Archive for the ‘journey’ Category

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.
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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.

 

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

Chapter Seven: Storm

Posted: March 13, 2011 in booze, future, journey, scotland
But you, of all people, know how fast the weather can change.
– Patrick Stewart as Prof. Charles Xavier in X-Men III: The Last Stand (2006)

[This post has been subsumed into the next one in a rewrite. Continue there.]

From here the path gets rougher, and some of it I only remember through a haze. Some of it I don’t remember at all. And some I wish I didn’t.

There isn’t much to tell you about Inverness. I staid in a hostel where I was woken at 5 in the morning by some Spanish backpackers sharing their checking out process with the world. My shoulder felt swollen and was hurting something fierce. Unable to find my way back into sleep I walked down to the harbour. It was a charmingly ugly and practical affair without any touristy frills. At a kiosk frequented by oil-stained labourers stinking intensely of fish and burnt diesel I got a cheap breakfast of kippers and bitter tea. The labourers made fun of me, of my too large army surplus clothes, and the fact that I belonged in school and not with them, but I could laugh with them and it made me feel rather good.

I answered some mails and wrote a blog entry at an Internet Café and set out for the outskirts of Inverness to hitch a ride along the A862 around Beauly Firth and then north, into Ross-Shire or maybe along the East Cost. That was how I got that lift with the plumber in his old white Ford Transit. He seemed fine at first, but it didn’t take me long to realize that he was pissed out of skull. I tried to get him to let me out along the way, but he wouldn’t ear of it.

“Whitfor?” he asked, sniffing suspiciously. “A thocht ye wis gaun tae Beauly?”

“I, er, changed my mind. I want to go West instead, to, et…” I racked my brain for some tourist attraction that might be West of where we were. “Loch Ness?”

“Ye think A’m fou, dinye?” he shouted accusingly. I didn’t know if by ‘fou’ he meant ‘full’ or ‘fool’, but I thought, either was pretty accurate.

“Ye think A’m tae fou tae drive, dinye? Bit A’ll pruve ye, A’m nae fou ataa!”

And he took both hands from the steering wheel and shook then in the air. Maybe he was thinking of bicycles and how driving without hands might prove your sense of balance, I don’t know. He laughed at me triumphantly. The van drifted into the opposite lane. There were cars coming our way.

I shouted and tried to grab the wheel. The van swerved and wobbled.

“Whoah!” he shouted, wrested the wheel from my hands, and got us more of less back on course. The honking of the other cars dopplered and faded behind us.

“Git yer hands oaf! Are ye tine tae kill us?!”

“You were…” I began shouting back.

He interrupted me with a slap to my shoulder that made me gasp with pain.

“A wis barrie! A haed aathing unner control. Twas ye what naur kilt us.”

While we were shouting e was only facing me and not paying any attention to the road ahead. I was afraid anything I might say would just make things worse, so I shut up.

For a while he muttered darkly to himself. Then, when we arrived at the turnoff, he said: “Wast he wants tae gae, wast we’ll gae. A’ll tak ye tae Struy, aye, bit nae faurer.”

The roofs of Beauly were already visible to our right, while the sign pointing straight ahead said “Struy, 9 miles”.

“No, no, I’ll go to Beauly. Let’s go to Beauly!” I tried to stop him, but too late.

For the next fifeen minutes I was quiet, securely buckled in, clinging to the handgrip, feet braced against the floor of the footwell, as he drove down the narrow, tree-lined country road, running the engine alternately at too low or too high revs, cutting curves, and swerving around oncoming traffic. He kept up a false cheer and talked to me all through, but I didn’t listen.

Finally he stopped at a telephone box in Struy, grinning, deeply satisfied with himself.

“See? See? I telt ye. A’m nae fou ataa.”

“Yeah, well, thanks, you crazy fuck,” I said, jumped from the van, and slammed the door hard behind me. I could see his face twist in anger behind the windscreen. He shouted something and shook his fist. Then he gunned hi engine, made a tight turn, and roared away back the way we’d come.

It was around noon. The sky was overcast and grey, but it wasn’t raining. Cured from any wish to hitchhike for a while, I decided that since I was here now anyway, instead of going back those 9 miles to Beauly I’d follow the road along the valley of the river Glass and see where that would lead. After half an hour the sun came out for a while and showed me that the trees were beginning to change into their autumn finery. Summer was beginning to end.

Eventually I came across a bridge to a crossroads and a couple of grey stone houses. I was still pondering my choices – shops, police station, and Glen Afric, or Glen Cannich and Mullardoch, or Drumnadrochit, public loos, and a camping ground – when a group of backpackers only a couple of years older left a shop ahead and came towards me. So I bummed them for smokes.

***

The next day I left when it was still dark. Everything was hazy with booze and shame. I couldn’t find my jacket, the M65 I’d bought back in Manchester, and the T I had been wearing was soiled. I took it off and left it on the middy ground of the camping site, put on my spare and the hoody I’d carried in my satchel.

The road towards Loch Mullardoch rose quickly out of the valley, and soon Strathglass and the Cannich camping ground were hidden behind a thicket of birches. I was shivering and didn’t know with what. I froze and sweated at the same tie, my shoulder hurt something beastly, the pain radiating out, joining forces with a headache and a sore throat and the pain from my kidneys where Trevor, or maybe Fred, had hit me when I wouldn’t hold still.

After a while I got out of the birch wood, and when the sun rose in my back my shadow leaped out in front of me, hurrying ahead and showing me the way. I followed, glad of anything that took my mind off the night I was leaving behind. And even though I felt sick to my stomach I began to run.

The valley opened up, wider and wider, and the mountains on both sides grew higher. The river flowed through several small lakes, and after a couple of hours I cam to a huge concrete dam, cutting across the valley. I climbed the last rise at the side of the dam and looked out over Loch Mullardoch and the lonely, treeless mountains that sheltered it.

I was seriously ill, and I knew it. It was more than just the effect of booze and the pot from last night. I was running a fever, and I needed a doctor to look at my shoulder and the ugly blue-red veins that were snaking away from the inflamed wound like little tentacles under my skin. But the road ended at the dam. I twas either turn around and creep back to Cannich or go on into the wild.

The fragments of last night that were stuck in my chest burned worse than the fever. So I stepped off the road onto the unmarked trail along the Northern shore of Loch Mullardoch.

Even today, a couple of years later, I can’t tell you exactly what happened. Oh, I remember the events, mostly, and frankly, the details are none of your beeswax. Yes, in the end it had gotten rough, enough that I might have the law on my side – though nancy boys should beware of such assumptions – but in my heart I knew that for the most part I could have stopped things. I could have fought harder, or run away, or called for help. In the end, I, some part of me, had let them do it.

It had begun friendly enough. I’d bummed them for that fag, we’d gotten talking, and they’d invited me to their camp fire. They’d shared their hotdogs with me, and their beer and the joint. We’d talked some more. They’d been from down under, on a pre-college trip to the old country, jobbing in London and travelling around when time and money allowed them to. I’d told them pretty much the truth, just sufficiently altered and vagued up to keep my legal identity and origins hidden. I had called myself Alan, and eventually sexual orientation had come into things.

On the shore of Loch Mullardoch I missed the bridge across a brook and instead followed the narrow path upward. Now and then I had to ford a tributary. Water ran into my boots and made my feet heavy and cold. Every step was hell. I sweated like a pig when I moved, but when I rested I trembled with chills. Halfway up the mountain I had to throw up, but I had this mad idea I mustn’t leave the trail but that I couldn’t, like, soil it either. I tried to hold it in, to get on where it touched the river again, but ended up puking the remains of those sausages all over my chest and arms and hands.

The path dragged on and on, past a couple of small waterfalls, and eventually lost itself in the heather and bracken of a wide, deep corrie. All around me the rounded humpbacks of the mountains rose and dove under the low, shifting sky. In the middle of the corrie a single dead tree stood at the convergence of the many little streams, bone white, and supplicating. I dreamed a gathering of people into the wilderness, and I heard drums and whistles, and then lost track of things.

You see, they had been curious, the boys from down under. I think that had been genuine. In the beginning they had just asked how it was, you know, to be with another bloke. And they got to musing how it is different to get a blowjob from a bloke or from a girl. After all, a mouth’s a mouth, innit? They made low cracks, jokes in high voices, flapping a limp wrists. Where exactly was the line across which those jokes crossed from crude to cruel, from sleazy to savage? When had I stopped being a guest and became a victim? And how much did I participate in this transformation?

***

I came to by the side of a small lake in a deep valley, with high, rocky slope behind me. My satchel was missing, as was any memory of how I had gotten there. All I could remember was a fucked up dream about some weird party, or maybe a procession? We had been walking somewhere, along some dark road. Or maybe it had been a boat crossing a vast underground body of water?

My palms were marked with fresh, uneven scratches, the kind you get from climbing rough rocks, as were my knees, the trousers torn above them. And, most annoyingly, the lace of my left boot was torn. Other than that I felt good. The fever had mostly passed. I was still weak, and very thirsty, but that was all.

I drank from the lake, repaired my shoe lace as good as I could, and got going. I crossed a couple of kilometres of wild, hilly country, and earthen, rusty heath, until I came to a large lake. The sky was a sickly shade of saffron, and the sun, hidden behind clouds, shimmered on the waves like hammered brass. And as far as I could see only untamed wilderness, except for one small rowboat far out on the lake.

I hollered and waved my arms. For a while nothing happened. But then I saw that the boat was coming towards me. Against the glare I could not make out who as at the oars until it was almost upon me.

“Hullo there, m’boy. Everything alright?” It was an old chap, tall and whip thin. He was wearing an old, long sou’wester, a thick, woollen jersey, dungarees, and tangerine Wellingtons.

“Hullo, Sir. Um. Can you tell me were I am. I seem to have gotten lost.”

“I’ll say. Good grief. You look a fright.”

I looked down on myself. My black hoody was stiff with mud and dried vomit, so were my fatigue trousers, and torn. My hands and knees were scraped and dirty with peat. I had no backpack and no coat.

“Everything is alright, Sir,” I said hastily. “I just lost my way.”

“Want to come into the boat, m’boy? I can ferry you to the other side. Got a small lodge there. Catch your death out here like that.”

I hesitated but then gave myself a push and stepped into the rocking dinghy, careful not to step on the fishing rods and tackle box that cluttered the bottom.

“Better sit yourself down, m’boy,” he said, and when I had settled down on the seat in the stern, he offered me his hand. It was old, and bony, and very firm.

“Benedict Isaac Roth.”

“Colin Campbell,” I answered. He looked at me for a second, astonished. Then he laughed. “Alright, Colin. Come along then.”

He took me across the waters of what turned out to be Loch Monar, one valley over from Loch Mullardoch. Mr. Roth was there on a fishing holiday. In the lodge he had rented he had maps of the area and on them I figured out that I must have walked about 7 kilometers from the Coire an t-Sith to the northern slopes of the An Riabhachan, a path fraught with steep ridges and sheer cliffs.

“By rights you should be lying dashed on the rocks of the Sgurr na Lapaich, m’boy. I know what I am talking about. What were you thinking?”

I didn’t tell him. He told me some more of my monumental stupidity, made hot tea and baked fresh scones, which he served thick with melting butter and strawberry jam. Then he heated enough water to fill a small wooden tub and had me wash and warm up. I had a look at my shoulder but it seemed a lot better. There were thick dark scars now. The surrounding tissue was still ruddy and tender, but that angry throbbing was gone, that tight feeling of a tomato about to burst, as were the bluish-red veins.

“Where to now, m’boy?” he asked me when I had towelled myself off. “My trust chariot isn’t far.” At my raised eyebrow, he chuckled and added: “An old Daimler, very comfortable ride. If you want I could take you someplace.”

“Like where?” I asked.

“Like Inverness, or Glasgow.”

I put on my trousers and saw that he had patched the tears at the knees while I had bathed.

“Thank you, Sir.”

“My pleasure. Well? Look, let’s not mince words, shall we? You have got nowhere to go, have you? I used to be a lawyer in my old life, and quite a fine one if I say so myself. So, if there is some institution, some halfway house perhaps…”

He looked at my face and saw refusal written all over it. He sighed.

“Where will you go then?”

My T smelled pretty bad. I put it on anyway and grinned. “The world is my oyster.”

He smiled wanly and handed me a long, neon orange shoelace.

“So I noticed.”

“Wow, what did you get that one for?” I took the shoe lace and ran it through my fingers. “Really dense fog?”

“I can keep it if you prefer limping around with one unlaced boot, m’boy.”

I threaded it into the oxblood Doc Marten. The colours clashed horribly. I looked around for my socks, but they had been replaced by a fresh, dry woollen pair.

“I took the liberty of disposing of your old rags. Try these.”

“I couldn’t, Sir.”

“Well, you’ll have to go without any then. I burned yours.”

“You haven’t. You haven’t even got a fireplace in here. They’re probably just in the trash.”

But thinking of Huey and his lesson, I took them and finished dressing.

“Seriously, m’boy. Where do you think you’ll go now?”

“Seriously?” I showed him on the map. “I thought this trail here, and then to Skye.”

He gave me a couple of tips about the route, and a small nylon backpack, and some provisions.

“Take the map, also,” he added. “Don’t want you to get lost again, do we?”

Mr. Roth took me with his boat back across the lake. I tried to say my good-byes, but he just shook his head, waved, and rowed away. And I turned west.

Two nights later I arrived at the road circling Loch Carron, and I made an astonishing discovery: It was already Saturday, August 30th, 2008. It had been Tuesday morning when I had left Inverness. Which meant that I must have lost not one, but two nights and a whole day, delirious in the Mullardochs…

The next night, showered and dressed in a stolen pair of boxers and a fresh, black T, I was lying in a bed in a hostel near Kyle of Lochalsh. It was a shared dorm and there were a bunch of travellers in the room with me. Some were getting ready for bed, coming from or going to the bathroom, while others were lying on theor beds, reading guidebooks, or talking quietly. I had a top bunk, and I was on my back, staring at the ceiling above me, and suddenly I began to tremble. It wasn’t the fever or anything. And it wasn’t no relief either. I was just shaking with my whole body, enough to make the bed begin to rattle against the wall. I curled up into a tight ball and hugged my knees to my chest and tried to breathe evenly, until it passed.

I knew that Mr. Roth had been right. By rights I really should have been dead. My bones should have been lying in some gorge, being picked apart by scavengers and bleached by the rain and the sun.

The next day would be the first day of school after the summer holidays in Berlin. Tim, and Samuel, and Florian, and also in another part of the city Leo, and Orcun, and Hector, they would all be sitting in their chairs in their various class rooms, tomorrow, staring out of the window. Only my seat would remain empty.

I had to think of the “The haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. Best damn ghost story ever, IMHO. Except maybe for “The Ghost of Canterville”. At the end of “Hill House” Eleanor, the main character, is driving the car and wondering: “Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”

That had been me. All the time I had secretly been waiting for some heavy hand to fall on my shoulder and stop me. To catch me and send me back. I hadn’t truly believed that I could actually escape, simply by walking away.

I knew, as I lay there, in that bed in that hostel, near the shores of Skye, surrounded by strangers, that I should turn around. That it would be the sensible thing to do, to go back to my mother, to get things back on track before they would spiral completely out of control.

I knew that I should do that.

But I also knew that I wouldn’t.

This wasn’t just something I was doing anymore. It was who I had become.

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.

Continued here

When I opened my eyes it was well after sunrise. Two people were coming up Glen Tilt. They were still away enough for me to take a leisurely leak against the rocks, straighten my clothes, shake the ants from my hair, have a drink down at the stream, and light a fag.

My first impulse had been to scramble uphill and go into hiding somewhere, but I figured, they’d see me running away, and I didn’t like that idea. So I sat down on a rock by the side of the water and waited.

It was a bloke in neat blue jeans, and a neat, zippered sweater in dark marine, and a baseball cap in the same colour, and a lady in a grey tracksuit trousers, a sweater in a startling cool magenta, and a white baseball cap with a black bill. Both seemed to be in their 30s or so.

“Hi there, young man,” the bloke said, when he reached me, and wiped the sweat off his face. He had that athletic chubbiness that seem to be specific American. His eyes were brown and friendly, in a rather patronizing way. Hers were a water blue and shifty, as she sat down her backpack and sat down heavily next to it.

There was a funny thing going on between the two of them. One thing Uncle Valya had taught me is to never trust people’s words but – if anything – their bodies and their eyes. And looking at the two of them, beyond their surface behaviour, this was what I saw: His attempt at friendliness towards me, his smiles and words, was an act – meant to put her at ease. That she, while outwardly calm, was in the grip of panic, like a deer staring at you frozen in fear and ready to bolt. But she wasn’t afraid of me, nor of him. I think it was the mountains. I think it was their age, their silence and loneliness.

“Hull,” I answered, put the fag between my lips, and offered him my hand. A little bit astonished he shook.

“Hey,” he asked. “You wouldn’t be on your way to Inverey?”

“Inverness?”

“No, no,” he laughed, strained, and put more of himself between me and his lady as if to shield her from whatever I might have to say. “Inverey. A little, er, a little village, that’s… look…”

He pulled out an ordinance map from his pocket.

“Here,” he pointed to a small hamlet at the end of a tiny road in the middle of the mountains. “And, we’re rught about, er, here… right?”

His stubby finger poked vaguely at an area covering several streams and trais somewhere Southwest of Inverey. I took the map and looked for Blair Atholl an Glen Tilt.

“I’m not certain, Mister, but we should be somewhere in this valley, here. Probably near the end.”

Together we determined our most likely position. It was almost funny how they both began to visibly relax, like little kids that had just made it out of a haunted house, or peeps who just barely avoided a dangerous accident. I doubt it had much to do with the meagre and uncertain information I could provide. I think it was mostly the fact that the mountains had yielded another soul, a human face to speak to without feeling crazy. I wondered if they would have felt the same in some stretch of wilderness in whatever US State they came from, or it was in part due to their sense of being so far from home.

While he and I were brooding over the map, she put down her backpack and began to produce a surprising amount of food: Sandwiches, cut into little squares and neatly wrapped in cling film and stowed in little Tupperware containers, apples and carrots, peeled and sliced to finger size, and small PET bottles of Isotonic drinks.

“Can I offer you something too?” she asked. I studied her face, the one behind her mask. She really wanted me to share their food, to stay with them.

“We also got some Mars bars, somewhere,” she added, almost pleadingly, and began to dig for them.

“That’s my wife, Helen,” the man said. “I’m John. John Campbell.”

We’d already shaken hands, but he’d been too tense then for introductions, so there was a brief, awkward moment now.

“David,” I offered in return, clearly pronouncing it dah-vid, not day-vid. “David Silberknopf.” Sil-bur-kuh’nobf. And to Helen I said: “Wouldn’t say no to a sandwich and a drink, ma’am. Ta.”

She handed me both with a thankful smile.

I asked John: “Could I have a look at your map again?”

It was the first time I’d looked at a detailed map of the area, and I decided that I wanted to head north, through Glen Dee, towards Aviemore.

Helen looked around. “Are you alone, David?” (Of course she had to pronounce it day-vid.)

“Yup,” I said.

“Where is your family?” she asked.

Defiantly I looked her straight in the face. Then I pointed roughly East-Southeast. “Thataway, ma’am.”

She didn’t get it and actually craned he neck to look at the steep, bare hillside. I sighed.

“About one thousand kilometres thataway.”

“Kilometers?” she asked and frowned. Then she said: “Oh,” and after a moment, again: “Oh.”

I busied myself with the map, but I could feel her eyes ravelling all over me, over my oversized M65 jacket with the sleeves rolled up, and my face still bruised and scabbed with the traces of Ponyboy’s caresses.

“How old are you, David, if I may ask?” Day-vid again. This time from John.

“Sixteen,” I lied without looking up.

More silence while we ate and I studied the map.

“Are you a runaway?” Helen sounded timid, but she couldn’t let it go.

I looked up again and debated making up some story. But somehow the strange balance of power between them and me made me feel unnecessarily mean if I did so. So I answered as straight as I could: “I suppose that you could say that.”

John had watched me as well. I handed him back his map.

“Where are you headed?” he asked, as he took the map and looked down on it. I showed him, none too precisely.

“We’ll have the same route up until here,” he observed.

“Yup,” I said again.

“Do you mind if we walk with you?” I smiled, though I didn’t much care for the looks passing between him and his wife.

As we walked Helen wanted to know if I’d been abused. If I had been beaten. And she gestured towards my face. When I refused to answer that, she dragged her husband into this. They both began to offer me “solutions”, from finding some church organisation that would put me in a new home with good, Christian folks, to going to the American Embassy and asking for asylum (like, huh?). It was only when she tried to drag God into things, too, that I got seriously annoyed.

“I’ll square with God myself, and I’d appreciate it you stayed out of that, thank you very much, ma’am,” I said through gritted teeth.

“So you believe in the Lord God, and in our saviour Jesus Christ?” she asked, half apprehensive, half relieved.

I thought about quoting Riddick at here – I absolutely believe in God, and I absolutely hate the fucker – but then thought, that would only lead to more hassle. I certainly wasn’t going to tell her the fully story, was I? So I just nodded curtly and walked on.

After t hat we walked in silence for a while. Not much later, John, still trying to ease things for Helen, proposed a rest. They offered me more of their food, but I declined, probably somewhat haughtily, in favour of an apple of my own. We’d left the river Tilt and had not yet reached the Dee, so I had to do without drink.

Helen drew John away from me under the pretence of wanting to show him some part of the scenery, and when they returned, he said: “David, we have decided that we will accept your decision to run way” – as if it was theirs to accept – “and we’ll not speak of it any more. I apologize if we came on strong.”

And Helen chimed in: “If you are willing to put your fate in God’s hands, we shall have faith too.”

I smiled wearily, but  wasn’t especially sorry that I had made use of the time they’d been away to go through their backpacks and take 60 quid from thm. Since they’d been taking pictures during the break, I also decided to relieve them of their camera before our ways separated, to make certain they didn’t keep any record of our meeting.

True to their word they didn’t mention the topic for the rest of our time together. I the early afternoon we reached the White Bridge across the River Dee. They would go East from there towards Inverey, and I’d turn Northwest, along Glen Dee, deeper into the Cairngorms.

Helen insisted I take several of their sandwiches, and a bottle of isotonic drink.

“We will pray for you,” she assured me, as I reached with my right hand past John to shake hers, and lifted the camera from the pouch on his belt with my left.

“That you for the food and the company, ma’am,” I said, slipping the camera into my back pocket. “Have a good journey. God bless.”

Continue here

The day began misty and grey and eventually it started to rain, quietly at first, then harder. Walking I enjoyed the way the Doc Martens felt different from the Chucks I’d worn all those weeks before. The Docs were much heavier, of course, but also with the Chucks you can feel every last pebble and ridge of earth through the soles, and through the canvas top even thick and tall grass can be felt. With the Docs, new as they were, the leather not yet quite broken in and the sole still stiff, it was as if a red carpet had been rolled out underneath me, as I made my way through grass and bushes, through puddles and mud.

I followed first the Perth-Inverness railroad tracks to Pitlochry, where I got some grub and more fags, and then the B8079 that in turn follows General Wade’s old military road from around 1730 through the Pass of Killicrankie into Blair Atholl.

Hey, have you ever noticed how things that are normally considered beautiful, like winter snow and summer rain, turn ugly when you encounter them alongside a road with heavy traffic? How things otherwise pure and innocent get corrupted by the noise and the dirt and the haste of modern life? And have you ever noticed how in all that corruption and ugliness, in headlights reflected in wet tarmac, in the blackish sludge and gravel of a road shoulder meeting the lifeless, oil-soaked soil, in the nagry hum of traffic buzzing past in the rain, and in the way all passers-by lose their faces helmeted with hoods and shielded with umbrellas, how in all of that there still is so much beauty?

Well, when I reached Blair Atholl that Friday noon I was thoroughly sick of that stark, industrial beauty. Aside from a few mornings in Edinburgh’s Holyrood and park this morning’s swim in the river had been the first time in almost 3 weeks – since coming into Marsden out of the Pennies – I had been away from the company of Peeps, and I was sick of them. Sick of their noise, of the smell, sick of their gazes, of showing up at all in any other person’s mind, or them leaving dirty tracks in mine. I wanted to get where I would be all alone. So I forwent a visit to the sterile looking Blair Castle and headed straight for Glen Tilt, the river valley that leads into the Grampian mountains, whose peaks had beckoned me since I had seen them the day before.

Just for the record – What I did was dead stupid, okay? I went into the mountains with nothing but a single change of clothes, a water-proof poncho, a couple of apples, 2 cans of tuna, and some cheese and sliced bread. I didn’t even have a water bottle, let alone a map, or a compass, or a tent. Even if I stuck to the valleys and voided risky climbs, and even if there was still some tourists around, in spite of all the rain, this is how peeps get killed. It was plain stupid, and even a city boy like me should have known better.

Also, it turned out that Doc Martens are not exactly ideal for wilderness walks. Not enough profile and the soles get slick when wet. The first two days I had some trouble with sores and blisters, again, though that was mostly die to the newness of the boots. But Huey had taught me well enough, and I was equipped to deal with that, so I stopped every hour or so to lance, wash, dry, and dress the blisters, and to tape irritated skin, and that went okay.

For the rest of the day I walked uphill along the stream, between the steepening, mostly treeless hills. Eventually the little road made way for a narrow stony path, still following the water. I rested when I had to, but I always kept walking on. Only when it got so dark that I could no longer be sure of my footing I found a soft, grassy knoll partly sheltered by a rocky outcropping, and simply curled up in my poncho.

I stand by what I said about the danger, you understand? But if you’ve never done that, just walked into somewhere with no clear idea where you are, and just laid down to sleep on the bare ground under the naked sky, far from any other human being, well, you don’t know what you’ve missed. It’s uncomfortable, it’s cold, and the hunger can be a bitch, but the sense of freedom. Man, there is nothing in the world that can beat that. Nothing!

It took me some time to find sleep, and I was woken by bad dreams twice that night, but each time it was still too dark to walk on. The second time, however, the rain had stopped and the clouds had opened up to reveal a magnificent, starry sky. For a while I sat, Indian style, on the slope, smoked, and looked into the incredible vastness above, before settling back down for a few more hours of sleep. That time it was deep, and lasted until I was woken by voices echoing from the rocks.

Continued here

The lorry park offered free showers and a Transport Café. When the suczka  in the BP shop wouldn’t sell me fags, I went into he café for a coke and swiped two packs from tables I walked past. The driver had gone for a shower and a meal and I idled away the time at the Outdoor Activity Centre net to the petrol station, studying advertisements for white-water rafting and bungee jumping and other exciting adventures for rich pussies. Later the driver cam back carrying a pack of four large cans of Stella, which he shared freely. I got the narrow top bunk, and together we listened to a Best of Italian Opera mix and talked for a while about the Highlands, and the freedom of the road, and how it was disappearing a little bit every year. Then we settled down for the night.

I felt very comfortable in the cosy shelter of the lorry cab, in spite of the pain in my shoulder. I enjoyed the smell of patrol, beer, male sweat, and aftershave, the hypnotic lights from passing cars that came through the cracks in the drapes and moved white bars across the walls and ceiling, and the sound of the petrol station and the rain on the metal roof directly above my head. Eventually I drifted into sleep, and for a few hours I found rest in the deep sea silence and darkness of dreamless sleep, before the nightmares started again.

My dreams of that time came in two shades. Either it was that of the madding crowd. I would be in some place thick with peeps. Sometimes it was my old school, or the Prinzenbad public pool, where I used to go with my mates in the summers in Berlin, or it could be something from my recent life, like, say, a theatre or gallery I’d hit with Charley in Edinburgh, or the Headrow in Leeds, where I’d worked with Julie, or the camping site at the Big Chill. Wherever it was, it always began with me going about my business, alone. But then something would happen with the crowd. Sometimes they would start to mutter and talk amongst themselves, too low for me to understand. Sometimes I realized they were talking in some language I didn’t know. And then they’d begin to stare. Someone might ask me something in gibberish and get angry when I couldn’t respond. Or they’d start pushing me around, and shouting all together at me in an unintelligible cacophony of exclusion. In the end though the real horror wouldn’t come from those crowding me from head on but from someone being suddenly in directly in my back, touching me from behind, hot breath on my neck, too close to bear.

In the other kind of nightmare, I’d be stalked. Those would begin with me alone in some place that had been populated on moments ago, you know, Mary Celeste like. There would be food on the tables, and steaming mugs of tea. Tellies were on, flickering, but set to a quite murmur. There might be open books about, or fluttering newspapers, or unfinished letters, the pen still lying on the paper, the ink not yet dry. At first it wouldn’t be eerie, but seemed perfectly natural. As if I knew where they all were, and why. Sometimes I could hear peeps nearby, around a corner or behind some wall. Never loud, but, you know, present in their absence somehow. I knew they weren’t far.

But then something would enter. I’d notice motion behind a row of trees perhaps, or hear a floorboard creek beyond a door that’s been left ajar. Whatever It was, It would slowly come closer, prowling, lurking, circling me, moving behind furniture, or behind me. And I would realize that all those peeps that moments ago still had been just around some corner, that they were all gone now. I was all alone. Even if I’ start to shout for help, nobody would be there to hear me. Nobody would come. And I would become afraid. Terrified. I never had a clear idea what It would do to me when It caught, but I knew that anything would be better. Anything. Anything but that.

That was the dream I had that night. When I woke up with a start I painfully hit my head on the ceiling of the cab. For a moment I was convinced that It had followed me from the dream and was now going to grab me. Then a large lorry passed outside. It’s headlights illuminated the entire cab and I saw that nobody was there except for me and my still snoring host.

Too shaken to lie down again I got dressed in the darkness, grabbed my bag, and crept out. I lit a fag, crossed the A9 and the fields beyond, and climbed down the bank to the shore of the river Tummel. There I stripped and stepped directly into the cold, rain-swollen waters, and washed the stink of fear from my skin. The current was pretty strong. The water surged and swelled around me. In the distance I saw otters glide through the waves, look up, and disappear.

The overcast sky was beginning to grow grey when I walked back onto the shingle beach. I was shivering, partly with the cold, and partly still with the tension from the nightmare. I stepped into my boots, tied the lose laces once tightly around each ankle, and began training Aikido, hard enough to break out into a light sweat again. I kicked shadowy enemies, blocked their invisible blows, and rolled across the ground to evade their attacks, the pebbles scratching my back bloody. When I was done the shivers had passed.

There was hardly any traffic sounds from the A9, down there in the river valley, and when I finally got dressed, the birds around me began greeting the new day. My aunt is mad about songbirds, you see, she got her garden planted especially to attract them, and she is always pointing out one or the other of her little feathered friends, which is how I knew most of those that started singing all around me then: Thrushes and Robins, Tits, Siskins, and Blackbirds. And with their dawn chorus my soul, too, suddenly took wing, and soared, rose above the gloom of the night, rose, and rose, and revelled in the glory of the new day.

“All your life,” I sang quietly. “You were only waiting…”

“Blackbird” echoed with Aimee Mann’s gentle, hesitant voice in my mind, and I hummed along as I walked back up the riverbank and then northward, between the river and the road.

Continued here