It was the peewits tumbling. Or maybe the unexpected swelling of the sun. In the glance up and the coming back to focus of my dazzled gaze he was there. I had walked these hills since I was a boy. There were more sheep then. Not so many now. Deer too, but even those numbers have long since fallen. People were always rare.
You read those stories of the old walkers, the lunches, views and pleasantries shared. Like all belonged. I imagined those meetings as an absence of self-consciousness. What a beautiful day. You can see all the way to the West. Like a painting. And it was always the West, never the East. ‘East is where we’ve come from,’ I would’ve said. ‘West is where we go.’ And the other person would nod sagely.
He sat thirty feet away on a lump of granite, grey hair wisping. But what do you really say when it comes down to it? Nothing. There is nothing to be gained from talking to a stranger in a winter glen three miles from anywhere. So I walked on, staring hard into the gunmetal sky to the birds that were no longer there. I had almost passed when he spoke. A foreign accent. ‘Polish’, the old women in the charity shop would gravely state, like an accusation.
‘What a beautiful day,’ he said.
He was smiling. ‘I thought I should say hello.’
‘Well hello to you too fellow!’ I said. Except I didn’t. That’s what a normal person would’ve said. I said nothing because I know it’s always better to draw a swift line under the unfathomable. Like a few years back and that wave of house repossessions. The ex-residents avoided the eyes of the sheriff’s officer and his fascista bouncers, skulking into their vans and leaving quick. I admired their acceptance of a brute fact, even if I knew they would never understand it. Unfathomable, like this sudden appearance.
I didn’t tell anyone, old and ever-present or the new that were ever-newer. The city wave was still rolling in. Seduced by those leering property shows, the Raeburnettes came with the reverence of the recently converted. They started clubs, sent round forms about community-led plans. You had to admire the sheer driven will to improvement. It was never likely they’d take long to find him, even if he hadn’t found them.
They’d shown a French movie at the village hall. Afterwards, they piled into the pub, so self-aware they might as well have been doing a blacked-up hokey-cokey. We were the regulars they wanted to be. A woman with wet lips was saying how it was quite funny that he’d refused to pay, but what was the point in calling the police for £1.50. I looked out the window and there he was by the loch shore. It could only be him she was on about. A band of late-evening light angled silver and he stood on the shimmering shingle, unmoving as we all watched.
Then it was Scaffie Dave, on about a Man in the Broch. He’d seen something out there, something in the spindrift. I thought about the time he saw a UFO drop golden packages in the midnight loch. Maybe hope dies with the last of trust or I’m just credulous, but I thought of a sudden smile in an empty glen.
The Broch squatted two miles out of the village, beyond the seaweed stretch and the velvety machair. Two crows mocked me from the serrated crumble. Thirty- feet above the entrance the walls had collapsed. Back in the days of the Heritage Boom five coaches a day stopped here, snap-happy tourists milling in the drizzle. You could still see the iron stanchions of the barrier fence that kept the kids from climbing.
How he got in I don’t know. Years back they’d put a heavy-duty padlock on the door. Why that had never gone walkies was a minor miracle. Everything gets snaffled in the end. Maybe everyone was simply glad to forget about the Broch, sick of the coaches and the gawping visitors. There’d been a lot of promises made back then, but the only given round here is eventual disappointment.
Now the padlock was gone. I squatted down to avoid the entrance-way timber and pushed open the heavy wooden door. He was sitting on a bright orange deck-chair under a green tarpaulin slung diagonal from the north-east wall to the ground. The fire-pit was ash-cold, a blackened kettle on the hand-made cooking tripod.
‘I don’t light the fire until later,’ he said, the accent thicker than I recalled. ‘So I cannot offer you some tea, my friend.’
My friend. I guess I should have remembered that but it took less than two pints to forget. It’s always been a problem of mine, like I can’t resist seeing if the possibilities in my head match what then happens. So I backed up Scaff, said there was someone camping out at the ruin, and lit myself a fag.
‘The fuckin Broch!’
‘He’s just another immigrant.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘Aye, remember the Vikings though, rape and pillage.’
‘The Beaker People, didn’t they live in the Brochs?’
A grey-haired retiree in a tight buttoned tank-top had been glancing over. He’d started coming in a month back, wary on a first Tuesday, a regular Wednesday since. ‘It was Iron Age people,’ he said.
‘There you go!’ Scaff triumphant.
Tank Top took the cue, expounding on ancient history for the next hour. Seems he used to lecture at university.
‘They just keep coming though.’
‘A virus with shoes.’
Jackie the Post had been sitting in silence. Now he opened his mouth to speak but finished his dram and left. Throwback Jack always marked his departure with a brutal last word. But nothing about the Man in the Broch.
I saw them together. The Man in the Broch had got a job at the rhododendron clearing down by the shore road. He was the only one who’d lasted more than a week in the hellish midges. They were standing close to each other, Old Jackie as animated as I’d ever seen him. Then a dismissive wave as he hobbled away. The Man in the Broch went back to stacking the geriatric limbs. Then the Raeburnettes were coming. The Munro Buggers was a new club and they glanced at him as they trooped past. Such a watchful distance.
The Broch had brushed up well. He’d cut back the weeds and bracken and dug up the iron stanchions. The rubbish was gone and he’d built a wee wooden bridge across the ditch from the car-park. His campsite was like a film-set.
‘He’s a grafter right enough,’ Scaffie Dave said.
‘Like you Scaff?’
‘They’re hard workers right enough.’
‘Bloody pointless if you ask me.’
The Man in the Broch moved on from the roddies. You’d see him on the shore, putting stuff in an old potato sack. Or he’d sit like an emaciated Buddha, exchanging a few words with whoever passed, whose glance back he never returned. He set up a trestle table outside the hall and sold rainbow-patterned pebbles that no-one bought. I liked that he wasn’t afraid to fail. All my schemes I imagined as total successes, so why bother going to all that effort when you’ll only be disappointed? Then he started selling bags of mussels.
‘Did you no get the shits?’
‘Did you eat the ones that were open before you cooked them?’
‘I thought they were the good ones.’
‘What a rip-off merchant, why’d he sell me those ones?’
Next he snagged a start with the Estate. It had come down with biofuel fever and planted 50 sodden acres with poplar and willow, a burst of entrepreneurial energy that carried more than a whiff of desperation. All winter the Man in the Broch built the perimeter deer-fence.
‘I mean would you be doing that?’
‘You’ve done nothing for near a decade. You’ve forgotten how.’
‘Still enough dole for a few bevvies,’ said Scaff. ‘I’m not wrecking masel on that hillside, he’s a fud!’
On Christmas Eve the Man in the Broch had his tarpaulin stolen. I didn’t hear until the Boxing Day drams. Not that there was much said. Jackie the Post just shrugged. I thought of The Travelling Man, who’d flogged rip-off DVDs every Friday evening for a year and then got jumped in the pub car-park. This wasn’t some vicious righting of a complaint about a shitey copy. Something wrong was heard, assumed, and that was that. It’s what was expected, and the expectation almost secondary to its inevitability. And when something can be called fate the responsibility disappears. I guess that’s how values begin.
I was brooding on this when a young woman placed a flyer in front of me on the bar. I think she was a new teacher at the primary. Our Future, Our Heritage, the leaflet said, shiny and bold. Like someone had taken care.
‘Will you be there?’ she asked, all earnest.
‘On summer mornings the gulls will cry like children and a storm is always brewing,’ I said, and she stepped back in surprise. Except I didn’t. I said ‘surely will’ and sneaked a look at her tidy arse.
There were posters put on lampposts too and come the event the hall was buzzing. A few wifies handed out scones, the men hanging back at the free bar. He-ri-tage. I remembered those three little syllables from the first time round. If you looked close you could see the ghost-shudder rippling round the hall, the collective memory of moist-eyed Americans searching for their roots.
Someone had run a museum in Dubai and knew what could be achieved. Someone said this would be good for all of us. We agreed the Broch was a heritage structure and the common property of all of us. We’d commission a cost-benefit analysis and a topographic study. A visitor centre was more than a possibility and that meant jobs. The issue was purely objective.
The rounds flowed that night. Forty-odd crammed the pub. The Raeburnettes felt like regulars and the regulars thought they were sound. A sweaty lawyer played the fiddle. Like the ceilidhs we should be having.
Old Jackie had long since left.
I got drunk. It was a down-soft night and there is no stillness like the West. I should’ve been walking the shore, holding pebbles up to the arc-glow of the moon, waiting without anxiety for the perfect smoothness.
The Man in the Broch was at his lazybeds. He’d started working the old ridges on the gentle hillside behind the Broch. There was only me there in the rain. Some might say it wasn’t becoming to watch. If anyone actually had then I wouldn’t have gone out there, it wouldn’t have been expected.
I stood in the car-park watching the cops pile out. There were eight of them. Water bubbled in the cracked tarmac. Tufts of grass and moss spread like green cancers. I saw nothing new in the smirr, nothing in the grey loch nor the distant, darker hills. All has already been, I realised, and there’s only novelty in rediscovery if you’ve forgotten. But I remember because no-one round here lets you forget. My ten-year old self could walk past on his way to the mackerel rocks and I wouldn’t even blink. All these roles we carry, all the bits of typecasting. The loch is a stage and the distant headlands the proscenium. And so our lines rolled in with the waves, the cops and I with our weather-based banalities that magnified to the point of safe embarrassment the avoided bleeding obvious.
They had a brand new van with riot grilles. They could see him up on the hill but didn’t call out. Just went straight up to the Broch, ducked inside and started dismantling everything. The Man in the Broch’s sleeping bag and kettle were flung on the ground outside. The pages of a few books slapped in the wind. But he didn’t turn round, just kept trowelling away at the wet earth, digging in the seaweed.
These things don’t take long. The yellow-bibbed cops left with blue flashing lights. A serious task indeed.
The Man in the Broch clapped a hand on my shoulder as he came off the hill, looking behind me. Jackie the Post had a canvas bag slung across his scrawny shoulders. He hobbled up to the Broch and slung it down, tugging at the new bright shiny padlock. I was amazed he could pick the bolt cutter up and god knows where he got the thing but it snapped the padlock like a twig. The Man in the Broch hurried across, raising his shoulders in a shrug which could mean acquiescence or annoyance. They stood very close to each other until Old Jack gave that dismissive wave and turned on his heel. He was a few steps away when The Man in the Broch called out.
They were sitting side by side on two sodden deck chairs when I left. If they spoke at all it wasn’t more than ten words. In a while they’d get the fire going. I saw the smoke from the road and imagined them eating biscuits and drinking tea, watching the steam disappear into all the other shades of grey.