The old man wakes in the dark. Limbs heavy, awareness slowly rising up from a great depth of sleep. A shaft of pale light, admitted by the gap in the curtains, stripes across the ceiling. After a few moments he remembers: today’s the day then. Part of him cowers and wants to sink into the bed but he sits, swings stiff legs onto the thin carpet, and stands. Searches for the clothes. Don’t turn on the light.
At the door he looks back at the room. Small. Single bed. A few precious books. A couple of framed photographs. On a shelf a fist-sized, smooth dark rock. He reaches for it then stops, shakes his head. He puts the backpack in the shopping bag, picks up his shoes, opens the door and steps out into the corridor. Nightlights plugged into sockets near the floor give off a warm glow and he carefully and quietly closes the door. Pads down the corridor. Fain smell of ammonia and tired air.
In the reception area the night attendant is asleep behind the glass window with a textbook on her chest. Flickering light from her muted screen casts shadows over the wood floor: on the screen lines of ragged people are moving through a trampled muddy field past old-looking military vehicles; bright sliding text tells of another cyber attack somewhere. He stares dumbly at the main door for a moment, then remembers. 1131. He reaches behind the potted fern and finds the keypad. The door slides open and he realises that a part of him was hoping that they’d changed the number again. Out. Don’t wait. Move.
Dark in the street, wet asphalt, and the street-lights are out again. Not as cold as he expected. Vigilant for potholes in the pavement he walks away on still-stiff legs towards the bus stop.
At the train station he realises that he’s an hour early. A few people sit on benches, nodding awake or with legs drawn up trying to stay warm. Office cleaners and shift workers heading home, he guesses. He looks up at the stained, yellowed glass and the exposed girders. I remember when this place was built he thinks. Then no, not built, renovated. Rejuvenated.
He passes the ticket machines and approaches the counter, hunching his shoulders and allowing his feet to drag slightly as he gets near. He names his destination and the tired-looking woman behind the glass points to the card slot, but the man shakes his head, mumbles something and extracts the banknotes from his pocket. Dirty creased plastic with the old queen’s head still on some. He looks down at the cracked marble floor, avoiding eye-contact. She seems on the verge of saying something, then just sighs and gestures for him to hand them over, counts the notes slowly. A long, glossy plastic strip unspools from a slot and hangs there, twitching slightly the an air current, After a baffled moment he realises, tears-off the ticket, and makes for the benches to join the listless waiting group. After an endless time there is an announcement and he heads for the platform.
The train is almost empty and he finds his seat near the end of an empty carriage. Taking-off the thin windproof jacket and worn baseball cap that he’d been wearing, he wads them in the shopping bag and stuffs it behind an empty plastic box in an otherwise empty overhead locker marked Staff Only Emergency Defibrillator. Briefly dizzy after his exertion, he sits again with one hand resting on the backpack on the seat beside him, the other holding the edge of the table in front of him, as if it were providing reassurance. Then he sees the cam on the far wall of the carriage, flanked by a pair of winking LEDs. Shrugs, too late, lets go of the table.
He rests the side of his head on the cool glass of the window. A slight vibration from the resting train. Outside the deserted platform and beyond a sliver of sky with the faintest hint of dawn. He closes his eyes and thinks back to other times on trains such as this at the very start of days. Sleep refuses him. Eventually the train rouses itself and purrs and clatters out of the station.
The city slides past. High density housing with washing-lines on the balconies, a couple leaning on the rails and watching the train. Streets, now with more traffic. A few shops still dark. A toxic-looking canal and every last flat surface tagged with a tangle of graffiti.
The houses fall behind, replaced by parched scrubby fields with a few thin, half-dead trees. Where are the sheep and the cows? he thinks absently. Endless stacked ranks of glossy blue-black solar panels. A motorway with closely-spaced trucks. A row of huge, windowless and doorless buildings made from what looks like corrugated matt grey plastic.
Finally the man sleeps.
At Carlisle a girl gets on – young and vaguely Asiatic. Woman he thinks get it right. Black leggings and what looks like a surplus UNHCR parka, patches of unfaded material where the mission patches used to be. She huffs down in the seat opposite his, pulls-out a new-looking tablet from her small backpack, unrolls it and begins to gesture. Flexy he thinks. Nobody calls them tablets any more. Flexible. Useless for old hands. He stares down at his hands, his fingers, and feels the train under him snake around a long curve of track.
She extracts a carton from her bag, takes something from it and starts to eat. After a few moments, and without looking up, she slides it over to him and gestures take. He peers cautiously into the packet. Some kind of rice cookie, colour of saffron, dusted with poppy seeds. He extracts one with clumsy fingers and takes a bite. It’s tastes surprisingly good “Thanks,” he says and nods. Brief glimpse of amused blue eyes over the top of the tablet – “méi wèntí“. Then gone, back to wherever she was.
At the border the train stops and uniformed guards go down the train, checking IDs. A young man and an older woman in polo shirts and combat trousers. Their shirts have what looks like a corporate logo on the front, but it’s not one of the ones he remembers seeing before. He smooths the ticket onto the table in from of him, then leans back and closes his eyes, waits, heart thudding. After a while a hesitant voice – the man – “…should we…” A disinterested sigh “Nae, look at him. Dinnae bother.” He waits in the red-tinged darkness. Eventually the train starts to move again, with a jolt this time, and he opens his eyes and rubs them. The fields outside are still dry-looking, but there are hints of cloud on the near horizon and a watery light in the sky.
He drifts into heavy-limbed sleep again, and the familiar parade of faces and scenes find him. Two children on a beach, running, throwing stones into water as clear as air. Serious, attentive people in a stuffy room. An old-looking computer on a desk next to some kind of equipment rack. A stone shelter on a mist-covered mountain, snow on the rocks. A child blowing-out birthday candles in a darkened room. His eyes open for a moment and he sees the scratches on the window. Surely there must be a pattern? he thinks. But each scratch looks random and there is no pattern that he can see. His eyes close and he tips backwards into memory. The green paint of a wooden fishing boat or ferry. Heavy, rippled, silver-grey glass embedded in some kind of machine. Lighthouse – the word materialises. That glass was the Light. In the long ago. Sleeps.
The train stops with a clanking, sighing finality and he wakes. Confusion. How? Where am..? The platform sign comes slowly into focus and he sees the sign: Inverness. He stands with legs painfully stiff after sitting for so long. His left calf throbs slightly with his heartbeat. Move. Don’t forget the bag.
On the platform he checks the clock. One thirty in the afternoon. He goes in search of coffee, but as usual nowadays there is none. The teenager behind the counter suggests tea and the man accepts a mug of some brackish liquid and a pastry, and takes them to an empty table near the window. The tea turns out to be too strong and the pastry is too dry, but he forces himself to eat it. In the street outside pedal-taxis sit parked, the riders sitting on the kerb with their legs stretched out into the road, laughing and talking.
Back in the street the air smells of salt and, high above, gulls circle watchfully. Feeling fully awake now, and with a slight sugar buzz from the pastry, he follows blue multilingual signs to the bus station.
The station hasn’t changed much. Bored locals with shopping bags, a scattering of tourists hauling expensive-looking backpacks and clutching guidebooks. Wind whips around the cluttered space, whirling grit and scraps of paper – food wrappers and old-style tickets, mostly. Warily, the old man crosses to an island of bus stands. Stance, again the word comes unbidden. The bus at 14a has
Error_02 on the indicator above the windscreen, but a piece of cardboard propped in the widow announces Durness in chunky blue felt pen. He climbs the steps slowly and buys a ticket from the driver, a red-haired man of no particular age who seems more interested in the sports event on the screen mounted near the roof. Two thin, elderly women sit bird-like on the seats next to the door, and at the back a group of teenagers are laughing about something. But the seats in the middle are empty and he goes down the aisle clutching the bag across his chest.
Almost as soon as he sits down, the bus begins to move.
At Lairg the bus pulls into a car park and the driver announces a fifteen minute stop. Leaving his jacket and bag on the seat, the old man disembarks and stands blinking in the unexpected sunshine. A warm, bright, late-autumn day. Stacked banks of clouds behind low hills, a faint murmur of a breeze. Pushing the sleeves a few inches up his fore-arms, he crosses the road to lean on a low wall and stares out at the loch.
The wide-open world. Mountains and lapping water. Eight-minute-old sunlight is reflecting off it all and into my old eyes and god its all still there. Indifferent to me, just persisting moment to moment without effort, shining and accepting. I know I should want to grasp it, go out into it, but I’m just too fucking old. How did that happen? A gull lifts from the water and the thoughts stall as he watches it climb. No point.
There’s a whistle from behind him. He turns and the driver is gesturing to the now full bus. He hobbles back across the road, grinning at the driver. On the bus a few seated passengers glare at him impatiently, but he takes his time getting to his sun-warm seat. Sitting, he relishes this new thing: certainty. There’s no point. That’s the point. So you can do it.
The road follows the loch-side for many miles, then forests, mountains. Occasional single houses: a few ruined, others with expensive cars parked outside. That cars have that odd, bulbous shape that he can never get used to. He wonders about all this – who these people are, their lives in these once isolated places. What brought them here, or where they went to.
More forest scrolls by. Those new drought-tolerant conifers. A village with a row of empty flagpoles next to a small supermarket and a road bridge over a wide river choked with boulders. A scattering of people staring down at the tea-coloured water. It begins to rain and the driver turns on wipers and dims the windows against the glare from the wet road. The bus hurtles on with passengers rocked into silence.
At Kinlochbervie the bus doesn’t even stop – instead just pulling round in a tight circle outside the old harbour buildings, the bus stop deserted, and begins to retrace its steps back to the main road. The man shouts to the driver and the bus slows and stops. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he pulls himself out of the seat with an audible grunt and makes his way to the front of the bus. “This isnae Durness” the driver says. “Be another forty minutes.” “I know,” says the old man “Change of plan.” The driver looks looks him over, impatient – “Are ye sure? There’s nae more buses teday.” The old man grins at him, no turning back, “Yes,” he says, “I’ll be fine. Really.”
The bus hums away and the old man looks around. Commercial buildings, mostly derelict with their roofs missing. A few older-looking cars and vans on the dock-side, wind-blown litter and nylon rope, a stack of what look like fuel cells. In the water he counts four steel-hulled fishing boats tied-up at a pair of pontoons, one boat listing badly. Not a sound or sight of a living person or of any kind of industry. He kicks at a piece of splintered wood lying on the pavement and begins to walk back down the road. I remember it being busier than this. And there was a shop over there and a school across at the other side. He continues walking. I suppose when the fish died-off it all just went to shit. Low hills slope down to the side of the road and the man watches how the rounded tops move relative to each other as he walks along. Parallax. His left leg hurts. A pain deep in the knee, in old bones.
At the end of the harbour he pauses, extracts a battered wallet from his back pocket and tosses it underarm into the water. For a moment it floats and he swears under his breath, but then it quickly sinks and he grins and turns away towards a road sign that says Oldshoremore 2m.
It’s a longer walk than he remembers and the old man tries to recall how he used to let his mind relax into body movement and the slow change of the landscape – but it doesn’t come to him. He worries about his left leg, and his shoes that suddenly seem inadequate. He worries about how he sees himself: an old man with a limp on a long road. A puzzling thing, out here in this place.
In the fields beside the road, signs of the ebb and retreat of human habitation. Decrepit and rusted farm machinery, wind turbines bladeless like petal-less poppies. Cottages, a few still maybe home to people, others with sagging roofs and windows blinded. A cluster of new-looking biofab tanks behind razor-polymer fences, government agency logos evidence of some desperate attempt to… what? where are the people?
At Blairmore he stops at a gate next to a cottage, a small pointed wooden sign indicating Sandwood. He opens the gate, slips through the gap and closes it carefully. Looking back he takes in the silence and the low hills. Foinaven rising in the distance to the south. Cumulus clouds lumpy and grey, moving-in from the west. Nearer, a few scattered buildings: one burnt-out and with an ancient static caravan sitting unexpectedly inside the blackened shell. Somewhere in the distance the almost subliminal sound of a boat’s engine floats across the sea loch.
He turns back to the path, goes on, feeling dwarfed by the landscape. Cresting the rise he sees the trees and stands for a long time, thinking. I remember this as open ground. Bog. Someone has been busy. Where the path leads into the forest he sees ash, alder, birch, some willow. In the shade of the trees he stops to extract the crumpled jacket from the now empty bag, and shrugs it on.
The forest ends without warning past a bend, and the man looks down the slope to the beach. The line of dunes separating it from the loch, low hills beyond. He realises that he’s still wearing his watch and glances at. Nearly seven. He begins to descend the sandy path, following the switchbacks and trying to ignore the stabs of pain in his leg.
And then he is on the beach. Flat sand stretches ahead, to his left the green-grey, quietly thunderous ocean. Relentless, inexhaustible.
He stares for a long time, remembering when he walked this beach in the half light in that younger, stronger body. How many years? He picks up a stone; shiny-wet and toffee coloured. Turns it in his hand then pockets it. He looks out to where the sea-stack used to be: just a stump now. Grimaces. Years. Time. For a moment his perspective seems to shift away from his body. Just an old man on a beach staring at the waves.
A wave plunges is and he feels wind-blown spray on his face, drawing him back to the present. He turns to walk slowly up the beach towards the outflow of the loch where the fresh water meets the salt ocean.
And then he sees her, a dark figure against the pale sand, unmistakable, walking purposefully towards him with her hands jammed into her jacket pockets. The man stops and watches her approach, ponytail of red hair jostled slightly by the breeze. The waves plummet in, unnoticed.
She stops an arms-length from him and he meets her steady gaze. Blue eyes, appraising, a slight smile. “How are you?” she says.
Manchester, January 2019 to January 2020.
Copyright © Andrew Johnson 2020, all rights reserved