Hullo there, mate.

Posted: July 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

This probably isn’t so much a blog but rather a novel in the making. Or a memoir. Or a posthumous journal of my travels. Well, whatever it is, it’s there to be read by you. You can of course browse around, or just look at the pics at the beginning of each chapter, but it is meant to be read from the beginning to the end.

I am immensely grateful to any and all honest reactions from you. Praise me, correct me, flame me, or ask whatever you want. ^_^

Part 1 of 4 is done now, and soon I will start into Part 2.

Never Apologize, Never Explain

Posted: May 4, 2008 in promise

On the whole that is a motto I take rather seriously. But I take this novel rather seriously as well, and I value you, my readers and commentators, very, very much. So I wanted to promise you that I have no intention of leaving this tale hanging. Sometimes real life interferes, usually because I am making a mess of things, usually because my heart outshouts my brain. And sometimes I falter because I fail at being as honest and truthful as I want this telling to be – as I NEED it to be – or because the tale has arrived at a particularely painful point.

I may falter. But if there is any virtue that I call mine, it is that I go on, to the end. I have done so in the past, and by God, I mean to do so now.

He tried the same trick again that had gotten him to the Orkneys: To wait amongst the cars before they boarded, find one to hide in when the occupants are taking a leak or stretching their legs, and sneak out on the ferry past the ticket check. He picked a station wagon with the rear seats flipped over and an antique rolltop desk wedged in. The desk was covered by several woollen blankest to protect it and he figured he could hide under the bunching blankets without being seen.
Again, he opened a door – this time on the passenger side – and kept it open just a crack when the driver got out and locked the car. He slipped inside and pulled the door shut from inside, locking himself in, and crawled under a blanket. The cord around his neck caught on something and he took off the pick and stuffed it into his pocket. The same excitement filled him as he had to lie under the blanket, blind, sounds muffled, and he had to wait whether it would work out or not.
He heard the driver return, the engine start again, the expected rumble up the ramp into the thrumming hold of the ship. He waited for the driver to get out, but he couldn’t hear or feel anything under the blanket and the incessant vibrations of the huge ship’s engines and the general din of all the other cars and passengers. He realised his mistake with the station waggon, the insides were too small and too well lit for him to have a chance of observing the driver without risk of discovery to himself.
He considered sleeping in the car, under the blankets, and to simply wait until the car had left the ferry again, but he was afraid he would struggle free of his cover in his dreams and be found still on board, with no place to flee to. So when he thought the driver must surely have left, he peaked out. The lights in the car were off and he tried to get to his knees quietly, but he bumped into something under the blanket and it made a hollow thump.
“What the…?”
The man’s voice was deep and throaty, and somehow sounded as if he’d been weeping.
The boy didn’t waste time looking, he scrambled to the passenger side rear door and tried to open it, but it was locked.
“Who are you?”
Shit, he thought. Fucking shit. And he turned around.
The only illumination in the car came from the fluorescent lights high up at the ceiling of the hold, and most where blocked by trucks and travel busses parked around them. The man was wearing large glasses that blinked in the little light and hid his eyes. He was gaunt and balding and wore a neat charcoal sweater under a light grey suit jacket and over a white shirt and a mauve tie. His face was twisted in what the boy assumed was intense anger.
“A blind passenger, I don’t believe it. A dirty little stowaway. Thought you get across without paying, did you, you rat?”
“Please don’t report me.” It was out before the boy could take it back.
“What?”
The boy took a deep breath. The second time was harder, he could feel his face begin to burn. “Please. Don’t report me. I… I can pay you.” And he took out the stolen money, offered a fistful of bills to the man.
I shouldn’t get caught, he thought, desperately. I shouldn’t have to see their faces. And he knew what he meant was, they shouldn’t get to see his. He hated the pleading in his voice. “Please… Sir.”
The man seemed taken aback for a moment, then considering.
“Come up here. Show yourself.” And he patted the passenger seat next to him.
The boy hesitated briefly, but he knew that the man only had to step out of the car and call for help, and he would be arrested and sent back. It was the thought of himself in handcuffs when his mother came to collect him – or his sister Nessa if his mother would refuse to – that made him comply. He shoved the money back into his jeans’ pocket. Then he climbed through the gap between the seats and sat down, hands in his lap, unconsciously already accommodating the cuffs.
The man had leaned back a little to give him more room, but watched him with an odd expression. When the boy was sitting, the man reached up and turned on the light. Everything about him was grey, and a little bit crumpled, in that tasteful British way that made him entirely inoffensive and almost impossible to remember if passed on the street. The boy was very conscious of his own dirtiness and smell.
“If you have so much money, why didn’t you pay for a ticket?”
The boy hesitated. He couldn’t come up with any useful lie.
“I’m not old enough,” he admitted, hesitatingly. “And no papers.”
Something in the man’s eyes changed, in his posture. He tensed slightly, Seemed to move at the same time closer and away. Something about him reminded the boy of the men he used to cheat in Edinburgh. Maybe he can do it here, seduce him and then get away. He remembered the moves.
“Also, I thought I might need the money. If… it doesn’t work out.”
“If what doesn’t work out?”
“The… the man… I’m meeting… my friend…”
“You…?” The man stopped. There was disgust on his face, the boy thought, but also need. Was he imagining it? But what did he have to lose? He gave himself a push, searched for tears inside. He thought of Bev, of how she would feel when she woke up. It didn’t work. He groped for something else, Nette’s death. No, that was buried too deep, frozen in a hundred centuries of polar night. He knew where he had to go, the one place he could tap for tears.
He thought of the night in the deer stalking cottage, the tentative touch, the kisses, the awakening hunger. The whispered words. And he felt the burning in his eyes, and the loathing for himself, for abusing the memory.
Quietly: “He said he would take care of me, but I don’t know if I can trust him. We only spoke on the web. I might need it to get away again. But…” He forced himself to look at the man next to him, to smile. It was easy to make the smile look faked and forced and shaky. “But I’ll pay you anything if you don’t send me back. You don’t know… I… I can’t go back… If my father…” – he managed to get a slight hitch into the word ‘father’ that added a perfect touch, he thought – “if he sees me again in handcuffs, he’ll…” He let the sentence trail away, let his still burning eyes dipping down in genuine shame for the charade.
“I’ll pay you… in money… or…” The hesitation was genuine as well. “Please, won’t you help me? I… I need some help.”
The man was silent. The boy didn’t dare to look at him. The man turned off the light in the car and said in his deep voice: “Well, I can’t leave you in the car.”
The boy looked up. The man was pale except for two bright red spots on his hollow cheeks. The glasses were opaque with reflection again.
For two days he drifted around Orkney. He got onto public busses when he saw them and got off at random stops, to walk along the one track country roads or simply across the windswept plain. On the seemingly limitless sky clouds and sunshine changed periodically according to an inscrutable schedule determined by far away currents and convection.
At the Standing Stones of Stenness, a Neolithic circle of stones set on a narrow peninsula between two shallow lochs, he met an old man walking with two hounds. The boy had been standing in the shadow of one of the stones smoking and watching two crows argue in coarse voices when the man suddenly spoke.
“Memories, huh?” the man asked. His windbreaker was the dark blue of municipal uniforms, and he had a lazy eye that made it hard to know what he was looking at.
The boy smiled noncommittally and tossed aside the cigarette. The old man slapped the cold stone next to them. “They got memories, too, you know?” he said, and when the boy didn’t answer he answered himself.
“Yes, old memories. Do you know that they have been set up at the same time the earliest civilisations started out in Egypt and Sumeria, India and China.”
The boy looked around, across the lochs and the pastures dotted with gorse and tufts of wild oats, all the way to the end of the land and the sea many kilometres distant.
“What did people do in this place?” he asked the old man. “There’s nothing here.”
The old man looked around as well, with his mismatched eyes, and then watched his dogs chase each other between the standing stones.
“Maybe that is what they came for.”
In Kirkwall he had two strange encounters that would haunt him for a long time. One of those happened as he picked pockets in the cathedral. A clump of tourists was listening to a guide tell some tale about a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft, and who mysteriously disappeared from a dungeon cell underneath the church the night before her execution. The boy had mingled with the group and used their shoving and pushing and the distraction through the guide to steal wallets. Just when the guide encouraged them all to peer inside the gloomy hole that lead down to the dungeon and everyone was craning their heads, a hand closed itself around the boy’s wrist.
“Not this one, Jack. Believe me. It’s not worth the trouble.”
The man was tall and stared at him with intense eyes. Then he let him go. The boy slowly walked away, so as not to rouse the attention of his other victims and make sure nobody else would remember his face.
He strolled through Kirkwall for a while, and listened to two heavily tattooed girls play Minstrel Boy near the harbour. The long-haired, dark one sporting raven feathers on her arms was playing the guitar, and the cropped, blond one with the Celtic knots and heavy leather choker and bracelets played a fiddle.
At dusk he walked around the Peedie Sea, a small body of water at the Western border of the town, cut off from the sea by a narrow sandbank with a road running across. The sky was overcast and reflected the town’s lights a sickly sulfurish yellow. In the shadow of a silo, amidst high stands of pricklyburr he met the tall man from the Cathedral again.
“Hold this for a moment, Jack.” The man was holding out a red glow stick. The boy took it and in its light watched the man set fire to the spiked fruits of the pricklyburr, drop them into a bowl and inhale the lazy white smoke.
“Thanks.” The man took another hit and the boy thought he could see the man’s pupils widen and swallow all of his pupils until there was nothing but two limitless black wells. The man’s voice was cracked and strangely quivering when he spoke again: “I have something for you, Jack.”
The man took something small out of his coat pocket and handed it to the boy. The boy turned it over in his fingers. It was a guitar-pick made of ivory, with scrimshaw filigrees and patterns winding around in it in slanted likes like some sort of unearthly writing, and a silver framed hole. The boy didn’t play the guitar, but the pick seemed to be almost too heavy to be useful.
“My name is not Jack.”
“Isn’t it? Well, it should be. Run a string through the hole, wear it like a charm. You’ll never be caught again. And now go away, Jack, and don’t come back. Take the light and go back to where you came from.”
By then darkness had fallen, and the boy made his way to one of the hostels.  That night he had some problems bluffing himself past the age and ID check of the Kirkwall hostel. He tried to sell the yarn that he had gotten separated from his sister (the girl at the check-in counter seemed more receptive to a boy with a big sister than one with a big brother) who he was travelling with, that his papers had been in the backpack she carried, and that she would arrive the next day, but the girl at the check-in counter wasn’t buying it.
“Ah’m sohry, bit Ah cannae do it, luv.”
He nodded, resigned to try another hostel. He pushed his hands into his pockets and encountered the strange, heavy guitar pick. He took it out and looked at it again.
“At’s a pretty thing. D’ye play the guitar, luv?”
“Do you have a string or something?”
Maybe feeling sorry for denying him earlier, she hunted around her desk and handed him a length of some gilded cord.
“There ye are, luv.”
He ran the cord through the hole in the pick, just as the stranger had recommended, and tied both ends off. He slipped it over his head and centred the pick on his chest, underneath his T, when the girl said:
 “Leuk, there is yer sis.” And at his startled expression: “’At is yer sister, luv, in’er?”
The boy turned around and saw a young woman carrying two backpacks, a violin case, and a naked guitar. It was the blond girl with the Celtic knot tattoos who he had listened to earlier. Something about her indeed bore an odd resemblance to him. And somewhere nestled in the corners of her eyes there was weariness he recognised. Trusting his gut, he rushed towards her to help her with her luggage and said loudly:
“Hey, I thought you’d arrive tomorrow, sis. I forgot my ID in the backpack. Stupid of me. Good thing I was wrong.”
The young woman sat down the larger of the bags and handed him the other one without perceptible hesitation. “I don’t think so. You didn’t forget it in Aberdeen, you numbskull, did you?”
The boy knelt down and began to rifle through the strange bag. The young woman started to chat with the check-in girl, telling her about the annoying wet end of a little brother, and got three beds on her ID.
“Come on, wet end,” she said, jingling the room keys. “You carry the bags.”
And in the hallway: “Listen, kid.  I only agreed because I really can do without a scene right now. Don’t let me regret it.” After a pause, “Annie. You are?”
“Wet End. And thank you.”
Annie laughed. “Alright.”
In the room they were joined by her dark haired friend with the raven feather tattoos.
“Did you get it?” Annie asked, voice discordant with tension.
The raven girl nodded but asked:
“An’ who would tha’ be?”
Annie looked around as if she had completely forgotten her new relation.
“That seems to be my little brother, Wet End. Wet End, this is Bev.”
“Mistaek,” Bev said, with a broad Irish accent. She took a small package from a pocket which Annie grabbed with obvious greed. “Ye don’t want her fer a sister, ye want me. I’m the fun one. But ye can be my brother as well, if ye want te.”
Annie excused herself to the bathroom. Bev took up the guitar. She strummed it once, rolled her eyes and began to tune it. The boy sat on the edge of a bed and relished the pain her comment had caused him. It took Bev a while, but when she was satisfied, she started in on what the boy eventually recognised as “Johnny I hardly knew you”.
He and Bev then spent the night talking and her teaching him the basics of playing the guitar, while Annie lay in blissful stupor on one of the beds. The boy wondered how his sister might have turned out if she had still been alive. Early in the morning he got up and searched through the packs of the sleeping girls. He took almost a hundred pounds and an old but well-whetted, well-oiled Swiss army knife. He gave Bev a light kiss and then snuck out of the room.
That day he travelled the islands again, and slept on fresh hay in small, lonely barn in the middle of a wide, lonely field. The next night he took another ferry further north.

Chapter Eight: Empty Spaces

Posted: July 26, 2011 in fear, journey, rain, scotland, sea
I’ve run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
And I can run away from you, I can!
- The Gingerbread Boy (St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1875)

A fine drizzle hung like mist around the street lamps along the narrow road between the sea and the steep, washed-out slope of the land, when the boy strolled out of the darkness and walked up to the red-and-white barrier marking the entrance to the marshalling area for the Scrabster-Stromness ferry. He wore threadbare Jeans, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, and scuffed and muddy oxblood boots. One of the shoe laces was black, the other was a bright neon orange. He had taken care to pick the hay from his clothes and from the dirty blond hair, and to wash the dust from his face, but there hadn’t been much he could do about the bruised cheek and the black eye, almost swollen shut, nor about his angry, closed-off expression.

For a while he loitered at the edge of the darkness and waited for check-in to begin. He tried to light a cigarette, but his lighter, a Zippo with the Tarot Death Card motive, was out of fuel.

When check-in began, he carefully observed the procedure from a distance. Just as the signs proclaimed, everybody, whether travelling with a car or on foot had to show a photo ID. The boy felt a slight annoyance at the terrorists, whose attacks 7 years earlier to the day had changed the world and made his form of travel so much harder.

The signs also proclaimed that no tickets were issued to unaccompanied minors under 16 years of age. Not that it makes much of a difference, he thought, I don’t own any legitimate ID anyway. And he doubted any kind of sob story could get him through here. After watching everything for a while he decided that he would easily get past the controls onto the marshalling area, with the terminal building, the long access road to the pier, and the passenger transit building. The problem would be the check points in the passenger transit building and the walkway up to the ferry.

He almost enjoyed the problem. It distracted him from other thoughts and memories. He briefly considered trying to swim to the ferry. The romantic commando style pleased him, but he quickly dismissed the idea as far beyond his abilities – the ferry would be much too tall from the surface of the water. He then considered trying to find someone a year or two older than himself with features similar enough to pass the picture check, and steal his ID. But there wasn’t anyone like that visible at the harbour. Also, he thought, such a person might easily notice the theft before the ferry arrived in Stromness and get the authorities to search for him. He didn’t fancy police officers searching the boat, cornering, and arresting him. And he had no intentions of going back South, to Thurso or beyond, to look for a suitable mark.

In the end, he thought his best chance would be to hide in one of the cars. He slunk undiscovered onto the large car park where the cars waited in neat queues for loading. Most passengers had gotten out, in spite of the chilly, damp weather. The sky had begun to grey in the East, and they were stretching their limbs, eating sandwiches and drinking hot beverages from thermoses, or using the toilets in the terminal building. The boy walked through the rows of cars as if belonging to one of them, and carefully considered his options.

He decided on a dark blue van. The driver, a burly man with a grim, ogerish face and a snake tattoo around his thick upper arm, locked the van with a remote and left for the terminal building. The boy peered through the windows. There were no other passengers inside, and several cardboard boxes had been stacked in the space behind the back seats. Careful to appear casual and unselfconscious, he took up position behind the rear doors, where he would be unobserved by the driver upon his return.

When the van beeped once and flashed its lights, and the doors unlocked with an audible clunk, he quickly opened the door, slipped in, closed it and crawled underneath the back seats. There, he figured, he would be invisible from the windows and from the front seats.

His stomach cramped with fear and excitement, as always when he had committed himself to a plan, and was now helplessly waiting whether it worked out or whether he would be caught. The van’s engine growled itself awake. The driver turned on the radio. Amy Winehouse’s hoarse, plaintive voice filled the space between them.

“So we are history, your shadow covers me, the sky above a blaze that only lovers see.”

Then the van jerked into motion, rolled slowly forward, rumbled over the ribbed metal ramp, and into the belly of the ship. When the driver killed the engine again, the boy had already braced his feet against the struts holding the seat, ready to push himself forward. As soon as he heard the door being opened, he shot out of his hiding place and to the rear door. Hoping the overall thundering, throbbing noises of the ship and the other cars would cover his exit, he opened the door, slipped out, ducked around the corner of the next car, straightened, and walked away casually.

On deck the peach and salmon glow on the Eastern horizon had faded back into the Prussian blue of a gloomy day. Two girls had taken advantage of the lull in the rain, and were standing by the guardrail, looking out at the emptiness of the open North Sea. They were chatting in fluent Gaelic, telling each other giggling gossip, when the bruised boy approached them.

They interrupted their conversation and eyed him curiously, but friendly. He struggled to ask his question.

“Can you tell me what this means in English?” He cleared his throat and blushed, trying to pronounce what he had been told, in halting whispers in the dark of the night five days before: “Hah Geul Ah-kum orsht.”

He had to repeat it twice. The girls giggled again.

“Wis she a bonnie lass?” one girl asked.

Helpless the boy shrugged, their reaction already confirming what he had been most afraid of. When she told him, he thanked her, blushing even worse.

After two hours the ferry docked in Stromness. He just walked off together with the other foot passengers. Nobody challenged him, and he disappeared in the narrow, steep alleys.

 

It’s not a breeze cause it blows hard.
Yes and it wants me to discard
the humanity I know
Watch the warmth blow away.

- Incubus: The Warmth (1999)

The air in the cottage was cold when the grey morning filtered in through the shutters, but Sim’s naked body, next to me under the thick down covers, radiated heat. For a while I stared a the ceiling, and beyond it I saw all the ceilings under which I had woken in the past, in my mum’s flat, in juvie, in the flats of strangers, in the guest room of aunt’s, in the pit in Leeds, in all those hostels, in Dewey’s tent, and the different skies I had woken to when there had been no ceiling, from the night of being buried to the lost time in the Mullardochs.

I turned my head and looked for Sim’s face, peaceful and asleep, being slowly lifted out of a sea of shadows that clung to him, that caressed his cheeks and temples, the dark locks stuck by dried sweat to his forehead, his lips and neck, that clung to and caressed all of that like a mother saying good-bye to a child forever.

It took me a while to realise what the feeling was that filled me then. It took me a while because it had been so long since last I had felt it. It had been 484 days, to be exact, I later figured out since the day Hendrik first kissed me. The feeling was bliss, the sort that makes everything else meaningless.

And then, as if sensing my gaze, he opened his own eyes, sleepily, and smiled – a puzzled, content smile, almost as if in wonder where he was. I know it is impossible, but I swear that in that moment a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds, found its way through the blinds covering the windows, graced his face, and made his eyes glow like a clear, cool, mountain lake in the spring sun.

“What’ss t’ time?”

“Not sure. Around seven. Maybe bit before.”

He smiled again and without letting his eyes leave mine tentatively moved closer, as if expecting me to push him away. When I didn’t he carefully laid himself into the crook under my shoulder, his head on my arm. Like that first kiss, in the holiday home, it was as if he entered my embrace like someone testing and then immersing himself in unknown water.

He pushed the covers down and ran his dirty fingers over the tat on my chest: A clock-face framed in two curved words, “pain” above it, and “killer” below.

“Is tsat whit ye feel?”

“Not now, no. But at the time it was very, hm, comforting.”

He took my arm, the one below his head, the way one wraps oneself into a coat an looked at the silver scars running along it inside, from the wrist almost to the inside of the elbow.

“Whit wuss ut tsat ye gat first?”

“I got the tat afterwards. After I… got back. To remind myself that the option remained. That even if I didn’t do it, every day would bring the day closer that…” I trailed away without finishing the sentence. Sim nodded.

“Wull ye tell us hou ye dead ut?” He looked back into my face. “Tsat’ss why tae ye Sassenach.”

“I know,” I said, running my hand softly through his curls. “I’m not all stupid, ye ken.”

“Och aye te noo,” he said, deadpan. And then: “Wull ye?”

I let my head drop back into a pillow. “I…” I faltered, took a deep breath, tried it two more times. But I didn’t find any words that didn’t either make it sound ridiculous or pathetic. “Not now, okay?”

Something must have stopped him from pursuing that one. Instead he pushed himself up on an elbow and began to inspect my body.

Last night we had done everything in darkness. Sim had wanted to turn on the light, but still in the role of the teacher I had advised him to try it by touch, smell, taste, and sound at first. Like with picking a lock, those senses are far more useful in sex than sight, and as long as we can we rely far too much on our eyes. It diminishes our world. And like the good Padawan that he was, Sim had heeded that advice then. But now he took the chance to fill in the blanks that particular experience might have left him with.

He touched the blackened, L-shaped scars on my shoulder almost with reverence. Two nights before, sitting by the lake, I had told him about Julie and about Ponyboy. Sim made as if to kiss the scar, but in the end didn’t.

“Hou mony tattoos uss’t tsat ye hae?”

“Three. Painkiller was the first one.”

“Whan wat uss tsat ye hae’t made?”

“Three years ago, pretty much.”

He whistled, a real boy whistle from between his lower lip and his upper incisors. “Yer paurents alloued tsat?”

“Are you daft? My mum totally lost her rag, every time actually. But it wasn’t like she make me wash it off, could she?”

“Daur say no. Shaw us t’ issers?”

I rolled onto my belly and showed him the barcode on my bum cheek with the tiny words – in some dot matrix font – “sold under sin” printed underneath.

“Hendrik had me get that one. He paid for it… in a way.”

Sim nodded. “And t’ last ane?”

I showed him my other shoulder, opposite the scarred one. The tat there looked unlike the painkiller and the barcode tattoos a little amateurish, in a pale blue ink. It was a three-layered piece of cake with what might have been a cherry on top.

“That one’s from juvie. My mate Sebi did it with a sewing needle and ballpoint pen ink.”

Sim thought about it for a while, then he smiled. “T’ cake uss a lee?”

“Och aye.”

I was still grinning back at him when the bed cover began to slide off the bed and off both of us. Sim caught it quickly, but not quick enough to keep me from noticing the welts on his back, and buttocks, and his upper thighs. He covered them as if nothing had happened, but there was a weariness in his eyes now as he tried to gauge my reaction. I didn’t show any reaction, I’m sure, but I probably kept my face blank for just too long. But, anasını satayım, too many things suddenly made sense:

Why Conall had been so ready to believe me, and why his father hadn’t. Why Sim had tried to get me away from the house, and why he had been so sore when he came by the next day. Why he was so skilled an emotional reader, and such a master at misdirection. And all the little, bitter comments.

When I didn’t say anything, he echoed me: “Och aye.”

What else was there to say – except that question that burned inside me. Had it been because of me, because he had warned me? A question didn’t dare to ask, afraid of what obligations it might put on our friendship.

Instead I asked: “What’s on the agenda today?”

I think Sim was relieved when he laid down on the bed next to me. At least he didn’t move away.

“Want tae come wi us tae kirk?”

“Don’t you think that’d be risking a bit much?”

Sim grinned at me, his beautiful, crazy, wild grin. “Nae at aw. Te day uss kirkin at Saunt Lorcán’s. Tsat means t’ kirk wull be fou o’ fowk, wi t’ pipe band, and awbody clappin haunds wi t’ priest and aw. Smookin ye in and oot wull be a pure skoosh!”

I hemmed and hawed, feeling very uneasy, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and his excitement was catching. The thought was kind of thrilling. And anyway, I never could refuse him anything.

He had told his rents he was spending the night at a friend’s. The friend was in on it, more or less, and used to covering for Sim. Sim rode together with me to the A832, but dropped me off there to loiter behind some rocks and wait for him. I had taken the Zimmer Bradley along and spent the next 45 minutes in the company of Rumal and Orain, until Sim returned together with Conall and Caena in the Defender Pick-Up. The rest of the family had ridden either with neighbours or in their dad’s saloon.

Sim reintroduced me to his brother and sister, who he declared loudly to be trustworthy, and Conall excused himself for having almost gotten me nabbed.

“Masel uss sae sorry, Danny. A really dinnae expect fer ma paw tae actually gae and clipe on ye.”

I tried to take it with some grace, which I might have gotten off reasonably well, and they complimented me and Sim that with the new hair cut, dye job, and different clothes none of those who had seen me before would recognise me as long as I staid in the background.

The church itself was a big, grey, squatting block of a building, and brimming with festive worshippers. Once we arrived there, Sim bade me stay behind, and dashed off – turned out he was one of the altar boys and had to change before service. But as soon as he was away, a young man, early to mid twenties, walked up to me. He was wearing dark slacks, brown suede shoes, and a moss green blazer. He had Sim’s dark curls and bright blue eyes.

“Hey. A’m Aidan. Ye must be Danny.”

Carefully I shook his hand. He was tall and look good in that charismatic way that has nothing to do with looks and that people have who see more than they let on and who can form an opinion without sharing it.

“I’m Sim’s brother. He asked me te look efter ye, while he’s busy.”

Aidan was there in the company of his girlfriend, Lydia, who in turn had a younger brother, John, who was in Sim’s year at the local High School. Aidan left me with Lydia and John while he said hello to his mother and his siblings. He no longer lived at home, and, apparently, wasn’t currently on speaking terms with his father. Lydia started to chat with me, but it was awkward with unspoken chunks of life barring us every way. When John asked me about football we were all very relieved.

That mass was the first time I actually prayed to God again since ‘Nette’s death. I prayed the way I had done before she had gotten sick, the way she had taught me. In prayer you do not ask God for anything. If you have eyes in your head and a brain to understand what you see, you know that God does not change His plans because of the whims and wishes of humans. And if anyone ever comes to you with tales of miraculous cures, ask them why no amputee, however deserving, however hard praying, ever re-grew the littlest finger, let alone an arm or a leg? What, God does cancers and comas but no missing limbs? No, there is no heavenly wishing well. Prayer, done properly, means giving thanks for the world as it is, and listening for God’s voice, to tell you how you can contribute to its beauty and splendour.

Fittingly the sermon’s theme that day was Job 37:14 – “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.”

I reserved the right to heed or not to heed his words, as I saw fit, but we both – God and I, like God and Job before – knew that to do either was at my own peril. So I knelt down, in all the earnestness of my heart, and swallowed my pride, and for the first time in 3 ½ years I gave thanks. For, though I knew that my life was fucked up beyond belief, on that morning I was grateful for it indeed.

Afterwards Sim dodged his rents, and joined Aidan, Lydia, John and me. It was clear enough that Sim and Aidan shared a special closeness. Amongst his brothers Conall might have been Sim’s every day best friend and companion of many small adventures, but Aidan, the oldest of the siblings, was Sim’s hero and role model.

Aidan had come with Lydia and John in his extremely sexy black Toyota MR2 roadster, a car he had treated with luxurious contempt: The inside smelled of smoke, dope, and spilt beer, and there were parking receipts, betting stubs, and crushed cigarette boxes littered about. Aidan took me along, first dropping off Lydia and John at their rents’s place, and then me at the cottage. On the way there, along the A832 and down the port hole riddled cart rut across the moor, Aidan quizzed me.

“Sim thinks pretty big of ye.”

“He thinks pretty big of you.”

“Aye,” Aidan laughed and tried to dig a pack of fags from the breast pocket of his blazer. I leaned over, got it out, lit a fag, and gave to him. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“So. Oniweys.” He took a puff and hemmed and hawed a bit. “I’ll ask ye straight up. Are ye plannin’ on playin’ some sort o’ con on him and ma family? Or usin’ him fer some other crooked deal?”

“What makes you think I would do that?”

He looked at me through a screen of smoke.

“Sim told me just enough about ye te hae me worried, but nae enough to know what yer up te.”

“Did he now.”

“Look. I dinnae care what the two o’ ye are doin’ up here, as long as ye daena play fause wi ma wee brother.” And when I didn’t say anything: “Ye see, Sim doesnae put trust in fowks. But fer some reason I cannae fathom, he put his trust in ye.”

Not enough to warn me about you, I thought. But then, he probably put more trust in you than you deserve yourself. Do you really know your own brother so little?

I took a fag for myself. The cottage appeared at the end of the track. The car shuddered and shook on the uneven ground.

“I have no intention of playing false, Mr. MacLeod. I have no intention of hurting Sim. But…”

I searched for words outside amongst the heather, the crags and pools, and didn’t find any. Aidan stopped the car. He opened the door, dropped the fag end onto the ground and extinguished it with a well practiced twist of his right brown suede shoe. He looked at me and nodded. “Aye. Life sometimes deals us a shite hand.”

We both got out. There was a hint of the sea on the air.

“Well, Danny.” Aidan offered me his hand across the roof of his roadster. “If ye’re ever in need of a place te stay, feel free te come te me.” And he handed me his card, naming him a solicitor, and giving his address in Port Maree.

***

When I saw Sim again later that day, he was in a foul mood. Tourists had rented the cottage and would be arriving on Wednesday. Our time together had gotten an official time limit. But – he had to grin at the cleverness of himself – he had strategically annoyed his dad into giving him the chore of making the cottage presentable for the tourists. That meant he also had an official reason to come by after school on Monday and Tuesday, which he did.

The weather was rather dreary and cool, but we still had a blast. On Monday I met him at the gates of his school and together we played two cons I had dreamed up. The marks were day tourists passing through, minimising the threat to Sim of being caught, and the nature of the game made maximum use of the fact that he was well known to the locals, while I was a stranger as well.

Tuesday we rode the horses to the tip of the peninsula and swum in the sea. Later we fished in the lake. And later still I helped Sim clean up the cottage while he introduced me to his favourite Scottish punk band, The Real McKenzies. And then he put on Nick Cave and we practiced dancing some more. From dancing one thing lead to another, and ended with him kneeling in front of the bed while I buggered him energetically.

Had we been caught doing this before 1861, it would have meant death by hanging for me. Until 1980 it would have meant penal servitude for life or no less than 10 years. (Though only if I had been of legal age myself, I suppose. I never understood the British rules regarding the age of criminal responsibility.)

This is what it meant in 2008:

Suddenly Sim grew pale as death and stared over my shoulder. Someone had come in under the cover of Nick Cave singing about the Mercy Seat.

I turned around as fast as I could, given the circumstances, and could hear Sim wince as I did. Then my ears were ringing and I stumbled backwards and fell over the edge of the bed, the entire left half of my face in sickening flames.

Over me stood, face contorted by rage, fists balled and in the air, Sim’s father. I have no idea what he screamed or even if it was English, Scots, or Gaelic, but the meaning was clear enough: “I will kill you.”

I doubt though that he really had that resolve. Few do. He just thought it was the correct and manly sentiment to show at such a moment, and  that in the end some judicious violence would suffice. Of course neither of us knew that he had actually succeeded, but that it took one year and two months for the impact to run down the skein of fate and finally break my body.

I was still stumbling to my feet, hampered by jeans and boxers bunched around my ankles when Sim – his legs were untangled and naked but for a single, vividly orange sock – jumped up and went between his dad and me, begging – begging! – him to stop.

His dad caught him with a backhand slap to the temple that sent Sim flying across the room like a rag doll, until the corner of a table connected with his head and broke his flight curve.

He crumpled to the floor like a heap of wet clothes.

I told you I sometimes see red?

I assume I must somehow have gotten out of the jeans, and I must have grabbed whatever I got my hands on, Sim’s heavy-duty bicycle lock as it turned out, and I must have attacked Mr. MacLeod.

I only remember that I heard two sound: Furious and insane sounding bellowing – that must have been me – and then a soft whimpering. The red haze receded enough for me to realise that the whimpering had come from Sim’s limp body. That was enough to bring me back into the real world.

Mr. MacLeod was lying on his back, his right wrist and leg apparently broken, his face almost as pale as Sim’s had been when he had seen him. And I was standing above him, the bicycle lock held high and about to be brought down with all my strength onto his head.

I still wanted to murder him. That is not a figure of speech. I wanted to see his skull crack, his face split, and his brains run across the floor in a pink, frothing mush. I wanted to stomp into that mush and make it squish. I wanted him to be eradicated from this earth.

But the rage was fading almost as quickly as it had come. Having heard Sim’s one whimper had been enough to cut away the bottom of my heart and to let everything boiling in it fall out, leaving nothing but a terrible and cold emptiness.

Keeping the lock firm in hand I retreated to Sim and knelt down net to him, to feel his pulse. I didn’t feel it, but I was probably too shaken to do so anyway. He was breathing though, so he was still alive. There was blood pooling under his head and I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I didn’t dare move his body for fear of doing more damage.

Instead I fished his mobile from the pocket of his jacket – a jacket he had hung over the back of the chair – now knocked over – just an hour ago, when we had still been laughing. And hugging. Dancing. And kissing.

Pushing aside premature grief was very hard.

I concentrated on dialling emergency services.

“There has been an accident. Someone has been hurt at the head. He is losing a lot of blood. Unconscious. Fourteen years.”

She wanted to know where I was. I asked Mr. MacLeod. When he didn’t answer right away, I roared at him and hit his broken leg with the lock. He roared, too, in pain, and then told me what I needed to know. I passed it on to the shocked emergency operator and hung up.

I got dressed, gathered up my few belongings, stuffed everything in the nylon backpack Mr. Roth had given me, and waited by the window. I had expected an ambulance, but when I heard the helicopter, I knelt down next to Sim and gave him a small kiss on the forehead and, ignoring his father, hurried out of the house and hid amidst the birches.

I watched the medics carry Sim and his dad away. I saw that they had put a serious looking inflatable brace on his neck and that his face was uncovered. I couldn’t give tuppence about his dad.

When the helicopter had left, I picked up the bike Sim had left again carelessly lying on the gravel of the cottage, and rode off.

***

I went to Aidan’s place, the one noted on the card he had given me. There was no police car at his front door. When he opened the door for me, he was holding the telephone in his hand.

“I heard. What happened?”

I stumbled over my words, anger and grief and self-reproach tying my tongue. With a few quick, precise questions he sussed the situation.

“Stop apologising,” he said absentmindedly. “I know ma dad.”

I took a deep breath. I looked at him hard. Then I said:

“If you know your dad, you know he will put all of this on me.”

Aidan looked up, his face a question mark.

“I want Sim to live,” I continued. “I don’t see what I can do to help beyond this, but if there is anything, I will, even if it means going to the rozzers. But if your dad thinks he can finger me for Sim’s attacker and get away with it he’s wrong. If none of you will speak up, I will. I’ve seen the marks he left on Sim. Everything will come to light and he will go down with me.”

Aidan still didn’t react.

“I don’t know how badly you want to see him in jail, but they got my voice making that 999 call. They have me shouting at him and hurting him. My fingerprints are all over that cottage, and probably all sorts of other traces. And my prints will eventually lead them to everything about me. You’re a fucking solicitor, you do the math.”

He looked back at me for a while, thinking. I believe he was really pondering whether he should let both me and his dad go to jail. But then he took his phone again:

“Ma? It’s Aidan. I know, I’m on ma wey there. But ye must listen now, ma. Send Iona te the wee cottage. She must scrub it doon. No, everything. Change linen, and do every light switch and door knob, water tab. Anything somebody might put his hands on. No, ma, if ye daenna want yer husband in jail fer a very lang time, ye will dae it. Richt noo! Aye, A’ll see ye there. And ma? If ye get ther first, make him shut oop until A’m there, too, aye?”

He turned to me, looking grim and a bit sick. “I have te go now. Ye can stay or leave. There’s food in the kitchen. Help yerself.”

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I spent most of it sitting on the windowsill, staring out at the street, expecting police cars. I finished all my fags, remembering with each one the two boxes of Marlboro Sim had brought me. Remembering every damn thing we’d done together.

I got up once to pee, and another time to drink some water from the tab.

The sky was greying when Aidan returned.

“He’ll live. It’s a fracture and they say his brain is swollen, but they say he’ll make it.”

I slumped down in a corner against the wall.

“Ye gotta leave. They dinna believe our yarn aboot the accident and ye havin’ been chust a hiker passin’ through, but I daena think they’ll be able to pruive anything, once ye’re gone.”

I nodded. I gave him my e-mail address, in case he or Sim ever wanted to contact me later, and we went down to his car. We rode in silence. The land was still just as beautiful as it had been when Conall had taken me. He let me out at Braemore Junction. We shook hands, and he said farewell cordially enough, but there was little doubt he wished I had never set foot in his family’s house.

Then he took off, in his sexy black roadster. I stood where he had let me off, at the car park for Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach. I was 1,971 kilometres from Lake Iešjávri, as the crow flies. 1,971 kilometres and 86 days. And 1,533 kilometres and 191 days from a little, run down farm house in Lower Silesia.

And 3,026 kilometres and 393 days from that dinghy Greek guesthouse near the Aegean Sea.

Not that any of these places would have meant shit to me then. All I knew, as I stood there, was that I couldn’t go south. That I couldn’t go back.

So I struck out my thumb and waited for a northbound car to take me along.

The sun was slowly dying in a bloody swamp of stringy clouds above the Hebrides when Sim returned. He came on horseback.

“Ower t’ muir uss t’ shortest wey,” he explained as he dismounted. He was keeping two coins palmed, one in each hand. One of them fell to the ground as he tethered the horse to a tree. He picked it up with an apologetic shrug.

“Hae tae haud at practeesin, richt?”

“Right,” I said, and I couldn’t have felt prouder.

“Sae, whaur uss we gaun?”

“I had the other cottage in mind, the one a bit down the shore. It seems to be empty at the moment.”

“T’ McDonagh boothy?” His face fell. “Tsat’s dreich. Naessin tarein bit stour’s sel and moose-wabs.”

“Nothing there but what?”

He rolled his eyes: “Dist and speeder wabs.”

“Oh. Yes, which is why it’s a good place to practice. We’re not going to knock over Fort Knox on our first try, are we?”

The disappointment on his face remained.

“Okay,” I relented. “How about we try your rents’s house, later, when they’re asleep?”

Sim shuddered. “Certes, and tan ma paw kin catch ye lairnin masel hou tae be a berglir? Tsat’s a mischancy thochtie, mate.” Then his face brightened: “Och! Masel ken chust t’ perfit goose. Ut’ss in Port Maree, bit ut’ss geylies oot-t’-way. Ut’ss belangin tae somebody frae Edinburrae, bit ut shoud be emptie te noo.”

“You are crazy, you know that, Sim MacLeod?”

Aye. Masel uss, ussna A?” He grinned. “C’mon, aff we gae.”

He climbed back onto the horse and scooted to he very front of the broad saddle. “Ceana telt msel ye ken hou tae ride. Ye tak t’ reins.”

I stepped into the stirrup he had just taken his own feet out of, grabbed the saddle horn, and swung myself into the saddle behind him. He leaned back into me as I reached around him on both sides to take the reins, and I had to think of Hendrik and the rides on his motorbike.

Without waiting for his directions I nudged the horse into canter and went to the narrow path across the moor to Port Maree.

“Och, ye awready ken yer wey aboot,” Sim commented.

“It pays to know your exits. If you want to be a thief, you better keep that in mind.”

Bitterly he muttered: “A leart tsat lesson lang syne, mate.”

Silence settled over us as we rode through the chilly September night. He snuggled his back against me and I kinda hoped he didn’t notice my wood, but I had told him enough for him to be forewarned, and anyway, he neither joked about it nor shied away. A low waning moon winked heartlessly through ragged clouds and the lonesome beauty of the land burned itself into my soul forever.

The house Sim lead me to was a nice, modern, flat-roofed holiday home at the north end of the village, set back a bit in the hills above the beach. We left the hose tethered to a clump of wild gooseberry bushes in a hollow hidden from the village behind the last crest of the shore-side hills. Sim wanted us to camouflage ourselves Ranger style, with mud across the faces and grass and leafy twigs and heather stuck across our clothing, but I stopped him.

“Bit ut’s really wirkin. A wis amang t’ best at ACF fieldcraft.”

“ACF?”

“Airmy Cadet Force. At schuil. At’s tis paramilitary sivival trainin, ken, Bear Grylls like. And masel uss guid, guid at’ut. Pent and ryss and t’ like, tay brak t’ contours, mak ut real fickle fer t’ issers tae ken us fer human.”

“Ryss?” – “Twigs, man. Twigs, and grass, and leafs. And pent fer t’ face. Make-up.”

“Yes, Sim. I believe you are really good at paramilitary survival, and if it was a matter of getting shot at or not, I’d agree. But you’re going to break into an empty, unprotected house. It’s our job nobody sees us at all, with twigs or without. And if we are caught, you can always say, we were just bored and had a look around for a laugh. At best you get a slap on the wrist for trespassing. But if you show up in bloody camouflage, that’s not going to stick. When they see you meant business, they get you for B&E. That’s no joke. We are breaking into a house.”

He sobered a bit and followed me over the wall, across the sloping lawn, and to the front door. By then the moon had set, and the only light came from the street lamps beyond the wall and the bushes. Sim wanted to take an electric torch from a pocket. I held the wrist.

“No light,” I whispered. “The beam of a torch at night is really suspicious. Someone who has a right to be here would turn on the porch light, and if they were coming or leaving they’d have a car down by the street and everything.”

“Bit hou wull we appen t’ door?” he whispered back.

“I’m going to teach you how to pick a lock now. And that is done by sound and touch anyway. Here, gimme your coins and take these.”

In the darkness I pressed two small tools into his hands, a safety pin and a small flathead screwdriver I had taken from a tool box back in the cottage.

“To pick a normal security lock you need a pick – that’s the safety pin in this case – and a tension wrench – the screwdriver. The pick has to be both thin, so you can get it inside the lock and move around inside, and strong, so it doesn’t bend away once you start to poke at things. The wrench has to be able to administer torque, that is pressure on the cylinder, turn it, you know, like a key would. So it needs to fit into the slit and apply pressure on the sides, but leave as much room as possible so you can still move the pin freely. It’s always a sort of compromise.”

I showed him how to apply torque with the screwdriver and the guided his other hand with the pin into the lock. While I had waited for Sim that evening I had bent the last three millimetres of the pointy end of the pin upwards with some pliers.

“The thing about the pick is this: Most stuff, like paper clips, especially those made of brass or copper, are too soft. Once you try to press against the pins inside the lock, they bend somewhere along the long part between your grip and the little bent pointy end. And those covered in plastic are usually too thick to get inside properly. So you need something made from steel, but stull just pliable enough so you can bend the end 90 degrees without it snapping off.”

“Like a sauftie-preen?”

“For example. A good, long, not too thick steel paperclip can work, too. Really fine hacksaw blades can also be good. Wire is mostly too soft, but that depends. Okay, now feel around inside the tumbler. Scrape the pin along the bottom. Can you feel how the point keeps catching?”

“Aye.”

“That’s the pins. There is 5 to 8 pins in a lock like this. Each pin is actually two steel pins and a spring pressing against them. When a key is inserted the teeth of the key push each set of pins exactly so that the break separating them – remember, it’s always two pins and a spring – is aligned perfectly with the side of the cylinder, so that one pin is exactly outside, and one is exactly inside. But when you remove the key, the springs move the pins so that they go across the line and pin the cylinder in place, so it can’t turn. Got that?”

“Aye.”

“What you want to do is push each set of pins so that the crack between them is aligned perfectly with the cylinder wall and you can turn the lock with the wrench… the screwdriver.”

“Bit winna t’ springs push t’ pins back, ance A muive tae t’ neist ane?”

“Spot on, mate. That’s why you need to keep torque on the cylinder with the wrench all the time: Not so much you can’t push the pins anymore with your pick, but enough so the pins don’t slide back in. Once you get a feel for it, you can actually hear and sense the tiny click when a pin separates at the crack.”

“Och, ut’s fickle, eh?”

“It’s a lot harder than it mostly looks on the telly, but it’s not magic either. Just try to feel and hear and imagine what’s going on inside the lock.”

“Uss’t up or doon tsat A thrimmle t’ pins?”

“Can be either way. Depends on how the key is put in. You always push the way the teeth of the key are pointing. In Germany it’s usually downward. I think it’s the same here. I read that in America it’s usually upwards, but I’ve never been there myself.”

“Doon, richt.”

And then I settled down and let him work on it. I knew that the first time takes forever. And it did. It took Sim almost three hours, and he was bathed in sweat at the end. It’s not easy to stay crouched in front of a door, keep constant but delicate pressure with a tool not really good for the job with one hand and try to make tiny adjustments in a space you can’t see with the other.

Once, after about half an hour, Sim wanted to give up.

“A cannae dae it, Dana. A wull be here awe nicht.”

“I got time. So do you. Or do you have somewhere else to be?”

“Naw, atweel no. Bit tis maun be gey dreich fer ye. A tsocht we would hae fun te nicht.”

“I got time, Sim. You want to learn this or not?”

After that he concentrated on the lock.

I learned a lot about Gaelic cussing that night. It’s not only very strenuous, but it also incredibly frustrating. Every time your tension torque slips all the pins you already got into the correct position will slip back, and you have to start from scratch.

But he kept at it, and around two in the morning he turned the cylinder with the screwdriver once around we heard the latch slide back one setting.

Then the cylinder caught again and the door was still locked.

“Whit’s wrang?”

“It’s a double lock. Most are. You need to turn the key twice before you can open the door. But of course as you turn, the pins slip back, so you need to pick it all over again.”

“Och nae. Nae!” And he followed that with a long stream of Gaelic obscenities. “Ye kenned at woud happen?!”

“Yep. Well, I was pretty sure it would.”

“And noo?”

“Here, let me try this.”

I took another safety pin from my pocket and took the screwdriver from Sim. I applied the screwdriver and pushed the second safety pin into the lock and ratcheted it quickly in and out in a somewhat jiggly sawing motion. After a few seconds the cylinder turned a second time and this time the bolt inside slid all the way back and I could push the door open.

Sim stared at me with open mouth.

“Hou’d ye dae tsat?”

I grinned and pressed my second make-shift lockpick into his hand. He felt it and realized that I had not given it a single 90° twist at the end, but had rather bent it into a zig-zagging shape, not unlike a normal key, only that all “teeth” were roughly the same size and shape.

“Sometimes this works, too. You must apply the right amount of torque but then you can try to simply jiggle the pins quick enough and hope they will all catch at the right spot. Works a lot faster than picking each pin individually.”

An Taigh na Gall ort!” Sim spat a couple of nasty insults my way. “Hou wisna ye at telling masel tsat rich oot?”

“Sorry, I’m just a simple Englishman,” I said, grinning. “When you get excited I can’t understand you. What did you just say?”

“Feech! A askit: Why dinnae tell me hou tae dae tsat richt awa?”

“Seriously, Sim? Because now you actually learned how a lock works. Now you also know why this trick works. Now you understand a lock. And anyway, ratcheting doesn’t always work.”

“Hou lang uss it whan ye pick a lock?”

“Depends on the lock, of course. But normally I got it down to about 20 minutes. But that took a lot of practice I mostly practiced on the door to the roof. It was pretty difficult, and nobody ever bothered me when I sitting at the top of the staircase.”

I opened the door wide.

“Please, come in.”

The house was exactly what you would expect from a holiday home when it wasn’t it use. Lots of pine wood, and carpets and cushions in subdued colours and patterns that inured them against stains and dirt. The fridge door was propped open with a neatly folded kitchen towel, and in the cabinets remained a bag of sugar, a carton of salt, and an open pack of rice.

Sim went to the fuse box and turned the power on. Then he turned on the lights in the living room. I thought about telling him not to, but the windows were shuttered, the curtains were drawn, and the room itself, on the lower level, was hidden from the street behind the wall and the hedge.

“Hey, leuk here!” Sim had found a bottle of Scotch in one cabinet. We opened it and took turns drinking directly from the bottle.

Then Sim turned on the stereo and began to dance in the middle of the room. I sat down on the couch, lit a fag, had some more Scotch, and watched him. When he noticed me watching, he said: “C’mon. Dance wi us.”

“What?”

“Dance wi us.”

“But we’re both blokes.”

“Aye. And tsat baszers ye, pìobair?”

“I can’t dance.”

“Nowey!” Sim laughed. “Ye canna dance? Masel wull lairn ye! C’mon.”

For a second I thought about telling him to fuck himself, but then sighed, put the fag between my lips, and went over to him.

“Ut’s gey easy, Dana. Leuk. Ye pit yer caurie haund here and gie’s isser. Sae. And noo ye coont tae fower, wi t’ muisic. Ane, twa, tsree, fower, ane, twa, tsree, fower…”

I concentrated on matching his steps and after a while I actually got into the rhythm. Then Sim stopped and knelt down by the rack with CDs. He went through it and then pulled one out.

“Tis uss a Walz. Haud on.”

He put the CD into the player and then Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman began singing: “I know I stand in line you think you have the time…” Sim came back over to me, took up position again and showed me the gentle swayin one-two-three steps of the Walz.

And then we danced. For real. Slow, and close, to this insipid, silly, clichéd, soppy song. His nails on his fingers on his hand on my shoulder were dirty and badly cut. He smelled of sweat and horse. His belt buckle pressed against my crotch. From his nose his breath came through the neck of my T and was hot and chilling at once on my chest.

In this plain, almost anonymous living room of the empty holiday home I had taught him to break into, drunk on Scotch and excitement, success, and our own daring, we danced.

And when Nicole Kidmen left the stage and Robbie Williams started into the brassy “Do Nothing Til’ You Hear From Me”, Sim looked up into my eyes and with a burning face asked hoarsely: “Will ye lairn us t’isser stuff an aw?”

And when I didn’t answer right away: “Ye ken, whit ye dae wi…”

Not wanting to make him spell it out, I kissed him as gentle as I could. At first he tensed, and I had to think of Tim, and wondered if I had made a mistake again. But it wasn’t the same tension, there was no real shock in Sim’s body language, more a shivering, excited fear, and when his tongue met mine, it was as careful as a testing of the water. Careful, but curious.

After a while we cleaned up, turned off the lights, and rode back to the cottage. This time I used the bed. And Sim stayed.

Continued here

I walked Sim to the curve in the path, where it left the birch wood and started out onto the open moor, past the bony white scrags, and I kept staring after him when he had ridden his bike down that path far longer than it took the darkness to snuff him.

I knew that even by my own fucked up standard I could leave whenever I wanted. All I had promised was to teach him as long as I staid, after all. I hadn’t said how long that would be. Also, while I had promised to teach him what I knew, I hadn’t specified what part of my knowledge. So why was I so uneasy? Why didn’t I simply up and leave? Why didn’t I stay and just teach him some harmless coin tricks, and some confidence tricks so elaborate or so dated that he wouldn’t ever be able to actually use them?

I clearned and locked up the house and withdrew into the woods again. I didn’t really believe he would rat me out, but I didn’t fancy being caught asleep by some farmerishly early visit of his dad or anyone else of his family.

But that night sleep refused me, even on my soft pillow of moss and wormy wood. So after a while I decided to pay a visit to Port mare. It was a decent hike and I arrived just before dawn. Port Maree is a bit larger than Inverewe, and something of an administrative centre for the peninsula, with houses threaded on a main road that follows the long curved beach.

The combined supermarket and news agent wasn’t officially open yet, but they were getting deliveries and the bloke there sold me a packaged sandwich and a can of ginger beer, and told me to try the hotel for internet access. I made my way along the beach, and watched the Atlantic turn the sand a silvery mirror again and again, only to be blotted up each time. And each time the waters disappeared they took my footprints with them.

Crows and sea gulls raucously greeted the returning fishing boats. At the far end the sand darkened with algae and sea weed and gave way for blackened, fishy smelling boulders. The hotel was one of the Victorian country houses that looked all pretty and perfect from far away, but from close up revealed all the little damages time had wrought, the many patches and spots that had been painted over, added to, and modified to keep up.

Inside the night clerk was setting the tea room for breakfast. She allowed me access to one of the two computers they have for guest use, as long as I left before the shift ended. I checked mail, blogged the last couple of days, and then opened the Yahoo browser messenger to see if there were some night owls from the US or some early birds from Europe online. Indeed, both my BDSM Daddy Matt from Texas and Peter, an elderly queer bloke from the Midlands were on.

I tried to talk to both of them about Sim and the promise I had given him. The paedophile African-American Baptist Sadist and the closeted Anglican Poofter agreed that it was bad enough I was doing this stuff, and that I should get my arse back to Berlin onto a school bench, and that it would be better to break my word than to go through with it.

I told them both they could go screw themselves. Master Daddy Matt told me to beat myself with a birch rod or ruler or so the next time I wank. The night clerk asked me to finish up. I erased the browser history and logged out.

I checked out what I assumed must be Sim’s school, Maelrubha High. It was a Saturday, though, and the school remained dead and empty. I stood at the fence for a while and pressed my face against the iron rails. The sky was low and dark, and in a glowing a cold light the colour of polished tin just above the hills.

When I left Port Maree for the emptiness of the moors, I didn’t take the A832, and didn’t try to hitch a ride. Instead I walked off the end of Lohim Road, a patchy cart rut that soon disintegrated into a mere deer pass through the hills and past the small lakes of the peninsula. It took me close enough to the cabin that I could cut across the heather, grab something to eat and a new book, and went for an uneasy nap in the woods. Later I settled down in my look out post again, practice coin tricks, reading a Darkover novel, and waited for the boy.

When he arrived, we got right at it.

“Whit wull ye lairn us first?”

“Nothing. You’ll show me first, what you already know.”

“A ken naeting aboot stealing an t’ like.”

I tossed him a coin. He was still moving a bit stiffly, but apparently his soreness was better, and he caught it out of the air, without effort of fumble.

“There, very good.” I grinned. “Now put it in your palm and hold it very lightly between the ball of your thumb and the edge of your hand. No, that’s already too hard. You hand doesn’t look natural that way anymore.”

He relaxed his hand.

“Let it drop down to your side. Keep it relaxed.” I watched him. “Great. You’ll keep that coin there all evening, and when you leave, you will continue to do so every moment you can. I mean every, okay, this is hard work. Under the shower. While brushing your teeth. Sitting in school. Doing your homework. Doing your chores. Train yourself to be able to do anything with a coin palmed. Switch palms every now and then. Keep your hand relaxed and try to not clink the coin against anything.”

Then I questioned him about hobbies and chores. As a crofter’s son he obviously knew his way around animals.

“See, that’s useful: Animals can both warn a mark and attack you. On the other hand, make friends with a man’s pet and he will more likely trust you. Every little bit you know about animals, especially dogs, can help you.”

He also knew how to sharpen blades, how to tie various knots, how to climb sheet poles, how to use the saw and the claw-hammer efficiently, and how to repair fences. He had acted in school plays – amongst other roles that of the Artful Dodger in a school performance of “Oliver, The Musical” – and had been playing the fiddle since he was 5.

“Aw tsat uss uissfu?”

“Sure. Take the fiddle. Your fingers and hands and arms are strong and nimble from the practice. It’s given you a good sense of timing and a good ear. Nearly everything can be used by a thief and liar. What you are good at determines how you go about the art. The other thing that determines any grift are the weaknesses of the mark. After all, you don’t want to make it hard on yourself. You want it to go off smoothly.”

His greatest asset, of course, was that he really wanted it. Whatever I told him, or showed him, he sucked it up like it was cream and he a starving kitten.

Like, after a while he began t complain that his hand was cramping up around the coin he was still holding in his palm.

I told him: “That’s why you have to practice.”

And he grinned at that. He grinned and then concentrated on relaxing his hand without letting go of the coin. And when it fell out of his hand, he picked it up and put it right back. And he asked me for techniques to strengthen and relax his hands.

I taught him the basics of change raising, pocket pocking, and cheating at card. He immediately understood the three main challenges: To be aware of where the mark’s attention was; to find ways – or better yet: to use already present opportunities – to distract the mark and steer his attention away from his misdeeds; and finally the quickness and smoothness to pull it off in a minimum of time with a minimum of movement. The last bit, he’d simply have to practice, and practice, and practice, but that was nothing new to a life-long fiddle player, was it?

And he was already brilliant at distraction and misdirection.

Finally he said: “Masel hae tae gae hame and dae ma chores or ma paw will tak a sparey.”

“How do you explain your absence anyway?”

“Naessin tae it. Yesterday A makkit on masel hae tae practeese wi t’band.”

“You play in a band?”

At that he actually blushed a bit. “Aye. T’ Port o’ Daw. Masel sing and fiddle. And t’day A chust said maself wuss meetin in wi ma mates.”

“Can you come back later?”

His smile deepend. “Shuir. Want fer me tae bring sometsing? Mae fags?”

“Actually, I had a field trip in min. Want to learn how to break in somewhere?”

Continued here

Sim’s directions had been surprisingly accurate and helpful. Normally peeps don’t really see the world around them, the less so the more common it is to them. For the most part they are unable to describe it in useful terms to a stranger. But Sim had it down so dead on that I found the place on a lonely moor, in a moonless night, without once getting lost.

I had gotten off the narrow, winding footpath here and there, though, especially where the wooden posts of the overland power line didn’t exactly follow it. Several times I had sunken into muddy pools of moor water, mostly only to the ankle or the knee, but more than once all the way to the hip. When I finally got to the cottage, water was squelching in my boots and crumbs of peat were itching my arse crack.

The cottage was a blocky, square stone building, thatch-roofed, and directly at the shore of a lake, hidden well by a dense birch wood. A short wooden pier lead directly from the house onto the lake.

Everything was dark and quiet when I approached. I got out the keys Sim had given me. At first they didn’t seem to fit, and for a second I thought it had been a cruel joke, but then I was past the catch in the lock and the door opened. Since all the windows were covered by shutters – and there was little enough light outside – the inside was pitch black. I felt for a light switch and found it, but flipping it did nothing. With the help of Mark’s Death Arcana Zippo I eventually found the fuse box and turned on the power.

The cottage had one room, one kitchen, and a small bathroom that obviously had been built in later. At first the faucets wouldn’t run, but some more look revealed an electric pump. Witching it on yielded fresh water, and an electric geyser even made it hot. I quickly stripped and warmed up under a steaming hot shower. The electric kettle, some old Tetley’s bads, and a thermos allowed me to warm up from the inside as well. The only thing I really missed was fags, but I had smoked my last on the walk here.

I never considered not going to the cottage, or not waiting for Sim the next day. I know that most peeps don’t get that, but to me there is a big difference between lying and breaking my word. Call it pride, but lying is a way of gaining control and power. Breaking my word cheapens myself. It’s not that I don’t do it, it’s just that I am loathe to, and usually need a pretty good reason.

But all that didn’t mean that I trusted Sim, of course. His dad had already proven to be a hypocrite and a snitch, and his older brother an idiot for not knowing that. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the family. But I wasn’t going to put my fate into their hands, was I?

Next to the door I found several pairs of Wellingtons, some raincoats, and an old woollen seaman’s jumper. Of my own wet clothes I only put back on the woollen knee socks Mr. Roth had given me. (Unlike cotton, wool, I had discovered on my journey, keeps you warm even when it is wet.) Then I stepped into the smallest pair of rubber boots, and put on the jumper – it hung down to my knees – and one of the rubberized rain coats. I cleaned up my mess as good as I could, took one of the woollen blankets from one of the bunk beds, and an Orson Scott Card from a stack of Science Fiction and Fantasy books on a shelf, turned off all the lights, faucets, switches, and fuses, and cleared out.

In the birch wood I found a well hidden spot, a bit up a hillside, from where I would see both the cabin and the path leading across the moor without being seen myself. I hung my clothes to dry, snuggled up in the blanket, took a crumbling, moss-covered log for my pillow, and tried to get some rest. Given the circumstances I slept reasonably well.

At first light I put my own cold and still damp clothes back on, and climbed the nearest hill top. I would guess the elevation at maybe 300 meters and I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area. He land was very beautiful, in its bleak and monotonous way: Undulating, mostly shallow hills in shades of dark auburn, burnt umber, and sepia, broken here and there by pale grey and chalky white ridges of bare rock. There were patches of heath and rushes. Most hollows contained small lakes or pools. To the Northwest the country got rougher and rockier, to the West, beyond the lake, there were mountains. The foot of the hill I was on and the shore of the lake were bearded with birches and pines. There might have been a road on the far side of the lake, and maybe a house a good way down the shore, but that might have been a ruin. Other than that there was no sign of human life in sight. I though that this was actually a pretty good spot to lay low for a while.

Walking had warmed me up, and my body heat soon dried my clothes, except for the boots. For the rest of the morning I walked around the area, checked out escape routes, vantage points, and other useful features. I found out that the house I had seen wasn’t a ruin, but boarded up and not in use, like the MacLeod cottage. It had a small pier. On the pier lay, turned over against rain, a small fibreglass rowboat, which I heaved into the water and used to scout out the small island closest to the MacLeod cottage. On the South side of the island I found an old, overgrown orchard, many of the dark, crooked branches weighed down with ripe apples. I collected some, sat down on a comfortable rock, and while I ate my fill, I read the Orson Scott Card. Later I took a dozen more apples along, enough to last me the rest of the day.

I returned the boat and walked back to the cottage for some more hot tea. There was no food in the kitchenette, but sugar, and I poured enough in the thermos to make the tea viscous with it.

Finally I returned to my look out post and in the company of Mr. Card I waited for Sim.

In the late afternoon someone came riding down the path on a bicycle. It was him, dressed in a school uniform, black-and-yellow tie flying behind him like a streaming pennon. Over the waters the tall, helmet-shaped mountain had just been set aflame by the setting sun, and the reflection of those burning rocks gave everything a grim, war-like hue, and his wite button-down shirt, damp with sweat, seemed soaked in blood.

I watched him skid on the gravelled path as he turned into the final curve to the cottage. When I was satisfied that nobody had followed him, I came down the hill behind him. By the time I reached the bike, dumped carelessly on the ground, wheels still coming to a stop, he had disappeared inside. He looked crestfallen, when he came back out, but as soon as he saw me standing in the m idle of the track, his face lit up again.

“Awricht, Dana. Masel tsocht ye didna come efter aw.”

I crossed my arms, didn’t return the smile.

“I gave you my word, didn’t I?”

“Aye, sae ye did, Mr. Blanchard.”

“He could have asked, before calling the bloody police.”

For a moment Sim’s face darkened. It took me a second to realize that it was with shame, not anger.

“Yer richt. Masel hae tae apologise fer ma Paw. Hisel’s a menseless, unwycelike oof what tsinks tey rules o’ courtesy dinna apple tae Sassenachs.”

Sassenach – or Saxon, Gaelic for Englishmen and sometimes all foreigners – was a word I knew already. But more than than I knew the sound that crept into Sim’s voice as he said it, that helpless rage and anguish about someone you couldn’t stop loving, no matter how much you wished to. I had heard it often enough on my own voice.

“Well, thank you for warning me. And for offering shelter.”

“Och, least A coud dae. Finnd ye t’wey awricht?”

“Yeah. Only got wet feet.”

“Bit ye dinna bide inower.”

He gestured towards the house that indeed looked as if I hadn’t set foot inside. It wasn’t a question, the way he posed it. I hesitated just long enough to see the expression of shame and rage deepen on his face. He understood too well.

“I shouldn’t have doubted you. I’m sorry.”

He shrugged.

“Och aye. Let’s gae ben and git ye wairmt oop and fed.”

On the way inside, I noticed he was limping slightly.

“You okay?” I asked, nodding towards his leg. “You hurt?”

“It’s naessin. Chust a wee bit sair.”

Sim opened the shutters of the two windows that were not visible from the lake or the path, turned on the heating, and put on the electric kettle. He told me to take off my wet boots and socks and put them on the radiator.

While he did that I asked: “So, what happened after I was gone?”

“Naessin much. Masel telt Conall. When oor paw finnd ye gaen, he suddent hae minds ye wis oan yer wey tae Ullapul, Conall haed. Bit oniwey, t’ polis un An Gjerstan wisna seekin fer ye. Aisser yer fowks ne’er cawd ‘em, or tay dinna ken ye’r in t’ Gailtacht.”

“Gailtacht?”

“T’ Hieland. Here awa.”

He smiled and spread his arms to embrace the land in its entirety.

Well, that figured. There was no reason for anyone to be looking for me up here, after all. The last I had been spotted was leaving a bus not even quite out of Wotton, Gloucestershire. I couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Suddenly Sim grinned and got something from his backpack.

“Bit chust tae be shuir, masel brocht ye tus!” He handed me a pair of scissors and a pack of dye. “And tus.” And he produced a plastic bag stuffed with old clothes.

I weighed the pack in may hand and gave him a grim smile. Half an hour later I had somewhat scrubby, short, dirty blond hair, and was dressed in threadbare jeans, a white T, and a zippered, olive jumper with elbow patches. Looking in the mirror I had to admit that no verbal description would connect me with the boy who had sat down for supper at the MacLeod dinner table. Sim even made me exchange the motorcycle jacket I had stolen from Ruth for a sheepskin-lined denim jacket that had once belonged to Aidan, another of Sim’s brothers, who no longer lived at their rents’s place. I only refused to give up my Oxblood Doc Martens.

“Sae guid as new,” Sim confirmed. “Hark, masel hae tae gae hame fer tea, bit if ye want, A kin come back efter.”

“That would be great. You sure you won’t get into trouble?”

“Me? Nae!” He grinned again, his marvellous chipped grin. “Ye kin caw msel Sim Blanchard, mo caritsh. Onie usse tsin ye want fer me tae bring on ye?”

So I asked him for fags, and off he went, still limping. Again I went outside and spent the time in between up on the hill. This time when I saw him return, alone and un-followed, I went back inside in time, turned on the radio, and waited for him there.

He had brought me two packs of Marlboro.

“Bit no inower or ma paw will ken.”

We went outside onto the short pier. I tore open the pack, got one out, broke off the filter, sparked up and sucked in a lung full of smoke. I offered the pack to Sim and after a moments hesitation he took one. He did his best to hide that he was unused to it, and I pretended not to notice. We sat down next to each other.

“Everything alright at your rents’s?” I asked

“Shuir. Nae problems at’a.”

And then he asked, timidly: “What’s yer tale, tenn, mo caritsh?”

“Ran away, travelled around, got no real goal.”

He peered at me in the deepening gloom, blinking when smoke got into his eyes. He waited for me to continue, but I brazened it out.

“C’mon,” he finally said softly. “Tsat’s no fair.”

I sighed, and then to my own surprise I found myself nodding, and beginning to talk. And to my much bigger surprise I found myself not even making up stuff.

I didn’t tell him much of the hard facts, like my name or where I was from. I moved my aunt from Gloucestershire to Wales, and altered all other names and dates and locations somewhat. But as the night progressed and he kept asking questions, I told him more and more of the truth, the whys and hows, of the joys and the pains and fears, as good as I understood them myself. I told him a lot about Edinburgh – which I made out to have been Glasgow, although he knew too much of both cities to be fooled, it turned out – and he sucked up everything about the cons, about “James” (i.e. Charley), and about “Kit” (Ponyboy), and about my trip through the Highlands. I even mentioned Cannich.

Finally we fell silent.

“Gie’s anusser,” he said. I did and lit it for him.

He rolled onto his tummy and blew the smoke over the quiet water.

“A ken what happened tae ye in Corie an t’ Shee, in t’ Mullardochs.”

“What happened to me there?”

“Ye wis taken by t’ Deena Shee tae Elfin.” He turned his head and looked over his shoulder at me in the darkness. “Tae Fairyland. Tay bide unner t’ hills, t’ Shee. Bit when yer lacer bruik, tey bud let ye gae.” And at my amused expression: “A’m bluidy serious, Dana. Tay ar real, sae tay ar.”

He looked back down onto the water and into his own dark reflection. Then he extinguished the fag in the lake and but the butt to the others to dispose of in the bin later. He rolled onto his side, propped up his head on his hand, elbow on the planks of the pier. He paused, began to say something, hesitated, and began again.

“Will ye lairn us?”

“Learn…?”

“Lairn. Teach.”

“Teach… what?”

“What ye ken. Lairn us tsievin. Connin. An aw tsat.”

“You want me to give you a course in Larceny 101?”

Sim laughed, a quiet, mirthful laugh, if a bit shakey.

“Aye.” And pleadingly: “Ma shay duh hull ay.”

Cehenneme git!” My words were out before I could think about them. “I will not. Are you nuts?”

Sim sat up, awkwardly. He got to his feet stiffly and walked back into the cottage. I put out my own fag and followed him. Sim turned on the light.

“Why the fuck would you want to learn any of that, Sim?” I asked. He blinked at me in the bright light of the lamp over the table.

“Hou no? Ye’re daeing it, aren’ ye?”

“Weren’t you listening? I went to jail.”

“An tsat dinna stap ye, A notice.”

“Look, I appreciate your help, I really do. And if there is anything I can do for you, I will. But that is crazy. You live in a village with, what, maybe one hundred inhabitants? That’s about as many as in the single kahrolası tower block I was raised in. How long do you think I would have lasted had I only plied my trade in my own kahrolası house? Or your school – how many pupils are in that school?”

“A hunnert and aichty-nine.” Face and voice sullen.

“My school has 2000 kahrolası pupils. My kahrolası primary school had 600. And I never would have been so stupid to try to steal in either. I know it sucks to hear that, but your world is too kahrolası small to be a crook in, man.”

“A daena ken tsat wird. Kuh-ro-lasse?”

“It’s Turkish. Means damned.”

“Wha sais masel wull bide here foriver?”

Siktir git! That’s not a party game, Sim. That’s not a kahrolası adventure novel. If you don’t practice that, and practice every day, it’s no good to you at all.”

“Sae?”

“So, you can’t practice here. And you’re bloody fourteen. By the time you’re eighteen you’ll have forgotten all of it. Look, Sim. Some stuff you can learn by doing. Playing football or riding your bike. Some stuff, that’s a really bad idea, like flying a plane, or free climbing, or picking kahrolası pockets. You’ll only get in kahrolası deep trouble. I don’t need to waste my time for that.”

A phit! Ye’re nae twa years aulder tan masel if yer a day, and if ye gat yersel t’ jyle hinder year, ye haed tae hae stairted yer tsievin t’ same age as masel uss noo.” He glared at me. His face was pale, and his thick dark curls hung down his forehead. He shook them out of his eyes with an angry flick of his head. “Mebbe masel wull practeese on a kuhrolasse suit wi bells, like tsay daed auld lang syne. Oniwey, whit’s it tae ye? Aren’ye chust efter telling me aw aboot hou ut’s yer ain richt tae fuck oop yer ain life houaniver ye chuise? Ar ye really gaen tae tell us noo masel nae hae tsat richt? Feech, if tsat’s sae ye kin fuck yersel, Sassenach!”

We stared at each other across the table. Sim had his fists balled tightly, and his shoulders were shaking.

“Why did ye tell Ceana to get me out of the house yesterday?”

“Whitwey?”

“Ceana told me you put her up to it. To ask if I would accompany her to feed the horses. Why?”

He swallowed and stared at the floor. Then he sighed.

“Masel haed tae talk tae Conall aboot ye. And mak siccar ma paw and ma maw wadna pit quaistans on ye. And… and masel etteled at getting ye pit oop in ma chaumer.”

“You… what… ettled? Chaumer?”

He sighed again. “A tried tae get ye pit oop in ma bed-room.”

I thought about that.

“How? Never mind why. How did you do that?”

“Bi makkin on tae ma maw masel didna want ye tar. Tsat’s aw it teuk.”

“You took extra long to clean up your homework before supper, too, didn’t you? To keep the chair next to you free, so that I would have to sit there.”

The anger still nested in Sim’s eyes, but he couldn’t quite suppress a grin. He shrugged.

“You are one devious bastard, you know that?” I asked.

“Telt ye, ye kin caw masel Blanchard an aw.”

“Aye, so you did.”

Across the table I offered my hand to him, even though in my heart of hearts I knew it was a mistake. But then, I never could say no to him.

“Okay, Sim MacLeod. For as long as I stay, I will teach you what I know.”

“Ye hecht?” His eyes were hard. “Ye’ll haud tryst?”

I didn’t know those words, but the meaning was clear enough.

“I promise. And I keep my word.”

And so I did, damn me. And so I did.

Continued here

Conall’s family lived in one of those long, whitewashed stone-built cottages, with small awning windows along the front and back and none in the narrow side walls that peak in a chimney. It was set a little back from the road, on a rise yellow with high, flowering gorse. The Defender roared as Conall raced it up that last bit before killing the engine in a choked stutter. When I stepped out, the coconut smell of the gorse washed over me. The sea, on the other side of the road, was dark, and quiet.

Conall took me inside. Everything was crowded with boots and coats and people. The air was steamy with the smell of boiling cabbage, and wet dog, and many conversations being carried on at once. In the living room a table was being set while a boy and a girl were hastily finishing homework. Three older men in work clothes were discussing something in Gaelic in the hall next to the front door. In the kitchen a matronly woman, her long hair streaked with silver, was directing more young people to cut bread and fill jugs. Lamps were spaced haphazardly, so that some areas were gloomy and others brightly lit, increasing the sense of buzzing chaos.

Conall shouted over the din to several people that I was “Danny” and that I would stay for tea. Several people nodded to me. The boy at the table, who was maybe a year or two younger than me, and who had dark, curly hair, bright eyes, and a chipped tooth, looked up from his homework and asked something in Gaelic. Conall laughed and answered back. I understood that he made it clear that my name was “Daniel”, not “Dana.”

Then he said to me “Masel buist fault tae yowes” and left again. I had no idea what that had meant. A young woman, maybe three or four years older than me, greeted me. Her English had the same beautiful Scottish sing-song, and the dry, harsh “r”s, but was a lot more intelligible than most of her family.

“Hi Danny. A’m Iona. Pleased tae meet ye. Tae’s awmost ready. D’ye want tae wash oop?”

And she showed me a tiny bathroom next to the kitchen. It had just about space for one deep, chipped enamel sink, and a loo with a rickety, wooden seat, and two feet, and it smelled very strongly of soap.

I closed the door, and breathed deeply. I washed my face and my hands rather thoroughly, and combed wet fingers through my shaggy and by now shoulder long hair. I looked down on myself: I was wearing my patched fatigue trousers, and – under an old black leather motorcycle jacket – a black T with bold, mustard yellow letters inviting everyone to “Guess where I’m pierced”. I had appropriated the T from an Australian backpacker on Skye. At the time I had thought it was pretty funny, but now I felt decidedly uncomfortable in it. But I couldn’t very well keep the jacket, that I had taken along when I’d left the sleeping Ruth, buttoned up to hide it, could I?

So, when I came out again and Iona took my jacket to hang it on a hook in the hall that had already two or three other pieces of garment hanging from it, the boy at the table nudged the girl and pointed out the words on my chest. Both giggled.

Iona said something to them in Gaelic, rather sharply, and they began gathering up their pens and papers. People filed into the room and sat down on chairs.

“Hey! Ta’ss ma sait!” the boy shouted when someone else wanted to sit on the chair he had been on before.

“Awricht, awricht, Sim. Dinna tak a sparey. Whit’s wi aw yir gibbles on ma ane cheer?”

“Chust sit on Conall’s fer noo!”

Sim – that’s pronounced shim – cleaned up his mess, and by the time he was done, everybody had taken their seat and  the only one that remained for me was the one next to him, from which he just then removed his book and papers.

I was officially introduced to Mr. and Mrs. MacLeod – he was one of the three men from the hall, a broad-shouldered, big-handed man with closely cropped, steel grey hair, and a dashing scar on the right side of his face; she was the woman the kitchen with the silver in her hair, and eyes surrounded by a nest of crow’s feet.

When Mr. MacLeod shook my hand across the table, he greeted me, but left my name hanging, expecting me to complete it: “Daniel…?”

“Balnchard, Sir. Daniel Blanchard.”

Gerald Daniel Blanchard is a Canadian master thief, who burgled amongst other places an Austrian castle in 1998, and who had finally been caught in 2007. I had followed his process with fascination and awe.

“Thank you for sharing your supper with me,” I added. “It was very kind of Conall to invite me.”

Mr. MacLeod seemed pleased, and for the rest of the meal, I was mostly left alone. Soon enough the necessary information transfer that always occurs when a large family sits down together took up everybody’s attention. And when Conall came back, he had to explain about the cut on his face – he had gotten plastered and fallen in to a barbed wire fence – and then about the sheep, or yowes, he had bought.

Only Sim kept quietly bugging me.

“Whaur ye frae, mo caritsh?”

“Canada.”

“Uss’at sae? Whaurawa frae tare?”

“Winnipeg.”

“Och, aye? Nae frae Quebec?”

“No.”

“Bit Blanchard uss a French naem, nae?”

“Yes, but people have French names outside of Quebec as well.”

“Yer accent ussna Canadian, uss’t?”

“My mum is from Austria.”

“Hou auld ar ye?”

“Sixteen.”

“Awricht? Ye leuk yunger. Masel uss fourteen!”

That last bit he said with all the pride of someone who only earned that distinction very recently.

“Sae, whit ar ye daeing in bonnie auld Alba?” He grimaced and thre a quick look at his dad, before he added: “In Scotland A meant.”

“Just travelling.”

“Aw by yersel?”

“My rents are back on Skye. Your brother Conall picked me up hitchhiking.”

And so on.

While Sim kept up this constant Q&A, I tried to figure out the peeps at the table and their relationships. Mr. MacLeod was a right patriarch, he kept the pose of the unmoved mover at the head of the table – and even though the table was round, it was very obvious that the head was wherever he sat. The others seemed to regard him with a mix of fear and respect. Most of the other were his children, and their general management was apparently left to Mrs. MacLeod. There were two daughters and three sons present, though I gathered that a few more had already left the house. One girl was a friend of Iona, and one boy a mate of seventeen year old Boyd. One of the older men from the hall had left when supper had started, but the other was a friend and neighbour, and I got the impression that he and Mr. MacLeod were working on some project or deal together, but could not pick up any details.

Eventually tea was over. I offered to help with the dishes, but Ceana, the youngest, and the one who had been doing homework together with Sim when I’d arrived, wanted me to help her with her chores, namely feeding the horses and rabbits. Sim, who would have had to go also, asked if I could fill in for him, so he could help Conall with something (a lot of technical farming terms were used, in Scots or even Gaelic, too boot, and it all went right by me.)

Ceana showed me their four horses and the rabbits they kept in boxes behind the house. From her I learned that her family were crofters, people who kept a small farm next to a main job. Her father captained a whale-watching boat from Port Maree and her mother did some administrative work for the Highland Council. But they also raised quail, held sheep, offered hiking tours in summer, and hunting tours in autumn. And they had two hunting cottages to rent to tourists.

It my be girlish, but I really like horses. When I had been younger and begun getting into trouble, this one counsellor got me a place in a stable in the Southwest  of Berlin. I was told that it was a job, taking care of the animals. I only learned later that in fact my mum had to pay for it, and that it was therapy. I still bristled at the memory of the deception, but I really enjoyed spending some time with the horses. And when Ceana noticed that I got along with them, and knew what to do, she warmed to me. That was how I found out that Sim had put her up to getting me out of the house.

When I got back, Conall told me that I would stay in his and Sim’s room for the night. He would sleep in the room of another sibling who wasn’t there that night. It seemed a bit complicated but I went along. From the pitying looks I received from Mrs. MacLeod and Iona I understood that Conall had relayed my tale of woe.

Sim showed me to the room and gave me some washed out PJs from one of his older brothers. I had expected him to take up his interrogation again, but he hurried away and left me to my own devices. I was fine with that, and sank into the thick covers. I had had more to eat than in a long wile, and since I had begun the day early and with some serious walking on Skye before getting that ill-fated lift, I was quickly asleep.

Not much later, Sim shook me awake.

“Wheesht” he hissed, signalled me to be quiet, and handed me my jacket.

“Pit on yet claes!”

“What?”

“Yer claes.” He also tossed my trousers and T onto the bed. “Coorie oop!”

“Why?” I asked, but instinct had me obeying already.

“Akis ye coud fuil ma glaikit brusser wi yer yairn, bit nae ma paw, ye bawheid. An me naisser. Tsat T-shert o’ yers, nae lad what’s feart o’ his paw wat pe caucht deid in it. And oniewey, A ken what Gerlad Blanchard uss. So A ken yer nae what ye said ye ar. Bit ma paw onlie suspects, sae he’s callin’ t’ polis in An Gjerestan reit noo! Tsat’s hou ye want uptail tis bluidy seicont!”

He opened the dormer window and looked out.

“Kin ye sclim o’er tae t’ ruif and…”

But I was already at his side, then up on the window sill, and pulling myself onto the eave line and the dormer roof.

I looked down from there and said: “Thank you, Sim!”

That was the first time, I used his name.

He smiled up at me: “Isheh do veha, Dana.”

That was, what he would call me from then on forth.

There was a noise on the landing outside his room. I froze. He ducked inside but after a second he had his head back outside.

“Fause alairm. Hey, haud on fer a sec. Masel uss richt back.”

He disappeared and I heard him hurry out of the room. I considered scarpering anyway, but while I was still checking out the best – and that meant quietest – way down from the roof, he was already back.

“Here, tak tsir.” He held up a ring with two keys. “Tay’re fer ane o’ oor deer stalkin’ boossies.” And he explained to me how to get there.

“It’s toom richt noo,” and at my confused look: “Empty. Nae occupied. Ye kin scug tare. A’ll come by t’ morn and bring ye sum scran… sum food.”

“Okay.”

I wanted to turn away, but he whispered: “A kin onlie come efter schuil us soot. Ye promise ye’ll be tare, Dana?”

He looked zp at me, his face pale in the darkness.

I promised. He nodded and ducked back inside. I crawled across the roof to the windowless side wall and down the downspout, and disappeared in the night.

Continued here

I spent a couple of days on the Isle of Skye, walking around mostly along the shore, swimming in the sea, and reading my way through a bunch of cheap crime and romance novels I picked up at the hostels. In the hostel in Uig in the north of the island I met Ruth, a thief from London who had specialised on backpackers. We spent a night of getting drunk on whiskey and swapping tales and tips about grafting and life on the street. I tried to get her to join me in some confidence game, but she wouldn’t. She had been screwed royally by another con artist a while back and had been caught. It had cost her 10 months and 2 prison rapes. She would never again trust anyone to play anything more complex than straight theft. She tried to get me to team up with her for that. I’d had enough of that in Leeds.

Thursday afternoon I got a ride out of Broadford Bay. Sparring was opened right away with the confession of the Honda Civic Si diver who had picked me up that he normally didn’t take on hitchhikers because of “how today’s youth is”. I probably succeeded in confirming most of his prejudices – more than he knew when he finally kicked me out at that unmotivated roundabout outside Achnasheen, since I had lifted his wallet and a high end mp3 player from the coat he had flung on the back seat.

I was still giving him a two fingered salute and shouting some choice expletives in Polish and Turkish after his diminishing hatchback when a muddy, dented, bottle-green Defender One-Ten Pickup stopped next to me. Two sheep were bleating under the aluminium hard-top covering the bed. The window was cranked down and a large, slender brown dog looked out. Past him, from the driver’s seat, a young man with a freshly stitched up face peered at me.

Faesger ma. Masel ween ye want fer anusser ride.”

He wore dirty curderoys, tall, olive Wellingtons, and a colourless, coarse woollen jumper. His hair was cropped to a fuzz. The stitches on his left temple and cheek gave him a rakish appearance, but underneath he seemed friendly, and open, and ready to laugh.

He reached past the dog and opened the passenger door. I climbed in.

“Thank you.”

Isheh do veha,” he answered and put the car in gear. “Masel uss on t’wey tae Inverewe, by Port Maree. Bit if yer gaun aist A coud tak ye tae Garve or Ullapul.”

None of these place names meant much to me, though I had heard of Ullapool. So I said: “Ullapool would be perfect, if it’s not too much trouble.”

He let the clutch come too fast, and stuttering and coughing the Defender crawled out of the roundabout, and only picked up speed as we passed through Achnasheen, past the train station and a burned down hotel. The dog sniffed at me and gave a short bark. His tail thumped against the vinyl upholstery.

“Awricht. Masel uss Conall. T’ dug uss Jovantucarus.”

“Daniel,” I answered.

“Nice tae meet ye, Danny. Whaur ye frae?”

That one was always tricky. If you are too far from home, it raises all sorts of questions. But passing yourself off as local obviously doesn’t work either. Back in England I had sometimes gone with relatives living somewhere beyond where my ride would take me, sometimes embellished with a sick single mum and the need to stay with said relatives for a while, but in the Highlands I had made the experience that peeps were apt to go out of their way and hand me over to my imaginary family. So I went with this tale instead:

“I’m from Canada, but my dad’s grandmother came from Scotland. My parents are visiting some distant relative today, but I didn’t want to, so they let me explore a bit on my own.”

Conall was astonished at how far I had gotten, on my own (I kept underestimating travel distance in the Highlands, it may not be much as the Crow flies, but given the state of the often single track roads, it was a lot in travel-time), but I think I would have pulled it off, had not a police car come our way shortly after, lights flashing. Normally, the best way to react to the rozzers is by keeping your face under control and just going about your business as if nothing’s amiss. But the A832 between Achnasheen and Garve had been bloody deserted and I still had the wallet and the mp3 player of that Civic driver burning a hole into my pocket. So I slunk down and pressed myself into the corner between seat and passenger door. Conall watched me and raised an eyebrow, but kept on driving.

“Sumtsun masel shoud ken?”

I tried to turn my slinking manoeuvre into a yawn and stretch, fully aware that it wouldn’t be convincing, not after my worried glance into the wing mirror. But the police car had disappeared behind us, and it set up my next yarn nicely.

“C’mon, Danny. Masel uss no blind. Why’re ye hidin frae t’ polis?”

I summoned up the memories of Cannich and all the shame and resentment I could and put on a sullen face. And I told him about an abusive dad, and a stupid cow of a mother who never fought back – and how last night he had gone off on one of his rages again, back in the holiday cottage on Skye they had rented. How normally I would weather these storms at a friend’s place, but how there wasn’t anyone here. So I’d taken some money and planned to make the best of it, stay in some hostel, and wait out the three days it usually took him to calm down again.

I mostly stared out the window or at the scuffed tips of my boots as I talked, my head ducked to match the role of the battered child, but I threw Conall a furtive glance, and to my astonishment saw he had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. There was no doubt on his face, just compassion and concern.

“You will not hand me over to the cops, will you? If they drag me back now, only one day into his fit, he’ll smile and be polite and my mom will back him up in everything. They’ll make it all out to be my imagination and stuff. But he’ll kill me once they’re gone. Seriously, you must promise not to tell!”

Conall promised, solemnly. And then he invited me to stay at his family’s place for the night. I tried to wriggle out of that, but I’d dug myself in too deep, and short of jumping out of the car and running away, there wasn’t a no he’d accept for an answer.

So at Braemore Junction, he took the turn for Wester Ross, and in silence and a golden sunset we drove through some of the most breath-taking land I have ever seen. On the right the sea, quiet and slate grey, and reaching for the horizon. And on the left the earth dark with moor and heath, and the rushes pale golden and shivering in the wind. And behind that, dusted in snow, the mountains, rising, and rising, like time made substance.

Continued here