Short Fiction by Ben O’Hara
There was no better remedy for grief than reliving precious memories.
Cancer had taken Angie from me six months ago. Since then time had blunted the rawness of that loss to a dull perpetual ache. Eventually I realised I needed to cherish my memories of her not avoid them. I decided the best way to do that was to return to a place which had seen some of our happiest times.
The Great Glen Way in the Scottish Highlands was that place, our place. Connecting the towns of Fort William and Inverness, covering over 80 miles of awe inspiring wilderness, it was the perfect setting to forget the trivialities of everyday life. Relishing the solitude that off trail hiking can bring, we often left the common routes. We opted for peace and tranquillity, and that feeling of being the only two humans in the world. Nature the sole witness.
My surroundings evoked so many memories that it felt like she was here, that we were young again, her hand entwined with mine.
Being so engrossed I hadn’t registered the steep slope, nor did I see the protruding tree root in my path. My boot wedged perfectly underneath it and momentum did the rest. I tumbled down as though trapped in a vortex, striking a tree which caused a sudden pain in my ankle before coming to a stop at the bottom. Caked in damp mud, I looked back up the hill and wondered what she would have said. Once she’d known I was fine she’d have affectionately declared me a “plonker”, bursting out with laughter. I found myself laughing now.
Fifteen minutes later I certainly wasn’t. Having not marked any trees to guide me back to the trail, I was lost. My ankle sent a crude lance of agony up my leg as I tried putting weight on it. I eyed my surroundings. Most people would have found it all unnerving. The trees creaked, wind rustling through the pines in hushed whispers. I could just make out their needles above, tinged blue like the lips of hypothermia victims. Fog hung like a veil over the undergrowth and I couldn’t escape the distinct impression that the air itself was supernaturally charged, that if I could just tear away the fabric of this reality I’d see into another world.
I found it all ethereal. Angela and I’d been fascinated by the deep mysticism that surrounded this place. There had been Druids, people had believed in witches, and we were close to the legendary Loch Ness after all.
I stopped, leaning against a tree, grimacing. No, it wasn’t my surroundings that worried me, it was being lost. More pressingly darkness was fast approaching.
Andrew’s stern tone rang in my head. Mum’s gone, I know it’s tough, but that’s no excuse to go on some crazy adventure. You’re too old to be doing this. I pushed him out of my mind angrily, hobbling along again. I shouldn’t dwell on him, or my crippling grief. I had to feed off the happiness of the times Angie and I had spent here. I needed to find my way back to the trail, or at least some shelter somewhere. But I’d wandered too far away.
Then suddenly, I caught a sweet scent in the air as though something was being baked. It was just my mind, dizzy from the pain, playing tricks on me. Come on, Wilf. You’ll find your way back. I heard Angie say.
I closed my eyes and she was next to me. Those arresting blue eyes, set like sapphires above her porcelain cheeks, her golden curls so close I could smell that subtle lemony hint they’d had. Then, as quickly as she’d appeared, she was gone. Come on, Wilf.
I staggered on, for how long I didn’t know, too indulged in my thoughts as I tried to picture her clearly again. I stopped. How does that saying go? Follow your nose? Apparently, I had. The smell of baking was now unmistakeable.
There was a cottage through a break in the trees ahead. I blinked, rubbing my eyes and opening them again. It was real. Smoke wafted lazily from its stone chimney and the smell seemed to coil itself around me, like a lasso. I was relentlessly dragged closer.
There was the warm glow of a fire within, flickering and dancing, tantalising me with the promise of a comforting embrace. A white picket fence surrounded the small front garden with an invitingly open gate leading onto a path down to the cottage. It was well-trodden, though all the footprints led solely towards it. By this point I realised I’d reached the gate. Something made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The pain in my ankle cut through and I heard Andrew’s sobering voice again, telling me to be sensible and rest.
Fine. I thought irritably, though I was already halfway down the path.
The door wasn’t as welcoming as the rest of the outside. Its dark, blackened wood seemed to tower over me as I rapped the iron knocker twice. Standing back, rubbing my hands, I wondered how the knocker was so cold to the touch.
My heart leapt when I heard a bolt being pulled across and the door began to creak slowly open. After what seemed like an age, an old woman poked her head out.
Her face was extremely wrinkled and her hair was so white and wispy that a gust of wind could blow it all away like a dandelion. Her eyes sparkled with liveliness and not the slightest bit of apprehension at the sight of a stranger.
“Hello, I’m afraid I’ve taken a bit of a tumble and hurt my ankle…you don’t have a phone I could use, do you?” I wondered what Andrew would say if I tried to get him all the way up here to fetch me. He’d be furious I hadn’t taken his advice, but I couldn’t think of an alternative.
Maybe it’d get him out of that bloody office he lives in. I thought bitterly, before feeling ashamed of myself.
“Of course, dearie,” she said, opening the door wider. “Come in.”
It was an odd voice; it seemed to float on the air for a split second before I could understand what she’d said.
I stepped inside and she closed the door, sliding the bolt back before shuffling away up the hall.
The walls were adorned by floral wallpaper and the carpet was thick and cream. Remembering my manners, I struggled and took off my muddy boots. Looking around for where to put them I noticed a cupboard door ajar, boots spilling out on to the doormat. I placed mine neatly close to the escaping pile.
As I followed her into a kitchen the baking aroma intensified. A thick oak table stood in the middle of a flagstone floor and a vast old stove sat in the corner, resembling a round black dumpling, its door wide open. The source of the enticing aroma was a freshly baked Victoria sponge, Angie’s favourite, perched on the counter. The icing sugar sprinkled on top appeared as delicate as light snowfall with whipped cream clouds covering the jam.
“Sit, sit,” she simpered, gesturing to a straight-backed chair.
It wasn’t the most comfortable, but it was needed. I sighed as I sat down, my joints clicking.
“Do you mind?” I asked, indicating my ankle and the seat next to me.
“Not at all.”
I heaved it up and rested it there. She’d turned away, seeming remarkably unbothered by me. Maybe living out here had left her oblivious to the dangers this world posed.
“I’m Wilfred by the way,” I said.
“Oh, that’s nice,” she replied, emitting a little giggle. Bewildered, I craned my neck to see she’d cut the cake into thick slices. My stomach gave a keen rumble.
“Do…Do you mind grabbing that phone, that I could use? I don’t want to be a burden,” I said, dragging my eyes from it.
“Oh, have some cake first, please.”
She turned around and those startlingly alive eyes flashed at me. I was her guest, and I realised it’d be impolite to refuse. She brought it over on a plate to me, her arms not shaking one bit.
She doesn’t want me to eat the whole bloody thing, does she? I thought, taken aback.
“Once you’ve had one slice you won’t be able to say no to another,” she snickered.
I felt alarmed to see I already had one in my hand. I frowned inwardly, staring at the innocuous piece of cake. There’d be no harm in eating it, just to avoid shocking her sensibilities. And it did smell good.
I took a bite. The sponge was plump and moist, with a hint of vanilla, and the jam melted on my tongue. Its sweetness seemed to massage my throat as I swallowed it.
Suddenly I wasn’t in the cottage anymore.
I was eight years old. Henry, that horrible boy in my year, had followed me from school. I was stood over the brook, beside the forest path I always took home, the water chattering over the stones. I never saw him come up behind me. My head was under the water, its iciness locked like prison bars over my neck, my heart hammering with panic.
Henry let go of me. I lurched back out of the brook and saw that my big brother, Andy, had him up by the throat. One look at his purpling, beetroot face told me he’d never hurt me again. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude as Andy let him go, turning round to hug me, telling me he’d never let me be harmed.
Then I was holding onto air, I scowled at my outstretched arms. Abruptly, my head was under the water again. I screamed and screamed and I heard Henry’s muffled laughter. Nobody was coming to save me.
The kitchen reappeared. I gasped, drawing in a deep lungful of air. The old woman looked at me knowingly, her eyes twinkling.
“It’s just irresistible, isn’t it? Go on, have another piece.”
The next slice was inches away from my mouth. Momentarily I fought to put it back, but I couldn’t.
I was back at home, sat at the dining table. Mum bringing a steaming plate of Lancashire hotpot over, her hair tied back in a pale blue bandana. Dad sat next to me, hidden behind a newspaper. They melted away. The plate crashed to the floor and gravy spattered the linoleum. The newspaper fluttered to the table. I experienced a deep, physical agony in my mind, like something was being surgically removed.
The kitchen came back into focus. My hands trembled in front of me, crumbs stuck to my fingers. I looked up at the old woman, aghast. The kindliness was gone; the wrinkles on her face looked as sharp as carvings on rock.
“The only way to make it better is to have another bite,” she smiled.
It wasn’t. It wasn’t. But I was already eating the next slice, desperate to devour it, desperate to spit it back out.
I was in the garden. Angie was sat in her garden chair, her hair gleaming in the brilliant sunlight, sipping a glass of iced tea. Andrew was there. Why had I chosen that name? There had been a reason. He was on his tricycle, his little legs pumping up and down ferociously as he raced away from me. I chased him in circles, roaring with laughter at his high-pitched giggling.
He was gone, dispersing into the air. The tricycle fell on its side. I watched one of its back wheels continue spinning, forlornly.
The kitchen returned. A fissure had opened in my chest. My hands shook erratically; I couldn’t fathom what it was I’d lost. The old woman cackled, I couldn’t look at her. Only two slices left. Sobbing I picked up the next, unable to stop.
I was on the banks of Loch Ness, skipping pebbles across its opaque surface. There was a thumping splash as Angie’s attempt failed. Her laughter rang like two cymbals clashing together in my ears because, somehow, I knew it was the last time I’d hear it.
No, not her…please no…
“You’re rubbish!” I heard myself tease though really I was trapped, agonisingly helpless, in a memory of the past.
“You’ve only skipped it twice so far!” she scoffed. I held up my pebble, grinning.
“If I get three now, it’s going to be a boy.” Her hand rested gently over her growing bump, the sunlight reflecting off the ring on her finger.
“If you say so,” she said, coquettishly, melting my heart. I threw it. One, two…three. I whirled round elatedly.
She was gone. Her wedding ring sat, neglected, on the floor.
I was back for the final time. I felt utterly desolate; the product of a long, lonely, life devoid of love or family. I looked round at the old woman in horror. She was holding an open cake tin.
“This tin is you, and the cake that was going to go inside it, all your experiences. But without the cake, it is empty, it is nothing. You’re nothing.”
She tottered over to sit beside me. I recoiled from her, repulsed. She beamed, her eyes coronas of blue flame brighter than before, as though she had sapped precious energy from me.
“One last slice and it’ll be over.”
I didn’t fight this time; I wanted the peacefulness of oblivion. Trembling, I brought the last piece up to my mouth. The sponge seemed luminous and inviting, it smelled glorious. But I knew it wasn’t. I could barely move or speak. I could barely think, but I knew that the cake wasn’t good. I knew because I felt the void that had been torn open inside me. What was it, exactly, that I’d lost?
Then it arrived. I heard a brief, oddly familiar laugh and smelt a hint of lemon. There was no name, no image, just a feeling. It filled the void with a warmth that spread throughout my body. I clung onto it. Somehow, I knew it’d been there before and that I’d lost it. If I could hold onto the feeling now, I would surely be with whoever had been responsible for it. Once I’d eaten my final piece of cake.
Triumphantly, I savoured its flavour. Everything faded into darkness.