Twisted Mountains is a collection of short stories set among the hills, each told in the voice of someone who has their own, sometimes unexpected, reason to be there. From Ben Hope to the South Downs, while the stories are varied in their subjects, they all have a dark or funny twist.
In this extract from the book two shifty characters evade the law in a remote Highland bothy; but who can they trust?
Hiding in plain sight. That's how Deano Thomas describes it as we sit in the corner of the Nevis. I like the sound of it. Like the sound of his scheme altogether.
'It's this big shooting lodge, out in the middle of nowhere. Been working there six months now. The guests, English wankers, they always leave at three, straight after a massive fucking lunch, and they never get back till five or later. Which gives you two hours minimum to sneak into their rooms, take whatever you find and get the fuck out. They go straight from shooting to drinking, they won't notice anything's missing till much later.'
I nod slowly. I'm already thinking through my own plan for how this could work. 'Why not do it yourself?'
'I can't, can I? It needs to be someone they won't recognise.'
'What if I get caught? I'm kind of on my last warning with the police, y'know?'
'That's the best bit, wee man. By the time the police arrive, if they even bother going out there, you'll be hiding over at the bothy. I promise you, no one'll think to check some wee shithole out in the hills.'
'You sure about that?'
'Aye, and if they do, all they'll find is you on your lonesome. Whatever you get, you stash it out on the moor, remember? Even if they do go to the bothy – and they won't, trust me – they'll never search the moor. It's fucking massive. You wait two days, until they've given up checking the trains, then bring it all back here.'
'And no one else'll come looking for us?'
'No chance. It's miles from anywhere. You have to get a train in, there's no roads, and people only go there to climb the mountains. Just take a sleeping bag, enough food for two days, and chill. Enjoy the fresh air. If anyone turns up, you're admiring the scenery. Like I say, hiding in plain sight.'
'Aye, sounds good to me.'
'You bring everything back here and I'll sort it from there. Sixty-forty split.'
'No way, man. Fifty-fifty or I'm not doing it.'
'Sixty for you, you daft wee prick.'
'Oh, right. Aye, sounds good.'
I think for a minute. I don't know Deano all that well, but well enough to know he'll stitch me up given a quarter of a fucking chance.
'I'm bringing Gav along, mind.'
'You sure about that, wee man?'
I can understand his surprise. Most people don't want to spend two minutes with Gavin Durie, never mind two days, and with good reason. He's a violent crack addict with a long habit and a short temper. There aren't many situations where you'd willingly have Big Gav tagging along, but robbing a house where every other bastard has a shotgun is one of them. He isn't my friend, you understand. What we have is more of a dealer–junkie kind of vibe. And Gav is one of my best customers.
'Aye, I'm sure,' I tell Deano.
'Your choice. You'll have to split your share with him, though.'
'No problem,' I smile. Deano's not gonna know how much we get, so he can't know what his share should be. And if he doesn't like what I give him, he can take it up with the local crack-addled psycho. He's the daft wee prick, not me. I raise my lager and he raises his, the age-old mark of a done deal.
But on the journey down to Corrour, I'm wondering if I've made a wee misjudgement. We almost miss the train because Gav wants to stop at McDonalds – three of the big fellas he finishes off, all by himself – and it's slow getting there. There isn't much to chat about either. It's hard to make small talk with a crazed hooligan in a sour mood. What you been up to, Gav? Beaten anyone senseless for no fucking reason lately? No, better to leave him staring out the window. I don't want those eyes on me, those eyes have seen many terrible things – all things their owner took great pleasure in doing. Best left alone is Gav. So I'm happy enough when we get off at the station. Normally I get nervous before a caper, but it's a relief to be off that train.
'Mind that, Gav, we're four hundred metres up out here,' I say, nodding at the metal sign by the tracks to prove I'm not making it up. He doesn't reply. Fair enough, not everyone's into the heights of stations, but I'm already sensing it'll be a long two days.
We take the path from the station, just as Deano instructed. It's long enough but eventually we reach the house – and the back door is open. Each bedroom's unlocked too. These rich bastards have way too much trust in their fellow man. And rich is an understatement. We fill my backpack with watches, phones, rings. Even Gav cracks a wee smile when we get to the last room and there's piles of money there, just lying about. On the bed, on the table, even by the khazi. We grab it all and sneak out.
No one to be seen downstairs, so we follow the route Deano drummed into me: take the burn until you reach this big bastard of a hill, then right towards the loch. And hey presto, just visible in the twilight, there it is. The bothy. Before we get to it, though, I head onto the moor to stash the backpack. Like Deano said, criminal mastermind that he is, that's our insurance if someone comes out here, the key to making sure we're not caught with crimson-coloured hands. It also means he can't sneak out here and steal it from the bothy, which I wouldn't put past him. Gav'll know where it is, naturally, but if he's planning to fuck me over there's nothing I can do to stop that. No one else will find it, though, not in a year of searching. Deano was right: this place is huge. Hiding in plain sight.
'How much d'you think?' I say, rooting through the backpack.
'Dunno. How much do these sell for?' Gav asks, picking out a gold watch.
'No idea, big man, Deano said he'll sort that side of things. There's at least four grand in cash, mind.'
'We should just keep that, no?'
'And how do we explain that if someone turns up? Why would anyone bring four grand out here? Fuck all shops that I've seen.'
Gav says nothing, just shrugs.
'But,' I say, peeling off a few purples, 'I reckon we deserve a wee something for our efforts so far, eh?'
'Aye, nice one,' Gav agrees, putting his share in his back pocket.
I pick out a skull, a deer or some other poor bastard that has to live out here, and mark the spot. It feels a bit morbid and I hope it isn't tempting fate, because you don't need to encourage the forces of darkness when you have Big Gav Durie for company. To prove my point, the next thing I know there's a blade at my throat.
'If you try to rip me off, or even think about it, I'll cut you. You and Dean Thomas. Understood?'
'Absolutely, big man, clear as crystal. Thought never crossed my mind.'
'Is that the bothy?' he asks, calm as you like, before he's even put his knife away.
'Aye, must be.'
'Bit small, isn't it?'
'It's only for two days.'
'What are we gonna do for two days?'
'Look at the stars. Enjoy the great outdoors. Fuck all else to do.'
'Did you bring any gear with you?' he asks.
'Nothing, big man. Nada.'
'Nothing? You're a drug dealer, aren't you?'
'Aye, but… I'm allowed a weekend off, no? Sorry Gav, I didn't think.'
He shrugs again, and heads around the back while I take a look inside. Gav's got a point: it's small. Just two wee rooms, one left, one right. In the right one there's a fireplace and a wooden sleeping platform, but not much else. No TV, no PlayStation. Gav comes in as I'm about to check the other one.
'Where's the toilet?' he asks.
'There isn't one. You have to shit outside.'
'Are you serious?'
'Aye, man, there's the wee spade, you have to cover it. C'mon, it's nature. Embrace it!'
Gav doesn't reply but when he comes back, I sense he isn't embracing it to the full.
'Did you see a shopping bag anywhere?' I ask. 'With food in it?'
'Nope. Just deer shit and grass.'
'Fucking hell, Deano's not left us any food? He said he was gonna leave something.'
Gav doesn't reply, doesn't offer to help with our lack of food situation at all. He just lays down on the wooden platform and closes his eyes.
'Two days without food, big man. What're we gonna do?'
Again, my partner in crime doesn't respond. He isn't much in the way of company, it's fair to say. I decide to sit outside. It's dark and cold, but I don't want to chew the fat with a hungry crack addict about to go cold turkey.
He comes outside much later for a piss. After washing his hands in the burn – for a crackhead, he has fair respect for the basics of hygiene – he sits down by me.
'What would you eat right now, if you could have anything?' I don't know why I ask him about food. It isn't a good idea, poking a hungry bear. But fair play to him, he makes an effort.
'Fish supper, with extras. What about you?'
'Sushi, man, a nice bit of sushi.' I lick my lips at the thought of it. 'You like sushi?'
'Do I look like a man who eats sushi?'
I laugh and Gav laughs as well. I wonder if it's the first time in his life.
'What're we gonna do, big man? I can't last two days without food.'
'You'll have to go back to that house in the morning,' he decides. 'See what you can find.'
'Me? Why me?'
'Your plan, your problem.'
I consider pointing out it's kind of a shared problem, but Gav isn't all that keen on nuance and reason. More a black and white sort of guy. And before I can think of anything else to say, he's up and inside. Conversation over. I stay outside a bit longer, even though there's still a few of the midge bastards eating me alive. At least they're getting their supper tonight.
I'm up late the next day. Not sure how late because all those expensive watches are out on the moor, but the sun is up and doing its stuff. There's no sign of Gav and I'm happy to leave it like that for as long as possible. A man like that, with no food or drugs inside him... well, he isn't gonna be in one of his sunnier moods. But thankfully he stays inside all day, except for the odd piss. It's only when the sun is on its way down again that I spot another human being. The old girl is definitely coming our way. With tension shooting up my spine, I go inside to wake sleeping ugly.
'Gav, man. Gav! There's someone coming.'
The big man comes outside, looks at where I'm pointing. We watch for a couple of minutes, but I already know exactly where she's heading.
'Get rid of her.'
'Don't care. But you get rid of her or I will.' He heads back inside. I reckon Gav's solution is gonna be a wee bit more permanent than mine, so I wait for the old girl to reach the bothy so I can tell her to fuck off, loud enough for Gav to hear. She greets me with a big old smile, her grey hair all over the place, and she's lugging a pack twice her size. She doesn't have boots on either, just leather sandals with socks underneath. She's a crazy old dame, there's no mistaking that.
'Sorry, but you can't stay. We were here first.'
'First rule of the bothy, lad, there's always room for one more.'
'Aye, but we were hoping for a bit of peace and quiet, y'know? My pal and me.'
'A Brokeback Mountain sort of trip, is it?'
'Nah, I didn't mean that, it's just...'
'Don't worry, I'm only staying one night. You boys take one room, I'll have the other. Can't say fairer than that.'
I head in to tell Gav, just in case he didn't hear. 'She won't leave.'
He doesn't say anything, just gets up and heads outside. I follow, keeping a safe distance. I hope this isn't gonna be messy, because the police might not bother coming out here for a few stolen watches, but I reckon they would for a murder. Or two.
'Like my friend here says, you can't… what's that?'
I was only inside for two minutes, but the old girl has already set up a stove outside and got a pan bubbling away on top.
'Venison stew, and I've brought plenty. You never know who you'll meet in the hills. Would you like some?'
'Aye, sounds good.' Gav sits himself down, staring at the food, hunger proving a stronger itch than the need to kill someone.
'There's water boiling for tea as well,' she says, pointing to another wee stove. A minute later she's spooning brown goop onto pan lids and I can hear my stomach gurgling. It isn't sushi, but it still smells good.
'Are you here for the Munros?' she asks, handing us a lid each.
'They're the mountains, right?' says Gav, wolfing down his stew.
'That's right, lad. That's one of them, one of the biggest.' She points with her fork to the big bastard behind us. 'Ben Alder. Are you planning to climb it?'
'Nah, we're just hanging out here a bit,' I mutter. Gav gives me a stare, a warning not to share our private business with a newcomer – even one that's feeding us.
'Hiding out at Ben Alder cottage? Just like Cluny Macpherson!'
'Is he a friend of yours?' Gav asks.
The old girl laughs at him, which isn't the greatest idea, but fair dues, Gav takes it well enough. Doesn't punch her into next week. 'You could say that. I must have read Kidnapped at least fifty times.'
'What about yourself?' I ask, keen to avoid Gav dwelling on the idea of kidnapping. He doesn't need any encouragement, that boy.
'I'm not interested in mountains, laddie,' she replies. 'No, I'm ticking off the bothies. My ambition is to spend a night in every bothy in Scotland, walking between each one. A stravaiger, that's what they call the likes of me. Wandering from one place to the next as the mood takes us. So tomorrow I'll be heading for the next one. I haven't decided which, that's part of the beauty. Anyway, that'll do me for today. I'll bid you both good night.'
She scrapes the last of the stew from her plate, gulps her tea and heads inside.
'What d'you think?' I ask Gav when she's inside.
'Why would anyone sleep out here if they didn't have to?' he asks.
'Don't ask me, big man. But I mean, should we let her stay?'
He shrugs. 'If she's off tomorrow morning, it should be OK.'
He gets up and makes towards the bothy as well. I follow this time. The risk of being murdered by Gav is less daunting than battling with those midge bastards.
Next morning I'm up early, and decide I might as well have a crack at the big beast of Ben Alder. I try to convince Gav to come, but he isn't having it. He even watches me leave for the mountain to make sure I don't head for our stash out on the moor. It's as if he doesn't trust me, which I'll admit is a wee bit hurtful. I don't go to the top of the mountain, can't see the point, but I sit for a while to think. It's going to plan so far, but there's a whole day before we head back, and I don't have faith in Gav's good mood lasting that much longer. At least the old girl will be gone when I get back, one less problem to worry about. Aye, she'll be well on her way by now.
But a couple of hours later, as I return to the bothy, I realise I've made a terrible mistake. I can hear Gav from a way off, shouting and screaming and hacking away. My heart lurches at the thought of what he must be doing to her, and it's all my fault. As I creep around to the front of the bothy, my worst fears are confirmed. Gav is standing there in just a vest and trousers, knife in hand, blood all over.
'I caught a fish!'
'You fucking what?'
'A fish! I caught fish in the loch. The woman, the one with the stew, she showed me how. I caught a fish!'
It's kind of beautiful, seeing this great hulk of a crack addict beaming like a bairn on Christmas morning. But I can't quite believe he hasn't killed her as well as the poor wee fish dude. 'Where is she, big man?'
'At the burn, rinsing the fish out. We're making another stew, we picked wild herbs as well.'
As my head spins with the idea of Big Gav as a rustic cook, she comes back. And she's in one piece rather a thousand tiny ones.
'How was your walk?' she winks at me.
'Alright, ta. I hear you two've been fishing?'
'We have, lad, your friend is a natural. An expert at gutting them, too.'
'Aye, that I can believe.'
'Here you go.' She hands Gav the fishies and the big man chucks them into the pan. Again, I can't quite believe my eyes as he takes a wee pinch of herbs and sprinkles them in, all delicate.
'Keep stirring it, laddie, it won't do if it sticks.'
'Like this?' Gav asks her.
'That's it, nice and slow. And you boy, you can get the rice cooking.'
We sit there, cooking our tea on wee stoves like Boy Scouts, and soon enough the feast is ready. It's hard to eat though, because the midgie bastards are swarming and I have to bat them away the whole time. The old girl has the same issue, but they don't seem to be bothering Gav. I can't blame them, I wouldn't want to drink his blood either, given all the shite that's running through those veins. Most of which I sold him, I have to admit.
'That was great,' says Gav with a massive belch.
'Aye, not too shabby,' I concur.
'It always tastes better when you've made it yourself,' offers the head chef. 'And a fine meal needs washing down with a fine whisky.'
She leans down and picks up a bottle of whisky that was hiding among the pans. Good stuff, better than the piss I usually drink. She swigs heavily, then hands the bottle to Gav.
'Ta,' he mutters.
'I'm guessing you're from Fort William,' she smiles. 'Correct?'
Gav's good humour vanishes in a flash. 'How do you know that?'
'Partly your accent. And you've got the letters "FW" tattooed on your left shoulder.'
'You've got me there,' Gav replies after a long pull on the whisky. 'Corpach.'
'It's a fine old town,' she assures him. 'With a wonderful bothy not too far away. Slàinte!'
'Aye, whatever,' Gav says, finally handing the bottle to me. I make sure to get a good few mouthfuls before handing it back. It's not certain I'll get another turn with those two around. But the whisky gets passed round again as she tells us about all the bothies she's been to. One where you can pick fresh mussels from the shore. One where a stag pushed open the door during a blizzard and joined her for the night. One where she had it away with a stranger, a story that I did not want to hear. When we finish the first bottle she pulls another one out of her Tardis-like rucksack, and even Gav is laughing away by the time we've polished that one off. It's amazing what getting out of Fort Bill can do for a psychopath. That and a litre of whisky.
'I've spent half my life wandering the world, laddies, looking for something better. And let me tell you this: there isn't anything. This country is the finest there is. To Scotland!'
She drains the last of the bottle and almost falls over backwards. I can't believe there's nowhere better, but then I've only seen a couple of other places, so I'm not in a strong position for a long debate.
'Aye, to Scotland,' I say.'
We both look over at Gav. Now, Gav's not exactly what you'd call a nationalist; he hates everyone equally, no exceptions made for his fellow countrymen and women. But there must be something in the air tonight because the big man nods and cracks another wee smile.
'Aye, alright. To Scotland.'
'I'm heading west tomorrow, laddies, you'd be very welcome to join me? There's supposed to be a grand wee bothy at the foot of Loch Treig, one I've not been to yet.'
Gav catches my eye, suddenly all serious again. 'Nah, you're alright.'
'Aye, we might stay another day,' I add, trying not to sound too cagey.
'Fair enough, fair enough. Then I'll bid you both a good night.' She gets up gingerly and heads inside. Gav and me wait a few minutes more.
'I could get into this bothy lark,' I say.
'Aye, it's alright, no?' he replies.
'Maybe we can head to that one with the mussels one time, what d'you think? Now you're a master with the old wild herbs.'
'I don't like seafood,' Gav mutters, then heads inside. Fair play, it's not for everyone. Maybe I'll go by myself. Or maybe I'll go overseas, somewhere hot, add to my somewhat limited set of passport stamps. I'm gonna have plenty of money to spend in a few days. I follow the big man inside, already dreaming about where I might head.
The sun's already setting himself up for the day when a kick on the foot wakes me up.
'Time to get moving,' Gav mutters.
'Aye, give us a minute.'
I pull on my jacket and head outside, splashing some water from the burn onto my face to wash away the worst of the hangover. It makes fuck all difference, though, my head is still churning. I can just make out Gav's shadow in the gloom and follow as he strides out across the moor. He's moving fast, the big man can clearly handle the whisky better than me, which isn't a surprise given what else he shovels into himself. Twenty minutes later, with the sun now dancing about, I find our skull. And nothing behind it.
'Shit. It's not here, big man.'
'What d'you mean?'
'I mean, it's not fucking here. I left it behind this skull. It's gone, Gav.'
He comes over and checks. Like I'm gonna lie to him.
'Someone must've taken it,' I say, stating the fucking obvious.
'Who? There's no one out here except us and...'
He turns and runs back to the bothy. I can't keep up but I'm not even trying, I know what we'll find. The old girl's rucksack is still there, in the corner of her room, but of her there is no sign.
'How did she know where it was?' Gav asks, staring at me in a way that doesn't fill my heart with gladness.
'She must've watched us stash it from over on that big bastard of a hill. Or Deano must've tipped her off, they'll be in on this together.'
Gav nods slowly, mulling over this unfortunate turn of events. 'They're dead. Both of them.'
'I'm with you there, big man. No excuse for that kind of behaviour.'
It takes us half a day to walk back out along what must be the longest fucking footpath in Scotland. Gav stops to stare at a signpost on the way, studying it with a concentrated look on his face.
'Loch Treig, isn't that where she's heading?' he asks.
'Aye, big man, but I think she might've spun us a wee yarn there, no?'
Gav nods, taking the disappointment pretty well. At least that's how it seems, right up until he puts his fist through the window of the wee restaurant on the station. The station guard gives us a suspicious look, sitting as we are next to a smashed window, and Gav with blood and cuts all over his hand. But he decides not to say anything. Fair enough, it wasn't his window.
Gav doesn't speak either, not until we're halfway back to Fort Bill. 'She's got some nerve, hanging about with us and then robbing us.'
'Aye, hiding in plain sight.'
We reach Fort Bill and I'm keen to make a sharp exit, no point hanging about. 'See you around, then Gav. And sorry about all this. Bad luck, eh.'
'Aye right, nice try. You're coming with me.'
I hope we're not heading to his dad's place, because the apple didn't fall too far from that fucking tree, and Mr Durie Snr lacks the patience and even-handedness of his eldest son. But no, we're heading straight to the flat of the grandmaster himself, Mr Deano Thomas, Fort Bill's soon-to-be-dead, or as close to it as counts, criminal mastermind. I want to run, but there's no point. As Gav has proven already this morning he's got a fair turn of speed for a lumbering crack addict.
Deano doesn't look that pleased to see us, but then no one wants an angry Gavin Durie on their doorstep. 'You twos back already? How did it go?'
Gav doesn't answer him, not with words anyway. I stand back as he leaps forward. Deano falls backwards while asking, not unreasonably, what the fuck is going on, and when they're halfway along Deano's hallway I take my chance and leg it to the station and the next train south. On the way I throw away Gav's blade, which I took from him last night, risking my beautiful wee face in the process, but I felt I owed Deano that much. My luck is holding and I manage to jump on the train heading south just as it's about to pull away. The doors shut and I breathe out, as this gives me at least two hours' head start on Gav or Deano, or both of them if they work out what's happened before killing each other. I'm still nervous as the train curves south through Spean Bridge, Roy Bridge, Tulloch, because you can't trust anyone these days, not even family, not always. But she's there, sat on the bench at Corrour, with my rucksack next to her. She gets into the same carriage and I shake her hand, fair play, she's put in a cracking performance, credit where it's due.
'You been waiting there all the time?' I ask.
'No, laddie, I decided to wait on the other side of Loch Ossian. To be on the safe side. Quite literally. I watched you and your friend depart, then had a wee dram in the restaurant at the station. A nice bit of beef as well, beautifully done it was.'
'Lovely,' I reply, suddenly feeling hungry myself. 'I couldn't believe it when you stayed another day, though. That wasn't what we agreed. A bit fucking risky, no?'
'I was enjoying myself. There's nothing like a bit of fresh air, besides your friend isn't half as scary as you made out,' she chuckles. 'And you boys did well, very well. We'll take it to my associate as soon as we reach Edinburgh. Fifty-fifty split, as agreed?'
'Aye, sound,' I reply. 'Or maybe we can get a wee bite first, when we get there? I'm starving, Nan. It's not an easy job, babysitting Big Gav for three fucking days.'
'Fair enough, laddie. What takes your fancy?'
'I'd be happy with a nice bit of sushi,' I tell her.
'Sushi? Raw fish and seaweed? Best left for the otters, lad.'
'Aye, you're maybe right there, Nan. You're maybe right.'