Author Daniel Shand
Publisher Sandstone Press
I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review
Something had been in the night and rubbish was strewn all across the grass. I hadn’t heard anything myself but there were crisp packets and beer cans and polystyrene trays scattered around the tent, our carrier bags torn open. We’d spotted some deer up in the hills a few days earlier but it could just as easily have been a fox or a badger or one of the other beasts that roamed around out there. I scanned the ground for human footprints and felt my blood go down when there were none to be found.
I pulled my head back inside the tent and wriggled into my jeans.
I must have disturbed Mikey. He mumbled something.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
He unzipped the door to the sleeping area and stuck his head out, a mess of greasy hair and beard.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
‘Nothing’s going on. I’m just getting up.’
‘You don’t mind if I go back to bed?’
I told him to knock himself out and I crawled outside. The morning air nipped at my bare torso and I slid on dew as I skipped around, picking up the rubbish and stuffing it into a fresh bag. Once I’d tidied up I got the gas stove out from the tent and made myself some coffee. I sat on the groundsheet and rolled a fag while the coffee pot boiled.
A bird of prey swooped out from behind one of the mountains that flanked the meadow, flying in wide arcs, in perfect curves. I hoped it would spot some fluffy wee rodent down in the meadow, maybe even whatever it was that ripped apart our rubbish bag. I wanted to see it dive towards the earth and snatch up its prey. It didn’t though. I kept my eye trained on it until it went behind the mountain again, and then the coffee pot was whistling so I poured some coffee out into my tin mug and lit the fag.
I relished this quiet time in the morning, before Mikey woke. These were the only moments, apart from when I went to town for supplies, that I had for myself. I’d sit and have my coffee and my fag and listen to Mikey snoring and the mad gurgle of the burn down the hill. There was a road beyond the burn that cars rarely used and a house halfway between us and town. We’d selected the site for its remoteness.
Mikey yawned and began to move around inside the tent. Here we go, I thought. He squeezed past me carrying his boots. Same thing every morning. He’d hop around on the wet grass in his yellowing Y-fronts, trying to squeeze into his boots without untying them, before giving up and throwing them down beside the tent.
I watched his routine and sipped my coffee. It tasted horrible.
‘Fuck it,’ he said, chucking the boots away. He ran his fingers through his long hair and scratched at his beard. ‘Morning then,’ he said.
‘How did you sleep?’ I asked, knowing fine well that he slept like a log, because I was the one who had to listen to his snoring.
‘Good,’ he said, stretching and squatting. ‘Well, not bad. Here, mind if I nick a cup?’
He squeezed past me to get his mug out from the tent. He had no qualms about pressing his bare flesh against mine. Personal space was not part of his understanding. I poured him some coffee and he stood facing the mountains with his free hand on his hip. He drank a mouthful and I waited for his grimace.
‘Paul,’ he said. ‘I don’t really like coffee.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I know.’
‘Do you mind if I…’ he asked, miming pouring the cup away.
I shook my head. This was also part of his routine, trying my coffee and inevitably not enjoying it and being timid about throwing it out. That wasn’t every day, like the boots. More like every other day.
After I’d finished the rest of the pot we collected our towels from the guy ropes and traipsed down to the burn for a wash.
‘So,’ said Mikey. ‘What’s the plan for today?’
‘Same as always. I’ll go into town for a bit of food and a paper once we’ve cleaned up.’
‘Right,’ he said, dropping his head.
‘Don’t sulk, Mikey.’
We faced away from each other once we’d taken off our boots and jeans and pants. It was difficult to wash in the burn, because of the cold and the shallowness. You had to scoop up handfuls of water to rinse your hair and squat down to let the water wash your arse and balls. I winced at the coldness that was also a kind of hotness.
Once we were dried off and back into our trousers we turned to face each other. ‘Feels better,’ I said.
I spotted a car down on the road as we were walking back to the tent. It was one of those big four-wheel drives and it was parked in a passing place.
‘Here,’ I said, tapping Mikey’s arm to make him stop. ‘See that?’
He peered past me. ‘It’s a motor.’
I tried to make out who was inside, but it was too far off.
Mikey shook some of the wetness out his hair. ‘Reckon they can see us?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. It was about half a mile down to the road, but there was a good chance they’d be able to make us out. Still, it would seem more suspicious if we stood there and watched it like that. ‘Let’s keep going,’ I said.
Up at the tent I did my best to dry my hair before fetching a shirt from inside. All my clothes were getting foul and I knew Mikey’s would be ten times worse than mine. At some point I’d have to make a special trip into town to use the laundrette.
‘Right,’ I told Mikey. ‘I’m going to head down now. You going to be all right?’
‘Aye,’ he said. He was hunched in the tent’s entrance, his head hidden beneath the towel. ‘Like you said, same as always.’
‘What do you say if someone comes?’
‘That we’re ramblers.’
I walked down the hill towards the road and was relieved to see the car had moved on. It was only an hour or so into town, the road taking me past the wee house and then right down the valley. Again, this was time I tried to enjoy. There was the worry that some landowner or a group of hill walkers would chance upon Mikey and he’d panic and give them the wrong story, but I tried to ignore that.
What we called town was really just a village. There was a Spar and a pub and a butcher shop and all the other things you’d expect from a place like that. I kept my head down as I walked, never wanting to become a familiar face to the people there.
The butcher was a rancid man. He looked up at me and gave me one of his red-lipped smirks as I entered. He was obese and ginger and had streaks of blood up his forearms.
‘Hello,’ I said.
He winked. ‘Morning. What’ll it be?’
‘I’ll just take four…’
He interrupted. ‘Four sausages.’
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘Four sausages.’
He winked again. ‘Coming right up.’ There was a big basin behind him that he washed his hands in. I could see through the door to the back room, where his acolyte was hacking at a hanging carcass.
‘So,’ said the butcher, turning to me and plucking a piece of cling-film from the dispenser. ‘We’ve got Cumberland, we’ve got Lorne, we’ve got Lincolnshire, we’ve got ring.’
The back door creaked open and the boy emerged to gawk at me. His apron was soaked with blood.
I looked at all the sausages he’d named. ‘Just norm…’
‘Four normal sausages coming right up,’ said the butcher, smirking.
He scooped my order up in his cling-filmed hand and put it into a plastic bag. I had my money ready, the change gripped in my hand inside the pocket of my jeans. I knew exactly how much four normal sausages cost. My grip was so tight that the coins hurt my bones.
The butcher paused as he was handing the sausages over the counter. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just… Andrew and I were wondering…’
‘Well. You come in here nearly every morning and ask for four normal sausages.’
I was starting to sweat under my collar. I gripped hold of my change. ‘That’s right.’
He leaned over the counter, smirking, glancing back at the boy he called Andrew. ‘Only ever four sausages. For the past maybe two months.’
‘Aye. That’s true.’
He laughed. Andrew touched his bloodied apron. ‘Well. I mean. Why only four?’
‘I don’t understand. I only need four.’
‘What I mean is, what’s to stop you coming in half as often and buying eight sausages or so on? Stock up?’ He peered at me from under his orange eyebrows. ‘They would keep.’
I swallowed. I looked at the obese butcher, I looked at Andrew’s apron. ‘My fridge is broken. I’m saving up for another one.’
The butcher’s face fell. ‘Oh.’
‘That does make sense I suppose.’ He handed me the parcel of sausages and took the wet change from my hand and rung it up on the till. There was dried blood stuck to the cuticles of his fingers. ‘Me and Andrew were curious is all. Cheerio then.’
‘Right. Well. Cheerio.’
I kept walking until I was out of sight of the butcher shop, then I leaned again the wall of the Chinese and let my breath out. After a minute I ducked into the Spar to collect the rest of our supplies. Luckily they seemed to have a never-ending supply of teenage girls to employ; I never saw the same one twice.
I followed the road and then the burn out of town. I passed the wee house and noticed the car parked in the driveway for the first time. It was only the bloody four-wheel drive from before! I thought about sneaking into the garden to try and have a look inside, but getting caught was too big a risk.
Mikey was messing about outside the tent. I could see him hopping around from all the way down at the base of the hill. He didn’t notice me until I was right behind him. He was playing keepy-ups with a football.
‘What’re you doing?’ I asked.
Mikey flinched and turned, missing the ball. ‘Fuck Paul. You made me mess it up.’
‘Where did you get that?’
He pointed to the thickets and undergrowth that marked the edge of the meadow, leading to the mountain’s foot. ‘It was in the bushes there.’
‘Did anyone come?’
He rolled the ball towards himself with his foot and kicked it into the air. ‘Nope.’
I said, ‘Good,’ and put the bags down. I found our stove and the frying pan and set up the sausages to fry. ‘When I was coming up, I went past the house further down the valley.’
‘Aye. The car from before was parked in the driveway. They must live there.’
‘Doesn’t that worry you?’
He caught the football on top of his boot and held it in the air. ‘Why would it?’ he grunted.
‘Well, they seemed to be taking an awful interest, didn’t they?’
‘I hope we won’t have to move on again,’ I said, pushing the sausages around with a lolly stick. I kept forgetting to pick up some tongs or a spatula from town.
We’d been up in the valley for a month or two, as the butcher had said. Before that we’d camped out by a loch but fishermen started to show up when the season changed, forcing us to pack up and move on. Before the loch we’d been in fields behind the town where we lived, miles and miles from this little sanctuary under the mountain.
I dished out the sausages onto two cardboard plates. ‘Leave the ball for now,’ I told Mikey, handing him his.
He sat cross-legged on the grass, blowing on his sausages. ‘Here, Paul,’ he said. ‘What’s a sausage made out of anyway?’
‘That’ll be pig in that one, but you get all sorts.’
‘Right. So it’s like chops then. Pork chops.’
‘Kind of. They put all the bits of the pig no one wants to eat in sausages.’
‘Why’re they so nice then?’ He’d already wolfed down both of his and was huffing on the steaming morsels still in his mouth.
‘I don’t know. They just are.’
Mikey eyed my one remaining sausage. ‘Are you going to finish yours?’
‘We’ll split it,’ I said, cutting it in half with a plastic knife and giving Mikey the bigger half.
I put the stove back in the tent once it was cool and threw away the plates. I dug the paper out from the Spar bag. ‘I’m going to check this,’ I told him. ‘You wanting to look with me?’
He shook his head. ‘Nah. It’s too nasty. I’m going to stick at the football.’
I lay down in the tent’s opening and leafed through the paper. I could hear Mikey kicking the ball from somewhere behind the pages. For the first few weeks after we’d left, Mikey had invariably been on the first page. He’d slowly descended through the paper over time and I was waiting for the day when he wasn’t featured at all. Maybe then we could go back.
I was nearly at the sport section when I found him. ‘Fuck,’ I said. They’d printed a recent picture with the article. He had his long hair in this one, and his beard. For a long time it was the police mug shot they used, which wasn’t so bad because the frog-eyed boy of thirteen didn’t look much like the fully-grown Mikey. I didn’t know if there’d been some court ruling that meant they could publish a new picture or perhaps they’d just stopped giving a shit.
I heard Mikey moan from behind my paper.
‘Gone in the burn?’ I called.
‘Aye,’ he said.
‘Listen mate,’ I said, laying the paper down on my chest. ‘We’re going to have to do it. They’ve got a new photo here. Your hair’s all long in it.’
He put his hands on his head. ‘We can’t, Paul. It’s the perfect length.’
‘We’ll have to, mate.’
His eyes started to redden. ‘Maybe we could just wait and see what happens…’
‘Fucken wait and see?’ I said. ‘How long you wanting to be stuck out here?’
‘Never mind it’s just. Get your T-shirt off. Now.’
I found the scissors in my bag of supplies from the shop. I made Mikey sit on the grass and I kneeled behind him. I cut his hair right down and he cried the whole time. I turned him around, wiped the loose hairs from his face and cut his beard down too. I gave him the cheap pair of sunglasses I’d picked up from the rack in Spar.
‘Give them a try,’ I said.
He put the glasses on and had a look in the superfluous shaving mirror we carried around. His face crumpled. ‘I look like fucken… fucken Lou Reed.’
‘Don’t sulk. It had to be done.’
Mikey fished his ball out from the burn and I went back to the paper. We killed the afternoon like that. He practised his keepy-ups and I read every single article and completed every single puzzle. Once I was finished we played the football together. We used the gas stove and the frying pan as goalposts and I played goal. As Mikey was making shots past me he looked the happiest I’d seen him in some time, despite the haircut.
‘There’s this butcher in town,’ I told him as I caught a lob he’d tried to put past my head.
‘Aye. Asking questions.’ I threw the ball back.
Mikey caught it on his stomach. ‘What sort of questions?’
‘Asking questions like, how come I go in there so often and that.’
Mikey didn’t answer me, just tried to send the ball low across the ground. It collided with the stove.
‘Doesn’t that worry you?’ I asked.
‘He’s probably just taking an interest.’
‘I think he knows. Might recognise me. Maybe the family resemblance or something.’
‘How could he know?’
‘He handles meat for a living Mikey. He knows who’s lying.’
We got bored of the football soon enough. I tried to lie on the grass and have a sleep, but Mikey was too restless. He rolled around on the ground, pushing his head into the earth with frustration. ‘I’m so bored,’ he said. ‘Bored.’
‘I know. I am too.’
‘But you don’t get it. I’m really fucken bored.’
‘You think I’m not bored?’
He shook me to make me open my eyes.
‘But Paul,’ he said. ‘I’m really bored. Could we maybe, like, I don’t know, go into town tonight?’
‘Go into town for what?’
‘Perhaps, like, the pub or something…’
I closed my eyes again. ‘Forget it,’ I told him. ‘It’s not happening.’
Mikey had been obsessed with the idea ever since we’d arrived. The bus had stopped in the village’s main square and he’d spied this lassie, standing outside the pub, smoking, her heel up on the wall.
‘Maybe we should stop in there,’ he’d said. ‘Get some directions and that.’
I’d told him to forget it then as well.
I panicked when I woke up and Mikey was gone. I checked in the tent for him, reasoning he’d maybe nodded off himself. Nothing though. He wasn’t down at the burn either. I found him on the far side of the hill, facing the road. The four-wheel drive was back, parked up in its passing place.
‘Look,’ he said when he heard me approach.
I put my hand on his shoulder. ‘Stop fucken pointing at it,’ I hissed. ‘Wave.’
I tightened my hold on his shoulder. ‘Wave,’ I repeated.
The pair of us waved down at the motor until it pulled off and down the road. I turned on my heel and marched back up to the tent. Mikey was in hot pursuit.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked as I began to sort out the stuff for dinner. We were having rolls with cold meat.
‘You know fine well what’s wrong. Standing there gawking at the car like that. It’s like you want us to have to move on again.’
‘What’s that you’ve got? That ham, is it?’
‘Aye Mikey. It’s ham.’
He nodded. ‘It’s always ham.’
Our routine for the evenings was that we would have our rolls or whatever we were having for tea and then when the sun went down behind the mountain we would put our jumpers on. Mikey would get to work, winding up the torch and the radio and once the sky was completely black, then we would allow ourselves to crack open the lagers I’d bought in the morning.
‘Ah,’ said Mikey as he took his first swig.
The beer was warm of course but it helped pass the days to have something to look forward to in the evening. Some nights we played cards, other times we had a go on the travel Monopoly board Mikey had brought along. It was important that I didn’t always beat him at Monopoly, as otherwise he’d become fractious and sour.
Mikey rolled the tiny dice and moved his Scottie dog. He landed on one of the reds. ‘Your turn,’ he told me.
‘Don’t you want to buy that? It’s a good property.’
‘Nah. I’m saving up for the big tickets. Park Lane. Mayfair. Those are where the real money is.’
I felt myself want to explain that he would have to get a bit of cash in his pocket if he was to have any chance of building on either of those properties, but I stopped myself. I would just end up upsetting him. He proceeded to go around the board five times without landing on either of the spaces he was waiting for.
I looked down at my pile of property cards. ‘Shall we just pack this in?’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘OK then.’
‘You’re pissed,’ Mikey told me.
It was late and he was right. You could hear the murmurs of night beyond us – the burn curdling, grasshoppers and swallows fizzing.
‘I am pissed.’
‘No, but you’re really pissed.’
‘I said I was, didn’t I?’
Mikey was walking around in the darkness in front of the tent, kicking his legs out and squatting from drunkenness. I suppose he never got the opportunity to build up his tolerance during his teenage years.
He giggled. ‘Whatever you say Paul. I know when you’re pissed, and you’re pissed. Here, how many cans have we got left?’
I check the bag. ‘One each,’ I said and threw his last one out to him.
‘Cheers big ears. Did I ever tell you what we used to drink inside? At Polmont?’
‘No, you didn’t, but I don’t want to hear about it.’
He wasn’t listening. He was balancing the can on the back of his hand and attempting to drink it like that. ‘The older lads used to put orange juice from the canteen in a bag and hide it in the cupboard.’
I put my fingers on the tent’s zip. ‘If you’re going to talk about that then I’m going to sleep.’ I couldn’t bear it when Mikey talked about being on the inside. When he first came home and used to talk to Mum about it I would have to slip upstairs.
‘All right. Sorry. We can talk about something else instead.’
He ran his hand over his fresh scalp. ‘What do you reckon’s on telly right now?’
‘I don’t know. What time’s it? Back of eleven. Maybe a film or something?’
‘I think it’ll be a documentary that’s on.’
‘Something about Africa.’
We finished our final two cans and undressed inside the tent. Mikey wore an ancient Metallica T-shirt to bed. It was frayed to smithereens under the armpits. I just wore my pants. We crawled into our sleeping bags and I switched off the torch.
‘What’s the plan for tomorrow?’ Mikey yawned.
‘Same as always, mate.’
‘Mm. Maybe we could try walking up the mountain again.’
The last time we’d tried climbing the mountain we had only walked for half an hour before Mikey started to complain about his feet hurting. ‘Maybe,’ I said.
I was somewhere between dreaming and awake when I heard the footsteps outside the tent. Footsteps and ragged breathing. Mikey sat up and I put my hand over his mouth. Whoever was outside was messing around with the rubbish bag. They were opening it up and rustling its contents.
‘Shut it,’ I whispered, directly into Mikey’s ear.
The shadow of whoever was outside fell over the sleeping area. It poked something into the gauze.
‘Hoi,’ they said. A man’s voice.
I felt my brother lick his lips beneath my hand and I tightened my grip on his muzzle. He would want to answer back, I could tell.
‘I know you’re in there. There’s a pair of boots out here. I saw the two of you earlier on. Hello?’
Mikey closed his eyes. I had him right up against my chest, smelling the heat of his scalp.
‘Fine. Well. This is my land. You can’t stay here, it’s not allowed. If you don’t clear off I’ll call the police.’ A long pause, and then, ‘It’s not allowed.’
The voice trailed off and I let go of Mikey. Once I was sure the man had gone I slumped back onto my sleeping bag.
‘Jesus,’ said Mikey.
‘What’re we going to do?’
What were we going to do? I couldn’t risk the man poking around again. What if he spotted Mikey? ‘We’ll maybe have to move on. Find a new spot.’
‘Really? But I like it here. We’ve got the burn and those sausages are dead nice.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Maybe since we’re clearing off and you cut my hair and that, we could pop into the pub for a swift pint before we go?’
I didn’t bother to answer him, just wound my neck up in the sleeping bag and forced myself to sleep.
We woke up to a barrage of rain on the tent, every drop a tiny explosion on the inside. I could tell Mikey was sitting up, awake, without having to open my eyes.
I said, ‘Have you left your boots outside again?’
‘Aye,’ he sighed.
We got dressed in silence and peered out of the tent’s opening. The sky was bruise coloured and water ran over our noses and into our beards. Mikey’s boots were lying in a puddle of caramel water, curled and wrinkled.
‘Have we got enough cash for another pair?’ he asked, streams of water distorting his features.
‘Don’t know,’ I said, bringing my head back inside to look for my own pair. ‘Maybe.’
The ditch that ran alongside the road to town had become waterlogged. So had the handful of potholes I had to step round on my way down. I stopped outside the butcher’s shop, on the other side of the road. Rain fell on the hood of my anorak and through the swirling water that cascaded down the shop’s windowpane I could make him out, behind the counter. He to-ed-and-fro-ed, busying himself with joints and racks and sides. The odd flicker of redness through the smears of rain – that was blood.
The butcher paused and looked through his window, right at me. Neither of us moved. He looked out for ten, fifteen seconds and then was away again, chopping and slicing.
So that was how he was going to play it, was it?
‘All right,’ I said to myself and headed for the square.
There was a shoe shop there. No one was on the till but they were open so I let myself in and made my way to the small display of men’s boots near the back. Mikey would want something cool, something motorbikey, but that was outside of our price range and the shop only seemed to stock hiking boots. I selected a pair that looked comfortable with good ankle support and took them over to the till, ringing the brass bell on the counter.
It took the owner a long time to arrive. She was a wizened old thing, the sleeves of her cardigan stuffed with a lifetime of handkerchiefs. She looked me up and down.
‘What?’ she croaked.
‘I was looking to buy some shoes.’
‘We’re not open yet. Didn’t you read the sign?’
I looked over my shoulder. There was no sign on the door. Before I could comment she went on. ‘But never mind. Never mind common courtesy. Pass them here.’
She rang the boots up on the till and asked for the money. My stomach dropped when I checked my wallet and saw how much we had left. Mikey’s boots would eat up the lion’s share of the cash I’d taken from our mother.
As I went out into the rain, pulling up my hood, the old woman muttered after me, ‘Some people.’
What were we doing to do? The cash we had would barely last us another week. I would need to find some sort of work, that much was clear. Maybe I could get some part-time hours in one of the village shops. Maybe I could join the roster of teenage girls that the Spar seemed to work their way through so quickly.
There was no chance I was going back to the butcher shop, so I ducked into the Spar again. It was quiet and I selected my produce in record time. I bumped into an old friend beside the meat chiller though. I was examining a pack of bacon, wondering whether we could fry it in our tiny pan, when a chubby, red-haired hand crept across my eye line.
The butcher was loading himself up with pack after pack of sausages. It took him a moment to notice me.
He said, ‘Oh.’
I looked from his face to the basket of sausages. ‘Hello,’ I smiled.
He looked at the sausages too. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘It’s all right…’ I started to say, but he interrupted me.
‘Had a bit of an issue with the fridges across the road. You’ll know about that better than most,’ he laughed.
‘Never mind,’ I said and watched him scurry away. He glanced back at the end of the aisle to give me a dirty look.
I paid for the supplies and was getting ready to face the rain again when I spotted the classified adverts by the door. Handwritten postcards for people selling golf clubs and pedigree puppies and used wedding dresses. I scanned the board until one of them caught my eye.
Strong young men wanted for tedious labour. Must be physically able and moderately conscientious. Minimum wage, no benefits. Contact Duncan Weddle on…
I slipped the card into my pocket, not wanting every other fucker in the village with working legs applying and spoiling my chances. The rain eased up as I was coming out of town and I began to sweat buckets inside the anorak. The car was gone from outside the wee house so I took my chances and jumped the fence into the garden. From what I could make out through the back windows it was a nice enough place. A dog whined from somewhere inside and the garden had a view of the mountains. They were a patchwork of peat and stone, smears of moss and long steps of dead rock.
I would let the owner make the next move. If he was so keen to move us on he would have to do it himself. He didn’t know who he was getting himself mixed up with.
My rating? ♥♥♥♥
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