By Stephen Thom
Unst, Shetland Isles
The woman drove and the old man slept beside her. The single-track road was dotted with passing-places. Hemmed by fields. Beyond them cliffs dropped away and water glistened. Giant sea-stacks rose like ancient maritime totems, white-caps frothing at their bases.
Skibhoul Stores. They pulled into the petrol station forecourt. The woman stroked the old man's shaven head until he woke, spluttering. Wind stung their cheeks as they emerged from the car. She held his arm and guided him over to the store entrance.
The bakery section. Rustic fare: bannocks, water biscuits and oatcakes. The woman filled paper bags. The old man stood beside the counter, sniffing and blinking. The attendant watched him. Stared at the faded, spiderish tattoos on his knuckles.
The woman moved down the aisles. The attendant coughed.
'Cold night,' he said.
'Pinnishin,' the woman nodded, looking round. 'But he does like his paper. And his oatcakes.'
The attendant looked at the old man. He was drooling. His neck was twitching, sporadically and softly. He looked back down the aisles. The woman had a large pile of stuffed brown bags inside her basket.
'He certainly does,' he said.
The barn was nestled in a copse at the end of a long dirt track. The old man slept in the car. Wind rustled the treetops as the woman slid a key into the padlock.
The interior stretched up to a peaked gambrel roof, locked in place with heavy wooden beams. Clumps of moldy hay littered the floor like collapsed, plague-riddled scarecrows, and sharp links of chicken wire mesh unfolded over wooden cells to the left and right. Behind these makeshift screens, men, women and children lay on mattresses.
The woman walked down the centre of the barn, shaking the brown bags.
'I have oatcakes.'
Faces pressed against the wire. The woman approached a cell. She placed the paper bags down and shrugged a backpack from her shoulders. The young woman on the other side of the mesh eyed the bags.
'Medication first, Linda,' the woman said.
The young woman held her hand out through a circular gap in the links. She accepted a tablet and a bottle of water.
'You have to work tomorrow, Linda,' the woman said. 'You have to come home tonight.'
The young woman's eyes lit up.
'Work,' she slurred.
The woman knelt down amongst the hay. She passed oatcakes through the gap.
'We will migrate again,' she said. 'Would you like that? The second gate. There will be lots of work to do.'
The young woman ate fast, cramming oatcakes into her mouth.
'The second gate,' she said, crumbs falling from her lips.
The following week, the attendant looked up as the bell above the store entrance tinkled. The woman walked in. The old man tottered beside her, clasping her arm. The woman collected a basket, placed a newspaper in it, and wandered off down the aisles. The old man lingered by the counter. His fingers worried the edge of the wooden partition separating him from the attendant. His neck jerked.
'Two sides,' he mumbled. The attendant placed his phone beside the till and leaned over. The old man's lips smacked.
'Two sides of a black hole,' he breathed.
The attendant swallowed. He heard a soft pitter. Saw the piss stain running down the old man's trouser leg. He bit his lip and stood up.
'Excuse me, miss, I - '
The old man screamed.
A crisp breeze brushed over the hills. Two children crossed a small wooden bridge. With some difficulty, they swung a gate open and ran up a series of timber steps, seeking a better view of the waterfall.
A sparkling rush of water cascaded over the embankment. They stretched their gloved hands through gaps in the fencing lining the pathway, giggling as the water fizzed over them.
Their parents waited whilst they picked their way carefully back down to the gate.
Elizabeth Mina was seven years old. She held her little sister's hand as they navigated the sloping path. Kirsty was six.
Their dad knelt and swung his backpack off. He twisted the top off a bottle of water and offered it to Kirsty. She gulped gratefully. Her mum fussed about her, tugging the zipper of her jacket up. Elizabeth was already running down the path spoking away from the gate. Kirsty wriggled away from her mum and raced after her sister, arms flapping inside her puffy jacket.
Their parents walked a short distance behind as the girls took a right-hand fork through a tunnel of trees. The path wound down to the old railway, passing into the Dava Way. The route linked Grantown and Forres, veering by Dallas Dhu distillery on the way.
The girls crunched past the disused railway line, snapping twigs and kicking pine cones. The path climbed up through sparse woodland between two rows of wire fencing. A stile to the left offered a seat, and a viewpoint overlooking the town.
Their parents lagged further behind as the girls passed through two sets of gates and continued climbing. The path grew narrower, weaving through mixed woodland and large juniper bushes. A rickety wooden sign pointed towards the top viewpoint. The girls heard shouts drifting up.
'That's far enough! Wait there!'
Elizabeth turned to Kirsty. Their cheeks were red beneath their bobbled hats.
'Race you to the top,' she said.
Kirsty turned, her wellies scuffing dirt. Her little button nose poked out above her scarf. Her voice was muffled beneath the wrapping.
'We should wait for mummy and daddy.'
Elizabeth looked back down the path. Kirsty shivered as a breeze coursed through the trees. They heard more shouts. Saw their mum and dad round a corner. Elizabeth smirked.
'Last one there's a rotten egg!' She said, darting off.
Kirsty stamped her wellies and tripped off after her sister. The path climbed steeply and the tree thinned, clumps of grand pines. They hit the crest. The view opened up and hills rolled away around them. A small wooden sign with a plaque affixed named the surrounding mounds. Elizabeth stood proudly beside it as Kirsty struggled up.
'Smelly rotten egg,' Elizabeth chimed.
'... not a smelly egg,' Kirsty wheezed, her gloved hands splayed, balancing her. Dribbles of snot ran down her fulcrum.
They looked round. Tendrils of mist threaded over the hills and stark treelines beyond. They heard their mum's calls carrying up to the crest, whipped and distorted by the wind, spectral and crystalline.
'I'm cold,' Kirsty said. 'I want to go back down.'
Elizabeth smiled and took her hand.
'Let's go back down,' she said.
The path twisted as they descended. It veered away in different directions. The girls were chilly and done with the walk. They were thinking of dinner and the fireplace. Ice cream on Sundays. Trees gathered around them, branches bound, and at some point - without realising - they became disoriented.
They passed the railway line again but the perspective was all wrong - the path was unfamiliar and they appeared to be on the other side of the tracks. Tree-clad rocky crags loomed in the distance. Their parent's voices had disappeared. Kirsty was sniffing furiously and Elizabeth felt pangs of panic. She held Kirsty's hand tighter and tried to refind her bearings.
They will be just round the corner, she told herself.
'Come on,' she said, mustering authority. 'It's not far.'
'Maybe we should stay still,' Kirsty said. Her red face was scrunched up and unhappy.
Elizabeth tugged at her sister's hand, pulling her along.
'It's not far,' she said. 'We have to keep going, we can find them.'
Stars slipped out like pinpoint piercings in the black, as if some sparkling, transcendent plane of existence was struggling behind the dark cloak. The girls struggled towards a large metal gate ahead. Beyond it they could see stacks of wood and timber. Piles of grass clippings, hedge trimmings, weeds and leaves. Cardboard boxes and other rubbish.
'It's a dump,' Elizabeth breathed.
'I want to sit down,' Kirsty said. She had been very quiet the past while.
'We're not lost,' Elizabeth said, turning. Her face was red and tired, and her hands flapped briefly, frenetically, in chorus. The line of the River Spey was visible through the trees, glistening between trunks. 'We have to keep going. They're not far away. We're not lost.'
'We are lost,' Kirsty moaned. 'I'm tired. You're always telling me what to do.'
There was a misty shine in her eyes. Rain beaded down. Elizabeth placed an arm around her sister's shivering shoulders. She felt sure.
'Come on,' she said, leaning down and pressing her face close. 'It's not far.'
Kirsty wiped her sleeve across her nose. She looked deeply unhappy. She stumbled slightly as they pressed on. Beneath them, the river sparkled in the moonlight.
'I'm tired,' Kirsty whispered. 'I think we should sit down.'
Elizabeth felt exhausted as they climbed past an old bench. She was worried about Kirsty and distraught that she was wrong. Keep going. It felt right.
They were lost. She knew they were lost. She was wrong. They were going to be in so much trouble. She was going to be in so much trouble.
Branches sliced through the night sky above them and the river was dappled with iridescent lights, little votive offerings in the darkness. She was leaning down to wipe Kirsty's nose again when they saw their mum just ahead, on the bank by the river. She was with another woman, a stranger. The other woman was wearing a police uniform.
She was thinking oh dear when she was swept up into a tight hug. Kirsty was already in her mum's arms and they were all pressed tightly together. Her mum was crying.
Oh dear, Elizabeth thought. I was sure.
They turned away from the river and walked towards a fence, another wooden gate. Beyond the gate Elizabeth could see a police car and more people in uniform. She could see her dad. He looked very annoyed.
The car was very quiet on the way home. Kirsty fell asleep beside her. Her mum was doing that talking-under-her-breath thing and her dad was nodding gruffly, sighing. She fidgeted, rubbed and clicked the tips of her fingers, and kept her mouth shut.
The sky outside the window was inky and strange. The world seemed a different place, a scary place.
Her dad looked at her in the rearview mirror. He looked tired, stony-faced.
'Elizabeth,' he said.
She looked down at her lap.
'Elizabeth,' he said, sharply. 'Look at me.'
Her head jerked up and she stared straight ahead, avoiding the eyes in the mirror.
'That's not looking at me. Elizabeth, look at me.'
Her eyes widened and she gazed at the back of the headrest in front of her. Her dad sighed.
'You should have stayed still,' he grumbled. 'You shouldn't have kept going.'