"We left the map behind," said Annie as they were five hours away from Anstruther, pulling into their own driveway. "We need to go back."
"Don't be ridiculous," her husband replied. "No one will ever find it, far less care if they do."
Annie disagreed. She could not forgive herself for this reckless behaviour and insisted they had to turn back immediately.
Ian and Mags Williamson's life was a familiar story of middle-class toil. They worked around the clock to afford the best home in one of Edinburgh's most desirable neighbourhoods and pay the eye-watering school fees at one of the city's top private schools.
This was a treadmill that was ready to throw them off at any point and, by the end of each term, they were burnt out and desperate to escape every part of it. A few precious days in one of the pretty villages across the river in Fife that promised seclusion, fresh air, and respite was just what the doctor ordered.
A lively coastal fishing village in the 'East Neuk' of Fife, Anstruther is just an hour away from Edinburgh and a short drive from St Andrews, the ancient cathedral town, with its faint air of cosmopolitan and academic superiority.
Combined with the neighbouring villages of St Monan's, Pittenween, and Ellie, these apparently sleepy towns attracted tourists and city escapees in astonishing numbers, all year round. Anstruther could not lay claim to a patron saint or the awakenings of Prince William's great royal love story but these villages drew you in like a warm hug on a blistering winter's day.
"Look at this one Ian, it's got a hot tub and a sea view," said Mags as she desperately scoured the AirB n' B site just before midnight.
"That's the one for us," replied her husband, for the tenth consecutive time that evening, just willing the matter to be decided so that he could get on with the business of working to pay for it.
He did pause briefly to imagine being immersed in warm bubbles, with his favourite bottle of Rioja sitting on a table behind him as his children slept soundly inside.
In truth, the reality of family holidays would be entirely different. The kids would fight with each other most of the day and with him or their mother as bedtime approached, protesting that all rules are off on holiday. Ian would inevitably end up going to bed before them all to avoid having some dire RomCom or hideous Marvel film inflicted on him.
"Any chance we could leave the kids at your parents?" His wife looked at him with the 'dream on' face that he'd seen once too often. It was a one-size-fits-all look and it spoke volumes.
"These are our children, Ian; our responsibility and we shouldn't want to dump them on relatives just because we could."
Ian spent his days as a fund manager making stressful decisions on behalf of wealthy clients to make them that little bit richer and all he craved domestically was an easy life. He knew when a battle was not worth fighting.
"Get that booked up right now then my dear. These city kids of ours can pack their wellies and waterproofs and get some salty air in their lungs for a change."
Mags worked 'part-time' as a marketing manager for a large pension provider in the west end of the city. This effectively meant getting paid less than her 'full time' colleagues to work the same hours, often clocked up when her children went to bed. For her, the only true escape was a long run in the woods or parks near where they lived in the North of Edinburgh. She was always on her own, and usually kept going until her lungs hurt from the cold Scottish air penetrating her body from within.
Anstruther would be perfect for this, she thought. I could go for a run along the coast until my lungs hurt. Mags often grappled with the guilt of just how free she felt when she escaped the claws of motherhood and work and had only nature, with all its wonderful self-sufficiency, to observe as her own body moved with the strength she had worked hard to earn over the years. It was only weeks after recovering from the birth of her second child that she forced herself outside with trainers on to shed those unwelcome pounds as soon as possible.
It was a promising start to the holiday as the family left the city limits and set off across the imposing Queensferry Crossing to the 'Kingdom of Fife' and the sun was already breaking through the Autumn haze. Behind them, the whirl of deadlines, commerce, and school achievement disappeared into the city fog. The road ahead was where the brakes must come on. Mags urgently needed to find a route to peace and stillness for her family before it became lost to her like an actor who forgot their lines.
"Has this place got Wi-fi Mum?" Andrew was a typical 8-year-old boy who had recently discovered the world of gaming and his 13-year-old sister Becca was surgically attached to her mobile phone.
"I blame myself Ian," said Mags, as her heart broke at the realisation that her children had not inherited her enthusiasm for the great outdoors. In her mind, she was always catastrophising a scenario when they became obese and reclusive adults resentful of the parents who neglected to convince them of the joys of exercise.
"If we didn't work such long hours, we would have more time to spend with them doing - you know - all those outdoorsy things at the weekend that feeds a love of the natural world. Do you know Marianne's parents still take their children for 3-hour bike rides every Sunday, whatever the weather?"
"I blame you too," said Ian, mischievously, trying to lift the mood. "Do you think that's why they are so pale and unable to converse with other humans?"
Humour was always his response to her constant worrying about parenting fails and, if she was honest, it usually worked a treat and she loved him for it. By the time they pulled up the cobbled road of their holiday home the atmosphere in the car was already lighter.
Mags was unpacking her clothes in the master bedroom, laying each item neatly in to the antique drawers, stealing a moment of mindfulness to herself while her family tore around outside fighting over mobile phone chargers and the horror of having to share a bedroom for two nights. Giggling to herself, Mags imagined telling her 21-year-old self that joy would one day be found in her utility room with Classic FM on the radio, escaping the relentless demands of life and parenthood while creating neat piles of clean clothes for her family. Rock and Roll Mags, Rock and Roll!
As she opened the last drawer and pulled out the spare blankets to make room for her cosy jumpers, what looked like a scribbled note fell softly from the folders of the woollen tartan throw and landed on the rug at her feet. Reaching to discard it automatically, Mags glanced long enough to discover it was not just some worthless pocket litter, left behind by the previous occupants.
It was a map; handwritten and decidedly amateur in appearance. The kind of note someone would make if they were trying to direct you to the best restaurant, lurking in the back streets of a tourist town, tucked safely away from reach by the masses.
There were few words on the paper, certainly nothing as helpful as an actual sentence. It seemed more like a collection of scribblings that had spilled directly from someone's mind on to the nearest scrap of paper, catching them accidentally as they fell. Mags could make out what looked like a delineation between water and land. This was no work of art or ordinance survey but, on closer inspection, she recognised part of the Fife Coastal Path, between the towns of Ellie and St Monans, with Anstruther perched somewhere in the middle.
A little further inland she saw the words 'Scotland's Secret Bunker', indicating the presence of the much-advertised former underground nuclear command centre, with its promise of Cold War mystery and espionage.
Perfect, she thought, a run for the body followed by a history lesson for the mind. That's my afternoon sorted. If I must abandon my family, at least I can make it 'count'.
But there was something else marked on the map, just before the small outpost of land on which the proud and beautiful St Monan's Kirk sits. The lively marking seemed to promise so much but yet explain so little. A misshapen heart, drawn with a thick, almost childlike stroke of bright red felt pen. No words. No further clues as to what it meant but this was enough to stir Mag's curiosity and trump the lure of the Cold War bunker. She reached for her trainers and stuffed the map in her waist belt.
Mags' run started the same as always. Waving goodbye to her husband and children, telling them roughly when to expect her, and promising them some fantastic meal or extra attention when she came back. This was her self-inflicted penance for taking some indulgent 'time out' for herself. The first mile or so was always the hardest as she battled with the cold in her muscles and competing thoughts in her mind. She could never fully escape the guilt that time spent running on her own was time not dedicated to being the best mum, wife, or colleague she could be. Can this really be justified when I have so much else that needs my attention? But, before long, she found her lungs and heart working in tandem and the rhythm of her feet against the pavement began to work its meditative magic.
She was lost in her world of endorphins when she reached the shoreline before St Monans where the faint pencil line in her map turned sharply down towards the sea. The footpath carved its way along the edge of the land, no distance from the rocky wall below. The crashing waves from the rough North Sea tide were battering down on the beach and drew Mags closer to the edge with magnetism. Further down the coast, she could see the sandy part of the beach was becoming wider and curved around a section of high rock faces. Something told her this was where that large red felt tip heart belonged. Before long she found herself down on the gritty sand, dodging seaweed and shiny pebbles as she pounded her calves along the beach. She was very much alone now. No one knew she was there or where she was going next. A childlike map was telling her she was on the cusp of discovery and in that moment her responsibilities were carried out to sea as she was drawn towards an opening in the rock face.
Just one foot in front of the other. No other thoughts for now. There was nothing else to think and nowhere else to be. What seemed from a distance to be a small crack in the dark black rock now revealed itself to be the entrance to a small cave. A little like a hidden door in the study of a magnificent country home: easy to miss but at the same time impossible to resist if it caught your eye. The midday sun hit the entrance at the perfect angle to further draw Mags in with hypnotic effect and illuminate the wonders within. Feeling as if she had arrived at a banquet for the senses, she was motionless. The hurry of life and everything in her head was still at last and all she could do was live this moment.
All around her she saw beautiful, painstakingly detailed images carved into the rocks. She could make out ships and marine life, the spectacularly imposing outline of whales, sharks and other giants of the sea etched with astonishing precision on their proud and endless canvas. And dancing all around these beautiful forms were waves created by thousands of small shells - clams, cockles, whelks, and others - cemented by some otherworldly means to the rock surface. The effect was breathtaking and Mags felt drunk on sensual stimulation.
Could she really be experiencing such beauty all to herself with no-one else to share it with? Instinctively reaching for her phone to capture this wonder for others, it slipped out of her hands and landed on a gathering of seaweed at the foot of the cave. Reaching to retrieve this piece of metal on which her life apparently depended, her eye was drawn to some writing partly obscured by the mass of tangled weeds and undergrowth. Pulling it apart gently, Mags could make out the words in all their beauty:
Welcome to this place. It is yours alone in this moment.
A reward not expected, not deserved, but simply a gift.
Let others find it in their own time, not as you lead them by the hand but as their own thirst to explore takes them here.
A secret only to be found, not told.
The beauty of these words was the perfect tribute to the wonder that they protected and in that instant, she understood completely. In her world of cause and effect where hard work, determination, and following the right path was the only route to reward, here she was faced with a moment that questioned it all.
At once shifting from indulgence to self-sabotage of her own enjoyment, she felt a fraud for being 'led' by a map. But surely the blame lies with those who left it in that drawer to be found? Was that not the real betrayal? Perhaps the previous occupant did not see the message behind the curtain of seaweed in their haste to explore the beauty of the moment?
The very least she could do now, thought Mags, is respect these words and keep this secret close to her own heart forever. She knew there would be others who will walk this way and discover the beauty of this cave but not on her instruction. She allowed herself to venture deeper into the cave, running her hands over every surface and trying to capture the smells and sounds of the sea all around her body.
When her senses were satiated, Mags reluctantly retraced her steps out of the cave and began to take her first steps home. But this time she was not running, she wasn't thinking about her next move or what will be needed from her when she returned. Her mind was too full for now.
For this blissful moment, she simply let those images and words wash through her mind like the soft waves she watched lapping onto the shore.
Perhaps life does not have to be a constant cycle of work and reward, action and reaction, decision and consequence. Perhaps there is a time to wander in nature, unaware of what reward or gifts may come your way. Maybe this is the lesson she must share with her children. Or perhaps, as the immortal words carved in the rockface told her, this should be a secret only to be found, not told.
She continued toward the lights of Anstruther, with the sun setting behind her and the waves ebbing slowly back out to sea.
As she pulled into the cottage drive, she could see Ian ushering someone inside in his typically welcoming manner.
"No problem - feel free to come in and look around," she heard him say.
" I'm afraid my wife has already unpacked our stuff and the boys have made quite a mess but I know what it's like when you leave something important behind."