Short Stories

borders in snow

This is the short story that sparked the idea for my debut novel, To Retribution.

CATHARTICISM

by

F J Curlew

‘Oh thank Christ,’ Donna muttered to herself as she spotted the Land Rover pulling in to the small roadside café. Yep, that’s him all right. She stood in the shadows watching his vague outline made indistinct by the torrents of rain lashing against the steamy windows, until he had almost finished his meal. OK, time to make my move.

‘Hey, sorry to interrupt you guys but anyone heading up North? I’m badly in need of a lift,’ she said in a voice just loud enough to be heard above the clatter of cutlery and chatter of the predominantly truck driving customers.

She flicked the rain soaked hair from her face sending droplets flying onto the table of her quarry. ‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, as pathetically as she could. ‘Talk about a drowned rat.’

‘No harm done,’ he smiled. ‘Why don’t you take a seat. I was just going to get a coffee. Would you like one?’

‘That would be great. Thanks!’ she returned the smile, hers expressing relief. Jeez, you’re easy aren’t you! She watched as he walked confidently across the chequered linoleum flooring. His look was somewhat more liberal than she was expecting; jeans and an Arran sweater rather than chinos and a smart shirt; his hair in a shoulder length layer cut not the short back and sides of his ilk, but there was no mistaking that family resemblance.

‘Where are you headed?’ he asked as he returned with their coffees. ‘I’m Sean by the way,’ he smiled. ‘And you?’

‘Donna. Pleased to meet you, Sean. I’m trying to get to Scotland but anywhere out of this rain would be great!’ she replied, smiling back through eyes blackened with running mascara.

Ten minutes later they were pulling out of the car park and heading north.

‘So, Donna, how come you’re out here cadging lifts? These are dangerous times,’ Sean said with a voice which appeared to hold genuine concern.

‘Sometimes life just throws stuff at you, you know? I had to move on and well, yeah. Life. That’s all.’ She turned to look out of the window, clearing a small circle through the condensation; wiping her damp fingers on faded jeans. ‘Where are you headed by the way?’

‘Well, I’m travelling about six more hours that way,’ he gestured north. ‘Way up to the north west of Scotland.’

‘Brilliant! Where to?’

‘You ever heard of Achriesgill?’

‘Nope.’

He laughed, ‘No-one has and that’s precisely why I chose it. Destination desolation! A loch, some hills, a few sheep and little else.’

‘Sounds cool. You’re not from there though. Your accent I mean. It’s English isn’t it?’

‘It is, yes, but from schooling, not ethnicity. I am Scottish but my parents sent me to boarding school down south.’

‘Ah, one of the privileged few. Okay.’

‘Do I sense a hint of disapproval?’

‘No. Shit, I’m sorry. No offence intended. But, I mean there’s them and us isn’t there? And you’re most definitely a them!’

‘Them! Well, that’s me put firmly in my place then. Seriously though, people are what they do not what their background is, surely?’

‘Sure, yeah, of course. I didn’t mean…Aaagh back pedal, back pedal. So, um, this place you’re headed to. What’s up there for you?’

‘A complete change of life. A sanctuary away from all the madness. I’m taking up goat farming, hence the trailer; the beginnings of my herd.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

‘So what did you do before?’

‘Medicine. I worked for Medecins Sans Frontiere for a long time. Areas of conflict mainly.’

‘Really! That’s not what I thought.’

‘Sorry?’

‘I mean, I’d have thought a lawyer maybe, or something in business or politics.’

‘No, no. That was my father’s realm, politics. I had no interest at all, much to his disappointment. Something of a black sheep you might say. The final straw was when I went to work in Palestine. Not what was expected of the son of the right honourable Sir Godfrey Richardson.’

‘That’s your father? Oh my good god! You do look a bit like him, now you come to mention it.’

‘And that is where the similarity ends, I assure you.’ He smiled at her, his piercingly blue eyes held no humour. ‘Enough said, I think. Don’t you?’

An awkward silence ensued. He turned on the radio to fill the void.

‘That’s the border up ahead. You won’t get past the checkpoint without your ID.’

‘Shit. I hadn’t thought about that. What do I do now?’

‘You could hide yourself in the trailer if you want. The guards shouldn’t trouble me, privileged background and all that! If you do get caught you snuck in without my knowledge Okay?’

‘You sure? Brilliant. Thanks.’

He drove on to the border where the car in front was being scrutinised by a couple of officious guards boasting machine guns, in the company of a German Shepherd sniffing intently. Sean was flagged to a stop and guided to the adjacent barrier.

‘Evening, sir. Documents please,’ the guard demanded, dressed in the black uniform of New Dawn Security; his leather gloved hand placed assertively on the open window.

‘Evening.’ Sean handed over his ID.

‘Ah, Ministry. Right you are, sir. Haven’t seen any vagrants on your travels have you?’

C’mon Seanie boy. Don’t let me down now.

‘Not that I’ve noticed, no. Why do you ask?’

‘There was a break out last night at the reprogramming unit in Cumbria.’

‘Is that so? Do you have any descriptions?’

‘Female, late twenties, tall, thin. Good looking by all accounts.’ He licked his lips and winked. ‘And two men. Scruffy bastards. Tattoos and piercings. You know the type! Quite important apparently, judging by the bloody palaver they’ve caused. More trouble than they’re worth in my opinion. They should have shot the lot of them. Backs against the wall. Bang bang, problem gone.’

And to you pal, and to you. Jesus!

‘Thanks officer. I’ll keep my eyes open,’ Sean said, mock saluting.

‘Uhu, be careful out there sir,’ saluting back, heels clicking.

He drove on for a few miles then pulled into a secluded lay by.

‘All clear now. You can come out.’

‘Thank god for that,’ she said brushing bits of straw from her hoodie, ‘I almost sneezed and blew it all.’

‘Quite a piece of work wasn’t he?’ said Sean.

‘Total piece of shit in my humble opinion. Thanks, by the way.’ She smiled sincerely at him. ‘Thanks.’

‘So, the tall, thin, good looking one wouldn’t be you would it?’ he asked as they drove towards the beckoning mountains.

‘No, no. I’m no militant, just a girl temporarily without ID.’

‘I think, after that, I deserve a bit of an explanation. Don’t you? Fair’s fair.’

‘There’s not much to tell really. I was stuck in a bad relationship. The guy turned into a monster after a drink. I told him I was leaving, which was pretty stupid of me because, of course, he wasn’t going to let me. He went mental; threw all my documents in the fire and me up against the wall. I was scared shit-less. You’ve no idea. Anyway, a few more drinks and he was comatosed, as per. I ran. That was three days ago. I’ve been on the move ever since.’

‘Don’t you have family or friends you could have gone to?’

‘No. My family got killed in the fighting and he knows all my friends. He’d have found me. Better to make a clean break. You know?’

‘Indeed I do. So what now?’

‘I really hadn’t thought about anything other than getting as far away from him as possible. Up where you’re going sounds tempting. I’m guessing the patrols don’t go somewhere that remote.’

‘No, no they don’t. But there’s nothing. Literally nothing.’

‘I just need somewhere quiet till I can get my paperwork sorted. If you could drop me at the nearest village, that would be great.’

‘If you’re sure.’

‘Yep. Sure!’

‘I couldn’t help hearing, back at the checkpoint there, you’re a Ministry man?’

‘For my sins I am, well was, yes. I got called up after the military intervention. Doctors were in great demand and with my experience and, yes, family background, well, I was a prime candidate. It wasn’t as if I was given any choice in the matter either.’

‘What did you do for them exactly?’

‘Hmm. So many questions. Are you sure you’re not the tall, slim, good looking one?’ he asked, half jokingly.

‘Ha, no, I’m not! Really!’ she protested, laughing.

‘Perhaps….’ he paused, thinking then shook his head.

As they travelled on the road narrowed, twisting its way across imperious mountains cloaked in mist and intrigue. Evidence of human dominance faded into insignificance. Waterfalls tumbled down barren rock faces creating black pools at their journey’s end, ringed with withered brown fronds of decaying bracken. They turned onto a smaller side road.

‘You know, I’m not altogether happy about deserting you. There’s really nothing and, well, I do have a little but and ben which is habitable. You could stay there for a few days if you like, until you get your papers.’

‘That is so sweet of you. Yeah, um, thanks!’

They travelled on up a tiny single track road where grass and moss sprouted in defiance through the tarmac. After a few miles the road came to an abrupt end.

‘So. This is it. What do you think?’

‘Am I missing something? I mean, I can’t see anything.’

‘Exactly. Clever isn’t it? Follow me.’

He led the way along a small, sloping track. There, camouflaged with the hill was the most stunning property overlooking the loch.

‘Oh. My. God. It is absolutely perfect.’

‘Thank you. I’ve been building it for a couple of years now. It’s sod-roofed, totally organic and, best of all, off grid. My little sanctuary.’

‘I am so totally jealous. Wow. The air is just intoxicating. Can you smell that… that, I don’t know, purity, I guess?’

‘I know. It makes you wonder exactly what you’ve been breathing in elsewhere doesn’t it? Come on. I’ll show you around.’

‘That’s quite a view you’ve got,’ she said as she looked out at the loch where shadows and moonbeams danced across the water and the black mountains imposed majesty, ‘Stunning! And the stars. Wow, unreal.’

‘It is isn’t it. Catharticism and all its glory!’ he said, bringing a pot of tea to the little oak table. ‘I can do just whatever I want and nobody is any the wiser. I like that prospect.’

‘And what does catharticism and all its glory mean…exactly?’

‘Catharticism in the sense that I’ve shed all of my past. A new start. A new life.’

‘So the Ministry is a thing of the past then?’

‘Yes, indeed. I’ve made my last monthly foray down to tidy things up. A free man again, you might say.’

‘I’m very happy for you. Really. So it’s just you? No strings?’

‘No strings. Just my animals and me.’

‘Ha ha, that’ll keep you busy then. Goat herder extraordinaire!’

‘Oh, I’ve got chickens, ducks, a dog and a cat too, you know. Quite the crofter! Well, I don’t know about you but I’m ready to turn in.’

‘Yeah, me too. Good night then. And thanks. Thanks a lot.’

‘Good night, Donna.’

She made her way across the slate path to the but and ben. Once the old fashioned door had clicked shut behind her she looked around the little room. The walls here made from huge stones. They must have been about a metre thick, ancient. She ran her fingers over them enjoying the thought of the generations of fingers which had touched them before hers. They held a sense of security somehow in their stand against time, which brought a smile to her face. Okay. Better get this over with. She sat cross legged on the kilim rug and turned her satellite connection on.

‘Jake! Hi. How are you two doing?’

‘Donna! Am I glad to hear from you. So, how did it go? You hook up with the piece of shit all right?’

‘I did but…’

‘He fell for it then?’

‘Yes, everything. Got me through the border, everything but…’

‘That’s my girl. And the place? Will it do?’

‘It’s perfect, yes, but I don’t know. I think there’s been a mistake. I mean the guy’s really nice.’

‘Nice my arse. Come on. He’s one of them. You know this!’

‘I thought so as well but… He’s a doctor you know? He just got caught up in it all. He really opened up to me, you know?’

‘No, I don’t fucking know! Mengele was a fucking doctor too. A total bastarding fucking doctor! It’s the likes of Sean bloody Richardson who have had us locked away, shot down our comrades, killed your fucking parents. His father helped create the bloody camps. Come on! Don’t give up on us now. Not now.’

‘What if you’re wrong, Jake? Doesn’t that make us as bad as them? I’m telling you the guy is nice. I can’t do it.’

‘Yes you can. Utilitarianism remember? It’s not about you or him.’

‘I know but…’

‘We planned this so meticulously. Come on girl.’

‘Good luck Jake. Sorry.’

‘Don’t you dare hang…….. ‘

She curled herself up in the little wooden bunk and eventually fell into a fitful sleep filled with nightmares of what had been her life. Visions of the boots of soldiers storming through the lives of anyone who dared speak out. The barricades creating ghettos of the disenfranchised. The putrid stench of burning flesh. The desperate screams of her parents.

She walked across the path to the main building and knocked on the door.

‘Sean. I need to talk to you.’