The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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3rd Prize

V Mackenzie with:

The Hide

I’VE GOT NOTHING to add to the logbook today, no observations worth recording. Who wants to read ‘A heron, two mallards, some gulls’? I only write when I see something of interest: a pair of shelducks returning after the winter, brightening the water with their shiny red bills, or the first signets of the year, fuzzy-grey and unsure of themselves. I know other people make things up, unable to accept the dull facts of the day.

I zip up my anorak and peer through my binoculars. On the far side of the loch a heron waits, stone-coloured and prehistoric. His life seems so simple: hunt, eat, sleep, mate. I know what I look like – a sad old git, a twitcher, nothing better to do than sit alone in his anorak. But I’m not alone – Gloria has gone back to the car to retrieve the flask of coffee. Gloria. I sometimes wonder if her name is a burden, or if it’s just a familiar sound to her, empty of meaning. Gloria is good company, funny and kind. I’ve never asked her age, but she must be ten years younger than me. We often come to the hide and it’s usually empty, even in summer. I feel at peace watching the birds and that counts for a lot. Several white-tailed eagles were released here recently as part of a repopulation programme. Imagine that – an eagle soaring high above the trees, its wings two metres wide. I wonder how many will survive, how many will make their home here on this drizzle-soaked peninsula.

I used to teach French at the nearby secondary school but took early retirement several years ago. I don’t miss school, it was like teaching sheep most of the time: an indistinct mass of faces bleating ‘Oon, der, twar, cat, sank’. It’s rare to find a pupil with a feeling for language, but when you do you latch on to them. Whether you mean to or not, you build your classes round them, hoping to stretch them and bring out their best. It was like that with Robbie. He was a pleasant boy too: polite, friendly, none of the standard insolence simmering away below the surface.

I loved learning French when I was young, I thought it was a gateway to a new life. The language conjured up fine wine, haute cuisine, sophisticated adults. When I was sixteen I did an exchange with a boy called Philippe and stayed with his family in Paris. He had a sister, Natalie, the most beautiful girl I’d ever met – we married eight years later and settled in a village on the east coast of Scotland, close to where I’d grown up. We tried for a child but it never happened. Still, we were happy enough.

A moorhen chugs into the centre of the water before heading back to the safety of the reeds. The latch of the hide door lifts noisily: Gloria, back with the coffee. She squeezes beside me on the bench and pours a small cupful into the lid of the flask. I sip it gratefully, even though coffee from her flask always tastes burnt and metallic.

Gloria isn’t one of those women always rushing to fill a silence and I appreciate that; we let each other think. She had a son, James, who came off his motorbike on a twisty country road ten years ago. She often thinks about what sort of life he might be living now, whether she’d be a grandmother to two bonny red-haired twins, if he’d have moved to Australia like so many of the young ones. I know when she’s thinking about him: her lips tighten and her eyes half close. She looks grief-stricken, and it’s an apt phrase. Grief’s like a physical illness, a very long, drawn-out illness. She hardly ever looks like that though. Gloria is a strong woman, she tries to enjoy life. We sit quietly together, watching the heron, our patience matching his as he waits for a movement in the shallows.

* * * * *

The year Natalie died was the last year I had Robbie as a pupil. I taught him French of course, but much more than that. I taught him about the way another language allows other ways of thinking, other ways of being. I wanted all the kids to go to France and hold their heads up high, I didn’t want them to feel like I had: a dull kid from a Scottish backwater. I explained there was no such thing as claret in France, it’s just red Bordeaux; I told them about the Left Bank, the ex-pat community in Paris after the First World War, the intellectuals in the ‘60s.

Natalie spent the last month of her life in hospital and every evening I was at her side, stroking her hand. I’d tell her about my day or read to her. I’d tell her about Robbie’s class, what we’d discussed, what a talented boy he was. I often told her I loved her but the words felt automatic. I’d find myself saying ‘I love you’ as I was driving home, when I was showering, when I was waiting for the kettle to boil. It was like an incantation, as if saying it could stop her dying.

It didn’t, of course. I took two weeks off work but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was glad to get back to teaching. It was a few weeks later that Robbie came to talk to me. We’d been having a discussion in class about Sartre’s politics and his refusal of the Nobel Prize so I thought maybe Robbie had some questions. I had another class to go to so I suggested he walk with me. But he didn’t have any questions. As we walked he told me that he’d decided to switch to German next year: his father said it was going to be the language of business. A surge of hatred for Robbie’s father swept over me. Who was this man to fill his son’s mind with rot about the language of business?

I knew then what I had lost. I had lost Natalie, I had lost the children we’d once hoped for, the grandchildren we had imagined – Christmases, holidays, first days at school, the joy of showing them the world. And now I had lost this clever, enthusiastic boy.

* * * * *

There’s a sudden flurry of movement in the water and I point the binoculars across the loch. The heron spears a small fish and gulps it down in one movement.

"What are you thinking Donald, you look like you’re on Death Row." Gloria slides a fresh flask lid of coffee in front of me.

I think, we’re all on Death Row, but instead I say, "Gloria, will you marry me?"

She laughs. "Donald, what do two old birds like us want to go and get married for?"

"You’re not old, Gloria, look at you. You’re wonderful."

It’s true. Her hair glows red-gold in the sunlight and her smile is wide and joyous. I take her gloved hand in mine and squeeze it. The ghosts of the past sit around us, there’s no banishing them, but we still manage to find these moments of happiness.

* * * * *

The staircase was high and Robbie fell backwards, he had no chance to save himself. I ran down after him, tried to find a pulse. I didn’t dare move him in case he’d broken anything. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.

The family accepted it was an accident, that Robbie had slipped and lost his balance. What other explanation could there be? I gave a statement to the police to this effect and took early retirement soon afterwards. Everyone was kind and sympathetic: no wonder I didn’t want to carry on – I’d just lost my wife and then witnessed the death of one of the school’s best pupils. I deserved a break, some time to gather myself.

* * * * *

I’m still trying to gather myself. How strange that a man can sit in a hide with a kind, lovely woman, sipping hot coffee and watching the birds, while his heart is heavy and his mind is reeling at horrors.

"Don’t blame yourself, Donald."

"What?" Gloria startles me and my voice declares my guilt.

"About Robbie. I know you think about him a lot, but you shouldn’t blame yourself. It was an accident."

"I pushed him."

"You didn’t, Donald. We’ve been through this. Other people saw what happened. He tripped, he fell; there’s nothing more to it. A boy died, it was a dreadful accident, but you were not responsible."

She puts her arms around me and I rest my head on her shoulder. She’s right: there’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on these visions that keep playing out in my mind like a private horror film. If only there was a way to stop them, to keep hold of the sense of peace that sometimes descends when I sit here watching the birds. The heron takes off, loping slowly over the dark trees until it’s out of sight. Gloria puts the flask into her bag.

"Shall we head back?"

I nod.

"Do you want to write anything in the log book?" She passes me the book and a biro. She had already put today’s date and I write beside it, ‘One heron, fishing.’

"A quiet day today, not much happening out there," she says. We glance up at the water and watch the wind rippling the surface of the loch, hurrying wavelets towards the shore.

"I like the quiet days best of all," I say.


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