Lately I’ve been watching the excellent rural Wales set detective drama ‘Hinterland’, and it made me remember this story I wrote years ago. I think it’s a pretty authentic glimpse of the darkness and tragedy lurking in a small Highland village, seen through the eyes of an incomer struggling to fit in. A magazine accepted it for publication but then folded before it came out. So here it is, for the first time.
Polite child of the manse, I answered the door when the policemen came.
“Can you get your father for us.”
In town school you had a Dad, but in the village it was always father, even for my schoolmates.
He left the Christmas sermon he was writing and came through. I wondered if a terrible event was about to break on our family. To whatever the cops were saying my Dad was nodding, his eyes closed like he was about to start praying. I heard the word ‘bridge’ and ran out into the garden. The path was a black rink. After the church there was a parking area separated from the road by a stone wall. If you were driving in from the town the church was the first you saw of our village. Just opposite the thirty sign. About a quarter of a mile back was the bridge, just before a bend in the road took it up towards the town, forestry on one side, fields on the other. It was narrow. Two cars had to be careful passing. No one was passing now. A queue of traffic was backed up past the church.
I stood on the wall to see the bridge.
Police, ambulance, lights flashing.
Behind, carnage. A lorry jacknifed, on its side. Half the bridge destroyed.
I went back in. I wanted to play on the computer but Dad stopped me in the living room.
“Simon, maybe you can help.”
The cops – at school you had to call them pigs – looked away.
“Do you know where we can find Erica Aitchison?”
“She lives on the high street.”
“The policemen have tried her house but there’s no one in. Do you think she could be out playing somewhere?”
The words Erica and playing didn’t really go together.
No one said anything. Incomer I may have been, but I knew Erica Aitchison’s father had a lorry. It was often parked behind the hotel, its yellow flanks encrusted with layers of silty mud. Philip Conti had written his name on the side but then someone had muddied in the top part of the ‘o’. He said he’d kill whoever did it.
A kind of infamy hung over Erica’s father. Comments overheard in school: Kirsten McClean to Erica when they argued over whether Kirsten’s sister was a slut. At least my father’s not a tink
I’d seen him up close once. Smoking outside his lorry while we played football in the field. I was in goals and the ball went through the gap in the fence into the hotel car park. I ducked under to get it. It had rolled next to his foot. Just as I was about to pick it up he booted it.
The ball flew straight between two stacks of metal beer kegs and rolled down into the burn.
I managed to get a stick to trap it just before it disappeared into the tunnel under the main street. I coaxed it in to the bank. As I ran back past him I didn’t turn when he laughed. I hadn’t felt such fear of a person before.
Now he was trapped in his cabin, his lungs crushed like crisp packets blown up and then burst with a pop.
“I know where she could be.”
The cops looked at me.
“There’s some people sledging in the field. She’s probably there.”
To my Dad. – Is it okay if he comes and points her out to us?
I rode in the police car. They drove the five hundred metres from the manse to outside the school, opposite the playing field. On the school side there were steep slopes where the snow from a few days earlier had turned to slush. Some kids were still out sledging. At the bottom a group was huddled on a few logs near the wrecked tennis courts. As we walked over one of the girls caught sight of the uniforms. They all turned. Erica, the Graham twins, Nicola and Shona, and Lynn Catsby – a year older and at secondary school. Two fags between the four of them. The Grahams looked like they wanted to run.
Erica’s voice was showy, like she thought she was on TV.
“Have you joined the police, Jesus boy?”
Lynn Catsby puffed away, interested.
“Erica. They need to talk to you.”
“Can you come with us please Erica.”
“There’s been an accident.”
“I’m afraid your father…”
The next morning was Sunday. I had to go to church. By that time there was hardly anyone in the village who didn’t know. Dad said the tragedy had shaken everyone. Our thoughts and prayers went out to the daughter. For someone so young, the loss of one parent was a terrible thing. But when the other was already gone…
He was wrong – I could imagine it.
When His will seemed most inexplicable, we had to turn our thoughts most fervently to the glory of the Lord.
I was a silent non believer.
After Christmas Erica wasn’t at the village school. Probably only Miss Keogh was as relieved as me. We heard she and her big sister were living with her auntie in the fishing village up the road. At first the accident was all we talked about. I was called on for Erica’s reaction. In my account she drew blood from the pig’s cheek when actually she’d barely scratched him. But memory faded. The lorry’s carcass was towed to the scrapyard at the garage at the top of the village; gradually cannibalized by the ancient impresario of engines who ran the place.
Secondary school that August was a shock. The eight periods a day seemed to drag interminably. First years were minnows, clustering together in a pool of pike and sharks. At first we stuck to our different primary groups. Erica had finished primary seven in the other village’s school, but she mostly hung out with Lynn Catsby and other second years. Thankfully I wasn’t in any of her classes. At breaks I tried to avoid her, but once I caught her eye passing in the quadrangle. She said something to her friends and they looked at me and sniggered.
December came again. The Christmas Dance. In P.E. we practised Gay Gordons, Dashing White Sergeants, Strip the Willow. The only conversation was who you were going with, meaning I supposed, who would be your favoured dancing partner.
It snowed on the day. After school I couldn’t settle to watch TV or play computer. Instead I gazed out the window, trying to see past my reflection. Dad had hung lights on the hedge spelling out the words ‘Glory Be’. Eventually it was time to get ready. I doused myself in Brut Aquatonic and put on the good white shirt, navy trousers, and – the crowning glory of my outfit – a Sylvester the Cat silk tie. When Dad came in from tending his flock he polished my shoes and told me to enjoy myself.
Some hope. The dance was awful. The girls were strange creatures in sparkling frocks. Their cheeks shimmered; their lips glowed. I joined a group of misanthropes, standing overlooking the hall like pensioners on the football terraces, making occasional comments to break the silence. After what seemed an age, Miss Kennedy, our English teacher, made Nicky Weir and I join her in a three for a Dashing White Sergeant. It was weird, pressing my hand around her plump waist.
I turned round when I heard my name called.
Lynn Catsby, who I’d spoken to maybe three times in my life.
“Someone wants to see you.”
“Out at the gate.”
She clattered off. Nobody else had heard. The misanthropes were hanging next to the tree again. I walked across the foyer through debris of tinsel and paper cups and pushed the main door open. I was nervous. Did someone want to get off with me?
Shivering in just my shirt, I walked along the paving slabs to the gate and looked up and down the road. Just a line of cars parked half on the pavement. I looked back at the school. Muffled disco music – the ceilidh dancing must be over. I checked my watch. An hour and ten ‘til Mum picked me up.
Pain and the ground hit together. Cold snow soaking through cotton. A dark figure on top of me, pummelling.
“You going to fight back?”
I moaned. Tried to push him off. Wasn’t strong enough.
Pulling my hair.
Hard ice-turning snow, in my eyes, nose, mouth.
“Leave him Raj.”
Erica’s voice. Raj: Philip Conti’s nickname. What was he doing here? A fourth year. When not suspended.
A last punch in the gut. It took me a while to make it up. When I did only Erica was there, sitting on the wall. Glow of a cigarette in her mouth.
“What like are you feeling?”
“That’s for what you did to me.”
“What? What did I do?”
“You know fine well.”
“Look, I’m sorry about…”
“You’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
“No. Not always.”
“Aye you are. Do you want a fag?”
“Cos you’re not getting one from me.”
“I’m sorry about… that time –”
“Wanna know the truth? I’m glad he died. He was an evil man.”
Yeah, I know, he once kicked my football into the burn. I didn’t say that.
“What about your Mum?”
Suck of the ciggie.
“She was alright.”
We sat in silence. She finished the cigarette and threw the butt away.
“You having fun tonight?”
“Want to dance?”
We went back into the hall together. I pictured the side of the lorry, filthier than ever now in the scrapyard at the top of the village.