The mist which was hiding the tops of the hills and sinking, reaching, down into the valley, had not budged in two days. The trees which, when lit by bright autumn sunshine, had looked golden, ruby red, now looked ill. Diseased. Jaundiced. Most had lost their leaves, almost overnight.
Every frond on each fern he could see, looked sharp and slick, moisture glistening in the pale, grey light. The relief in which he saw everything seemed far too sharp today, despite his pounding headache. The brambles’ long stems which were covered in sharp thorns, seemed to reach toward him as he slid and slipped and tried to find his way back to the path.
He had left the farm very early, when it was still dark. All he wanted was quiet and to be alone. Already, though, the record player had been opened, with a very old recording of Annette Hanshaw’s Little White Lies playing. Again. Leaving the song crackling away in the empty kitchen, he’d slipped out of the door, trying to close it without the usual loud clunk of the latch.
Clear of the house, crunching as quietly as he could across the frosty gravel, he’d felt his mood lighten just by leaving the farm behind and climbing up the gentle slope that led from the house to the stile beside the tree-line and the way to the hills above. That had been four hours ago.
Now, as he reached the crest of a small, pointed hill, he sat down on a large rock. The rock was one of his favourite places to walk to, the size of a door, rounded by centuries of frost, wind and rain. When his brother has still been here, they had played up here as children, performing their spells at the ‘Druid temple’.
As he sat here now, he realised that his biggest problem was not that he wanted to be left alone. No, his biggest problem was that he was being left alone.
On social media, when he looked at what his friends were doing, he was one of the many Thumbs Ups, Hearts or Likes , retweeting the hell of out of others. He watched the interesting, exciting lives of others: he watched the nights out and celebrations his friends were gathering at; the birthday parties that his friends with kids were organising; the holidays his old school mates were travelling to, grinning in anticipation of the sun to be. And he was never there. Years ago, he had been, in the background, smiling shyly. Or, overcompensating, he was in the forefront, drunk and performing – glad to be someone else for a night. But, now, he gave his unasked for approval to remote and increasingly distant folk who neither valued his Likes, or missed them when he failed to.
He could, he thought, sit on his rock, here, until he mouldered to a carcass and no-one would notice. He could retrace his steps back down and just wade into the winding river at the heart of the valley and disappear into the silver water. No-one would rise up in alarm, looking for him.
You could drown in a puddle. He was sure he’d heard that.
He could, he thought and warming to the subject, lie down on the rails that brought the trains through the valley, tracing a line close to the river or rushing away through the woods or fields. This would show them, he thought. Well, maybe not. Folk would notice, but only if they were trying to catch the hourly service to Edinburgh. It had happened before: the commutes cancelled by A Person Hit By A Train. We’re sorry to announce. Automated indifference. Makes a change from Train Faults.
He’d heard folk on the trains, moaning about the inconvenience of the delays, before. Lives lost, with delay repays offered in remembrance for the living. Providing you were inconvenienced for longer than thirty minutes, of course.
In the trees nearby, a loud sudden flapping of wings in the branches of a pine, brought him back to the present. Suddenly chilled by the mist, he shivered. Smiling slightly, he shook his head, disappointed in how quickly he’d turned his wake up bad mood and feeling of dread into his own private abyss. He stood up, patting his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. Finding the packet and his lighter, he lit one, puffing out a couple of clouds of smoke which vanished into the mist. He turned and made his way back to the path which led down the hill, though the wood.
The path he was following was really little more than a rough sheep track which ran downwards towards the river valley below. The woods he was walking in were ancient, mostly of birch, oak and Scots Pine. Red squirrels sometimes made themselves known to him, but mostly this was a place of buzzards and deer. Very few folk made their way up here from the village. The other paths that led through the big house’s estate was where the joggers, dog walkers and kids on their bikes went. Up here, beyond their farm, the road came to an end after about a mile and then the old, old wood was all there was. Unless you were looking for the hill fort higher up, the other ruined farmhouse, or the stone he’d been sitting on, there was no other reason to come up here. The valley stopped beyond the wood, ending in a steep hill, beyond which there was nothing but a wind farm. No-one ever bothered coming to this wood, except him and the sheep. The wood, dense and dark, had been left alone for a very long time and he hoped it would always be left alone.
After twenty minutes or so, he emerged from the wood and continued to walk down over the rough pasture that covered the slope of the hill. Now and then, he passed alongside the stone dykes, covered in thick green moss, many of which had collapsed. Cubist, alien plantations of pine interrupted his view and his path, forcing him to follow their sharp outlines and rough, awkward corners and climb over a number of metal gates. The path, heavily rutted by the tractor now, led along a level that led to an older, wooden gate. This marked the end of the farm and the start of the neighbouring estate, vast and empty. Up here, the south felt like the north, rugged and remote. It could be Sutherland or Caithness, if you didn’t know better. He liked this empty place, the path continuing to another, ruined farm. No-one had lived here for over one hundred years and the farmhouse was a broken, stone shell.
Surrounded by an intricate maze of stone dykes that led to a courtyard, the old house had long ago lost its roof, windows and floors. All that remained was a gaunt, stone wall, broken by where folk had once sat, looking out at the weather, their rooms cosy by firelight or lamps. He went inside what had once been the front door.
Chimney pots perched on each gable, like fingers pointing, while in one space that had once been a room, a cast iron fireplace still stood. Looking out of the space for a window, he would have been able to see up the valley on a good day. Today, though, with the mist still thick, he could only look across the empty, rough grasses of the former fields. Beyond, the valley and village remained hidden. In what had once been a small garden, the metal support for a single bed mattress lay flat, grass growing through the diamond-shaping gaps between the stretched wires still held by the bed frame.
He sat on a stone step and lit another cigarette. At his foot, a faded Irn Bru can lay rusting in the dirt. He kicked it aside with his boot, angry at this modern intrusion to his own private world. Raising his eyes, he looked for the old milk bottle he’d found here years ago, half-buried in the ground. It was still there, where he had left it. The word Kelso raised along one side. He wondered again how long it had been here. Had it been here on the day the tenants left this house for the last time? The farm, still known – if anyone ever bothered speaking about it at all – by the name Rowancross – was one of the oldest settlements in the valley. It survived for hundreds of years, until the twentieth century. He didn’t know why it had been abandoned, but imagined some great tragedy. Maybe war? Or murder? Or maybe, the folk were scared away.
He shivered again. It was here that his brother, his stupid, annoying brother that he missed with all his heart, had first told him about The Shelly Coat. He stood up, nipping the cigarette between his thumb and index finger, dropping the scraps of unburnt tobacco on the ground and putting the cigarette butt in his pocket. Turning out of the front door, he looked round and, as always, said quietly, ‘Bye again’.
With lighter steps, he walked away from Rowancross, down the path to the road.