Jameson wormed his way in as we waited at Kennacraig. He’d come over from Clanoig and had got a lift from another mug there. I liked him at first, or the idea of him anyway. With his fresh face and glistening blue eyes he was a character of vim and vigour, a reminder of my own carefree youth freewheeling through the highlands and islands. He was making his way to the island to start a job working in the hotel, but soon he just seemed to criticize everything. He squeezed into the back seat where there was room beside our bikes and almost immediately was cussing about the midges.
It had been twenty years since I’d climbed the hill of gold, and what I remembered above all else was the ravaging I took from the ticks. This time Eilidh and I would be prepared. I told her to cover herself head to toe, and to spray any exposed skin with repellent. It was all arranged that the three of us would make the walk, but the night before, as we sat in the bar of the hotel looking out through the window at the Rib boat bringing its last handful of passengers over from Tayvallich, and Nicol, the man who also ran the bike hire shop, gently shoving the last of the passengers off, Eilidh said to me that she would rather spend the following day on a tour of the distillery. I felt pissed off. I loved to show Eilidh all the beautiful places of my youth. But the reactions had been muted, less amazed than I’d hoped for, in fact, not amazed at all.
Jameson dragged my eyes down to his drained glass. ‘I’ll go to the bar man, you relax,’ he said. ‘Just give me the money.’
While he was at the bar I tried to change Eilidh’s mind. But she was a stubborn woman. That was one of the things I’d always liked about her. So, as I drank deeply of another golden pint, I pondered the following day. I’d be walking to the hill of gold with someone I barely knew, someone who never stopped moaning and was freeloading his way through the evening. I didn’t mind paying. I’m in the oil business, and thankfully we headed off all that independence nonsense.
‘Any change?’ I had to ask, as he gulped gleefully from his pint of Belhaven.
‘No man, but don’t worry.’
The little fucker was winding me up no end. I looked again through the picture window at the Bay of the Small Isles. I could see the hill of gold on the horizon, and the gold flashed over the waters clear to Tayvallich. In the campsite our tent was still there, as were our two blue bikes, leant against the sagging fence.
Jameson was staying in the staff quarters, ready for his stint as a barman. I looked around and he was standing at the bar, stroking his flat stomach and moaning about the weather and the midges to a bright eyed barmaid. Eilidh was unusually attentive too, and smiled in an old way as she watched them. It seemed I was the only one who hadn’t succumbed to his charms.
It was another hot morning as we set off from the dewless campsite. I drove us along the coast road that rose up a hill to a view of a sparkling bay, and we parked in the shadow of a road bridge by the calm flow of the Corran River. I thought of Eildih, still in the tent, probably still sleeping, as I walked with this stranger called Jameson. I hadn’t told him about the ticks, and looked at him with amused anticipation. He had on a pair of flimsy white running shorts and a thin Ramones t-shirt, and had refused my offer of repellent. The heat was rising still higher and there was nothing like a wind, and you could smell the knee high bracken that stood waiting under a coating of ticks. We brushed through the bracken as we followed the path, but I had on a pair of sensible trousers and a long sleeved shirt. I wore a North Face cap and Oakley sunglasses, and any skin left exposed was sprayed with the repellent, Smidge. Ticks landed on my hands like drawing pins and I brushed them off quick. Jameson was having a nightmare, flailing his arms wildly, squeeling on occasion and complaining that ‘we don’t have bastards like this in Baltimore.’
Higher up on the path we left the bracken behind and reached a vast and motionless loch. A shag flew across the silver expanse. I filled my water bottle at crooked stepping stones and advised Jameson to do the same. He said the water was ‘too brown’ and that he, ‘wasn’t drinking that shit’. I had been drinking from this brackish kind of water for years. Even if there had been a dead sheep rotting thirty yards upriver it would have been fine. Higher up the hill the water was even better, translucent and chillingly cold.
We followed the dusty path beside the loch. There was a tiny tin hut at the far end. I turned around and looked back at the distant Isle of Arran across the mirrored waters of the sound, its jagged summits a reminder of other trips. There was a flowering of clouds. I thought of Eilidh, with a daisy chain around her head in the early days of our relationship, all brown and sweet and slim, my suntanned flower girl.
I had briefly forgotten about Jameson. He was no longer behind me on the path. I looked down and it must have been him, splashing in the glittering loch, a straight ripple stretching from the shoreline. The shag rose up and flew elsewhere. Jameson was swimming fast, the front crawl arrowing him through the loch. I had done the same the first time I’d been here. Naive about the ticks, I’d run headlong into the water for relief from their incessant biting.
I looked back up at the hill of gold, all shimmering and timeless there in the sunlight, and carried on up the dry path. Jameson knew where the car was and he knew the way back, so I’d leave him to his own devices. The sun would dry him off and then hopefully he would get savaged all over again. That would take some of the vim out of the cocky little cunt. I carried on as the ascent grew steeper, and then reached a col between the mountains where the lush grass was pockmarked with rocks. I carried on higher. Still it was warm and still there was no wind, but the heat was freshened by the height. There was a man-made pathway leading in an unnaturally straight line up through the rocks leading to the summit cairn and shelter. At the silent summit I sat on the warm, weather smoothed stones, looking around at the views of Islay and Colonsay and Kintyre and Mull beyond. My only wish was that Eildih was with me. She had a great capacity for appropriate silence. I would have hugged her on the hill of gold.
I looked across at the wild west coast beyond Loch Tarbet. The bracken was head high over there. A man in the hotel said it was cooler on that side of the island so that’s where all the deer had gone. I sat by the summit shelter, drank water and ate my sandwiches. I felt so glad I’d made the effort to come again. I missed the deer. Last time, they had been in rut, the stags roaring across the island’s silence. And I missed my wife too. But I love the wild places and the solace they provide from the games that people play.
As I retraced the path past the loch I expected to see Jameson at any moment. But he was nowhere to be seen. I hoped maybe he had drowned, or just been ravaged to death by ticks as he re-emerged from the water. Then my heart descended too as he appeared from behind a rock, smiling and laughing.
‘That fucking water is cold, man!’
‘Yeah, I remember.’
‘Get your act together, man, sooner we get back sooner we can get started on the single malts!’
I bit my lip for what seemed the thousandth time. Was it age that made me so irritable? We followed the path back beside the steady flow of the Corran River. The car was still there. I could see its red roof in the distance by the road bridge. There was a breeze that seemed to keep the ticks off. It was a shame. I wanted that sod devoured.
I parked up outside the white walls of the hotel and the distillery. Looking down at the campsite I noticed that my bike rested against the sagging fence alone. Someone had nicked Eilidh’s bike and I couldn’t fucking believe it. You never usually had to lock anything in these remote places. And then I relaxed a little, thinking she’d probably just gone out for a ride on her own. As Jameson wandered into the hotel I jogged down to the tent. Eilidh wasn’t in there. I didn’t expect her to be. Nor did I expect to see a note tagged to the fence. I ripped it off and read the words. But I didn’t want to believe them.
I tried texting you but it didn’t work. I have gone home. But I won’t be there when you get back. I love you, of course. But it is not enough any more. Eilidh x.
I screwed up the paper and sat down on the warm grass by the tent. The hot sun was setting and the midges began to appear. I unravelled the ball and sat looking at the note again. The midges started biting, the repellent I’d put on in the morning having worn off. I opened the tent door and was blasted by heat as I ducked inside. The double sleeping bag was zipped up and laid out neatly, and there was an empty space where all her clothing had been. I tried calling her mobile but there was no reception. I pulled out my sleeping mat. It caught in the doorway and I wrenched at the fucker. Then there was the sleeping bag and the lantern she’d bought us. I was going to start packing up but then I sat back down on the grass and looked at my watch. The Eilean Dhiura had gone.
There were no shower facilities so I went to the tree-shrouded burn and washed all the sweat and grime off in the cool of the shade. There was a breeze funnelling through the trees and the water wasn’t as cold as you’d think. My aching feet came back to life as the sharp cold shifted blood through them. I’d carried a silver pan with me, and used it to tip water over my head and the back of my neck. I climbed up the bank feeling renewed and refreshed, but when my bare feet touched the grass I stopped and launched the pan in the direction of the tent.
Thankfully I’d had a cooked meal by the time the power cut blackened the island. The locals were pissed off because as always Islay was getting sorted out first. But the beer in the taps stayed cold enough to drink and the alcohol eased all pressures. The football and the lights just went off. As my eyes adjusted, the glow from the Bay of the Small Isles gave blue light to the interior of the bar. The barmaid walked around placing jutting candlesticks on each table. I sat there in the candlelight, getting drunk. Then Jameson came out from behind the back of the bar with a guitar. And of course the twat was good. He played until the lights came back on and the barmaids snuffed out the candles.
Two women came and sat with me. They’d arrived that day on their bikes. One of them, an ageing blonde, said, ‘We are not supposed to be here. Nobody knows we are here.’ I was drunk already but I took the hint. She wanted a last hurrah before age took away her chances. I arranged to cycle with them the next day. They were hoping to reach Barnhill, the farmhouse at the north end of the island where George Orwell had written 1984. The blonde’s friend was doing a PhD on dystopian literature. They were both from Largs, but I don’t remember their names.
In the morning I reckoned I could have spent the night with either of the women. They had separate tents and there was plenty of room in mine. The blonde in particular was clearly in the mood for it. But my brains were scrambled and my balls were dead.
It was another hot day. I wore t-shirt and shorts and plastered myself in repellent, and the three of us headed off towards Barnhill. As we cycled up the hill beyond the road bridge crossing the reliable flow of the Corran River, I looked across at the hill of gold. It was still there, and still looked the same, a prize in glistening quartzite.
We cycled on the isolated road. There were no cars. For mile after mile there were uninterrupted views across the sparkling sound to Kintyre. There was no wind, and the only sound beside our tyres on the tarmac was the mewling of a buzzard high above. The edges of its feathers were outlined sharply on the sky. We passed Lagg and Tarbet and ploughed on until the end of the road. It was now a rough track, very difficult for cycling, but the PhD student in particular seemed determined to get there. At the falling down farmhouse at Barnhill we got off our bikes and dropped their weight to the ground. The two women wandered around the house, looking up at the tattered walls and windows. I drank from my water bottle and went on.
It was farcical, dragging my bike across those beaten tussocks. But I’d set myself the challenge even if I’d been better on my own. I was exhausted by the time I reached the northern tip of the island. I looked across the Gulf of Corryvrecken towards Scarba. I’d read about the Scarba whirlpool, and climbed up onto some rocks to look down on it. The clouds had come over by now and the waters were darkened by the clouds. I could see, if I looked carefully, the swirling white motion of the tiny whirlpool among the deep and darkest blue. I thought of the long, pointless walk back and shouted obscenities at the sky. Then I picked up my bike and held it high over my head before hurling the bastard into the Gulf of Corryvreckan.
As I trudged back to Barnhill, I remembered how one of the women told me that 1984 had originally been entitled ‘The Last Man in Europe’. The women hadn’t waited for me but only the skies were crying. I stumbled on towards the relief of the tarmac road. Not long after I’d reached it a car streaked past me and then screamed to a halt before reversing back. It was Jameson.
‘You like this car?’ he asked. ‘I’ve just bought it today!’
It was the first time the sight of him hadn’t entirely pissed me off. I got in the passenger seat and listened to his youthful enthusiasm as we drove back. He had Neil Young on the stereo. The inside of the car was scattered with beer cans and I had an idea for a road trip. Before we reached the bridge over the Corran River I looked up at the hill of gold, and it was still fucking gold.