A Highland Reunion By David Micklem

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The road up to Gavin’s house winds through pine forest so deep I squint to make out the way after the brightness of the drive along the lochside.  Tarmac becomes a gravel track, crosses a cattle grid and zigzags up through the trees before opening out onto the moor. Huddled beneath a stand of oak, the farmhouse looks out over the wooded glen and the black mirror of the loch.

I’d memorised the directions he’d emailed along with an attachment containing an aerial photograph of the house. My first time here, beyond the reach of the car’s satnav, but the place looks familiar. I’ve imagined Gavin here. The two of them.

I stay in the car for a moment, to prepare myself. It’s been a long drive from the airport and I’ve had hours to think about this but I’ve been bewitched by the scenery, the great glen, the moor, all of it under a clear blue sky. The engine fan cuts out and it’s only when it’s stopped, I realise what silence really is. The car windows are down and there isn’t a breath of wind, not a sound.

I’ve known Gavin since before I can remember. On and off. Off mainly, for the past fifteen years, since he moved up here with his girlfriend Rona. But, when we were kids at school, we did everything together and I guess you’d say he’s my best friend. If best means longest. Or that bond you feel that doesn’t require much to rekindle, even after years apart. That’s what I hope as I release my grip on the steering wheel. I want to feel that connection again, despite all the years and everything that’s passed.

The last time had been in London, five years ago, more. We’d been out for dinner at some flashy new place in Soho that Rona had suggested and that I’d paid for. Japanese fusion, apparently, and Gavin and I had drunk saké and beer and after Rona left for their hotel, we went to a whisky bar and I must have got a taxi back to my ex-wife’s place but all I remember is waking up on the velvet sofa in her front room feeling like I’d had an operation that had gone badly wrong.

We keep in touch, Gavin and I, by WhatsApp. Months will pass and then he’ll send me a picture of a deer or clouds reflected in a loch or a bottle of whisky he thinks I might like. And I’ll send him pictures of fresh graffiti on the wall at the side of my house or a mattress dumped in a front garden that someone’s spray painted with the word ‘comfy’. Things like that to remind the both of us that my life is pretty shit, despite the money, the travel, the girlfriends, the things I get to do.

Suddenly he’s on the track up ahead, waving with both arms like there’s been an accident or there’s a helicopter coming in to land. His hair is going grey, but it’s still thick and I reach around for the baseball cap that’s on the back seat.

“Gav! Dude. What’s up?”

He’s got that smile and stops on the track with his hands on his hips. He looks weathered, slim, like he works hard.

“Mate. Good to see ya.”

His mock Australian to my fake Californian. I’ve missed him and he looks like he’s missed me too.

We hug and hold each other for a moment longer than either of us finds comfortable.

“Mate,” he says again, and then, ‘you got here ok? My directions alright?”

“Aye,” I say, Scottish now. “The turn at the wee burn. Spotted it first time.”

He seems content with that. That his directions are clear and that I’ve managed to get here on my own ok.

“Lovely spot Gav. The pictures don’t do it justice.”

“We like it,” he says, a broad grin across his face. “C’mon. I’ve got something to show you.”

We walk briskly up the lane, shoulder to shoulder, and it’s like we’re kids, working out some game together. He shoulders me and I knock him back, walking fast like either one of us could break into a sprint at any moment. Couple of kids coming home from school.

“Easy tiger!”

We’re on the moor, a huge barrel of land that drops away on all sides. I spin to take it all in, that sense of being on top of the world.

“This all yours?”

“Uh-huh,” he says. “Mine and Rona’s.”

I nod as if there’s more to his answer, something hiding in plain sight. I know Rona’s away, a few months on Shetland with her mum who’s in a home and by all accounts doesn’t have long left. Gavin had told me this in an email and it had helped me commit to coming up for a long weekend, the knowledge that he’d be alone, that we could have some proper time together.

They’ve been a couple for years and I like Rona well enough. I dated her a few times, when we were much younger, before she and Gav got together. She’s got a good soul and I sense that she’s good for him, that they’re good together, but the idea of getting to spend some time with just him is what I really want, I feel I need.

“How’s Rona’s mum?”

Gavin does this thing with his jaw which I reckon means she’s near the end.

“Rona ok? You speak to her?”

“Everyday. I’ve got a phone you know.”

“Aye pal. Just askin’.”

`”She’ll be right. Made of tough stuff, Rona. It’s good she can be with her mum. Look.”

He points to the ridge and a line of slate in the peat. As we approach the land begins to flatten and there’s a wall of glass set into the bank.

“Little hobbit house,” he says. “Just finished.”

It’s a single open plan room with a bed and a bath and a door to one side that I’m guessing houses a toilet. Up against the glass is a telescope on a tripod, angled towards the heavens.

“Pretty basic. Water’s from the spring, heated by solar. Tripled glazed. Wood burner in the corner. Rona operated the digger and cut the footprint out in May. Six weeks for the build.”

I wish I’d seen that. Rona operating the digger. I know I can be down on her, blaming her for Gavin’s lack of communication, my sense that he’s cut me off, what I perceive to be his loneliness. I never imagine her busy like that, contributing something urgent, physical, to their lives up here. I tend to think of her curled up in socked feet, a mug of herbal tea cradled in her palms, and I think I’ve slowly grown to resent this version of her that I carry around. I think of her draining Gav of something essential, not restoring, radiating, but perhaps I’m being harsh, I’m wrong.

“I’d like to have seen that. The digger.”

“Got a load of pictures on my phone. Took one every day from just where you’re standing. Made a film of it going up. I’ll show you. Later.”

“This is great Gav. What a view.”

“Pretty special huh? Thinking of doing Air BnB. You can make out the coast on days like this. Look.”

There’s something turning over inside me. I’m not sure if it’s just the car journey, itself stunning, and only recently come to an end, the twists and turns and now walking around in the still brightness of it all. Or something else. I realise I’m clenching my fists and have to make a conscious effort to relax.

I feel strangely disappointed that Gavin has told me nothing about this until now. Like it’s a secret he and Rona have been harbouring all to themselves. I realise it’s somewhat shattered the image I’d constructed of them both, locked away in their windy old farmhouse, the rain lashing the windows and not much else. I think I’d wanted to believe that they were bored or unhappy, maybe. For all the dogshit and spray-paint and mouldy old mattresses, that I was the one that was busy, that was doing things, having adventures, living my life.

“Did this all yourself?”

“Pretty much. Had some trouble with the composting loo at first and Rona had to get this guy from Oban to come and take a look. But otherwise yeah. Like I say, it’s pretty basic and we were lucky with the weather.”

I’m standing with my hands on my hips and I need a whisky and a piss all at once.

“Mate, I’ve not even offered you a tea. C’mon.”

I use the composting loo and we walk back down the track. It’s strange to be like this, together, Gavin deciding what we should do and when. For so many years it was me who organised everything. Cycling in Majorca. Kayaking in France. Gav lived in Harrogate for a while and I’d invite myself over at a time that suited me and take him off hiking in the Dales, a glorified pub crawl. He’s always been solid dependable, but there’s a melancholy to him too that some people mistake as rudeness. He’s got this quiet intensity and I realise that even though I’ve known him almost all my life, I have no idea what he’s thinking when he’s silent like that.

And then as kids, maybe five or six, probably my earliest memories, sitting crossed-legged under the dining room table in his parents’ house, pretending to drive here, to Scotland, a book of roadmaps spread out across my knees. That’s perhaps the last time I remember him organising something, like this. We’d spend ages hunched over the map looking for a destination up north. And then I’d navigate all the way. Oxford to Scotland in about ten minutes, Gavin at an imagined steering wheel, screeching around corners as we wound our way up to the Highlands. We both made the sound of tyres skidding and lurched left and right as my finger traced the roads that zigzagged their way up the map. It’s funny, looking back. How in awe I was of him back then, driving us the length of the country with a couple of rucksacks behind us in the in the boot of our made-up car. He was confident, in charge. I have a vague sense of resenting him for making me read the maps, for never letting me drive, and I can’t believe I remember this now.

The farmhouse is a sturdy building, proudly facing the prevailing wind.  It’s not handsome but its position looking out over the forest and the glen to the mountains beyond is stunning. A rickety wooden fence describes a rough square containing a garden of hardy shrubs and trees and beyond that is blunt grass and peat, and sheep, I guess, although I can’t see any today.

“We thought we’d stick you in the attic,” says Gavin and I half expect to see Rona draped across one of the battered old chesterfields that form a semi-circle facing the hearth. “That ok?”

“Sure,” I say, taking in the open plan kitchen, the living room, the walls of books. A vast flatscreen TV fills one corner of the room and I realise this too hadn’t been part of how I’d imagined life up here. I’d pictured long cold winter nights and books being read by candlelight, the power down. But the bookshelves filled with DVDs suggest otherwise and for some reason this rankles. The ordinariness of it all.

“Cuppa?”

There’s a silent beat and my expression remains completely neutral.

“Scotch?”

“Dude! Now you’re talking.”

We chat. About the house, Gav’s consultancy. People we know. Simon and his cancer. We take another drink, and he shows me the room where Rona paints. The oak floor is spattered with colour and there are a dozen canvases in various stages of completion lent up against the walls. Abstract, the layers of paint like flesh and blood. Red and brown and orange.

Later, after a shower, I lie on the attic bed and contemplate the sky through the Velux window that fills the slope of the ceiling. Light blue has scrolled to a deep cobalt and I nurse a large whisky from the bottle I’d bought at the duty free at Glasgow airport. I’d planned to give it to Gavin but fancied a decent glass before dinner and opened it without thinking. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for weeks and now I’m here I feel strangely in need of some solitude, time to gather my thoughts, to work out what it is I have to say.

I’d only dated Rona for a couple of weeks, half a lifetime ago, more. And there’d been a decent gap before she and Gavin had got together. At the time I hadn’t given our brief relationship much thought. We were young and in and out of love and I was happy for them both. Happy that it was my introduction that had got them together. That without me, there would be no Gavin and Rona. That I had helped make them a couple.

I’d married young and it didn’t last. It ended spectacularly but since then Suzy and I have patched things up and talk on the phone every few months. About money, mainly. Since then, I’ve had a string of girlfriends. I’m not complaining but I find it hard to settle, to fall in love, to stay committed for longer than a year or so. As time has passed, I’ve become aware of something uncomfortable about how I feel towards others. And the two of them specifically. It’s like a weight in my bones when I’m around either of them. Hard and heavy and metallic.

There’d been one time after I split up with Suzy where we’d all been at a wedding in Dublin. It was a crazy weekend and somehow Rona had ended up back in my hotel room and Gavin was somewhere else and I swear none of it was planned. I think we’d taken ecstasy or coke or both and we were all hammered and now it all seems like a film that I only saw bits of, like when you’re really tired and you keep nodding off in front of the TV. She was in my bed in just her underwear, and I had no idea how she’d got there or what the hell was going on. She was making noises in her sleep, her back to me, and in that moment I wondered whether she’d come looking for me. Whether she wanted to rekindle something in the craziness of that wild night. And all I thought about was how that might teach Gavin a lesson. That she’d been mine first and that I would be the last to have her. How I wanted to tell him that it was me that she’d gone to, for sex, and that there’s nothing he could have done about it. In my drunkenness it was all crystal clear. ‘Sorry dude, but she came on to me. Off our heads we were. Sorry. You know how things are.’

I had no right to think any of this, I know, and I hate myself for remembering it now. I really can’t think what lesson he needed teaching or how I might possibly betray him like that, even when we were both so wasted. In the end I slept on the sofa in the hotel room and in the morning I called Gavin and we had breakfast together, our hangovers raging as Rona slept upstairs.

I’d been over it all again and again. Nothing happened but the thoughts that dogged me that night continue to prowl around, unwanted but unshakeable.

There’d been a couple of other occasions too. Always involving drink or drugs, and always when Gavin was around, and I wonder whether it’s me or her. Is there still something between us? Or is she just being affectionate, old friends, comfortable with each other? Or is she trying to make Gav jealous? I really have no idea and then last time I saw them together in London she was kind of aloof and I wondered if she could tell what I’d been thinking. Which is a good question. What the fuck was I thinking? Am I thinking?

Something smells good in the kitchen, and I realise I’m in danger of being rude, so I drain the glass of Scotch and head downstairs.

We dine on venison shanks and a couple of decent bottles of Australian red that Gav’s been saving for the occasion. The food and the wine are sensational and as the evening wears on I begin to relax, to find our old groove, the jokes, the catchphrases. The summer heat has gone and I light a fire, enjoying doing something to contribute to the evening.

Later, when we’re drunk, he suggests we head out to look at the stars. He throws some logs on the fire, puts the grate in place, fills my whisky glass to half full, and offers me a coat from the pegs behind the front door.

“You alright pal?” he asks, and I wrap my arm around his neck, his head in a lock.

“Aye pal! C’mon!”

We stumble back up the track to the hobbit house and Gavin drags out a couple of deckchairs from a store to one side. I slump into one, losing most of my whisky and Gavin wheels the telescope out onto the deck. He seems oddly unaffected by the drink, and I wonder if I’ve been going at it harder or if I’m out of practice. He said that he and Rona don’t drink much but I don’t think he’s had any less than me tonight. He’s bent over the eyepiece, turning thumbwheels, his free hand holding his glass. I lean back and the stars revolve until I blink and then revolve again, and I have to concentrate hard to still everything, to focus.

“There she is. Discipline and commitment,” and for a moment I think he’s talking about Rona. “You can see the rings really clearly. Wanna take a look?”

I should have drunk some water with dinner. And the large Scotch after the shower was probably a mistake. I feel angry, suddenly, that I’ve got like this, that Gavin might have noticed, and I stay still in the hope that the feeling will pass. I feel tense. I’m so used to being in control with Gav, to being the one who calls the shots, books the restaurant, makes stuff happen. Without me, he and Rona would never have got together and if that was the case who knows where he’d be now. I’d imagined him contented, up here with Rona. Books and their pastimes. Gavin’s slow progress on the house. Bits of work. Rona’s paintings. It helped me to think that they were ok, but only that. Not that they were thriving, that Rona was driving a fucking digger, that they were more than content. That they were happy.

The stars still and I take a long slow breath. The air is minty cool, sobering, and I make a sound that I think signals I’ve been contemplating the heavens, the majesty of this place, the quiet.

“Beautiful.”

I form the word with care and to my ears I sound sober, appreciative.

I want to tell Gav that I’m sorry. Sorry for thinking all these things, years ago and now, about him and me and Rona, and some competitiveness that might only exist in my head, in my imagination. I want to reassure him that there’s never been anything between Rona and me. That we dated and we’re friends, kind of, but whatever chemistry might have existed evaporated way before he started seeing her. I want to tell him that I appreciate the invitation, to come and see him, to eat great food and drink his wine and whisky and catch up. That he’s my best friend but sometimes I find it hard when I’m not in control. Like now, in his world. A world that appears far happier and more magical than I have ever known. And I want to tell him that it was ok that he’d driven up here, over and over, when we were kids, at the beginning of our lives. Me and him, side by side beneath his parents’ dining room table, my job to navigate a journey he already knew. Subordinate to his authority. His know-how, his command of the open road. I want to tell him that I love him, and that I find it hard to love myself and that I love Rona too and the life they have together and that I’m unhappy and lonely and although I have money and everything I want, I don’t really have what I need.

I get up awkwardly and grab the telescope with one hand.

“Easy tiger!”

I bend over the eyepiece and it’s like being punched in the eye socket.  I steady myself with one hand on the tripod and try to pretend I’m not hurt. I know I’ll have a black eye, a great bruise, and for a moment I wonder if perhaps that I is what I deserve. A moment of searing pain, a chance to reset everything. To acknowledge all that I want to say and how wrong so much of it would sound, out here in the open.

Gavin is sat in one of the deckchairs, leaning back, the moonless sky peppered with a billion stars.

“Mate,” he says.

“Dude.”

glasses

David Micklem

David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent Robert Caskie. This year The Broken Heart and A Highland Tale have been published in STORGY Magazine, The Witching Hour in Lunate, Crows was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2021 and The Hesitant long-listed for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. David is the former Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre and lives in Brixton in South London.

Details of previous publications and links:

The Broken Heart – https://storgy.com/2021/01/13/the-broken-heart-by-david-micklem/

The Witching Hour – https://lunate.co.uk/short-stories/the-witching-hour-by-david-micklem

Representation – Robert Caskie – https://www.robertcaskie.com/david-micklem

Twitter: @davidmicklem

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/david.micklem.9

Image by Thomas Ulrich on Pixabay

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