‘Your first responsibility is here, Charlie.’
Piece of toast in his mouth, Charlie snapped his toolbox shut and reached for his coat. Evelyn stood with their infant son in her arms and a challenge on her face. She waited whilst her husband filled a thermos from the kettle, clingfilmed his sandwiches, and finished chewing.
‘You’re doing just fine with him,’ he answered eventually. ‘Mum’s getting on a bit; she can’t look after herself so well.’
‘She can look after herself a lot better than she makes out.’
‘She’s my mother, Evelyn,’ he said, glancing out of the window to where his car sat idling in the still-dark driveway. ‘Not some snow leopard that I’ve sponsored and can forget about.’
Evelyn was bobbing on her feet to soothe the baby.
‘A snow leopard would be easier to reach,’ she whispered around the child’s head. ‘Why she insists upon living up there in the middle of nowhere by herself…’
‘It’s Mallaig, Evelyn, not the Karakoram mountains. I daresay I’ll make it back without supplemental oxygen.’
Evelyn tried a different tack. ‘A Sassenach harlot, she called me at our wedding.’
‘Well,’ said Charlie, checking his pockets for keys, wallet, and phone. ‘It just goes to show that even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.’
‘Not funny,’ said Evelyn, slapping him lightly on the arm. ‘She’s…different since Olly was born. More introverted. She called him “the maggot” at the christening.’
‘I’m not sure she meant…’
‘She’s making you travel up out of spite. You know that, don’t you?’
He kissed his wife on her cheek.
‘I’m not sure she has enough reason left in her to be spiteful. I’ll be up and down in a day. Keep the heat in.’
Evelyn came outside to see him off. She stood, blinking in the headlights. Headlight – Charlie realised that one was out. He would have to make sure and return in daylight. His wife’s fluffy dice, a repeated source of disagreement, were hanging from the rear-view mirror. He jokingly squeezed them as he reversed down the drive, but all the gesture garnered was a weak smile from Evelyn, one that was lost as the single headlight swung out onto the frosty street.
It was full dark before Charlie drove away from the house on the hill above Mallaig. The LCD display in the car said -0.5C but it felt colder. Perhaps it had been the atmosphere in the house…
Gravel had crunched underneath his feet as he walked down the driveway. Below the Knoydart mountains, the windows of the big house leered down at him, slit-eyed underneath bushy eyebrows of ivy. Frost smeared the roof tiles, crushed around the cornicing and hung from the windowsills. Upon opening the heavy wooden front door, he was greeted by the whine of the stairlift. His mother was descending, straight-backed and still dressed in her house coat. As Margaret passed under the skylight, her profiled face was briefly illuminated before slipping into shadow once more. In greeting her son she did not look him in the eye, rather choosing to focus on a spot to the right of his shoulder. There was a bump of jaws in lieu of a kiss.
A flash in the rear-view mirror caught Charlie’s attention. A motorcycle. Appearing intermittently as he swung around corners and dipped into troughs, the headlight was watery and distant. It was unusual to see another vehicle on the A830 at this hour, and even more unusual to see a motorcycle in winter on the road. Whoever was riding the bike was not a local. Charlie turned the heat up.
Margaret had never been one for central heating, even when Charlie was young. Her predilection had warped with age until the immersion heater was treated with contempt and having the old house like an icebox had become a source of twisted pride. Margaret had tied a rag around the burst pipe underneath the sink but left the repair for her son. She stood over him as he lay down to work, dressing gown cords dangling as she stared out of the kitchen window.
‘You know, mum, this will carry on happening unless you put on the heat. You live in Mallaig, not the Algarve!’
Charlie had glanced up to see whether his joke had elicited a smile. The old woman cradled her tea and continued to stare into the garden. Charlie was not offered a cup.
Once the pipe was fixed it had been hanging pictures. Margaret had taken down any art featuring her deceased husband, complaining that it made her miserable. Charlie spent the next few hours replacing them with tired landscapes, dust motes swirling around him in the wan light as his mother gave curt directions. Next was taking down the bough of a tree in the garden. He had offered to fell the huge branch back in June but his mother, nothing if not contrary, had decreed that midwinter would be the best time for such an endeavor. At least it had taken him out of the house, although not free from being watched. Charlie would periodically stop hacking and sawing. Through the sweat running down his bald pate and into his eyes, through the great clouds of breath rising raggedly in front of him in the cold air, he could see his mother watching from the kitchen window. She was still, save for the occasional journey of teacup to thin-lipped mouth. Charlie waved to her once but received no answering gesture. The sun must have been in her eyes.
The light caught his attention again. It wasn’t a motorcycle, but rather a car with a headlight out – at least Charlie wasn’t driving the only unroadworthy vehicle tonight. He reminded himself to change the bulb before work on Monday. The car was closer to him now but was still using full beams. Charlie continued to meander around Loch Eilt for a couple of miles but found the irregular flashes in his windscreen irritating. Pulling into a layby, he waited for the car to pass. His stomach grumbled.
Charlie had eaten only a corned beef sandwich since breakfast, made for him by his mother. They had sat at the kitchen table after he had finished taking the bough down, Charlie chewing the dry meat, her across from him, eyes never leaving his face.
‘Almost forgot, Mum,’ he said, turning to his jacket on the back of the chair. ‘Evelyn gave me some photos for you to put on the fridge.’
Charlie fanned the pictures out over the wooden table.
‘Trying to get the little bugger to sit still is quite the challenge. That one on the left is just after he tried his first solid food – not a success – and this one is from when he got hold of Evie’s lipstick. We thought he looked like something out of…’
He tailed off. Margaret was looking over his shoulder at the blank wall, boredom etched across her face. Charlie slumped back in his chair.
‘Why do I bother?’
The old woman’s eyes narrowed and slid across to meet his.
‘You think I’ve not got anything better to do with my Sunday than come here and be treated like dog muck on your heel?’
Her voice was gravelly through lack of use. ‘I don’t much know what you do with your Sundays anymore.’
‘Well whose fault is that?’ Charlie countered, his voice harsh upon the tiled walls. ‘No one has asked you to stay up here, all by yourself in a house disintegrating around your bloody ears…’
‘Don’t use that language in front of me,’ she snarled. ‘You’re not with your slick city friends now.’
‘Oban’s not a city, mum,’ said Charles more evenly. ‘Can’t you see that we want you in our son’s life; that we’re trying to involve you?’
Margaret chewed on the inside of her cheek before answering.
‘I won’t pretend to an interest I don’t feel Charles,’ she said. ‘I’ve already tried to bring up one boy Scottish; I won’t waste my time on the same endeavour twice.’
Charlie massaged his temples before rising from the table.
‘I’ll not listen to you speak about my family that way. Give me a call when you can think of something nice to say. Not before.’
Charlie had almost been at the front door of the house, footsteps echoing against the pine paneling, before he realised that his mother had followed him. Was it remorse in her face? Probably not. In any case, the old woman waited until he had tied his shoes and was reaching for the door handle before she spoke. The words were muttered so quietly that Charlie was not sure they were meant for him.
‘My son wouldn’t abandon me for some strumpet and her maggot. Not my boy.’
Even at that, he couldn’t bring himself to slam the front door on her.
The air vents were blowing hot into his face. Charlie’s eyeballs felt gritty as he blinked. Not my boy. Had the vehicle behind him passed? He had been so lost in thought that he couldn’t be sure. There were only white lines ahead of him and darkness behind. Across the loch, lights twinkled. Charlie Whatsapped Evelyn that he would be late home before pulling out into the carriageway once more, his single headlight arcing past banks of pines before finding tarmac.
The miles slipped by and the temperature dropped. Minus three. Minus five. Charlie drove slowly; there was no real rush to get home and he had a lot of thinking to do. Glenfinnan was suddenly upon him, Loch Shiel to his right. Please drive carefully. The scattered window lights in the village seemed blindingly bright as he drove through. There was not a soul to be seen.
Almost as soon as it had appeared, the village was gone. To his left was Glenfinnan Viaduct. Even when it was cloaked in darkness, Charlie always glanced over. As he did so, a light caught his eye in the wing mirror. A single light. Far behind him on the A-road, it was nevertheless moving fast, barreling around bends and braking into corners. Charlie shifted in his seat and gently pressed on the accelerator. A coincidence, surely.
Ever more frequent glances into the rear-view mirror told Charlie that the car was gaining on him. The following vehicle had its single headlight on full-beam, and soon Charlie was having to duck to avoid being blinded. Try as he might, he could make no ground on the pursuing car and as he approached Loch Eil, the vehicle was so close that Charlie could not make out the number plate.
Frustrated, he flashed his hazard lights to let the other driver know that he was too close. What he saw illuminated in the faint orange flashes made his breath catch in his throat. He saw them only for a second, and even then only in a wing mirror and when driving at speed, but Charlie was sure. Dangling in the windscreen of the following car and swaying as the vehicle cornered was a pair of fluffy, novelty dice.
Charlie realised that his jaw was clenched. Trees lined the road to the north and Loch Eil stretched to the south, black and solemn. Dunoon seemed a long way away. He scanned the road ahead for a turn-off or another layby. A window flashed past on his left, perhaps a teenager up late watching films. Whatever it was, Charlie was travelling too fast to pull in at such short notice. The dim pool of light did however gleam off his pursuer’s bald pate. My son wouldn’t abandon me…not my boy.
A judder through his tyres was all Charlie felt before his stomach heaved and the world spun. The tree reared huge in the windscreen as it struck, slapping him over the steering wheel and filling his mouth with glass. Then the spinning. The seatbelt cut into Charlie’s neck. Spare change, travel mugs and the contents of his toolbox became airborne around him. Colours whirled. Night air blasted through the smashed windscreen.
At once, everything was still. Charlie smelt blood and spat windscreen. Opening his eyes, he tried to make sense of what was in front of him. Trees. Water. Road. None of it was in the right order. The bubbling sound made sense of it all. Gurgling up from the air vents, pooling in the footwells Loch Eil came, achingly cold and black as sin. In a moment it had reached Charlie’s calves; in another his knees. He reached for his seatbelt buckle, but everything seemed to be in the wrong place. His fingers eventually found the button and came away sticky. Charlie didn’t dare look down. It hurt.
The door wouldn’t open. Water was already pressing in, eager to tendril around the car’s metal carcass and drag it to the bottom. Charlie fought back the thought that he was already doomed. He strained against the upholstery as icy liquid pushed up into the small of his back. Nothing. No give. His last chance of escape was through the window. The electrics still worked but the window descended at a perversely slow speed, dropping beneath the skyline and then to the tops of the conifers.
He was there of course; there in the trees by the edge of the loch, silhouetted in the headlight, watching. Charlie recognised his gait; there was the same bald head, the same hands-on-hips stance that he saw in the mirror every day. The man, his features blanketed by shadow, was looking at him. He could feel it. The figure made no effort to enter the water but rather remained watchful, passive.
Charlie had no time for such luxury. Tearing his eyes away from the shoreline, he tried to heave himself out of the window. It was already too late. Dark, soupy water met him at the window lip, pausing for a moment as if in doubt, before slipping over. The car lurched underneath him. As he pressed against the sunroof for breath he saw the man turn away, hand in his pocket, towards his idling car.
Evelyn was in her dressing gown when the headlight glared across the wallpaper from outside. Pulling the robe around her, she made her way to the front door. Charlie looked past her before planting a perfunctory kiss on her cheek. He closed and locked the door behind him.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said, steering her by the elbow back into the living room. ‘Did the maggot go off to sleep without a fuss?’
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order