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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.