He sits at his desk, grey with fear and the weight of this momentous step which, once taken, cannot be taken back. Like time and death.
The pen trembles in his hand as he writes.
This has been on my mind for some time. I know most people will not understand why, especially those who love me, and whom I also love. All I can say is that no one knows the hell I have lived through. And these last weeks it has become, simply, unbearable. It is time for me to go. I am so sorry.
He signs his name. The usual flamboyant scrawl. Illegible. And folds the note, as if in hiding the words he can somehow make them go away. Like a bad dream. Like the step he is about to take into darkness.
He rises now, and looks around his room for the last time, wondering if he really has the courage to go through with it. Should he leave the note or should he not? Will it really make any difference? He glances at it, fallen open now, and propped against the computer screen where he hopes it will be obvious. The pain of regret fills his heart as his eye follows the looping letters he learned to write all those years before when his whole life still lay ahead of him. A bittersweet recollection of innocence and youth. The smell of chalk dust and warm school milk.
How pointless it all has been!
When Fin opened his eyes the interior of the ancient stone dwelling which had sheltered them from the storm was suffused with a strange pink light. Smoke drifted lazily into the still air from the almost dead fire and Whistler was gone.
Fin raised himself up on to his elbows and saw that the stone at the entrance had been rolled aside. Beyond it he could see the rose-tinted mist of dawn that hung over the mountains. The storm had passed. Its rain had fallen, and it had left in its wake an unnatural stillness.
Painfully, Fin unravelled himself from his blankets and crawled past the fire to where his clothes were spread out across the stone. There was a touch of damp in them still, but they were dry enough to put on again, and he lay on his back and wriggled into his trousers before sitting up to button his shirt and drag his jumper over his head. He pulled on his socks and pushed his feet into his boots, then crawled out on to the mountainside without bothering to lace them up.
The sight that greeted him was almost supernatural. The mountains of south-west Lewis rose up steeply all around, disappearing into an obscurity of low clouds. The valley below seemed wider than it had by the lightning of the night before. The giant shards of rock that littered its floor grew like spectres out of a mist that rolled up from the east, where a not yet visible sun cast an unnaturally red glow. It felt like the dawn of time.
Whistler stood silhouetted against the light beyond the collection of broken shelters they called beehives, on a ridge that looked out over the valley, and Fin stumbled over sodden ground with shaking legs to join him.
Whistler neither turned nor acknowledged him. He just stood like a statue frozen in space and time. Fin was shocked by his face, drained as it was of all colour. His beard looked like black and silver paint scraped on to white canvas. His eyes dark and impenetrable, lost in shadow.
‘What is it, Whistler?’
But Whistler said nothing, and Fin turned to see what he was staring at. At first, the sight that greeted him in the valley simply filled him with confusion. He understood all that he saw, and yet it made no sense. He turned and looked back beyond the beehives to the jumble of rock above them, and the scree slope that rose up to the shoulder of the mountain where he had stood the night before and seen lightning reflected on the loch below.
Then he turned back to the valley. But there was no loch. Just a big empty hole. Its outline was clearly visible where, over eons, it had eaten away at the peat and the rock. Judging by the depression it had left in the land, it had been perhaps a mile long, half a mile across, and fifty or sixty feet deep.
Its bed was a thick slurry of peat and slime peppered by boulders large and small. At its east end, where the valley fell away into the dawn mist, a wide brown channel, forty or fifty feet across, was smeared through the peat, like the trail left by some giant slug.
Fin glanced at Whistler. ‘What happened to the loch?’
But Whistler just shrugged and shook his head. ‘It’s gone.’
‘How can a loch just disappear?’
For a long time Whistler continued to stare out over the empty loch like a man in a trance. Until suddenly, as if Fin had only now spoken, he said, ‘Something like it happened a long time ago, Fin. Before you or I were born. Sometime back in the fifties. Over at Morsgail.’
‘I don’t understand. What do you mean?’ Fin was filled with confusion.
‘Same thing. Postie used to pass a loch on the track between Morsgail and Kinlochresort every morning. Way out in the middle of bloody nowhere, it was. Loch nan Learga. So one morning, he’s coming down the track as usual, and there’s no loch. Just a big hole where it used to be. I’ve passed it many times myself. Caused a hell of a stir back then, though. The newspaper and television people came all the way up from London. And the things they speculated on . . . well, they seem crazy now, but they filled the airwaves and the column inches of the papers at the time. The favourite was that the loch had been hit by a meteor and evaporated.’
‘And what had happened?’
Whistler lifted his shoulders then dropped them again. ‘Best theory is that it was a bog burst.’
‘Which is what?’
Whistler made a moue with his lips, his eyes still drawn to the slime-filled basin of the disappeared loch. ‘Well . . . it can happen when you get a long spell without rain. Not very common here.’ He nearly smiled. ‘The surface peat dries up and cracks. And as any peat-cutter knows, once it’s dry the peat becomes impervious to water.’ He nodded towards where the giant slug trail led off into the mist. ‘There’s another loch down there, lower in the valley. If I had any money, I’d put it on this one having drained down into the other.’
‘Most of these lochs sit on peat lying over Lewisian gneiss. Quite often they’re separated by ridges of something less stable, like amphibolite. When the dry spell is followed by heavy rain, like last night, the rainwater runs through the cracks in the peat creating a layer of sludge above the bedrock. Chances are that what happened here is that the peat between the lochs simply slid away on the sludge, the weight of the water in the upper loch burst through the amphibolite, and the whole bloody lot drained down the valley.’
There was a stirring of air as the sun edged a little higher, and the mist lifted just a touch. Enough to reveal something white and red catching the light at what must have been the deepest part of the loch.
‘What the hell’s that?’ Fin said, and when Whistler made no reply, ‘Do you have binoculars?’
‘In my rucksack.’ Whistler’s voice was little more than a breath.
Fin hurried back to their beehive and crawled inside to find Whistler’s binoculars. When he got out to the ridge again, Whistler hadn’t moved. He continued to stare impassively at the hole where the loch had once been. Fin raised the binoculars to his eyes and adjusted the lenses until the red-and-white object came clearly into focus. ‘Jesus!’ he heard himself whisper, quite involuntarily.
It was a small, single-engined aircraft, cradled among a cluster of boulders, and lying at a slight angle. It appeared to be pretty much intact. The windows of the cockpit were opaque with mud and slime, but the red and white of the fuselage was clearly visible. As were the black-painted letters of its call-sign.
Fin felt every hair on the back of his neck stand up. RUAI, short for Ruairidh, the Gaelic for Roderick. A call-sign which had been in every newspaper for weeks seventeen years before, when the plane went missing, and Roddy Mackenzie with it.
Mist lifted off the mountains like smoke, tinted by the dawn. It was perfectly still. Not a sound broke the silence. Not even a birdcall. Fin lowered Whistler’s binoculars. ‘You know whose plane that is?’
‘What the hell’s it doing here, Whistler? They said he filed a flight plan for Mull and disappeared somewhere out at sea.’
Whistler shrugged, but made no comment.
Fin said, ‘I’m going down to take a look.’
Whistler caught his arm. There was an odd look in his eyes. If Fin hadn’t known better he would have said it was fear. ‘We shouldn’t.’
‘Because it’s none of our business, Fin.’ He sighed. A long, grim breath of resignation. ‘I suppose we’ll have to report it, but we shouldn’t get involved.’
Fin looked at him hard and long, but decided not to ask. He pulled his arm free of Whistler’s grasp and said again, ‘I’m going down to take a look. You can come with me or not.’ He thrust the binoculars back into Whistler’s hands and started off down the hill towards the empty basin.
The descent was steep and difficult, over broken rock and hardened peat made slick by grasses washed flat by the rain. Boulders lined the banks of what had once been the loch, and Fin slithered over them, struggling to keep his feet and his balance, using his arms to stop himself falling. Down, down into the bowels of the one-time loch, wading through mud and slime, up to his knees at times, between rocks he used like stepping stones to cross the vast depression.
He had almost reached the plane before he turned to look back and see Whistler following just a few yards behind. Whistler stopped, breathing heavily, and the two men stood looking at each other for almost a full minute. Then Fin glanced beyond him, up through layers of peat and stone like the contour lines on an ordnance survey map, towards what just twelve hours before had been the shoreline. Had the loch still been there, the two men would have been fifty feet underwater by now. He turned to cover the remaining yards to the plane.
It was canted at the slightest of angles amid the shambles of rock and stone at the bottom of the loch, almost as if it had been placed there by the delicate hand of God. Fin was aware of Whistler’s breathing at his side. He said, ‘You know what’s weird?’
‘What?’ Whistler didn’t really sound as if he wanted to know.
‘I can’t see any damage.’
‘Well, if the plane had crashed into the loch it would be pretty smashed up, right?’
Whistler made no comment.
‘I mean look at it. There’s barely a dent on it. All the windows are intact. The windscreen’s not even broken.’
Fin clambered over the last few rocks and pulled himself, slithering, up on to the nearest wing. ‘Not much rust in evidence either. I guess it must be mostly aluminium.’ He didn’t trust himself to stand on the treacherously slippery surface of the wing, and crawled on his hands and knees towards the nearside cockpit door. The window was thick with green slime and it was impossible to see inside. He grasped the handle and tried to pull it open. It wouldn’t budge.
‘Leave it, Fin,’ Whistler called to him from down below.
But Fin was determined. ‘Come up here and give me a hand.’
Whistler didn’t move.
‘For Christ’s sake, man, it’s Roddy in there!’
‘I don’t want to see him, Fin. It would be like desecrating a grave.’
Fin shook his head and turned back to the door, bracing his feet against the fuselage on either side and pulling with all his strength. Suddenly it gave, with a loud rending like the sound of tearing metal, and Fin fell backwards on to the wing. Daylight flooded the interior of the cockpit for the first time in seventeen years. Fin scrambled back to his knees and grabbed the frame of the door to pull himself up to see inside. He heard Whistler hoisting himself on to the wing behind him, but didn’t turn. The sight that greeted him was shocking, his olfactory senses assailed by a stink like rotting fish.
The fascia below the windscreen arched across the cockpit, a mass of gauges and dials, glass smeared and muddied, interior faces discoloured by water and algae. The passenger or co-pilot’s seat, at the nearside, was empty. The red, black and blue knobs of the throttle controls between the seats were still visible, drawn back to their idle position. The remains of a man were strapped into the pilot’s seat at the far side. Time and water and bacteria had eaten away all the flesh, and the only thing holding the skeleton together were the blanched remains of tendons and tough ligaments that had not decayed in the cold-water temperatures. His leather jacket was more or less intact. His jeans, though bleached of colour, had also survived. His trainers, too, although Fin could see that the rubber was swollen, distending the shoes around what was left of the feet.
The larynx, ears and nose had all lost their structure, and the skull was plainly visible, a few strands of hair clinging to the remnants of soft tissue.
All of which was shocking enough to the two old friends who remembered the young, talented, restless Roddy with his shock of fair curly hair. But what disturbed them most was the terrible damage inflicted to the right side of the face and rear of the skull. Half the jaw appeared to be missing, exposing a row of yellowed broken teeth. The cheekbone and upper part of the skull were smashed beyond recognition.
‘Jesus Christ.’ Whistler’s voice came to Fin in a blasphemous breath.
It had only taken a moment to absorb the scene exposed by the opening of the door, and Fin recoiled involuntarily almost at once, banging the back of his head against Whistler’s shoulder. He slammed the door shut and turned around to slide down into a sitting position against it. Whistler crouched on his hunkers looking at him with wide eyes.
‘You’re right,’ Fin said. ‘We shouldn’t have opened it.’ He looked at Whistler’s face, so pale that pockmarks Fin had never before noticed were visible now, the result perhaps of some bout of childhood chickenpox. ‘But not because we’re desecrating a grave, Whistler.’
Whistler frowned. ‘Why then?’
‘Because we’re disturbing a crime scene.’
Whistler gazed at him for several long moments, dark eyes obscured by confusion, before he turned to slither down off the wing and make his way back towards the shoreline, climbing steadily out of the crater and back up towards the beehives.
‘Whistler!’ Fin called after him, but the big man didn’t even break stride and never looked back.
Excerpted from The Chessmen by Peter May. Copyright © 2013 by Peter May.
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