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The Barest Trace


Even before his body slammed onto the icy, rocky ground, Jim knew he was in trouble.

Heading out on such a bitterly cold day had been risky, particularly in a body ravaged by decades of hard physical work. Any thoughts of should and shouldn’t were irrelevant as he lay prone on the frosty ground, having tripped on a protruding piece of rock. The temperature was plunging as darkness rapidly approached. His ancient Nokia phone sat in a drawer among other rarely used gadgets, tangled leads and a rusty tobacco tin filled with loose screws.

At this time in the evening and so far from the main paths, the chances of anyone passing within earshot were diminishing faster than the temperature. Hopes of a rescue were slimming. The very prospect (‘Edinburgh man airlifted to hospital after sustaining injury at local beauty spot’) made him feel queasy.

A deep numbness engulfed his right side as he struggled groggily to his feet. Cradling his right arm in his left, Jim gingerly made his way down, following an uneven, thicketed path, tricky even in the daytime. Every movement made him wince and mutter dark oaths into the echoing gloom.

Woozily he eventually reached the foot of the slope, slumping onto a weather-beaten bench. It was covered with a film of ice. On many occasions he had sat there, drinking in the warm sunshine trapped by the glen, with its escarpments of ‘geologically significant’ rocks.

A prehistoric timelessness pervaded this spot, with the burn gurgling happily through it, as it had done for thousands of years. Here, after a long trek, Jim would routinely bathe his sweaty, aching feet. Refreshed, he’d happily saunter the final few miles home. Not tonight.

Before long, a lone cyclist shuttled past. Jim’s desperate yells went unheard. Jim shuddered violently, aware that he would have to drag himself to the main road; on a good day, it would take him twenty minutes to walk there. Today was going downhill fast.

Walking and wandering had been a life-long pleasure for Jim. Working early shifts for much of his life had freed him up to meander through his afternoons. He still held deep early memories of escaping the confines of his orphanage and exploring the winding river and thick woodlands that surrounded it.

He would usually go off alone, exploring the bucolic sections upstream. Jim still retained vivid recollections of clambering over a high wall and helping himself to juicy red apples from a secluded orchard. He would never find that orchard again.

Ten minutes or so after the cyclist passed, Jim clambered circumspectly to his feet. Every part of his body was aching. It brought back escapades in the Highlands in decades past.

On at least three occasions, he’d diced with death.

Only a brave lunge by one of his climbing companions had saved him from a fatal plunge into Glencoe from the Aonach Eagach.

Slipping and landing on a sharp ice axe had left him bleeding near the summit of Cairn Toul in the western Cairngorms. The crimson tide soaked his shirt as he began fading away. His comrades frantically stemmed the flow before hauling him down, into a minibus and to a doctors’ surgery - just in time.

As the motley crew made their way along the path which winds up Blackford Hill, they looked out towards the spot where Jim had fallen and shattered his arm almost five years before - a compound fracture which had taken months to heal. They paused to examine the ground, focusing on the sharply jutting piece of rock on which Jim had ’measured his length’.

After clearing the woods, the assembly of acquaintances paused to take in the view. Golden sunlight suffused the valley below them. It glinted on the surface of the burn, which flowed vigorously after a week of dismally wet weather. High pressure had broken through that morning, gladdening early risers. Jim had, for many years, been among their number, starting work while most slumbered. In retirement he had, unnecessarily, continued to get up with the lark. He could now rest easy.

After quenching their eager thirst, the group made their way sluggishly towards the top. “I know it’s a cliché, but he’d have loved it today”; “yeah, but not with all of us around!!”.

By now, the pace of ascent had really slowed; the older members of the party dutifully continued despite their dodgy knees and hips riddled with arthritis. They’d all feel it the next day.

On reaching the brutal concrete lump which marked the summit, the youngest of the group took out a bulging cardboard box from his rucksack. After tearing a hole in the top, he handed it round the group.

They took it in turns, dipping their hands in and flinging a fistful up into a steadily stiffening breeze. The fine bright grey dust was carried across the hillside, as if a sudden flurry of snow had descended. In time, the particles would be absorbed by the hillside; a trace left, if unnoticeable to most. ■

Info: The author thanks the members of the SICK Writing Group for their comments on this piece.

The sun shines gold on Blackford Hill. Photograph: Charlie Ellis


Golden sunlight suffused the valley below, glinting on the surface of the burn which flowed vigorously after a week of wet weather


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