On Tarbet Hill
James and Lorna were trying to pretend they weren’t fighting. Lorna said she was going to have to go back to Tarbet alone, and stay at least a week for the funeral. Her face was pale, and James laughed.
“You’re all so weird about death in Scotland.”
He waited for her to reply and when she didn’t, he continued.
“So uptight. Back at home it kind of opens people out. Makes them all gushy with sociability, that deranged sense of mortality justified, for the day at least. It’s De Oirish way.”
Lorna stayed silent. James leaned over to touch her arm, making a reassuring noise.
“Look, I’ll get the bus down with you. Then I’ll come straight back up, I promise. I won’t interrupt any mourning rituals.”
“You’re not listening to me. I’m going to get a shower,” Lorna said. She went upstairs and when James got into bed later, she appeared to be asleep.
It was too early when the alarm went off the next morning, everything outside dark and frosty. James put his arm around her, still unable to tell how she was feeling. Lorna turned and he ran a thumb across her cheek, loving the delicate sweep of freckles, how soft she was without make-up.
“I would love to meet your parents, you know. I’m not lying about that,” he said.
“I know you would. They’re just very… stressed out all the time. My aunt didn’t even get on with them. We were the black sheep, I think it’s fair to say.”
Pulling gently on her earlobe, James shrugged.
“Will you be alright going back?”
Lorna frowned. “I dunno. I had that horrible dream again last night. I feel very up and down.”
James lay back, watching as she got up and went into the bathroom. He switched on the bedside lamp and looked up bus timetables. Mid-mascara, she turned to look at him, her head lanced through with bright bathroom light.
“What are you doing?”
“Just checking emails. Why? Are you alright?”
Lorna turned back to the mirror then forcefully zipped the make-up bag. Rubbing the back of her neck, she pulled her hair into a high ponytail.
“I just hate that dream. It’s so horrible. Always like, increases or gets more intense when I’ve to go back home.”
James shuddered for effect.
“Sounds oogy. What happened this time?”
She picked up her bag.
“The same thing. I don’t know. He was just there, a big tall figure, wearing a stupid mask in the corner of the room. The whole dream knowing he’s there and hating it. I can never remember what the mask is, but he never stops watching me.”
“Jeez. You should be keeping notes. It could mean something.”
James watched Lorna carefully as he booked a single ticket to Tarbet for eighteen pounds, then slipped the phone under his pillow. Lorna checked her backpack one last time.
“Maybe. I dunno. It always feels … Really creepy crawly. Like he wants to put his hands and mouth all over me, but I’m too small? Too young? In the dream, I mean. I don’t know what it is that stops him.”
“Well, I’m glad he doesn’t touch you. Leaves more for me!”
Lorna made a face, and pulled the bag up onto her shoulders.
“Stop. Anyways look, I’ll message you when I get there. And I’ll be back in the week. I’m sorry you can’t come down, but -”. She turned her palms up towards the ceiling. After she left James turned on the lights and played white noise on YouTube, filling the air with gentle rainfall and low cracks of thunder.
He knew it was stupid but he hated being in the house alone. The word nebbish hung in the back of his mind when he spooked himself like this, watching the clock for Lorna to return. She was always the brave one. It was partly what attracted him to her in the first place, at some terrible party of postgrads, Lorna addressing a small ring of people. James had ditched the girl he came with and slipped into the audience, watching Lorna toss her white-streaked hair from side to side.
She had been telling the group about her teenage years in Tarbet, a small fishing village in Scotland. Historically the village was a strategic vantage point, the remains of a fort still standing at the top of the hill, overlooking the water. In a village of barely a thousand people, there were twenty Lorna’s age, only five she liked. When they were around fifteen, the little group had started hanging out on the hill, blaring Marilyn Manson and the Murderdolls all night to freak themselves out. James listened to her describe the black Hebridean sheep wandering along the claggy paths, laughing when she threw her index and pinkie finger up in devil horns.
“One of the guys almost got gored by a ram when he tried to ride it around the hill, and it fucked him over the side. Luckily it’s all bouncy, kind of springy marsh along the hills so he was fine. I think it would have been better if he’d been a bit messed up actually, it would have put the fear in us. We didn’t even take anything that night, just had some shitey cider, and one of the girls started playing a CD she’d burned – Tubular Bells, the music from Halloween, somehow Diamanda Galas too? It was fucking crazy. Anyways, one night Jade said we should play Blind Man’s Buff, and she tied her scarf around my eyes. There’s a big basin on top of the hill, and all the flat ground on top is protected by huge rocks. All I could hear was giggling and marshy squelching, and I tried to listen to everyone’s breathing. After a few minutes I could sense someone to my right, nearer the main flat ground. All of a sudden I hear a scream, Jade or Angela I still can’t remember, and I pulled off the scarf. Everyone was pointing to my right and just beyond us, about two little hills over, there’s someone jumping up, the drizzle making his big, black rain poncho all shiny.”
“How did you know it was a man?” a man asked.
“Because the lads went over and kicked the shite out of him. Turns out it was this weirdo who lived in the estate in the woods, a second cousin to the Campbells or Cadburys. He was sent to live in Tarbet in the nineties after some scandal. The boys found binoculars and this creepy little notebook with pictures of us in it. Like, sketches he’d done.”
Uneasy titters rippled through the crowd. James was unsure of the punchline, wanting to hear more. Lorna downed the rest of her wine, suddenly awkward.
“Well! There you go folks, I’ve got to take a piss.”
James had gotten her number off the host, and three years later they were still together. He decided to leave the following morning and stay in a B&B outside the village for a few days, then surprise her. Already he was missing her.
The bus to Tarbet the next day was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. Mountainous and tough, James hadn’t made the connection between staying along the coast and getting the bus to a coastal area. Flanked by mountains on one side and ocean on the other, James spent three hours terrorised by sheer drops, making deals with God each time they took a corner or encountered a logging truck on the narrow mountain road. As they twisted up the giant, looming rockface James alternated between shutting his eyes and flattening his face against the window, checking how far he was from spinning into thin air. When they arrived in the village after lunch, he was so dizzy and relieved that he checked into the B&B and went straight to bed.
Renewed by dinner time, James sat across from an older couple and another young woman. Ruth, the owner of the B&B, had set the table with careful attention. She was tall and heavy, dressed in soft greys. Her eyes twinkled as she pushed a large pot of chowder into the middle of the table, disappeared and returned with smaller bowls of potatoes and vegetables, toppled with butter and salt. James smiled at the others and waited for Ruth to sit.
The five of them ate in silence, interrupting with the odd appreciative sound. Two young teenagers cleared the table afterwards and offered them coffee and cake. Ruth said yes for everyone, and soon the guests were chatting about families and childhoods and everything else intimate that is easy to share with strangers on holidays. Mr and Mrs McCann were in their fifties and had two grown-up sons. Angie, the young woman, said she had come back for the funeral of a woman she knew as a teenager. Mrs McCann spoke over her.
“Very sad. She was a lovely lady. We left a long time ago, our son – we went somewhere with better services – we like to come back and visit. But I remember her, Eleanor Parry. She lived in a little apartment just where the coast begins to break.”
Angie nodded. James found her attractive in an average way – dyed blonde hair, thin, lots of lipstick. He wondered if the McCanns were going to the funeral, but decided against asking.
“She was very kind to me. She never minded what time we’d knock in at, just always had the kettle on. My friends and me used to stay weekends with her, before we left.”
“I remember you!” said Mr McCann, “Derek’s crew – you were in the same class as him. Mr – Ruth, sorry, what is your husband’s name again?”
“Mr Mark Moloney.”
“Mr Moloney. History or English – ”
“English, yeah,” Angie said.
“- Derek liked him, yes. He was pally with the kids I remember, gave them books and that.”
“Yeah, he always liked us. I remember once he let us do a play, just a short one in class, and Lorna just killed it, did a whole big monologue about, God, I dunno, dying for love or honour or something like that. You can imagine!” Angie smiled brightly around the table, and James felt a wriggle of guilt. Mr McCann turned to his wife.
“I remember her too. She stayed with Derek for a little while, I think – a year or so before we left. Was it around then?”
Mrs McCann pulled her expression in, smiling less.
“Yes. Around then, I think. Poor Lorna.”
The McCanns nodded. Ruth began to clear the mugs and saucers and James almost suggested to Angie that they go for a drink, before remembering. Surprised by how relaxed he felt James slipped into his single bed and slept, waking comfortably every now and then to the sound of wind whipping against the windows.
Pleasurable hunger woke him early for breakfast. The smell of warm milk announced Ruth carrying porridge into the dining room, followed by a man introducing himself as Mr Moloney. Muscular and tall, he seemed younger than Ruth and offered James half a grapefruit when he sat down. James immediately liked him, and they chatted for hours after breakfast about books and films. Angie came down for lunch and, flushed with information, told Mr Moloney about her PR work and her two pugs back in Edinburgh. Once Angie left, James prodded him about his old students.
“Yes, smart, good kids. I can’t believe how quickly the years go. Angela! She was a little slip of a thing, and now she’s – just wonderful. The years go by, James.”
“Do you think you’d recognise Lorna now?”
“Oh, perhaps. She was distinctive. The ringleader!”
“Oh? I’m not surprised.” James laughed.
Mr Moloney looked at him.
“Do you know her?”
“No, just – from what Angie said about her last night, she sounds very different. Cool, like.”
“Yes. She was. A bit too cool sometimes. She influenced the others very easily. I still think that’s why they all left, went to find bigger things. But not everything bigger is better, isn’t that the way?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Although I will say, the place must have been a bit oppressive for teenagers. Not like now, you have the internet and everything, you don’t have to be so isolated.”
“Nonsense. It was far better back then – no stupid idiots or phones. No social media. Can you believe what my daughter does for work? Sends tweets! For an electronics company!”
“It’s better than what I do anyways.”
Mr Moloney held a hand up.
“I have the right to my innocence. Anyways. I’m sure you’d love to get a feel for the local ambience? Can I interest you in a small one?”
“Oh, no – not today, thanks. I’m going to try to have a bit of solitude.”
“Suit yourself lad,” said Mr Moloney. “When you’re old like me you’ll want less, not more.”
James spent the evening reading in his room until someone knocked. Angie held out a bottle of wine and smiled, sliding in the door. She pointed her finger at him.
“I knew it was you! Does Lorna know?”
“Oh fucking – God. How?”
“Instagram, you mentaller. I thought you looked familiar.”
Flashing two tumblers from her bag, Angie sat delicately on the side of his unmade bed.
“Are you going to propose?”
“What? No. What?”
Deflated, she sipped her wine.
“Oh, right. Why then? I’m assuming she doesn’t know you’re here, if you’re being so… coy.”
“You seem a lot more yourself.”
“Than when, at dinner? Jesus, I have to be like that, around Derek’s parents. They’re off the wall. Lorna didn’t mention them? Although I suppose, they all are around here.”
“Strangely, no. Why did Mrs McCann say poor Lorna that time? Because of her aunt?”
“Well. I don’t think I should say, if Lorna hasn’t told you.” Angie looked at the floor.
“I’m her boyfriend. You can obviously tell me.”
“She really… well, not everyone believed her. I did, obviously.”
“Can you actually stop being a prick for a second? It’s not nice – not easy to talk about.”
James was surprised to see a tear stain her cheek, and he held his hands up.
“I’m sorry. I am,” he said. “Look. This is just – I don’t know what I’m supposed to think. You busting in here with wine and freaking me out with something about Lorna. Something I’ve never heard of?”
“No, of course not, I’m sorry.”
“Let’s just drink this, what do you think? And we’ll talk about it. Lorna will be grateful. I know she will.”
When she finished telling him the story, James sat trembling on the floor. He refilled their glasses. The light overhead made the room murky with shadow, and he stood to turn on the corner lamp.
“It’s fucked. I know.”
Angie watched him take a deep breath. She must have been doing this for so long, James thought – managing people’s reactions, dealing with the fallout that came from being close to the victim. She told him, running a bright red nail around the rim of her glass, that Lorna had been taken (abducted, thought James) that night on the hill when they played Blind Man’s Buff. It had been exactly as Lorna described it up to the point where she was blindfolded. Then the others had hidden down the side of the hill, as a joke. When they heard a scream, they ran back up but she was gone. The teenagers didn’t know what to do, and were afraid to tell anyone in case they got Lorna in trouble. Apparently the next day she was found sitting in the basin, woozy and covered in cuts and bruises. She told them someone had taken her and hidden her in the woods somewhere. She didn’t know how she got away, whether she escaped or if she had been left there.
“Don’t say it to her. Like, bringing it up and forcing her to talk about it will just be, I dunno. Too much.”
“Does everyone know? Ruth and Mr Moloney and all?”
“Yeah. I mean, like – how would they not. Mr Moloney – he actually was one of the few that believed her. Along with us, obviously. The doctor said there was no sign of violation, really. That she was playing a prank probably, or was on something. Her parents kicked her out after, for going on about it, and all our parents … Ugh. The McCanns, Derek’s parents left and made Derek go with them. Lorna and Derek had kind of a thing, and they got pissed off with her crying in their house all the time.”
“I can’t understand how nobody believed her. Like. Just how could they ignore it? Do you know who it was?”
Angie shook her head, speaking slowly.
“I don’t know what your hometown is like, but here, back then … It was just one of those things. If you wore eyeliner even, you were a psycho chav slut. And Lorna and us, we all dressed like hellions because we were so angry, so – full of rage – and they treated us like slappers. The way people reacted … like they were relieved, someone had finally punished her for being the way she was. Too much, too, visible. They wanted us gone.”
Suddenly a pang of missing Lorna. James found it hard to imagine her and Angie getting on, much less being friends.
“So when she left -”
“The year after. She spent a year living with her aunt Eleanor, the woman who died, kind of recovering and saving money. I mean – I understand it. She stopped talking to us, apart from Derek. Then one night she tried to torch a shed in the woods.”
“Yeah. Some wee granny’s preserving store. That’s when Derek’s parents had enough, he was with her, and ‘cause he was over eighteen … the cops basically said, right, get the fuck out and we’ll say nothing.”
“And then Lorna left, then so did I. Jade stayed for another year or so, and Adam and Finn. But it was too … I dunno. It was hard for us all to be together again after that. Like, it was too weird without Lorna.”
James pulled roughly at a hangnail. Blood bubbled from the cuticle, and he pressed the cuff of his jumper against it. Angie handed him a small pack of tissues, and they sat on the floor for a long time.
“Look,” she said, “it might be good if you went back home. She’ll leave after the funeral, and she probably won’t say anything anyways. She was always secretive.”
When he didn’t respond, Angie went down to dinner. She came back to his room afterwards, stowing rolls and lasagne and more wine, and they played cards until their eyes burned. James couldn’t remember falling asleep but when woke at half three in the morning she was gone, tidying before she left.
The next day Angie went to visit her sister. Only Ruth remained in the B&B, cooking dinner. Before Angie left, she urged James to message Lorna if he was going to stay in Tarbet, not to land in on her or appear with no warning. He nodded every time she said it, and was relieved when she finally left.
Wanting to get some air, he bundled into his wool coat and gloves. Being outside made him feel exposed and lightly hungover, and he worried Lorna would see him before he messaged. It was cold and quiet, and anyone James did see looked at him like they knew exactly what he was: a tourist, a silly visitor at the wrong time of year. Shielding his eyes from the flashing sun he walked towards the end of the street, the silhouette of the fort high on top of the hill. He didn’t want to message Lorna. He wanted to leave, to go back home home so his mother and sisters could dote on him in their big comfortable house in Wicklow, and he could forget about the shameful, terrible things that happen to other people. All mysticism had been drained from the village and James felt panicky whenever he let himself think about what Angie had told him. When they first got together, he used to keep Lorna up late telling him stories about her life – leaving the creepy village and moving around Scotland and Ireland, working as a dancer then a vet nurse, her two ex-girlfriends before she met him. James wasn’t sure he had ever believed all of her stories fully, but this was different. He knew he’d lived a different, probably uninteresting life compared to Lorna and likely Angie too, but he couldn’t fathom her just disappearing, her parents not believing or caring. As much as he wanted it not to have happened, he hoped Angie wasn’t lying to him, about something that could be of endless consequence. James started climbing up the uneven, high steps to the hill.
A small herd of black sheep stood at the side of a bungalow, next to a large hill. He moved warily towards the hills on the left. The ground was as spongy as Lorna had said; James bounced a little on the wet grass, nearly tripping on a tall knot of rushes. Nuclear lime-green moss covered the large stones and he felt a little tingle when he touched one. The second flight of steps led him to the flat wide part of the hill, enclosed in stone and earth. A small plaque described the basin and its historical uses. James thought the basin itself was unimpressive, a round, shallow dip in the earth, not as large as Lorna made it sound. He stood at the edge of it, trying to picture Lorna as a teenager. It started drizzling and he jogged over to the fort at the edge of the hill, almost slipping up the wooden steps. Standing on the refurbished ground against the left wall, he looked over the side of the hill through a small arrow hole, the wind increasing. He started to feel dizzy. Looking at his phone, he saw a message on Instagram from Angie.
I’m so sorry! it was an accident
Messages from Lorna, flashing up too fast to read, then another from Angie – sorry!!!! The rain started to pour properly, and echoes of someone calling their dog drifted through the misty trees. James made his way back up the hill and carefully down the wet, treacherous steps to a cafe. Ducking in, he scanned for Lorna before he sat, shaking off the worst of the rain. The messages were hard to read, obscured by wet smears. He ignored Angie and skimmed Lorna’s tracts – angry, so angry. Ellipses, faintly active, then nothing. Suddenly another long message – fuck off, inconsiderate, always like this. Angie’s messages were short and pathetic, apologising for telling Lorna he was here, an accident somehow. Ordering a tea and sandwich, he sat still and placed the phone face down on the table. He ate calmly and drank tea until he was once again warm and dry. Skipping more texts from Angie, he responded to Lorna. I’m sorry. Can we please meet. He knew she was reading the message furiously, and purposely would not reply for at least an hour. It surprised him then when his phone lit up immediately, the words leave me alone bright and accusing. He took his rage out on Angie, telling her to fuck off. He went back to the B&B, and got too drunk in the room alone.
At some point in the night, he must have heard something. A long cutting screech across the night, a dark figure entering and leaving. At one point he thought he had woken up, Lorna’s name glowing across the screen of his phone again. miss you!! He had committed no trespass after all, and her love for him was joyful, tenderly apparent. He tapped into the message tired but excited, and something else came through. A picture – Lorna on the other side of a room he’d never seen before, kneeling awkwardly. She was facing the wall, her hair matted down her back like she’d been caught in the rain. She did not seem to have taken the picture, the room badly lit and the logistics all off – who had taken this picture of her faceless and bedraggled, bent over at an unnatural angle? And in the right-hand corner, an incoherent facial expression, too close-up. Plasticky smooth skin, intelligent blue eyes gleaming down the camera. The eyes looked through the screen at him directly and James briefly thought he was watching a video, that the eyes were watching him. The phone grew warm in his hand and he felt a dreadful urgency, as though the face was laughing at him, laughing because he was too late, and then he knew that he was at the point where the dream became nightmarish and everything was wrong, and there was nothing he could do because he was still so far away, still away in sleep trapped in Lorna’s dreams, where she had tried to tell him so many times that someone was waiting for her, waiting to steal her back.
A long screech cut across the night, and a dark figure entered and left.
Yolky morning light came upon him then, with a cracked phone and Angie standing over him, saying things he didn’t understand. The only messages he had from Lorna were angry, and a day old.
Angie said there was nothing left in her childhood bedroom, except some old clothes and makeup. When he finally understood that Lorna was gone he went straight up to the hill, still drunk, back up to the wet green basin and found nothing, just a chocolate wrapper and drifts of lichen. The police were called from the town two hours away, and when they were persuaded to search the crackpot Campbell or Cadbury out in the woods, they found his badly degraded corpse and two rooms full of empty bottles. Her parents refused to see anyone.
In the days that followed, it was only through Angie that James heard anything substantial about the case. The police were looking, but didn’t seriously suspect foul play. She told him that Lorna’s parents felt humiliated, convinced she had run away to make some sort of statement for Eleanor’s funeral. The police spoke to him twice, suspicious about James coming down and not telling Lorna, following her in secret. They kept asking why he didn’t trust her, if he thought there was something she was going to do in Tarbet, someone she wanted to see. The second time they interviewed him, they asked again where he’d been the night she went missing and he started to cry in frustration, unable to say what he had dreamed in case they laughed, or thought he was mental. When he cried the two policemen relented, telling him Ruth and Mr Moloney had already confirmed that he’d been in his room all night and couldn’t have left without waking someone up. James heard later that they were saying they’d searched the woods and found nothing, and that people who knew Lorna were not sufficiently worried to keep looking.
James and Angie nursed themselves most nights with whiskey, repeating themselves on the floor of his room. He had vaguely gestured at apology after telling Angie to fuck off, and between crying jags thought he could sense a kind of desperate attraction between them. This made him feel sorry for them both. One afternoon in the sad filmy silence, Angie started talking about the day Lorna left Tarbet.
“We were best friends and she didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell anyone, even Derek. She just left. It’s hard to believe, but some things, with her, I think it’s like, not about other people. It’s about her.”
James refused to believe that she would leave him without saying something. He read Lorna’s last messages obsessively, the ones he’d ignored at first in the cafe and tried not to think about, the ones accusing him of stalking and deliberately hurting her. The day after the police left, almost two weeks after Lorna disappeared, Angie told James he should go back home, that getting sick in the village would solve nothing. Most days after that James went up to the hill alone and walked around the forest, spending foul, drunken evenings in the dining room of the B&B. The nights began slurring into mornings, and Mr Moloney took him by the arm one evening and walked him around the waterfront. The tide was out. Long-legged birds picked their way across the mud, pulling things up from the earth. Mr Moloney spoke quietly.
“You have to find a way to relax, son. You are going to run yourself stupid, totally into the ground. What good will that do when Lorna comes back to your nice flat? To have you down here all unstraightened and unwell?”
“But what happened to her? How can you all – after the stuff before, on the hill, how can you be so sure? How can you say all of this to me and not feel how my heart is breaking?”
“Nothing will come of you staying down here. You have to go back to your own place. Look,” he said, softening, “Lorna is a hardy girl.”
James doubled over and started to cry.
“Even if she doesn’t show up, she’s somewhere, alright, figuring things out. Doing what she needs. You’d be as well to do the same.”
Three days later, James gave up entirely. Roaring at Angie and Ruth and Mr Moloney, he called them all cunts and started crying when they took his drink away. He let them push him into the shower and the next morning, Angie and Mr Moloney walked him gingerly up the hill to the bus station.
He felt woozy, stumbling up the hill and telling them he was afraid of heights, that back in Ireland the landscape was all flat. They stood at the bus shelter and he looked up at the white clouds. He could feel them both humouring him, speaking to each other quietly while he looked around, curious and blank as a child. A man in a dirty gilet walked by with a big white dog and saluted Mr Moloney. James listened to the distant sounds of traffic in the village. Turning away from the sunny sky he thought he saw Mr Moloney wink at him, large spots of yellow light enveloping his head.
The bus pulled in and they helped James up the steps. Angie kissed him on the cheek. James sat and checked his phone, wishing he was dead. He looked out the window as the bus started, Tarbet hill in the distance, green gleaming. Elsewhere, the sun also shone.
Anna Walsh is an Irish writer based in Glasgow. Their poetry and prose have been published by The Stinging Fly, Extra Teeth, Cipher Press and others. They are currently editing the first anthology of Irish trans writing and completing several books. They are represented by Kat Aitken, and have work forthcoming with Neon Hemlock, Architecture Ireland and more.
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