WRITTEN BY BETH MCKAY
She’d come to the Burns Night as a favour to her grandad… but where was he?
The drive to the manor house was lined with a stately avenue of trees. Their bare, winter branches were entwined with lights, sparkling like stars in the darkness. The taxi swept round the final corner to reveal the tall chimneys of Kenton House. Its elegant sash windows glowed in welcome.
“It’s beautiful!” Helen sighed as she helped her grandfather out of the car.
“I told you it would be worth coming,” Phil declared, a note of triumph evident in his voice.
It had taken a lot of persuasion. Jan, his daughter, usually accompanied him to the Burns Night celebrations, but she had an interview for a job the next day. Luckily his student granddaughter, Helen, was home for a visit, and had agreed to come in her mother’s place.
Helen was fond of her grandad and knew that he was very proud of his Scottish roots. Phil’s family had emigrated from Stonehaven to New Zealand when he was just a boy. He had enjoyed a wonderful childhood in Wellington on the North Island, where they had continued to celebrate Burns Night faithfully each year, drinking a whisky toast to their distant homeland.
Phil had returned to the UK as a medical student and worked as a family doctor until his retirement. The Scottish border was closer now, but Phil was less able to travel as he grew frailer.
However, it had not deterred him from continuing the family tradition.
He had founded a Robert Burns Society with a group of local friends, and had chosen this magnificent venue for their January festivities.
Helen was not sure what to expect. Most of her grandad’s friends were in their eighties so she was prepared for a sedentary affair. It came as quite a surprise to see a crowd of people of all ages, emerging from cars to join the party throng in the grand entrance hall.
She could not help noticing a small group of children in pyjamas, peering down from the gallery above their heads. It reminded Helen of the ball scene in The Sound of Music, the film they always watched at Christmas. Perhaps the family who owned the manor house still lived in it, she mused.
“Long time, no see!” a friendly voice called out. Helen looked up to see two of her favourite cousins weaving their way towards her. Both brandished glasses of mulled wine. Perhaps the evening was going to be a more entertaining affair after all? Helen accepted a drink with a grateful smile and let them sweep her off to join a lively circle of fellow students.
She could see her grandad chatting happily with his old friends at the bar. He was clearly in good hands.
When the gong rang for supper, Helen made her way to the oak-panelled dining room and found her place set next to Phil’s, at the top of the table. There was no sign of her grandad, though.
She glanced around anxiously as a fleet of waiters whisked out the smoked salmon starters. A formal grace was said, and the room began to echo with noisy voices and the clatter of cutlery.
Helen was starting to feel distinctly worried. She had promised her mum that she would look after Phil.
Suddenly, all clamour ceased as the haunting notes of a bagpipe filled the air. In marched her grandad wearing his full Highland regalia, cheeks rosy from the effort it took to play the pipes. Two of his friends followed, carrying the haggis on a silver platter.
Helen laughed with relief. She might have guessed that her grandad would still be demanding the lead role in the celebrations, whatever his age!
Phil was beaming with pleasure and visibly enjoying all the accolades by the time he reached her.
“A toast to Rabbie!” he declared, raising a glass to his astonished granddaughter. Helen pulled out a chair for him as the audience clinked champagne flutes beneath the chandeliers.
“Trust you, Grandad!” she exclaimed, as they both tucked into plates piled high with haggis, neeps and tatties. “Why didn’t you tell me you would be playing the pipes? I didn’t spot them in the car.”
“Ah ha” Phil replied, tapping the side of his noise mysteriously.
I arranged for my belongings to be brought over earlier. I thought you might like the surprise!
“I’m proud of you, Grandad.” Helen squeezed his hand and topped up their glasses. “I’m half Scottish too, you know?” she teased.
“Our roots matter,” Phil declared solemnly, putting his arm around her. “Thanks for accompanying me!”
Helen nodded in assent.
The wine and whisky flowed with the toasts and the poetry as they celebrated the 265th birthday of Robert Burns. It was a fine way to find a sense of belonging and banish the winter blues, Helen decided. She crossed arms with her grandad and they raised their voices in the mellow tones of Auld Lang Syne.