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Strangers On The Way

A mystery about encounters on a long distance walk

By Wilkie StewartPublished 3 years ago 7 min read
On the way

There was a crow on the branch above him, peering down, weighing up whether it should fly away or take him on. Tom stirred the pot, the soup beginning to bubble, making spitting noises in the pan. He turned the knob on the gas canister a touch to reduce the heat.

Someone stumbled out of the trees beside him. A boy with ginger hair in designer outdoor clothing. "Sorry," he said. He pulled headphones from his ears. “Muse,” he grinned.

Tom rubbed the back of his hand where some of the soup had spilled. He straightened the pan, stirred it again. "Not to worry," he said. "Nothing that can't be fixed. You want some?"

The stranger sat on a stone not far away. There was a faint smell from him. "No," he said pulling something colourful wrapped in plastic from a backpack. "I've got one of these bars." He also took a tube of lotion from his bag and rubbed it on his face and hands. "These flies are a menace," he said.

"Midges, eh? Scourge of Scotland. You'll meet a million of the bastards if you're doing the walk," Tom said as he poured the soup into his enamel cup. He turned the gas canister off.

"Oh, the Way, yeah. I've waited ages to do this, man," he said. "My Dad told me about it."

"You're not from about here then?"

"No. London, mate. I was born up here, but I don't remember it. I’m Jeff," he stretched a hand across to where Tom sat.

Tom nodded but didn't take the outstretched hand. "Tom".

After he finished the soup, he took the pot and mug to the burn and rinsed them out. The crow was long gone. Probably decided two men were too much to tackle. He packed the canister and the pan into his backpack and fastened it up then hefted it onto his back. "Ready to move on?"

Jeff smiled. His teeth were TV-ad white. "Sure," he said.

The going in this section was tough. Roots from the forest trees made the path uneven. Tom concentrated on the way ahead. Jeff stumbled behind him. "Fuck," he said. "Anyway, I'm thinking of transferring to Uni up here. The night life's fantastic. Seems to be way better clubs."

"I never went to college," said Tom. "Never got the grades. Went straight into the army. A long time ago."

"Yeah?" Jeff said. "Fuck, these roots are murder man. You done the walk before? It gets better, right?"

"Three times," said Tom. "It gets better." He stopped and turned, and Jeff almost banged into him. "I tell you what, we could take a detour, not far ahead. Go up a wee hill I know. There's a cracking view of the loch."

Jeff frowned. "There's still a long way to go," he said.

"Oh, come on," Tom said putting a hand on the other man's shoulder. "It won’t take long, and we'll return to the exact point on the path, so you won't miss an inch of it. I’m doing it anyway." Across a bridge the way marker pointed north but there was a path up the hill to the side of the water. Tom turned and looked back. "You coming?" he asked. "It's midge-free by the way."


the train line north

The path climbed up from the village past some waterworks until it reached a level area where it followed the train line north. Tom felt the burn in his calves as he climbed. The pace had been too slow the last few days, it was time to step up his efforts. He'd certainly need it later in the mountains.

The path was exposed at this point and up ahead he could see a couple arguing. Their voices stilled as he passed by them, just a nod from the female to his greeting. Before the track swept around a hill, he looked back. The man was hobbling away towards the village and the woman was coming on alone.

At a viaduct, the path dipped down to follow the river rather than the rail track. He sat on a boulder by the water and brought out a flask. He smiled as the woman approached. "You want some tea?" he asked. She nodded and sat down.

As she sipped, she looked back up the path. "Your friend not coming?" he said.

"Him? No. He's done nothing but complain since we left the city. His boots are too tight, his underwear chafes, the midges are horrible..."

"The midges are horrible," Tom said.

"Yes, I suppose. Now this morning he has a limp. He wanted us to go back to the station, give it all up."

"And you want to keep going?"

"Too right I do. We're over halfway. I'm not giving up. Anyway, I won't be seeing him again." She laughed. "Listen to me, talking about a dumb boyfriend."

A train trundled across the viaduct. The woman waved at the passengers, some of them waved back.

"He might catch that one,” Tom said. “If he's quick." She shrugged.

“It can be lonely on this walk,” he said. “You see people, but just in passing. We could carry on together, unless of course you would rather travel on alone?”

Her face gave little away. “Sure, why not. It will save us catching each other up all the time and being forced to cheerfully say ‘hello again’.” She adjusted the small pack on her back. Her arms were bare and there was a tattoo on her right shoulder. Tom tilted his head. She smiled. “It's the Sphinx,” she said. “I got it in Egypt. Have you been? The Pyramids were tremendous, and the people were lovely.”

“I've been to the Middle East,” he said, “but not Africa. A while back.”

He watched a frown pass over her face, but she said nothing, and they walked on.

The path cut away from the rail tracks and the river, crossed under the main road and across moorland. Birds flew overhead singly, noisily trying to distract them from nests in the gorse. The way undulated but the climbs and dips were minimal. To the west the mountains began to rise, and they could glimpse the pylons of a ski resort. Close by, lochans sparkled in the sunlight. The air buzzed with flies.

Tom looked ahead at the next rise and then backwards. The route was busy in the summer but not so much in the autumn, and today with his slow start, it was deserted. There was no-one else for miles.

"This water is beautiful," she said. She was on her knees at the edge of a lochan, a little way back from the path. He crossed the peaty meadow, the ground springy but able to support his weight. He knelt beside her. The water was clear, and they could see frogs and black diving beetles scurry below the surface. At the edges there were dark areas where the overhanging ground obscured the bottom. She leaned forward and splashed some of the water on her face. Tom noticed a mole on the back of her neck.


the landscape never changes

The walk up the hill was steep, but the angle lessened after a while, and the way became easier. Just over the top of the pass a man was sitting on a rock, gazing towards the peaks to the north. "Enjoying the view?" Tom said sitting on another rock nearby.

The man turned his head. He was much older than Tom had expected. From the back he had appeared middle-aged and fit. His lined face and white eyebrows suggested he was in his seventies at least. "Yes," he said. "It's worth the journey just for this."

"Not for the finish then?" Tom said.

The man smiled. "I can't tell you how many times I've taken this walk. A dozen at least. This is the first time on my own. The landscape never changes. It will be here when we are all gone.”

Tom nodded. “We can only hope so,” he said.

They both stood up and without making any arrangement began to descend to the last bunkhouse of the walk. As the path wound down it passed the broken gate to an old aluminium works. The man stopped. "I've often wondered what this looks like. Should we?"

Tom followed the man along the path. There was a building half built into the side of the hill with an enormous door. It was ajar. Broken windows provided some light from above. Glass and metal crunched under their feet. Tom brought out a torch. The room was empty, but they could see where a machine had once stood, its absence marked out by unfinished portions of a tiled floor and by the lack of paint on the back wall.

The man stood in the centre of the space looking up at the roof. A couple of pigeons were roosting up there and the beat of their wings echoed around the chamber, muffling the footsteps behind him.

Tom finished the descent before nightfall and took up his booked place in the bunkhouse. As he made his dinner in the communal kitchen the manager asked if he had seen anyone on the hill as he came down. Someone hadn't turned up. Tom shook his head. "Just me" he said.


reflections on the water

Tom felt the pavement heavy on his right leg after the long days of walking on grass, heather, and dirt. The finish was in a place of vivid Scottishness. On both sides there was whisky, shortbread, the Loch Ness monster, kilts, bagpipes, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In a pub he sipped a beer and waited for his phone to charge up. The bartender was watching a local news item on the muted TV mounted on the wall. According to the subtitles, a body had been found. A spokesperson for the police gave no further details. Tom touched the medals in his pocket.

Through the window the mist coming down from the mountain reduced the visibility of the loch. Even the reflections on the water showed only cloud.

Short Story

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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