The pop music piping throughout the office is muffled by the heavy door to the ladies’ toilets. I wipe my hands on my trousers – still not convinced the electric dryer isn’t part of a jet engine – and find myself drawn to the canvas photographs on the walls; a soaring osprey, snow-dusted hilltops, a cavernous loch, a single white flower clinging to a moss-laden boulder. If I brush my finger against them, will it come away with dirt particles stuck to it, or damp from the melting snow?
My phone buzzes.
Are we still on for tomorrow?
I look up from the message, back to the photographs. The mountain names are Gaelic gobbledygook to me, but tomorrow I could very well be climbing something similar. What had seemed like a good idea last weekend in a warm, overcrowded coffee shop now makes my stomach roil.
Calum had been sitting across from me, gesturing wildly as he talked about the adventure he had just returned from, his cheeks glowing, chapped lips smiling. My heart was racing as though I was climbing with him.
‘It was challenging,’ he said, ‘especially in the rain, but I found a sheltered spot among the rocks to sit for a while. It was so quiet and peaceful.’ He put his hand around his full coffee mug and stared into the black pool. ‘Sorry, I’m probably boring you.’
‘No, no! That sounds wonderful! I would love to experience it for myself, sometime.’
His shoulders relaxed a little. He blinked at me, then smiled, eyes wide.
‘Have you ever heard of Munro bagging? . . .’
I grasp the door handle for a moment before the cacophony of voices and music slams into me. Once at my desk, I plug my headphones in and play my usual playlist of birdsong and rushing water.
Later, on the bus ride home, the windows rattle with every bump. There is a suspicious metallic clang coming from the back, and the heat of human bodies is thick enough to choke on.
My phone buzzes again.
Forecast reckons better weather in the morning. Will pick you up at 7am?
I’m never up before 8am.
Should be quieter, too.
I chew my lip, rub my temple with my free hand.
That’s fine, I answer.
At last, I’m back in my flat. I go to the kitchen and drink a glass of water to ease my headache, then a second, and I suddenly remember that I will need to fill up bottles for tomorrow.
Now, what else does one take to the hill? I pull up an article on my phone. Top of the list: boots. I’ve heard of tourists ascending Ben Nevis in flip flops and (usually) living to tell the tale, so I think I’ll be fine in trainers. I can use my work bag as a rucksack, and I’ll grab the waterproof jacket stuffed at the back of my wardrobe. After that the list gets a bit concerning: maps, compass, first aid kit, emergency whistle . . .
I close the tab. I could pretend I’m ill, but what else will I do all weekend?
I close my eyes and remember the way Calum grinned at me in the coffee shop, his face rosy and windburned.
‘It was so quiet and peaceful . . .’
I heat up last night’s leftovers and flick on the TV. The upstairs neighbours are having a party. The ones to the left are arguing. To the right, lorries tumble by on the motorway and, somewhere beyond, a train.
I put my headphones on and turn on the subtitles.
There was no need to worry about the early start, as I’ve lain awake most of the night. I emerge into the semi-darkness of the car park. A car rushes past on the motorway, then stillness descends once more. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, listening to the first twitters of dawn.
The roar of a car engine makes me jump; birds flap from the bushes and disappear. The car stops in front of me, then Calum steps out. His hair is scraped into a tangled bun and he’s wearing a simple checked shirt and outdoorsy-looking trousers, just like last week. We exchange shy greetings, and I shiver as he smiles and takes my bag from me, passing no comment on how I’m not properly kitted out.
Glasgow’s lights and signs fly past, its drab tenements and glass buildings. Soon, they give way to fields, forest and, finally, mountains.
‘Which one are we doing again?’
‘Ben More. Or, the big hill, as it translates.’
‘Right,’ I say, then clear my dry throat. ‘Sounds hard.’
‘Believe it or not, it’s considered a beginner-friendly Munro. It was my first one, too.’ He turns towards me. ‘I’m really looking forward to having you here today.’
I blush and look away. Outside, there are more trees than I’ve ever seen: pine, ash, elm. Rivers and burns feed into lochs; flowers sway on their banks.
Winding uphill on a small gravel road, Calum parks the car on a muddy verge. I shut the car door gently, listening to tweets and caws, whistles I don’t recognise. High above, a soaring giant catches my eye.
‘An osprey,’ he says, and watches the creature, too. I take a deep breath, and soon, we pick up a narrow trail.
He matches my steady pace as we ascend through the trees, but it’s not long before my calves and thighs begin to burn. I suck air through my clenched teeth and keep going, pressing my hands on my thighs. The trees are annoying me now; they’ve become thin spindly things, their needles more brown than green, lying against each other at grotesque angles. I snap a pathetic attempt at a branch out of my way and increase my pace.
‘Do you think the birds know how easy they have it?’ I say, panting.
The path flattens a little as we emerge from the treeline. I gasp, stop, and take a step back, heart hammering.
Ben More rises up into the sky, a few clouds clinging to its rocky summit. To the left and right I see distant peaks, some so far away they linger like ghosts on the horizon. I run forward and jump, spinning in a circle with my arms outstretched, my fingertips touching nothing but air.
Calum’s watching me from in front of the trees.
‘There’s so much space!’ I say, returning his smile.
I hear rushing water and follow the sound, the grass squelching beneath my trainers. A stream bordered by rocks gurgles its way into the trees.
‘Where does this water go?’ I ask, dipping my fingers in.
‘It’ll feed into Benmore Burn and eventually run into the River Tay.’
He squats next to me and submerges his calloused hands. I imagine these same pristine molecules of water getting choked with pollutants as they’re coaxed and cajoled by dams and walls on their journey to the North Sea.
A pair of little brown birds land on the bank across from us and begin pecking at the rocks. They hop about each other, and I can’t help but smile. I look over at Calum, who is taking a picture of them on his phone. Words bubble up in my throat, but I keep my lips clamped shut.
A cry sounds from overhead; the little birds fly away.
We decide it’s time for us to continue, too, this time in a straight line up the slope. Every step feels like it’s going to be my last. When the trail levels off a little, I decide I’m ready for another break. With a grunt, I hoist myself up to sit on a boulder. He sits on the grass across from me. Slowly, my breath returns. The sun is peeking through the thick clouds; he closes his eyes as it lights up his face.
‘So,’ I begin, unzipping my bag and fishing out my chocolate bar, ‘who else have you tried to kill doing this?’
‘I got Mum up Cairn Gorm,’ he says.
‘To the cafe at the top of the funicular railway.’
‘Don’t you have mates who are into this?’
‘They’d all rather watch football.’
He huffs a laugh, but I catch his sigh.
He opens his eyes and blinks at me, curling in on himself the same way he did in the cafe.
I nod in sympathy, unwrapping the chocolate bar. ‘I’m on my own most of the time, too,’ I say. ‘After being at work all week I just can’t face going back out again, into all the crowds, unless I have to.’
‘That’s why I’m glad I was introduced to the hills so young, or I think I would have been the same.’
We chuckle quietly at each other.
‘I’m glad you get it,’ I say. ‘How did you get into this?’
There’s a heaviness to the word. I put away the chocolate wrapper and follow his gaze out to the summit as he continues.
‘I lived with Mum during the week, and at weekends and holidays when the weather was decent I climbed hills with Dad. I think it was what we both needed, at the time, after all their arguments. But his heart’s just not up to it anymore. He has two Munros out west he was saving for me, so we could finish bagging them at the same time.’
We sit for a while, the grass around us flat and brown, undisturbed. There’s not even a breeze.
‘It’s silent,’ I realise.
I can hear the rustle of his jacket as he exhales.
‘So it is.’
I lie on my back and look up at the cloudy sky. The near-constant ache in my head is gone.
‘Is this what you meant, in the cafe? The peace?’
‘Yes. It’s always there, if you listen for it.’
I go limp against the boulder, grinning. If I lie here for long enough, will the moss encase me, too? Will I grow into a lone flower? The clouds weave through the sky. Flies buzz above us. What else have I been missing, all these years, due to the noise? What things have I yet to discover?
High, high above us, two birds of prey circle each other.
‘Calum?’ I say, after a few minutes.
‘Thank you, for showing me this.’
‘Thank you, Kayla, for asking me to show you.’
We lie there until the wind picks up and goose pimples break out over my arms.
‘Well,’ he says, turning to me, ‘we should get going, if you don’t want to get wet.’
I sit up slowly. He holds his hand out to me, smiling. Mine is slightly damp and covered in bits of moss from the rock.
I take it.