© Martin Salter-Smith
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“I’ve got to talk to someone about this. It’s been preying on my mind. I don’t know whether I should go to the police. They might arrest me. On the other hand, they might say I’m wasting their time and just ignore me. But I know you’ll listen to me, and maybe it’ll help me to work out what to do. If you could just hear me out and try to understand, you might be able to make sense of what I’m going through.
“I’m not a bad man; I think you know that. I’ve always taken care of my family and looked after my children. I help out with the housework and I try to be thoughtful with my friends. I give money to some charites and I do my best for all the customers who come into the branch, whether I know them or not. I try never to do anything which will harm others. As I say, I’m not a bad man. I even go to church, occasionally.
“So how have I got into this mess? I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing deliberate. I didn’t know I’d caused any harm until later, when things started to happen, or at least when I started to find out what had happened. At first it seemed better to keep quiet. It wasn’t worth saying anything. After all, I wasn’t really responsible. These things occur all the time – it’s a hazard of the age we live in, the age of the car. Later, when things got worse, I wanted to tell somebody about it; but by then it was too late.
“ Maybe some will say it’s all my fault, which it is in one way; I was at the start of all this misery. But it’s not my fault, really, because I didn’t do anything deliberately. Or, should I say, nothing deliberately malicious.
“I’m not making much sense, am I? I can tell by the way you’re looking at me. I’m sorry, I’ve been living with this thing so long that I feel as if everyone knows about it already. I imagine they’re just waiting for the right moment to start pointing their fingers at me. But in reality, nobody has the faintest idea what happened that day, and you’ve no idea what I’m talking about. Yet.
“It’s months since it happened, a tiny incident such as drivers are involved in every day, and I should be able to just forget about it. But I can’t. It’s always there, nagging at me, like an open sore or an itchy scab inside my mind. So I’ll go back to the beginning and you can make your mind up about it.
“It started really, I suppose, when he came into the branch. He wanted to arrange a mortgage. He’d just started a new job as some sort of salesman for an internet company. It sounded a bit insecure to me, but he assured me business was set to boom, and that he’d be on a decent salary right from the start, plus commission.
“My job’s to sell financial packages, so I have to admit I went along with him and encouraged him to go for the biggest mortgage he could afford. I suppose I may even have pushed him a little. Was that so wrong of me? It’s what I’m paid to do, after all.
“Anyway, he was really happy when he came back and told me he’d found just the house, an impressive barn conversion on the road from Greenodd to Coniston. Just the thing for an upwardly mobile young man like himself. He obviously had an image of himself and where he was going. He said he and his wife had just fallen in love with it. So they bought it, and ended up with a whopping mortgage. But he could cope. They were a bit stretched financially to begin with, but his salary was going up, not down, and he was confident they were really on the up and up. And I was naturally happy to help.
“I saw him a few times after that, just coming into the branch to make arrangements and to get odd bits of advice. And I saw him sometimes socially, around town at concerts and so on in Ulverston and Barrow. Oh, yes, and then he joined the Rotary. We were just about on first name terms by then. Simon, he was called.
“I can see you want to know where he fits in to my story. Well, he’s at the heart of it really. It’s all about him, and I’m getting round to telling you. I’m sorry it’s taking so long to explain.
“It was months ago now, at the start of the summer. You know I’ve got a sailing boat, don’t you? It’s a dinghy, actually, a Wayfarer. I’m hoping to upgrade to a two berth cruiser. Or at least, I was. My heart’s not in it now.
“It was May, early May. The weather was beautiful and I’d just acquired a mooring on Ullswater. Well, one Saturday afternoon after work my brother lent me his Land Rover to trail my dinghy up there. Bad move really. The roads were busy with holiday-makers, driving slowly and enjoying the views. I began to get a bit fed up with them. You know these drivers who don’t know how wide their vehicle is, or how to cope with narrow roads.
“By the time I got to the Struggle, you know where I mean, that steep narrow road out of Ambleside, I’d had enough of giving way to other people. Besides, if you stop on the way up there, especially if you’re towing, you’ve a job to get going again, even in the Discovery. I passed a few vehicles, and then on one of the steepest parts, where the stone walls seem to squeeze in on either side, I met a BMW coming down, a 5 series I think it was.
“He was too far out, but I wasn’t going to slow down. Not again. There’s a gap in the wall there, with a gate in it, and it was on his side of the road. It just about gives room to pass. For an awful moment I thought he wasn’t going to pull over, but at the last minute he did.
“He swung the wheel over rather quickly and seemed maybe to misjudge it. I didn’t see much of what happened – I was concentrating on squeezing through the gap, checking the mirrors to make sure the trailer didn’t catch – but I did think maybe I heard a bit of a crunch as the BMW stopped in the gap.
“Anyway, I thought no more about it at the time – it wasn’t my problem. I carried on over Kirkstone and down to Ullswater. I was meeting a friend at the sailing club. We launched the boat and had a good afternoon’s sailing on the lake. Just enough wind for my liking.
“Late the following week Simon came into the branch to see me. He looked somehow shrunken, and his face was ashen. I got him a coffee, and he told me what had happened.
“ ‘I can’t believe it.’ He shook his head. ‘I still can’t believe it. The boss lent me his car to visit a client in Penrith. It was Sunday, and a beautiful day, so I decided to come back through the Lakes and over Kirkstone Pass.
“ ‘I was coming down the Struggle, going slowly and carefully because it was a strange car, admiring the scenery, when this…this bastard” – he hissed the word – “came charging up in a Land Rover with a trailer. He drove straight at me. I tried to avoid him – there was a bit of a gap on the left – but I misjudged it. I couldn’t stop. I went straight into the corner of the wall. The headlight went, the wing, the radiator…it was ages before I could get a recovery vehicle up there. Two thousand pounds worth of damage.’
“As he recounted this tale, I felt myself going very cold inside. What could I say?
“ ‘That’s terrible. But the car’ll be insured, won’t it?’
“ ‘Insured, yes. But there’s a £750 pound excess. I would have paid it – that’s not the problem. But my boss went mad. He’s like that. One minute he can’t do enough for you; the next he’s on your back. That car was his pride and joy. The upshot is, he’s sacked me.’
“ ‘Sacked you? He can’t do that! Can he?’
“ ‘Unfortunately, yes. I had no proper contract. It was all done on trust. Another mistake.’
Through his despondency he looked woefully sheepish.
“ ‘Yes,’ I said slowly. ‘I can see it would be.’
“He lost the house, of course. It turned out that he had other debts as well. All based on this wonderful financial future he could see beckoning. The last time I saw him he looked worse than ever. He’d come in to sign some documents.
“ ‘She’s left me.’ His voice was barely more than a whisper.
“ ‘Yes. Says I’ve ruined her life. All her plans for the future gone up in smoke. Says I’m useless. A waste of time. Doesn’t know what she saw in me in the first place. I thought she might stand by me. I loved her so much. But no…’
“There were tears in his eyes. I looked down at my desk and fiddled with my pen. It was far too late now to tell him about my part in this. What could I do, anyway?
“No, don’t say anything yet. I haven’t finished. You thing that’s a tragic story, I can see that. But that isn’t the worst of it. Not by a long chalk.
“Look at this cutting. I took it from the Westmorland Gazette last week. Read it! Oh, sorry, you haven’t got your glasses. Well, this is what it says:
“Tribute to Ulverston Man – Tributes were coming in this week from friends of Simon Patterson, who died of an overdose early on Wednesday morning. A popular man, and active in charity work through the Rotary Club, he had been depressed recently over his marriage break up and the loss of his job with an expanding local internet business. The funeral, at St George’s Church, will be on Monday at 10am.
“I’m responsible. I did that. I took away his beautiful house, his wife, whom he loved, his happiness and his future. In the long run, it was me who killed him. But it was such a tiny thing. I didn’t mean to do any of it. One little moment of selfishness, thoughtlessness, or whatever you want to call it on my part, and the happiness of someone else’s life destroyed forever. Was it really my fault?
“I know, I know. Don’t look at me like that. So I was driving a bit aggressively. Who doesn’t, sometimes?
“But the question is, what do I do now?
“Do you know?”
“Will ye be wanting breakfast at the usual time?”
The landlord’s soft Highland tones broke into my thoughts as I sat after dinner gazing into the flames of the log fire in the corner of the bar.
“Yes, Alistair, nine o’clock will be fine.”
I was not planning a strenuous day, just a little gentle walking around the sandy bays and inlets of the peninsula. My research into the history and legends of the area drew me back time and again to the castles and stone circles, the ancient settlements and depopulated glens of the west of Scotland. My book consisted still of a mass of rough notes, and I was beginning to fear that it was no more than an excuse to return frequently to this magical region.
I cradled the glass of malt whisky in my hand and stretched my legs out towards the warmth of the crackling fire. The whiskies of Scotland seemed gradually to have become another source of informal research for me. After a day in the hills, and a hearty venison casserole, what better than a wee dram to settle my stomach before a night of hopefully dreamless sleep?
The chair legs grated slightly on the slate floor as I shifted my position. The bar of the inn, with its dark wood and open fire, had changed little over the years. A couple of local fishermen, in sweaters and boots, were standing drinking, and Cameron, the ghillie, was seated in his usual corner. The wind was swirling around outside, tossing splatters of rain against the windows of the inn, but here in the bar it felt safe and warm.
As I gazed into the fire, images of the day swam into my mind. Prominent amongst them was my visit to the lochan. Approached by a narrow track through the forest, this sheet of water had an almost tangible atmosphere of mystery.
“Some of the locals won’t go there,” Alistair had said. “At least not after dark.”
Sensing a story, I wanted him to explain further, but his answer was vague.
“Och, it’s just that they think there’s kelpies in the water,” he had said, turning to polish some glasses, and effectively closing the conversation.
After that, of course, I had to see for myself.
It was late afternoon when I reached the lochan and the last shafts of watery sunlight were shining hazily through the trees. The water was preternaturally still, like a sheet of painted metal, and the reflections of the trees gave an impression of great depth. I followed the path round the shore, crowded in places by the ancient pines, their bark encrusted with growths of emetald moss. Several times as I was circling the water I stopped to look back, with the eerie feeling that the branches of the trees were closing over the path behind me, but needless to say, everything was normal. At the end of the lochan furthest from the access track, an ancient rowing boat lay in the gloomy shade. Reeds had pushed through the rotten timbers and lichen covered the thwarts. Something about it made me shiver, and I moved on quickly to complete the circuit.
Before leaving the lochan I fumbled a ten pence piece out of my pocket and threw it, for luck, into the water. It spun far out, gleaming in the fading light, then fell with a plop beneath the glassy surface. I turned to retrace my steps back to the inn, and as I did so, I heard, or thought I heard, the water swirl and ripple behind me, as if something had broken the surface. I started and looked back, but nothing had changed. I walked briskly, but thoughtfully, back to the inn.
The logs shifted in the fire, and sparks flew up the chimney, rousing me from my reflections. I finished my glass of Bunnahabhain, and wishing goodnight to Alistair and the customers in the bar, I made my way upstairs, filled with the comfortable glow brought about by fresh air, good food and strong whisky.
Morning came, bright and sunny, and I made my way down to breakfast, eager to get out into the clear Highland daylight. There were two couples already in the dining room, but my table was laid, as usual, near the fire. I ordered porridge and toast, and helped myself to coffee from the sideboard. While I waited, I got out my map and began to plan the day ahead. I was engrossed in this when the dining room door opened and a third couple came in. I said a brief “good morning”, and as I looked up, I noticed that the man was wearing a rather dated tweed suit, and his wife’s outfit looked quite old-fashioned. However, I’m no expert on clothes, so I paid little attention.
The couple paused uncertainly when they saw that there was no table laid for them. Then they opened the glass door and disappeared into the front lounge overlooking the sea loch. The young waitress brought my porridge and served the other guests. I was just finishing when another waitress, one I hadn’t seen before, came out of the kitchen. She was an older woman in a black dress and white apron, and in each hand she carried a breakfast plate of bacon and black pudding. She stopped and looked around. One of the guests saw her puzzlement.
“I think they’ve gone out the front,” he suggested. “There was no place laid for them here so they went through there.” He pointed towards the front of the building. The waitress went through the glass door and I could see her stop and look around. Then she came back, still carrying the plates.
“Nobody there?” asked the man. He laughed. “Well, that’s a bit of a mystery!”
The waitress started to walk back towards the kitchen. As she passed my table, I smelled the bacon.
“Excuse me,” I said, “it seems a shame to waste that bacon. Do you mind if I eat it?”
She put the plate down without a word and vanished into the kitchen. I ate the bacon hungrily, but found the black pudding rather strong. In fact, by the time I had finished I had an indefinable but slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth. I washed it away with some more coffee, then rose from the table and went to my room to collect my things for the day.
It was later that afternoon that I began to feel ill. I was driving back to the inn when violent cramps gripped my stomach and I started to sweat. I stopped the car by the roadside and was violently sick. Somehow I made it back to the inn, where I vomited over and over again. I felt as if I had eaten something disgusting which my whole body was revolting against. Alistair called Doctor McLeod, but it took him a couple of hours to arrive. By that time I had become very weak and could scarcely sit up in bed, but I was able to tell Alistair what I had eaten that day. When I told him what had happened at breakfast, a dark shadow seemed to pass across his face, but he said nothing.
The doctor examined me carefully and professionally, but I sensed him recoil slightly when he smelled my breath. He prescribed a diet of boiled water and said he would call the next day to check that I was recovering. I vaguely heard low voices on the landing outside my room as he talked with Alistair, then the sound of footsteps going down the stairs.
I closed my eyes and slipped into sleep which was at first fitful, then became a deep darkness filled with nameless nightmares of death and violence. I awoke, full of horror and drenched with perspiration, to find Alistair at my side, shaking me by the shoulder. The first palings of the dawn were lightening the window.
“You were screaming,” he murmured. “I thought it best to wake you.” There was a movement in the room behind him, and I realised that Cameron, the ghillie, was with him.
“Alistair,” I groaned, “I’ve never felt as bad as this before. I feel like I’m dying. What’s the matter with me?”
“You’re very weak, and we think it’s more than just a normal dose of food poisoning. That’s why Cameron’s here. We think you should understand what we think has happened. I didn’t say anything yesterday, but it may help you to deal with it, and he can explain better than me.”
Cameron pulled a chair up close to the bed and began to speak softly.
“Well, laddie, you’re in a bad way, you can be sure of that. But I know you like a good story, and it may be a consolation to you to know that you’re part of one now! So I’ll tell you how it all came about.
“As you surely know, I’m the ghillie on the estate here, and at the turn of the last century my grandfather had the same job. At that time there was a couple from Edinburgh who would come up regularly for the fishing. He was in the whisky business as a buyer, and she was a younger woman, a lass that he’d married for her looks. He treated her as if she was beneath him, but my grandfather found her a gracious woman and kind to everyone when she was allowed. Her husband was writing a book about whisky tasting, but he was obsessed with it, endlessly on about this whisky and that. Now, I like a dram myself, I don’t deny it, but it’s to drink and enjoy, and to warm you up after a day on the loch or the braes. And he often overdid the tasting, and he could be a rough man to his wife when he’d had a few glasses.
“Well, one morning they went to the lochan before breakfast, as they often did to catch the early rise. His wife rowed him out into the middle of the water so that he could cast his fly, but he kept criticising her and shouting at her. They’d had a row the night before and he’d been rude to her in front of the other guests. Something must have finally snapped inside her, for she took the landing net from the bottom of the boat, and while he was tending to his line, she caught him a great crack across the back of the head. She was a strong young woman. He pitched forward into the water and sank below the surface. She sat up in the boat, her hands to her face, white with shock at what she’d done. Then, without warning, he rose again to the surface, his face contorted with fear and anger. The net was around his head, and green weeds dripped from his shoulders. For a moment he was poised there, and the boat rocked violently as his wife tried to reach out and save him. He couldn’t swim, of course – neither of them could – and before she could get hold of him, he sank again and the water closed over him. She was weeping and sobbing, leaning over the side of the boat, when suddenly, shockingly, the surface was broken by his hand – just one hand, white as marble, and stiff as a claw. It rose menacingly from the ripples on the black water and she was frozen with terror. Before she could move, somehow it grasped the bodice of her dress and she was dragged overboard. She struggled for a moment, then she too disappeared from view. The boat rocked on the surface, the ripples subsided, and the lochan was quiet again.
“My grandfather saw it all. He was coming down the hillside through the trees, but it was all over too quickly. He could do nothing. The boat was later brought to the shore, and left lying under the trees. The bodies were never recovered. The bed of the lochan is full of weed and mud, and the water is dark with peat, and icy cold. They lie there to this day.
“The inn had prepared their breakfasts for nine o’clock as usual – bacon and black pudding – but they were never eaten. Or at least, not until yesterday. How these things can happen is a mystery to us all, but it may explain in one way why you are so ill now. The bacon and black pudding in your stomach has been decomposing for a long time. I hate to tell you, laddie, but that breakfast you ate was a hundred years old yesterday.”
Cameron stopped speaking and silence filled the room. I managed to drink a little more boiled water, then turned my face to the wall. Despite the horror of what I had just been told, I slept, this time a deep refreshing sleep.
The next morning I still felt very weak, but amazingly, my body seemed purged of evil influences and I decided it was time to go home. I breakfasted on tea and dry toast, then packed my belongings and loaded them into the car. When I went to settle the bill, Alistair and Cameron were in the bar, having a dram in front of the log fire. They were both very apologetic about my illness, but I assured them that it wouldn’t stop me coming back in future.
“Well, laddie,” Cameron said, “at least you’ve got another story to put in your book!”
As I walked out of the door, I heard the sound of Alistair’s clear laughter, and I saw that their heads were close together. I paused, in thought, for a moment, then went out to the car.
I have been back to the lochan on several occasions since, and it always has a haunted feeling about it, although it is a place of peace and great beauty. But I haven’t been able to eat a cooked breakfast since that forgettable day in the western Highlands.