“Go on, now,” ordered my Grandmother, her tone as harsh and shrill as a Sergeant Major, all red-faced and screaming at an army ground of petulant soldiers. Her Greenock accent as pronounced and alien as always, the rolled rs spinning round the room and tickling my ears. I winced slightly, looking for a corner to hide in, wondering what horrible atrocity I must have committed to receive such harsh treatment. “Put your coat on,” she ordered, “your Grandpa wants to take you a walk up the hill.”
“Oh, do I have to?” I whined. I hated it going a walk up the hill. It was cold and I was tired, and I wanted to stay in and read comics.
But she was a seasoned professional, and didn’t like having her orders questioned. “Aye, you do,” she said. “Now quick, get your coat.”
I stomped off to the bedroom and reluctantly pulled on my heavy, navy blue anorak with the shiny orange lining, the woollen mittens, so carefully conjoined by a length of wool just too short to attain a comfortable fit, hanging motionless from the sleeves. I zipped up the coat and pulled the fur lined hood up over my head. I slid my feet into the size 5 royal blue wellingtons, the cold plastic chilling my toes, and tucked my jeans in as tightly as I could. Finally I zipped up the coat, all the way to the neck, wrapping myself up until I stood rigid and mummified, cushioned and bloated like a miniature Michelin man.
Inspection at the front door and Gran pulled the crumpled tissue from her sleeve, moistened it on her tongue and dragged it harshly across my cheeks, the force grating and scraping, peeling away the skin with the dirt. “We won’t have people saying you’re not looked after!” she barked.
Then my grandfather appeared at my side, his big green coat buttoned up to the neck, a few flecks of pure white plumage peeking out from under his dark brown trilby. He reached down, took hold of my small hand, smothering it in the grip of his big, cold, bony fingers and pulled at the door handle. Slowly it creaked open, a bright white glow leaping forward, trying to squeeze through the widening gap. My eyes burned at the harsh new light.
Instantly the wind charged at us, desperate to get in out of the cold, biting at my nose, stinging my cheeks. Small clouds of moisture burst from my mouth, floating up into the sky like lost balloons. My feet dug into the ground, and I glared up at my Gran, a last ditched attempt at eliciting some shred of mercy, my eyes widening in a final desperate protest, my bottom lip poking out with the saddest face I could muster. For a second I contemplated an all out screaming fit, launching my small frame to the ground amid a flurry of tears and screams, arms and legs flailing wildly. But I knew that tactic would cut no dice with these two sadists. “Come on,” he said, and we stepped out into the cold.
A walk up the hill was a bad experience for a six year old boy. A long, arduous trek up a mountain, steep as an alpine climb and as cold as a polar expedition. I didn’t like a walk up the hill. My little legs balked in fear of pain and tiredness at the prospect.
The terrain was rough and rocky, the harsh Scottish wilderness as alien as the very surface of the moon, and twice as uninviting. Long fields stretched upwards towards the sky, with great dips and hillocks, raising and falling like a rollercoaster track. Everything was grey. The fields were an unusual mix of greying green, the paths were crumbled and broken, the sky was grey and dull, stretching up into a mass of pitch black clouds. The further you walked the darker it grew, threatening to crack open up at any second, spilling forth with an ungodly icy shower.
The fields were inhabited by angry looking packs of wild, cold-staring woolly beasts, ready to attack should you sneak into their fenced area. They’d stand in suspicious looking packs, huddled and ready for attack, conspiring and staring and whispering as you walked past. Sometimes, if you listened carefully enough, you’d swear you could hear them laughing and mocking.
We stepped out of the house, marched down the windy stone path, banging the sharp, curly iron fence behind us and set off down the street. Along we trekked, the strong, defiant strides of my grandfather’s legs surging on at break-neck speed as I struggled to keep up, my little feet practically at sprinting pace as he dragged me along behind him.
We strolled down my Grandparents street, past the small, red and grey houses each one with a bright flowery garden, colourful and vibrant, almost mocking the harsh, bleak surroundings with their beautiful greens and reds, yellows and blues. Purple and orange flowers glowing with happiness, cheering us on our way, making me almost smile. Until I saw the hill at the end of the street, and remembered…
And as the incline grew, so did my weariness. My thighs ached, and my toes were frozen and shrivelled in the small plastic boots. My face stung red in the wind, and my small frozen nose completely numb, two shiny salty trails streaking down to my lips. My little hands were cold, my arms ached and I felt like dropping to the floor. I wanted my Grandad to pick me up in his big arms and carry me.
We continued to stride onwards, and as the steam rose from my mouth I pretended like I was smoking a cigarette, pursing my lips and exhaling big plumes of thick, white steam like I’d seen my father do so many times. But it didn’t make me feel grown up, it just made my lips even colder.
As we neared the top of the hill, we came alongside a huge field, the green grass cold and frozen, each blade tipped with white, like jaggy icy shards, and shrouded in a thick, dirty-white layer of mist. The eerie land was closed in by a long, decrepit looking fence, the wooden posts damp and turned green through age, the wire strands twisted and grey, poking out at us with sharp, spiky knots.
“Aha,” said my granddad, suddenly looking down at the ground in front of us, “that’ll do nicely.” I looked down to wear he was gazing, a small brown deposit littering the ground just the other side of the fence. Thin wisps of steam were rising slowly from the mess, and an unmistakably foul smell wafted up, tearing at my nostrils and tickling the back of my throat with it’s sickly-sweet, stale stench.
“That’s poo!” I said, nonplussed by his interest in it.
“Nice and fresh, too,” he said. “That’ll be perfect for my roses.”
With that, he reached into his jacket pocket and drew out the carefully secreted plastic carrier bag, kept for such a lucky find. Turning it inside out, and placing his hand inside like a big, white glove, he bent down, groaning slightly as his bad knee twinged with the extra stress. Then, placing the bag over the sheep’s droppings, he scooped them up in one deft swipe, pulling his arm back through the bag, twisting it into a handy little parcel and depositing it back in his pocket.
I looked on in amazement, mouth gaping open, my eyes wide and non-believing. Did he really just do that? Did he really just put that in his pocket?
I looked up, the shock still smeared across my tiny face, and he took my hand in his again. And then we were off, me dragged along behind once again.
We continued upwards, the terrain getting rougher as we walked, the incline growing steeper and steeper. Yet still there seemed to be no top. No peak, just more and more hill stretching high up into the sky. We’d never been for a walk up this particular hill before, and I wondered if we’d ever make it to the top. Suddenly, another old looking man appeared before us, walking down the hill, and came striding up towards us. “Hello there,” offered my Grandfather.
“Hello there,” came the reply. “It’s a fine morning.”
“Aye it is, too,” continued Grandpa. And the conversation continued in much the same manner.
My grandfather always had this bizarre habit of talking to strangers in the street. Sometimes a jolly hello in passing was enough to suffice, then on his cheery way he would go. If the other party was so inclined, then a broader conversation might ensue, covering all topics from the weather, family, the state of the streets nowadays, what things were like when he was a boy, and then back to the weather. A few of his trademark quips and jokes would always find themselves thrown in for good measure. Jokes I’d heard a thousand times before, and no doubt had his new acquaintance, but somehow they’d still always raise a smile!
Now, even as a boy of just eight, I was aware that this was particularly unusual behaviour. Strangers were not people to be spoken to. Strangers were strangers, and the best way to keep them so, was not to engage them in any way. But this never bothered my grandfather. A stranger to my Grandfather was not a stranger at all, merely a person he had not yet come to meet. And what better way to change the status quo than to introduce oneself.
Finally, my Grandpa’s tight grip on my hand was released, as he moved to take hold of his new friend’s elbow, something he only did when he had something really important to impart. And I was free again. I was free. And like most little boys, the hands of curiosity gripped me tight, and pulled me away. Like the time I wandered away to follow a very interesting frog hippity hopping down the path and nearly wandered in front of a car. Or the time I was found poking a washed jellyfish on the beath with a stick. I knew it was naughty to wander away, and I really didn’t mean to be naughty. But I couldn’t help being interested.
So quietly, so that neither of the two noticed me moving away, I ventured off towards the big grey field.
There was nothing of any particular consequence in the field. It was just a field like any other. A thin layer of snow spread out before me, the thick, dark strands of grass poking menacingly through the blanket of white. A thick layer of fog cuddled the ground, obscuring the distance.
But far off, hidden in the white, I was sure I could see something moving about, too obscured to make out exactly what it was. A small object, maybe some kind of animal, bouncing about from left to right and then left again. Curious and keen, I peered even harder, squinting my eyes really, really tight, to make out this odd bouncing shape in the distant dark fog. But it was no good, I had to get closer.
Eager to explore, I surveyed the length of the fence, finding a small gap just big enough for me to crawl through. I skipped along quietly and, dropping to the floor, very carefully manoeuvred my way through. Crawling on my hands and knees, I cleared the fence, avoiding all the sharp knots and pokey bits, and made it through to the other side. In the distance I could still see the strange thing, less frantic now and slowly advancing towards me.
I tentatively move forwards, the cold frozen ground crunching and crackling with each step, keeping my eyes glued to the strange thing in front of me. It seemed even colder on this side of the fence, and as I walked the sky seemed to grow darker. The freezing air bit at my fingers, stabbed at my cheeks and pinched at my nose. I could see the thing more closely now; some kind of fluffy, hairy beast, a dirty grey matt of wool perched atop four skinny, spindly black legs. The head was dark black as well, harsh and stark against the white body, and protruding from the beasts forehead were two small horns, thick and dull and just starting to curl round at the ends.
I looked closely at the animal, its eyes glaring back at me, glowing almost red amidst the cold, dark black of its face. It raised its small head and snorted loudly, it’s body shaking slightly.
I reached out instinctively to take my grandfather’s hand, but my small cold fingers found nothing but air. Worried, I looked back to find him, but now he was lost, hidden in the depths of the thick, smoky fog. All around me was dense white, floating and shifting, eery and scary. The only visible remnants of the world the outline of the broken fence now just barely visible. I didn’t like this anymore. A cold wind whistled around me, catching in my hood, pulling me back slightly.
I looked around, frantic, spinning on the spot, trying to see any glimpse of the real world. Nothing.
I turned back and the beast was approaching, hissing now and grunting, great bursts of air and steam jetting from its big, dark nostrils. The big monster stood there, eyeing me carefully with those cold, black demon eyes, huge clouds of thick grey steam jetting out from it’s large, dark nostrils. Thick, hot jets of anger. Slowly it dragged one of its front feet back, clawing at the frozen ground beneath it.
And then it came at me, exploding into a sudden burst of enraged movement, leaping high up into the air, landing hard and thundering along the ground towards me. It’s large hooves punched the ground, thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud, kicking up great chunks of snow and grass as it clattered along. Faster it ran, and the nearer it got, the bigger it seemed to grow. Thud-thud, thud-thud.
Closer and closer it came, and I couldn’t move. I was frozen, stuck to the ground, my tiny feet totally immobile, my little legs trembling and shaking. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud, the beast ran at me, it’s hooves on the ground matching my heart beat for beat. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud.
Then all of a sudden it was upon me, bearing down, snarling and howling, that harsh nasal-scream punching out of its throat. Thud-thud, thud-thud. It lowered it’s head, titling up it’s small twisted horns, its eyes clamped toward the ground as it aimed right for me. Thud-thud, thud-THUD, THUD-THUD. Then BANG, it hit me, square in the chest, belting straight into the thick, awkward padding of the anorak.
A sudden blast of pain kicked at my chest, hammered deep into the very depths of me as my little feet suddenly loosened from the ground that was holding them. Backwards I tumbled, a small padded projectile flying through the air, my woollen gloves floating along in the breeze behind my hands before I came crashing down with a clumping, crunching thud, smacking into the ground, landing on my bum.
Dazed and scared, pained and cold I lay there, the shock now gripping my whole body and clamping me to the cold, wet ground. A horrible sickly pain throbbed in my stomach and my breathing came in short, stilted blasts. In. Out. In. Out. My lungs burning from the cold, cold air.
I sat up quickly, panicking, searching all around, trying to find the beast. But he was nowhere. Somewhere in the distance, shrouded, hidden in the thick, dark mist I could hear it’s evil snorts. Then the crunch of the ground as it banged its heavy hooves against the frozen mud, readying for another attack. Thud-thud, thud-thud.
And then it came again, those black eyes appearing first, bursting out of the thick, blank white. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud. Then the rest of it, clattering towards me, legs a blur, it’s cruel dark head pitched down and prepared for another butt. I tried to get to my feet, but I was glued to the ground, completely immobile. Thud-thud, thud-thud. I tried to run, to leap to the side, to get away, but it was no good. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud.
And it neared again, and I just stared into those cold black eyes and…
“Go-on ya wee…” What?
I looked up to see my Grandfather’s now huge frame towering above me, his body skilfully manoeuvred between myself and the beast, a large stick raised high in his hand. “Go on now, get out of it… Get out of it, ya wee…” The beast skidded to a standstill, yards from us. It snorted, small jets of steam exhaled from its wide nostrils, the dark eyes staring back at my grandfather in defiance.
My grandfather raised the stick higher in the air. Again, the beast opened it’s mouth and roared an ungodly, harsh shriek, it’s right hoof slamming down into the ground with ferocious power. But my grandad wasn’t backing down. They stood there, totally silent, just staring at each other. Then, quick as a flash, the beast simply leapt backwards, spinning round and tearing off, disappearing back into the fog and vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.
My grandfather turned round and looked down at me. His big hand lowered towards me and gripped onto mine as tight as he ever had. I could feel the pulse in his big cold thumb, and it was racing far faster than my small heart could beat. Then with one swift tug, he pulled me up off the ground and placed me on my feet again. “You’re alright now son,” he reassured, and the soothing tone of his voice at once made me feel safe again.
The tears that were already welled up in my eyes suddenly sprang forth, my breath coming in short, sharp, stunted gasps, as I tried desperately not to burst into full on crying. “Ach, c’moan now,” he said, wiping the tears from my cheek and ruffling the hair on my head, “it’s okay… Good job it was only a wee one, eh?”
A few more short bursts of hard, wet, snotty breath, as I shuddered quietly, before the tremble wave of air being sucked back in again. “Aye, that’s right, son, let it all out,” he reassured me. “You know what they say, the more you greet, the less you pee!”
He reached forward and his cold, rough thumbs wiped the tears from my face. Again he took my hand, and we walked off at a much more relaxed pace. “I tell you what,” he said, looking down at me and smiling, “when we get down to the bottom of the hill, maybe we’ll get you a wee bag of sweeties.”
Then, giving my hand a really tight, reassuring squeeze, he said, “But perhaps we shouldn’t tell your grandma about any of this…”