Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Standing Stone

by Shane Strachan

Thursday 23 July, 2076

 

I think this’ll be the last summer I’ll see oot, and it’s been one o the worst to thole. Maist days there’s a thick grey haar that veils onything past the end o ma road. But on the few clear days there’s been, I can see past ma land to the abandoned fields at the bottom o Mormond Hill, fields that eence fed the Bothy loons and lassies, and the industrial fairmers that followed them. Further oot, ye can see the ruins o Cairnbulg Castle through the bare dying trees, and the sands o the Broch beach, as ghostly as the aul toon itsel – the last o the folk left aifter the floods back in the twenty fifties, packed themsels on rusty fishing boats and heided aff to fitiver country would hae them. I hope for their sake they’re better treated than incomers ever were fan I bid in the Broch.

    The only folk I see nooadays are wee specks high up in the sky, floating aboot on their helicopters as they chuck packages doon onto my land – usually twice a year, either side o winter. They’re filled wie new clythes, medication, food flavouring, and tinned meat that’s been grown in test tubes, meat that canna compare wie the few beasts I managed to shoot noo and then: rubbits, deer and pheasants, although there’s less and less o them each year.

    The phone rings, a walkie-talkie kinda thing that’s linked up to one o the last few satellites that still hurtle roon oor planet.

    ‘Hello?’

    ‘Hi, is that Mr Buchan?’

    ‘Yes. Speaking.’

    ‘Your winter package will be delivered in three hours. Do you have any special requests that we may be able to fulfil?’

    ‘Eh… I’m needing an extra solar panel or two if that’s okay? My house battery still hasn’t fully charged for winter and I think it’s the panels that are playing up.’

    ‘It’s likely the smog that’s been causing issues Mr Buchan, but we’re happy to provide extras on this occasion. What do you wish to offer in exchange for this item?’

    ‘Just whatever’s left in my account.’

    ‘I’m afraid your account has insufficient funds. Do you have anything you can exchange on your property? One of our officers can descend for the exchange.’

    ‘I… I’ll think o something... I must hae summin that’ll dee.’

    ‘Pardon, Mr Buchan? Was that affirmative?’

    ‘Yes. Yes, sorry. Yes. I’ll exchange one of my toolboxes. Will that do?’

    ‘A packed toolbox will be of much use to us Mr Buchan. Our E.T.A. is three-forty-three p.m. Goodbye.’

    ‘Bye.’

    I put the phone back doon on the charger. My toolbox has nithing in it, but I kent that would get them to agree to bringing the panels here.

    So that’s the last o my money gone. I only stopped working for the satellite company a year or so ago, maintaining the aul NATO and BT dishes on the hill that the Company used fae time to time. Fan they fell to bits, so did the last source o income in this corner o the world. They offered me a relocation package, but fit wye would I tak at? Fit does a man in his seventies get oot o leaving ahin the only land he’s ever kent and starting aa owre again?

    I heid oot wie ma metal detector and shovel and wyde through the boggy grun till I get to the aul road. I say road, but it’s maistly pot-holes noo. The best place to go hunting is aboot quarter o a mile doon the hill, ootby far Bill’s fairm used to be afore it was covered owre in the sandy sludge that shifted up fae the coast. I could feel bad aboot sic a fate for the fairm, but it’s just the wye o the land up here – sands have ay shifted, burying abandoned toons ablow it. If folk arna there to fight it, the land will claim itsel back, will bury every last trace o us until we’re fossils o the future.

    It’s nae lang afore the detector’s beeping fast. I howk at the grun, uprooting the earth and flinging it ahin ma until ma shooders ache and my back knots up in the same places as at ay does. I strike on my treasure and bend doon to fummle in amongst the dirt wie ma hands. I pull up the thin black object – I see fae the apple logo on the back that it’s een o them iPhones aabdy had back in the day, back before the Company won the tech waar. That’s fan they took full control o aathing, control o the information folk were granted access to and the languages folk spoke. It wisna lang before I was a complete ootsider, a relic. And to think I was born on this side o the millennium…

    But there’s summin aboot this iPhone, wie its cracked screen and battered corners, that minds ma on ma childhood, on Facetiming ma pals late at night, the loons that bid jist up the road fae ma. It’s nae easy to mind on their names, but their faces are clearer than ivver, their voices and their laughs echoing through ma mind as clear as if they were coming oot the phone.

    I get back to digging and end up aboot half buried fan I strike on ma next treasure. It’s a bittie harder to get this een oot the grun: a hand trowel tangled up in a lang iron chain. Wie one big haul at them, I manage to get baith oot. They’re hivvy kind, especially the chain – it’ll help weigh doon this packed toolbox I’ve promised them.

    Fan I pull masel back up oot the three-fit hole I’ve made for masel, I’m knackered. I lie doon on the grun for a mintie, ma heid spinning. There’s a fair gale blaaing noo, the kind that’ll seen turn into a sandstorm at this time o year. I have to force masel up onto ma feet and gaither fit little energy I hae left to trudge back up to the hoose.

    Right enough, fae ma living room winda I can see sand twirling up aff the Broch beach, dancing across the land until it thins oot to nithing. I’ll be lucky to receive ma parcel the day wie coorse conditions like this. I go ben to my bed and lie doon wie the curtains shut. Even though I canna see it, I can hear grains o sand trinkling against the winda panes as I wyt for sleep to come.

 

*

 

There’s a whumping noise that vibrates through the hale hoose. I lowp oot ma bed and look through a gap in the curtains. A black helicopter is circling high up abeen ma back gairden, trying to steady itsel in the high winds.

    I run ben into the lobby and pick up the toolbox. I quickly check that the glue I’ve stuck on the clasp is sealed ticht so they canna open it easily. I heid oot the back door and watch as a rope ladder unfurls fae the helicopter doon into my backie. An Officer starts descending. His lang grey hair blaas aa owre the place wie the force o the rotary blades and the strong gale. He has a bag on his back stappit ticht wie a box. He stops half wye doon and clings ontil the rope as the wind swings him like a pendulum. Eence he gets the hang o the rhythm, he clambers doon the rest o the ladder and his feet mak contact wie the grun.

    As he starts heiding doon towards ma, the wind howls the loudest it has yet and the Officer’s thrown up into the air, his airms and legs spinning. High up above us, the helicopter maks a whining noise as it’s flung oot o sight, awa owre the tap o ma hoose. And then the wind hits me. Ma ears pop as I’m lifted up into the air and thrown across ma lobby. I land hard on the widden fleer.

    For a minute or two I’m laid oot flat on ma back, ma heid dirling. The wind howls through ma hoose. Even though ma vision’s blurry, I slowly manage to pick myself up and heid back oot, up towards the man. He’s lying on his front, completely passed oot. The box that was strapped to his back has broken apart – across ma backie, there’s clythes, burst pill bottles and bashed cans lying aboot the place. I look up and across as much o the sky as I can see. The helicopter’s nae wye in sight.

    The Officer seen starts stirring on the grun – he looks up at ma in confusion, as though he’s nae clue fit’s just happened. I help him into the hoose, trying to nae to hud his battered body too ticht as I prop him up.

    I get him sutten doon at my table and pour him a glaiss o watter. He chugs it doon and splooshes the last dreeps ontil his face.

    ‘What happened?’ he finally manages to say.

    ‘The winds got too rough. They blew you over, and your helicopter.’

     ‘Christ,’ is aa he can say. He looks doonwards wie his grey-blue een and stares at the widden table.

    ‘How many others were there?’

    ‘Two of them. Two young things’, he says. ‘I told them it was too much of a risk coming out to this god-forsaken –’

    He starts coughing. His body heaves with each hoast and he winces in pain. I slap him on the back a couple o times until he quietens doon.

    ‘I’m sure they’ll be fine,’ I say. ‘I don’t think they crashed. Or at least I didn’t hear anything.’

    ‘They better be okay. Or we’ll both be in trouble.’

    I ging and get the hoose phone, kennin fine he’ll be speiring for it seen enough. I play wie the dials for a while, listening to the changes in the static noise. It never comes clear – there’s nae signal and probably winna be until the winds die richt doon.

    I ging back ben to the Officer. He looks like he’s just sat back doon fan I enter the room and I can see summin shift in his face, like he’s trying to mask summin.

    ‘So you're the man on Mormond Hill,’ he says.

    ‘That would be me.’ He disna say onymair, and I’m nae sure exactly fit else to add. I ging and busy myself in the kitchen: I rinse cups, put awa dishes and fold up towels until I realise hoo odd it must seem aifter fit’s just happened. I return to ma seat.

    ‘The man on Mormond Hill,’ I say. ‘It sounds like I live on the moon.’

    ‘You might as well live on the moon.’ He sniffs a laugh. ‘It’s madness to still be out here, where nothing grows, and this climate… it’s unreal,’

    ‘It’s my land and it’s all I know.’ I can feel ma face turn reid – I didna realise hoo pathetic I’d soond.

    ‘You could have something a damn sight better further south in a city,’ the Officer says, sitting up.

    ‘I’ve never lived in a city. I get by fine up here.’

    ‘For how much longer? The Company won’t take toolboxes full of junk as payment.’

    I look owre to far I left the toolbox. The clasp’s been broken open, the contents exposed.

    ‘And now look at the danger we’ve been put in because of you. This place is a no man’s land. They won’t take pity on you forever.’

    ‘I nivver asked for their peety! I could’ve survived fine withoot the useless muck they’ve sent owre the years. I dinna need ony o ye!’ I’m up oot ma seat and I’m breathing fast. Ma haert’s sair kind, beating hard wie a dull ache.

    ‘Oh, calm down’ the Officer says. ‘I’m just worried about my colleagues.’ His expression softens. I sit back doon and watch him as he stares into space – there’s something in his een that seems familiar.

    ‘Do I ken you?’ I ask. ‘Fae afore? Fae up this wye?’

    ‘I don’t think so.’

    ‘Bit…weel, far did you grow up?’

    ‘Peterhead,’ he sighs. ‘But I never really came up this way.’

    Even though he denies it, there’s summin that maks ma sure I’ve seen his face afore, some time far I would have seen him lang enough for him to imprint on ma memory. But then again, this sense o recognition is maybe just fae being this close to another human for the first time in years – maybe aa I recognise is my ain species.

    ‘Do ye nae miss biding up this wye? Yer toon? Being by the sea?’ I ask.

    ‘I would if there was something to miss. I watched my hometown disappear in front of me. Watched the sea rise up and swallow it whole. There’s nothing up here now. You live in a wasteland.’

    ‘Ye’r wrang,’ I say. I get up and leave the room. I rake in ma lobby press and pull oot ma aul anorak. Fae ma bedroom winda, I can see that the skies have cleared a fair bit and the sun’s starting to brak through the cloud – it’s safe enough to go back ootside. I heid back ben to the kitchen.

    ‘Follow me…’ I say to the Officer, nae sure fit to caa him.

    ‘Andrew. My name’s Andrew.’

    ‘Follow me Andrew. I’ve got summin to show ye in this wasteland o mine.’

    ‘The Company will be here soon. Somehow or another,’ he says.

   ‘It winna tik lang.’

    He taks his time getting up oot the seat, and winces wie pain again. I can hear him hobbling ahin ma as we heid through the lobby and oot the front door. There’s a thin layer o sand on ma doorstep and a few trees have blaan owre onto ma road – nithing I hivna dealt wie afore. Andrew trails ahin ma is I lead us doon into the wids. Maist o the trees here are deid: brittle tombsteens that dinna mak for good fuel. The grun is dubby and sucks at oor boots as we trudge through it. At one point, the squelching noises fae Andrew’s feet stop – I dinna bother turning roon. He seen rushes to catch up wie ma.

    The grun starts to turn drier and safter wie patches o grass, and the branches above oor heids become fuller and greener. Andrew starts walking by my side – I glance roon at him and can tell fae his een that he’s noticed the shift in the land, that he can sense we’re heiding towards somewye special.

    ‘God,’ Andrew says. He’s spied the standing steens through the trees. They glister in the thin rays o sunlight that shine through the tree branches aroon us. The air grows waarmer as we approach the monument.

    ‘Life still endures up this wye,’ I say.

    Andrew disna say onything as he walks aheid o ma and steps into the circle. I sit doon on the one steen that lies on its side – the recumbent steen. I look up at Andrew: the light is streaming across his face as he leans against an upright steen nearhand. He closes his eyes and smiles. Slowly, the light fades aroon us as a cloud covers owre the sun. Andrew opens his een and shaks his heid at the sight o ma.

    ‘If you want to survive, you’re going to have to leave this place.’

    ‘But it’s aa I ken,’ I say, my vyce shakkin.

    Fae somewye in the distance, I can hear a chirring soond – either Andrew’s helicopter’s returning or they’ve sent oot anither.

    ‘This place was never fit for humans. The land was full of clay from day one. A few years without constant upkeep, and look at the state of it.’

    ‘But, that’s because o the floods, and the flood’s werna oor fault.’

    ‘No, your right,’ he says. ‘This is the state the world left us in, and now we’ve got to make the most of the best of it. But none of the best is here. You’ve got to stop living among the wreckage of the past.’

    The noise fae the helicopter grows to a loud thumping. I stand up and look ahin ma. It’s the same helicopter Andrew came in. He waves and shouts up at them.

    They start hovering directly abeen us. The rope ladder is flung oot eence mair, and unfurls doon into the steen circle.

    ‘Come with me,’ Andrew says. He grabs onto the rope ladder and starts clambering up. ‘You can live a decent life where people will help you get by. You’re getting old. You won’t survive much longer in a place like this on your own,’ he says as the ladder swings back and fore.

    I dinna move.

    ‘Come on!’ he shouts as the rope starts to ascend, lifting him up wie it. ‘This might be your last chance.’

    I step back fae him and near enough trip owre the recumbent steen. I plant masel back doon on it – ma body grows hivvy, as though it’s anchoring itsel to the spot.

    Andrew shaks his heid and turns awa. I watch as he’s pulled up high abeen ma, past the very tap o the trees. He clambers up the rest o the rope and disappears inside, and then the helicopter flees onwards, oot o sight. I look back doon at the grey pillars aroon ma, then lie on ma side and feel the caul steen against ma skin. I close ma een and listen as the chirring fae the helicopter fades awa and aa I’m left wie is a caul, dark silence.