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A Mountain to Climb

Carol wipes her damp pink hoody cuff down a thigh of her jeans. Turning from the watery circle on a heavily misted window she says, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’  

‘Take that as a no then.’ I start scratching my scalp. My mousey gel-stiff hair really needs washing. But right now, it’s the least of my problems. 

‘Got it in one.’ Carol pulls a purple scrunchie off her wrist. After restraining long dark curls, she folds her arms. 

This isn’t going well. 

And here comes the rain. Again.

‘The website reckons the views are awesome,’ I say enthusiastically raising my voice over the light drumming on the roof. 

‘No doubt,’ she mutters giving me her Medusa stare. 

The floor flexes as she strides the few steps from lounge to kitchen-diner. Squeezing behind the fixed rosewood Formica table, she sits on a green tartan bench seat, then glares at the map. 

I want to sit next to her, put my arm round her shoulders, tell her that one day we will look back and laugh about all this. But the look on her face has me awkwardly manoeuvring myself into the seat on the other side of the table. 

Tracing a finger from Bruce’s Stone to the top of the Merrick I say, ‘It’s only about an eight mile walk in total.’ 

‘Only eight miles?’ she parrots sarcastically. Resting her arms on the table she leans forward and peers suspiciously at the yellow highlighted walk. 

The table creaks then kind of twists slightly. 

‘Um, better not lean on it too—’ 

Her grey eyes flick up from the map. ‘You saying I’m fat?’ 

I raise my hands defensively. ‘No, never, I just mean, the table, it’s a bit—’

‘Is that why you want us to go on this, this…expedition?’ she says stabbing the map with a finger. ‘Because you think I could do with the exercise?’  

‘Come on, love.’ I rest my hands on the soft paunch straining against my black T-shirt and obscuring my jeans belt. Then to emphasise the point, I give it a little wobble. ‘I mean, seriously?’  

She looks at me for a moment, then blinks and looks away. ‘Whatever.’ 

‘Look, I know it’s a bit cramped in here, but—’ 

‘Cramped? Tell me about it, Justin, not quite the luxury eight berth caravan overlooking Loch Trool and the Galloway Hills you promised, is it?’ 

I rub my jaw stubble. ‘Well, we are overlooking some pretty spectacular—’ 

‘Yes, love, wonderful views, as long as you are looking through binoculars and keep wiping the bloody condensation off the windows.’ 

‘I know I screwed up the booking and we’ve ended up here. And yes, the caravan’s small and a bit basic—’ 

‘Basic?’ I wince as her voice jumps an octave. ‘There’s mould growing on the mattress, in the fridge, the shower—'  

I hold my hands up. ‘Okay, okay, the caravan’s crap, but—’ 

‘Justin, the whole weekend’s going to be crap. I want to go home.’ 

The table groans as Carol pillows her head in her arms and the floodgates of her disappointment open. 

Yet again, this time for a different reason, I ask myself if I am doing the right thing. 

My simmering emotions come to the boil. ‘So, what do we do? Stay here and keep arguing? Give up and go home? Life doesn’t always play out according to script. Sometimes it throws lemons, curve balls, and the bloody kitchen sink at you, and you just have to make the best of it.’ 

As Carol draws a deep breath, I brace myself. 

Then she seems to deflate. ‘I know, Justin, you’re right, I’m sorry…but we’ve been cooped up in here since Friday evening, it has hardly stopped raining and—’ 

‘For crying out loud, Carol, it’s only Saturday morning.’ I sigh. ‘Okay, I give up, if you want to go home then that’s fine by me.’ 

She opens her mouth, then closes it again. I seize the opportunity to make my face look as pleadingly appealing as possible. It worked four years ago, as she got out of her car to inspect the damage to its rear bumper. 

‘You really want to do this?’ she says looking at the map.

'Us, I want us to do it, we might not get the chance again.’ 

Carol’s fingers massage her temples. ‘Okay, Justin, we’ll do it.’ 

‘Really?’ 

‘Really.’ 

‘You won’t regret it. I’ll make sure of it.’ 

‘Hmm…just one more thing, Justin.’ 

‘Yes, love?’ 

She raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Enough of the little boy wanting to get his own way face, okay? You are thirty-three, not three.’ Then she smiles. 

I grin as our hands slide across the map, fingers entwining over Bruce’s Stone.  

 

Carol zips up her green waxed jacket. ‘At least it’s stopped raining. Did you remember the map and compass?’ 

‘Yes.’ 

‘Water, flask, food, first aid kit?’ She pulls on an Aran bobble hat and matching mittens. ‘Mobile phone? I’ve got mine, but we can’t be too careful.’ 

I check my jacket pockets, again. ‘Yep, got everything.’ I point the key fob at the car, which shrieks twice as orange lights blink. Hooking my thumbs under padded straps, nylon whispers on nylon as I hoist the rucksack up my back. Rubbing my now gloved hands together I say, ‘Ready to rock?’  

‘As I’ll ever be.’ 

As our hiking boots grind stones and crush brittle leaves, we begin making our way through a landscape that is anything but lush. Sprawls of orange-brown bracken, laced with dew-sparkling spiders webs, form canopies over mulching undergrowth. Small velvety mounds of moss, frilled ochre bracket fungus, and branched silvery-blue lichen, cling to ancient tree trunks. Gnarled boughs creak as wind-stirred twigs scratch at the sky. This is a place where dwarves, orcs, and elves are possible. My imagination begins weaving characters, scenes and plotlines into a new side quest for my D&D homebrew campaign. 

I sigh contentedly. ‘Fantastic, isn’t it?’ 

‘Suppose one of us falls, breaks a leg or something? What if we can’t get a phone signal?’ 

‘It’s a hill walk, love. We’re not climbing Everest.’ I glance at my watch. ‘It’s half eight, even with stops, we should be back at the car by three. We’ll check out Bruce’s Stone before we head back.’ 

‘Sounds like you’ve got it all planned.’ 

‘Yup.’ 

 

‘The noise is deafening,’ she shouts above the avalanche of water thundering down behind her. 

Making sure my feet are firmly planted on a large rock jutting out of the rushing water, I hold out a hand. As Carol reaches out, her boot slips. I grab her wrist, pull and she somewhat inelegantly leaps into my arms. 

‘My hero,’ she says feigning a swoon.

Hand in hand, jump by jump, rock by rock, we cross the churning waters of Buchan Burn. 

The meandering path takes us through a spiked wilderness of purple heather and straw hairgrass. As we clamber over slanting granite slabs, water trickles a song through crevices into dark rock hollows. The sheer rawness of it all stirs something primal within me, and I feel truly alive. 

Once on flatter ground, I pull Carol close. ‘Pucker up.’ 

She laughs. ‘Put like that, how can I resist?’ 

Taking a break, we sit on a picnic rug, sip bottles of water, eat muesli bars, take selfies with our mobile phones. As I scroll through the images of our faces pressed cheek to cheek, eyes glinting laughter and smiles wide, I think how lucky I am.  

Twenty minutes later, we are on our way again. 

As we walk through an area of forestry, sunlight dapples through pine trees, woody cones and forked needles snap and crunch beneath our boots. We laugh as twitchy-tailed squirrels scamper up fractured bark, stand in awe as a statuesque red stag watches us watching him. While walking and taking a video on my phone, my boot catches on something immoveable.

After spitting out organic matter with a distinctly mushroom taste, I get into a more dignified sitting position. Crouching beside me, Carol slides the rucksack off my back. Pulling off her mitts, she lifts my chin with a hand. 

‘Ouch,’ I say as her fingers touch my face. 

‘You’ve got a bit of a cut there and some grazing. Let’s get you cleaned up, eh?’ 

As she goes into Florence Nightingale mode, while helping me see the funny side of tree roots and unmanly swan dives, I think what a wonderful wife and mother she’ll make. She wants all that; marriage, kids, vegetable patch, bread baking in the oven. So do I…and with her. We might get that far, we might not. I have been given the all-clear, but there are no guarantees the cancer won’t return. 

‘Is this what you really want, Carol?’ 

She stops dabbing my cut with an antiseptic wipe, tilts her head. ‘Sorry?’ 

‘You’re only thirty-one.’ 

‘And?’ 

‘You’re beautiful, clever—’ 

She laughs. ‘Both true, but—’ 

‘I’m being serious, Carol. I mean, you’re an accountant, I’m just a car parts advisor.’ 

‘What are you going on—’ 

‘I mean, after we were told, I didn’t ask, we never spoke about…if you…you could have met someone else by now.’ 

Carol stands, looks down at me. ‘Are you ending it? Justin, is this why you brought me up here?’ 

‘No.’ I scramble to get up. ‘God, no Carol.’ 

‘You’ve been acting weird all weekend. I’ve not seen you like this for a couple of years, not since your diagnosis.’ Concern clouds her face. ‘Justin, has something happened? Are you keeping something from me?’ 

I look down, absently push at forest detritus with a boot. ‘I love you, Carol, but in the future, if we have kids and it comes back, the cancer, if the worst happens, then you’d be left struggling to—’ 

‘Stop, Justin. Please, just stop.’ I look up into her eyes. Holding my hands she says, ‘The only time any of us ever truly has, is now.’ 

I know what lies behind a forced smile, eyes that never quite meet mine, encouraging words spoken without conviction. Pity for the dead man walking. As Carol briefly touches my face, her eyes fill with the light of love, and her smile banishes any doubts I’ve ever had. 

‘I think we’ve got a mountain to climb,’ she says. 

‘The Merrick’s a hill love, not a—' 

‘A metaphorical mountain,’ she says gently poking my forehead with her finger. 

 

‘Oh, wow,’ Carol whispers.

The forest lies below and behind us. Stretching up ahead is the Neive of the Spit, a narrow ridge scoured by time and the elements, and marked by a spine of ashen stone. 

As we climb higher, the air becomes heavy with moisture, the wind bitingly cold. Between wisps of white, I catch sight of the trig point, a squat whitewashed tower, surrounded by the tumbled ruin of the cairn. 

‘Apparently the cairn offers some shelter,’ I say as we approach the trig point. 

She eyes the ring of rocks. ‘It does?’ 

‘So the website says. Hot chocolate?’ 

‘Now you’re talking.’ 

The trig point is not what I was expecting. The promised glorious views are shrouded in mist. Still, it does have a Lord of the Rings feel about it.

I let her get a few paces ahead, then unzip my jacket a little and reach inside my chest pocket. Above the wind I shout, ‘Carol.’ 

As she turns, from behind the crumbling walls comes the sound of hearty celebration.  

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to—’ 

What the hell? A black beanie, then brown eyes, a flushed nose and full grey beard appears above the rocks.

‘Och, thought I heard voices aboot. Looks like y’both be needing a wee dram.’

A small bottle is held up. 

‘Sounds wicked,’ says Carol. 

I watch as Carol bonds with our fellow hikers. Our cheese sarnies, apples, granola bars and digestive biscuits are added to their red checked tablecloth, laden with party food in unlidded Tupperware. Curled sandwiches, ridged crisps, burnt cocktail sausages and a small, blue-iced birthday cake, are all increasingly sprinkled with wind delivered grit. It’s some guy’s eightieth birthday. Jock’s his name. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? 

I hunch my shoulders, draw up my knees, sip hot chocolate with a thermos lid aftertaste. Dabbing a finger on my tongue, I remove a fragment of something woody. 

Carol glances over, pushes her eyebrows together then mouths something like, ‘You okay?’ I nod, fake a having the time of my life smile. Her face relaxes into a grin, then she turns back to Jock who is spinning salty yarns about his days out on the fishing boats.

When they raise white plastic cups and start singing, ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, I feel like punching something. This is not how it was meant to be. Perhaps the Big Man upstairs is telling me that it is not meant to be at all.

‘We’d better start making a move,’ I say.

Carol points her mobile at Jock and his five octogenarian chums, then asks me to hang on a minute while she updates Facebook. As we walk away from the cairn, she links her arm in mine. ‘I hope we’re as spritely as Jock and his friends when we get to their age.’

I resist the spiteful urge to say ‘if’ and burst her bubble. 

 

Walking back through the entrance to the Merrick trail, we make our way towards the car. I stride ahead, I still don’t feel like talking.

Carol calls out, ‘Justin, please, wait. What on earth is up with you? You hardly spoke on the way back? Is it me?’

I keep walking. ‘No. It’s not you. The walk, it wasn’t what I planned.’

A rapid thud, thud, thud then my arm is pulled. I turn.

Carol’s face is flushed, her breathing a little heavy. ‘Hang on, Justin. I know I wasn’t keen but—’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘But I’ve had a fantastic day. To be honest, you were miserable to the point of rudeness at the summit.’

There’s no point denying it, I’ve been a complete arse. ‘I’m sorry, okay?’ Even I can hear the sulkiness in my voice.

‘No, Justin, it isn’t. I’m not sure what you expected from this walk, but you’re the one always banging on about making the best of things.’

Over Carol’s shoulder, movement catches my eye. As a salt and pepper rabbit scampers in and out of bramble coils, a few glossy blackberries drop onto a bed of crimson and yellow leaves. Then my eyes spot the weathered wooden signpost.

‘Can’t go without seeing Bruce’s Stone, can we?’

‘Only if you cheer up, okay?’

I put my arms around her. ‘I really am sorry, love.’ And this time, I mean it.

‘You’re pulling that face again, Justin.’

‘Is it working?’

With a twitch of a smile on her lips she says, ‘Oh come on then.’ 


Standing before Bruce’s Stone, a huge, granite boulder mounted on a plinth of mortared rocks, I read the inscription then say, ‘Pretty impressive, isn’t it?’ Silence. ‘Carol?’

Turning I see her looking out across the brooding waters of Loch Trool.

Standing beside her, I gaze into an indigo washed sky, streaked with lilac-grey clouds edged gold by the melting sun. From silhouetted treetops a crescendo of a thousand dark wings arise, then they begin swooping and swirling their twilight dance. Lost for words, I simply hold her hand. Moments such as this cannot be planned, but when they come must be seized, or lost forever.

Reaching inside my jacket, I say, ‘Carol?’ As she turns, her cheek is kissed by the sun’s glow. I take a deep breath. ‘Whatever time we have, I have…I want to spend it with you.’ Assuming the traditional position, I ignore the pain of a stone pushing through denim into my kneecap. After opening the small velvet box, I look up at her then say, ‘Carol Marie Whitman, will you marry me?’ She looks taken aback, surprised...or is it stunned...shocked? Horrified? ‘Um, Carol, if you want to say no—’

She quickly places a silencing finger on my lips. ‘You were doing so well, Justin, don’t ruin it now.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I love you, Justin Arthur Skinner, and want to be with you today, and for however many tomorrows we have.’

‘Is that a...?’

‘Yes, Justin. That's a yes.’ 

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