He doesn’t know what possessed him to visit the old Lockhart Hotel that day, but it was an experience John Hardie is never likely to forget.
“The most scared I’ve ever been,” says Scotland’s open-side flanker.
The setting is a building in Queenstown on New Zealand’s south island – a holiday resort about an hour and a half from Dipton, the farming country where Hardie was born and reared.
Legend has it that there was a fire in Lockhart’s place in the late 1800s. Three generations of the family perished.
Only a girl called Mary survived – and she haunts the place to this day. Many Kiwis have gone there over the years and many talk of the sense of foreboding that exists behind that main door.
Hardie’s now one of them. Chilled to the bone, he says. “Never going back. Never ever.”
The fact that Lockhart’s gaff is part of a theme park called Fear Factory – New Zealand’s equivalent of the Edinburgh Dungeons – is neither here nor there to Hardie.
When you ask him what’s the most tense he has ever been in his life, you don’t hear tales of his early years playing for the Southland Stags in Invercargill, or the time he came face-to-face with some assassin in Super Rugby.
He mentions the Fear Factory instead. “I went with my girlfriend about a year ago,” he said. “It’s pitch dark and you have to follow this red light around these alleyways.
“You don’t know where you’re going then these creatures start jumping out at you. Terrifying. Once was enough.
“I don’t normally go in for that kind of stuff, but I did a bungee jump once and I’m not doing that again either. Give me a hard game of rugby instead.”
‘Coming to Scotland like going back to school’
Afraid of the dark? It doesn’t tally with Hardie’s tough persona.
Hardie, 27, is a strange animal – a Scotland international who has never played an international in Scotland, his five caps being won in Turin, Paris, Gloucester, Newcastle and at Twickenham in that epic World Cup quarter-final against Australia.
A measure of his success since his sudden elevation to the Scotland squad in the summer has been the silencing of the debate surrounding his arrival. One minute, he was a Highlander who wanted to be an All Black and the next a Scot – with a granny from Fife – in the World Cup team.
His ascent jarred, but the quality of his game has overtaken everything. He was terrific at the World Cup, his dynamism and cleverness at the breakdown helping to protect and unleash the rapiers in his backline.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” he says of his move from what he calls the “comfort zone” of Highlanders rugby. “Having won a cap, I owed it to Scotland to stay here and playing for Edinburgh has been a really good decision.
“I got into too much of a routine in New Zealand and it was good to get out of it. I needed something different in my career – a change in scenery, new players, new coaches.
“I love the Highlanders, but it was time to try something else. But it was nerve-racking coming here. It was like going back to school again. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.”
He talks about that day against the Wallabies, but only briefly. “We had to suck it up.” That’s it?” No torment, no ghosts?
“Nah. We have to learn the lessons, that’s all. Nothing else we can do.”
Nobody should mistake the emotionless matter-of-fact response to a heartbreaking loss as indifference. It’s just the Kiwi in him. What’s done is done. You move forwards, you don’t look backwards.
‘There are no mental blocks’
What about Scotland’s habit of losing big games at the death, though? There was that Australia match and the Italy game in the Six Nations just before. There was the France game in the 2014 Six Nations, lost to a penalty two minutes from the end despite France losing eight line-outs and losing the possession and territory battle by a wide margin.
Scottish sides, routinely, come up with novel ways of shooting themselves in the foot.
Most recently, Glasgow Warriors lost a Champions Cup match to Northampton in the closing minutes, a defeat that put paid to their European hopes, and Hardie’s Edinburgh team collapsed close to the finishing line against Grenoble last weekend, a late capitulation which led to them exiting the European Champions Cup.
You keep hitting him with this stuff and it doesn’t put a dent on him. Zero points scored in the second half against France in the 2015 Six Nations. Another zero in the second half against England and yet another zero against Ireland.
Only three points scored in the second half against Italy despite having 61% possession and spending 62% of the second period in the opposition half.
He says he doesn’t know much about what happened before he arrived on these shores. “As a kid, I used to watch the Six Nations, but not live,” he said.
“I’d watch it in the morning. I’ve always known that it was a fantastic thing. But that stuff about what happened in previous seasons doesn’t bother me.
“I mean, we were points down against Samoa in the World Cup and we won it late on and that was as big a game as any.
“I don’t think there’s a mental barrier. I’m new to it all, but I can’t sense anything like that.
“I don’t see any fear, there’s no blockage. We scored lots of tries at the World Cup. Lots of line-breaks. I think there’s a lot of improvement.”
‘Games like England are why you play rugby’
His knowledge of the Calcutta Cup is from across the other side of the world. He’s never played in it, watched it in the flesh, or even watched it live on television. There’s a hurricane coming his way on 6 February and he knows it.
“The boys have told me about it, but I know that Scotland v England is massive, it’s one of the great fixtures,” he said. “I’m not a great watcher of other teams, but there’s a lot of change going on with England. New coach, lots of new players, lots of excitement. They’ve got a fresh start and they’ll be fizzing.
“This is why you play rugby, for the pressure, for games like this, for tournaments like the Six Nations.
“Everything is in our own hands. Whatever happened before, happened. I see a hungry bunch of boys with all the talent you need to do well and a set of coaches who are working night and day to try to make it happen.”
In the midst of all this, there is the unflappable son of Dipton. “It’s about the length of the three rugby pitches. There’s about 30 houses, a dairy, a wool shop and a garage. Population of a couple of hundred.”
And, on 6 February, he says, they will all become honorary Scots. As long as nobody switches the lights out, their boy, you’d wager, will have a big say in what happens.