‘NO ONE IS BLAMING YOU for anything, Beatha. The girl died long after you left the group yesterday,’ the reporter says to me. He heaves his hips to one side in the chair. Eyes squeezed shut, his face twisting with pain. After a moment, he relaxes and looks back at me; an intensity there makes me uneasy.
Why’s he looking at me like that? I don’t trust him. What’s he after? He looks strange, too. His hair is too brown and long for someone so old, like he dyes it; or it’s a wig. That weird, uneven smile freaks me out. It’s not like he’s eating me with his eyes or making creepy suggestions, but there’s still something slimy about him.
He says, ‘What I’m interested in is why, when so many groups of young people have done this course, walked the same paths and climbed the same route through Perthshire, this expedition should end in so much violence and tragedy.’
I run my nails over the shiny surface of the table. Everything is polished clean and tidy in this house; everything except the scruffy man sitting opposite me. It doesn’t help that he’s soaking wet from the short walk between his car and the front door. There’s a smudge of gooey black stuff washed off the roof or something. It sits on his shoulder like a pet slug. Yuk. He hasn’t even noticed it yet.
He looks up from his notepad. ‘You’re seventeen, right?’
‘Do you do much outdoor activity?’
‘No, apart from my morning walks before school. My foster mum signed me up for the expedition. That sort of thing sounds good when she reports to the social worker. Gillian likes showing how good she is, Mr Urquhart.’ His head tilts, eyes flicker, creasing at the corners. I think he’s full of questions about me and my strange life. He doesn’t ask them. Good, it’s not his business. He puts down his pen and leans his chin on his hands. The elbows of his tweed jacket make damp patches on the table. Gillian will be pissed off.
‘You can call me Paul, if you like. So what made you leave the group so early in the day?’
‘Just… anger, everyone was angry. I hated it. No one knew each other and the boys quarrelled, then the girls joined in… just screaming at everyone. No one could read a map properly. I kept telling them they were going in the wrong direction. When the tall boy pushed another into a load of nettles face first… I’d had enough.’
‘What started it, any ideas?’ Stupid question. How am I supposed to know? He’s probably paying Gillian for this interview. She’ll cut my computer time if I don’t do well. Fingers in hair, palms on my forehead, I try to think.
‘I don’t know. It came out of nowhere. No one person really started it. Just a bad group… I’m glad I got out when I did, before they really started into each other.’
Paul looks down at his notebook, spreads it flat open with a broad hand. ‘One dead, possibly an accident, possibly murder. She fell forty metres some time yesterday afternoon. Others with cuts, bruises, broken fingers, the marks of human teeth, scratches, lumps of hair torn out… The last person was found half-frozen just after three a.m. this morning.’
I drop my hands from my face and lay them on the table, but they go too close to Paul the creepy reporter. I draw them back and wipe away strands of hair that hang over my eyes. He pats his pockets and says, ‘Damn.’ Looks up at me. ‘I’ve left the map in my car. Have you…?’
I push my chair back and stand. ‘I’ve got one. Hang on a minute.’ The living room door opens as I approach it.
Gillian comes in carrying a tray of tea, biscuits and cups. ‘Going somewhere, Beatha?’ she asks, eyes disapproving, suspicious. I tell her I’m getting the map and dodge past her. Close the door behind me, breathe out, relax, so glad to be free of both people for a moment. I breathe in again: yuk. This house always stinks of cleaning fluid and polish. The brass umbrella stand gleams, the curtains either side of the stair window hang in perfect symmetry. At the top of the stairs, I open my bedroom door. Gillian’s been in, made the bed, probably checked to see where the bookmark is in my French textbook. She’ll have done a search for hidden pills… I pull the map from my shelf and throw myself on the bed to ruffle up the duvet. I wonder what Gillian and the reporter are talking about?
Gillian will be on about how hard it is to foster me, ‘What with Beatha’s illness, you know…’ She’ll be saying, ‘I’ve never taken on someone quite like this. I’m not doing it for the extra money, you should understand. It’s because the social work department appreciate my experience and skill.’ She’s probably telling him what a risk I am to her person and property. I’ve got the map open on the duvet. A tear drops on the word Schiehallion. Shit, how long can I cope with Gillian? Why can’t she be a bit warmer, more trusting, give me some space… ? I roll from the bed and kick my slippers off. She won’t be able to bug me about being barefoot when she’s got a guest. I stretch out a leg and spread my toes. I love the way my thin ankles stick out from my jeans. I draw a circle in the air with my foot. Blissful moments snatched alone, not doing anything important.
I creep downstairs. I’ve been fostered in this aseptic nightmare for three months and I’m still trying to find where the silent parts of the stairs are. It’s an old house and the floorboards reveal my movements too often. It’s really hard to move around without Gillian hearing and asking me what I’m doing. Through the living room door comes her voice, laden with responsibility and duty. I sweep in and spread the map in front of Paul. His face brightens and he smiles at me as if glad I’ve released him from Gillian’s dirge. Don’t blame him.
He begins to say, ‘You started at Dalnacardoch…’ I stab a finger about five kilometres up the track and say, ‘Here, in this forest…’
Gillian interrupts. ‘Plantation.’
‘…plantation… it all got hot and uncomfortable. It was hard even for me to concentrate…’
Paul tilts his head again. ‘Even for you?’ He’s sharp. I’d better watch that.
I think about my words. ‘Yes. I didn’t seem as uptight as the others. I knew where I was and didn’t have the worry of getting lost or choosing which of them to believe. I told them to follow me, but no one listened, like I wasn’t even there. Really, I could have been invisible.’
Paul writes without looking at his notebook. He prompts. ‘It got hot?’
‘Yes. Well, I felt hot. There seemed to be a real plague of midges, too. I mean, they got into people’s eyes.’
‘Do you think the midges made people angry?’ What’s he talking about? What’s he going to write in his stupid paper: Mad girl says midges drove people to attack each other? Face burns, eyes prickle, anger surges.
‘No, Mr Reporter, I’m not saying that. Stop trying to put words into my mouth. I’ve had enough. I don’t want to talk any more.’ I’m overreacting, but there’s nothing I can do. Gillian stands up and places herself between me and the door, cutting off my escape. She says, ‘Beatha, we don’t speak to people in that way. Not in this house.’ I turn and leap onto the sofa, curl up; hide my face in a cushion. Paul’s saying that, given the awful experience I’ve been through, he’s not surprised I’m emotional. He’d be concerned if I wasn’t. I wonder if that’s a dig at Gillian… like she should show more concern? If it was, he’s being far too subtle for her.
His footsteps approach the sofa. He hisses through his teeth as he kneels beside me. A grinding creak sets my teeth on edge. It sounds like his bones are rubbing together. I shudder and hug the cushion tighter. He says, ‘Beatha, no problem. I promise that, before this gets printed, I’ll let you look over it to make sure I’ve written everything the way you want it said. Here, take my card. Phone me if you think of anything else. Thank you for letting me speak to you.’
God, he’s a slimy creep. He stinks of old wet clothes and smoker’s breath. Gillian says, ‘I’ll take the card, Mr Urquhart. Given Beatha’s condition, it’s better if communication goes through me.’ I relax a little as I hear her letting him out the front door and stifle a moan when she returns saying, ‘We’ll put aside that outburst for the moment and discuss your behaviour later. Put the cushions back tidily and collect your books. Put your slippers on, too. You can do one hour’s French revision and then we’ll have an hour of relaxing family time. I think you should take your medication early. After that you can go online for a while.’ God, she’s wiping the table and chair like the reporter left a disease or something.
So, Gillian went on about French for ages, saying I’m not studying hard enough. I told her French is useless. She said it’s important. I asked her if she did it at school. She said, ‘Four years of it.’ I asked her if she can speak French. She said, ‘That’s not the point.’ But didn’t tell me what the point was. “Family time” usually means watching TV programmes that she’s recorded to educate me. Things she’s interested in. Today it’s local news. Our Post Office is staying open. Joy. The police are investigating reports of a man losing his rag with his dog and killing it. He threw it off a bridge. A paraglider landed in the High Street, folded his chute, and calmly went into the café for a coffee. Thank God today’s TV wasn’t about some bloody feminist who saved the world, or rebelled against male domination. Gillian always launches into a strident lecture afterwards that cuts into my time. Male domination, that’s a laugh. Her pathetic husband was probably crushed by her list of rules until he fled for ever. Don’t blame him. Can’t imagine her in bed doing it. I wonder if they ever did. I bet he had to say ‘please’ before and ‘thank you’ afterwards.
Now it’s my time, computer time. Quiet and alone in my room. Gillian has no passion. So many people don’t have any. Passion. Life is all about it. I’m typing into my laptop as fast as I can. Everyone who looks at my blog tonight will see: “Imagine eating food without passion, kissing without it, drawing, writing, even revising Biology. If there’s no passion in it, are you actually alive? Is there any point? If life were a piece of metal, passion would make it into a magnet. Attractive or repellent, but never ignored.” My mind is slowing down and it’s hard to type without making mistakes.
The medication wraps my brain in a heavy duvet. The liquid medicine is easy to mess with. Pour half of it away and mix syrup and water in. Gillian can’t tell. The tablets are the problem. There’s just nowhere in a human mouth to hide them, and Gillian checks, sticking her fingers in and digging around. Her hand cream tastes disgusting. The social workers say, under the circumstances, checking that I’ve swallowed everything is not assault. It bloody is.
I’m staring at the screen and my mouth hangs open. I’m turning into the evening zombie. Every night I want to tell everyone about the evil fear that pervades our world. But the medicine messes with my thoughts, deadens perception, and anyway, some bastard would see my blog and increase my medication. What was I thinking about? Passion. I’ve run out of it. Time for bed. I’ve said goodnight to Gillian, pulled the dresser across the door, stuck the pegs through the slits I made in the carpet and into the gap between the floorboards below. Nothing can get in. Curtains pulled tight. No gaps. Nothing can see me.
The clock glows 5:30 a.m. at me. Why a.m.? Like I’m going to think this is afternoon?
I love this time. I’ve slept the dead head off and can think again. That reporter… Paul… there was passion in him. Questions he was bursting to ask but didn’t. Like he was actually interested in me and not just his story. Poor man. I was seriously paranoid yesterday. I think I’ve thinned the medicine too much. There was passion somewhere else, big time. Where did I feel that?
Oh my God! Shit, shit, shit! I need to phone Paul. Grab mobile, pegs out of the floor, move the dresser so slowly… only the faintest whisper of it moving on the carpet. I oiled my door hinges and handle, so I can move them in silence. Bare feet testing the landing floorboards. I can feel if the wood is going to move and call out to Gillian. The stairs are getting easier as I learn them. Just to be safe, I walk right on the edge by the wall. It’s slow, but works pretty well.
It’s easy to find Paul’s number. It’s in a clear plastic sleeve on the kitchen dresser. Gillian obviously thinks he’s good for more money. Close kitchen door and stand between the curtain and the back door. Gillian won’t be able to hear me talking. I dial the landline. You can’t switch those off so easily. Now wake up, Paul, you arthritic lump. A slim, blonde teenage girl wants to meet you! It cuts to answerphone. I dial again and it cuts again. Third time and Paul grunts at me.
‘Paul, it’s Beatha, I need to go back to that forest. You said to phone you if I thought of anything, and I have. But I need to go back there to check. I’ll meet you by the old pump, you know, the well on the same lane as the church.’
‘When? You mean now?’ Paul sounds a bit more awake.
‘No, in half an hour, three quarters. Gotta go now.’ That’s my time up. Gillian’s sixth sense will have woken her. She’ll be halfway down the stairs at least. Quick, hide phone in fruit bowl. Why didn’t I wear my dressing gown? It has pockets. Dash to the fridge and get milk out. Look normal. Bugger, she must already have been at the bottom of the stairs. She pushes the door open with a shoulder. My morning medication fills her hands.
‘Good morning, Beatha. Good thing we’re both early risers. You’ll need some breakfast before taking this lot.’ She always starts a fresh day like she’s forgotten yesterday’s arguments. By the evening she’s back to telling me how lazy I am and why I shouldn’t wear my lip stud to school. The fight over that stud has gone on since I got here. It’s the one thing I haven’t given up. It’s all that I have left that she doesn’t control. She notices I’ve disturbed the curtain over the back door, but doesn’t say anything. She really holds on to cheerful, first thing.
A few minutes later and I’m dressed and muttering about the weather. Pretending that I can smell rain, I take my jacket. As she lets me out of the door, I rush back in, telling her I need an apple. Slip phone into pocket, apple into hand, I give her a big smile and head down the lane. She calls after me, reminding me that my French exam starts at eleven. Sod French. I’m not going.
I head into the woods towards the little stream spilling itself over the grey stones. I can’t wait for winter to see the beards of icicles that’ll form on the banks. The heavy scent of wet nettles gives way to a tide of garlic fumes overwhelming my nose. Everything grows in abundance here. This is the best thing about living with Gillian. I feel I’ve walked among these oaks, birches and willows all my life. Maybe I should do more outdoor stuff, just walk for a whole day. Go up mountains… Let’s face it, there’s not much else to do in this place. Cut right, up a bank, haul myself through the towering bracken. It drops yesterday’s rain on me, splits and tries to cut my hands. Along the side of the field, mud sticks to my trainers until I’m two or three centimetres taller. Swift kicks into the air send lumps scattering in front of me.
Behind the trees there’s a car and Paul waiting beside it. A big cloud like a blank speech bubble erupts from his head. He turns a bit and I see he’s smoking a pipe. He looks at me as I fight my way through low branches, taps his pipe against the palm of his hand and sends a glowing ember skittering over the road. A line of smoke twists and breaks in the breeze. He nods at me and opens the driver’s door. Maybe he doesn’t talk much in the morning. I get in, too. He offers some chewing gum. I shake my head and don’t say, ‘I shouldn’t take sweets from strangers.’
I can’t get the bloody seatbelt fastened for ages, but he doesn’t try to help. That’s cool. A perv would have used that as an excuse for a bit of contact. The car starts and the radio comes on, talk, not music. Paul switches it off and we pull away. He tells me his bones hurt a lot at this time of day. It takes a while for the painkillers to kick in and I’m not to mind if he’s quiet. He hates coming over all grumpy. I shrug and say, ‘Fine,’ stick my headphones in and watch the sunlight creeping down the summits in Glengarry, like someone’s pouring life over them.
Reviews of The Evil and the Fear
“Possibly one of the strangest and most amazing books I have ever read.” Goodreads
“I find it amazing when an author can write from the perspective of a mentally disturbed person. How they manage to get inside the mind of someone like that and being able to get it right is truly awesome. Bonn has done that brilliantly.” Goodreads
“We all have fears and evil inside us, but we all have the potential for love and happiness. Wonderful message, wonderfully told.” Goodreads
“I was particularly impressed by the characterisation of Beatha, a damaged and psychotic young woman as it really seemed that Gary had a true understanding of what it is to feel so mentally insecure. A really good YA read that I’m sure many would enjoy.” Goodreads
“Gary Bonn writes from the perspective of someone who is mentally challenged/disturbed brilliantly. The ending of this book is absolutely satisfying and doesn’t need a sequel, but my brain is still racing with thoughts and ideas of what the future could hold.” Amazon Reviews
“For once I’m not forced to try and like a Mary Sue. Instead, I get a very real, very damaged girl who has REAL issues and trying desperately to hold herself together.
The actual plot: amazing. It’s fast-paced and just plain fun to read. I highly recommend this book.” Goodreads