Liam was awake at 5:15 in the morning. He wasn’t returning from a club. He hadn’t been drinking. He was surprisingly clear headed, having been asleep since about 11:00, which was a rare occasion in his life. On this particular morning he lay in bed with blurry eyes skimming his finger along the screen of his phone tracing the ending words of the hour-long text conversation he’d had with Isabella before falling asleep.
“It’s one of my favorite cities. Have you been?”
“I haven’t. What’s your favorite thing about it?”
“I love Via Monzoni! I always go there, the shops,
the restaurants, and when I feel like being a little
extravagant I stay at the Grand Hotel et de Milan.”
“It sounds like a place I should visit,
especially if you’re going to be there.”
“I’m usually here two or three times a week
amore. Come Liam. I’d love to show you one
of my favorite places.”
“I guess I should thank you. I’ve spent
the whole evening here at the hotel talking
to you instead of drinking at a club and
talking to questionable people.”
“You must like me Liam.”
“You do grow on a guy.”
“Gracias mi amore. But I must say goodnight.
I have a very early flight tomorrow.”
“I want to meet you.”
“You will Liam. I want to meet you too. Buenas
Liam threw the covers off, walked out onto the terrace, and as the sun began to break over the horizon thought to himself how unusual it was that a simple text conversation with a woman on the other side Europe seemed so much more pleasurable than waking up next to a woman from a club after a night of unbridled passion.
Other thoughts began to crowd into Liam’s mind as he shook off the fog of sleep. He thought about the acquisition back home and wondered how it was progressing and if he should call Carl. What did Christie mean about “meeting the kings” today? How serious is the problem that caused him to pass out? Should he head back the states to get the tests done? What’s Isabella doing right now? Is she up yet?
Christie and Stag had planned out the day. They would board a train at the Glasgow Queen Street station for a three hour ride to the resort town of Oban on Scotland’s western coast, yet they had shared few details with Liam beyond that, and that he should plan for an overnight stay. When pressed, Christie had said with his unusual accent that seemed to be part Scottish, part Spanish, “Mr. Francis, life is a journey, not a destination, and the journey reveals itself with every step forward.” He seemed to always say things like this. Liam always just shook his head, not quite understanding, or seeming to care much about understanding.
At 7:45 the train pulled away from the station and began it’s trek along the River Clyde, following her to where she empties into Loch Lomond in the heart of Trossach’s National Park, before turning west toward Ardmucknish Bay. The trio rode quietly for the first hour or so, listening to the clacking of the wheels on the tracks, looking out across the landscape, each of them engaged in their own private, unspoken narrative. Christie was the first to speak.
“Mr. Francis, how have you been feeling since you left the hospital?”
“It took a while to shake off the groggy feeling and the headache. Still have this bump on my head where I hit the floor that hurts. Other than that I guess I’m okay.”
“That must have been a frightening experience. Has anything like that happened to you before?”
“No, I’ve never passed out before that, well, not because of something like that. I’ve blacked out from drinking too much, you know, but no, never from a medical thing. So yeah, it was kind of fucked up.”
“Stop saying ‘fuck.”
“Sorry. Yeah it was a little scary.”
“Anastagio told me the doctor wants you to have some tests done soon. Are you going to go back to the states and do that?”
“I don’t know. On the one hand, if I have something that’s going to kill me, do I really want to know about it? Would it be better just to drop dead sometime without spending months or years knowing it’s probably going to happen? But then I think, if it is something that could kill me and can be corrected, well that’s good because there’s a lot more I’d like to do before I’m dead.”
“I’d like to make a few billion more. Maybe catch up to that Musk guy. I’d like to buy a couple other houses. There’s still a lot of places I want to see. There’s a flight attendant I’d like to get to know. I spent the first part of my life living small. I’d like to spend as many years as I can seeing how big I can live. Seems too early to be dead.”
“Hmm,” Christie said with a single nod before turning back toward the window.
Stag had closed his eyes in a nap. Liam rode along quietly, his mind criss-crossing between the things he had thought about on the terrace before leaving, wondering what Isabella was doing, the conversation he’d just had with Christie about death. He thought about this trip Stag had arranged, how odd it seemed. How different it was from what Liam was accustomed to spending his time doing. The frustration he felt on the plane toward this trip was gone and had been replaced by a curiosity, a willingness to see what this journey was all about.
The clacking of the wheels began to slow, the Oban station came into view, the railcars jolted gently to a full stop, and the passengers began to make their way off the train.
“Alright guys, we’re here. What’s next,” asked Liam?
“We’re not quite there yet, Mr. Francis,” Christie replied, grabbing his bag from the undercarriage of the railcar. “We need to hurry to catch the ferry to Craignure. We’re cutting it close. Let’s grab that cab across the street. It’s about a ten minute drive from here.”
Twenty minutes later the three boarded the ferry at the Oban Ferry Terminal and began the 45 minute crossing to their next stop on the Isle of Mull. It wasn’t until they disembarked that Liam became impatient with the journey after Christie informed him they now had an hour long bus ride to the village of Fionnphort on Mull’s western coast.
“Seriously guys, where the hell are we going? We’ve been at this four hours already and you’re saying we have another hour to go? You haven’t told me anything about why we’re doing this.”
“Mr. Liam, you hired me to plan your adventures yes? Being in the presence of royalty is often worth the strain of the journey, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Royalty. I’m wearing fucking jeans and the closest royalty I know of around here is back in Buckingham Palace,” Liam thought to himself.
“Have a chicken sandwich Mr. Francis,” Christie offered, pulling one from a cooler as they settled onto the bus.
It was almost noon. Liam pulled out his phone thinking he’d pass the time with a text conversation with Isabella if she wasn’t in the air.
“Well done gentlemen,” Liam said showing Stag and Christie the face of the phone with no signal bars before shoving it back into his pocket and sinking down into his seat, almost pouting as one might expect from a child who has asked for the fourth time, ‘Are we there yet?’
Liam closed his eyes and drifted restlessly in and out of a shallow nap before feeling the bus come to a stop and hearing the rustling of passengers shifting out of their seats. Through the window he could see water, a small unimpressive cluster of houses, a few cattle, certainly nothing that would indicate the presence of royalty. “I’ve been played…these assholes,”
“Okay Mr. Francis. We’re almost there. We have one more very short ten-minute ferry ride.”
“I’ve been thinking we were ‘almost there’ for a couple of hours now. Are we really almost there?”
Christie and Stag looked at each other with a subtle laugh as if they were entertained by this testing of his patience. “Yes, Mr. Francis, we’re almost there.”
A few minutes into the final ferry ride Liam looked across the water and saw a small lush, green island with her landscape dominated by a large stone structure that appeared to be an ancient church. They disembarked and slowly made their way along a stone path toward the building that Christie had called “The Abbey.”
Liam sensed something unfamiliar as they walked along the path, his hands relaxed and buried in his jeans pockets. First, he slowed his pace, as if he knew, instinctively, that this was something that shouldn’t be rushed. He felt a presence, a calm, a peace that he never would have been able to put into those words, but it was a sensation that seemed to wrap him in comfort. It was extraordinarily quiet. A gentle breeze rustled his hair. A bird sang in the distance. He could hear the waves of the Atlantic gently lapping at the shore.
Christie gently placed his hand on Liam’s shoulder, turned him slightly, and said “This way Mr. Francis” as they walked toward a section of land to the south of the abbey enclosed by a short stone wall. Once inside Christie asked, “What do you see Mr. Francis?”
“It’s a cemetery.”
“Walk with me,” replied Christie. A few steps into the enclosure Christie pointed to a stone cross. “Rub your hand across the front of this stone.”
“It just feels like stone. No inscription.”
They walked a little further and Christie pointed to another stone with the same invitation. Liam obliged, with a similar response. For the next thirty minutes or so Christie and Liam continued this odd ritual, with Stag walking quietly behind. Liam touched large stone crosses, smaller ones, some stones not shaped like a cross, but more like an obelisk. Some had been broken and misshapen by time and the elements.
Christie stopped. The three stood silent for a few moments. Liam wasn’t quite sure what to make of what had just happened.
“Mr. Francis, do you know what you just did?”
“I walked through a cemetery touching eroded headstones where people are buried.”
“Who were they?”
“How would I know that? There weren’t any names on the stones. No names, or dates, or anything.”
“What do you know about their lives?”
“Nothing, of course.”
“What did they own Mr. Francis? Where did they live?”
“Christie, you’re asking me things there’s no way I could know. How long have they been dead? Hundreds of years?” I don’t even know what this place is. Where are we?
“Mr. Francis, we are on the Island of Iona and I just introduced you to forty-eight ancient Scottish kings. Men who, in their turn, ruled the entire kingdom of Scotland, had great possessions, wealth, power. You just met them. And what did you see?
“Stones with no names.”
“There are many other stones here Mr. Francis, with names and dates, some with flowers on them tended to by people who knew them. None of them were kings. Nobody tends to the graves of the kings. Mr. Francis, we are not remembered for the things we own, or the power we possess, or the women we have who weren’t rightfully joined to us, or even the the bloodline from which we come. We are remembered by those we have loved, and given to, and cared for. Look at these stones Mr. Francis. Who around you here is truly great?”
Liam stared out across the cemetery without giving an answer.
“Death is coming Mr. Francis. For you, for me, for Anastagio. It’s coming. It will be upon all of us, most likely without warning. And when it comes, our possessions will be sold or given to others. It will be too late for us to love. Whatever pleasure we enjoyed here, justly or unjustly, will be forgotten. We will be placed in the ground, under a stone. And we will only be remembered for how we lived and how we loved.”
Stag put his hand on Liam’s shoulder and stood quietly. Liam felt something he’d not felt in a very long time. An inexplicable connection with another human being that seemed to emanate from deep within him.
“Mr. Francis, how old are you,” asked Christie?
“I”m forty-four. I’ll be forty-five next month.”
“You’re just in time Liam,” Christie said looking into his eyes, and for the first time calling him by his first name.
“What do you mean?”
“You are at a crossroads that you don’t yet see. There’s a path ahead of you, and you have one foot on that path and are about to begin walking. And it is a path that will leave you scarred and forever changed. Your heart will be broken. Your soul will be damaged. You will never think or feel or love the same way again. And at the end of that path is a stone, with no name.”
A long silence stood between them.
“Mr. Liam, we’re going to be spending the night here at the abbey. When you’re ready, we’ll show you to your room,” Stag said with his hand still on Liam’s shoulder.”
“You guys go on ahead. I’m going to stay here a few minutes,” Liam replied.
Stag and Christie walked toward the abbey. Liam sat on the ground, leaned against a stone with no name. And for reasons he could not understand, began to weep.