by Steven John

We found the cottage eventually. It was in a row of other dirty, white fisherman’s dwellings at the head of the grey sea-loch. “Dramatic Highland Views” was what the brochure said, and there were some, albeit fleetingly, when the Scottish mist lifted its woollen skirts off the surrounding mountains, and the relentless rain regrouped.

We pulled on coats and boots, walked across the deserted single-track road onto the shingle beach. You picked coloured stones and shells from under the seaweed and cosseted them in your coat pocket. I turned over dead jellyfish with the toe of my boot.

‘What are you collecting for?’ I asked.

‘I’ll do something when we get home,’ you said.

I bent down and picked you a heart-shaped piece of something sea-smooth. You turned it over in your fingers and dropped it.

‘Only glass,’ you said.

We walked from one end of the beach to the other and back again. When you weren’t picking things up, I held your hand. If the sun shone momentarily through the charging clouds I lifted your hand with the engagement ring up to the rays, tried to prism the whiteness through the single diamond. We did it a hundred times but never got the deep blues they’d shown us under the jeweller’s desk light.

After two days you said the rain was stretching the limits of your endurance, as though we were crossing a sea in an inflatable dingy. The double bed was cold and damp, the mattress concave and shot. You said it was too high off the ground. Draughty. There was a yellow stained chamber pot with a tartan motif around the rim. You said you wouldn’t get into the bed until I’d taken it away. I told you not to be childish. Holding your nose you took it at arm’s length to the back door and dropped it onto the stones in the yard, smashing it into three or four curved chunks, like pelvic bones.

For two days we lay under an eiderdown on the sofa in front of a tiny wood stove, burning sticks of kindling, reading books, drinking whiskey coffees and eating shortbread biscuits from a tin with Highland cattle on the lid. I slipped my hand down your sweat pants and brought you to climax then you did the same for me. We didn’t kiss or say anything. You turned away as I mopped myself and dropped the pieces of balled up pieces of toilet paper into the flames. Afterwards, we sat and watched the night filch down the loch like an infection, the rain scratching on the window and bleeding under the front door.

On the third day the forecast was better. We made a packed lunch and set off, a boy scout map and compass hung round my neck. You’d never walked much further than to the shops in town. Your walking boots were new and squeaky. In the peaty swamps of the foothills I leapt from hillock to hillock. You stepped carefully around the blood red puddles of sucking mud.

‘I feel like a mountain goat,’ I said jumping further each time. Then I fell over and soaked my trousers. That was the first time you’d laughed in three days. You took a picture of me looking like a gamekeeper, all tweeds, gaiters and rucksack, staring onto the mountaintops.

We came to a rope-bridge over a fast flowing river, swollen with the recent rain. The bridge was only a foot above the muscular water as it raced to an inland loch. You wouldn’t cross. To walk back the way we came would have added two hours to the hike. We were already tired. I tried cajoling you, reassuring you, shouting at you. You cried and said you couldn’t do it. I walked back over the bridge onto the bank, grabbed your hand and pulled you into the water. You screamed at me. I pulled you through the water as it tugged up to our knees. I dragged you to the middle until you realised you weren’t going to drown. Then you shook loose my hand and waded across the other half in front of me. You didn’t stop on the far bank. There was a signpost back to the village. “5 miles” it said. You marched that five miles at a pace, a hundred yards ahead of me, head down, not a word spoken for almost two hours. The rain had started again.

We went to a local hotel for dinner that night. The Scottish hunting lodge experience, waitresses in kilts, cobwebbed stags’ heads, angry looking salmon in glass cases on the walls and wide-open fires, although the fires weren’t lit.

After dinner we were led to a lounge where a fire had grudgingly been brought to life. I asked the wine waiter to leave a bottle of single malt on the side table. I, at last, found something semi-amusing to say about the rope-bridge. You, at last, half-smiled.

‘I’m not walking another step tomorrow,’ you said, ‘and if you pull me into a river again I’ll fucking kill you.’

‘So what shall we do then?’ I said. ‘I’d planned another ten miler.’

You shrugged your shoulders and picked a glossy magazine off a sideboard.

‘How about we watch the rain coming under the door again,’ you whispered.

I ploughed on through the whiskey until they threw us out and you had to drive us back to the clap cold cottage.

We walked the beach again in the morning. You emptied your pocket of stones and shells onto the wet sand, except for one barnacled piece of quartz. You held it up to the sun’s rays. The blue light shone into your eyes like a cold flame.

Steven John’s writing has appeared in Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a joint record six times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England. Steven is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.