It is in the kitchen, as he is preparing food, that Stuart arrives and strikes up conversation. They’ve exchanged names the day before and today eat at the same table.
‘For god’s sake I was wearing two sets of clothes, and still freezing!’ says Stuart.
‘Ah bet you were.’
‘Bet they thought, “look at this old codger, how are we going to get him up the mountain.” But I made it up without much trouble, better than the German lassies anyway.’
‘What about the altitude? I’ve had a bad turn of it myself.’
‘Not much you can do about it. Never had any problems up there. Were the cold stopped me getting a decent sleep.’
Murray leans forward and trickles Highland Park into the two glasses before them. There’s no need, they weren’t even close to dry – but it’ll see them through the next half hour. He’s enjoying talking. Like the whisky, it’s not a frequent occurrence. They’d never met before yesterday, although already they’ve found out plenty in common.
‘How ‘bout here? Keep it warm don’t they,’ says Stuart.
‘Oh, I’m comfortable enough,’ Murray says, and leaves it at that.
‘Worst was Peru.’
‘Could not get to sleep, cold, high up and you would not believe – they’re rinsing down the stairs with petrol.’
‘I’d believe it and more. Everything cooked in chicken fat too. Couldn’t stomach it myself.’
‘Prefer getting my own.’
‘Aye, it’s no bother at all, place like this.’
Murray gestures towards the emptying tables. A young man, not much more than a boy, blond haired with a cluster of spots around the nostril is clearing away his plate. It had been difficult to watch him eat after seeing the ingredients he’d laid out in the kitchen: a tin of sardines in oil, dried pasta and a container of curry powder. He sounded English from his accent, but they never spoke together.
Usually Murray’s not much of a talker. He’s sure people see him as a grandfatherly type. Right enough he’s getting to that age now, so is the man sitting opposite. Although he has a more modern sartorial look.
‘D’you see the Nazca lines?’ asks Stuart.
‘Oh aye, impressive I’m sure, if the pilot weren’t set on makin’ me bring my guts up. Look here it’s a monkey, look here a spaceman, could’ve been anything.’
‘Flying not yer strong point?’
‘Take it or leave it. Prefer to be makin’ tracks, but a pal said you can’t go all that way and not see the lines.’
Murray shakes his head. Out of habit he reaches forward to tidy his loaf of sliced white. He squeezes out the air, twists and tucks the end of the bag underneath. His knife and fork lie side by side on the wiped-clean empty plate. They’ll not be many dishes to do later.
‘You see more walking,’ says Stuart.
‘You do, you meet more folk.’
They both take a sip of malt.
A girl in pyjamas runs through the dining room, she’s followed by a thickset woman with shoulder length dark hair. Murray’s picked up she’s eastern European, but can’t say from exactly where. He’s not a linguist, can’t speak a word of another language despite all his travels, and there’s a fair few who would say his English isn’t up to much.
He’s not had children, but can see straight off the child is spoiled. Her eyes, half hidden by a thick fringe, look at every object possessively.
There’s a pause in their conversation. From the kitchen area comes the repeated refrain of pan lids being dropped onto the hard floor, then being picked up and deliberately dropped again.
Across the table Stuart raises an eyebrow and lifts his glass. They’re pretty much alone really. The odd person passes through to fetch and carry things back to their rooms or into the games room – where strictly speaking no food or drink is allowed.
‘Where d’you get to today?’ asks Stuart.
‘Took the hike over to Ryvoan Bothy.’
‘The mist lifted a while.’
‘So it did.’
There’s more privacy here than the games room, not that they need it, but the tube lights don’t cast a good light. Everything looks older, sadder, by tube light. It reminds Murray of his kitchen at home.
‘How long did it take?’
‘Not so long. Four and a bit hours, mind I stopped to eat and take in the view.’
Stuart can’t be more than five, well definitely no more than ten years younger than him. He’s wearing a modern replacement for the vest. The ‘base layer’ is bright blue and by the look of it made of rubber. Although it’s only early autumn the frosts have already come to the highlands. It’s chilly enough for Murray to be in his warmer gear: vest, brushed cotton shirt, corduroy trousers, woollen socks. He feels the cold more now – still the whisky warms the heart.
‘D’you see buzzards?’
‘A few. Thought there might have been a falcon amongst them but I couldn’t be sure.’
‘Can’t be your first time staying here though?’
‘Oh no, no. I’ve had a few stays, but it’s been a while.’
‘Taking too many foreign trips?’
Murray nearly says, ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ but he stops himself. He’s wished he were younger enough times today; when the sky was a square blue sheet high above, when the mist lifted slowly out of the valley, caressing the spruce as it dissolved into the warming air. Not because he wanted to see it all again. He wanted to see it with somebody; to breathe the peaty air from the loch, then feel the pause in everything, and keep quite still until the quacking ducks disturb the silence – with somebody.
‘D’you see the condors in Peru?’
‘Colca Canyon? Aye. Came as close to me as that table.’ Murray gestures towards the window overlooking the red squirrel feeding area.
‘What about the roads!’
‘Nearly as bad as the driving. I swear at one point I was the only one not passed out on a minibus, including the man behind the wheel.’
‘I can well believe it,’ Stuart laughs.
He looks over his glass before taking another sip.
The spoilt girl appears from the kitchen, dragging a metal teapot in one hand, holding a crumbling chocolate digestive in the other. The teapot clatters as she swings it against the table legs. Her mother follows a few paces behind. She’s carrying a cup of tea, gingerly balancing it with the tips of her fingers. The woman bows slightly as she passes acknowledging their presence.
Murray leans over the table slightly and extends his left leg to ease the tight tendon at the back of his knee. The stretch feels good. His trouser brushes against Stuart’s shin. The fabric crumples against the hairs on his leg; the contact is enough to set the nerves at their base tingling, like the brush of a nettle before the bloom of welts. There is a moment where the soft flesh of his calf and firm edge of Stuart’s shin are together, where heat exchanges from flesh to fabric to flesh.
Murray doesn’t apologise. There’s no need, no offence or injury was caused. They’re still just two men sitting having a drink. Stuart’s glass pauses in the air. The automatic close of the fire door silences the retreat of the girl and her mother. They have the place to themselves again.
There’s a short break in conversation. They sit in silence beneath the landscape photograph of Lock Morlich, mounted in cream and framed in pale wood. The effort at decoration is spoiled by the sturdy screws that hold the picture securely against the wall – a reminder of the institutional nature of the accommodation. Murray’s lost the thread of what they were talking about. Stuart provides a new starter.
‘Nearly lost the sight in this eye in South America.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Should have see the place I stayed.’
They’re off again; tales of injuries and accidents. It provides more laughs than anything else they’ve covered.
Later, the girl who works on reception comes through. She looks sideways at them as she walks by. Murray thinks for the first time that perhaps they’re making a bit of noise. She goes into the kitchen and he hears the click, tick of the tea urn. They keep talking. She returns a moment later with a steaming mug.
‘I had to walk five miles to get off the mountain, back to the village and then get a taxi to the hospital. See here’s the scar.’
Stuart rolls bright blue Lycra away from his swarthy forearm. There’s a white line three inches long with puckered indentations at the wrist.
‘Worst thing was having the pins out. I wouldn’t trouble to do that again.’
As the door swings shut behind the receptionist Murray overhears her say, ‘…issed as old farts,’ presumably to the kiwi fella who sets out the breakfast. Stuart doesn’t seem to notice.
Murray’s seen her, knees up at the computer, clicking away, twirling her hair, fussing with the make up around her eyes. She’ll have a beaky nose in a few years time, and, if she keeps drinking coke all day she’ll have bad teeth to boot. Not that his were any good. All of them gone by the time he was fifty-nine. Good riddance.
Stuart rolls down his sleeve. He starts another tale about a bus journey in northern Thailand.
Murray thinks of the scar by his navel, smaller than Stuart’s showpiece, only about an inch wide, but the wound, which bled copiously, could have been fatal. He’d not known what he was doing back then. He’d been mistaken about somebody and paid for it. Even if he wasn’t entirely mistaken, it had been a misjudgement about the right time and place to be open. It had taught him a lesson, made him ‘stay-at-home’, and if he did go out, well it was much further a field, much, much further.
‘So we get out of the bus again and locals start appearing from the forest with shovels…’
‘Key survival item,’ Murray interjects.
‘…you shoulda’ seen them, barefooted trying to move a mountain of clay…’
‘And you’ve got no choice but to get back on the bus.’
‘No choice at all.’
The talk is good and steady now. Stuart is leaning back with one arm over the back of the chair next to him. Murray takes off his glasses and wipes them. He catches Stuart looking at him while they are removed, more than a casual glance. What? Why? Does he look so much older without them?
An hour later, they’ve had a few more refills and it’s getting on. Stuart’s gone out to reception. Murray looks around and thinks how much he likes the hostel. Sure, the odd chair needs replacing, the cutlery’s wafer thin, and the drying up towels – it won’t be long before they disintegrate, but it’s not about all that.
His gaze rests on a scattering of breadcrumbs dropped by the family with four kids who came in and ate noisily earlier in the evening. The white crumbs stand out against the red lino.
‘Here we go,’ says Stuart as he re-enters the room, ‘she found one in the end.’
He hands Murray a piece of paper and a pen.
Murray presses the ballpoint to the surface. He stares for a second at the torn edge of the page considering what to do.
‘Seems daft not to be in touch,’ says Stuart.
‘Aye, when you’re practically down the road.’
Murray starts to write.
‘I’d been planning to go up to Rothiemurchus from Whitewell tomorrow,’ says Stuart, ‘say we stroll up together?’
Murray feels the brush of a toe against the side of his ankle. He pauses halfway through the postcode. He’s never been good at any of this stuff.
‘D’you think I’ll keep up?’ he says.
‘Miles ahead,’ smiles Stuart, ‘you’ll do fine. I was once behind a pair of priests walking around the Snowdon horseshoe …’
He’s off again. A great talker, sees the funny side of things, but not without good judgement too. When the story’s done Murray slides the paper across the table. Stuart swivels it around and reads.
‘Perfect.’ He takes the pen, ‘I’ll get rid of this and be back for washing up.’
Murray washes while Stuart dries; handing him the soapy plates, the wet knives and forks.
‘Shall we say ten o’clock in the car park?’
‘No bother,’ Murray replies.
He replaces his loaf in the cubbyhole for room number eight. The scotch is making everything sway, forward then back, shifting perspective, making everything more black and white. Murray leans against the worn out ‘PUSH’ painted on the door. He feels an impulse, so familiar it doesn’t surprise him, so frequently suppressed that he suppresses it again without consideration.
‘Til tomorrow,’ he says.
Stuart holds his gaze and folds an unused drying-up cloth precisely in half and half again. He has that quality of meticulousness Murray admires, carefulness…but he’s already committed to opening the door and leaving the room.
Murray heads back through the green corridors, shuffling away the five-litre carton of fabric softener that jams open the door separating the ‘quiet area’ from the rest of the dormitories. He doesn’t shower, just removes his clothes, dons his pyjamas, and lays his watch and glasses down on the floor by the side of the bed. He doesn’t close his eyes.
The next day, before breakfast is even laid out, everything has changed.
Gabrielle Barnby, Northwords Now, Jan 2014