The Visitors

PPABDec17

Sean visited every year at this time, and had done so for seven years now. The first visit had been quite a surprise, but Frank had grown used to it, expected it, even looked forward to it in a strange, self-loathing kind of way. He kept the best armchair by the fire free for him, ensured the fire was well stoked so needed no attention for the duration of his visit, and placed a large whiskey on a little three-legged stool next to the arm of the chair ready for him coming.

He himself sat on a hard dining chair, some way to the back of the room, within the shadows of the old sideboard, dusty ornaments and fading pictures hanging on angled strings, a deeply patterned, rust coloured wallpaper as a backdrop. He had the rest of the bottle and his own glass by his side, keeping it refreshed regularly. The old grandmother clock on the wall behind him filled the frequent gaps in conversation with a gentle tick, measuring the time to when Sean would eventually leave as the fire crackled and sent images around the room, lighting up Sean’s figure which Frank would only view from behind, off to one side.

‘Lagavulin?’, enquired Sean, as he bent over the armchair and stared at the glass, the side of his face clearly visible to Frank by the light of the fire, though they made no eye contact at all.

‘Of course’, Frank replied, ‘Your favourite’. The clock ticked for a moment.

Sean straightened himself and stared back into the fire, though did not touch his whiskey. ‘Do you remember that first time we tried it, out by that bothy, what was it called?’

Frank knew the story. ‘Lochan Dubh’, he replied.

‘That was it’, Sean continued, ‘Lochan Dubh’. A spark leapt onto the carpet at Sean’s feet and fizzled out without either man attempting to extinguish it first. ‘And that shepherd bloke came by, do you remember?’

‘I do.’

‘And we’d been out on the kayaks that day, out on the loch, just the two of us mind? And he came in for a bit of shelter, seeing the smoke from the bothy. Mind that?’ Sean half-turned towards Frank, though still did not look directly at him.

Frank remembered the day well. It was cold and the fire they had built a welcome relief from hours on the icy water. He wasn’t used to whiskey and when the shepherd had offered the bottle around, he’d coughed and spluttered his first measure into the sharp air. They’d laughed.

‘I loved it then, I love it now’, Sean sighed as he peered at the glass over the arm of his chair. ‘Shame the second time at that bothy wasn’t so good, was it?’ he continued.

The shadows within the room seemed to die a little as the logs shuffled themselves within the hearth. Frank watched them until the flames grew strong again. The second armchair by the fire, until then seemingly empty, now revealed a second visitor while Sean continued reminiscing, ‘Aye it was a damn shame, such a lovely boat you know?’

‘I know’, replied Frank, stretching his neck to see his second visitor better. She turned slightly and smiled a soft smile at him.

‘Oh God no.’ Frank dropped his glass. ‘Not Jeanie.’

‘’Fraid so mate’. Sean turned further round in his chair and for the first time made eye contact, a hard stare, a plain cold face with a deep scar running from left eye across his cheek to the edge of his mouth. ‘Her machine was finally switched off this morning, the eighth anniversary of that day. A hard decision for her parents. She wanted to see you.’

The woman nodded slightly, a single tear escaping and slipping down her face before she turned back to face the fire and nestled deep into the chair.

‘And what of Tommy?’ Frank almost shouted, ‘So where’s fucking Tommy?’

Sean returned to face the fire. The clock ticked. The fire crackled. ‘I’ve been coming here for seven years Frank. Not once have you ever asked about Tommy, not once.’

Frank wiped his eyes and spoke through gritted teeth, ‘I’m asking now.’

‘Well’, said Sean, last I saw he’d his ankle trapped and he went down, right down to the bottom of the loch and I swear his soul kept on going. Envy is a sin you know, you should think about that.’

Frank stared at the second chair, where Jeanie had sat. ‘Will she visit every year?’ he asked.

The clock, of a sudden, chimed. When it grew silent again Sean shrugged, ‘Not my call’.

‘And Tommy?’ Frank asked.

Sean looked at Frank again. ‘It was you that was supposed to go down you know. He did it to get you, not us, we were just collateral damage.’ He then stared absently into the fire. ‘For your sake’, he whispered, shaking his head slightly, ‘I’m hoping Tommy doesn’t take to visiting.’

The clock ticked within the silent room, as Frank finished the bottle alone, and cleared away the empty glasses.

Lonely this Christmas

PPABDec17

 

It was a cold 25th of December. The pavements sparkled with an irridescent scattering of frost and were gently crisp underfoot. The moon was suspended high in the inky black sky, with only the stars for company and the air was perfumed with the heady aroma of pine trees and peppermint. Christmas trees festooned with tinsel and twinkling fairy lights shone proudly from every house whilst indoors families feasted from tables positively groaning with festive food. Crackers snapped and released their gaudy trinkets as heads were adorned with brightly coloured hats. Children, full of chocolate and turkey were desperately trying not to yawn for fear that bed would be suggested therefore bringing Christmas to an end again. Music played constantly in the background, always the same old sentimental tunes.

Violet shivered as she stepped outside for her nightly walk with Jasper, her basset hound. Pulling her thick, woolly hat further down over her ears she gave a gentle tug on Jasper’s lead and they turned left out of the gate and set off through the village. She started up the hill towards the village green, oblivious to the sounds and smells wafting from each house, her mind far away as it always was on Christmas Day. Keeping her head down, she trudged on, stopping occasionally for Jasper to do what dogs do but all the while heading for the top of the village.

The green sat proudly at the top of the hill, resident to a magnificent nativity scene, painstakingly hand carved by someone many years ago, although no one could remember who. Violet stopped and bent down to release Jasper from his lead, allowing him to roam free, never fearful that he would wander far. As he trundled slowly, nose down, on the white tinged, crispy grass, Violet sat down on one of the wooden benches and felt the same, familiar feeling that she felt every December 25th. It crept slowly over her like freezing fog, a despair that threatened to drown her as though an invisible hand was silently, mercilessly, tightening around her neck. Claustrophobia was the official word for it but Violet thought despair was closer to the truth. How many Christmases had she done this now? She had stopped counting a long time ago but she knew it had been too many. How much longer could she go on?

A chill wind blew round her neck and she knew without turning that it was coming from the loch just beyond the perimeter of the village. Almost as though in a trance she stood and began walking slowly away from the green. Aware of every sound now as she made her way towards the loch, she could hear her footsteps crunching, Jasper snuffling the ground, her own shallow breathing and in the distance that bloody song about it being Christmas every day and she almost laughed with the irony of it. Almost but not quite…..because that was the reason why Violet was close to cracking now, the reason why every Christmas Day she made this pilgrimage of sorts to the edge of the village.

Growing up in this picture perfect place had been idyllic. Of course, as a child, it actually being Christmas every day had been wonderful. Going to bed knowing that you would do it all over again the next day, never being sad that Christmas was over for another year was special. It never occurred to her that not everyone lived this way. However when, as a teenager, rumours spread amongst her friends about there being another way to live, she had been intrigued. Imagine living somewhere warm, where your skin could be free to feel the air. Who knew there were songs out there that spoke of other things, that acknowledged sadness as well as joy. Was it really possible that Christmas could be celebrated just once a year?

At 18 she learned the terrible truth as her Mother lay dying. There was another world out there but as part of the village she could not experience it. She was trapped, for eternity, in an endless Christmas. There could be no sun, no Halloween, no music festivals for her because the only way to leave this village was to enter the loch. Violet was ashamed to admit that her Mother dying that day was not what made her weep. It was the realisation that she could never leave. It wasn’t that she had been desperate to go until that point but knowing that she couldn’t had changed everything. Christmas lost it’s childlike sparkle and she fell in to a depression and developed a hatred for the place she had called home.

So here she stood, as she had done every day for years since she learned the awful truth, gazing at the loch. She wondered how cold it was in there, whether hypothermia would get her before she actually drowned. Crouching down she removed her gloves and trailed her hands in the water. Her fingers immediately turned blue and in the distance she could hear a scream. This brought her mind sharply in to focus and she realised that there was no going back. Swiftly removing her coat, hat and boots she plunged in to the icy waters and lay back, allowing the cold to slowly seep in to her bones all the while listening to the terrified screams grow louder.

As she began to lose consciousness she remembered her Mothers final words to her, gasped out with her last breath…’remember Violet, if anyone enters the loch, the whole village drowns with them’.

East

PPABDec17

 

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.

…Sarge…?

He exhaled. Slowly.

‘…No…’

…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.