I finally learned her name and address: Ellen Stewart, Grange Cottage EH26. The cottage had been a satellite of one Mause Grange, which had long since been demolished to furnish authentic stone for local renovations and refurbishments. I had received Ellen’s letter in January and it had been a largely incoherent narrative; dictated by a victim of dementia, and transcribed by her Spanish assistant. Although I summarised the letter and offered points of clarification, James further edited it into a flowery and rather pastoral affair, more of a Gentle Shepherd than a Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I have since insisted that James publish my original interpretation of the letter, but he claims that it is an unappealing read and that our WordPress template would not license the necessary explanatory footnotes.
At midday I crossed the footbridge over the Edinburgh bypass, I climbed past the hamlet of Swanston and within half an hour, I was on the summit of Caerketton hill. From there, I walked over Allermuir and into the lap of the Pentlands. In the bright heat of new summer, one instinctively wants to leave the city, but the Pentlands await like an alien landscape – the surface of a desolate planet – and the great slabs of gorse, shrieking in shrill yellow, resemble a science-fiction writer’s idea of extraterrestrial vegetation. When roaming the Pentlands, I am often struck with the thought of a child consigned to bed. Everywhere one looks, the colourless hills are strewn shapelessly around like an untidy duvet, and one may imagine taking a corner of the Pentlands and flicking them until they settle into a smooth plain.
The unreality of the landscape, its utter silence, and the enormity of the sky above – bigger than anything imaginable – render the formal reality of the city unnecessary, like a tie and cufflinks worn to a barbecue, or an umbrella erected beneath a cloudless sky. Walking over the hills and valleys, soothed almost into oblivion by their blankness, one would be unsurprised to witness anything rolling or floating over these hills – a gigantic smiling face, a humungous banana, a space-station…
One is soon disturbed, however, by the sheep. It is just after lambing and thousands of these animals wander the hills uneaten. They are never at peace, always agitated and bleating, and scrambling gracelessly from the paths as one approaches. Dried lumps of their excrement are everywhere to be seen, as if the sheep were conspiring to carpet the entire landscape with their shite. At one stage, I climbed up to the ruins of a cottage to smoke, and I found a ewe and her lamb who seemed to have claimed the brick shell as their home. The ewe galloped clumsily off, whilst the lamb edged nearer to me, apparently wishing to articulate friendly overtures. I flicked ash at it. The sight of so many sheep, I thought, threw a dubious light over my walk in the hills – other ramblers may have wondered whether I was enjoying a post-coital cigarette.
I reached Grange Cottage by two. I had been expecting a dilapidated ruin, but I found a faded but still quaint cottage, with a neat garden and a thatched roof. I spoke with Nerea, Ellen’s personal assistant, who smiled unhappily and admitted that she had not seen Ellen for several days. Nerea looked as if she herself had not eaten for several days. I would later learn that most of the cottage’s furniture had been carted off to Cash Converters, and that Nerea would weekly plunder Ellen’s bank account by forging the signatures on cheques.
Ellen owned a pack of dogs – there were about dozen in all – and Nerea had last seen her leaving the cottage in her wheelchair, with the dogs gambolling around her, elated under the open sky. Once up in the hills, furiously wheeling her chair over the heather, Ellen’s hold over the pack had slipped, she could not keep up with the dogs, and a brindle Great Dane had supplanted her as leader. The dogs would run ahead – they were not inclined to wait for her – but after the heat of the day had slowed them down, Ellen would belatedly arrive to where they rested moodily in the rare shade of a tree. If the pack had picked off a lamb, Ellen would slide out of her chair to gnaw and lick desperately at the remaining bones. The pack were occasionally sighted by the local farmers and, by the third day, a lone youth on a quad bike was sailing over the landscape, intent on finding the dogs and shooting them one by one. Yet I had accosted them after a search of several hours. I had found an old metal pole lying in the heather and when the pack fussed around my feet, I beat them back, asserting my dominance.
The sky was golden and dun-coloured shadows were now bending across the landscape. The pack lay in a broad circle with the Pentlands around their feet, like the old giants who once had the world to themselves. Ellen was slumped uselessly in her wheelchair, sunburnt to a crisp and insensible of everything except the bay of the pack. I offered her a cigarette, but she did not understand me and her mouth hung open. She smelt pretty bad.
“Ellen,” I said gently. “Marcin?”
Although the word at first appeared not to have registered in her understanding, she suddenly began to tremble violently. And then she was shaking, as if her husk of a body was in the throes of death or love.
“Marcin…” I ventured again, now certain that there was the faint prospect of an answer flickering in her dark mind.
The dogs were suddenly very alert. They had sensed my exasperation with Ellen, and it seemed to confirm their own suspicion of her inadequacy.
“Marcin,” I repeated insistently.
One dog was on his feet, he strolled up to the wheelchair and toppled it with the gentlest of efforts. Ellen hit the grown with a smack. The sound of the spinning wheels seemed to animate the other dogs, and they rose in a body.
“Marcin,” I called over the scrummage.
Ellen’s jaws were working furiously, but silently. My view of her head was obscured as the dogs gathered around her.
“Marcin.” I was extending the hand which could save her from drowning. She gasped as wet teeth were wrapped sloppily around her leg. I was a little surprised when she barked out an answer – one incredible utterance – probably the last word which she would ever think or say.
I waved the dogs away. Ellen was panting and sobbing, and I left her stretched out defeated in the heather, with the dogs silently watching her.
Nerea was sitting in the front garden, watching the light stealing from the hills. She looked tired and old. “I’m looking for a suitcase,” I told her. “It’s probably full of documents.”
“Have you seen her?” Nerea asked idly.
“She’s almost dead. She won’t come back.”
“There’s a suitcase under the chair in the conservatory…” Nerea did not seem to want money for the suitcase but I left her thirty pounds on the kitchen table. On the bus home, I inspected the contents of the suitcase and found a collection of diaries going back to the eighties. I may attempt to put together something for the website from these documents.