John hired a van for the day to collect bric-a-brac in the Highlands. Easy money he was told. You get it for free, then sell it at the Glasgow auctions. Failing that, go round the antique dealers. They’re sure to take the stuff off your hands. Always something they’re interested in.
He had set off that morning bursting with confidence. But come late evening all he had acquired were two clapped-out washing machines, a variety of stuffed toys, games, puzzles and a dog-eared copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. As things stood, he would be lucky to recover the cost of fuel and van rental, let alone make a profit.
By the time darkness fell he was exhausted. He sorely wanted to pull over and sleep in the back of the van. But with his luck he would get robbed. Instead, he would wait until he got home. However, he could not stave off the hunger pangs that knotted his stomach. He had taken painkillers to ease the pain, but they just made him feel drowsy.
Driving across the Ballachullish Bridge that spanned the narrows between Loch Linhe and Loch Leven, he glimpsed down past the iron girders at the dark water below. If he jumped in, all his worries would end immediately. Even if he changed his mind at the last minute, he’d still drown as he couldn’t swim.
He soon changed his tune when the the van’s faulty heating system packed in. Within moments the air chilled, freezing him to the marrow. With a bit of luck fate would grant him another opportunity to succeed, though he couldn’t see how. It served him right for renting the cheapest jalopy in the yard. But it meant he could afford to buy petrol for the journey, though he had not intended to venture so far.
He flicked his eyes at the fuel gauge. The needle leaned heavily towards red. He would barely make it home at this rate. He would have to resort to his age old trick of siphoning petrol. He had learned the skill from his father, a mechanic. The old man had fashioned a skeleton key that could fit almost any petrol cap. He had shown John how to use it when he took him on night-time sorties to villages outside Glasgow. John inherited the key when his father died.
At Glencoe the van wheezed like a fifty-a-day smoker. Its tyres struggled to negotiate the icy roads. The petrol gauge needle was almost horizontal now. In the worst case scenario he could abandon the van by the roadside and hitch a lift to the petrol station he had seen earlier.
His eyelids drooped. He blinked out the tiredness. At one point he closed his eyes for a few seconds before realising he was still driving. The van weaved along the road, skating towards the bend. He would have to be more careful if he was going to get home in one piece.
He turned his mind to Friday, two days from now. The rent was due on his flat and he was skint, hence why he came up with this hair-brained idea to make money. He worked on a zero-hour contract as a porter at The Glasgow Hill Hotel, which barely covered living costs.
The thought of being homeless had plagued his mind all day. It seemed he was doomed to follow the same path as his Uncle George. The unemployed carpet-fitter was sixty years old, divorced and an alcoholic. He flitted between relatives, begging for charity. John had felt ashamed of the old man when he lived with his family for two months a few years back. Now he understood the old man’s plight. It was easy to become destitute.
Dark blobs shot across the road.
John stomped on the brakes. The sudden action inflated the airbag, cushioning his flailing body when it slammed into it. For a few heart-thudding moments he embraced the airbag, groaning. Then he slumped back in his seat and gave himself a quick check-up. Nothing broken, bruised or bleeding. He was just trembling from fright.
He squinted at the windscreen. The headlights picked out a litter of wild boar piglets. They barreled towards him, squealing and grunting as they jostled for pole position.
John beeped the horn, stopping them in their tracks. The cacophony of noises became louder.
Two adult boars emerged from the shadows, keeping a glaring eye on John as they toddled towards the others. The piglets complained bitterly as they were shunted across the road, their voices fading when they disappeared into the undergrowth.
Another adult appeared, much larger than the rest. It stood square as if about to charge. A beast that powerful could easily dent the van or gore the tyres with its curled tusks. But it merely tossed its snout in the air in a haughty fashion, emitted a series of grunts, then joined the others.
John blew out a long sigh of relief. Thank God that was over. Now he could head home.
The engine had conked out when he had braked. Turning the ignition key, the engine gave out a series of whines. The fuel gauge indicated there was no petrol in the tank. Even if he could get the van going, it wouldn’t be long before it conked out again.
The last garage he had passed was miles away. No way was he traipsing back there. And who knew where the next one was.
He peered through the windscreen at the surrounding hills. No houses to be seen anywhere. But a few yards up ahead, just off to the right, was a tarmacked road. It had to lead somewhere. Hopefully to a house or village.
He dropped from the van, locking it. The chill gnawed at his bones. He quickly realised the folly of wearing only a bomber jacket, jeans and trainers. It was yet another item to add to the list of that day’s stupidity.
He broke into a jog and hung a right.
The road inclined for fifty yards or so, tapering off to a mere path. There was barely enough space for a motor bicycle to pass, let alone any other kind of vehicle. Yet, no signs indicated the danger of driving this way. It was a death trap for any unsuspecting driver.
Just before a tight bend he came across a grave. It was marked by a cross made from the broken staves of an old wine barrel. The epitaph seared into the crossbar said:
Poor woman, he thought, moving past it. Scotland had a reputation for burning witches long after everywhere else had stopped the barbaric ritual. The hero within John wished he could go back and save her.
A little further along stood a metallic signpost that looked like it had been cut in half. Lochna, said the part that still remained. The other part lay on the ground, bent in the middle. A streak of rust crossed out doon.
To be continued…
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