The water rippled, crackling slightly under the gradually emboldening frosty veneer. Light dustings of snow clung lazily to the trees and bushes huddling together around the loch’s perimeter. On the far end of the loch the mountains thrust into the air; grey, crooked silhouettes deep in conference with the heavy, encroaching clouds. The daylight losing its battle, one shadow at a time, with the approaching nightfall.
Iain stood by the edge of the road, his police car recklessly parked on the icy verge only yards behind. He could feel the frost nipping angrily at his shoes, the soles of which had rapidly worn away over the preceding months. Each freezing dart of cold seemingly mocking and admonishing him for his incorrect choice of footwear. He stared straight ahead at the suspect. Iain’s face portrayed a measured calm. A practised façade. His heart, on the other hand, beat frantically. Sporadically.
Murray stared back at him, a weary smile plastered across his tired face. His hair was a mess. Fresh beads of sweat dampened certain patches of his scalp but others sat hard and dry, products of an earlier period of sweat. In one hand he clutched an old woolly tammy. In the other a half-empty bottle of water freshly scooped only minutes earlier from the loch. He held his arms out by his side. Whether in surrender or appeal, Iain was unable to tell. Murray sighed, a mixture of exhaustion and relief flickering briefly through his eyes.
‘Well then brother…’ he said, ‘what’s it to be?’
At school, and through life in general in fact, siblings always seem to be measured against one another. It’s just how things are. And always will be. Particularly when said siblings reside in a small, secluded town such as Portmahomack, nestled perilously on the edge of the Cromarty Firth in Easter Ross. And for Murray and Iain, this was no different. Behaviour, progression, academic achievements; compare and contrast, compare and contrast. And in this case there was always the sense that, despite the two year age gap in favour of the former, Iain was the mature one. Iain was the sensible one; the one with his head screwed on; the one that would ‘go far’.
Murray was fine with this. He was content – ‘happy’ would be a step too far – to live in his younger brother’s shadow. Academically, at least. School was never really for him. The structure, the rigidity, the conformity all never sat well with him – which, given his career choice later in life, appears somewhat strange. He was the school’s token ‘problem child’. The one sent into the schoolyard each day seemingly by a particularly malevolent and bitter anti-teacher collection of Gods for no other purpose than to simply grind them down and make their working week a living hell. The teachers consequently thanked the deities, one and all, whenever young Murray Macmaster elected to take one of his incrementally increasing sick days off school. A ‘sick’ day which usually entailed a visit to the nearby lighthouse, an alcohol-fuelled frolic with a likeminded girl or two, and a subsequently crudely-scrawled note from his ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ detailing the brief illness. He couldn’t blame his home life, no. Murray’s parents were happily married – on the face of things anyway. They never discouraged him, never beat him, never showed him anything other than the love and care that all children crave. And, anyway, Iain had turned out alright hadn’t he?
As Murray dragged his trail of destruction around the school, Iain kept his head down. He learned. He loved to learn. Loved the validation and confidence that came with the absolute assurance of knowledge and intelligence. He studied, read, planned all through his formative years. In his mind his future path was carved out long before others had even considered a life-beyond-childhood. He grew tall, strong, robust. Physically and mentally he became someone seen as a future leader of the community. A mast that others could tie their sails to, both for educational and social reasons. As Iain’s appearance and aura fleshed out as he advanced through his school years, Murray’s seemed to diminish and wither as drugs and alcohol began to cross the line between childish experimentation into the realms of addiction.
Despite, to all appearances, the ever-expanding chasm between the two brothers in terms of behavioural and academic qualities, the two were always close. Brothers they were in both blood and spirit. Iain had always loved his older brother; always admired his carefree attitude, his seemingly endless reserves of individuality. And when an earlier more timid version of Iain had taken his first steps into the social world of the schoolyard his brother’s fearsome aura had ensured him the space and time to make the smooth and unfettered progression to comfort and confidence. And conversely Murray had never looked on his wee brother’s successes with anything other than pride. Pride that he would rarely let anyone other than his brother see of course, but pride all the same. They were friends aswell as brothers. Increasingly inhabiting two very different worlds but friends they were. As Murray cut short his school life and made the simple transition to the world of short-lived employment and daytime drinking, Iain finished his own spell at school with aplomb and achievement.
For the latter University and a subsequent police training programme followed. For the former, a depressingly familiar spiral into addiction and wasted days ensued. But the two, through it all, remained friends. They would occasionally drink together on the odd night or so when Iain would afford himself a brief respite from the relentless pursuit of perfection. Drinks would flow, declarations of love would reverberate and arms would be hung around the other. Vows made; wherever life could or would deign to take them, they would always be as one. The Macmaster Brothers. Together. Unbreakable. Even women couldn’t tear them apart, they’d say. A fact that was seriously tested at one point when both had designs on Morven, the barmaid at their local. A beautiful, funny woman in her early 20s she held the two of them in raptures night after night. To Iain she was the girl that he could spend his life with; he would provide for her, he would give her the life she deserved. To Murray, at first anyway, she was the best looking lassie in the town. A stunner. A prize to be bagged, to be presented with. But gradually, through the hours and days of relentless drinking, genuine feelings began to develop for her. Morven had always flirted back but these innocent flirtations had, likewise, seemingly turned into some kind of genuine affection. This jolted him slightly, feelings were never part of the equation when it came to him and women. But there they were, all the same. But they remained unspoken, just as Iain’s feelings remained. Neither yet prepared to reveal their true designs. Until the night of the local’s Christmas party that is.
In a small town a pub’s Christmas party is something to look forward to. Possibly not the party itself but certainly the gossip and tales that residually flicker off from the event in the days and weeks afterwards. Scuffles, couplings, drunken states; it’s all good small town gossip. For Murray, however, the party itself presented its chance. His opportunity. His feelings for Morven had awoken a new, fledgling resolve within him to ‘get his life together’ as it were. He would ditch the substances, or at least curb his intake. He would become the kind of man that would deserve a woman like Morven in his life. A new suit was bought, his shoes were shined, his hair professionally cut (rather than taking the clippers to his own head as was his modus operandi); he was ready. He would make his play. Reveal himself. Reveal his feelings. And the plan was a good one. Flawless even. Or it would have been, if he hadn’t have walked in and seen his younger brother Iain kissing the object of his objections. He turned and fled. Angry. Disgusted. Violent. In one split-second tinsel-laden scene he had seen his future ripped out from under him. By Iain. By his own brother.
As Iain’s relationship with Morven grew from strength to strength, his relationship with his older brother seemed to stagnate. For why, Iain could not tell. Murray grew distant, cold. Immersing himself in exercise; finding a new interest in running, swimming, in visits to the gym. He now barely visited the local, choosing to drink (if at all) in the relative comfort of his own one bedroom flat. Iain’s calls would go unanswered. His attempts to reach out dismissed. He needed his brother’s advice; was now the time to propose to Morven? Should he wait until he had finished police training? Wait until he had some money behind him? He needed advice, sage or otherwise. He needed his brother. But Murray was already far down a path that would see the two of them ripped apart before much longer. Thousands of miles of sea and sand between them. Within months a newly-fit and focussed Murray had joined the army. His Blackwatch battalion were off to Afghanistan.
Iain’s heart sank. Afghanistan. Kabul. What possessed him? His brother? The shunner of authority, the carefree spirit. Off to join the army. A six month deployment turned into a year. A year subsequently turned into several. Iain barely received word, good or otherwise, from his brother. Not even a congratulatory letter or telegram celebrating Iain’s marriage to Morven. Or even the birth of their first child, Murray’s nephew. Nor a peep about Iain’s blossoming career in the police force. To Iain his brother was lost. Lost in the sands of the Middle East. Lost beneath a hail of bullets and IEDs. Lost. To Murray, for the first time in his life, he felt as if he belonged. It was a cliché, as staid and reproduced as any other, but he felt a kinship with his army brothers and sisters. An assurance, a confidence that they had his back and he theirs. Betrayal had no place in this life, in that moment. Death, however, sadly did. On his sixth patrol, he and his comrades walked straight into a hail of sniper and machine gun fire. Eight of Murray’s fellow soldiers lost their lives that day. Murray himself suffered a wound to his abdomen however, miraculously, escaped largely unscathed. Physically at least. Mentally, this was just the beginning of a long eternal struggle with PTSD. The images of his closest brothers and sisters being mown down, like a hot knife through butter, only yards from him – their blood staining his shoes, his clothes, congealing into the burning hot sand – would never leave him. For him, the pain was too much. Remaining in the army was too much. For Murray Macmaster it was time to come home.
For Iain solid, dependable marital bliss had buckled somewhat under the weight of life. The three kids. The demanding strain of a police job that seemed to stretch every inch of life out of him. The constant anguish felt daily over his brother’s safety, his life. Him and Morven argued. They fought. They screamed and shouted. The love, the passion that existed at the start of their relationship seemed to have withered as the banal became normality. The job was first. The job was boss. That’s the impression Morven got anyway. Her husband was barely home, barely there to raise a finger to help with their three growing children. The rare spare time he did have seemed, increasingly, to be spent in the pub. Any pub. He barely mentioned his brother to her. Despite her asking him, prodding him, willing him to talk about Murray. She’d always had a soft spot for the older Macmaster brother, stretching back to her student days when she had worked part-time behind the bar of the local. But Iain had made the first move. He had seemed the more solid option. Murray was more mischievous, more exciting, sure, but Iain had a confidence and charm about him that seemed assured. And she grew to love him. Of course she did. But the job. That bloody job. It drained him. It sucked nearly everything from him. His career, and any thought of progression, stalled, almost abruptly, coinciding with his brother’s deployment to the Middle East. He’d put on weight. He became disillusioned. Something inside him had broken then. And for the life of her she didn’t know how to fix it.
Murray had been back in the country nearly five years when he decided to come back home. A string of hostels, bedsits and veterans’ accommodations, and days spent in nothing more than a drink-fuelled limbo, lay in his wake as he made the journey up to the Cromarty Firth from Aberdeen. A man changed. A man fighting to cling on. The memory of his brother gave him the hope that he needed to cling to. A former feeling, a former life to claw back into his own. But the Iain he found was not the Iain he left behind. He looked older, visibly older, strained, less robust than he once more. There was no war, no Afghanistan, no sand for Iain but he looked broken to Murray all the same. They shared drinks with each other when they could, swapped stories, compared tragedies but there was always the feeling that something was being held back. By both of them. The men they had become seemed so far removed from the boys, the vibrant young men, they once were.
The PTSD took hold of Murray as the monotony returned to his routine. The drinking accelerated to a frightening level, showering him with blackouts. Blood stains, wounds, pains that stood without explanation, lost in the haze of his latest drunken switch-off. Scuffles, fights, became a regular occurrence often needing an exasperated, patience-draining Iain to step in and smooth things over. One time when he stepped in between a shoving match, that teetered on the cusp of spilling over into a full-blown fight, Murray seemed to begin to swing for his younger brother. Before stopping himself just in time. Their eyes met. A momentary tension existed between the pair. Unspoken, unresolved issues seem to flare for no more than a moment before the scene fizzled out. In the coming weeks and months it seemed to silently carve a wedge between them. The meetings, the phone calls, the nights out petered out until they became, virtually, two strangers occupying different worlds once again. Unsurprisingly, the final nail in the coffin between the pair came when Murray and Morven slept together.
A marriage already frittering away under the strain of daily existence seemed to gather pace for its descent into the abyss when Murray crept back into their lives. The latter’s behaviour taking more and more from her husband when he had barely anything left to give as it stood. At first Murray had kept his distance, past wounds obviously still fresh in his mind when it came to the once-object of his affections. But gradually, piece by piece, the two developed a friendship. Something, which at first, heartened Iain as he saw his brother and his own children’s uncle take his first steps back into something approaching normal family life. But soon it nagged at him. His wife, the woman who seemed almost indifferent to him these days, seemed to have a spark back about her again. A twinkle appeared in her eye when she spoke to Murray. Something of the girl from the old days reared its head when she laughed with the older of the two brothers. Nags and doubts turned into full blown jealously, up to the point where the situation would become the catalyst for several passionate arguments between the couple. Eventually this drove a despairing Morven into the arms of a half-drunk Murray one afternoon when the kids were at school and Iain was trawling the Highlands on some case or other. Her broken marriage, his PTSD, her depression, his addictions; all came spilling out in one tear-filled therapeutic heart-to-heart. Feelings that were threatened with confession many years previously were suddenly confessed. Out in the open. Unleashed. And sex inevitably followed. Both looking for a feeling of love, of safety, of healing found only disappointment. Guilt. Both were racked with guilt. A factor that, despite swearing each other to secrecy, led Morven to confess all to her husband one teary midweek night. Afterwards Iain had calmly left the house, instinctively walked down to the local, found his brother perched on his usual stool at the end of the bar and punched him. One strong, fierce uppercut that sent his older brother from his stool and sprawling to the floor under a hail of beer, crisps and blood. Iain shook his trembling, bleeding hand slightly as he looked down at his brother. And walked out again. Just as calmly as he had walked in.
The years went by, spinning both brothers from their thirties into their early forties. Not one single word passed between the two. Iain, despite the betrayal, had remained with Morven in a predominantly loveless marriage as their saw their kids off to college and university. They moved out of town, remaining relatively close by, but far enough from the claustrophobic tension to survive. Murray had stayed, taking over ownership of their parents’ house after they left the country to spend their twilight years on the southern coast of Spain. The drinking, the fighting, the blackouts; all remained. The PTSD sat with him, next to him, day after day as he toiled with the strains of existence. The drinking increased. And before long the drugs were reintroduced.
One night Murray found himself in an argument with one of his drinking companions (one you could never label a ‘friend’) at the local when a word, just one word, seemed to trigger the older Macmaster brother. Some afterwards claimed it was ‘Afghanistan’, others ‘Morven’, some said ‘psychopath’. One or two others swear it was a comment mocking his ‘pig’ of a brother. Whatever it was the perpetrator soon found himself on the floor of the pub, blood spilling from his head, a broken glass shattered on the ground next to him. Murray had fled the scene, angry at himself and terrified of the likely consequences. Despite being far over the limit he jumped in his car and drove. He drove. Away. Away from the town. Away from the county. He headed west.
Shortly after Iain, whilst on duty, received a call on his shortwave radio advising him of an incident, a possible attempted murder, at a pub in Portmahomack after which the suspect had fled the scene in a blue battered Fiesta. The description of the suspect was given. Iain had become used to calls of this nature. It was after all a job he had trudged through for the best part of his adult life. But the description of the suspect, the description of the vehicle; both made him shudder. It was Murray. It was his brother. His older brother. The brother he hadn’t uttered a word to in almost ten years. Murray. He confirmed the details and set off in pursuit.
‘Well then brother…’ said Murray, ‘what’s it to be?’
Sarge…sarge…come in…do you have a visual on the suspect…sarge?
A crackly voice slipped into the air. Iain’s finger hovered over the talk button on his police radio before withdrawing. He continued to stare at his brother, taking in the bedraggled mess presented before him. Desperate, lost, broken.
Nearby a branch snapped, its weary limbs worn away by the biting cold, sent tumbling into the icy depths below.
Sarge…sarge…repeat…do you have a visual on the suspect…?
‘You’d better answer them brother…they won’t wait for ever…’ the calm in Murray’s voice betrayed the panic creeping into his eyes, now subtly darting from side to side in assessment of potential escape routes.
Iain gently pressed the radio button and pulled the speaker slowly to his mouth, ‘…I’m on the banks of Loch Dughaill, Wester Ross…heading to Skye…’
Ok sarge…and do you have a visual on the suspect…?
Iain stared ahead. Unblinking. Unmoved. A thousand memories thrashing wildly about his head. His brother. Afghanistan. Morven. School. Friendship. Betrayal. Life. Family.
He exhaled. Slowly.
…say again Sarge?
‘No…no visual on the suspect…’ he noticed a bewildered smile-cum-confusion plastered over Murray’s face, ‘he must be too far down the line…I…I thought I had him…but no…turning back now…heading back east…the boys in the west can take care of him…’
He lifted the finger off the speaker button and turned the radio off. All the while staring at his older brother. A look briefly passed between them. A look of family? Of reconciliation? Of comradeship? Maybe even disappointment. As the years drifted by neither would ever be sure what.
Iain nodded slightly. Murray, gaunt and shivering, reciprocated. Iain turned and scrunched his way back to his car. He opened the door and turned. His brother was gone. The loch glistened back at him, the ice particles sparkling on the water as if a starry night’s sky had fallen to earth. A gentle breeze crept through the bare branches. As his car receded into the distance the lochside returned to its silent, sombre slumber.