by Craig Aitchison
I PADDLE OUT to fish another can from the water. My feet and ankles look pale and skinny, skewwhiff under the water. Refraction. Or maybe I really am fading away and bent out of shape. Too much time stuck inside. It’s good to be out here, filling my lungs with fresh air and my belly with cold lager.
‘Hurry up, Fanny Baws.’ Del peeks out from under his bucket hat and launches an empty towards me. It falls well short.
‘Get your own,’ I say. ‘Lazy bastard.’ But I pull one loose from the plastic and carry it back to him, stooping to pick up his empty and put it in the bag for life that’s lying next to him. Leave no trace.
Del takes off his hat, sits up and rolls the cold can over his forehead before opening it. ‘Fucking roasting.’
‘Quality.’ He takes a big drink then lies back down. He’s turning beetroot red already. He refused to use the sun cream I offered him. He says you don’t need it in Scotland.
I walk back to the shore, picking some pebbles to skim. In some ways, finding a good stone’s the best bit, holding it in your hand and admiring its flat roundness, trying to judge how well it’ll skim. When I have a handful, I bend to throw them. The first skims three, four times then slows on the surface, still drifting before sinking. The next one skims higher and longer before falling into the water at a deeper angle. I throw the rest with mixed results, then look out at the loch.
The reflection on the loch’s surface is almost perfect, just a slight blurring caused by the water’s ripples like the image was slightly out of focus. I scan along, looking for the source of the disturbance. At the other end of the loch, there’s someone on a paddle board, wearing a wetsuit. Seems like suddenly everyone’s got a wetsuit and a paddle board. Every wee bit of water in Scotland is like a shite version of the canals of Venice, folk discovering a love of the great outdoors by falling into cold water in bright lycra.
Del and I aren’t here for the watersports; we’re partaking in the traditional Scottish outdoor pursuit of sitting on our arses drinking tins. Sometimes the old ways are best.
Of course, it’s not just the weather or the change in lockdown rules that’s brought us here. It’s the anniversary. One year. Or, to be precise, three hundred and sixty-eight days. Three days late. Always too late.
It was Del’s idea; he saw something on Facebook about how the dry weather meant the reservoir was so low it had exposed the weather vane at the top of the drowned church. Supposedly there was a whole village here that’d been evacuated when they flooded the valley.
‘Hutch would’ve liked that,’ he said. ‘That’s where we’ll go.’
I wasn’t sure if Hutch would’ve given a shit about it, but I agreed. It was as good a place as any.
So Del found the old tent in his mum’s attic, we loaded the car with drink and we came out here to toast Hutch’s memory while the sun set, talk about the good times we had together, before Hutch decided he’d had enough of Covid, enough of putting up with all the shit of work and bills and rent and relationships, enough of the whole fucking shooting match. I’ll mark the fact it’s three hundred and sixty-eight days since the shittiest day of my life by drinking enough to pass out in a tent with Del farting and snoring next to me.
The celebration, anniversary, whatever, started well. The tunes were pumping in the car, the sun was shining. When we arrived, I put up the tent while Del made burgers on a disposable barbecue that were surprisingly edible. Del raised his can and said, ‘To Hutch. Gone but never forgotten.’
I drank, thinking Del’s got it the wrong way round. I feel like I’ve forgotten so much about Hutch. There are so many details that are either lost or hazy, unclear. But he’s not gone. He’s here, always, a shadow that falls over us, even in the sunshine.
After Del’s toast, things went quiet for a while, Del deciding he just wanted to sunbathe while I paced the shore restlessly, eager to work the car journey and all the weeks of inactivity out of my legs but not wanting to leave Del. We’re meant to be here together.
This is fine though, skimming stones. It requires just the right amount of focus to be calming, letting you concentrate on tiny things—the bend of your knees, the angle of the throw, the application of spin with the forefinger, and most importantly the timing of release. So, I start slightly when Del speaks, like I totally forgot he’s there.
‘How the stones skim. They’re heavier than water aren’t they? Stones sink.’
‘Aye. It’s physics though,’ I say. It’s simple. The stone pushes water downwards and the stone is forced back upwards. As long as it maintains a minimum velocity it’ll keep bouncing; when it slows down it sinks. I pull my phone out of my pocket. ‘It’s fluid…’
Del interrupts. ‘Why do you do that?’
‘That,’ he points at the phone in my hand. ‘Research things, explain everything?’
‘I like to know.’
‘D’you not think it, I don’t know…ruins it? Spoils the magic, I mean.’
‘It’s not magic. It’s science.’
I turn away from him, scouring the shore for more skimmers. Maybe I sound like a prick, a smart-arse. But I like knowing wee facts like that. How things work. That’s been one of the good things about lockdown, having the time to read stuff or disappear down rabbit holes online. I installed an app that recognises birdsong, and just stood in the back garden, listening, recording. I can tell the difference between them now—sparrows, blackbirds, robins, blue tits. At night I switch to an app that identifies the constellations. It’s funny how, once you know them, your eye joins the dots, illustrates the darkness with scorpions and bears and hunters.
That’s why I like gathering facts, pieces of information that join the dots. Trivia; the place where three roads meet. And Del doesn’t complain when we win drink in the Salmon quiz and all he’s contributed is the odd answer about music.
He nudges my elbow and holds my can towards me. I take it from him and drink; it’s warm now.
‘Competition?’ he says. ‘Most skims wins. Three stones each.’
I smile. ‘What do I win?’
He raises his middle finger and starts to look for his stones.
My last stone is round, smooth, flat. I throw it just right. It hardly disturbs the surface, just seems to hover above it, then lifts away when it nears the surface, dipping, eight, nine times, more—twelve, thirteen—before it just rests on the surface and drifts down so I imagine it settling flat on the bed of the loch.
I turn to Del. He shrugs. ‘Not bad.’
‘Come on. Time to collect my prize.’
I walk to the submerged cans and pull them out, tugging one from the plastic. I drink from it until it crumples in my hand. Then I hand one to Del. ‘Runner up prize.’
He holds it in two hands, kisses it like it’s a Champions League medal, then lifts it in the air, turning to receive cheers from the trees and clouds. Then he fizzes it open and drinks.
We walk back to the tent.
After a while, he gestures towards the loch with a can.
‘I can’t see fuck all.’
I look out at the loch, at the upside-down reflections of the hills and the sky, the wispy clouds. That’s all there is to see. There’s no drowned village. I researched, found it’s just a myth, a story folk tell.
‘Is that not it?’ I say.
Del leans forward, shields his eyes against the sun. ‘Where?’
I shuffle closer to him so our shoulders are touching and point. ‘There. Look at the reflection of the rowan tree. Then down a bit, and right, nearer the wall. There’s a wee darker bit in the water.’
Del squints along the length of my arm and, just as I think I should tell him I’m making it up, he speaks. ‘Aye. I see something. I think you’re right.’
He reaches for his phone, opens his camera app and fiddles with it until there’s a wee click, the little fake noise the manufacturers add in so it sounds like an old camera, a skeuomorph.
He studies the photo for a few seconds, tipping the phone. ‘Shit. Even zooming in.’
‘Let’s see.’ He points the phone towards me and I study the blurred pixels of the reflected light. ‘Aye, definitely shit.’
‘Still. We saw it.’
It feels good in that moment, to have left the facts behind and told a story that Del believes and that makes him happy. I want to add more detail, about houses and streets that are still intact, furniture in some of the rooms, items left in cupboards and drawers, crockery, clothes, a tiny locket, closed like an oyster.
I could tell him that there were folk that refused to leave, that decided they’d rather die than leave their home, that chained themselves to posts and drowned. Maybe I could make up a story about the ghosts that drift across the loch at night, or a fantasy where they became mermaids and mermen of the loch like a Scottish Atlantis. Maybe, if he wanted to believe them enough, he’d think the stories were true.
‘You should swim out,’ he says.
‘Think I’ve had too many beers,’ I say. I’ve seen the stories on the news about folk drowning in rivers and lochs, read the statistics. Not me.
Apart from Mum, Del’s probably the only person who remembers I used to be a good swimmer. Him and Hutch used to bring it up now and again, usually in the context of taking the piss out of my big hands and feet. Like fucking shovels, Hutch used to say, holding his small hand to mine.
They were right though; I was good. I won races at primary school and my dad pushed me to go along to Swimming Club. I loved it at first but then I just sort of drifted off. It’s like loads of stuff. For a while, you think you’re really special, then you see people who’re really talented and you realise you’re just slightly above average. Like life just finds ways to remind you that you’re just one pebble on the shore, one more insignificant person in six billion.
My favourite used to be swimming underwater, pushing myself off from the side of the pool and just gliding, enjoying the roar of the water in my ears, the way the other sounds got muffled and distorted. But that’s not how you win races.
Sometimes I think I should’ve tried harder. I’d never have made it to the Olympics or the Commy Games, but maybe if I’d stuck at it, I’d have broad shoulders, a few trophies at home for Mum to polish and a swimmer girlfriend with big long legs. But who wants all that shit?
‘Mike?’ Del says.
‘There’s something I need to say.’
I lean across to him, put my arm round him. ‘I love you too.’
‘Dick,’ he says but hugs me back. ‘It’s about Hutch.’
Of course, I think. This is all about Hutch. This trip, us sitting here talking shit, trying to pretend there’s nothing, nobody missing. It’ll always be about Hutch, everything we ever do. There was a graphic they used to illustrate two-metre social distancing. Two people, with one tall body lying between them. I thought that was us—me and Del still standing, Hutch separating us.
Our arms have slid away from each other’s shoulders. He fidgets with the ring pull on his can, I look out at the loch.
‘It wasn’t our fault.’
I know what he wants me to say. He wants me to agree, to absolve him of blame. I can’t though. I can’t tell him that we did everything right because I don’t believe it.
‘He’d want us to do this. Have days together, stay friends.’
I still don’t say anything, I just look out at the surface of the loch, the upside-down world of hills and trees and sky. I look at the spot where I told Del I could see the tip of the spire.
‘He’d want us to move on.’
I push him. I want him away, don’t want him touching me, don’t want him near me.
He falls. On his face there’s pain and shock. His beer spills, foams on the pebbles.
I stand over him. He looks pathetic, fucking chubby cheeks all red and hands all dusty and messy.
‘Get up,’ I say.
‘That was fucking sore. Right on my arse. My fucking whatdyoucall it.
He starts to struggle up, groaning and mewling, just about falling back again. I can’t even watch him. I walk away. ‘Move on,’ I mumble.
Move on. Such a shitty cliché. Meaningless. Of course we’ve moved on. Both of us, the whole world. Three hundred and sixty-eight days of moving on. We don’t have a choice.
Sometimes I think that if I could, I would stay in the moment I heard that Hutch had killed himself, I would hold the hurt as something cold and hard and certain in my hand. Keep it. Never move on. But you don’t get a choice.
I walk away from him and paddle into the water. We shouldn’t have come.
If there really was a drowned village out there, I would wade out into the water and swim. I imagine the cold hitting my balls, the way it would take my breath away and then I would swim through it, the effort warming me, my body acclimatising. I could do the distance, easy.
I would take a huge breath, fill my lungs with air and dive down, past the spire of the church, looking in through the stained-glass windows, swimming through the cobbled streets, pulling myself through doors, into houses, kitchens, box bedrooms.
As I take a step into deeper water, there’s a hand on my shoulder. Del pushes an open can of beer into my hand.
‘You hurt my cock.’
The sun catches the can he holds out. I chink my beer against his and we both drink, looking out at the reflection on the loch’s surface that hides the emptiness beneath.
Craig Aitchison has an MLitt in Creative Writing from Stirling University. He has had poetry and prose published in various publications including Northwords Now, Southlight, Pushing Out the Boat and Wyldblood. His writing in Scots has been shortlisted for the Wigtown Poetry Prize and won the Scots Language Short Story competition. He was recently commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to produce work to celebrate 250 years of Sir Walter Scott.