It’s rare, in fact, that I base a character on an actual person. Usually, characters are amalgams of people I’ve met, and particular personality traits that are needed to move a story in a certain direction. I created the character of the young Rab Ballantyne out of various observations of musicians I’ve met through the years. He’s handsome, charming, light-hearted and looking for fun. He’s sensitive and feels things deeply, but he’s also a bit weak when it comes to commitment. Rab isn’t bad but is disastrously not the most courageous of men. He’s a good time guy.
By the time I went to Scotland in April of 2015, I had already written the story of young Rab. I had always known that Sarah would meet her father when she went to Scotland, but I wasn’t entirely sure how the weight of losing/giving up Molly and their child had sat on Rab through the years. I didn’t know where he would be in his life, or what he would have done with himself in the intervening time. Until I met him, strangely in the very place where he should have been.
My husband, Eric and I, were sitting at a table by the fire in the Caberfeidh in Lochinver enjoying our pints after a long afternoon driving in from Inverness, when a man in his fifties with thinning gray hair grown over his collar hobbled in. He wore an old kilt that was frayed at the bottom and a moth-eaten Aran sweater. He had a cane in one hand and a guitar case in another. It was still early, and he was the first person I’d seen with an instrument, so I got a little excited. We had heard that we might catch some local musicians that night at the pub. The man propped his guitar against the wall next to the door and made his way to the small bar.
Eric and I continued our conversation about our plans for the next day. I caught sight of the man again as he made his way to the couch by the front window one hand on his cane and the other carrying a pint of stout and shot of whisky. I thought that was pretty dexterous for a man using a cane to walk. A few minutes later Eric excused himself to go to the restroom. I was deep in thought and watching the coal fire burning in the grate when a slurred voice to my right said. “Do I detect and America accent?”
I looked up to find the man, who we’ll call Rab, giving me a whisky soaked smile, his head tilted a bit as if he were listening closely. “Yes. Good ear.”
“I’ve been to America. Went to New York when I was a musician.” He lifted his chin, clearly proud of that. “You don’t sound like you’re from New York.”
“No, I’m from near Washington, DC.”
“Are you here for the hill walking?” He asked before taking another sip of his stout.
“Actually, I’m a writer. I’m researching a book.”
That piqued his interest. He scooted forward in his seat to hear better. When I tell non-writers that I’m a writer, their reactions usually fall into one of three categories; polite disinterest, polite interest, or wanting to tell you their own story. Rab fell into the last category. He planned to someday write down his memoir. He told me about his career as a musician.
Eric returned from the rest room and sat down a little perplexed at my new friend. Rab came to stand beside our table leaning on his cane to continue our conversation. After tiring of his music career , he spent twenty years in the Royal Air Force as an airplane mechanic. But the story he seemed the keenest to tell, was one about the girl he lost. In his teens Rab had fallen in love with a local girl, but had been young and full of rock star ambitions. It was the late sixties and he had taken off for the south and Europe to work as a musician. By the time he had come back to Lochinver, the girl he had loved had married someone else and moved to Canada. He had always felt the loss of her, even though he’d had relationships with other women. After retiring from the RAF, he had gone to Canada and found her. She was a widow by then, but he couldn’t convince her to return to Scotland with him. Although, they’d kept in touch and he still had hope.
I could tell, Eric was done talking with this man, but I couldn’t stop listening. The thing is, I collect people’s stories like other people collect Hummel figurines or vinyl records. This guy’s story was a juicy one and clearly one that had reverberated through his life for a long time. Eventually, he hobbled away to the bar for a refill, and the dinner that we had ordered arrived. We went on with our dinner and waited for music, but the long day caught up with us and we decided to call it a night.
A couple of days later we were on the train from Inverness to Edinburgh, when I over heard a backpacker from Croatia across the aisle from us telling his seatmates about the mad drunk man from Lochinver who had let him use his bus pass to accompany him to Ullapool two days before. Midway through his story, he did a spot-on impression of the man I had talked to at the Caberfeidh complete with head tilt and slurred words. I leaned over the aisle and asked, “Was his name Rab Ballantyne?”
The Croatian looked at me in astonishment. “Yes. It was. How did you know?”
“I met him in the pub in Lochinver earlier that same night.” We shared a laugh and I told him that his impression was very good. It seemed I wasn’t the only one that Rab made an impression on.
He left such an impression that, when it came time for Sarah to meet her father, I couldn’t think of anyone but him.