‘I hate Ness,’ my father George used to spit when he stood in front of the sitting room window in our home in Lewis some afternoons. ‘Look at it. Flat and bleak. Nowhere for a man to escape. No slopes or shadows. Just dull and boring bog.’
My mother frowned when he spoke like that. ‘This place gave you a chance to escape the mess you made of your life before you came here,’ she said once, ‘You shouldn’t forget that.’
‘Aye. But at what cost. All these houses standing so close together that you don’t even have the chance to scratch without catching a neighbour’s attention. People looking at your every move. No escape for the wicked. Small room for the just.’ He would shake his head in dismay. ‘Oh, what I would give for a mountain or two, a glen where a man could hide in the shadows?’
He came from Staffin near the top of Skye and would sometimes speak about the giddy heights his head had swirled round to see on that landscape. The Quiraing. Iochdar Trotternish. The Old Man of Storr. Each sweep and slope to be found there. His grey face would lighten when he did so; his hollow eyes brightening as his cheeks grew round again, as though he were inhaling once more the winds that blew across these crests and ridges. As a child, I used to picture him perched on a pinnacle of rock or standing in its shadow. There were times when he would mention how the ground somehow shifted every couple of years, a fresh terrain formed by the slide of rocks, a new geography to be explored each season.
‘If you don’t stand too long on the high rocks, …’ my mother would jest.
‘Aye. I suppose there’s that risk,’ he’d grin. ‘But that’s a lot better than spending your whole life watched over by the Lewis equivalent of the KGB or the CIA.’
She’d laugh at that, remembering her own uncle who worked in the Arctic Convoys, bringing supplies north to Murmansk. ‘So speaks a man who’d feel happiest in the Urals or the Caucasus.’
‘Mountains with a thousand different views and languages. Not like the people here with their eyes fixed on the same horizon. Just the one tongue in their mouths.’
‘Aye. Look at all the joys that brought you the first time round.’
He’d shrug, recalling, perhaps, all the troubles that had trailed him in his youth, like clouds around the crests of hills. He remembered how he’d spent his early youth working in a hotel bar in Pitochry, sampling too many of the products he’d been employed to sell. There was, too, his involvement with a young woman there, how their lives together had turned as foul and sour as the pints of beer he cleared away at closing time, making him wince each time he thought back on these days. Yet there had been pleasures there too, especially the mountains crowding round the town.
‘I’d walk to places like Kirriemuir and Aberfeldy from time to time,’ he’d tell me. ‘Great to be away from the eyes of others, to have no one judging me.’
He would pause for a moment before speaking again.
‘There’s nothing like that round here. Only the waves rising. They imitate the mountains but you can’t lay your feet on them.’
He had different ways of finding freedom here. Some days he would head out with a sack slung around his shoulder, one which he would use to gather rare plants he found around the moor or shoreline. Occasionally he would show them to me – the different shades of heather or sphagnum moss, the white petals of stitchwort or eyebright, the blue flames of self-heal.
‘You need something to brighten up your life here,’ he’d declare as he rolled the stalks in his fingers, showing me the blaze of flowers he had found upon his trek.
Or else he might walk across the Dell moor with a rod in his hand, following the curls and twists of the river or else clambering up to the summit of Beinn Dail where he could glimpse the village of Tolsta on the island’s east side.
‘It’s not really a mountain,’ he would say, ‘It might pass for one in a children’s playpark. In Skye, it would be no more than a lump in the ground.’
For all that, he would always go out there when his life was at its darkest, at moments when Mum’s relatives crammed into the sitting room. He’d listen to their chatter for a while, their talk about the latest scandal within the village boundaries.
‘You heard he got drunk again last night?’
‘She’s not doing that well in university, I’ve heard. She’s going to come home soon.’
He would stand at the window for a moment, watching the spread and stretch of the moor, before slipping on his brown jacket and corduroy trousers and heading out the door. It made him disappear quickly when he reached there – the shades and colours blending with the bog and heather, making him hard to distinguish from the landscape especially on dull and cloudy days. That invisibility was what he wanted, impossible to see even during the times some of our fellow villagers took out their binoculars to work out the direction he was going, dark as the peat banks they worked on most summers, opaque as some of the lochs he passed upon his way, disappearing long before any great distance had been reached.
I once asked Mum why he acted that way. She shook her head, grey curls trembling as her eyes welled up.
‘Your Dad’s house in Skye was known for its parties. Folk used to come together from all over the district to share a drink or two. He never got fed during times like that.’ She shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s left its mark on him.’
And then the day came when we never saw him again.
He stepped out of the house as he usually did when the wind was still, and mother’s relatives squashed into our sitting room. He nodded in my Gran’s direction as he walked out the door, making a few quick remarks, asking about her mood and state-of-health. (‘As if he cared one jot …,’ she hissed later.) And then he stepped out of the village boundaries with their houses tightly crammed together, towards the places where he always walked at times like these, embarking on an expedition where he could become unseen and unnoticed once again, something he always longed for each day he spent in the village.
His clothing worked well that day. No one saw in what direction he was heading, whether to the river, Beinn Dail or the southern edge of the moor, the one nearest the village of Galson. He stepped out on the heather, tiptoed around the shorelines of lochs and bogs, leaping across the occasional stream. It was a landscape he knew well, for all that he complained of being confined by it, longing at all times for the crests and troughs of mountains, the places where he might enjoy the secrecy of being concealed by shades of stone. There were, at least, some corners between Ness and Tolsta where he could hide.
It was only when it came close to evening that my mother grew alarmed by his absence. She stood agitated before the window, watching the occasional flap of gulls, a sweep of starlings, trying to see if she could make out any sign of him as the darkness loomed and grew.
‘Where is he?’ she kept saying. ‘Where has he gone?’
‘Don’t worry,’ Gran replied. ‘He’ll be back soon.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that. He’s been in a funny mood lately. As if something’s on his mind.’
She continued to stand there as the darkness grew, tapping her fingers on the glass, as if she were trying to imitate the rhythm of his heartbeat, a way of summoning him back towards their home.
It was the following morning that the men from the village stepped out to look for him. They walked in various directions across the moor, following the various tracks and trails where he often walked, making their way along the river, heading to the summit of Beinn Dail where they would raise their binoculars to see if there was evidence of anything moving. Birds soaring up or gathering. A buzzard touching down. Sheep being disturbed. They saw nothing. Just the woollen fleece of sheep. The ripple of sunlight on the waters of a loch. The black anonymous scar of a peatbank.
The stillness and emptiness gave rise to a thousand stories. Perhaps he lay near the shores of Loch Ghearrasaidh where an old catechist from the village had gone out for an evening stroll and was never seen again, for all that they searched the river and lochs nearby. Or Clach ‘An Gearr with its stone beside the road, marking the place where a man had slipped into a pool and drowned.
‘You never know,’ one of the village old men said. ‘These things can easily happen again.’
Or else there were the other tales, the ones that some repeated around the district for years afterwards. They claimed that he might have made his way back to Pitlochry, where his first wife still lived, crossing the length and breadth of the Highlands by foot to find her, diverting himself on his way by strolling in the shade of the Grampian mountains, the shadows of Ben Nevis, Aonach Beag and Aonach Mòr, revelling in the differences between their heights and those of the flat moorland he had looked out on for years. Others saw him in stranger locations, such as Birmingham or Manchester, where there were so many people that no one took note of the sight of a single man who walked alone. Or, perhaps, he was even in the Urals or the Caucasus mountains that my mother used to talk about, adept at gathering stories among the people who gathered there, listening to them speak in hidden edges and gullies that exist among its peaks.
Yet none of these places are where I see him. Instead, I picture him still within the moor, his body hidden among turf and heather, fingers laced by the stalks of those different flowers he used to carry in his sack, the white petals of eyebright and stitchwort, the purple blossom of heather colouring his face at the end of each summer that passed, the blue flames of self-heal providing him with warmth, the various shades of sphagnum moss rendering him invisible.
Just like he always longed to be.