by Toby Goodwin
(Ai Du – Ali Farka Touré, Ry Cooder)
The black fish screamed at me with its little puckering mouth. Flat, glistening. A dark spiral at the centre of a white eye. Froth rising from folds in its painted gills. Every morning I woke up in my little single bed and rolled over. I was lucky, most hostels jam all the staff in the one damp, overcrowded dorm, but in Inverness I had a whole room to myself. It was a small space, very minimal. White walls, a window looking out on the alleyway, a pop out desk, and a single bed. I sat up, shivering slightly, and looked more closely at the fish – at the delicate shading on its scales. The mural had been there for a long time, dominating an entire wall. Black outlines, extending from the door to the window. It was unfinished in some places. Stop. Exquisitely detailed in others. One part was forest, dense leaves, birds and squirrels, and then the foliage blended into seaweed and gradually rolled along in the opposite direction as an underwater scene. Two koi carp circling like a Yin and Yang, but instead of chasing each other’s tails they both faced upward. One curving its neck to the right and staring at me with its smug fishy eyes.
Waking up it was a blur, a smudge, but as I pulled on my glasses it took shape. It was dark and angry, painted in a fevered scrawl in some places. Happy, painted delicately in others. The girl that started it was sacked, that’s how I ended up with the job. Ian told me that she wouldn’t show up for work for days at a time, hiding away at a boyfriend’s house in the city centre. I guess, after missing a few shifts, she couldn’t bring herself to come back. Can’t hide in a place like this. She didn’t want to come to work because people were angry at her for Not Having Been at Work. I remember looking at the mural most mornings and thinking that I’d have to stay on everyone’s good side. Didn’t want to leave anything un-painted, as it were. I stretched and stood up, pulling on some clothes. I opened the door, feeling the eyes of that goddamn fish against my back. I could hear guests chatting away in the common room and the sound of the printer going in the office.
I leaned in to see Jenny with a clipboard. “Morning Jenny,” I said.
“You sleep alright, champ?” she didn’t look up, her hair was in a loose ponytail falling out of the hood of a blue sports jumper.
“Yeah, pretty good. I actually don’t mind a single bed. I tend to sleep like a pencil.”
Ian poked his head out of the kitchen, “He sleeps like a victim of defenestration.”
As teenagers me and Ian went to a lot of house parties together, ‘empties’ as we call them in Scotland. Waking up on a living room floor amongst piles of other teenagers, cans and cigarette butts. A hangover hammering.
“De-fenis-what?” she said.
“It’s the act of throwing someone out of a window.”
“Right,” she snorted, looked back at her paperwork, and then looked up again. “Why do you know such a specific word for a window-adjacent crime?”
“It’s funny,” Ian said. I could hear him making a clattering noise in the kitchen, probably piling dishes up. Most guests were very good at cleaning up after themselves, but we did need to keep an eye on things.
“Anyways,” I said, “see that mural in my room?”
“It’s nice isn’t it?”
“Do you think I could maybe give it a bit of colour?”
“It’s your room,” she said, still not looking up, “You can do what you like with it.”
I liked to think that Jenny liked me. It was hard to tell through. People come and go so often in hostels that you start to get used to it. The attachments that you make, while they’re very real and they can be very personal, you know that they won’t last forever. There’s a slight disconnect.
“I’m not the best of painters.” I said, “I might actually get some sponges and splatter some colour across it. Modern-art style.”
“That might work.”
“You want a coffee?”
“Nah,” she said, tapping her pen against a mug by the printer.
I made myself one anyways and sat myself down in the living room. There were a few travellers eating their toasts and discussing their plans. I sat there enjoying the gentle chitchat, sipping away. My plans involved taking myself for a little walk around the town, maybe get some filming in by the castle. In a new place it’s advisable to take yourself out for a walk. Get yourself lost and the mind’ll compensate. Let the beast swallow you whole and hopefully it’ll spit you out before your skin dissolves. Inverness isn’t a huge place, just a jumble of streets over two sides of a river. Suspension bridges in-between. The sound of rain like static in a burnt TV tube. I got myself ready, grabbed my camera and exited the hostel.
I took a right and went down a side alley. I had my hood up against a slight drizzle and I had a single headphone in, Ai Du by Ali Farka Touré. I wanted to practice some framing. Most of the time in filming there’s a focus; the characters, or maybe the props. But these things become meaningless if the background, the setting, isn’t exactly what it needs to be. If it doesn’t feel like you, the viewer, are there staring down the eye of the camera then it’s all been for nothing. So that was my plan, just needed to find something that caught my eye.
One thing to understand about Inverness is that during the summer months the town is almost completely runs on tourism, but come wintertime it gets slower, quieter. The locals start to come out of the woodwork, sniffing the air. They say little, but there’s a quiet politeness to them. You could call it a calm acceptance. An old crow standing in the rain. Inverness is also full of these little pieces of writing carved into the pavements. Lyrical sentences and Gaelic translations. Water running in the grooves of the words. Abair ach beagan is abair gu math e. Say but little and say it well.
It was a five-minute walk from the hostel to the river and then I followed it along until I came to the castle, which looms grandly over a small hill. I didn’t realise this at the time, but the castle also serves as the courthouse of Inverness, and I hesitate to call it a castle at all. The building isn’t the original, not by a long shot. Supposedly Inverness was invaded so often in the middle ages that the building was torn down and rebuilt multiple times. Today there’s this big sandstone structure that more resembles a stately house than a medieval fortification.
I flipped out my camera at the crest of the hill, meaning to film a slow pan down the river. I almost had the focus when I felt a sharp tap on my shoulder. “You takin’ pictures, son?!”
I turned around to see an old man. Bald with wisps of white hair flapping around the edges of his head, red marks on his face. Looked like he’d maybe had a bad head injury at some point, many years ago. He spoke in a stuttering, guttural voice that was low and commanding. “Aye, is that not allowed?” I said.
“Ach aye, course it is. I thought I’d gie you a wee bittie a background.”
“Oh sure, okay.”
“You can tell yer friends, when you show em the pictures.” The man was wearing one of those wax raincoats. You don’t see a lot of those these days. I used to know a guy from back in school who always wore a wax coat, even when it was sunny. I remember the water building up on it in little beads. All sheened except for a patch on the breast where it had worn away. It was the only part of the coat that would go dark when it rained. I looked down at the old man, a full head below me. His coat seemed intact.
“Aw yeah, that’ll be nice.” I said to him, in that reflexive voice that one shamefully adopts when speaking to the elderly. A voice that desperately attempts to avoid condescension, at risk of descending into exactly that.
“So, look at this.” He lifted a thin arm and pointed up towards the horizon, across the river. His hand shaking a little, “This whole area was created by an enormous tsunami, about six million years ago.”
“Look, there, see where the horizon curves up a wee bit there? See where that tree is?”
“All the way past the buildings?”
“Yes, yes. All the way up there.” There was a lonely tree on the hillside at the top of the valley, no bigger than my thumb on the horizon. “Where that tree meets the top of the hill is where the water was. A huge piece of ice broke off near Denmark as the great ice bridge was cracking.”
“The great ice bridge?”
“Yes, yes. Back then the ice extended all the way across the continents from Europe to America. That’s how the Picts and the Gaels made their way across. All of humanity began in Africa, you see, and then eventually spread oot. The native Americans were the wans who walked all the way across the Pacific Ocean on this ice bridge.” He coughed and raised a little fist to his mouth.
“So, the ice bridge broke?”
“Yes, and it caused a tsunami that swept all the way across the highlands. In fact, it created the entire firth. You know what a firth is, son?”
“It’s the big crack that goes into the side of the country, right?”
He chuckled a wheezing laugh, “Yes, sure.”
He lifted his hand again, lines of water running down the wax on his arm. That friend of mine had been a confident guy. Might’ve even been my best pal at one point, but we lost touch after school. I went off to Uni and had things to do. Sometimes people just seem to fall away with no explanation, and you don’t really think about it. Sometimes that’s that, or so I thought. One day his mother called me unexpectedly. Nancy was her name, a woman who ran a local church group.
The man pointed lower into the city, to the buildings on the opposite side of the river. “See there?” he said.
“Yes, it says Columba. He was…” the man paused for a second, collecting his thoughts. “Columb-AH, not Columbo. That’s something else.”
“So, Columb-AH was the wan who came from all the way doon on the east coast as a missionary. He came tae Inverness to convert the pagan king Bridei,” he deeply rolled the R.
“The Picts lived right here?”
“Oh yes, the Picts were all along the east coast. The west coast was the Ulster Gaels. The Gaelic-Scots. They were converted pretty quickly, maybe by Columba, but the Picts held oot.”
“Yes,” he pointed to the hotel again. “Columb-AH came all the way across the Loch Ness and up tae convert Bridei, but he failed miserably.” The man laughed a hearty, wheezing laugh. “Although another thing, that most folk don’t know, is that Columba was the wan who ‘spotted’ Nessie first.”
“Yes, yes, and this was about fifteen-hunner years ago. The story goes that he won favour wi the king after the beast was said tae have killed a young Pict. Supposedly Columba then went along and, when the monster tried tae attack one of his disciples, he banished it with his godly ways.”
“Maybe that’s why nobody’s ever seen Nessie.”
“Aye, Columba. Columb-AH,” he looked straight at me. “Columba’s the wan you’ve got tae blame for no seeing Nessie. He banished the poor girl, either that or there never was a monster and he was just pulling the wool over the old Pictish king’s eyes.” Behind me, I heard the sound of a camera shutter. The old man’s head snapped around, “Are you taking pictures?!” There was a bewildered-looking Asian lady in a pink raincoat. He turned away from me and without another word he fired across the courtyard. I heard him say, “Do you see that tree on the horizon?” I scratched my head and turned back to the river, taking a few wet steps down the hill. My history lesson was over, it would seem.
Nancy told me that her son had become very depressed. It’s strange hearing something like that down the phone. Only hearing the emotion in the voice, but not seeing it on the face. She told me that her son had so much anxiety and so few friends that all he did was sit in his house, playing games alone. I remember him being lively as a kid, always a good drawer. A cartoonist. And, even at that age I’d seen enough depression to be moved by it, to be drawn to it. I solemnly promised her that I’d try to meet up with him. I gave her my details and I asked her to pass them on.
“So, the ice was all the way up there.” I heard the man saying behind me. It’s easy to see why folk have been imagining a monster here for well over a thousand years, well, over there. From the castle you can’t quite see the Loch, but it’s dark and it’s deep. With ripples over the top that only serve to further conceal it. Black water that turns to ink in the eye, stirred only by the breeze. A crest of a beast rising out of the spray, water breaking over its back white against the cold air. Showing only for a second and then disappearing into the deep. A monstrous eye, orange and unwavering.
It’s the second largest Loch in Scotland, second only to Loch Lomond, but it is the deepest – by far – of any lake on the British Isles. About two hundred and thirty meters at its deepest point. That’s just about the height of a fifty-storey building. The Loch itself looks like a long cut in the land. Not rounded at all, just long like a spear head, and it’s said to contain more fresh water than the combined volume of every lake in Wales and England. Or so I was told by a series of pamphlets that were littered around the hostel. I think I knew, I should have known, that my old friend would never get back to me. I should have called. I should have been the one to push it, but in the end I did nothing. I forgot about it until I met an old man on a hill. I sighed and flipped my camera out again.
I spent the rest of that day wandering around. I continued along the river to the Ness Islands, for some reason there weren’t people there, just this one golden retriever pulling a dishevelled-looking teenager along. They’re very small, only about a hundred yards across and dotted with trees, connected by these old Victorian bridges with chipping paint. I crossed onto the first island and then continued onto the second until I got to the very tip. I sat down on a thick root that continued down a small pebble beach and trailed out into the river. There was a white plastic bag rolling on the surface, just out of reach. Caught in some unseen draft that rippled the water like a great claw drawn across it.
I could almost picture this stately catholic priest, Columba, sailing up the river past islands and into the city centre. A collection of wooden huts back then, little trails of smoke from cooking fires rising across the valley. A pagan king adorned in the finest robes and armour. A beaten sword in his hand, goats bleating behind. The king is laughing at this robed priest who exclaims about faraway lands and a faraway god. About heaven and hell. ‘And thine beast be banished!’ Columba shouts. The king is amused by the fanfare and certainty of this missionary. I leant back, pulling my coat closer against the cold. I looked up across the valley, at the river that snaked off into an evergreen treeline.
When I got back into the hostel, I got up to the reception to see two guests checking in. Big backpacks on the ground to the side, “You guys staying here long?” Ian was saying through the window.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the guy said. He had long brown hair in a bun and a soft Californian accent. “We already went up to the Lach.”
“Did ye’s, aye?”
“Ya, we were in town too early to check in from the Edin-berg train, so we just thought ‘why naat’,” he looked over to his traveling companion.
“Oh, it’s beautiful out there,” she said, zipping something into her coat pocket. A big American smile on her.
“Oh, it is, isn’t it?” Ian said, “Did you’s see the monster?”
“Oh ya, of course we did.”
“Everyone does!” he produced some key cards and handed them over the desk. “There you go, all sorted. You guys are in room thirty, just down the stairs. Pick whichever beds are free and enjoy your stay.”
I smiled at the guests as they walked past and then rounded the desk. The office was warm and smelled a little of cheesy puffs. Ian was quite fond of them, so this was often the case when he was on.
“Do you remember that Errol from school?” I said.
“Errol?” Ian keyed in the last of the check-in details into the computer.
“Aye, his maw was that Nancy. She was always singin church songs for assembly?”
He paused, gave his chin a scratch. “Nah, cannae mind. I tend to block Christians out. How come?”
“Doesn’t matter. Something just reminded me of them.”