‘When we get to the top I can wave to Mum and Dad. It’s like saying goodb … hello. I think we’ll see Glasgow, don’t you?’ Ben asks. On the other side of the burn, Morag sits looking down and swishing her feet in the stream. Still in trainers, mud and dark stains wash from them. She doesn’t speak. He goes on. ‘Did you tell your mum we were coming up here?’
Morag tenses, looks up and nods.
‘Well, did you?’
‘I tried to. There were so many flies. I was scared.’
‘In the kitchen?’
‘Yes. I think she’s still asleep like dad.’
Morag looks down the hill, narrows her eyes and points. ‘That field. I didn’t want to go in because of the dogs.’
‘No. I don’t know where they came from. They scared me yesterday. I think they’re still there. Did you see Mrs … Your foster … um, Abbey and Chris to say goodbye?’
‘No. I don’t know where they’ve gone. Their car’s gone too. I don’t know if they were looking for me. I don’t know when they’ll be back. Abbey was sick a lot. Maybe they went to the doctor.’ Ben looks up the path. Steep and rocky, gored in muddy areas by the hooves of sheep and grooved by water, it looks forbidding. ‘How much longer do we have to keep going up?’
‘I don’t know. Dad carried me on his shoulders last time. It was fun and he sang songs.’ She leans forward. ‘I want to put my hands in the water too, they hurt.’ She looks at Ben. ‘It’s not like I’m drinking it.’
‘But how high is the mountain?’ Ben asks.
‘As high as high can be.’
‘Do we have to go to the top?’
‘Right to the top. There’s lots of rocks there. Mum and dad said that’s where the magic is; at the very, very top.’
Ben stifles a sob. ‘But it’s so big. If only it was flatter; it would be easy.’
‘Don’t you have mountains in Glasgow?’
‘No, silly. There’s no room.’
Morag closes her eyes as the cold water soothes her hands. ‘Do you think it would be bad to put my face in? It hurts too.’
Ben shakes his head. ‘That’s nearly drinking it. All the badness will get into you and you’ll…’ He founders on the next word.
‘But I’m so thirsty.’ Morag stands and winces, moving her weight from one foot to the other. ‘Come on.’ She looks down at Ben. ‘Get up. Come on!’
‘It’s so hard… We’ve been walking for ages and ages.’ Ben’s eyes fill with tears.
‘I can’t go up alone. I’m scared. And you’re nearly a year older than me … and everything.’
‘When are you six?’ Asks Ben, reaching for a heather root on which to pull himself up. He stops and tries not to look at his hand.
‘Tomorrow. I think it’s tomorrow. Come on, Ben. I can’t pull you up because of my skin.’
Morag stumbles at the top of the bank. A tiny slip, she lands on her side and screams with the pain of it. Ben shuffles, tries not to look, knows he can’t help her up without both of them suffering as a result. Reaches out, wanting to take her hand, steps back again, arms limp at his sides.
Whimpering from a screwed up mouth Morag gets to her feet. ‘Ben, this is so sore. Nothing should be so sore.’
They stand looking into each other’s eyes. Eyes tortured with pain and unspoken fear. Morag’s breathing settles; she looks up the hill. ‘Not far, not far.’ She points. ‘The path goes between the rocky bits. The magic place is behind a wall.’
‘Morag,’ Ben stifles another sob, ‘that’s very far. It’s very steep.’
She turns on him and screeches, ‘What else is there to do? What else; what else; what else?’
‘Stop shouting!’ Ben leans forward hands over his ears, eyes tight closed.
Morag limps forward up the path. ‘Well I’m going. Someone’s got to make everything better.’
Ben can’t answer. To do so would burst the dam holding back the unspeakable. A pact they’ve made without realising it: a way to cope. He stumbles on behind her.
The path steepens. Firm red soil holds just enough water to make Morag’s trainers grip. As she moves she recites, ‘On Tintock tap there is a mist.’ Her next step taken every time she says the last word.
‘What’s a Tintock?’ Mutters Ben. She doesn’t answer, lost in her chant.
‘What’s a Tintock?’ Ben shouts this time staggering among heather shoots.
‘Ssh. I’m making the mist.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘This is Tinto, this mountain. It used to be called Tintock. That’s its magic name.’
‘Does it have a tap? I’m so thirsty.’
‘Tap means top. But there is a cup there.’
‘With water that we can really drink?’
‘Just one drop. We’ll share it.’
‘Just one drop?’
‘You say that about everything. I don’t believe you.’ Ben stops and stands, swaying. ‘I’m staying here. This is stupid.’
‘You can’t stop. You mustn’t.’
Ben sits down, arms on knees and rests his head. ‘I’m not going.’
‘It’s not far.’
Morag turns. Too dehydrated to cry, her eyes sting. ‘On Tintock tap there is a mist. On Tintock tap there is a mist…’
Ben raises his head when he hears her shrieks cracking with despair. He rises and, lips pressed in a grim line of pain, heads towards the noise. ‘I’m coming!’ he shouts.
‘Ben, Ben. We’ve gone the wrong way. I can’t find the stile.’ Morag sobs, pulling a bare arm over her eyes.
Blood on her hands and the ragged rocks of the dry-stone wall, she’s been trying to climb.
‘I’ll help you over the wall. No, look the stile’s over there.’
‘Where? I can’t see it. It’s all a bit grey. Is the mist coming down?’
Ben, with a flash of wisdom far beyond his years, doesn’t mention that there’s no mist. His own eyesight’s fading too. ‘Here, I won’t hold your hand. I’ll hold your shoulder.’
‘Have I done something very bad to my hands? I have, haven’t I? Like when I fell. I think some of my skin tore.’
‘You’re fine.’ Revelation breaks through Ben’s resistance. He sees the truth of things, a shock: a strange relief with it. He feels dizzy with responsibility, elation that he can meet it. He’ll get Morag to where she wants to go and then look after her. Strength comes to him. The strength that goes with knowing you’ve nothing left to save it for. They get to the stile and he climbs it, leaden legs shaking.
‘One more step up. There’s a thick bit to stand on.’ Ben looks at the flesh hanging from Morag’s hands. ‘You don’t need to touch the rail; just come forward.’
The sun comes out and Morag says she can see a bit better.
Ben makes sure she’s safely off the stile and turns to the cairn on the summit. ‘You’re right, Morag. It’s not far, really close. It’s all rocks in a bit. I’ll put my arm round you.’
Morag asks, ‘Can you see the kist?’
‘It means chest. A thing you put things in.’ Morag’s words rasp in her throat she stops and shudders, her stomach heaving.
‘You all right? You feeling sick?’
‘I’ve felt sick for days. It’s getting worse.’
‘Me too. Come on. We’ll go really slow. One bit at a time.’
‘Can you see the kist?’
‘I’ll look for it.’
Morag chants, ‘And in that mist there is a kist. And in that mist there is a kist.’ To Ben she says, ‘I’m making the kist.’ She stumbles and stops. ‘Can I sit yet?’
‘Just a few steps and we’re as high as can be. All the magic will be there.’ Despite their fragile flesh, Ben catches her as she stumbles again. They both squeal as raw nerves tear and burn. ‘Here, we can stop. Don’t cry. We can sit down now,’ he says. ‘Turn round. There’s a flat stone. It’s big enough for both of us.’
Through her sobs, she says, ‘You are strong and brave. Can you see the kist?’
Ben’s mind races. ‘It’s here. I can feel it. But you have to believe in it.’ He pauses, ‘I know it’s sore but can I take your hand? I can guide it. We’ll both open the kist.’ He moves her hand; she stiffens and gasps. ‘It won’t hurt for long. The magic will help us. Can you feel the kist just here?’
‘Believe you can feel it. Believe it.’
‘What’s it made of?’
‘Wood; it’s wood.’
‘Here’s the catch. We can open it now. Can you hear the lid? It’s creaking.’
‘Yes.’ The faintest whimper from Morag. ‘Can you see the cup?’
‘A cup? Yes. It’s an old brown one like my nana has in her house. Let’s lift it. Open your mouth.’
‘I can’t see it, Ben. Has the sun gone down already?’
Ben feels his heart break. The sun’s touching the low hills on his right. ‘It’s the mist getting thick.’
‘It’s getting colder too.’
‘Take a sip. What does it taste like?’
‘Will you drink some too?’
‘After you.’ He watches her drink from the imaginary cup, her swollen tongue running over cracked and scabbed lips.
‘It’s lovely…’ A flake of dried blood falls from the corner of her mouth.
Ben pretends to drink too, stops himself, forces the dream into his mind, into his mouth. Tastes the water, feels its coolness. ‘That’s the best drop of water ever.’
‘I liked it when you had your arm round me. Will you do it again?’
‘I’ll try not to hurt you.’
Morag presses close, experimentally, bit by bit against the pain. ‘When we grow up, we’ll have to get married.’
‘Cos, we’re the only ones left aren’t we?’
So, at last, the dam bursts. The words can flood out.
Ben says, ‘I think everyone’s dead. No one’s going to come.’
‘But how will we pay bills and things? I don’t know how.’
‘There won’t be bills.’
‘There were missiles. Now it’s satellites and stuff. They’re burning everything. They burned Glasgow.’
‘Like they did to other places far, far away over the sea? Like on telly?’
‘Chris said they’re out of control. He says the people who made them are dead. The satellites broke a power station and badness got out. The missiles made badness too. It gets into the air and comes down in the rain and gets into all our water. The satellites make things hot. They made those huge clouds that dropped all the ice that broke the roofs and killed people at Jordan’s farm.’
‘But why? Why do they do that?’
‘Chris said it was a war. It happened so fast they didn’t have time to tell anyone.’
Morag looks up. ‘I can see magic now. Dancing lights like fairies. It’s very faint. It’s lovely.’
To the south, across the Southern Uplands, erupts a vast electrical storm reaching to the horizons. Ben wonders if the satellites are moving down the country all the time and who’ll be left when they’ve finished. The storm’s thundering roar reaches and shakes them, makes conversation impossible. They sit, shivering until they can speak again.
‘What will it be like when we’re married? Can we have two dogs for the sheep? Mum says three make too much mess.’
‘I like dogs. We weren’t allowed any in our flat.’
‘That was a lovely drink but I’m still a bit thirsty.’
‘We’ll have some more in a minute.’
‘On Tintock tap there is a mist
And in that mist there is a kist
And in that kist there is a cup
And in that cup there is a drap
Tak up the cup and drink that drap that’s in yon kist on Tintock tap.’
She stops and wheezes. ‘Ben…’ she starts, chokes and goes on. ‘My feet and hands don’t hurt now. The magic’s working. It’s getting harder to talk. I’m so sleepy.’
Ben feels his own feet growing numb and lifeless – an improvement on the burning pain of the last day. He’d been too scared to take his shoes off in case he couldn’t cope with what they revealed. Frost glitters among the laces. He cuddles Morag for a while and watches the stars come out. The moon sends soft light down silvering Morag’s hair. A group of three satellites, with petals like flowers and looking almost as big as the moon, flash as they catch the sun. They rotate as a group; a slow waltz of death fading into the earth’s shadow.
‘Hey, you,’ Ben says, looking down at Morag. ‘I don’t think you should sleep with your eyes open. I’ll help you close them. I’ll be ever so gentle.’
The moon and stars track slowly across the sky. His free arm is too numb to lift so he can’t see his watch.
‘I think I need to doze for a bit. It’s very late. Sleep well, Morag.’
©Gary Bonn 2013