Yesterday Marcin had phoned to announce that he would be late. Apparently some overfamiliar friend had driven off in his car and this car was currently circulating on rounds of ever more distant and spurious parties. I reckon that if there is a new star twinkling in the night sky over Edinburgh tonight, it will be this lost automobile. Anyhow, Marcin would now have to walk across to my cottage in the Pentlands, a task that he had never done before and one that he probably has little accurate sense of the scale of. When you are driving, the Pentlands is a brief blur of tawny land. Once you are walking, it can be hours of monotonously scrunching paths.
I can picture him crossing the bypass directly below Swanston. He would climb up through this village that juts out prior to the Pentlands like a quaint port on the shore of an ocean. The bypass over his shoulder would be still crying out mindlessly, radiating its waves of sterile, ghostly sound up the bare hillside. Up he would trudge, still hearty at this stage before the landscape would begin to slowly subdue him. He would pass shiny green golfing terraces and then a small, t-shaped wood that always looks oddly precise, as though the hillside has somehow sprouted a moustache.
For a while his steps would fall in with the glug-glug-glug of a swollen stream that is endlessly swallowing itself. Further up, water would be welling out of imperceptible cuts in the soil and seeping down the hillside, so that the hill was now faintly resembling a bleeding knee. Around here, Marcin faces a choice. The quickest option is to pass through a dense jumble of low hills and on into the interior of the Pentlands. It is more likely, though, that he would instead elect to walk over the picturesque peaks above the Hill End dry ski slope. This would prove rather more costly in terms of his time.
Once he was surrounded by hills, on all sides, he would have a solid slog ahead of him. Best for him to put his head down and walk quickly. There are hills that the shadows of clouds are draped casually across like coats discarded at the entrance to a party. There are hills on which every tiny thing trembles in the wind. Soon the wind would be blowing in the shell of Marcin’s ear in a rich, unending raspberry.
I have crisscrossed the Pentlands on the same path hundreds of times and I have never managed to shake off my dismay at the blankness of these hillsides. Perhaps the world is so new to Marcin, and his boyishness is so buoyant, that the hills just look splendid to him and he has no consciousness of their frightening soullessness.
Or maybe he would not even notice the hills. You can never really access how sensitive somebody is. He appears perfectly intelligent but maybe on his walk across the Pentlands he would never glance once at the landscape and he would be instead fuming to himself all the time about the whereabouts of his car.
On the top of one peak, he would look down onto water so cold and still that it is as though all of the sin in the world has rolled down and settled here. This is a reservoir rather than a loch; it is the undreamt of location where the water that rinses soapy cars and drenches flowerbeds of regimented pansies and washes down after-dinner pills and spins in the vortexes of toilets, in hundreds of thousands of suburban homes, comes from.
Marcin would follow the fine path that is laid out along the banks of this reservoir and then around the curve of the valley to arrive at a second one. This second reservoir is even handsomer and even more devilishly dark, in brooding in this lonely spot like a highwayman. Stormy skies seem to be always reflected in its waters, even in the brightest sunshine. There is a small colony of anglers here, though, who are fishing for trout and you feel that the presence of these guests forces the reservoir to repress its glowering personality somewhat.
Marcin is next required to stalk up another hill and to continue south. The landscape is so niggardly here that he could walk for a whole mile without it divulging a single tree. He is now in for another slog. He would put his head down and the scrunch of the path would peal in his ears like some desiccated bell. Finally there would be a figure waiting for him in the path and indeed there is. It is me.
“Hullo,” I called out to him. “How was your walk?”
He smiled politely and nodded. All of what I have been describing up until now was summarised in this smile.
“Would you like to rest when you get to my cottage? Or are you okay to begin?”
He shook his head. There was no way for me to frame this question without him immediately refusing a rest. He maintains this breezy machoism in which taking a break is naturally silly or fussy.
I became determined to winkle out any detail about his walk. “Don’t you find them eerie, the hills? I’m worried that it might deter some of my other students.”
His eyes darted at me. “Eerie, what is eerie?”
He nodded at me but he gave no indication of otherwise understanding.
“In any neighbourhood there is usually a single house that is more derelict than all the others. A haunted house or the house of the bogeyman. Well, in my neighbourhood there are no other houses apart from my own and the entire landscape is the haunted house.” After four words, I knew that I should have stopped talking and that it was a mistake to have ever started. He was surely going to ask what a bogeyman meant.
“I’m sorry, it is hard to me today to concentrate. To wake up after this walking.” He shrugged his shoulders and gestured vaguely. “But what is that word derelict?”
I explained derelict. The bogeyman had evidently gotten away without a finger being laid on him.
“Ah derelict,” he announced with satisfaction. “So I can say to my friend… my girlfriend… that her face is derelict?”
So I had to explain again. The bogeyman was gleefully scuttling over the hills, ducking down to keep his head hidden below the horizon.
At a fork in the path, Marcin stopped and he glanced suspiciously at me. Was it not quicker, he hazarded, to take the path that was different from the one that I had already placed my foot on?
My brain scrambled. “Er, you know, I rarely take that path. I cannot remember the last time. It is mildly steeper but, yes, you’re right, it might be quicker.”
I found that I had been shunted on to this path and with this it had promptly become Marcin’s path. A memory of him had been now forever attached to the landscape for me. The path had been almost certainly nameless anyway. It rose, more or less as I remembered it, on to a ledge that went around the side of a minor hill before committing to a long and gradual descent. Every view was of heather, although the lid of its bloom was presently missing.
As the path slowly descended, there was set off to one side a kind of shallow pit in the land. This was filled with tussocks and thistles and just perceptible in its very centre there stood the ruins of a building. I had always walked past this, probably because I could imagine what negligible findings any inspection of it would scrape together. A poky, draught-ridden interior, musty brickwork, the remains of a fire, mangled litter, and a small trail that pattered around to nowhere and nothing. Yet as we passed the pit, Marcin was suddenly no longer by my side. When I caught up with him, he was circling the building, darting quickly and lightly about like a boxer or a wasp. He was eyeing this building alertly.
“What is this?” he snorted. He both stopped and continued to pace back and forth, clearly hugely personally offended.
Up close, the building looked like it had been planted for us, by destiny, as some splendid surprise. In fact, the whole structure was an amazing stroke of impishness. Marcin started off again along a small path in the thickets that had been trodden down by God-only-knows-what. Each new face that the structure showed defied Marcin’s attempts to will it back to normal again. But he could not cease in his circuits, as though he had been assured that if the hands of the clock were wound back beyond a certain hour, its terrible spell would be voided.
“Why would they do this?” he moaned to himself. “How could it be even possible?”
“There is a chimney on the top,” I reasoned. “Maybe the person who had built this had entered by… but it is surely too narrow?”
This long structure had been built in the shape of a regular cottage. The doors and windows had been not bricked in and the brickwork was so weirdly uniform that there never could have been any. I did not have the first idea about when this building could have been erected. I do not even know at what period in history it would have looked young. Did it date from the early nineteenth century or had it been built a century later and radically withered by frosts and storms?
This building could not have been some sort of storage barn. If you dropped any crop (in my mind, I pictured a tenant farmer with a wheelbarrow full of potatoes) down the chimney, they would all collect in a heap in the centre of the floorspace rather than spreading to be contained evenly against the sides. More to the point, how would you ever get them out again?
My heart bounded with alarm as Marcin gave a jump for the roof. Every slate looked perilously loose. Fortunately, the roof was too high for him to touch with his fingertips, let alone cling on to and haul himself up. I laughed uneasily at him. “We can come back with a ladder,” I promised him. It was a long way to carry a ladder, especially if it was unlikely that this building would be any more communicative or understandable once you were floundering about on its roof.
I asked myself whether any of my neighbours would know about this building. Next, I was distracted by the question of who exactly owned it. Not that I am clear anymore about who owns anything in the Pentlands. Perhaps there would be some boon on Google, if I searched cleverly enough. I could imagine the building being randomly featured in footage that a cyclist had boastfully filmed, of a tour of the Pentlands, and then of some chance comment below this video helpfully proclaiming its entire history. The internet often works in this way, I find.