The Peat Cutter’s Daughter

September 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

This might be a first chapter. It’s a first draft and needs some hard editing. What I am primarily trying to do is to create a strong sense of place.

Image‘This is the place.’ I pointed to the gravel car park hewn out of the granite. The wall of rock was stained with vertical lines like old blood where the iron had leached out in long, untidy ribbons. Stephen pulled off the winding single-track road. There were no other cars parked. As I remember, few people came in the winter months, although I have no idea whether my memory was serving me well, for it had been over twenty years since I had left this, my first home, in such strange circumstances. Now it was a place where there was little evidence of hardship – it was purely for recreation; and the tourists came only when the weather was hospitable, which wasn’t often. This was now climbing country; but before that, when I lived in the lee of Coigach, it had been a place where crofters tried, and often failed to make a living.

            ‘Breathtaking,’ Stephen sighed.

            ‘Desolate,’ I mumbled.

            The landscape looked the same – its colours, its shapes. I suppose I remembered it so vividly because of what had happened here, and also because it marked the end of one phase in my life and the beginning of another – although I did not know it then. I knew I was lucky to be alive, and even now, I regard myself as being fortunate to have possessed sufficient common sense to take the postman’s path along the loch leading to Lochinver. I must have known intuitively that there were crofts dotted along the waterside ready to take me in if I got into difficulty. I had travelled quietly, hiding where I could if I heard voices or got close to a habitation – skirting the uncertain boundary – holding my breath – watching where I put my feet – for it was boggy. I remember clumps of carnivorous pitcher plants along the path, but did not stop – I knew I must keep moving. I had no idea why the crofters took no notice of their dogs alerting them to a stranger – perhaps they thought I was a sheep or some wild animal. Dogs would bark at anything after all – particularly if they were bored.

            Stephen interrupted my thoughts. ‘Do you think you can remember the way after all this time?

‘Yes. But the path will be overgrown. I think it was by that tree.’ I pointed to a lone pine, now much taller and thinner than I remembered, but the same shape, and now bent like an old man braced against the wind. It marked the beginning of the path up the mountain.

We walked, with difficulty up what used to be a stone track. The cobbles were covered with red and yellow lichen, and the moss, which shrouded everything if it was not managed, made the going slippery. It did not look how I remembered.

We reached the top of the plateau, and in front of us was the loch. The countryside had been almost monotonous here, but over the years it had grown bumps and creases that made it look like a blanket that needed pulling flat. The fresh water loch was long with kinks in it, like a crooked finger beckoning us, and there was a small island towards its most distant edge with a straggly pine, which my father used to say was one of the last remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest. The water was black, like an oil slick, from the peat. It tasted sweet and stained my mother’s kettle and the cooking pots brown.

‘Are we close?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Near that waterfall. Be careful. There used to be bogs.’

We picked our way along the loch edge towards the rock face where the waterfall splashed, making a strange mist as it hit the water. He took my hand, which made it difficult to walk, but I squeezed his tightly, feeling the tension growing in both of us, my eyes fixed to the ground.

A watery sun appeared and shone coldly on our faces. The sky was benign today, a perfect wash of cerulean hue with streaks of wispy grey cloud that flowed down from the mountain summit like liquid.

We were nearly there. I tried to imagine that we had come here for another purpose, but I knew the truth – there was no other reason for me to bring him here, and he had been so insistent.

The croft was almost invisible; it was sinking back into the earth. The slates were long gone, and the rafters fallen inwards into the house where I had been born all those years ago. The glass that had once glazed the windows lay in muddy shards in what had once been the garden, and the door was strangely ajar, hanging at an odd angle on a single rusty hinge.

‘I don’t want to go in.’

‘I’ll go,’ said Stephen. ‘There is nothing there,’ he shouted from inside, his voice sounding strangely flat. ‘Just debris, brambles. Sheep have been using it for shelter.’

‘But this is not the place,’ I said. ‘ It’s here, behind the croft.’ I took his hand again, and led him to the ditch, the old place of the peat cutting. ‘This is the place. This is where I found the body.’


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