by Mike Dixon
Skye Mountain Rescue Team retrieved the body with the help of the Stornoway coastguard helicopter, about two hours after the alarm was raised. The right leg was tenuously joined to the torso, like a loose first tooth attached by a sliver of stringy fibre to the gum. The facial features were rearranged like a cubist painting. For Murdo, one of the aspirant team members, it resulted in disrupted sleep for the next two weeks.
The crematorium car park was packed. The grey sky, pregnant with rain, mirrored the mood of the occasion. The room filled up and then the family entered, clutching each other like the walking wounded from a theatre of war. You didn’t have to be religious to be moved by the swelling emotion in the voices of the choir despite it being an old recording piped over a second-rate PA system.
Reminiscences and tributes were wide ranging.
“Money was really tight when they had their first mortgage and Katie was a baby. Grant even did the housework so Suzy could go out to do an evening bar job.” Laughter. A student friend said that despite the tragedy there were very few fortunate enough to end their days in a place they adored and in the company of the person they treasured and loved most of all. It was a perfect idea for the ashes to be scattered at Tarskavaig Bay in sight of the black, saw-tooth Cuillin. (Affirmative nods). The coffin moved on the rollers, the curtains opened and closed, people lined up to pass their respects to the family then hurried to their cars to escape the now steady downpour.
Three months earlier Grant McKinlay had run through the arrangements for his wife’s funeral. The floral display would include carnations, the music a selection from the Glasgow Orpheus choir. The eulogy would be given by a lifelong friend and donations would go to a breast cancer charity. There was one problem: Suzy was still living and had no terminal illness. Her death by his hand would require rigorous planning and precise execution.
As physical intimacy lessened insidious cracks had appeared in the relationship. He could remember the last time they’d had sex but not when they’d last made love. He was worn down by the criticisms, the belittling, the glacial stares. Recently they had both been manipulating their flexitime to minimise the amount of time spent together. At weekends, they escaped to different mountains. He suspected she was seeing someone else; she was visiting the hairdresser more. He was cautious about embarking on an affair which he knew he could have with a regular hill walking companion. If Clare had been more Lady Macbeth-like he might have been planning Suzy’s end much earlier. As it was, their silver wedding anniversary was fast approaching, a good smokescreen to hide his intentions.
Divorce was not an attractive option for Grant. Bang goes the early retirement plan and she’d get a sizeable cut of the pension too. He imagined her gloating over the legal settlement; she’d contest everything, his mountaineering first editions, film poster originals, the lot. There would also be her interpretation of the breakup which would do the gossip rounds. Women, he’d noticed, get far more sympathy following a split. No, there was a neater alternative to all of that.
The place and method provided a considerable challenge for Grant. With their joint interest in the hills, the setting of a mountain for her demise was not implausible.
There were always suspicions following a fatality to one of a married couple together on the same mountain. But accidents do happen…. a simple slip, a head crushed like an egg shell. He can’t be the first to have such thoughts and others must have been successful. Police questioning would be intense but, after all, they’d kept their domestic problems private. He’d checked the insurance policy and with the pay-out he could resign his job and take on consultancy work when he chose. He needn’t be lonely either……there was Clare for a start. He felt twenty years younger in an instant.
Suzy was not a climber but she was comfortable with scrambling. As well as her own interest in photography, she’d always been happy to pose for shots and it would be no problem luring her to the edge of a void. Take some general scenery shots first, get Suzy near the brink as foreground interest. There was a certain beauty in a falling body thought Grant, even the ones who’d been captured mid-air in desperate leaps from the Twin Towers. Just move towards her and push.
But which mountain? Suzy had been completing her Munros in friendly competition with her best friend Alison. Grant skimmed her Munro’s Tables book to consider the possibilities. There were some interesting options…. Liathach, An Teallach, The Saddle, Am Basteir. Choose a midweek day but not during a school or bank holiday, no prying eyes. A scrambly ridge, with a big unbroken drop below it should do just fine. Am Basteir in the Cuillin fitted the bill perfectly.
Skye held a special significance for Grant and Suzy: it was where they’d first been introduced on a student meet thirty years ago. He’d been attracted by her shyness and the fact she didn’t hide her femininity in the mountains, applying discreet make-up even before a wild day out. A charge had coursed through his body the first time they’d held hands during a walk down Glen Sligachan, but it would take guile to coax her back there with him now.
In the subsequent weeks, Grant became excited but edgy. It was the same tingling combination he usually experienced before any big climbing route. He felt he was on board a runaway train with only one outcome and alcohol had become the only reliable means of achieving a decent night’s sleep.
In order to distract himself, he spent several evenings trawling through old slide boxes seeking out suitable photos for a guidebook a friend was producing on the Scottish islands. He found one of the Harris mountains from Horgabost beach: flawless vanilla sand leading into coruscating turquoise water. He remembered how on that Sunday he and Suzy had skinny- dipped in an area deliberately visible from a nearby Free Church and laughed at their effrontery. Two young boys had an epiphany as they emerged from Sunday school, their squeals of delight swiftly silenced by an austere father dressed in bible black. Suzy fell pregnant during that holiday; in retrospect, the relationship had already passed its zenith.
His colleagues found him unusually distant and taciturn. “Dreaming of hills again Grant or perhaps the big event next Saturday night?” teased his PA Sandra.
Their anniversary party had been organised by the kids; for the parents, it was another game of keeping up appearances. They had the first dance and Grant was just as inept as on their wedding day, but it didn’t matter and everyone said what a great couple they still were. In Grant’s speech, he made references to their first meeting on Skye and student pals from that era basked in the nostalgia. He paused several times to look directly at his wife. “I’m looking forward to another 30 years of trips there with Suzy.” Hearty applause.
“Twenty-five years!” exclaimed the taxi driver, “I didn’t make it to five.” Grant and Suzy laughed in unison, but under the surface things were far from right and Grant felt the tension growing inside him. He began to drink more heavily.
His boss advised him to take some time off. It had got to the stage where he had to double check all Grant’s decisions anyway. “I’ll oversee the Stirling job…. you’re worn out……take a holiday with Suzy…. we’ll talk about things when you get back. By the way great party the other night. You’ve got a great missus. And go and see your doctor. Then it doesn’t have to come off your annual leave.”
“……. This place isn’t helping at all. Let’s have a break to somewhere that holds good memories for us. Talk about things……”
She was struck by the fact that he’d taken the initiative. She’d waited a long time for this. She knew that work load wasn’t the only reason for his sick leave and had noticed his drinking too.
But don’t make things too easy for him she thought.
“This thing’s eating into everything, isn’t it?” her voice started to break up. “I’ve not exactly been an angel in all of this.”
“Nor me but we can build on tonight ……. Let’s go to Skye ……. We could stay at The Sligachan Hotel? No tent, no midges, no smoked sausage and boil in the bag rice. You could finish off your Skye Munros too.” Suzy smiled, tears lurking behind her eyes.
The last time Grant had been kept so anxiously waiting for an answer was the day he’d proposed to her. When she eventually spoke, what she said surprised him.
“What does Am Basteir mean Grant?”
No eye contact but she’d actually used his name.
“Some books say the executioner, some the baptiser.”
“I wish I’d never asked. It’s not too difficult, is it? I’m alright going up but not so keen coming down. You know me.”
“But I’ll be there to help you. The east ridge isn’t too bad.”
Oh, you’ll be fine on Am Basteir, he thought. You’ll be down in no time.
The coroner’s dry tones rolled on and on: “…… The witness who’d just arrived at the summit of Am Basteir corroborated the description of the deceased’s fall. I’m recording death by misadventure,” he concluded. “I cannot over emphasise the danger of taking photographs near the edge of steep cliffs. I’d like to thank Mrs. McKinlay for her cooperation during this difficult time for both her and her family. I’d also like to thank Mr. Shand, the witness, who helped Mrs. McKinlay down the upper ridge of Am Basteir where they were met by the Skye Mountain Rescue Team, who as usual did a magnificent job.”
Outside the hearing, Suzy individually thanked everyone who’d attended. The rescue team leader acknowledged the generous donation from Grant’s family and friends. Mr. Shand was the last person she went over to.
“Don’t say too much here,” she whispered. “Prying eyes. We’ve only supposed to have met once before.”
She winked at him, before turning around to dab her eyes and resume her display of grief for the others.