Sometimes when you least expect it, you meet someone who leaves an indelible mark on you -- at someplace you least expect that to happen.
Sometimes this someplace happens to be the edge of Scotland, and that someone an 82-year-old artist who drives a car crammed with a hundred oil paintings and a Chihuahua named Puppy in her front passenger seat.
I went to John O'Groats knowing pretty much what I would find: a sleepy village touted as the northernmost tip of Britain (which it actually isn't), windswept and rain-washed (which it actually is), with one hotel, a few B&Bs, fishing nets and lobster traps on its colourful ferry pier, and not many souls in sight for most of the day. I had read up on it, looked up photographs, and I went mainly so that I could claim a visit to the place and perhaps work it into a piece that I was writing on Scotland. You could say I went tired and impatient -- for it is a 439km drive from Edinburgh and I had other places where I needed to be -- and perhaps a little world-weary after an impossibly long week of mundanity, planning to spend but a few hours, certainly expecting nothing sparkling or stimulating or worth introspection.
"She was like a pleasant runaway train, happy to coast through a landscape of personal memories and anecdotes at the slightest of encouragement."
Then I got speaking to Mary.
I saw her when I came out after exhausting the possibilities of the main gift shop. She had driven up in a white hatchback while I was inside and was bustling around unpacking several shopping baskets spread around the car all at once. It was a gloriously clear morning under a pale blue sky with fluffy white clouds next to a shimmering, cobalt sea. The ferry to Orkney had departed, taking with it an assortment of European tourists who had arrived by coach the evening before. On a whim, I had decided to catch the afternoon boat around the coast. I had more than four hours to kill. Apart from the couple who ran 'The Cabin@John O'Groats', the small food stall on the pier with the intriguing signage 'EAT HERE OR WE WILL BOTH STARVE', Mary was the only soul around.
"Hello, dear!" Mary said, greeting me with easy familiarity when I walked up. "Come to see the exhibition, have you?"
Propped up against the back wheel of her car was a board that said 'FREE EXHIBITION OIL PAINTINGS'. There were canvases stacked all around, mostly landscapes, mostly of the coast and the sea. Three rested on the windshield. The rest lay on the ground, in untidy groupings. Mary had darted over to the boot and was unloading more. I picked out a painting that I liked, an Enid Blyton-ish lighthouse rising from a craggy clifftop over a wild sea, and walked over, curious to know more about the artist and her art.
"Ooooh, you like that one, do you?" Mary said. "That one's is just up the road, that is!" The interested look on my face was all that Mary needed to go on.
"Are you walking or driving?" I confessed I had a car. "Well, then when you go back up to the hotel, just up here, just after you pass it, turn left and then you keep going. Two miles, you will get to the lighthouse, and you can park there."
We fell into a comfortable conversation. We had to shout a bit to make ourselves heard over the wind, which burst around us with gusto, but there was no stopping Mary once she got started. She was like a pleasant runaway train, happy to coast through a landscape of personal memories and anecdotes at the slightest of encouragement. I learnt her name was Mary Edmundson. She was originally from England, from Lancashire, and had been in John O'Groats for the last eight years. John O'Groats was her third home in Scotland and she was a retired musician, who still played organ at the Church of Scotland "just up the road" on Sundays.
"I don't go out working now," Mary said. "I just paint and look after me horses." Horses? Oh yes, Mary had horses. Seven of them, in fact. "And you ride them still?" I asked.
"Her life was packed with stuff that many people -- certainly I -- would find trying. At 82, I suspected it must be outright exhausting."
"I used to, but I don't now... because when you fall off, you don't bounce anymore," Mary said, laughing. "I just drive them, in a carriage. Three of them are Shetlands, you know the tiny ones. Then there are two medium ones and two... well, they are not big, but they are strong and..."
Off went Mary again. And as I listened to her rattle on about the horses, the two dogs and three cats that kept her company, the little studio at home she painted in because it was "difficult to get an easel up in this wind", the several paintings she had "going all at once", and how she began her day at six every morning and "kept going" to get through the many, various, multitude of small and big chores that living with a stable of pets on 13 acres of land had strewn across her solo existence, I couldn't but marvel at the gusto with which she said and did things. Her life was packed with stuff that many people -- certainly I -- would find trying. At 82, I suspected it must be outright exhausting. But Mary seemed to tackle what came her way with an enthusiasm that was quite astounding. Even as we talked, she darted around the car, straightening a painting here, placing another there, and it suddenly struck me that it was precisely this -- her full-on approach, the energy she poured into what she did however routine or uninspiring it was--that was missing from many of our lives.
We whinged about the unfairness of our bosses, the government, the world. We moaned about our pay, the mundanity of our jobs. We procrastinated. We complained to anyone who would listen how we couldn't wait for the weekend, then we spent the weekend worrying about the things we had procrastinated over.
In all that, we forgot to take pride, find pleasure, in the things we did do. And waiting for big things to come our way, we forgot to invest time into the little things we could do.
Listening to Mary, I didn't get the impression that was how she went about her life. There was nothing half-hearted about her. What had to be done got done, without hesitation, with enthusiasm. It was all marvellous and very inspiring.
I asked Mary about her health.
"I always had rheumatoid arthritis and now I got osteoporosis as well," Mary said. "But I keep going."
"Does it trouble you when you paint?"
"Well, last week I had a little accident. I fell off the carriage -- I hurt my back, you see. I am all right driving and playing the organ, but when I come to paint -- oooh, it just comes in a bit, you know. So I have been doing less these last two days, but it is a lot better than it was. I am all right now."
The pier was beginning to liven up. A woman and two children were walking towards us, no doubt to look at the paintings. Not wanting to hold Mary off from a potential sale, I paid up and headed for the car. The parking lot, which was near-empty when I arrived, was showing some activity. I deposited the paintings in the car and went for a walk.
"There was nothing half-hearted about her. What had to be done got done, without hesitation, with enthusiasm. It was all marvellous and very inspiring."
In 2010, John O'Groats had been voted the most dismal place in Scotland. It has been trying to get over that dishonour ever since, with all sorts of renovations. I walked up to the 'The Inn at John O'Groats' -- the new incarnation of a former hotel that has stood on the site since 1857 -- which has had a £2 million makeover. It looked very fetching from the outside, though I couldn't see any visitors there. At the 'End to End' point nearby, which overlooked the pier, there were a few tourists milling around. This was the ultimate landmark, the purported northern end of UK, with a signage depicting the distance to, among others, Land's End in Cornwall, the southernmost tip of UK (874 miles or 1406km), and New York (3,230 miles or 5198km). The pier looked postcard-perfect from up here. I could see a few people looking through Mary's exhibition.
By the time I finished my walk, stopping for a quick lunch and a visit to the tourist office to buy a ticket for the ferry from a bored and sullen attendant, Mary's customers had left. She was sitting sideways in the front seat, with Puppy on her lap. Seeing me, she smiled.
"Hello, love," she said. "You are back!"
I told her I was waiting for the ferry, and before I knew it, Mary was telling me about the sights around the coast. I tried to steer the conversation towards her. Mary was only happy when I told her I wanted to write about her, and readily posed for a photograph. I bought another painting, then seeing a group of tourists approach, I retreated to The Cabin@John O'Groats to while away the time till the ferry arrived.
It was perhaps an hour later that Mary came over to where I sat, to get a "cuppa". The ferry was to dock in a few minutes and a small queue was beginning to form on the pier. Mary looked tired. There had been a steady flow of visitors to her exhibition since I left, and whenever I looked up, I had seen Mary in an animated conversation with one potential patron or other. I was curious to see how her paintings had done.
"Today I am doing all right," Mary said. "Not a bad day at all!"
"Did you sell a lot?"
"Yes, doing very well today. Sold four or five. Small ones, though."
Of those, I had bought three myself. It looked like Mary hadn't had much luck with the others who stopped by. I said, "And today is a good day?"
"Oh, yes," Mary said. "Sometimes I don't sell any, you see."
Perhaps it was the look on my face that prompted Mary to explain. "Well, they are nice for people to look at, but difficult to carry if you are flying. It's the weight, you see. That's why I do the ones without frames, but sometimes people don't buy."
I imagined standing around in the wind for a whole day, then going home with not one painting sold. Or going home happy, having sold five paintings for a grand total of less than £30, and willing to do it again the next day, the next week, or whenever the weather permitted it. Perhaps Mary didn't do it for the money, but if I were Mary, I still didn't think I would have it in me to keep going, and it occurred to me the painter I had befriended that morning was indeed remarkable.
There were many questions I wanted to ask Mary, but the ferry was by now taking in passengers. I gathered up my backpack, bid Mary a hurried goodbye, and ran to the boat, knowing she would be gone before I got back.
The sun was failing when I returned. It had been a long day. But I didn't feel tired at all.
Chindu Sreedharan teaches journalism at Bournemouth University, England. He is the author of Epic Retold.
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