Ayla felt the harsh cold of the pillow against her face. The remnants of saliva, spilled during the night, pressing rudely against her skin, invading her slumber. Slowly, lethargically, she dragged her hand from beneath the crumpled mess of sheet and duvet, lodging it between her face and pillow before lazily wiping the damp patch from her cheek. When she felt it. A chill. A targeted, unforgiving chill. Clawing down her spine before splintering through the rest of her body. She shivered. She felt the goosebumps stand to attention across her flesh.
‘Another lovely Scottish summer’s day…’ she croaked to herself sardonically.
The words jabbed against the back of her throat, forcing her to reach for the half-full bottle of water sitting on the bedside table. She unclicked the bottle cap with her teeth before gulping down the majority of the drink. She grimaced as the warmth of the water, left sitting out all night, clashed with her tastebuds. Bleugh she thought as she hammered the bottle back down on the bedside table, the shape of the plastic crumpling slightly. Another flash of cold shot against her exposed arm. She jolted, taken by surprise, and quickly withdrew her arm, sending it back into the comparative warmth beneath the duvet. But even there she felt the cold, her body quivering slightly as she pressed her limbs against her torso. Her nipples hard, raw against the thin material of her nightdress. Her fingers and toes tingled, little pockets of ice threatening to invade the rest of her bones.
Why is it so bloody cold!? she asked herself as she pulled the duvet up to her chin. The forecast wasn’t great but it wasn’t supposed to be this bad!? Maybe the heating’s broken. Yeah that’ll be it. Just what I need. Another bloody bill to fork out for! So soon after that stupid bloody boiler had to be replaced aswell. The thought permeated in her mind for a good 30 seconds or so before she realised that she had, effectively, switched the heating off a month or so before as ‘summer’ – in the loosest definition of the word – had arrived in Scotland. Maybe I was too optimistic, she thought. But still. It’s never been this bad before. Even during the winter. She shivered again, the chill graciously bookending her period of scattered thoughts for her.
Phone. The thought came to her suddenly. The action was usually automatic. As her eyes flickered open of a morn she would instantly reach for her phone. An indifferent, choreographed grasp in order to apprise herself with the news or, more accurately, social media updates she may have missed out on in the preceding handful of hours. But this morning the cold had stifled any such thought. I’ll check the forecast, she thought. Must be another freak wintry wave from Siberia or something like that again. The phone was only inches from where her bottle stood. A quick reach, grasp, retreat. That’s all that was needed. It isn’t hard, she thought. No. One quick movement. The cold won’t matter. 3..2..1….reach. Her body remained still. Her arm refusing to budge. C’mon, she thought. Bloody hell. You’re Scottish girl! Get a grip. You’ve dealt with cold before. Ok. Ok. 1..2..3..REACH! Her arm shot out of the duvet and grasped. She felt the sharp cold of the phone’s casing collide with skin. Her hand recoiled slightly. She fumbled. Sending the phone sprawling to the floor below. She caught sight of it lying on the carpet next to a small pile of discarded clothes. Now a good three feet or so away from the foot of the bed. Shit!
Stop it, she thought. This is silly. Whether it was genuinely this cold, or whether she was coming down with something, the fact remained that she had to get out of bed at some point. At the very least she had to retrieve her phone. A resolve had started to inch through her veins, starkly at odds with the goosebumps continuing to form on her skin. Her legs began to tremble, naked as they were but for a small, light pair of shorts. She tried to pay them no heed. Trying to ignore the sensation burrowing away at her flesh. She’d had the right idea with the phone, she decided. The execution might have been wrong but the plan was solid. A quick, rapid move. That’s all that was required. Like stepping out of a hot shower on a cold winter’s morning and grabbing for the towel. That’s all it was. In a series of quick moves she would roll out of the bed, run to her wardrobe and grab her dressing gown. The fluffy winter one, not the thinner kimono. Yes, it might be unbearably cold for a few seconds or so but once it was done that would be it. Just do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. She repeated this simple mantra to herself, over and over again. Do, don’t think. Do, don’t think. The words, the thoughts, drowning out the first false start. And the second. And the third. Before she finally managed to emerge from beneath the duvet and rolled to the floor. An involuntary scream escaped from her as the malevolence of the cold tore at her skin. She scrambled towards her wardrobe, grabbing her phone on the way, and desperately threw open the doors. She grabbed for her dressing gown, sending a handful of dresses tumbling from their hangers in the process, and quickly wrapped it around her body. The freezing temperatures abating just enough to allow her to calm her nerves.
She grabbed at the pile of dirty washing on the floor and placed it next to her on the bed as she lowered herself onto the mattress. They would do for now. I’ll put some clean clothes on later when this Arctic cold spell buggers off. She readjusted the front of her dressing gown with one hand, wrapping it tighter around her body, as the other hand started flicking through her phone. She opened the weather app. It failed to load. Hmm. She checked the Wifi signal at the top of her screen. Not strong but strong enough. She closed down all her apps and tried again. Nothing. Just the continual whirring wheel that indicated no luck. No Dalgety Bay. No Inverkeithing. No North Sea. Nothing. Location services seemed to be lost. Disabled. Whatever.
Odd, she thought, as she folded one leg over the other instinctively as the cold threatened to sneak between her thighs. She scanned through her social media accounts, caring less and less for the myriad of late night updates that peppered her screen as each one rolled by. And anyway, she hadn’t posted. There was no sign. She closed them down. She glanced at her messages app. No red number cornered the green smudge yet she tapped on the icon anyway. Her name appeared. Melanie. The last message between the two appeared before her eyes. Sent a week or so previously. She’d read it several hundreds of times since its arrival. The words burned into her mind. Each letter, each syllable. The over-riding message clawing at her already shivering frame. Done. No more. Gone. Ayla felt the familiar gathering flood rising to her tear ducts. No, she thought, scolding herself. She locked the phone and tossed it onto the bed. No.
She stepped off the bed and walked across the room towards the window. Again she tightened the cord on her dressing gown, the cold refusing to abate any further. She drew the curtains and opened the blinds. An expected blush of sun and light failed to materialise. She cowered slightly, despite herself, as the room seemed to wallow further into the gloom. She stared through the window, decorated as it was with a smattering of condensation, and saw the fog. Mist. Haar. Whatever the correct term was. It was thin, almost peripheral even. It seemed to skirt the surrounding trees, the roads, the rooftops, without ever truly engulfing. It seemed…no, that’s ridiculous she thought…but it did all the same…it seemed…sinister. Somehow. She shook her head in self-derision and stepped back from the window, proceeding to slowly and delicately pull on the dirty clothes beneath the cover of her dressing gown. Shivering continuously, her teeth chittering along in a silent harmony. I’m definitely coming down with something, I must be. The thought repeated in her mind as she picked up her phone from the bed, automatically checking her messages once again, before stepping out of the bedroom.
She clicked the heating on. Ridiculous, she thought. In the height of summer. Or ‘summer’. The flat began to warm instantly, temporarily filling with the tame burning odour that accompanies the turning on of a radiator or electric fire as winter approaches after a handful of months out of action. That’s better. The mass army of goosebumps gradually began to retreat from her body, clusters at a time. Warmth crept through her skin. She frowned, feeling the unwashed clothes clinging to her flesh. She felt unclean. Restless. A shower, that’s what she needed. As soon as the flat warmed up properly she would jump in the shower and then put some clean clothes on. She glanced at her phone again. The signal seemed to be diminishing. No messages. Standard. She untied her dressing gown chord, feeling the heat begin to claw at her uncomfortably beneath the fluffy material, as she went from room to room in the curtain and blind opening routine that began each of her days. The thin layer of mist greeted her as each curtain was drawn. Pawing at the windows with long, wispy limbs and fingers. She walked into her living room, instantly feeling the cold of the wooden floor bite against the soles of her bare feet. She quickly skipped across to the window, resolving all the while to make her next destination the sock drawer, and loosened the cord for the blinds.
She furrowed her brow at the sight that unravelled before her. It was different. A variation on the usual canvas that greeted her of a morning. The familiar view that had essentially convinced her to settle on this particular flat sometime before. There had been other flats, bigger flats, for less rent, but Ayla’s mind had kept returning to the lapping waves of the Forth and the dazzling red brilliance of the Forth Bridge; the view that this flat had afforded her. It was unrivalled. In most places throughout the world, she guessed. It was inspiring, breathtaking and, after a while, it had become comforting. But this time, it was different. Yes, a thin mist still clawed at the window pane however beyond that it had solidified, for lack of a better word. In fact the mist appeared so dense, so thick, that half of the bridge appeared, quite simply, to be gone.
No, she thought, squinting her eyes at the developing site before her. A trick of the light, perhaps, a trick of the fog. It certainly wasn’t so unfamiliar, anyway. She had woken often throughout the months of winter and spring to discover that the bridge had been completely covered in mist. As if it had disappeared through the night. But the outline was always there if you looked hard enough. Like a thin underlying sketch appearing through the colours of a watercolour painting. But this sight was, somehow, entirely different. The Fife side of the bridge looked intact. Barely touched by the mist. The South Queensferry side however was, well, gone. Not there. As if a gargantuan solid greyish wall had been clipped in place halfway across the structure. No outline poked through the haar. No hint or suggestion of the red paint nudged its way into the foreground. Gone. Confusion reigned in her mind as she tried to compartmentalise, to rationalise, the vision before her.
Another check of the phone. Again, instinctively. This time she couldn’t even say why. She felt an urge within her. To see if they were alright. But who, she thought. To see if who were alright? Her? Melanie? Why would she need to check if she was alright? They’d broken up, it wasn’t as if she would want to…no, this was different though. Why though? Why did it feel different? Her self-interrogation was brought to an abrupt close as her eyes drited from the ‘disappeared’ bridge and latched onto the vision of roughly 40-50 men, women and children standing, gathered at the shoreline.
Who were they? Why were they there? How had she missed them? Again her mind raced, latching onto and then discarding question after question. The figures were huddled – even from where she stood Ayla could see them seemingly shivering against the effects of the cold. But still, their focus appeared fixed. Robust. On what lay across the shore from them. On the thick, impenetrable, blanket of mist. Why? It’s mist, she thought. Even on the most gorgeous of sunny days you’d only have a handful of passers-by soaking up the view, so, again she pondered, why? Where they lost tourists? No, surely they’d keep walking towards the bridge, or further into town maybe. But the bridge…the bridge. She looked up at it again. And again the image baffled. It was almost as if she was looking at the bridge as it had been mid-construction, far more than a century before then. Only…only…she could swear that another slight part of the bridge had been eaten by the fog in only the last minute or so. From her distance it seemed to be only an inch or so but in real terms, well…
She checked her phone again as she pulled on her jacket. Again, she elected to pluck her ‘winter’ garment off the hanger, neglecting the lighter jackets she had been used to in the preceding days and weeks. She emptied her pockets – a handful of receipts and a belatedly-received Christmas card from months earlier (when she had last worn the coat) spilled onto the counter. Phone. She opened up her Recent Calls list and selected her name, Melanie. She hovered over the Call button. Why wouldn’t she be ok, she thought, I’m being silly…she’ll…no, why am I doing this!? Stop. She slid the phone into her jacket pocket and scooped a woolly hat from one of the coat hangers. She caught a brief waft of dust, a musty scent, as it passed by her nose on the way to her head – again, a victim of clothing neglect in the previous handful of months.
She grabbed her keys, unlocking the door, and stepped out of the warm flat and into the cold of the morning. She’d managed only a dozen or so paces before halting slightly. Again, the spectre of Why hung over her. Why, she asked. Why was she going down there!? Why was she bothering? It was mist. Fog. Haar. Shit weather. That’s all. And who knows who these people were!? It could be a religious cult. Weirdos standing waiting to wave at a passing cruise liner, perhaps. Anyone. But still, something, something, she knew not what, told her to continue. To join the others. Ayla shook her head slightly. A seeming gesture of realisation, one that told her how irrational her actions seemed. But the urge, she thought, there’s an urge to walk on. To see. To discover. A purpose. Something she’d frequently struggled to obtain. More so in recent months. Move. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, tightening the jacket around her, and walked forward into the increasingly thickening mist.
‘What’s…what’s going on…?’ she asked tentatively as she approached the group.
A host of silent faces turned towards her. They seemed to slowly eye her up and down before turning away again.
‘What’s going on…?’ she tried again. The faces remained turned away, continuing to stare at the dense block of mist across the water. ‘…anyone?’
‘Sorry?’ Ayla turned to see a small elderly woman standing next to her. She was wrapped in a thick grey coat, the hood of which obscured a large portion of her face. Her eyes, taught and fearful, peered out from beneath the cover, staring straight ahead into the mist.
‘It’s gone. All of it. Gone.’
‘Gone?’ she asked. ‘What’s gone?’
‘What’s…I mean, it’s not gone, it’s just fog, isn’t it? What do you mean it’s gone…?’
‘It’s not fog. Look at the bridge. Look at the mountains. They’re gone.’ Ayla turned towards the voice of a middle-aged man who, as seemed to be the norm, bothered not to turn towards her, staring straight ahead into the gloom as he spoke.
‘I…I don’t understand…’ she mumbled. ‘What is…’ she broke off her own sentence as she scrambled to pluck the phone from her pocket. No, this wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal. She’d have to call Mel. She’d…just call. She’d call her. Just quickly. Just to disprove…to disprove what she didn’t know…but she had to all the same. She headed straight into her Recent Calls list and dialled – shorn of any of the reluctance that had accompanied such a move in the previous weeks. She held the phone to her ear, the cold tingling down the slight piece of exposed skin on her wrist. Nothing. No ringtone. No engaged tone. No call failure beeps. Nothing. She pulled the phone from her ear and checked the signal. Miniscule. But there was a signal there. She tried again. She looked at the faces surrounding her as she waited for any sound, for any acknowledgment from her phone that a call was being attempted. They continued to stare. A mix of fear, confusion, resignation populating their gazes. Maybe she as right about the cult thing after all, she thought. Nothing. Still nothing. Shit.
‘Excuse me…’ she began.
‘Where do they live?’
‘Where do they live?’ the question snapped out from a woman roughly the same age as Ayla, late twenties she would say, standing a couple of feet to the side of her. Her hair was tied up in a just-woken-up-and-not-ready-to-face-the-general-public style but her eyes were glazed, once again staring straight ahead, imbued with that same mix of fear, confusion and resignation.
‘Erm…where do who live?’
‘Whoever you’re trying to phone?’ still not a flicker of a look towards Ayla.
‘I don’t think that’s…’
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘Is it Edinburgh?’
‘It…’ Ayla looked at the woman’s unflinching stare as the words seemed to spit out from her mouth robotically. She thought about protesting, reasoning, pleading, anything. And then instinctively, somehow, thought or knew better. ‘It is, yes…Edinburgh.’
‘Then you won’t get through.’
‘You won’t get through to them.’
‘Or anyone south of here.’
‘South? I don’t under…’
‘We’ve all tried. You just won’t.’
‘Gone.’ Ayla shook slightly as the elderly woman repeated her mantra next to her. ‘Gone. Gone.’
She felt the fear rise in her as she turned frantically from the elderly woman and tried her phone again. Nothing. Nothing. Still NOTHING! Was she safe?! Of course she was. But. But they just said…they just said. No. The thought of something happening to her…oh, god, no…No! Confusion. Anxiety. Fear. Restlessness. Clawing at her. Within her. All explanation, all rumination falling by the wayside. Again she looked at those around her. The stoic deafness, the robust muteness remained. Again she glanced at the bridge. Gradually, incrementally fading into the mist. She looked again towards the mist itself – it was growing thicker, edging closer, of that she was convinced.
The sudden shout shook her. A tremble of cold pierced her spine. She turned. All of those surrounding her seemed to be becoming animated.
‘Over there, yes…’
Ayla followed their excited gazes, plunging her vision into the mist where, yes, yes, she could see an outline. Yes. A boat. It looked like, no, it was, a boat. A small wooden fishing boat, if she had to guess. Emerging from the grey canvas. And what appeared to be two figures on board. Headed towards them. Lapping lightly, rocking from side to side in time with the steady waves. The excitement, the anticipation grew. The faces around her shunting from the deadened masks of resignation into ones settling into something like hope. It was silly she thought. It’s…I don’t understand. It’s only mist, it’s surely only mist. There’s no cause for panic. Nor hyperbole. There’s surely no need for this kind of hope. And yet, in spite of herself, she felt herself begin to latch onto a feeling somewhere in the realms of hope. This boat, this small wooden vessel, bearing down on them, seemingly only just staying ahead of the approaching mist, seemed to infuse her with a warmth, a sense of future. She looked around the strangers next to her and felt a kinship, as irrational as that thought appeared. She saw the slightly contorted smiles, the jittery anticipation, the anxious hope and she understood.
‘Someone help them, get down there…’
She heard the call from amidst the group as several began to advance towards the edge of the shoreline to meet the boat as it drifted slowly to shore.
‘Here we are, here it comes…’
Ayla looked up as more and more of the assembled group made their way towards the incoming vessel. Out of the corner of her vision she caught sight of the bridge. Or what was left of it. The world famous red landmark had all but disappeared now into the fog. The structure almost completely submerging in the gloom. She felt her chest tighten as she followed the edge of the mist and realised how close it now was to their position on the coastline. Her fears flared up once again. This wasn’t just mist, she thought. No. She knew. This was something else. This was…this was. Her train of thought was broken by a gaggle of screams bursting from those gathered beside the boat. Her chest tightened further. She felt her stomach lurch.
Slowly, almost as if in a daze, she walked towards the boat, passing through the others, now in various stages of revulsion and panic. Tears dripped down the elderly woman’s face. The girl who spoke of Edinburgh was bent over, vomiting on the ground. The middle-aged man’s face was awash with a dread, the kind of which she’d never seen before. Dozens of others gripped by fear, twisted and skewered by the various stages of grief. But still Ayla walked on. Until she reached the boat. Gentle, indifferent, waves scratched at its base.
Even before she glanced up she knew what she would see. How, or why, she knew not. But sure enough as she lifted her gaze into the vessel, her eyes settled on the grotesque corpses of the two sailors. Their skin almost rotten, flesh singed very nearly all the way to their black, charred bones. A look of terror eternally carved into their expressions.
The screams loudened behind her. Unbridled levels of panic filled the air in a crescendo of fear. Her eyes slowly, almost lazily, inched down from the corpses towards the floor of the boat. She could feel her eyes widen in her own grasp of terror as she saw a thin burst of mist creep into the boat. Only temporarily obscuring the word scraped frantically into the wooden floor.
She mouthed the letters. She tried to scream but her lungs, her vocal chords, failed to respond. The word playing over and over in her head.