Bleak North - Photos, Stories and Reflections from the Highlands

The Island

It was growing dark as he left the camp site. He could hear the sound of the others preparing for the evening festivities. There was a quiet murmur emanating from the area, quite indecipherable beyond the clutch of tents. All meaningful sounds were contained, as if by a hidden barrier which prevented their intrusion into the expanse beyond. Only the occasional shout, laugh, call or brusque instruction flew over the barrier and, laser-like, broke the grip of the gathering wall of darkness.

 

Someone had lit a fire in the heart of the site, Richard probably. He was the practical one, the organiser, the self appointed leader. Very soon now its glow would eradiate a circle of space in which faces and figures would appear and disappear, brought into focus and then lost as they approached or departed. Richard, of course, would be at its heart. His face and torso would be caught in flattering profile and his quick wit and ready quips would entice to his side the lovely Emily and the rather less appealing Jennifer. Josh wouldn’t be far away. It was hard to tell whether Josh was illuminated in his own right or merely, moon-like, basked in the reflected glow of his hero and leader.

 

They would remain, these four, a nucleus by the fire, as the other appeared for a moment and accepted their share of the spotlight and the warmth. At other times, ghost like and barely identifiable figures would drift at the edge of the light, mere shadows, warmed, eradiated, enlightened only as the elite group drew focus upon them and deigned to recognise their presence as it touched upon themselves.

 

It was strange how the light scarcely brightened the small, hunched circle of life. Yet here, on the beach, with the waves curling toes against the cold sand and sighing with childish anxiety, the light and the faces were clear and distinct.

 

He could see them but they could not see him. They obviously hadn’t noticed his absence. He felt a momentary loneliness not untouched by pride. The night closed around him and the distance between him and the fire seemed to grow immeasurably.

 

It was not surprising that they had not drawn any particular attention to his absence. He had withdrawn himself more and more over the last few days. No-one would really question his departure, even at such a time, when night was falling and a sharp chill made the stars brittle and sharp and the waves unwilling to penetrate any further upon the cold shore. His breath misted his vision.

 

He turned his back on the fire and walked cautiously along the edge of the water.  He could still clearly see the curve of the bay where the shore became rocky. It rounded towards a causeway which crossed to the island. The island rose rather than loomed ahead. In the full darkness it would acquire a menace that at present was merely a prospect.

 

A few solitary oystercatchers expressed unnecessary alarm and fled past to settle some distance behind him. Three gulls shuffled nervously but declined to give way and eyed him cautiously as he slipped past. Thin slivers of silver wavelets slipped shyly to caress the cold lips of beach.

 

As he approached the rocky causeway he could see the solitary pools left by the retreating tide. In daylight he might have scrutinised them closely for strange life lingering among their weeds and stones. Now, however, he was conscious of the need for haste. Later, the moon would rise and his route back would be clear. For now, it was important to cross the slippery, treacherous pathway with a degree of careful urgency. The tide would only withdraw its protective guard for a brief period, snatch a couple of hours of restless sleep just beyond the island edge and then, refreshed, surge back.

 

It would not do to be caught on the island overnight.

 

He sighed with a vague regret. Hurrying on meant leaving things undone, places unvisited, opportunities missed. He shook the thoughts away and concentrated on maintaining an uncertain footing on the slippery rocks and the fronds of slimy green seaweed.

 

It was not a long way to the island – perhaps no more than seventy or eighty metres – but it took several minutes of concentrated attention. It was not until he reached the shingle shore and clambered onto the neat, rising path, which wound upwards to his left, clinging to the edge of a gradually steepening cliff that he paused and took in his surroundings.

 

The stars were clear tonight. Over the sea the last lingering glow of sunlight illuminated the under belly of the low clouds and suffused those higher in the sky with a soft blush. It would vanish in moments; the sun had already declined further engagement with the day and was hurrying, with barely a backward glance now, beneath the distant horizon. The blanket of sea finally rose over its head and it slumbered.

 

He stumbled slowly on, his breath coming faster and misting heavily before his face. The lingering shock of pink thrift that lay across the cliff was visible only in dark outline, its colour available only to memory; the blue, timid squill was lost underfoot and lay quietly, unnoticed. Strange, he thought, that in the day you barely noticed anything else. The flowers, the close cropped grass, the white foam and the varying blues and azures and emeralds of sea and sky, created an image so saturated with colour that he had been unable to resist the urge to throw himself on his back and breathe in time with the waves of warmth they blew over him.

 

He had spoken of it when he got back to the camp.

 

‘It was almost like religion,’ he said. ‘For a brief moment, until some physical discomfort disturbed me, - an insect, a stone in my back, an itch, - I felt as if I had been absorbed, as if I belonged. Do you know what I mean?’

 

‘You’re a poet, Guy, that’s the problem,’ Emily ventured.

 

Richard glanced at him. Guy couldn’t tell if the look was scornful, pitying or simply expressed contemptuous bewilderment. Richard didn’t speak and busied himself placing stones around a makeshift fireplace. Nonetheless, Guy was strangely aware that he was not so preoccupied with his task that he did not hear or heed their conversation.

 

Richard was not of a contemplative nature. His opinions, where he expressed them, were generally the received opinions of others. If he exhibited any originality of thought it occurred within carefully delineated boundaries. His radical views, which were generally aired some time after they had become accepted but still retained some of their freshness, were of a customised but conventional nature. He basked in the glow of the adulation he received without ever taking the risks of originality.

 

‘What, pray, did you feel you belonged to?’ Josh asked cautiously. He tried to adopt an ironic tone. He was unwilling to commit the indiscretion of betraying his own motivations until he was certain how Richard would react.

 

Guy motioned uncertainly to the sky, the sea and the land. He was uncomfortably aware of Richard’s eyes on him.

 

‘This!’ he said, ‘Whatever this is.’ He paused before he continued. ‘For a brief moment I actually stopped thinking. I just was; I just existed……. And I felt more real than I have ever felt.’

 

‘Like you actually had a purpose and a direction even though you weren’t going anywhere,’ murmured Andrea, dreamy, cautious, shy Andrea, the bookworm, the artist, the dreamer. ‘We’re always looking for somewhere to go,’ she said, ‘something to do – a purpose. The trouble is that there is nowhere to go and there is no purpose, not really.’

 

‘We’re just passing time …….’ Said Guy, ‘until ……..’

 

Richard clashed stones together as he set them in place. Finally, he spoke.

 

‘Just listen to yourselves!’ He snorted with laughter. ‘Of course there’s no point! That is the point, in a strange sort of way!’ He laughed at his own joke. ‘So you just keep busy, keep moving, keep doing things… We – us – we are all there is! If you step outside of that, well……..’ His voice died in an uncomfortable silence. ‘There’s nothing outside,’ he finally said. ‘There’s no point looking.’

 

‘So you wouldn’t want to just stop, like Guy did?’ asked Andrea. ‘Just stop and listen?’

 

‘No!’ said Richard firmly. ‘I just want to enjoy each day as it comes, suck every ounce of pleasure out of it and then move on to the next …….’

 

‘What would you hear, if you did stop?’ persisted Andrea. ‘What would be your experience, I wonder?’

 

‘Back ache and an urgent need to get on with something,’ laughed Josh. He had found his tone, ‘And the sound of blood rushing to your head!’

 

‘Exactly,’ confirmed Richard. ‘It’s better not to listen. There’s nothing to hear out there; it’s just endless vacancy, an empty universe, a silent drum beat echoing in eternity.’

 

He stood up and walked away.

 

They were all silent.

 

‘I don’t like how small I feel sometimes,’ murmured Guy, ‘just a pin prick in an empty sky, a bacteria, something invisible even to the strongest microscope. I guess, - over there on the grass, in the sunlight, with the flowers and the sea, - I just felt a little bit bigger for a moment ……….’

 

The conversation concluded.

 

Now, on the island, pinpricks of light were slowly taking their regular positions in an empty sky, vast beyond imagining yet so small that in the darkest night they created barely a trace.

 

‘I wish ….. ,’ said Guy to himself, his breath drifting, white clouds, and the chill air glazing his eyes with moisture. ‘I wish…….’ His thoughts floundered with his feet on the dark earth.

 

His breathing grew heavier as he trudged up the final ascent to the highest point of the cliff. The land dropped slowly and then precipitously to where the surf broke almost silently against the rocks below. He clambered a few yards further to where a single rocky outcrop leaned over the cliff. There was no sloping safety net here, just a tumbling, bouncing, cracking, breaking plummet onto the rocks below. The wet rocks shone now with the first light of the full moon’s clear morning.

 

Guy stood on the edge and felt his boots hold to the precarious rim. He gazed out over the sea. In the distance the regular beam of the mainland lighthouse pulsed across the sea. He counted, marking its passage and the sequences of its lights. Further along the mainland shore another beam, with another pulse lit the sky. The source of its light was beyond sight. He watched and found a distant third and a more distant fourth, each with its own pattern and identification, conflicting, coinciding, following and leading the others as their pulses changed.

 

Guy watched them for a while, trying to anticipate when two beams would coincide. He sat on the edge of the cliff and, with care, allowed his legs to dangle in the void. After a moment, he lay back and breathed slowly and deeply. His eyes took in the immensity of space above him. At first he tried to identify the different constellations and stars – Cygnus, Casseiopea, the Pleiades cluster, Orion - but after a while his mind drifted away and his simply gazed. More and more stars, more and more and more and more, further and further, a sky so full of dancing light and yet with more emptiness even than the mass of meaningless humanity that danced on the surface of the Earth.

 

He felt it again, momentarily, just as before amid the warm flowers. Everything seemed to cease moving just for a moment and he felt strangely happy. Minutes passed.

 

Then it was gone.

 

He clambered to his feet. He suddenly remembered the causeway. He had been gone far longer than he had planned and now hurried in the increasing moonlight directly from the headland along a broad, grassy path down towards the shore.

 

He was too late. The slumbering tide had awakened and had resumed its labours. Where the pools, the slippery seaweeds and the rocks had previously hampered his progress he was now separated from the far shore by a silent, silver rink of water. The causeway had slipped back beneath the waves.  

 

‘Damn!’ he murmured. ‘Damn and damn again!’

 

It would be six hours now before the tide would withdraw and he would be released. He was suddenly very conscious that he was completely alone on the island.

 

‘How strange!’ he murmured again. ‘I don’t think I have ever been as alone as this before. I can’t even communicate with people if I want to. My isolation was once matter of choice; now, it is a condition of my predicament.’

 

He smiled grimly to himself. He was not sure he liked it. However, he had little choice but to turn back. He did not want to remain by the shore. That would be like waiting for an appointment and the time would pass tediously. He would find himself watching the level of the water against a particular stone and marking its gradual progress towards revelation.

 

He headed instead towards the high cliff, pausing where the direct path crossed a stone wall near some ancient sheep pens. There was a ruined cottage silhouetted against the sky to one side of the path and another beyond it. He was tempted to pass beneath a low doorway and find shelter from the night. One glance, however, discouraged him. He would find more favour on the thin covering of grass in a gully near the headland. There he would find some shelter but he would also have the sea to look out at and the lights to follow. If he found a suitably comfortable spot he might even attempt a period of sleep if the cold permitted.

 

However, he had time to pass and he proceeded first towards a part of the island that he had not yet seen. Here the grass slipped gracefully down towards the shore and the moonlight found an echo in the placid waters of a tiny, sandy bay. He sat above it and watched the play of moonlight on surf.

 

For reasons he could not grasp, his thoughts turned to Richard.

 

‘He would busy himself building a shelter,’ he smiled, ‘from old rocks and driftwood. He might walk laps of the island – see how many before the causeway cleared. He’d have a fire in no time.’

 

He heard a solitary redshank call from the shore below and, caught momentarily in the moonlight the mermaid head of a seal protrude from the sea and then, with a soft splash, vanish to her other world. He found himself wondering what the world of shore and sky, of stars, moon and silver light, looked like from below those waves.

 

The soft silver light faded for a moment as a solitary cloud, which appeared to have lost its way and been separated from its colleagues, crossed the moon. The stars took advantage of the absence of superior brightness to demonstrate their worth.

 

‘Like Andrea,’ he laughed, ‘And me, perhaps?’; this latter rather more gloomily.

 

The sun re-emerged. He lay back in the lea of the slope and pulled his collar tight. Fortunately he carried gloves and a hat in his pockets. He also had a chocolate bar; it was not much but it was better than nothing.

 

He was not tired but, lying so still, with the stars brightening and multiplying under his gaze and the comforting roll of the surf providing a restful accompaniment of sound, he soon found himself breathing gently and slowly. He slipped into a light slumber.

 

He never lost awareness of the sounds around him, nor of time’s slow passage, but he was surprised to suddenly awake and find the moon had risen higher into the sky and the patterns of stars had slipped imperceptibly from their earlier positions. He heard rustling sounds behind him on the grass. Perhaps that was what had awakened him.

 

He rolled slowly round to watch, lying still on his front. It was rather unnerving to feel that, believing himself completely alone, he had slipped into an incautious doze only to be awoken by the distinct sound of other life – even life as small and as unaware as the tiny rodents, voles he thought, which rustled and snuffled in the thin grass and slipped back and forth to tiny holes he had previously failed to see.

 

He saw one, dark eyed, hunched, urgent and attentive, scent the air, twitch tiny whiskers and slip away. He watched as another came into momentary focus, found some item of interest, chewed, swallowed and, vanished. Another approached more closely than its peers. It stopped a metre away as if suddenly aware of a presence, a shadow, a ghost. Its tiny body flickered with caution and anxiety. It turned and fled to its burrow.

 

‘Afraid of monsters and things that haunt the darkness,’ thought Guy.

 

He was surrounded now by specks of life, stretching beyond sight, just beyond the radius of fear that his unseen presence seemed to create. He was uncertain at that moment whether to rejoice or to despair. Specks of light and specks of life and the hush of the surf, barely stirred by a slender breeze, - these were the extremes of time. There he lay, partly participant and partly detached observer. It scared him, appalled him; he wanted to cry out and break the stillness. He wanted to do something, to crack the brittle fear that held him.

 

‘There’s no point! That is the point!  So you just keep busy, keep moving, keep doing things………..’ Those were Richard’s words.

 

But moving, acting, shifting – that was just masking what he could now see. Beyond the actions was the darkness, the emptiness and the despair. It was these that he had to face. This was the burden he had to carry. This was what lay beneath; he needed to see it, to know it.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by another sound. The creatures heard it too. In a mere second they were gone, hearts beating, eyes watching, their senses alert, into the darkness and mustiness of their tiny burrows. Above them they heard a heavy footfall, a rumble of vole thunder. Something had passed over them; Passover. Fear for the first born.

 

 Guy was momentarily overcome by an irrational fear. The sound was so unexpected his mind took a few seconds of near panic to record the footsteps for what they were. He had become accustomed to being alone.

 

Before he was sufficiently collected even to turn and look, Richard had passed several metres above him, heading towards the high cliff where Guy had sat some hours previously.

 

Richard!

 

Richard?

 

What demon had entered the soul of this master of coldly rational, practical action and allowed him to pass beyond reason and out onto the island at night? What inexplicable lapse had caught him unawares and separated from the land he knew, his friends, his fire, his tent? Nobody would question Guy’s capacity for such a feat of misguided forgetfulness. They might even expect it of him. Richard, however, was of a different mix.

 

Guy was left to consider two very different possibilities. Either it was a rare aberration that was unlikely either to be heard of or to ever recur, or it was a conscious action. In the latter case, it might even be the case that he had followed Guy for some reason. However, he considered this latter possibility most unlikely. They had never been the closest of friends.

 

Guy sat up. Richard had passed beyond the brow of the rise that led towards the cliff and which had hidden Guy and afforded him some shelter. He stretched his legs, aching now from too long a time in fixed positions, and drew himself to his feet. He clambered up and followed hurriedly until the cliff edge came into sight.

 

Richard stood, perched on the very edge; he stared out to sea, to the lighthouse beams, to the oily sea rippling strangely silver in the moonlight. He listened as the surf breathed without rest and the breeze moved indifferently the grass and thrift around his feet. From where he stood, Guy could see the lights reflected, shining in his eyes.

 

Richard heard his movements and harsh breathing and turned to see Guy, a dark apparition, rise before him. Guy stopped. He was suddenly alarmed. Richard seemed suddenly shrunken, suddenly helpless; his eyes were wild and fearful. His lips curled in a weak smile.

 

‘Empty,’ he whispered, ‘it’s so very empty.’ He laughed a strange, private laugh.

 

And he stepped forward and the darkness, which should have curled round him and held him, opened wide its indifferent arms and let him fall.