I extend my hand to the head of the Landowners Association and force myself not to flinch when he crushes my fingers. We have finally reached an agreement to create green corridors connecting the capercaillie’s fragmented habitat, all part of the effort to save one of Scotland’s most beautiful birds.
“Pleased you could come…Really value your support…” I do the round of handshakes: the delegation from the Ministry of Environment, the foresters, the earnest young man from the RSPB and the group from the community trust who look a bit lost.
My hand is still limp as I direct them towards the door. One of these days I swear I’ll leave a meeting with a cracked metacarpal. I glance discreetly at my watch. There’s still time to put things in order before I head north on the evening train.
At the desk outside my office, the girl covering Teresa’s maternity leave stares at the computer, her cheek bulging under the pressure of her tongue.
Her mouth makes an ‘O’ of surprise as she turns towards me.
“I’ll be away for a few days on annual leave. Let me know if anything urgent comes up. I’ll be checking my phone.”
Yvonne runs a plump hand through her blonde hair. Dark roots show near her scalp. “Excuse me, Miss Fraser, but what do you mean by urgent?”
Teresa would have known. I suppress a sigh and explain which issues need my immediate attention, and which can wait until I return. It’s time I can ill afford to spare.
“Okay,” she reads from her notes. “Any major PR issues, contact you, but how do I know it’s major?”
“If you want to keep this position, you have to learn to tell the difference.”
She blinks through liquid eyes and smooths her shirt. A roll of puppy fat bulges over her waistband. Honestly, what were Personnel thinking of?
A short while later, I step into a taxi and look back at the glass-plated façade of the Environment Scotland building. Leaving is always hard, but I’ve been working long days and nights on the capercaillie project. I need a few days off.
I hang my jacket in the first class compartment and try to relax as the train trundles past tenement flats and sandstone terraces with strips of garden. Something is bothering me. Yvonne? I’m worried about how she’ll cope, but she’ll have to learn. The meeting? No, that went well.
It’s been a hot day. I take a sip of mineral water. The gaps between the houses get bigger as we travel along the north edge of the River Clyde. Soon the train will slip through a gap in the hills and we’ll be in the Highlands.
I go through the day and my thoughts snag on Fiona Hudson, the marine biologist who heads up the sea and coastlines division. This morning she came to me with the same news Teresa brought six months ago; she’s expecting her first baby. I struggled to hide my surprise. People say forty is the new thirty, but doesn’t biology have its limits? Fiona’s forty-two, the same age as me, for goodness’ sake.
The carriage is quiet as we pass through the first hills. As I loosen the collar of my blouse, I catch a man looking at me. I give him my boardroom stare, and he shifts to look out the window.
The train’s wheels make a smooth sound on the metal track as it pulls us higher into the hills. My breathing deepens. This is where I belong. I endure the city for these multitudes of empty hills, piled on top of each other and interlaced with lochs, for the stretches of wilderness, the coasts of shattered shell and stone and the places which only the eagle knows. I am engaged in a struggle to save these lonely places, but the battleground is the carpeted office, my tools are ever-dwindling financial resources and my opponents approach with smooth smiles.
I slip my hand into my bag for my phone and my fingers close over the necklace. I bring it out and trace a tiny figure of a seal on the front. Memory jolts through me, the feel of Iain’s salt-roughened fingers as he fastened it around my neck on the stony beach at Camuscille.
I don’t know what Iain has been doing through all the years since that summer in Camuscille, but I am sure of one thing; he has forgotten me, and it’s time for me to do the same. The necklace falls through my fingers back into the bag. I’m going back to Camuscille and when I leave, the necklace won’t be with me.
It’s late evening and overcast when I step off the train in a small Highland station. However, it’s June and the sky still holds plenty of light.
“What brings you here?” the taxi driver asks as he speeds round a curve.
“Hillwalking,” My foot presses against the floor looking for a brake that isn’t there.
“Here to climb the Ben, I suppose.” A new-looking car crawls along the single-track road ahead of us and pulls into a passing place. “Tourists.” he says and lifts his hand in a wave as he revs past.
“Have you climbed it?” I ask.
“Me? No.” He laughs and slaps his paunch. “But I know plenty who have. It’s one of the trickiest Munros: long walk in and steep scree slopes. Are you one of these Munro baggers? Don’t know why they call them that. Can’t really fit a mountain in a bag.”
“I suppose so. Two hundred and fifty-two down. Thirty still to go.”
“Climb on your own?”
“Sometimes with others. Sometimes alone.” Mostly alone, but I’m not telling him that.
“People underestimate the Ben.” He pulls into a passing place to let a campervan pass. “When I pick folk up at the station, they think it’s just a wee hill. I collect them a few days later, and they’re singing a different tune. In the Alps, they might start at eighteen hundred metres and climb another five hundred. They forget that the Ben is over nine hundred metres high and you have to start at sea level.”
“There’s the hotel now.” He points out a whitewashed building bright against a dark line of trees.
Dusk closes in fast, leaching colour and blurring edges, like a grainy black and white film. By the time I step out of the taxi, it’s hard to make out the hotel’s Victorian turrets and dormer windows.
The taxi driver lifts my case out of the boot. “Have a good stay, and safe walking.”
He lifts his hand in farewell. Something about him is vaguely familiar. I try to place a name to the face and give up. It’s been over twenty years.
My room has a sloping ceiling and a double bed with a chintzy cover. I peel off my crumpled linen suit and scrub myself under the shower until my skin glows.
There’s no sign of a hairdryer even though it’s meant to be a four-star hotel. I run my fingers through my hair to dry it, and it fluffs around my face in soft waves.
The face which looks back at me from the mirror doesn’t quite fit Chris Fraser, the Chief Executive who enjoys people’s confusion when they realise Environment Scotland is headed by a woman. As I look at myself tonight, I can almost believe that I was once Kirsty, the girl with long dark hair who worked here one summer.
I take out the necklace and put it on. It is a simple thing: a black cord and a round pendant with an enamel image of a seal lying on a rock. It nestles at the base of my neck, between my collarbones. The glint of blue sea brings out the colour of my eyes.
The night Iain gave it to me we were perched on a rock by the shore, pressed against each other for warmth as we tried to catch the moment when the sun dropped into the sea. He smoothed back a strand of hair, “Kirsty, I’ve something for you.” He brought out the necklace and fastened it on me. “This is for you to remember me by, Kirsty, because I’ll never forget you.”
But he did forget.
Now I’m thinking it wasn’t a good idea to return, but it’s only three days. Once I’ve bagged the Munro, I’ll leave Camuscille, and I’ll never come back.
The next morning, low cloud clings to the hills a few hundred feet above sea level. Climbing the Ben is out of the question.
My phone tells me that there’s no mobile service available. There’s always wifi. I enter the password carefully, check and enter it again, but I can’t get a connection.
Maybe my room is in a mobile blackspot. I go out to the gravel driveway in front of the hotel and wave my phone in the air. Within a few minutes, I’m damp from the drizzle.
“Are you alright?” It’s a young lad holding a pile of logs, his face half-hidden by the folds of a hoodie.
“Just trying to get a signal.”
“What network are you with? You can forget it. There’s no coverage here. You could try driving up to the station.”
“I came by train to save carbon emissions.”
“Just enjoy the peace and quiet then,” he says.
I follow him back through the main door of the hotel. As he stacks the logs beside the fireplace in the hall, his hood falls back, revealing ginger hair. Could he be related to Iain? A cousin or nephew?
After breakfast, I wipe my hands carefully on a napkin and try the internet. No connection. This is ridiculous. I’ll have to call the office from the landline in my room.
When I try the office number, I get a high, wavering sound instead of the low burr of an active line. I dial zero for reception, “I’ve followed the instructions in the welcome folder, but I can’t get an outside line.”
“Sorry, there’s a problem with all our phones this morning. We’re looking into it.”
I put down the receiver with a sigh and punch the wifi password into my mobile one more time. Still nothing.
I’m in a small Highland village at the end of a winding, single-track road, with no link to the outside world. If something important comes up at work, they’ll just have to manage. I am meant to be on holiday.
When I head down to the village, the midges dance around my head, drifting in under the hood of my waterproof. I flap my hands and walk fast to keep them away.
The shop has a new coat of paint and a rack of postcards outside. The boatshed has been turned into a café, and Cathy’s Crafts, which was housed in a shed at the end of the pier, has moved into a larger building on the waterfront. Cathy was a local girl, just a year or two older than me. I wonder if she still runs the shop.
I can’t see any signs of the sailing school, although a trailer of kayaks is parked by the slipway. The flaking sign advertising Calum’s Cruises has been replaced by a colourful poster showing a glass-bottomed boat to let day-trippers view the fish. I remember Calum sitting on an upturned box on the pier and casting a cynical look at Iain and I, as if he knew, even then, what was going to happen.
Raindrops wrinkle the surface of the dark water. The boats moored to the harbour wall bob gently and a seal pops up for air. There is something prehistoric about the thick, smooth neck and domed head. I finger the necklace in my bag. One flick of my wrist would send it into the water, but it needs a wilder place than the sheltered harbour. The top of the Ben, yes, that’s where I’ll leave it.
The midges are beginning to bite. I run into Cathy’s Crafts to escape them and the first thing which catches my eye is a seal carved in stone. My mother would have liked it. On my way to the cash desk, I spot a finely spun cardigan in aquamarine, my favourite colour. It clings tightly to my arms and body and spills out at the waist and cuffs. The price would have scandalised my thrifty mother, but I simply have to have it.
“Sorry, our card machine’s down,” the girl at the cash desk says.
I hand her some notes. “That’s for the seal. Can you keep a hold of the cardigan while I nip out to the cash machine? I’ll be right back.”
Two grey-haired ladies are standing beside the hole in the wall. “It’s not working,” one of them says.
“Maybe it’s just your card.” I slot mine into the machine, but the screen remains blank apart from a blinking cursor in the top corner.
It seems that I’m now without mobile coverage, an internet connection or any way of withdrawing money.
“The bank’ll be round on Monday,” the other lady says.
The mobile bank used to stop in Camuscille twice a week in a navy blue van. There was no hole-in-the-wall then and it was my only way to bank tips or withdraw cash.
I return to Cathy’s Crafts. “The cash machine’s broken. Could you keep the cardigan until the bank comes on Monday?”
“I can’t reserve anything for more than twenty-four hours. It’s shop policy.” The young shop assistant is pretty with dark hair and doe-like eyes. She shows a dimple as she smiles.
“But these are exceptional circumstances.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s the rule.”
“Can I speak to the manager?”
I consider telling her that I’m not interested in buying if she can’t be more helpful, but once I’ve set my heart on something, I’m determined to get it. I’ll just have to wait until Monday.
Back in my hotel room, I place the stone seal on the bedside table. When I get home, I’ll put it in the spare room beside the knick-knacks taken from my mother’s house after she died. Ovarian cancer got her. By the time she knew she was ill, it had spread to her lungs. The doctors gave her four months. She only lasted three. Sometimes I nuzzle my face against the teddy she kept on her bed and imagine that I still catch a faint whiff of her perfume.
We looked after each other, Mum and I. My father left when I was ten without telling anyone where he was going. A few months later, we heard that he had gone to New Zealand with a girlfriend. I kept hoping he would write or phone, but he didn’t.
Four years later he sent me a letter and a photo of him looking tanned and relaxed. His arms were wrapped around two small, blonde children. He wanted me to visit him in New Zealand and meet my two half-siblings.
If the letter had arrived a year, even six months, earlier, I would have lapped up its contents and begged my mother to let me go, but he had left it too late. Something inside me had burnt out and gone cold. I didn’t reply and my mother didn’t push the point.
I check the phones again. Landline, mobile and internet are still not working. Without connections to work and the wider world, I feel less definite and sharp. I kick my legs restlessly, pick up my guidebook and flick to the page on climbing the Ben. I’ve read it so many times that I stare at the page without absorbing the words.
The novel I’ve brought doesn’t grab my interest. I toss it down and try the radio. It’s tuned to the local station playing fiddle music. A woman with a Highland lilt cuts in to read the news. “Last night, thieves stole the undersea cable which crosses Lochallan, cutting off phone, internet and cash machine services to many communities in the Highlands. It is thought they took it for copper, which fetches a high price on international markets. Work has already begun on replacing the cable, but it could be up to a week before services are restored.”
At least there’s an explanation, but I’ll be gone before they get the phones working.
When I go down to the restaurant for dinner, lamps are lit against the drizzle, and a fire burns in the grate. I take a table by the window. A young girl takes food to a family in the corner. She wipes her hand on her apron, takes an order from a young couple, brings them drinks and moves onto a group of older people. It must be my turn now, but when she’s brought the next table’s drinks, she leans against the bar and chats to the man behind it.
I walk over. “I’ve been waiting fifteen minutes, but you obviously have better things to do than take my order.”
She flushes. “I’m sorry. I thought you were waiting for someone.”
“Has it never occurred to you that a woman may be perfectly happy to eat alone?”
My voice came out harsher than I meant it to. Her hand trembles as she writes down what I want.
I eat alone. I’ve got pretty used to it now. When Mum was alive, we went out to restaurants and concerts and the theatre. I took her to places she could never afford to visit when she was bringing me up on her own. Since she died, I have been pretty much alone. Over the years, men have come and gone, but I’ve been careful to avoid emotional entanglement. I chose lovers as carefully as I weeded out potential candidates for the agency. Instead of looking for commitment and passion, I went for men who just wanted a casual relationship.
Once I hit thirty-five, the men I met were either married, or separated with children. I didn’t want to play the part of stepmother or cause another woman the distress my own mother went through. For the last few years, there really has been no-one.
The next day all I see of the hills are dark slopes fringed in mist. The radio tells me it’s an occluded front. It could hang around for days.
“What’s happening with the phone cable?” I ask the middle-aged waitress who serves me breakfast.
“They’re trying to put down a temporary one, but with the weather being so bad, it could be a while.”
After breakfast, I slither into my waterproofs and set out along the single-track road which winds along the coast like a thread of stitching.
I push away memories, but not before I see a girl with a long tail of brown hair cycling along this road in the sunshine. She pushes up on the pedals of her bike and yells to the young man beside her, “Race to the next bend!”
She gives it all she’s got, her hair swaying behind her, and she almost wins, but he’s a second or two ahead of her.
Today, sunlight seems like the memory of an impossible dream. Colours are dulled and muddied, like the mixtures I made as a child, dipping my brush into every pot without bothering to clean it.
A few miles along the road, I reach the hotel where I worked many years ago. I hadn’t planned to go in, but I’m chilled and the rain is finding its way through the weak points in my waterproofs. I sit on a chintzy armchair in the lounge and order a pot of tea. A log sits in the dead grate. If Mrs. MacKenzie still runs this hotel, she won’t light it before October.
A young woman in a white shirt and red tartan waistcoat brings tea in a china pot. In my day, the waistcoats were green. Is she staying in the tiny attic room with the view over the sea? I didn’t spend long there. On days off, and between shifts, I cycled down to the village to see Iain. If he was working, I would sit at the quayside and watch as he herded kids into kayaks or took them out sailing.
This place was woven into Iain’s childhood. Every summer he stayed with his grandparents and spent his days fishing or helping on the croft. His father’s cousin ran the outdoor centre and his uncle drove the bus. Iain was connected in a way which I was not.
My grandfather was from here, but he moved to Glasgow when he was a young man. Every summer my Mum came up to visit her grandparents, but when they died, the house was sold, and the connection broken. My family holidays were spent in resorts on the English coast with crowded beaches, sugary rock, souvenir shops and amusement parks.
After my father left, there was no money for a holiday in England. My mother borrowed a tent and set off for the Highlands in an old car which ran on a wing and a prayer. We camped on the edge of the village and drank tea with an old couple who remembered my great-grandparents. I never forgot that visit and when I was a student, I started looking for ways to come back. I managed to get a summer job in a hotel a few miles from Camuscille.
The rain is still falling as I head back to my own hotel. I check my phone along the way, but don’t even get the flicker of a signal.
Even though it’s June, I turn on the radiator in my room. After a hot shower, I give in again and put on the seal necklace. When I get into my pyjamas at the end of the evening, I leave the pendant swinging between my collarbones. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, I’ll leave it on the mountain.
I curl up in bed and grip the necklace. It wasn’t just that Iain broke up with me; it was the way he did it.
The summer in Camuscille came to an end. Iain was going to start a teaching job in Aberdeen and I was going back to university. On my last day, he drove me to the station. We clung to each other on the platform. Tears welled up even though I had promised myself not to cry.
“Wheesht, Kirsty. Aberdeen isn’t the end of the earth. We’ll be seeing each other.” He lifted my chin so I had to look into his eyes. “When I say I’ll stick by you, I mean it.”
The guard’s whistle blew. Iain pulled off his T-shirt, shoved it into my hands and pushed me up the steps of the train. His neck and arms were browned by months of sun, but the skin on his chest was startlingly white. I clutched his damp shirt as the doors closed. The train pulled away, and he ran alongside, waving, until the train rounded a bend in the track.
As soon as I got back to Glasgow, I wrote him a letter.
At night, I held the T-shirt, inhaling his smell. When days and weeks went by without a reply, I cried into the fabric. I phoned his flat in Aberdeen, and his flatmates said he had moved on without leaving an address.
What had changed? I never got an answer. Before we met, Iain had been going out with a girl called Alison, a daughter of the manse with a long, dour face. Perhaps he went back to her.
I curl up on the hotel bed and bite my hand to hold back the memory of his last words.
Deep down a part of me still hasn’t realised that it’s over. Many times, I’ve followed a ginger-haired man down a crowded street, until he turned and showed an unfamiliar face, reddened and angular or pale and pasty, and I felt the pain of loss all over again.
On my second last day, cloud clings to the hills like a torn veil. I go into the village around lunchtime. I’d forgotten it was Sunday. The café and the shops are closed, but people are coming out of the church, the women in hats and long skirts and the men in black suits with Bibles under their arms.
One Saturday night I smuggled Iain into my attic room at the hotel. He scrambled out of bed in the morning, flung on clothes and cycled back to the village at full speed so he could scrub up and appear in church in a suit and tie.
On Monday, the sky is clear. It’s my last full day and last chance for the Ben. All I want to do is head straight out to the mountain, but the mobile bank won’t be here until ten, and I want that cardigan from Cathy’s Crafts.
By the time I reach the village, a long line of people are already waiting outside the small supermarket, their plastic cards rendered worthless by the broken phone line. I take my place at the back. The van draws up and toots its horn and people shuffle slowly forward.
The mountain’s blue-grey form stands out against the sky, as clear as if someone has picked it out with a fine-nibbed ink pen. Above it is a tiny cloud the size of a child’s fist. The sun beats down on my head. I’ve forgotten my hat. I consider abandoning the queue and setting off for the Ben, but I’ve waited so long. I might as well wait a bit longer.
Sweat is trickling down between my shoulder blades by the time I go into Cathy’s Crafts with a wad of notes in my wallet.
“Sorry,” says the girl with the doe-like eyes. “I sold it to an American couple. They were using up their pounds before they headed home.”
I wave the notes in her face. “I waited ages to get this.”
She shrugs. “I told you I couldn’t put it aside. Lots of people say they’ll come back and never do.”
I slice out words, my voice becoming louder. “This is no way to treat customers. You could have made an exception. A cable was cut. Nobody could use their bank cards.”
The girl meets my stare. “It’s company policy.” She starts marking sale prices on a batch of candles.
I push a sweaty clump of hair away from my forehead. “Can I speak to the manager? You’re obviously not capable of doing anything but blindly following the rules.”
The girl’s lips twitch as if she finds this amusing. She opens a door behind her and calls out, “Mu..um.”
A woman steps through the door. It’s Cathy herself, her face a little rounder and her curly hair a different shade, but still much the same. Years have passed since I first saw her sitting outside her tiny stall sewing a Harris tweed cushion, lips pursed in concentration. In the meantime, she has built up a successful business, and she has a daughter.
Cathy shows no sign of recognition. “I’m so sorry. It was a unique, hand-knitted garment made by a local lady. I could contact her to see if she could make something similar.”
My raised voice must have carried into the back office. I shake my head, unable to speak. A rank smell of sweat rises from my shirt. The long wait in the sun has been too much. A film of water wobbles in front of my vision.
I concentrate on the wall behind Cathy while I swallow down my emotion. Postcards, tiny patches of colour, dance like mosaic tiles in the moisture of my eyes. A white A4 sheet stands out. I make out a rough line drawing of a seal sitting on a rock inside a circle. My hand goes up to the seal necklace as I try to make out words which are wobbling and slipping away. I force myself to forget what’s just happened and they come into focus:
To the girl with the seal necklace,
It’s been twenty years since I last saw you.
I’m sorry things ended so suddenly.
I’d like to explain. Iain
The last word hits me like a whiplash. “That’s for me.”
Cathy sighs. “As I said, the cardigan was sold, but we can try to get another.”
“No, I mean the notice about the necklace.” I point to it.
“Iain MacRae put these posters up around the village last year. He was looking for a girl he met one summer.”
“I was the girl.”
“You can’t be.” Cathy looks incredulous.
“Kirsty Fraser. That’s me.” Chris, the chief executive, does not seem real in this place without phones or internet or cash machines. I force a note of brisk efficiency into my voice. “Could I have the notice. It was meant for me.”
“Sorry, I’m keeping the poster. Iain bought the necklace when I first started the shop. It’s become a bit of a talking point with customers. I’ll happily write down his phone number.”
My eyes blur again. I can’t wait for her to copy the number. I wend my way around shelves of knitwear and displays of local pottery. By the time I reach the door, tears are dribbling down my cheeks and I just want to escape, but Cathy is already there blocking my exit. She shoves the poster into my hand. “Take it. I don’t want to have to tell Iain that you left without the number.”
I take jerky, uncertain steps down the road holding the poster and a wad of cash which I’ll have to leave in the hotel while I pick up my sunhat and refill my water bottle.
It’s ten minutes in the wrong direction. I resent every step. I fling the poster down on the bed and stow the cash in a hidden zip compartment in my suitcase.
The morning is almost gone, and I am wrung out and exhausted. I slug down a half-litre of water. Perhaps I should just hide in the cool of the hotel, but this is my last day, and my final chance to bag the Munro, because there is no way I am ever returning to Camuscille.
I ram the sunhat onto my head and set off along the long, shadeless path over the moorland. The mountain takes up more and more of the horizon as I approach it.
A thought makes me break my pace; I didn’t tell the hotel where I was going. It’s a basic rule of hill-walking: leave your route and your expected return time with someone else so they know where to look if you don’t return. I sit down on a clump of heather and listen to the slight sound of vegetation stirring in a breath of air. Even the birds are asleep, hiding from the sun’s glare. Usually I am happy to walk alone, but today, under the brazen sky, whitish with haze near the horizon, I feel uneasy.
If I return to the hotel to leave a message, I’ll never make it up the mountain today, but what are the odds of something happening? I’m an experienced walker. Standing up, I brush down my trousers and walk on, taking long determined steps.
I don’t break stride when I sip water. The heat and emotion of the morning have taken away hunger and so I don’t stop to eat, nor do I pause to look at the guidebook. I’ve read it so many times, I’ve built up an image of the mountain in my head.
The path is little more than a rough sheep track. Once I start climbing and get above the vegetation, it is just a flattened area with scree slopes above and below.
It ends quite abruptly. A large boulder lies across the way I want to go. Whether it was always there, or whether the recent rains have brought it down, I don’t know. I look up and down. On either side of where I stand is treacherous scree, loose stones on a steep slope.
I sit on a hot rock, swig more water and pull out the guidebook. Some way back, I missed the main path. I walked on, curving across the face of the mountain, when I should have turned left and taken a steeper route up the ridge. Looking upwards, I see firm ground at the top of the scree slope. That’s where the path must be.
I could turn back, but there is only an inch of warm water left in my bottle and I just want to reach the summit, leave the necklace and get back down. I eye the scree. A hundred yards of scrambling will bring me to where I should be. I’ve done it before.
Digging my feet and hands into the stony slope, I begin edging my way up. I am doing well, more than halfway, when the stones shift. They roll down, bringing me with them, pulling more stones in and gathering momentum until a whole section of slope is moving like a conveyor belt.
I grasp and clutch. Everything moving. Nothing to hold onto. Hands bruise. Can’t stop. Swept around, facing downhill, see what’s coming: a lip of land, a disjunction where the slope ends, a cliff, a vertical face. I grab, kick, scream, but find no anchor.
Distant clatter of stones. Air around me. Sky reels overhead and closes in.
Grey ceiling. Bright light. Blurred faces. Humming noise like air conditioner. Smell of dried blood, cleanliness, disinfectant.
“She’s back with us.” The voice echoes outside and then inside and through me, carrying me back into nothingness.
“You’re very lucky,” a man says. He’s on my right side. His voice doesn’t echo.
I open my eyes on a different ceiling, white this time. A crack starts above and to my right, snaking diagonally across, but I can’t see where it ends because I’m unable to turn my head. I’m aware not so much of pain in my body, as tenderness and weakness.
The man speaks again. This time he’s doing something on my left side. “First, you’re lucky that a German couple found you not long after you fell.”
“Secondly, your neck and back are okay. You have a cracked skull, concussion, a few broken ribs and a fractured pelvis, but nothing that can’t be put right with time.”
He moves closer. I look into his aqua overall and smell antiseptic as he raises me to adjust the pillows. “Thirdly, you’re very lucky that we were able to identify you so quickly. You were carrying no ID and hadn’t told anyone where you were going.
“The German woman was a nurse. She stayed with you while her husband got help. A helicopter brought you here.”
Where is here? He straightens the sheets, sending a ripple of pain through me.
The main hospital in Inverness.
“The police put a description of you on the Highland evening news. Two people phoned in straight away. We were able to access your medical records, look up your blood type for the transfusion. Vital time gained.”
He leans over and I see him better, sandy hair, freckles, maybe in his early thirties. “I’m giving you something for the pain.”
My vision blurs and darkness closes in again.
There are several nurses, but Sam is the only man and I like him best. He doesn’t rush. The female nurses bustle efficiently into my line of vision and issue a cheery greeting, but their minds are already on the next task.
One morning, a perfumed scent overcomes the reek of cleanliness. I slowly turn my head to see a huge bunch of flowers, purples and mauves.
“They’re from your workmates,” Sam says when he comes by and finds my head still tilted towards the flowers. He shows me a foot-high card thick with messages scribbled in different coloured pens. Was this organised by Yvonne? My eyes blur with tears. I was so impatient with her.
The flowers fade and die before my nostrils twitch to another new smell, soap, but not the hospital variety with its overlay of disinfectant. It smells like the soap my mother used, cheap and practical. There’s another smell, too, hard to define. I keep my eyes closed, breathing deeply, and then I have it: damp wool.
I open my eyes. A man has drawn up a chair at a respectful distance and hung a Harris tweed jacket over the back. His blue shirt is rolled up almost to the elbows and his arms are brown and freckled. He bends forwards, engrossed in a book, so that all I see is light hair sprinkled with grey.
I rifle my memory, going through colleagues from Environment Scotland in Glasgow or the branch in Inverness, but find no match. Is my memory going? The effort exhausts me. I close my eyes and sink into a sleep so deep that it’s like unconsciousness.
The man comes again, although I drift in and out of sleep so much that I lose track of how many days have passed since his last visit. This time, I have a better view of his face, but I still can’t place him. He glances up as he turns a page, his eyes very blue against his tan, but he looks down immediately, fumbling for a bookmark.
“Kirsty.” He must be from a very long-ago era in my life. He moves forward, stretches out his hand as if he is going to take hold of mine, and then draws back. “Kirsty, do you remember me?”
I wet my dry lips with my tongue, try to form a sound, push it out of my throat. “Nnnnnn…ooo.” Fear presses on my chest as I contemplate what I’ve lost; I cannot remember this man who uses my childhood name.
He looks distressed. “I’m Iain. Iain MacRae. I heard about the accident on the radio. Phoned in to say I thought it could be you. When I asked the hospital how you were doing, they said you hadn’t had any visitors. Thought I’d come along, but I understand if you don’t want to see me.”
His face has thickened, and his auburn hair has faded, but his blue eyes flecked with green, they’re just the same.
He puts away the book. His hand hovers over his coat.
I force out a word, “Ooo…kay,” and then tears come so fast I can’t hold them back.
He takes my hand, presses it between his rough palms. “Shhh, you’ll be alright.”
Sam comes in. “That’s long enough now.”
The next day, as he changes my dressings, Sam tells me that when the police put my description on the radio, Iain phoned to say he knew me. “Dark-haired woman in her late thirties. Five foot eight. Could have fitted a lot of people, but they mentioned the seal necklace. That’s how he recognised you,” Sam smiles cheekily, almost flirtatiously. “You should be glad. The police knocked a few years off your age.”
My laugh is hoarse and wheezy.
The next time Iain comes, I am stronger, well enough to sit propped up by pillows.
“I tried to find you last year,” he said. “I searched for Kirsty Fraser on Facebook and googled you. Nothing. Then I put up notices in the village, hoping you’d come back. I sent a letter to your mother’s house, but it came back not known at this address.”
“She died a few years ago,” My voice is hoarse from lack of use. “She was the only person left who called me Kirsty. I’m Chris now.”
“Chris.” He makes a face as if there is a bad taste in his mouth. “I need to tell you what happened.” His Adam’s apple bobs forward as he swallows. “When I got back to Aberdeen at the end of the summer, Alison told me she was pregnant.”
“You told me it ended months before you met me.”
His face reddens. “We had one last night, before I went up to Camuscille for the summer. I felt sorry for her.”
He once showed me a photo of Alison. She had straight, blonde hair and peered at the camera from behind round glasses. Iain met her when he was doing teacher training in Aberdeen. They sat up late together, helping each other with lesson plans. At some point they turned to one other for comfort.
“All that summer, while we’d been walking and cycling and hanging out together, Alison was carrying my child.” Iain bows his head, hands clasped. “I didn’t have a choice, really. Whatever happened, I was going to let one of you down. I thought, out of the two of you, you were the one who would come out of it best.”
I close my eyes. I’m a tired, broken body in a hospital room, a middle-aged lady with no friends or visitors apart from this one man who has come to expiate his guilt. Is that what he meant by coming out of it best?
I count the days: one, two, three, unsure if he’ll return. Time passes slowly now that I’m more alert. I follow the path of the crack on the ceiling and wonder why the hospital has chosen such a sickly off-white colour for the walls. Sunshine yellow might be nice, or bright orange, or aquamarine.
On the third day when Iain slides into the ward in early evening, I’m ready for him. “Does Alison know you’re here, because if she doesn’t, I want you to leave right now.”
He presses the fingertips of one hand against the other until the pads of his fingers turn white. “She died. Four years ago. Breast cancer. Our youngest kid was just ten when she was diagnosed. Alison fought hard. We thought she’d beaten it, but it came back.”
My chest contracts. I shiver under the light sheet. What do I say? Eventually I manage, “You must miss her.”
He nodded. “We were together so long. She was the mother of my children. We didn’t set off the fireworks, but I learnt to love her in a different way. A quiet, steady sort of love.”
“Why didn’t you say something? I’d have understood, after a while.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t have the guts to tell you.”
He comes often. Sometimes he just sits by my bed and holds my hand and other days we talk about the time we spent together and what happened since. My bones knit together and my head clears, but Iain is a catalyst for tears. They come at unexpected moments, flowing in with memories of the summer in the village, my mother, and even further back to the time when my father was still with us.
Iain helps me through the pain of physiotherapy and that awful period when I’ve been there too long but am not yet well enough to go back alone to the flat in Glasgow.
When I am eventually discharged, Iain drives me to the station in Inverness. He helps me onto the Glasgow train and stows my bag on the luggage rack. I balance my crutches against the seat.
“Well, thanks for the visits.” I try to inject business-like efficiency into my voice, nervous that he’ll expect something.
“It was the least I could do.” With the lightest of smiles, he slips something into my hand. “There’s my card if you ever want to get in touch.”
Before I can reply, he leaves the train. It starts to move, and I look out for him, but he has already left the platform.
He has left without demands or expectations, respected my freedom.
To my surprise, I discover that I have a contrary streak. I want him to persuade me to meet him again.
I reach into my bag to place his card in my purse and my fingers close around a smooth, cool disk: the seal necklace. I twist it between my fingers before clasping it around my neck. As the train rattles across Rannoch Moor, I gaze at the heather and hills and hold tight to the little seal, warm now from my skin.
Christine Grant lives in the Scottish Highlands with her family and writes in both English and Scottish Gaelic. She has had work published in Flash Fiction Magazine and Northwords Now.