‘Twas a long journey through the mountain pass, o’er desolate carpet of brown and green, tae the place where the sparklin’ cyan of the sea meets the powder sands of the west and the vast cleavage of Corrieshalloch – where ice parted the mountains long before the likes of us daunnered the lands -has ‘em all gawpin’. The North Coast 500, Scotland’s grand answer to Route 66. A loon went ‘round peddlin’ a penny farthin’, would you believe?
Now, our newlyweds were almost there, one bar of fuel – bloody fools – headin’ for a wee hotel that sat on the banks of a loch, four-star reviews, and a restaurant exclusive tae the nephrops (langoustines to you and I, owned by a Frenchman of dubious character, if you heed the gossip of the village folk, mind). Tin roofed croft houses welcomed them tae the village, abandoned ‘til summer when their keepers cast off their city shackles and the descendants of fishermen past make way for their fair-weather neighbours. But autumn it was, and twilight fell upon our weary travellers, for here, the sun falls from the very sky.
A bent auld wifey in a woollen hat creaked along the road with a hound so rounded that its bristly undercarriage swept the ground. When approached, she gave ‘em fair warnin’:
‘Aye, I know the hotel,’ she said, ‘it’s just doon the road on the left, but I shan’t think you’ll find anyone there, the owner ran off, you see, without a peep. Visitors amuck in the village findin’ new lodgin’s… where there ain’t nun to be found.’ She chortled.
Her sunken glare followed them intently as they turned down the lane, passing a church and pictish stone, engraved with sextant and fish. Along the shore they caught glimpse of their lodgin’s, just as the dashboard blinked red.
Across the gravel, they cast an eye tae the grand hunting lodge that had graced the banks of the loch for three hundred years, the Laird’s extravagant retreat for he and his pals tae feast on their game and drink tae their prize far from the eyes of their fair, gentile wives.
Centuries three of Atlantic gales forcing sea, salt and watter against its walls. Aye, she could blow a hooley, and fresh white paint was soon mottled and worn. Not this evening though, no… this evening there was an eerie calmness cast over the loch – tonight, the house sleeps.
No light pierced the darkness within as they tried the fashionable lavender door, the brass knob rattled but there it stood, stiff and fixed as a tombstone as they rang ‘n’ hooted ‘n’ hollered, yelling greeting through glass, yet none but an echo replied.
He pulled out his phone and paced tae find signal, huffin’ n puffin’, his face all aglow. Raising it skyward as if it were Yorick – alas, it was not tae be. His wife, seduced by her wild surroundings, stepped o’er a wall tae the beach. His disgruntled voice grew distant as she picked across the shore, drawn tae a glint washed up by her feet. A silver coin with tattered edges, worn but still visible, sextant and fish. She rooted ‘round for further treasures but found only this, but oh, ‘twas a fine souvenir indeed.
And with that, came rain on a bitter sou’wester, and darkness fell like a widow’s veil. A crash and a whine came from above her as the sky led a dance with the sea. They ran for the car, their warm breath misting the windows opaque as the deafening rain drummed upon the steel.
Yet through the din they heard the slam of the lavender door and with hoods o’er heads they set course for their beds when they noticed wet footprints upon the polished wooden floors. By torchlight they followed them tae a room of blue tartan, where they seemingly faded tae naught, and nothing remained but a banqueting table, dressed for a glorious meal. The blue walls were adorned with photographs of the Frenchman and his wife. As the woman drew closer, she noticed another of black and white, a large naval vessel and men with huge hammers breaking thick ice from the stern.
‘Russian Arctic Convoys’ read the plaque, where villagers traded their line and creel for uniform and gun, as their loch was home tae depots of oil, on land and underfoot. The ships would fill their tanks for the long, brutal journey across the Atlantic, the hotel serving as an infirmary for the merchants of the soviet cause. Now the villagers strung nets tae capture the U-boats and swept the depths for iron creel, manning the battlements and protecting their home, kith and kin forever lost amongst the waves.
Engrossed in the image, she heard a chink and a scrape, looking downward as a silver coin rolled up tae her shoe and stopped with a whirr. She patted her pockets, perhaps the coin was hers.
Stood in the doorway, she recognised the Frenchman, translucent and slick as sculpted ice, his finger extended towards her, dripping, tracking her as she ebbed towards her spouse, who was lighting kindling and coal in the stove. She whispered his name with an urgent resonance and on sight of the spectre, he screamed.
Tae the left had appeared a soldier, tae the right – a fisherman, then one by one the room filled with the lost souls of the loch until they were surrounded, corralled intae the heart of the room, outstretched, icy fingers creeping close enough tae touch. They closed their eyes and said goodbyes, then, with a splash, the apparitions collapsed intae puddles and the couple found themselves ankle deep in sea watter. Stunned, they began tae run, but as they tried they were dragged down by scores of cold, watery hands as if being strangled by kelp, the storm maskin’ their cries for help as they gasped ‘n’ gargled ‘n’ their bodies dragged out tae the hungry sea…
Then silence fell over the tumultuous loch and the lilting waves washed gently ashore a silver coin with sextant and fish, a shiny lure… for some unfortunate soul.
Aye, they say the loch found a taste for death in war, flesh o’ man quenching the bloodlust beneath, for once it lay still, fat on its riches, the fishermen may fear no more.
Claire Hampton is a neurodivergent writer from Teesside, England who once lived and worked in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. Her work has featured/is upcoming in Versification, The Daily Drunk, Sledgehammer, The Mark Literary Review, Full House Literary Magazine, Selcouth Station Press, and others. Check out her stories at clairehampton.com.
photo by K B (via unsplash)