It was raining again when I entered Glen Dee. The sky was as rugged as the ground, clouds, torn, chasing each other, sunlight coming through the ragged opening in scattered bursts, the way a gunman might occasionally strafe a besieged house with bursts of automatic fire. The hills on both sides of the glen grew into mountains and the path itself plodded ever upwards.
In the evening I reached a mountain whose lopsided peak jutted out impressively over the glen, like a cock straining against tight trousers. As I found out later it’s called “Devil’s Point” in English, which was the polite translation of its Gaelic name as it was told to Queen Victory when she travelled through these parts. A more literal translation would be “demon dick”.
There was a small stone hut at the foot of the Devil’s Point. I thought about spending the night there, but when I got close, I saw that a group of happy hikers were just getting cozy inside, hanging freshly washed socks from the window sill and busying themselves with the fireplace. I greeted them half-heartedly, without breaking my stride. I hurried past the hut and up a small path that lead to the ridge joining the Devil’s Point and several other peaks to a plateau.
I had not intended to climb any of these peaks. I had wanted to stay on the trail along the valley. But the path to the stone hut had taken me away from the main trail, and once I was there and saw that it was occupied, I only had the choices of either staying, or turning around, or walking on, uphill.
I didn’t want to stay. Helen and John had been all the company I craved that day. And I didn’t want to turn around, because doing so would have made it only to apparent to those hikers that I was avoiding them. And somehow that moment I couldn’t have born the shame of my cowardice becoming visible to them. Even if it meant having to drag myself up that devilish mountain.
I cursed myself every exhausting and agonizing step. Each made my shoulder throb with a deep, dull fire. And when the night had quietly done away with the last of the dusk I found myself in a large corrie, illuminated only by the wan light of a distant, gibbous moon – an immense natural amphitheatre made up of moss-covered rocks and steep slopes. And I felt very lost, and small, and terribly exposed to the heavens.
The corrie was lines with little brooks. I found a dry, sandy spot between two of them, had the last of Helen Campbell’s sandwiches, emptied the bottle, tended to my feet, and finally smoked my last fag and gazed down into the Glen, and the tiny flickering light of the hearth fire in the stone hut far below me at the foot of the mountain.
As I sat there I was still mulling over the things Helen had said. And her question whether I believe in God and in Jesus Christ.
Just to be clear on this, I do believe in God. I do. I do. But… how do I say this?
My Dad had been raised a Roman Catholic, and my aunt had converted to the Church of England when she married. My cousins had been raised Anglicans. My mum is from a family of strict Prussian Lutheran protestants. My oldest friend and neighbour, Orcun, was from a family of moderately devout Muslims. And Hector’s parents were lapsed Communists and strict and vocal atheists. From the beginning I had known that whatever anyone wanted to claim about religion, there was always a way to look at things differently.
My mum had me and my siblings baptized in the local Lutheran parish, and all but me went to Confirmation class from 12 onward. I was the only one to flat out refuse to go. But that was the extend of my mum’s involvement with the Church. The only times I ever saw her even talk to the vicar was during ‘Nette’s funeral, and at Nicky’s baptism 2 ½ years later.
Primary school offered religious instruction for Protestants and Catholics, but none for Muslims, so it mainly served as a segregator for the main ethnicities – the German kids mostly went to the Lutheran class, Polish kids to the Catholic, and the Turkish and Arabic kids had a free period (but usually visited a Qur’an school some afternoons of the week.) Again it seemed to me that somehow religion was less about truth and more about belonging, about identity and taking sides.
I remember how astonished I was when I finally received religious instructions how boring and meaningless everything was that I was being told about God and Jesus. How God – supposedly almighty and all-knowing – was this soppy stern chap who in some never fully explained way was supposed to love everybody (like, what does that even mean?) and watch over the entire world and every littlest critter in it, and who for some reason was to be credited with every good turn but never to be blamed for everything that went wrong. And Jesus, the son (or incarnation, they never could tell me which) of this almighty God, had brought even more love and forgiveness into the world – I kept wondering what a perfect God needed a version 2.0 for – but then got killed rather badly for it.
And then I looked around in my world, and inside myself, and saw all the violence, and the callousness, the pettiness, and how messed up and dirty and run down everything was, and I thought, kurwa, He sure is doing a terrible job.
I also began to seriously resent my teacher, and God, because if there was any truth in what she told me about God’s intentions and power, then God must either hold one hell of a grudge against me, or – and that was even worse – I must be so unimportant that in all his omniscience He never noticed me.
And then ‘Nette started her confirmation classes, and in the nights we would talk about what she had learned, and what she was thinking about all of it. And we’d try to make sense of it ourselves. And once again I was astonished, this time because the stuff we read was nothing like that boring, pedantic, and utterly ineffective God the grown-ups had been telling me about.
The God of the bible is a truly wicked bloke. He is rash to anger and totally overreacts to everything. He blunders along and often acts before he thinks and then comes to regret it later, or changes his mind in mid-stride. He blusters and boasts, sulks, and refuses to admit when he’s made a mistake. He’s bloodthirsty, and untrustworthy, and incredibly vain. But He is full of love – and not that boring, serene love my dried-up teach was going on about, but a love that years, and hurts, is proud, and tender, and that knows how to forgive, not for morals butt for passion. Who could read the story of God and David and not be moved by the flawed, fiery passion for one another?
The bible is full of great folks, and I was pissed off that the teach had made them all sound so dull. There was David, and his suggestive, well, not even love-triangle but love-quadrangle, with King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan and saul’s daughter Michal. I mean, talk about kinky. David’s career as an outlaw and rebel, his ascent to kingship, his trouble with his own sons, and his less than glorious old age.
Or take Jacob, the thief, liar, and runaway, who got into actual fisticuffs with God, and who God loved so much that he re-named him Israel. Or Job, who took God to court and forced Him to show His true colours. Or Moses, who I think it can be argued is the only person other than Mary who has a reasonable claim to the boast that God made love to him, but who was still turned back at the border of the promised land and had to die, alone, in the desert.
At the age of 10 the New Testament was a bit boring for me and often very hard to understand. But even there were hidden gems that the grown-ups had withheld from me: Why do they gloss over Herod’s mass child murder in the Christmas Story? And who came up with these three boring old kings, when the actual text tells of an numberless group of wise men – possibly wizards! – from the East? And then there are moments like the one when Jesus begs God to spare him, when he is filled with fear and doubt, but God refuses him and Jesus is nailed to the cross anyway. Later when ‘Nette’s tumour had metastasised into her bones and she had to be given morphine, an still it hurt her so badly, I had to think of the crucifiction and what it would feel like to have nails driven through my wrists and the spans of my feet.
This God of the bible was a God who made sense, a God who fit the world I was living in. It wasn’t a God I could approach about a new bicycle or a Playstation, sure, but it was one I could somehow respect.
Until he murdered my sister.
That long Saturday afternoon, as I walked up Glen Dee and climbed the Devil’s Point, He was a lot on my mind again, and for the first time in years I asked myself if I still had faith. If I was, as Helen had said, putting my fate in the hands of God.
The idea bothered me, it bothered me a lot. I mean, if I allowed for God as the charioteer of destiny, I could hardly avoid it, could I? But it rankled with me: Since her death I had never begged. I preferred to take what I wanted and be damned the consequences. I didn’t want handouts from Him.
When I was sitting up on the mountainside, shivering in my damp clothes in the night’s chilling breeze, I tried to see the world through the Atheist’s eyes. It was surprisingly easy, under those racing clouds, with the cold and distant stars blinking through them from afar. It was easy to imagine the vastness to be empty not only of matter or warmth, but of meaning. But it remained a thought experiment. It didn’t truly relieve me of my conviction.
It did make me remember those nights, though, when I’d lain in my sister’s bed, had felt the warmth of her body against mine, smelled her skin and the shampoo in her hair, and when we had gazed out through the narrow window, so high on the wall – the same window that I would try to flee through from that lady rozzer only a few years later, condemning myself to jail and all that followed – and through which we had looked at the very same stars that I was seeing now, from the slopes of the Devil’s Point. And the memory hurt. It hurt with a raw, sudden intensity I had not expected, and I wanted to cry out in pain.
Instead I bit down on that pain, and spit it onto the gravel, and snarled: “Yeah, well, fuck you, too!” And I curled up as tight as I could, under those cold stars, and surrendered myself to the nightmares once more.
It would be easy to leave it at that and to move on to the scary White Van Man from Beauly, and that beastly night in Cannich, and my near death experience in the Mullardochs, but that would be dishonest.
When I woke up I was very cold and did a double Aikido session before walking back down from the Devil’s Point. The day was misty and gloomy and I was hungry and very thirsty. By the time I reached the hut the hikers had moved n. I looked around inside, vaguely hoping to find some left over food, or to warm myself on the ambers of their fire, but only warm ash remained, not enough to do me any good.
My shoulder hurt if anything even worse than the day before. It made me think of Ponyboy, and I knelt down in the middle of the room and wanked. That made the pain flare up, but I gritted my teeth and brought myself to a sad, whimpering ejaculation onto the floor. Still kneeling I pissed on it as well. Then I buttoned up and left.
I drank of the cold waters of the Dee, filled up the bottle, and walked on. The sun came out for a while, and to my right be Ben Macdui reached for the sky. Clouds came and went, but the mountain remained, its peak dipping in and out of the wisps of mist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the mountains in Scotland, but they are nothing like the Alps, or the mountains of the Balkans. The Cairngorms may have rocky cliffs here and there, and sometimes there are clumps of trees at their feet – pine, and birch, and aspen, and bushes of juniper and rowan – but other than that they are these rounded humps, steep, but startlingly smooth, overgrown with heather and lichen in the valley, but the tops bald and covered in immense fields of lose, round, fist-sized stones. Walking amongst them is like paddling a small sealskin canoe through an immense herd of gigantic whales.
And so, their steep, smooth walls flowing out ahead of me along the valley’s sides, the valley floor itself rising like a wave to the distant pass, in spite of my anger and resentment, it made my spirits lift.
And when I passed a gushing creek coming down the mountain I veered off the path and began to hike up a pathless mountainside. It was hard going, and soon I was out of breath, but I didn’t slow down. My eyes were constantly on the lookout for the next good foothold, my brain kept calculating distance and balance, and once again it was his magic of movement, the trance of the trop, that pulled my heart along.
From time to time it rained, and the cold water ran down my body underneath my clothes. Then the sun came out again and dried me. And then, finally, in densest fog, I reached the heap of stones that marked the highest peak of the Ben Macdui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms.
Look, I don’t want to take back anything I just told you about my relationship to God, or life, or anything. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t convince me of anything. But still… while I stood there, catching my breath, the sky tore open, the mists around me blew apart, the world unrolled all its horizons, and the sun set everything ablaze. All the wetness caught and magnified her fierce fire, like a universe of jewels. No religion or philosophy dreamed up by humans can say as mayn good tings about the world, or say them as convincingly, as the sun, the air, the water, and the rocks did just then.
After that it was all downhill. By afternoon I surrounded by trees again, where I promptly got lost. By nightfall, tired beyond endurance, I ended up in Inverdruie, where I spent the night. Monday I first had a look at the Aviemore Centre, a piece of daring architecture from the 1960s so incredibly uncool that it is actually kind of cool again, and hitchhiked to Inverness, where I arrived in the evening.