war effort.”
“Ach, I see,” the Reverend said, “Well, the Mackenzies are taking in officers at the moment.”
Mr. Malcolm smiled gratefully and nodded. Mackenzie, he thought. The name sounded familiar.
The following morning Mr. Malcolm could be seen trudging up the hill from the bridge carrying his one suitcase. The “Scottish mist” that had begun half an hour before had filled the collar of his coat with water and plastered his dark hair to his head. At the top of the hill the streets leveled out and he turned right onto Thurso Street. Glancing at the damp slip of paper in his hand, Mr. Malcolm double-checked that the address was number six. The house was called Wyvelsfield. 6 Thurso Street. Walking on the right side of the street under a row of beech trees he looked left until he saw the brass address glinting through the rain: 6 Thurso Street.
Mrs. Mackenzie, affectionately called Mrs. Mack, was just finishing her early morning porridge. She sat erect in her chair at the foot of the table with her red hair pulled back in a tight bun and her pale lips pursed. Her lack of working taste buds concealed from her the fact there was more salt in her porridge than porridge. A normal mouth would be turned inside-out from the taste, and children were known to bring their spoons near their mouths and then drop the porridge into a well-concealed napkin. But to Mrs. Mack the porridge tasted fine.
In an old Scottish saying, an Englishman was berating a Scot for eating oats, which the English found only fit to feed to their horses. The Scotsman replied airily, “That’s why the English are known for their horses, while the Scots are known for their men.”
Mrs. Mack was just finishing her tasteful porridge when a tall, dark-haired, handsome man walked in through her front gates. Oh, she thought to herself, it must be one of those young officers to live with us. He looks well enough, though I fear this may bring trouble. And she rose from her chair with a sigh.
At the heavy knock, Mrs. Mack opened the front door. She greeted her guest with warmth and made her introductions.
“Oh,” she said, “And I have a daughter who’s in the giggly stage.”
Mortified, the eavesdropping, nineteen-year-old Doris Mackenzie was determined to prove her mother wrong. Miss Mackenzie was not the type of girl who cared much for what people thought of her. She was rather mischievous and had been known to steal fishermen’s dinghies and to set dozens of barrels of fish rolling along the docks.
Composing herself at the top of the grand spiral staircase, Doris pinched her cheeks and straightened the fashionable dress which showed off her petite waist. She laid her hand on the polished wood banister, her hand sweating slightly. Setting her foot on the first green carpeted step, Doris began gliding down the staircase. She glanced once at the handsome stranger at the foot of the stairs and nearly blushed. His eyes were following her every movement. However, she kept her head held high and her eyes straight ahead.
Suddenly, three steps from the bottom the toe of Doris’ little black shoe caught on the carpet. Both of her feet flew out from under her and all of her five-foot-two frame went tumbling down the remaining stairs. She landed in a disgruntled heap at the stranger’s feet. With apparent perfect dignity Doris held up her hand from where she was crumpled on the floor and, with her nose in the air, said, “I’m Miss Mackenzie.”
Cupid’s bow twanged.
Standing by the tombstone on the cold, grey day I knew the story of how my grandparents had met. For years I made up fantastic stories about my grandmother who had once lived in a great castle up in Scotland. The spiral staircase to me was larger than Jacob’s Ladder, and I pictured my beautiful grandmother tumbling not down just the last three steps, but from the top of the stairs all the way to the bottom in flying somersaults. As I grew up I realized that while the fairy tales I had imagined for my family might not be quite factually true, I did come to recognize that the true love at the end of fairy tales did exist and endure between my grandparents.