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29/01/2013

DISTANT HILLS

Jack Davidson

1.

 

Cool air marks the final stretch between night and morning, the paleness of dawn beginning to show in the sky. Robert can hear small waves breaking in the fog. Ships’ horns call through. He is the only witness to these things, a short width of sand from the sea. A breeze moves his hair, his shirt. Nothing more. The fog breaks for a second, and a light winks at him. It’s gone just as quickly.

Another wave of fog thickens the first, impenetrable. He’ll have to go higher. He turns around and heads up into the woods. Unless he is quick, he will miss the sunrise. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity. He’s like a child again, curious and excitable. Not unlike the one he has left behind. In a way, he thinks, he is doing this for her. To become better – a better father to Sophie and a better husband to Jane. But he knows himself well enough; this is nothing but selfish.

He lied to Jane – a business trip, he told her. She knows things aren’t going well at work, but whether that makes a trip more plausible or less, he isn’t sure. Either way, she won’t have noticed that he has half-emptied their account. His half – he has left plenty. He doesn’t know when he will be going back, and yet for them, nothing is out of place yet.

He laughs, though he’s not sure where it comes from. The volume of it surprises him as it cracks through the silence of the woods. Such freedom. Even the birds are still asleep.

He has been planning the details of this for years but he’d never really expected that he would carry it out. A plan, he thinks, is what one makes for a holiday. Away through the mist-wrapped trees, faint but definite, there is the sound of a tinny bell. Around the neck of a goat perhaps. It stops him instantly, surrounded by his own heavy breaths. The bell sounds misplaced in these lonely woods. But every detail of his surroundings is brought into focus on the sharp point of that one sound. It is Robert who is out of place. As the sound echoes away, his eyes open to the strangeness around him. The trees grow almost perpendicular to the hillside. They float in the morning twilight and salute the ships that cruise the strait.

Daylight is scaling towards brightness, forcing his eyes to adjust through every minute. It defines every edge and draws him on. He wonders whether he should have waited by the shore. There would have been no sweat stinging his eyes right now. The fog might have cleared. It’s too late to go back though, no more time for doubt. His calves stiffen with the steepening ground, and the warmth amongst the trees forms a memory. A cool summer morning, cutting roof joists with his dad. Robert and the beams both warming – the smells of flesh and wood mixing with cigar smoke as his dad looked on.

The trees are thinning, the ground becoming broken. He emerges into a rocky clearing and daylight that isn’t quite complete. A little further on, he can see back down to the strait. The new perspective makes clear how far he has walked. The fog hasn’t shifted, but he can no longer hear the horns. From here, it is a welcoming spread of carpet rather than a wall.

He swings his rucksack from his back and lays it on the ground. It feels like planting a flag in new territory. On the far side of the strait is the great shadow he came for. It waits, as he does, for the sunrise. Mount Atlas. A familiar mountain – as familiar as a mountain can be.

 

Robert was small in the back seat of the dusty hire car. He was fourteen. The car was small in the landscape, twisting up the Moroccan mountain-side. His parents in front of him. It was the first time he had been abroad, and it seemed to him that anything was possible. He fantasised that he could escape from his parents and brother and live in these mountains, alone. He leant out of the window until he could no longer catch his breath in the fast-moving air. The seatbelt dug into his collarbone. However far he leant, he couldn’t see the top of the mountain. The mountains at home were nothing like this one. Dark clouds gathered around it, invading the gentle blue sky. They moved slowly, or perhaps not at all; it was impossible to tell from the car. They looked too heavy to float in the sky.

There wasn’t much else to see – grey slopes on every side, an occasional shrub of almost the same colour. He was interrupted; a sharp punch to the arm from his younger brother, and Robert was shocked back into the car. He knew better than to swing back; their mother was alert. Robert just stared at Harry. Cigar smoke hung between them. It drifted back as his father tapped ash out of the window.

“Harry.” Their mother sounded angry. She had seen Harry’s punch in the mirror.

“He wasn’t listening, Mum.”

The hot weather would normally have suited her so well; she had her own mother’s dark skin. It was hot, but she moved constantly in her seat trying to escape some unshared discomfort, the light blue of her vest darkened with patches of sweat. She’d been like that since they had arrived in Morocco. She was usually so calm. Usually it would’ve taken more to provoke her.

“And don’t lean out of the window, Robert. It’s dangerous.” She looked sideways at their father. “Tell them Ben.”

“You’ve already told them.” His eyes stayed with the road, and he didn’t even examine his sons in the rear view mirror. He made tiny corrections of the wheel, but nothing else. Either he hadn’t noticed the change in their mother, or pretended not to. He barely looked at her.

“Are we nearly at the top?” Harry was looking for more attention.

“Harry, I told you. We’ll be there when we’re there,” said their mother.

“Leave him be, Laura.” She looked sideways at her husband again. She was angry with everyone now. They sat in silence, the four of them. Open windows, the road roaring past.

They parked in a flat area by the road, enclosed on all sides by more stony slopes. The heat cut waves through the air. Only one path led from the parking place; it was that, or back down the road. There were no other cars.

Ben opened the boot and began taking their rucksacks out. Robert sat beside the car, his mother standing over him. The ground was hot through his shorts. It’d had all morning to bake.

Harry lolled against their mother. “I don’t want to carry my bag.”

“You’ll need some water and sandwiches for when we get to the top.” Her voice was breathy, like each word was a struggle.

“Dad can carry it.”

“No.” She was sharp, and pushed Harry away as Robert looked up from the pebbles he’d been pushing around. She seemed to have shocked herself, wavering as though she was about to fall and using the car’s roof for balance. She crouched down in front of Robert. “He isn’t always going to be strong. You’ll have to help him one day.” She was staring at him, but not with the eyes that had always been a comfort. The colour had left the irises; they were almost white. “You too, Harry,” she said looking out of the shade at him. Harry didn’t like share with his brother, even if it was only their mother’s words, but there was such seriousness in her voice that he said nothing. He nodded, and their mother pulled Robert’s head to her face.

Their father called, “Ready.” She quickly kissed Robert’s forehead, and they set off up the path.

Harry and Robert walked in front. Robert looked over his shoulder. He didn’t want to stray too far ahead, though he made sure that Harry didn’t notice. There was only a year between them, and their competitions were fierce. Their parents’ pace was stubborn. They talked out of earshot in the secret language of adults. Sometimes, Robert listened and pretended to understand. Harry usually believed the act.

The walking became boring. Dust clung to sweat. Behind them were more mountains then the whole of Africa. Robert could barely get his head around it; it was too big to imagine.

Harry said, “How far is the top?” It was quiet enough that their parents didn’t hear this time.

“How do I know?” Robert had never been there before, but he knew hills. He could feel the ground steepening, and he knew it would be steepest just before the top. He knew it would soon become a race. The sky started to get bigger; they had to be close. Robert didn’t waste a second. He began to run. He could hear his mother calling from behind. Her voice made its impression in the thick air, but he couldn’t make out the words. Harry was right on his shoulder. His breathing, his footsteps in the gravel. It was all Robert could hear; he couldn’t drop Harry. Another steep bend. Robert began to think he’d been wrong. He felt the distance they’d put between themselves and their parents. Beyond the bend, the view really opened out. Robert had set off too fast though, or else too soon. Harry came past, and Robert had nothing left; he was going backwards. That was the top, higher than either of them had been before. And Harry had got there first; he was jumping on the spot, shouting. Robert wasn’t paying attention.

To his left was the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to his right. Ahead of him, there was the strait of Gibraltar, and beyond that, Spain. An entirely separate continent. It looked like a map with toy boats arranged across it. His parents still hadn’t caught up. Harry had stopped jumping; he was looking at Robert. “What’s up with you? I won.”

Robert was realising that competition with his brother didn’t matter so much; it was small compared to this. He felt as though he could see the whole world, and it made sense to him. He knew he couldn’t hold on to the feeling though; it floated at the edge of understanding. Harry came to stand next to him. He followed the line of Robert’s gaze – across the water to the point where Spain rose from the strait and folded into mountains of its own.

“I don’t get it,” Harry said. He’d never seen anything like this either.

“Look at it though.”

“At what?”

“All of it.” Robert was beginning to form an idea. He wanted to stand on the other side of the strait. “We could stand over there and look back across.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s big. It would be an adventure.”

“You could just get a boat there,” said Harry.

“I don’t mean now.”

“When do you mean?”

“When we’re older. It’ll be like looking back in time.”

“That’s just stupid, Robert.”

Their parents caught up. Robert had been happy enough to share the view with his brother, even if he didn’t understand. The arrival of their parents dispelled the magic. It no longer seemed like the whole world; it was just too much traffic struggling through a narrow artery. Dirty ships spreading rainbow slicks of oil along pure currents.

He wanted to explain his adventure to his mum, but she looked unwell. In spite of her Spanish blood, it was her rather than their pale father that was a swollen shade of red. Her face poured sweat. She made her way over to a nearby boulder to sit down and sucked air through her nose until her nostrils closed. She turned away from the boys to be sick, but the gesture couldn’t mask what Robert thought was worst sound he had ever heard. Harry was pulling at Robert’s sleeve, but Robert had nothing to say. He couldn’t take his eyes away from his mum. Their father knelt beside her, more quiet words between them. “Are you okay?” It was all Robert could make out. She nodded. She didn’t look strong enough to shape words. Their dad looked her over once more then started towards the boys. That was when she sagged backwards. She slid down the boulder to the ground. It must have been reflected in Roberts face. He had never seen his father move so fast. That lasted seconds; nothing was fast afterwards. The only thing Robert could hold onto were a few words that were just beyond his comprehension. The need to tell her about his plan only grew as the impossibility of it set in. The notion that if there had been the chance, things might have been different. He just waited, silent, for the flashing lights that took everything away. He waited again through the next days until it was over. Robert and Harry returned to England with their father, and only memories of their mother.

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