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Hill Walk

by James Graham

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1

In the year since Jan’s death, Peter Alexander had frequently gone to the mountain. He found that living in an empty house full of things was hard to do. Sometimes he passed a day visiting some castle or small-town museum. He had tried to stir himself to fly off to some warm island, one that he and Jan had never visited together, or even talked about.

But he had been too dispirited to make the arrangements; he doubted he would ever leave Scotland again. And so, more often than not, he had got into his car and taken the familiar little serpentine road to the mountain.

Now, as always, he left the car in the visitors’ car park. A wooden signpost pointed the way to the tourist trail, but he turned in the opposite direction. One year today. So long as he had been driving, watching out at hairpin bends and blind summits, pulling into passing places and winking his lights at oncoming strangers, the thought had seemed to hide itself away. Now it returned, and his legs almost gave way. One year ago today he had found her in her chair, unseeing, unmoving. Her hand was cold.

The path. Clenching a fist, he impelled himself forward, out of the car park and along the road. Left, right, left, right. Words to repel those other, wounding words. Get to the path.

He knew exactly where to plant his feet. Grab the usual birch-branch, then left foot before right, up to the rough diamond-shaped patch. Other foot, he instructed himself. Oops, balance. Along the grass for a bit. Already he was preoccupied.

It was dry today; the slope was easier, the hard earth between the proud root-veins was more secure, and it was easier to step over the families of round stones that lay in wait around bends and just over ridges. Still, an old man had to be careful, watch every step, stay in the moment.

Ah, Peter’s Rock. Has anyone else given it a name? Not that he’d met many people here. He leaned on it as usual, sidestepped around, and it was full steam ahead for twenty paces. Then up, up again to the top.

And the top was always a reward. There was a grassy space roughly the shape of Ireland on the map, overlooked by a mass of beckoning tall heathers. Two more upward steps and he was among them, looking down and away to the mountainous horizon.

Loch Tomich was a quiet blue today, almost without ripples. Eilean Glas, the Green Isle, lay in full sunshine. It was an almost perfect dome; a swathe of tall pines swept up to its summit and down again to the water, and the dome and its crown were vividly reflected in the loch.

At the foot of the hill, a few paces up from the shore, stood a grey-slated cottage with a red door. Beyond, the mirror image of Ben Monar was clear in the water, a snowcap on its sharp peak and a ring of snow like a ragged scarf around its shoulder. This spacious landscape always cast a good spell. It calmed his restlessness and emptied his mind of everything but natural form and colour. A red kite soaring above, or a moving speck below that might be a fox: these were events remarkable enough to keep him attentive and at peace.

The first time he heard the voices, he paid little attention. From somewhere behind him, but not close by, came a woman’s voice, then a man’s, then a woman’s laugh. It passed, and his eye caught a cluster of wild ducks near the southern shore of the loch, paddling vigorously onwards for a purpose best known to themselves.

But when the voices came again, the spell broke. The funeral day came forward unbidden. His son Mike, daughter-in-law Aileen, and grandson Peter had come over from New Zealand. They had all been loving and strong; Aileen had taken on almost all the sad business that had to be done.

After they left, a haunted silence had descended on the house. Jan was everywhere and nowhere. Her books of American history; the tall Greek-style vase in the living-room window; the pictures she had chosen, the sepia photograph of the town centre in 1920, the one of the Eildon Hills she had taken herself, the McCulloch landscape — all this remained, but she was gone.

The McCulloch landscape. In his almost daily recitals of the dead remnants of her living self, he usually left that out. Tried to stack it away in a box-room in the back of his mind. Now, in sight of Ben Monar, the painter’s landscape with its pair of red deer and misty summit thrust itself before his mind’s eye. This was a thing she loved. And because she had loved it so much, it was a thing he could scarcely bear to look at. Grief rose up in him, and tears came to his eyes.

Wiping them with the back of his hand, he turned to his usual escape route: himself. Self-absorption, self-pity even, were always more comfortable.

I’ve changed, he thought, for the worse. Being a radical, a regular protester, against the Bomb, against Vietnam, against capitalism, was really very positive while it lasted. Because it was more or less rational. Now, it’s all raw feelings, negative feelings.

Who said the universe seemed like a torture garden? Mirabeau. Yes. He said social institutions, religion, forget what else, are all ‘hideous instruments of eternal human suffering.’ A kindred spirit. Wouldn’t have thought that ten years ago. Or if I had, Jan would have put me right.

Now all I can say is the whole world’s out of step but me. How pretentious is that?! I hate the rich with their trillions hidden away in little Shangri-la countries, while over in another part of town people live in cardboard houses and get dysentery. It sickens me but there’s nothing I can do. Nothing I could ever do.

He shook his head as if to shake off a plague of flies, and opened his eyes again to Glen Tomich. Little we see in Nature that is ours. So Wordsworth thought. At least he could still feel that the beauty of this place somehow belonged to him. Or pretend it did. Peter’s rock. At least this National Park wasn’t owned by some zillionaire who would fill it up with deer for shooting or build a golf course on it.

He turned and crossed the middle space, and as he did so he heard the voices again.

He hesitated. An impulse to keep his own tiresome company almost turned him towards the downward path. Instead, he moved in the direction of the voices. Unable to pluck any familiar words out of the air, he decided it must be a foreign language he didn’t recognise.

Gripping the stem of a heather-bush, he pulled himself up. Here the ground fell away towards a broad level space, with patches of dwarf heathers and grass. There was no-one in sight. Instead, what caught his eye was something the like of which he had never seen before, something that instantly transfixed him. It was an enormous bottle.

A thing shaped like a Roman flask, almost perfectly spherical except for a flat base which kept it steady on the ground. At its north pole was a short shoulder and neck. It was the size of a house. And it was spectacularly beautiful.

Around the base he could make out a frieze, a double chain of what looked like flowers, in white, green and a rich, powerful blue. Towards the shoulder the decoration was abstract, like Arabic calligraphy, with horizontal strokes that began broad and tapered along, fish-like, and many vertical lines in serpentine curves. The colours here were russet and bronze, with spots of that same iridescent blue.

But it was the animals that truly cast a spell. The muddled agonisings of a few minutes ago seemed to evaporate in the mountain air. A procession of strange and lovely creatures, painted or inlaid around the broadest part of the sphere, delicate gazelles, running and leaping.

No, not gazelles exactly; that was only the nearest approximation. Their long graceful bodies were gold along the ridge of the back, as if reflecting the sun, and this merged into a dustier gold at the flanks and a deeper golden brown on the underside.

Their slender legs were elegantly curved and seemed scarcely strong enough to bear them. Every tail too was set in a curve, and every tail-tip was an arrowhead pointing to the sky. Though they ran or leapt forward, their heads were turned outward; between the leaf-shaped ears and the narrow snout their dark eyes were so liquid and alive it almost seemed they could see and be aware. And they ran and leapt against a field of vibrant green, a living green, the colour of young grass on a spring morning.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by James Graham

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