Read by Silas Hawkins
Boots stamped. Concrete echoed flatly after the wide beach.
Crackle of fire.
They knew someone was there. They’d seen the smoke from the hilltop a mile away.
They stood, half in the door, half in the porch, damp. Martin stocky, Alfie thin and bowed under his pack. They looked in.
Three men. Two in folding chairs, one perched on a log. Bright small fire. Wood stacked, bag of coal beside it. Tin cans in neat rows on the filthy shelf. Sleeping bags rolled out on plywood platforms. Two coiled ropes in the corner.
A Glaswegian accent. Weathered face, clean-shaven, thin hair.
“There’s another room out and round the side to sleep in, but you can come and share the fire if you want.”
In the other room, they unpacked. It was as bare as the first, but without a fire it was no more than a shed.
“What do you reckon?” whispered Alfie. “Shall we join them?”
Martin shrugged. “Yeah, why not.”
They came back through, Martin rubbing his hands. He stepped straight to the fire to hold them up to it.
“So have you guys been here long?” he said.
The man who spoke before answered.
“Aye, me and Rob have been here a week now.” He gave a brisk nod to the man on the log. “This guy just turned up the day.”
The man on the log looked up. He had a thick beard and eyes that wobbled glassily. He was whittling something on his knee with a hunting knife.
Martin stepped back from the fire and sat on the ledge of the window. He pulled out his flask and took a swig. He grimaced, then looked up casually at the first man and offered it to him.
“Thank you very much.”
He swigged at the bottle. Alfie watched his lips in the firelight pouting round the rim. He could smell damp bog-soaked clothes. It was humid in the small room with five in it.
Martin offered the flask to Rob, who shook his head, then to the man on the log.
The first man let out a bark of laughter. “Dinnae give it tae him!”
Martin looked round, startled.
“Honestly, pal, the things he’s been saying, you wouldnae want him drunk.”
Alfie watched the man on the log’s face. There was something secretive and childlike about it. His mouth twitched slightly.
“Fuck you,” he said flatly, looking down at his knife.
Rob raised his eyebrows and the two older men drew their breaths in then began to chuckle.
“See? He’s a right fucking numpty.”
Alfie stood up. “I’m going for a slash.”
He felt the sea as soon as he stepped out the door, even in the dark. There was moonlight, but the clouds shot fast across the sky on a driving wind. He didn’t even need to piss, but he walked a few paces out, up to the edge of the sand. Martin was right. This was wild. He imagined the peaks they’d seen earlier before the rain came down. On the right would be the Black Cuillin, miles of jagged spires and slick rock. To the left, Bla Bheinn, a tattered shark’s fin rising from the flat open bay. Ahead, just sea.
That was visible now. A low blue-grey mass, shifting and spitting in the gale. His uneasiness returned. There was an uncompromising bluntness to all this. It wasn’t nature as a gentle soothing presence, it was just elements crunching over each other with raw force.
He turned to go back in, an odd flutter in his chest.
The front of the bothy was in a deeper darkness. He froze. A black shape detached itself and stepped out. It was the man on the log.
“It’s a really spiritual place here,” he said without emphasis.
In the shadows, his face and beard had become one dark mass.
“Yeah,” said Alfie uncomfortably.
The man leaned forward. “It’s OK.”
“Sorry?” said Alfie.
Alfie’s heart began to pound. The sky was wide and empty, and the bothy tiny and far from anywhere.
“It is OK, though, isn’t it?” the man said intently. Then his fingers gripped Alfie’s arm. “Isn’t it?“ He swallowed. Alfie felt hot breath on his face. It smelt rank. “It is OK, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” said Alfie. “it’s OK.”
The man’s voice changed gear. “I can take care of myself,” he said abruptly, letting go of Alfie’s arm.
The sweat was cold on Alfie’s neck. “It’s freezing out here,” he said, “I’m going in.”
That night, Alfie slept unevenly. Several times he woke to hear laughter. Later, when it was silent, he looked over to where he knew Martin was and willed him to wake up and say something.
In the morning, the rain was relentless.
“What do you reckon?” said Martin.
“Let’s just go for it,” said Alfie. He knew that once they were in the pub at the end of the day he’d be able to say he’d enjoyed this, but he couldn’t face another night out here.
They kitted up fully. Waterproof trousers, jackets, map in a plastic wallet. Protective covers over their bags.
“Shall I see if that guy’s up?” said Martin, as he struggled into his pack, heavy with the climbing gear they hadn’t used.
“What?” said Alfie.
“That guy. With the beard. I was chatting to him while you went for a piss. I think he was angling to walk with us today.”
“Seriously?” Alfie said. “I don’t know. He’s ...”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “Let’s just go.”
They headed for the stream at the back first to fill their bottles. As they stepped away from the bothy into the downpour, Alfie felt a disproportionate relief. He turned to Martin and danced a clumsy step.
“I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin...”
Up by the stream a figure was crouched, washing something. It was him. He stood up as they came close, and they saw his bag was beside him. He was wearing an army surplus coat, belted on the outside, and it was sodden already. He had high-top trainers on his feet, caked in mud.
He held up what he was washing. It was the knife.
“You’ve got to keep them clean,” he said.
He slipped it carefully into a sheath hung on the belt at his middle.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
Alfie looked over to Martin, but didn’t catch his eye.
“Sligachan,” said Martin.
“So am I.”
At first, they walked together. The rain was thick and constant. The drops drummed on their waterproofs.
The clouds seemed only metres above them.
The first river was swollen, but it had burst out and spread shallowly. You could pick across it on stones still. On the far side, they looked back, and saw the man from the bothy hesitate. He looked up at Alfie.
“Come on,” said Alfie quietly. Martin looked at him. “Please,” said Alfie.
They walked on quickly. Soon, they couldn’t see him.
For a while they didn’t talk. Then Martin stopped and turned. He peered at Alfie from under his dripping hood.
“I am fucking soaking,” he said.
“I think I saw a fish on the path,” said Alfie.
They grinned at each other, and walked on.
The next river was a problem. It came down from the steep edge of Bla Bheinn, thick and muddy. No stones even broke the surface.
Martin looked around. He dumped his bag on the heather and headed up the slope. He came back with two sticks. One was whippy and thin, but the other was practically a club.
“Best I could get,” he said.
He went to the edge of the river. He prodded one stick into the flow. It went all the way.
Alfie looked at the river. It was ten metres or so from bank to bank.
“We’ll have to use a rope,” said Martin. “I’ll go without my bag, and tie it on at the other side. Then I’ll come back, and we’ll go in turn with our bags.”
Martin tied the rope around his waist. He felt his way with both sticks. The water was just below his chest for most of it, but he slipped once so only his head was visible.
On the other bank, he tied the rope fast then came back. Now Alfie went, with the thicker stick in one hand and the other clutching the rope. The water was icy. The pull of it was terrifying, a great weight that dragged at you and made the huge stones underfoot shift and bob. He understood now how easy it was to die here.
On the far side, he lifted his arms in triumph.
He turned to look at Martin, but his smile faded. A skinny figure was standing on the high ground behind him.
Martin was busy with his bag. The figure began to trudge down the hill. Alfie saw the sheath at his waist and his heart leapt into his mouth.
“Martin!” he shouted.
Martin didn’t hear.
“Martin!” he screamed.
His friend looked up. The figure had reached him. Martin turned and said something. The figure slipped his bag from his shoulder and sat on it wearily.
Alfie sat down. His heart raced. The water was everywhere. In the air, the water, the rock, like the world was dissolving. “Come on,” he muttered to himself. “Come on.”
On the other side of the river, Martin was talking. Then he untied the rope and tied it round the other man’s waist. They shouldered their bags. They stepped into the river, Martin in front, holding the rope, the other behind, tied on. His hair and beard were plastered to his face now, and Alfie could see how gaunt he was. They began to feel their way slowly across. About half way, the man looked up. His eyes were wide and excited. He looked right at Alfie, and smiled.
Then he was gone. The rope went taut. Martin’s arms flailed and he disappeared.
Alfie ran to the bank. He grabbed the rope. It pointed directly down stream. He pulled at it. It was heavy, almost beyond him, but he pulled. He was shouting, but he couldn’t hear himself.
A head surfaced, gasping. A hand splashed out and grabbed at the bank. The man from the bothy pulled himself up, his face clenched round a fixed grin. He held his knife in one hand.
“Where’s Martin? Where the fuck is Martin?”
His face was vacant, but then he began to giggle. His eyes were glazed.
Alfie grabbed the stick and then ran down the bank.
“Martin!” he shouted.
The river foamed, thick and fierce. His foot caught a stone, and he fell sprawling. He sat up panting.
He could see nothing.
He looked back up river. The gaunt bearded figure was standing there. He could see the knife in his hands as he turned the blade over, cleaning each side on his shirt.
“I can take care of myself,” he thought. He imagined the knife, stabbing under water. The swirling cold.
He began to walk back, slowly, tensing himself. He held the thinner end of the stick in his right hand, and steadied the other against the ground. He came closer. The figure was waiting for him. He stepped close, seeing the matted hair all over his face, like an animal, and he lifted the stick and swung.
He dropped instantly.
Alfie stood over him. He lay awkwardly, in a little hollow, his eyes still open. He bent lower to look. Blood was seeping from a long wound on his temple and mingling with the rain.
Alfie stepped back. He looked up. The clouds were higher than before and he could see the slick black rock gushing streams of water. Further down the river his eyes caught movement. Martin was hauling himself up the bank.
OK by Sammy Wright was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars' League Dark & Stormy event on 12 October 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London
In real life, Sammy Wright is light and breezy. The most interesting thing about him is a secret. His stories are available at http://bearsick.tumblr.com .
Silas Hawkins is continuing the family voiceover tradition (he is the son of Larry the Lamb and Earnest the Policeman). Recent credits include the narration of a 4-part documentary on Latin music for the BBC and the voicing of a singing pink alien frog thingy for animated children's series Wonderpets. Voice agent: [email protected] Acting agent: [email protected]