Gillis parked his car outside Justine’s flat. He was a little early and knew she’d be a little late. He fiddled around with his phone until she opened the door and climbed in.
“I’m not late, am I?” she said as she messed with her seat belt. Gillis read the time as 1733. They’d arranged to meet at half five.
“Depends what you call late, really,” Gillis said, starting the engine.
Justine checked her phone. “Yeah, I’m on time. Good.”
The duo left behind their grotty student flats and got on the road to home. Or, rather, their parents home. Justine would still consider it home. Gillis would not.
“Do you think Mum’ll have kept it a secret?” Justine asked.
“She’s got this far, which is pretty impressive for her. Even if she gives it away in the next hour I’d say she’s done pretty well.”
“That was pretty funny,” Justine said, “when Dad was trying to hint it was his birthday this weekend. Did I tell you about that?”
Justine giggled. “He called me up, and he was like ‘so, I’ve kept this weekend free.’ And I was like ‘oh, is something happening? I’d arranged to go to Newcastle with some friends.’ And he was like ‘Oh… Didn’t your mother tell you?’ I was trying really hard not to laugh.”
“But Mum did remind us it was his birthday this weekend.”
“She reminded you. I know these things. Didn’t Dad call you too?”
“No, actually,” Gillis said.
“Oh… Well anyway, I start telling him about this Manchester trip I have planned. I didn’t push it since he normally picks up on these things but he wasn’t at all suspicious. I hope Mum does keep it under wraps, I can’t wait to see his face when we arrive.”
“Maybe we should sneak in a window as well,” Gillis said. “Let’s just appear and pretend we never left home.”
“That’s a crap prank.”
Gillis frowned but his phone rang before he could say anything. ‘Your Fantastic Father’ appeared on the screen. Justine gave Gillis a look.
“He put that in,” Gillis said. “You’re not here.” Justine zipped her mouth. Gillis answered on the hands free.
“Hello Gillis,” Peter said. “I’ve just got it out of Mum that you’re coming to visit this weekend!”
Justine silently groaned. Gillis sniggered. “Why’d she tell you that?” he said.
“She’s no good at keeping secrets,” Peter said. “She gets very defensive so I can tell. Is your sister with you too?”
Justine shook her head. Gillis shrugged at her. She shook her head again.
“No, she’s… She’s getting the bus I think. She always says my car smells.”
“Right then. Okay,” Peter said. “Well, what I was thinking, since it’s my birthday and you’ll both be here, why don’t the four of us go for a hill walk? It’ll be like old times.”
Justine put her face in her hands. “Oh yeah,” Gillis said. “Sounds fun.”
“Oh great!” Peter said. “We’ll leave early tomorrow. I’ll find a route to do. This’ll be fun, won’t it? Mum’ll make some sandwiches. Where are you now?”
“Just leaving the city.”
“Right-o. See you soon!”
Justine groaned as soon as he hung up. “You can’t be serious.”
“What?” Gillis said. “I thought you like hill walking.”
“‘like’ is a strong word. It doesn’t really compare to a weekend of free food and lazing around. Why did you say yes?”
“Well I couldn’t say no. It’s his birthday and all.”
“You could have tried.”
In a huff, Justine called up the contact simply called ‘mum’ on the hands free.
“Hello?” Lizzy answered.
“Mum,” Justine said. “Why did you tell Dad we’re coming? Now he’s taking us on a hill walk. This is a disaster.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lizzy said. “He came in when I was making a cake and – ”
“You’ve made him a cake and he repays you by dragging you up a hill? Amazing.”
“Oh come on Justine, don’t be difficult. I enjoy hill walking as much as your Dad does – ”
“Yeah right,” Justine muttered.
” – and you’ll enjoy it when we’re up there. I’ll make sure he picks a nice easy route and we’ll have it over in no time. It’ll make him very happy.”
“Whatever. See you soon, Mum.”
“Goodbye Mum!” Gillis added.
“Oh! See you soon Gillis. Bye. Bye.”
Justine hung up. “I thought we were done with hill walking,” she grumbled.
Peter dragged everyone out of their beds early the next morning. They’d had a perfectly pleasant meal the night before and Justine had made an attempt at concealing her disinterest in the walk. Now they were parking the car somewhere that probably wasn’t supposed to be a parking space at Who Knows Where. A river was channelled down the U-shaped valley surrounded by sloping hills, coated in heather and scree.
“Backpack for you,” Peter said, throwing a bag to Gillis. “And a backpack for me.” He put it on.
“Don’t I get one?” Justine asked.
“Do you want one?” Peter asked.
“I’m just curious as to why Mum and I didn’t get one.”
“The bags aren’t heavy, there’s just jackets and some lunch in them.”
“You’re avoiding my question.”
“You can swap with your brother later if you want.”
Justine made a face and wandered off while everyone else swapped their trainers for hiking boots. Justine didn’t have any boots since she’d given her pair to a friend (or, as her friend would testify, left them at a friend’s house) when she left to Uni, happy that her hill walking career was over.
“How does this go again?” Gillis asked Lizzy as he fiddled around with the laces.
“Check this out!” Justine shouted. She was holding a dead frog out in front of her with two sticks. It’d been dead a while.
“Oh, come on Justine,” Lizzy muttered, as she did up Gillis’ shoes.
“Wow,” Peter said, getting closer. “Would you look at that. I recommend we don’t bring it with us.”
“Her name is Absfelt. And she’ll follow me everywhere I go.”
“Right-o.” Peter turned his attention to his guide book. “This is the path here,” he said, pointing at a thin rocky trail suggesting a way up the nearest peak. “Let’s get going.”
Absfelt followed the family approximately fifteen metres before being unceremoniously flung back into the heather.
Gillis walked up front with Peter as Lizzy and Justine trailed behind them.
“How long is this walk?” Gillis asked.
“The book says nine miles. So it shouldn’t be that far.”
“Does that nine miles include going up and down, or is it just horizontal?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure. It shouldn’t make that much difference though.”
Gillis looked around the hilly landscape. “You know I’m not very fit right? I’m not sure I’ll make it the whole way.”
“Nonsense. You’re a strapping young man.”
“I’m a programmer who lives off oven meals.”
“You’re not visibly overweight.”
“My main form of exercise is walking from one pub to the next.”
“You went to the gym for a while.”
“That was in high school.”
“Do your legs work?”
“Then you’ll be fine. Just keep walking and we’ll be fine.”
Justine started singing loudly behind them.
If IIIEEEE would walk five hundred miles
then IIIEEEE would walk five hundred more
just to BEEEEEEE the gal who’d walked ten hundred
MIILLEESSS too far for your lazy arse!
“Hmm,” Peter said. “I never knew she was a fan of them.”
“Oh, I can feel it already,” Justine said further up the hill.
“What is it?” Lizzy said.
“The blisters. They’re coming!”
“Blisters don’t form that quickly.”
“But, Mum, you know that feeling, when they’re forming. The kinda tenderish feeling in your skin.”
“Where are they forming?”
“All over my heel. And on everyone one of my toes. And there may be a few on the back of my ankle as well. We’ll just have to go back now.”
“Don’t let Dad here you say that,” Lizzy said.
Justine huffed and walked on in silence.
“We always have to do what they want to do,” Justine complained to Gillis a while later. They’d got to the top of one low peak and now they were moving downwards again, towards another higher peak. “What about what I want to do?”
“What do you want to do?” Gillis asked.
“I don’t know. Play scrabble or something.”
“I hate scrabble.”
“Well, what would you like to do?”
Gillis smirked. “I spend my free time playing games and talking about games. I’m not sure we could get our parents involved in that stuff.”
“Well we should,” Justine said. She kicked rocks out of her way as she stomped along the path. “If we have to do what they enjoy, they should have to do what we enjoy.”
“We’ve not gone on a walk together in about four years. And it is Dad’s birthday.”
Justine snorted. “On my birthday we’re going to Manchester. To look at art galleries. Dad’ll hate that.”
Peter stopped at a fork in the path. The left path zig-zagged up a tall hill and the other went along a V-shaped valley and quickly disappeared around a bend. He stared at his guide book long enough for Justine to catch up.
“Where next, captain?” Gillis said.
“I think we go…” Peter pointed up the left path to the top of the hill. “… That way.”
Justine groaned. “Do we have to?”
“Oh come on, Justine,” Peter said. “We’re adventuring! Aren’t you always reading books about adventurers?”
“Yes, from the safety of my couch.”
“Is there any way around it?” Lizzy asked.
“You too!” Peter slapped his face, dumbfounded. Gillis couldn’t tell if he was putting it on or not. “Come on. It’ll be fine. Let’s go.”
“DaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAD!” Justine moaned.
Peter frowned and looked at the map again. “Alright fine. We’ll try to go around it. The only problem is that that throws us off the path a little bit. But that’s fine. We’ll figure it out.”
And so the party left the path to trudge through the heather.
The next hour and a half was tricky. The group had got a fair distance away from the path before they were having to lean towards the hill to stop themselves slipping. The problem with trying to walk around a hill in an area called The Highlands was that there was no real beginning or end to a single hill. After trying to walk across an increasingly steep hillside a group decision was made that the best thing to do would be to move up the hill.
The four of them scrambled up a steep scree face on their hands and knees. Justine’s loud objections had burned away in to a subdued irritation which increased as twigs and leaves found their way into her low-grip trainers. Peter lead the way up the path.
“Watch out for that patch,” he shouted behind him. “Those rocks are loose.”
“They’re all loose,” Justine mumbled to herself, at the back of the group.
Peter was wedged in one nest of rocks, struggling to find somewhere to put his foot. He tried to stretch his arm up to a higher stone. However when he tried to pull himself up, the stone became loose. He let go and it tumbled down the mountain face.
“Watch out!” he yelled behind him.
Gillis was the next in line. He looked up to see the stone falling towards his foot. He was aware that Mum was just below him and was holding her body much closer to the cliff face so in a snap decision he kicked the rock as hard as he could when it passed him.
“Argh, fuck,” he cursed as pain filled his foot. He’d made the right choice. He looked down to see Lizzy’s head right below his foot. “Dad, you bloody idiot!” he called up.
“Watch out,” Peter called back. “These rocks are loose too!”
Once everyone got to the peak, Peter looked around to get his bearings. Gillis ripped off his laces, dug his foot out of the big boots and thick socks and examined the damage. Lizzy had a look. His big toe was red and bruised, although there was no bleeding or broken skin. Lizzy got a small bandage out of Gillis’ backpack and wrapped it around the toe.
“It might be broken,” she said.
“What does a broken toe feel like?” Gillis said.
“Oh, people break their toes all the time. It’s not that bad really.”
Gillis winced at the pressure of the bandage. “Compared to what?”
“What’s going on?” Peter said.
“Gillis hurt his foot,” Lizzy explained.
“He kicked a rock.”
“Because – ” Gillis started, then flinched with pain as Lizzy slowly put his sock back on.
“Well that was a silly thing to do, wasn’t it?” Peter said. “Can you still walk?”
“I got up here,” Gillis said.
“Ah good. Now then.” Peter wandered off, looking at the map again.
Lizzy gave Gillis a smile. “It might not be broken,” she said.
“Thanks Mum,” Gillis said insincerely as he put his boot back on and stood up. If he avoided putting weight on his big toe he could still walk without much pain, however it was awkward to walk in such a way on the un-even highland ground.
“Lizzy, where’d you put that compass?” Peter said. He was rummaging around in his backpack.
“Where did I put it?” Lizzy said. “I didn’t put it anywhere. It normally stays in the backpack.”
“Yes but we took it out. Didn’t we? I remember seeing it on the table. Justine, see if there’s a compass in the other backpack.”
“Well,” Lizzy said, “if anyone took it out it would have been you.”
“I can’t find anything,” Justine said.
Peter sat on a rock and thought for a while. “Oh well. Looks like we don’t have it. Don’t worry though. I have the map here and I know where we are.”
Everyone else looked around. They’d all completely lost their sense of direction. The U-shaped valley they’d parked in was not identifiable. “Really?” Gillis said.
“Yes really. Don’t worry. The path is this way,” he said, walking on. The others had no choice but to follow.
Peter lead as the group walked as one unit. He could sense that the mood in the group was somewhat low. Gillis was keeping up but seemed annoyed at him for some reason and Justine had settled into a thick brood. Lizzy was keeping alert and seemed to be enjoying the sights but was constantly checking up on the kids and seemed uncomfortable. Everything was fine though. He was confident from the map that they were going to stumble across the path again at any moment. That’d lift their spirits. To keep them going he decided to tell them a story.
“Now, kids,” he said. “Did I ever tell you about the time I went hill walking with your grandparents and uncle when I was your age?”
Gillis and Justine looked up from their feet to briefly scowl at their father before looking down again.
“Well, we were on one of the Scottish islands. I forget which one. It was long from the south end to the north end but thin from east to west. We were trying to walk the height of the island. Dad said we just needed to keep walking north and we’d make it. So we were walking north, over all these hills and bumps and your uncle was in a bad mood. Now, since I was around your age he was around fourteen or something. So he was stropping around, like teenagers do.
“Anyway, we found this nice little clearing with these big rocks in it. Granddad and I started climbing these rocks and messing around while Gran sat down to rest for a bit. But your Uncle was being in a stroppy mood and he just wanted to get back to the house so he could get back to his book or whatever. So he just wandered off on his own!”
Peter looked back to see if this twist gained any kind of reaction. It did not. But they were still walking so he kept going.
“So, when we stopped horsing around we looked about to see that your uncle was gone! We couldn’t believe it! He’d just slipped off! We started shouting on him. Michael! Michael!” Peter yelled. “Michael where are you?! There was no reply.
“So we started looking for him. He must have got a decent head start because we couldn’t find him anywhere! We walked north for a bit further but he couldn’t be found. So we decided the best thing to do would be to start telling people he was missing.
“We went east to some buildings and asked around to see if anyone had found him. We walked around fairly aimlessly, in a confused panicked state. Boy was your Gran upset! She was worried he’d fallen in a bog or something. He was totally, and utterly, gone!
“We decided to go back to the car after a while, hoping that he’d made his way back there and failing that that we could drive around asking people if they’d seen him. When we got to the car someone had put a message onto the windscreen! It had the address of a cafe we’d been to earlier and said Michael was there! We drove there immediately and guess who we found?”
“Uncle Michael,” Justine muttered.
“That’s right! While we’d been out looking for him and worrying our bottoms off, he’d been sitting in this cafe enjoying free hot chocolate and kit-kats!” Peter laughed.
“What did Gran say to him?” Gillis asked.
“Oh, we were just happy we’d found him.” Peter looked around. His story had succeeded in getting everyone to pick up the pace but he hadn’t been paying as much attention to where they were going because of it. They really should have hit the path by now… He looked at the time. It was nearly 2pm. “Maybe we should have lunch.”
Sandwiches wrapped in cling-film were passed around. A chilling wind blew through and whiteness filled in the blue of the sky. Peter passed around waterproofs for everyone for an extra layer “since we’ve taken off our burners.” Gillis had an old one of Peter’s which was far too big for him and Justine had an old one of Lizzy’s which was far too short. Neither bothered to complain.
Peter was brooding over the map. Gillis went over to him.
“Where we at, chief?” Gillis said.
“Hmm… I believe we were here,” Peter pointed at the map, “then we went this way… But that can’t be right otherwise we’d have hit this path here.”
“Oh. So where are we then?”
“Hmm. We started here… Walked to here… Went off the path there… Walked up the river here… Then went this way. I think.”
“Dad. Where are we.”
“We should be in this area I think.” Peter circled a large area on the map.
“Are we lost?”
Peter scoffed and waved his hand around. “Oh no. Don’t be silly. We’re just a little off track is all. That hill should be this hill, and that valley should be this valley, so we should be… Here.” Peter pointed at another point in the map. Gillis wanted to help but he hadn’t done orienteering since a competition in high school. He hadn’t come last, as such. He hadn’t come back at all.
Gillis made a face at Peter and left him too it. He was tempted to tell the others but he didn’t think Justine would take it particularly well.
“This is so dull,” Justine said when Gillis sat down next to her. She was scooping twigs out of her trainers. “I don’t want to be here.”
“Do you want to go back to the car?” Gillis asked.
“No. I want to be in the car. Are we going back now? Have we gone far enough?”
“It’s not much of an end point.” They looked around the windy valley.
“Deer,” Lizzy said. She’d wandered a little farther up a hill.
“Yes?” Peter said.
“No,” Lizzy said. “There’s some deer here. Quiet.”
Peter, Gillis and Justine slowly crept up the hill to look over the edge. The elegant creatures nibbled on some grass together. There was four of them, standing together in a group. They were close enough to feel the warmth of each other, to feel and be comforted by each other’s presence.
“Ah,” Peter said. “We’re down wind so they’ve not smelt us yet.”
When Peter said that one of the deer lifted its head and looked around. It looked straight at the family. Without making a noise, it began to trot off. The other three followed it instinctively.
“Dad!” Justine snapped.
“Sorry,” he said. “They were going to leave sooner or later. Look how they run. Isn’t that interesting?”
The deer quickly went out of view. Justine huffed and shimmied back down the slope.
With Peter leading the way, the party walked for another half hour or so. They weren’t sure. It was difficult to keep track of time. The sky drifted in and out of blueness, threatening to turn sour at any moment. Peter asked if anyone had checked the forecast. They hadn’t.
The party stumbled across a small lake. It’d take maybe five minutes to walk around and had a small beach-like bank at one side.
“Oh,” Peter said, clearly surprised.
“What?” Justine said.
Peter looked at the map, then up at the lake. “I don’t think this lake is on the map.”
“… What?” Justine repeated.
Peter made some grumpy noises and looked at the map.
“Where are we?” Lizzy said, looking over Peter’s shoulder.
“We’re around here,” Peter said, pointing unconvincingly.
“There’s no lake there.”
“Yes I know, the lake is not on the map.”
“For God’s sake,” Justine said, pulling out her smart phone. “This is what I get for trusting you.” She pulled up a map with GPS. “We are here. Next to a lake.” She shoved the map into Peter’s face.
He looked at it, then back to his map. They were about two kilometres from where he’d thought they were, and twice as many kilometres off track.
Peter looked back at his map. “What happened?”
Lizzy looked at the map. “We went off road here… Then up here…”
“No,” Peter said. “We went up here.”
“Incorrect,” Lizzy said. “We went up the hill an extra hundred metres or so past there. Which means when we went upwards, we ended on top of this hill. Not that hill.”
Peter grumbled to himself. “Yes. Well. Good spot, you two. You’ve passed the test, and all that.”
“Oh good,” Justine said. “We doubled back on ourselves. The car’s just east of here.”
“But we didn’t make it up – ”
“Where’s Gillis?” Lizzy said.
The three of them looked around. Gillis had wandered over to the beach area and was taking a rest.
“A day at the beach sounds much better,” Justine said, going to join him.
The four of them spent an hour or so by the lake. Justine ribbed Peter for getting them lost. He said he’d had it under control, although he was secretly relieved they’d caught his mistake.
Peter tried to teach Gillis and Justine how to skim stones, although he wasn’t very good at it himself. Lizzy enjoyed watching. The walk back to the car was quick as there was a path and Justine lead the group forward at breakneck speeds.
“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Peter said once they’d all got back into the car.
“I’ll never admit I had fun,” Justine replied.