Folk Lost on the Hill

The large black Labrador shuffled uncomfortably in front of the fire. He was, as is typical of his kind, an expert human watcher and his eyes had strayed little from the angular frame of his owner, who had wedged himself in an armchair, for the last hour or so. Bob, as his owner George, had named him could see that his master, He who wields the tin opener, was unsettled. For one thing the TV programme about baking cakes had just finished and he was still awake, for another, every fifteen minutes he would rise up, peer at the clock and sink back into his armchair scratching at the large bush that grew on his chin. Something Bob decided was amiss and he would not settle until George did. The TV program about people falling over and being laughed at was halfway through when the phone in the hall rang. She who provides the odd secret biscuit and is allowed to sleep beside George called through from the Palace of Food, “I’ll get that.” George has raised himself half out of the armchair and is listening intently. Bob decided that there was definitely something going on and raised his head from the carpet focusing his ears on the conversation in the hallway. “Yes, yes,” said the woman George called darling, “I see. Oh dear I’ll tell him.” “What is it,” enquired George casually. “Two more lost on the mountain,” said his Margaret, wringing her hands in frustration, “I can’t believe it, terrible, terrible.” George scratched the remains of his old Aran pullover and moaned softly with a kind of painful sadness, “Oh well, I suppose…” his voice trailed off as he rose reluctantly from his armchair. “What can you do?” he muttered heading for the bedroom and his hill gear. “I’ll make you up some sandwiches, George. I do hope you’re not out all night.” His wife called from the kitchen already pulling loaves and lettuce from the fridge. In contrast to his owner Bob, recognising the signs of an impending nocturnal foray into the wilderness, was bouncing around the lounge unable to contain his excitement. His tail clattered ornaments from the shelf above the fire as he went into that, “If we don’t go now I may explode,” mode dogs have.   A few minutes later George appeared transformed from the dozing householder to a man of action, well that might be a slight exaggeration, but he had at least changed his trousers. “Oh and we were just settling down for a quiet night in. I don’t understand it,” Margaret exclaimed emerging from the kitchen with a Tupperware box containing George’s carefully wrapped sandwiches, “How many is it now, losing themselves this year?” George paused in zipping up his fleece, “Oh I don’t know, certainly the team’s busiest season for years.” “You’d think with GPS and everything there’d be fewer folk getting lost these days.” “Ah well,” George mused, shouldering his rucksack, “you know these hills, the weather can change terrible quick, folk just get caught out.” “Well it makes no sense to me,” exclaimed Margaret proffering the box of sustenance, “I’ve made them from that nice low fat cheese and the cholesterol reducing spread instead of butter. Oh and there’s that reduced fat mayonnaise you like too. Your favourite.” George smiled and, leaning forward to peck Margaret on the cheek, reflected on how middle age had seeped into every corner of his life, now even his sandwiches reeked more of medical advice than taste. The days of bacon sandwiches, and white bread soaked in tomato sauce had long gone along with his flowing hair. The car park at the foot of the glen was already busy with team members abandoned cars by the time George steered his Volvo to a halt beside the white and red Land Rover that was the team’s only possession. Jumble sales and sponsored walks had raised enough cash to supply the vehicle over a number of years. Each tyre was the product of the sale of threadbare trousers and many miles of soggy walking by willing volunteers. Kenny was lounging from the driver’s window, his woollen hat in danger of losing the fight to contain his mop of curly ginger hair. He waved to George as he stepped from his car. “Well here we are again,” his soft voice almost lost against the burbling of a nearby burn, bubbling and bustling its way down the glen. “Aye, here we are again,” replied George fastening his boots. “Search the bothy first I thought?” asked Kenny heaving the long aluminium silhouette of the stretcher from the back of the team vehicle. “Sounds a good plan to me.” “Charlie and the rest of the boys have gone ahead.” “Not all boys,” George laughed, noticing Constable Laura’s patrol car parked a few feet away. “Ah well no that’s true,” smiled Kenny, “They’ll do well to keep up with her.” The last of the evening light was slipping quietly from the glen and the November air was already turning chill as the two men (and one dog) headed up into the hills along the path beside the burn. They walked in silence, wheeling the stretcher, with its load of chinking equipment between them. The track climbed steeply at first and the ascent demanded all the breath both men had before it gradually eased a mile or so before the bridge across the gorge. It was here the two men allowed themselves a pause. It was fully dark now and they both stood for a moment, watching their breath mist in the beams from their head torches. George looked up and noticed that the stars were already beginning to show as pinpricks in the night sky. “A frost tonight I think.” “Aye could be a cold one.” “I take it we are well equipped for whatever rigours we may face?” said George, with a note of concern. Kenny was offended, “You don’t think I’d leave us short?” Time for a little conciliation, “No, not at all, I’ve every faith in you.” Soon they were teetering across the wire bridge that spanned the gorge and focused on preventing the stretcher from hurtling into the foaming waters 200ft below. A mile after that the bothy came into view a dull glow emanating from the windows. A tall, slim female figure was first to greet them from the door. “What kept you?” “We’re not all bloody Antelopes,” wheezed a sweating Kenny, “besides we’ve the stretcher to bring.” George was all business, “Have you located the casualties Laura?” Laura shot George a look as though he had asked if midges bite, “Of course, here they are.” Inside the bothy candles flickered and a small fire was struggling to keep the night air at bay. A middle aged couple were seated on a rickety bench both nursing cups of steaming tea. George hurried over to them, “I can’t thank you enough,” he declared. “Oh you’re very welcome,” the couple replied in unison, “Any time.” “I don’t think we’d be wise to descend tonight,” Kenny mused calling from the darkness beyond the bothy door. George followed the voice and found Kenny, Laura and half a dozen team members staring into the darkness to the glen below. By now the valley was bathed in moonlight with the folds of the low hills showing black against the starlight back drop. Already tiny ice crystals were sparkling on the heather. All eyes turned expectantly to George, as leader it would be his call. “Well,” George looked at the sky, smelt the wind, touched the cold night air with his fingers. “You see it’s all right now isn’t it, we could set off now and it could be fine.” There was a murmur of concerned ascent. “But,” George pronounced the words as though he were a judge sentencing a murderer to death, “It could all change in an instant. You can never tell.” “No, no, in an instant…never tell,” the company echoed George’s words with dire solemnity. “I think it wise to stay here for the night.” On mass the team turned and rushed for the bothy door and, after a moment of jostling, all were inside surrounding the stretcher. Kenny began to unwrap the load on the stretcher, “Best unpack the equipment.” The following emerged from the folds. Two fiddles, one harmonica (bent) four bottles assorted malt whisky, six packs of larger, four of beer, two wine boxes, several packs of sausages, bacon eggs, cheese, one pack of cards, and a large bag of coal and, to the surprise of nearly everyone, a bottle of vodka. “Well not everyone drinks whisky,” Laura exclaimed, no one argued. Sometime later George sat cradling a glass of his favourite and staring into the bothy fire. Bob lay upside down warming his stomach before the flames. “I feel a little hungry,” he remarked, mainly to himself as his words were lost amongst the babble of voices and the whine of the fiddle. He popped open the little plastic box and carefully unwrapped the delicately prepared sandwiches. He took a moment to enjoy the aroma of cheese and mayonnaise, noticing how the lettuce hung forlornly between the layers of gluten free bread. Then, with a deft flick of the wrist he hurled them into the bothy fire where they lay sizzling for a moment before the flames consumed them. “How’s those sausages coming along Kenny?” he called, recalling how grateful he was for folk who got lost on the hill.

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