Archive for the ‘night’ 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.

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

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

“Hae tae haud at practeesin, richt?”

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

“Sae, whaur uss we gaun?”

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

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

“Nothing there but what?”

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

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

The disappointment on his face remained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ACF?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like a sauftie-preen?”

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

“Aye.”

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

“Aye.”

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

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

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

“Och, ut’s fickle, eh?”

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

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

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

“Doon, richt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that he concentrated on the lock.

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

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

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

“Whit’s wrang?”

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

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

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

“And noo?”

“Here, let me try this.”

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

Sim stared at me with open mouth.

“Hou’d ye dae tsat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I opened the door wide.

“Please, come in.”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Dance wi us.”

“But we’re both blokes.”

“Aye. And tsat baszers ye, pìobair?”

“I can’t dance.”

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

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

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

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

“Tis uss a Walz. Haud on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued here

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

I’m not a big fan of chess. I mean, I adore the game on an abstract level. It’s one of the few sports I enjoy watching. I think it is a great game. Just not for me. Chess makes me paranoid – I always have the feeling I ought to think around one more corner, that there is some invisible danger lurking on the board, ready to pounce whichever way I turn. In short, it makes me feel stupid.
I really like poker however. It may not be as brainy as chess, but it’s not a dumb game either. I’m certainly not the first to remark that it’s got a lot to do with psychology. Yeah, you need math, and that is probably my weakest point in the game, although experience and rote learning makes up for some of what I lack in actually understanding of probabilities. But you also need to figure out which way your opponent is going to jump. And even if I say so myself, I’m pretty darn good at that.
But my enjoyment of poker had little to do with the graveyard games my mates and I used to play in 2006 and 2007.
Let me introduce you to my former best mates. Musketeers, you know, one for all and all for one. Best friends forever. Only, of course, that nothing lasts forever.
I have known Orcun literally all my life. His rents lived next door to mine. Not only did his mum and older sisters and my mum and older sisters pass us back and forth for babysitting duty, but as toddlers we explored the courtyard behind our tenement block together. Nowadays it seems like a narrow, lightless yard, with more dirt than grass, a couple of sad thorny bushes, and a tiny playground consisting of a small, weed-infested sandbox, rusting monkey-bars, and a swing set without swings. But I remember it as a glorious jungle where Orcun was Stanley to my Livingstone.
Hector I know from kindergarten. He comes from a huge family with dozens of cousins, half of them in Berlin, the other half in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where his folks are from. I suspect we mostly became mates because we were amongst the few who didn’t – yet – speak Turkish or Polish. By the time we left, we both did. Hector was better in Polish, I in Turkish.
And then there is Leo. When I started out in primary school Hector and Orcun were put into one class, and I was put into another. (Our kindergarten had informed the school that it would be better to split up Hec and me to prevent the formation of some ultra-violent gang or something of the sort.) Well, I told you that I had most of my fights with bullies. In first year at school that bully was Leo.
Leo isn’t really a bully, but he likes to swagger, to talk loud, and to have a bunch of followers. I mean, he isn’t half-bad as a leader. He can make you feel very appreciated, not only for your public face, but especially for your hidden self. And he can make peeps cooperate, feel as a group. He’s been captain of our football team for years, not because he’s the best strategist – that would be Georg – but because he can make the rest of us listen to Georg in a way Georg never could.
But groups are made by excluding everyone else. And in school, who can you easier exclude than the misfits? Small, snot-nosed, red-haired, freckled, and very badly dressed me practically screamed for that position. All summer I had wondered who it would be I would fight in primary school, and by the end of that first week, with those first alliances and enmities forged and everybody knowing who they would sit next to come Monday, I knew.
I was scared, because Leo was a good head taller than me, and heftier, and the bruise on his face told me that he was no stranger to violence. But the dice had fallen and there was no way around it. On the way out I challenged him.
That Friday it had rained hard in the morning and a lot of teachers had come by car. Turned out that all grown-ups meant to watch us at the end of the day were leaving by the front door, where the car park was. Leo and I belonged to those kids whose way to and from school led them through the rear gate. It took ages for a janitor to hear the noise and come investigating.
Also, normally Leo wouldn’t have let things progress far. Even back then he was usually great at making peace. I mean, hell, I bloody learned apologizing from him. (It’s certainly not like anybody in my family has ever been able to say I’m sorry.) But not that day. The bruise I had noticed on his face has been a special gift from his father for losing a key to their flat a week before school started. After that Leo had gotten a long neck band for his key, and he was taking that off to stow it away in his pocket so I couldn’t choke him with it, when I, scared and hyper, attacked. He saw the key and neck band land in the curb swell of rain water and get sucked down a sewer drain. I had really pissed him off.
When we were finally separated I had two broken fingers and a seriously mashed up face. Leo had a deep bite wound at the ball of his thumb on his right hand. He was missing a clump of hair at his left temple. He also had a bad tear in the skin holding his left ear attached to the skull and a bleeding wound at the back of his head, both from when I had grabbed him by the ear and slammed him against the ground several times. He needed four stitches on the back of his head and three at his ear, but the conch never really healed completely, leaving it somewhat lumped and crunched up. We were both crying with pain and frustration, and I think exhaustion, but none of us would give in.
In the waiting room at the hospital at first we were both determined to hate each other’s guts, but boredom and joined worries about the reaction of our rents got us talking, about school, teachers, football, TV, computer games, and Star Wars. Turned out that we had both seen The Shadow Menace that summer. It may well be that our future friendship was forged in our common disdain of Pod Racing and the Gungans.
Hec and Orcun were well prepared to hate Leo in support of me – though Hec with a certain reluctance, because he had already been touched by Leo’s charm – but then we appeared best of friends the next week, and soon the four of us were inseparable.
We did a lot of stuff together, we joined the same football club, we had sleepovers, we snug into films we weren’t old enough to be allowed to see yet, all that stuff. When we were 12 we tried our hands at shoplifting. It was mainly a way to enliven otherwise boring afternoons. Eventually we were caught and got into a lot of hot water over it. After that Hector, who had blamed it all on my and Orcun’s bad influence, wasn’t allowed to associate with us until his rents forgot about it again. Leo got the worst thrashing ever from his dad. I don’t know what Orcun’s rents said to him – I doubt that they hit him, they never did – but he was very serious afterwards and never broke the law again, at least not to my knowledge. That had been the year I had first been taken in by the rozzers for attacking an officer, so on top of everything else, I suppose shoplifting didn’t really impress my mum all that much. She did give me the same sermon she had given Lukas and ‘Nessa on the subject a couple of years before, but it sounded tired and as if she didn’t believe it very much herself.
The next summer I came up with the graveyard poker games, and they all took to it like moths to honeysuckle. Between July and September of 2006 we would either claim to sleep over at each other’s rent’s places or simply sneak out at night and check out all the cemeteries of Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Tempelhof, Schöneberg, Tiergarten, Mitte, Friedrichshain, and Treptow. We would try to find a secluded place, sheltered by some mausoleum, or a thicket of trees, and play poker.
I was going to say that there is something very surreal about sitting with your best mates on weathered old gravestones in the middle of the night, smoking, drinking beer (or Pepsi in Orcun’s case; he takes the Islamic prohibition on alcohol very serious), and playing cards. But that’s not it, exactly. It isn’t surreal at all, it’s almost the opposite. It is as if that little circle of light you are sitting in, the circle of your mates, becomes the only thing that is real. Everything else just melts away, the wall of trees and darkness around you becomes the backdrop of a stage, as if the world was only painted on canvas. The ghosts of the dead all around become more real than the memories of the living and all your daytime worries fade away into insignificance.
For a short while you can breathe freely.
Continued here