Steve fell back onto the snow, cursing like the trooper he’d once been. From his horizontal disadvantage point, he kicked furiously at the defunct Land-rover, the sound of his boots against the unfeeling metal echoing eerily in the snow blanked silence. The tyre remained stubbornly attached to its axle, as if calmly mocking Steve’s desperate efforts to replace the pancake flat tyre were doomed to profound failure.
There were no ordinary failures up here in the Cheviot Hills, in the midst of a freeze of polar proportions and the most loathsome, spiteful winter for seventy years. Or so said the soothsayers at the Met Office, (but more tactfully), with a smugness that had had Steve launching himself at the radio for the past few nights. Weeks, actually. Bloody weeks in a hinterland of isolation and, increasingly, despair. The failures were profound in a landscape where the only shade was white, and the Cheviots brooded over Steve’s cottage with the immutability of long dead kings in their great sleep.
“God’s sake…” Steve lay there, the snow starting to seep into his less than waterproof coat, trying to find some expletive, amongst the so many in his repertoire, to express his long road to giving up, “ shit-house twat!” he finished, roaring into the silence, his breath spuming frosted smoke that crystallised before it had even left his lips. He closed his eyes, feeling the pounding of his heart against his ribcage as the constant reminder he was still alive; still alive in this place he had come to, three years previously, to find peace and the recovery of his sanity.
Haven’t done much of a job of it, though, have I? Steve spat the words, and the keening of his voice seemed alien to him, a separation of self and a reflexive locomotive response. He’d spent weeks at a time not speaking to a living soul, his dialogue contained, private even to himself sometimes. That was one of the things he hadn’t thought about, before he sealed himself off from the world and headed, literally, for the Hills; that his voice would become a stranger to him, an entity that croaked now and then, laughed with increasing, whisky driven hysteria, or exploded, like now, in a tirade of impotent fury.
Steve opened his eyes, gazed at the slate of the sky, that matched the colour of his pupils. Leaden, dulled, laden with gloom. And which he meant, sky, guy, he couldn’t care to remember any more. Slowly, his chest started to rise and fall, in jerky movements, until the laughter erupted like a boil lanced, no mirth, no joy, just rancid and bitter release into the silence. He was laughing because, guess what? It was snowing. Again. And again. And again.
He turned his head, looked at the vehicle, which had collapsed onto the rusting jack, nearly taking his fingers off. The flat tyre was giving him a clear as a bell message; that the essential supplies would have to last until he had the will, the energy, the desire to try again. And only God knew when that would be. This had been his fourth attempt to get the tyre off, frozen as it was, clinging on to its axle out of sheer malice, Steve was convinced. Essential supplies? There was a joke, if he remembered what one of them was. Instantly, his thoughts went to Cara. She came first, even in the whisky sodden nights of getting the shotgun from its cabinet, loading it, sticking it in his mouth. From a half starved, beaten, scar riddled hound, whom he’d rescued from a dog fight, and after leaving the Army and Afghanistan for good, Cara had become the bridge to Steve’s survival. Every bit of love and life left in him was hers. He hadn’t blown his brains out because of her. Sometimes, even though he adored her, he despised her for that.
He did a mental recce, as the snow started to come down heavens hard. Already, it had covered the vehicle’s bonnet and most of Steve’s body. If he rationed her without starving her, there was still enough food left for Cara before he had to even consider walking in this weather into Wooler, a good eight mile round journey. Thank the gods of sustinence for long-life milk, frozen bread aplenty in the freezer, and two bottles of Bushnells to drown in.
And there were still six shotgun cartridges left. Essential supplies all.
Steve was aware he’d have to move soon, or perish of hypothermia. It was tempting just to lie here, drift into the limbo then certain death from extreme cold. He’d seen men die of it, in the Hindu Kush, years ago. There was no drama, no struggle. Only, a sleep that became endless. So tempting. He sighed, not even feeling the bitter cold. The snow blanketed him with a devious caress, and gradually, his anger abated, the bleeding fingers congealed into scarleteen ice, and Cara barked furiously into Steve’s fading consciousness.
She barked and barked ceaselessly for nearly ten minutes, as Steve pretended he couldn’t hear her. She knew him. That hound knew him. And loved him. She wasn’t going to let the one person in the world, who gave a shit about her, die, lapped in a tomb of snow.
He could hear her wretched noise, her canine resuscitation attempts dragging him insistently back to the present.
“All right!” he roared at her, and at the sound of Steve’s voice, Cara flung herself against the long window of the living room, sealed in against the cold, as she had watched Steve trudge towards the Land-rover earlier, determination in his step. “All right, you hound from hell!”
Instantly, at the timbre in Steve’s voice, Cara stilled, head cocked to listen, waiting expectantly for everything that mattered to her to get up from the ground.
Go on then, lie on the ground and die like a rat. The voice came sharp and clear, making Steve sit up with a gasp of exertion and defiance. Yes, that would be his brother’s advice, he knew, James’ familiar and disapproving sneer swimming before Steve’s snow stung eyes. I’ll live just to spite you, then, Jamie; you and Pa can go to hell. No, on second thoughts, it’s nice and warm there (warm! Remember that? Christ!) – no, the two of you can go forth to the furthest regions of the Kush.
It was cold here, too. But at least here, there was no one to bark orders at him. Not that Steve had had orders barked at him for several years now. Correction…Cara started up her yarping again, and Steve held onto the Land-rover to pull himself upright. He gave it a withering look, seeing as it had some use, then, after all. “Yes, yes, Cara!” he shouted, rubbing the sting of ice from his eyelashes.
His voice set her off again. He knew she wouldn’t settle until he’d come back inside. He blinked, peered through the white smoke of breath and snow, at the rust coloured stone cottage. The place he’d loved, once. Now it seemed more of a tomb, riddled with nightmares and a dark veil of memory.
He turned, looked at the discarded jack, and reached down, pulling it out of the snow. He lifted open the back of the Land-rover, and the rusting hinges creaked in a resentment of protest. Flinging the the thing onto the various other tools and bits of junk, Steve slammed down the door and started trudging back to the cottage.
He suddenly felt freezing cold. His body temperature was evidently starting to rise again, and he began shivering uncontrollably. By the time he got back inside, Steve had convinced himself it was from the cold and the cold alone. Cara immediately launched herself at him.
“I’m here, aren’t I, stupid hound, Cara, okay, stop it!”
He crouched down, let her greet him from their separation of all of 40 minutes. She pressed her thick, squat paws onto his thighs, and they both toppled together onto the floor. Lying flat on my back again, Steve thought idly, as Cara balanced herself on his torso, all the better to investigate his absence with sniffs and licks.
“Enough, babe, that’s enough, come on.” Steve hauled himself upwards again, and Cara sprang back onto the floor, her tail wagging with vociferous adoration. “I know,” Steve crouched down, “me too, me too,” he whispered against the side of her head, and her warmth, her need for him, her love for him, seeped into his ice stiffened bones. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Steve flopped down into the armchair nearest the wood stove, brought the coffee cup to his lips, blew on the burning hot liquid. He glanced down, and couldn’t help roll his eyes. Cara lay supine, dozened by the heat of the stove, which glowed cheerily and defiantly against the press of the cold outside. The rug was thick and comfortable, and nights usually ended up with Cara and him lying together in front of the fire, sleeping until the cold awoke them, invariably around 3am when the stove gave up its final embers. She lay snoring now, an insistent but soft sound, like the drumming of summer rain against glass, aware of it’s sound but not minding a bit of it.
Steve sipped at the coffee. This would need to last too. He listened to the hiss of snow on the wood, a slither of a reminder down the chimney that outside of this cosy room, the world was held in the strange timelessness of a severe winter. He wished he’d put the radio on before sitting down; then, in the same moment, was thankful he hadn’t. He didn’t feel like shouting at it tonight, when the weather forecast bleated on about the obvious. Who gave a shit that this was one of the worst winters on record? Some prick in a nice warm studio in London, talking to some other prick about the recent gales and impenetrable snow storms which had blown in straight from Greenland, when the only thing that mattered was that it was cold and it was here to last. At least for the next few weeks. Never mind the weeks and weeks before that. Steve mentally thanked his hitherto absent lucky stars that he’d managed to get to Berwick to do a marathon of a grocery run. And yet, even as he’d wandered the supermarket’s aisles, being amongst people again, even in such an unsociable environment, had made him want to flee back to the Hills. Hills he’d loved all his life; scaled, climbed, wandered on. Hills that enclosed him now, their heather swathed beauty turned traitor by the miles and miles of endless silence. A loneliness of imprisonment.
Steve jerked awake, looking about him wildly for a few seconds. Everything was the same. Cara rumbled and dreamt, twitching silently on the rug like a dog from a 1920s silent movie. The stove glowed contentedly, the coal and the wood bound in a union of heat and soot. He rubbed at his eyes, yawned. He knew it might be wiser to crash into bed, but what was the point; he didn’t sleep, anyway. Careful not to disturb Cara in her dreamscaped wanderings, Steve stepped gingerly over her stolid body and went out of the room, into the kitchen. He flicked on the light and the fluorescent beam hummed and throbbed momentarily, like a trapped moth. With the sickly yellow glow illuminating the room, Steve pulled a whisky bottle from a cupboard, took a glass from the drainer, went back to the living room. Nature interrupted his plans for a moment, so he went to the bathroom to obey the one command he could never ignore.
He urinated, flushed the loo, pulled on the string of the mirror over the sink. The water ran boiling hot almost instantly, and Steve cursed under his breath. He turned on the cold water tap instead, washed his hands, glanced up at the mirror.
The cold water quickly chilled his hands, and he dried them absently on the towel as he stared at his reflection. It wasn’t an easy contemplation. Like everything else, the mirror seemed to challenge him into recognising what everyone else – Jamie, Pa, others – had always seen in him. An impostor, a renegade who pretended conformity, who had played at soldiers and imagined courage.
Looking back at him was Captain Steven Gerald Hunter, Northumberland Fusiliers’ finest. The eldest son of retired Brigadier Gerald James Hunter and older brother of Captain James Margrave Hunter. Formerly of Northumberland Fusiliers, you crock, Steve berated at his reflection, and as if to remind him, like he needed that, his left leg and hip struck up the throbbing ache that the previous freezing in the snow earlier that day had temporarily cured. The stick he’d been given, several of them, stood unused in the cupboard in the hallway. He preferred to limp, hobble sometimes when the pain was intense, than rely on any kind of crutch that didn’t smell of whisky.
The face peering at him in the harsh electric light was saturnine, but pallid from lack of sunlight and sleep. Steve stroked at his beard, turning his head this way and that, half remembering the smooth cheeked, stoic chinned looker he’d once been, in that parallel life when he’d been a good soldier, loyal friend, grafter. And an energetic, imaginative, caring, tender lover. He shook his head, making a sound that was half irony, half wistful memory. He wondered for the hundredth time if he should shave, but then the usual thought came quickly; what was the point? Besides, the dark beard he’d grown was another barrier he’d come to rely on. That, and its insulating effect against the penetrating cold. He yawned again, revealing strong teeth, with a gap to the right next to the incisor; knocked out by an enemy rifle butt. Still, that was the last thing the bastard ever did…
Despite his nose being broken twice, it had healed well and retained its refined shape. He’d inherited the long, imperious nose from his French mother, Claire, that and her ridiculously sentimental nature. According to Pa, anyway, and boarding school and military school had still not managed to knock it out of him. I left it to Jamie to be the insensitive shit of the family, Steve would insist to his father, whilst I kept the brains.
Some of the looks, too. Not on the scale of Jamie, good looking oaf he was, but more than passable, far more than that. Like his nose, the colour of his eyes resembled Claire’s, a slate grey-blue and clear, darkening in rage. And there’d been a lot of darkening. So much so, Steve was convinced his eyes were slowly changing colour, from grey-blue to black, obsidian in their lack of expression. Only anger got him going these days, rage and fury making him come alive again. If it wasn’t the Land-rover to piss him off, Steve found something else to render him hoarse from roaring at the Cheviot Hills, as if every shift of lava into rock formation was listening and gave half a toss.
He was about to switch the light off, when something made him stop, and stare at the mirror. He squinted, looked closer; grey, just starting at the brow line. His hair was so dark, most said black when it was actually darkest brown, so the single grey thread showed up with the audacity of an upturned middle finger. I’m 33 so mustn’t wonder at it, but he pulled at it, until he plucked it from its root. He lifted it to the light. Mortality. Bare and opaque in that single, listless strand of hair. It didn’t matter, of course it didn’t. Once, it might have, but not any more. No one to see, no one to care that age could inevitably creep up on the handsome, charming Captain Hunter, respected by his men, and desired by a few of them. Discreet, always. Despite the change in the law, the change in attitudes were coming a whole lot slower. And anyway, Steve liked to pretend he had never been turned on by danger. The cool thinking aspect of him knew what danger could really mean. Armoured vehicles were easily the fire torn graves of too many fallen comrades, to worry about feeling horny while on a tour and getting a nice, sloppy blow job.
With a final scowl at himself, Steve shut off the light and was plunged into familiar darkness.
Joe had fallen asleep again. You mustn’t do that, must you? At least, that’s what they said in movies and books; hypothermia kills. Don’t fall asleep, no matter how tempting. Do anything to stay awake, piss on your hands, bang your head against a hard surface, just don’t nod off.
But he had, and ironically it was the snow that had woken Joe up. About two days ago, he’d forgotten how great the clean, white-out of winter felt on his skin, on his senses. All he could think about now was getting inside somewhere before he died. It was that simple. Joe was a townie all right, but that didn’t make him stupid. And besides, he didn’t think it fair to die from naivety.
That fall some miles back was really kicking in now. Between the snow and the pain in his ankle, he’d woken up in the woods that had seemed beckoning of shelter. Now, all they seemed to be doing were surrounding him with his own sense of doom. The bareness of the trees, their stark and sober beauty, which had drawn him to them, from the blizzard, from the endless meandering over fields and tracks – and being chased by a bull the size of Lusitania – pressed down on his alert, imaginative senses.
“Fuck,” he breathed, and the soft sound of his voice was weirdly loud in the stillness. The blizzard had morphed into steady, heavy snow, melting on Joe’s skin, awakening him from a pain blurred sleep, when he’d slid, exhausted, spent, against a tree which was relatively sheltered by a steep dip in the woods.
Relatively sheltered. A key operative term. He’d wandered seemingly for miles in a Narnia-esque world, where Joe would have given anything for a friendly faun to appear with a tray of tea and hot, buttered crumpets. His stomach growled, backing that particular fantasy up to the hilt. By the time he’d tramped over fields and tracks, seeing the long line of white topped trees was like finding an oasis in the Sahel. Only, whilst there was plenty of water here, it was still as cold as anything Joe had ever experienced, and his stomach acids had broiled in his gut in despair of a hot meal.
Tentatively, Joe pulled off the sodden trainer, gasping with the pain. It shot like an electric current into his ankle bone, the movement making it contract and throb against Joe’s flesh and muscle.
His shriek echoed, sweat springing on his brow and upper lip, making the beard growth on his face itch mercilessly. Get a grip, Joseph, get a grip now. He drew off the saturated, thin sock to reveal his foot the colour of a bruised apple. Purple vied with flaring scarlet across his toes, his ankle quickly and dramatically swelling up once released from the painful but effective makeshift strapping of his trainer. Instantly, he knew he shouldn’t have done that. Jesus, I’m useless,he cursed, and gritted his teeth as he peeled the wet sock back over his foot, then pushed his toes into the trainer. The pain seared, made tears flood his eyes unbidden, and a pulse struck up a banging tempo in his head and his ankle simultaneously. Just a sprain, come on, get a grip…but sprain or break, either way, it was agony, and Joe gritted his teeth, as the trainer encased his foot again, feeling two sizes too small. He lay against the tree for a few minutes, panting through the agony, sweating and shivering.
Gradually, the pain became less agony and more excruciating, so he made his way upwards, tentatively vertical again. The tree’s trunk was slimy from ice that had melted against Joe’s body heat, and he gripped onto the sturdy lower branches that protruded, levering himself up with a shudder, cursing all the way. A wave of nausea hit him full on, worse than the one when he’d ran like a world class sprinter from the huge Minotaur two fields back, and he vomited bile and emptiness onto the snow. Another wave followed in sharp succession, making Joe’s stomach cramp from hunger and muscle clenching. He spat, swaying against the tree, a temporary lifeline, like a raft in an endless, tossing sea. Scooping snow into his mouth, he drank, rubbed some of it over his face, the back of his neck. Invigorating for a moment, but once the nausea had eased, the cold returned. With a vengeance.
He looked about him. So this was Northumberland, then. Land of castles, beaches, heath, moor and hills. Well, fuck you, Northumberland, fuck you and thank you very much, okay? Why were good ideas always born in pubs? Warm pubs? Pubs a gazillion miles away from the countryside and the endless vista of nothingness and snow and more snow.
Manchester seemed like it belonged in a parallel universe at this moment. Northumberland, taking on the aspect of a white-out of a bleached desert, bigger than the Sahel, mountains for sand dunes, water everywhere and not a drop of civilisation to get a drink from…
Okay, get moving. Joe picked up his back-pack, the material as sodden as the rest of his unsuitable, townie gear. His jeans clung to him tightly. Nice and sexy in a nightclub, perhaps, showing the lean strength of his body, but not so much here, in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, with darkness falling by 3pm. Trainers, useless. Waterlogged, squeaking and squelching with every step Joe made. A thin scarf, wrapped about his neck and lower face, gloves that displayed swollen, purple fingers, two sweaters beneath the thin coat, that were rank with sweat, making Joe’s torso stiff and awkward. Now the ankle. That really was the ki-bosh on the maddest plan ever hatched. Not that it had ever been a plan, no, that would have suggested a semblance of thought and foresight. More, a need to escape, quickly and without questions, and certainly without practicalities.
Joe attempted to let himself off the crazy hoo. How was he to have known that most of Britain would be held in the grip of the new ice age this year? Besides, Scotland at least had been his destination, dubious though it was; Kathleen’s flat was like paradise at the moment. Only, between Scotland lay one Britain’s largest counties, and one of the most rural. Spectacularly beautiful whatever the weather, Northumberland could and did possess a merciless beauty when you were mad enough to wander through its ancient lands with nothing more than a thin jacket and trainers, and a shed load of optimism. That had soon crumbled into the quick realisation for Joe that he was seriously in danger of croaking out here, in the silence of a winter that tolled a death knell for some far tougher than him.
He moved through the trees and frozen solid shrubbery, listening to the occasional ruffle of wildlife around him. He felt sorry for them, even in his own misery, wondering how anything could survive out here. For long. I mustn’t fall asleep again, and just keep going, keep going, something is bound to turn up; a barn, some outbuildings, anything, so I can lie down for a few hours. Hunger and pain, bad as they were, remained held in thrall by exhaustion. That, and the will to live. I didn’t get out of Manchester to die here, Joe reminded himself. I should have died there, a few times over. But I didn’t, and I’m still alive, and the sky is full of snow and ice, and I’m scared, but I’m alive. Keep going, Joseph, come on.
Gales had blown in once more from the far north, wanting to join in on the winter of fun. Steve ripped back the curtains, looking out onto the bleak early afternoon. The cottage was shaking in its foundations from the strength of the gusts. Cara whined insistently at his foot.
“If we freeze to death out there, it’s entirely your fault,” he told her.
No matter the weather, Steve had quickly learned that Cara loved her walks. He was almost certain she’d cruise it in a tornado. The next worst thing awaited them, as he encased himself in parka, zipped up the hood, only his eyes visible. The boots he’d brought with him from his Army days fit snug and secure, built to last, made to endure any kind of inhospitable landscape. Clicking shut the final clasp on Cara’s waterproof coat, he opened the front door to be greeted by a powerful gust, bringing with it gulping swathes of thick snow. Steve pushed on through it, Cara tightly secured by the harness around her barrel chest, and they emerged from the reasonable warmth of the cottage into a maelstrom of swirling elementals.
On instinct, Steve looked upwards. This was set in. The sky had shifted from its leaden phase to a near violet blue, clouds overloaded with enough snow to fill every glacial ravine and valley across the Cheviots’ range. Steve knew most of them. The Hills and the valleys. He’d walked them, in better weather, and sometimes he’d been able to strip, swim in the pools that dotted the landscape. The idea of it, of distant, benevolent springs and languid summers, seemed one borne of the lunacy of the hermit. Besides, I am one, am I not? This train of thought plagued him, the dichotomy of companionship and splendid isolation. After three years, Steve still hadn’t got an angle on exactly which one he wanted.
He followed the semblance of a route he usually did on their walks. Cara was in her element, the freedom of spirit she possessed a constant reminder to Steve that it was her that kept him alive. Muscle and sinew and tendon, in a brindle body that bore the strains and scarring of dog fighting and old neglect. She paused, looked at him with adoring brown eyes.
“You win…for a change,” he conceded, and let her off the lead. He had her usually to a word outdoors. He couldn’t afford to lose her in this weather. Or at all. Like the snapping of a thread, the lifeline to keeping on keeping on.
Steve watched her marshal the snow with aplomb. For a short, squat beast Cara had a fluid grace to her that belied her breed. She leapt over the snow, digging in, scuffling scoops of it backwards with her paws, barking with excitement and delight. She turned, in tight, fussy circles, tongue lolling impossibly long at the side of her mouth, her teeth sparkling in the clear, icy air; ran back to Steve, for his caress on her head, the benediction of his rescue of her unforgettable.
Cara leapt forward again, imagining herself a spring hare, and bounded ahead of him. She knew the drill. He let her rummage and explore, cresting ice topped hillocks to look around her at the vastness of her queen-dom.
Pushing the leash in his pocket, he retrieved a packet of cigarettes and lit one, his hand cupping the lighter. These weren’t rationed, but a part of him, likely his lungs, wished they were. He’d bought them hooky, a stash from a former Army acquaintance, packets and packets of the things. Steve was a steady smoker, so they lasted longer than the alcohol. The whisky was rationed. It was always rationed. Despite getting it in the same way as the tobacco, there’d been a lot of long, winter nights – and days – to get through. The whisky he’d had this morning warmed the lining of his gut. Just a tot, no more, to warm up the circulation before going outside. He’d started measuring the stuff with a precision he had once possessed but thought he’d forgotten. It was amazing how the training kept coming back.
Dragging on the acrid smoke, the world turned slightly woozy for a second. He took another drag, then another, and slowly the creeping anxiety that afflicted him most days began to recede for a while. Cara came back into view, leaping and carousing in the snow, glancing at Steve’s slow moving figure, the spark of fire at his lips, glowing with defiant beauty against the whitened world.
Buzzards circled above, their thin mewing redolent of young cats seeking their mother. Steve blew out smoke, upwards to greet them, and he observed without wonder the air turning crystalline. The raptors had come from the highest ranges of the Hills, to lower ground, questing for the more foolhardy of their prey; rabbits were in profusion here, and Steve had given up shooting them over a year ago. He missed the sweetness of their flesh, but guilt had choked him up enough to inspire indigestion at the thought of rabbit meat. He knew his old comrades would have either despised or pitied him, but the Army was a memory now, and the reality was a blood spattered creature, aborting her young onto Steve’s hands. He’d shot her, too good a target to miss. Coming upon her, twitching, bloodied, the misfire of the gun only tearing at her side rather than finishing her off. The young rabbits had spilled from her body with the ease of flowing water over stones. He finished her off with his hands, but her children had writhed and fluttered, encased in amniotic fluid, as their tiny lungs collapsed from too soon breaths. Steve had broken down, sobbing and retching with unnamed and unexplored griefs, crouching on all fours, paroxysms of weeping convulsing his body until there was no emotion left.
The memory came to him now, as it often did, when thoughts and ruminations were the only constants in his inner life. He’d never been able to let go and rage and weep at the sight of his men, his guys, lying blown to pieces on a dry dirt road with the sun and the flies their pall.
Cara came to him, snapping at his heels, her paws and ears soaked, her body warm and dry in the expensive coat he’d got for her. Only the best for her. Christ, she gave him everything in return…
“What you got, mutt?”
She dropped something at his feet, a small rock, and hell knew how she’d found it in this white-out. She had a nose for rummaging. Steve knew this, after she’d upturned everything in his sister’s house, once back in Britain. Andrea was stoic in the face of the chaos her brother brought with him; accentuated by the appearance of an emaciated, ugly looking dog with jaws the size of the canine equivalent of a bulldozer. Andrea had helped him move into the cottage, admirably feigning disappointment to see Steve and Cara leave, but she’d never been more happy to hire a cleaner in their wake. To clear away the detritus of Army life, and Army discipline and routine. To not have to listen to her brother shuddering with terror in the small hours, or to encounter him, gaunt, hollowed out from trauma, sitting in her kitchen, staring vacantly out of the window, a cigarette burning idly between his fingers.
Steve threw the rock, his cricket days of old at boarding school seeing him in good stead, as Cara hurtled along the rock’s aerial traverse. She lolled and rolled with the snow, undeterred by its thick impediment on her short legs, and went off barking into the distance again.
He’d stopped eating meat from the day he’d shot the doe. He’d dragged himself off the ground, then had covered the mess in front of him, that he had made, with fresh soil. The idea of eating meat since then made him retch, made him feel bloodless with a sickness he wasn’t ready to identify. He’d told no one. Pa would have observed witheringly what a strange son he had, and Jamie would have sent him a pack of frozen steak with a note telling him to stop being so gay.
It was meant entirely as an insult, hurled at him by Jamie since they were kids. Their father pretended not to know. It was more than he could bear, facing up to his own son’s sexuality. Steve was convinced that his father would have preferred him beheaded by the enemy than come out to him. The Army was getting its politically correct act together, but slowly. And anyway, it had never been an issue, screwing guys on a tour. There was more to think about than sex, although in its absence, sex was everywhere. Posters, stories, jokes, dirty letters from home, a simulation of desire that had the entire company howling with laughter. Steve laughed with them, joining in on the banter to the degree that was appropriate for his rank. None of them ever suspected the secret he carried with him. So what he wasn’t happily married with kids. Plenty weren’t. Steve had never wanted to bring to Afghanistan the memory of leaving someone behind he gave a shit about; or who gave one about him. It was too complicated. Too risky.
Walking was therapy. Steve’s counsellor, the fourth one he’d seen before telling them to shove it, told him to walk and think. He’d always walked, from boyhood, wandering and exploring landscapes were his thing, but thinking caused problems. Thinking allowed urges and needs and memories to filter through the barricade, until Steve came up with the perfect solution. Walk till he dropped. Till he was so shattered he couldn’t think of anything except putting one foot in front of the other. Cara had been a blessing, a willing participant in Steve’s indirect course of therapy. But today, lighting another cigarette, his legs felt stiff, heavy. 33 and crocked. That was the constant theme, even though he walked through pain, tearing up his left leg and hip like a set of cutting, shearing scissors. Out here in the isolation, he could fall, crash to the ground, arms flailing, without giving a damn. His left hip gave way on him without warning. It was the giver and taker of Steve’s mobility. Some days, he could move about, though in pain, without a single stumble. Other days, he had to gnash his teeth to keep moving through the pain, only to fall more than he was upright.
He’d only fallen twice so far this afternoon, but it was enough. The wind had started that banshee howling which portended another blizzard. Steve turned, saw the dim shape of the cottage over the crest of a series of hummocks. He knew the twist and turn of his landscape, but even so, he’d tumbled down in an explosion of expletives. The pain was grinding again. He needed to wash down the analgesia with smooth, smoky fire. A gust blew at him sideways, and he tottered, falling on his backside.
“All right, fuck this! Cara, Cara!”
She barked in response from a distance, impervious to the impending snow storm. The sky was a churning broth, redolent of the backdrop of every Norse saga retold, and Steve had heard plenty, Steve called to her again. She obeyed him, bounding towards him, momentarily disappearing in the snow, only to emerge, dusted with white, shaking it loosely from her body, to continue her steady progress to his side.
“Enjoy that, gorgeous?” Steve crouched to greet her, his back sweating from the damp of the snow he’d just been engulfed in.
Cara’s response was to place her paws on his shoulders, and push him back down. “Yes, that’s helpful,” and he raised himself up again, wincing, his hip pulsating with unpleasant, sickly heat, and he knew if he’d brought one of the sticks, it would help. Out here, no one would no any better.
But I would, he reflected, and besides, once you start using a stick, that’s it. You can’t do without it. I’m 33 years old. If they’d just finished the job, and shot my leg off at least I’d have a prosthetic, instead of this useless, dragging excuse for a limb.
Whoa, don’t overdose on self pity, Captain, you want to keep plenty for tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after that…Steve shook his head, pulled one of his gloves off, and pinched his eyes, wishing he could drop the morose self pity just for a second. Of all the things he had come to loathe about himself, that was the killer.
He debated putting Cara back on the lead, with the weather coming in quickly now. She looked up at Steve, her face impossibly honest and open. There was nothing he trusted more in this narrow world than her now.
“Go on then, and straight home, girl.”
She took off, turned, hesitated, but Steve waved his hand at her in reassurance that he was following her. By the time he managed to get back to the cottage, she was sitting in the porch, tail thumping against the door, her mouth hung open and gaping,
Exhausted by effort, his parka sweaty against his body, Steve leaned against the porch, pushed back his hood, his brow against the slick wood. Closing his eyes, he heard the buzzards again, as the wind temporarily calmed, in the way of impending storms, beguiling the foolish into one more climb, one more walk. He was thinking nothing, except what to eat. Food was becoming more a necessity than a pleasure, and beans on toast seemed the height of indulgence at this moment. Steve’s stomach growled in approval, and he pulled back from reverie to open the door, let Cara back inside.
He paused, his hand mid way to the door. Cara’s hackles raised to points, and she scuttled from the porch, advanced a few yards, sniffing the air. Steve knew his girl.
“What is it, Cara?” he asked softly, warily. His eyes shifted across the landscape. Nothing to see but snow, and heavy skies, nothing to hear but the whipping up of the wind once more, its brief respite over, readying for the onslaught.
She slowly, deliberately, bared her teeth, the wet, loose skin around them stretching, slick in their elasticity. Cara tilted her head to one side. Listening. Steve listened with her. Snow was flickering in eddying billows around their heads, as the wind chattered its elemental call. The sound of Cara’s growl was low, a rumble of rare malice, in it’s very rarity an alert to Steve. Despite her previous ill used life, she was a remarkably gentle natured creature; other than Steve of course, men discomfited her but she tolerated people with a knowing and in-built wisdom. Besides, she was content with the few who Steve admitted to their world. Two local farmers, who brought supplies, heating oil, wood; an old friend from university days who, now a doctor, had happened on Northumberland several years ago and had married Andrea. That was about it. For the hooky stuff, Steve invariably reconnoitred in Berwick, with Cara safely at home.
Now, she was plainly hostile to something in the blank spaces around their cottage. Steve came to her, brushed her face with his fingers. She licked them briefly, then resumed the steady thrum of snarling, her head turning in various directions, until she sprang up and padded off through the snow, with a purpose to her stride.
She ignored Steve, until he roared at her, his voice carrying with the raw force of old. Instantly, she turned, came back to him, whimpering softly.
Not waiting for her to return to defiance, he ushered her inside the cottage, slamming and bolting the door, listening to the thunderous pound of his heartbeat, seeming as it did to fill every empty room with blood and heat. Cara sat by the door, stubbornly resistant, but Steve finally tempted her into the kitchen with food, a trusted stand by. Shutting her in, he went back outside. It had taken only a few more moments for the storm to whip up in its fury, wind and snow vying for dominance as they smashed against each other in their elemental duel. He squinted, unable to see past his hand, and whatever the hell had been out there, or Cara had thought was out there, wouldn’t last long to prove any trouble to either of them.
Securing the door again, Steve felt a surge of adrenaline pulse through him. The sensation was euphoric, fleetingly equal to sex. The idea of something – someone – out there, in the wilds of his beloved Hills, set off malefic synapses deep in his brain, and the shotgun, locked up for now, he could already feel, thrilling as a lover’s caress, in his hands.
It would do. It had to. Joe collapsed onto the heap of discarded animal feed sacks, slimy and grainy but better than the muck beneath them. The roof was intact at least, the cattle byre vacant until the beasts were brought out for the spring. He lay flat on his back, too cold, too numb, too exhausted, to think, care or wonder whether the bull, the one that had nearly killed him, might be brought here at some point. Discovery, then. I don’t give a shit. I’ve not broken any laws; not here, anyway, not in scenic, iron hard, desolate, tourist destination numero uno North–umberland. Joe, stinging eyes closed, mumbled to himself, the Manchester accent slurred, drowsy.
“Oh, yeh!” he gasped, pulling himself up on his elbows, “don’t fall asleep, Joey, you’ll know what’ll happen…”
He sniggered mirthlessly, wondering if he was delirious, because even though it was blindingly cold, he was sweating, the heat seeming to burn from the inside out, skin clammy, strep-throat closing to a slit. His ankle was numb, the pain barrier crossed three miles back, tramping from the wood onto a track of sorts, with fencing to either side of it. The snow so deep, Joe had packed it into his trainer, and it had done the trick. Next stop, setting up his own survival school. Outdoor survival, you div, I know how to survive, don’t I, Joe?
Three miles of blank nothingness. Walking, walking, for what? To where? The wind didn’t blow on his body, it cut at him, splitting the skin on his face, snow lacerating cracked lips, that bled until his chin was blood stained and crusted. Two miles back, Joe had to crap, wrenching his pants down, shitting on the snow, out in the open, the cold oddly soothing on his skin.
Trousers rearranged again, he’d carried on, walking, talking aloud, pushing aside the guys he’d known, not a good one amongst them; some old, some young, all of them nothing but grinding flesh against flesh, humanity made up of spit and booze and semen.
“The world’s just spunked,” he howled into the echoey blur surrounding him, “fucking take it easy, okay?” But the snow kept on snowing, and Joe kept on walking.
Abruptly, he’d stopped, still thinking he was in the movies. It helped, the fantasy. Here’s how it worked; a Jeremiah Johnson, alone in a barren wilderness, single-handedly taking on nature with bravado, and two loaded shotguns. Joe had shuddered, despite the thrill the thoughts were giving him, his frozen, hypothermic brain tricking him into humour. Guns. The last fuck he’d had, with one in his mouth. That was enough. Even for Joe, beaten, bruised Joe, that really was enough…
Stopped in his tracks, Jeremiah Joe Johnson is confronted by some kind of stone house, looks like a house, anyway. Jeremiah slowly takes one of his rifles out of the pouch slung low over his back; the reassuring click of the barrel tells him he’s in charge, in control of whatever the hell is in that house. Pads closer, the smell growing stronger.
Joe peered into the gaping dark of the shelter. That explained it. Shit everywhere, at least dried and husked to a straw like consistency. Any port in a storm, Jeremiah, any old shit will do. Not even the movies could change that.
Reality hit again, as he crashed onto the floor, the animal feed bags his bed for now. He dozed, only for a few moments, until that part of his psyche that still wouldn’t mind living, poked him into alarmed wakefulness again.
“Don’t fall asleep, don’t, just don’t, Joey, keep going, I can do this.”
Do what, though? Wander around the countryside until I drop, then die?
Groaning with effort, Joe managed to get back on his feet, and looked around him. The stillness inside contrasted eerily with the cacophony without. Yeh, I just got here in time. The snow started to blow through the gap by which Joe had entered and he dragged and heaved at a slab of wood, leaning against one of the empty stalls. It fitted, or near enough, to close the gap, or at least to block out the sharper edges of the storm. Joe secured it in place with a half filled barrel of, he presumed with hopefulness, water, and the barrel sloshed and gurgled as he moved it in place.
The exertions had him roasting again. Resisting the urge to strip off, instead he let himself fall to his knees, then collapse onto his side, his face hitting the ground with a thud. Joe barely registered the pain of it. The feed sack was oily with condensation, but it was like a pillow of feathers for him. He knew he shouldn’t sleep, but like any welcomed drug, it took over and filled every empty space within him.
Don’t show any pain. That’s what he wants; it’s what he’s always wanted. He could smell the desperation on me, the need; don’t give him everything. For fuck’s sake, Joe, hold something back that’s still me.
The metallic length probed the back of his throat. It was like being strangled in slow motion. His thrusting grew quicker, egged on by Joe’s choking sounds.
It was snowing so heavily now, there was nil visibility. Only an animal might track him down in his lair. He thrashed on the sacks. In sleep, he’d pulled off his jacket. It revealed his thin body; he hadn’t eaten for days, and before then only occasionally. A scrap thrown at him. This was another movie. Like Misery. Only without the laughs.
“Swallow,” the command was stark, simple in its menace. Swallow or die. Whatever happened to swallow or spit? Joe laughed aloud, his nightmare making his body rigid, his throat thrown back, his back moulded like a crab, straining against the intrusion of metal against his oesophagus.
He couldn’t speak, even to resist. Not easy, with a gun blocking his throat. “Joey, you’re not as much fun as you once were.” I’m not your kind of fun, you bastard.
The gun was like seeping blood, oozing down Joe’s throat drip by aching drip. There was a gasp of release, as his tormentor’s orgasm spumed hot inside Joe like poison. The gun would slowly slide upwards, then. It had before. Leaving him sore, bereft of feeling, coughing and retching up the sour taste of gun metal and self loathing.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Joey, you’re becoming like all the rest; I’ll have to have a think about what to do with you.”
In dreams we run. The destination might prove unclear, lost in the labyrinth of our sleeping state, but running sometimes is the only sense to make of them. Joe was running. Hard, laboured with terror slowed limbs, expecting at any moment to be cut down by…
A gun. Giving one a blow job was not part of the deal of running. Running away, to the Hills and fresh, clean air, so his throat could drag in the oxygen of freedom. I didn’t expect him to find me in this shit-scape, not here where it stinks, fetid like rank breath, sordid, a lousy way to die. Jeremiah Johnson wouldn’t have died this way.
But this wasn’t a movie.
Joe slowly came to, the nightmare merging into the dank, stone walls of the byre, memories of a gun being forced down his throat receding into the chill knowingness of his current reality.
This time the gun was aimed inches from his face, unwavering, unflinching from its determination to get answers from him with questions only a shotgun can ask.