A Country Never Visited – Week 17 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Assembled at the train station on a sunny July day; bowed under the weight of rucksacks and tents and all doing their best to look cool and avoid being hugged by their attendant parents.

They were a motley crew.

Four boys and two girls with an intermingling of relationships that had already raised parental eyebrows. Trisha and Lea were best friends, which was just as well because Lea was now going out with Colin, who had been Trisha’s first ever boyfriend. Trisha had started going out with Tim just before Christmas but by New Year she had dumped Tim for his best friend Wayne. They remained friends despite this because Tim was a nice guy.

The sixth member of the group was Kevin, Wayne’s cousin and the only real birdwatcher in the group, although Tim, Wayne and Trisha did at least have their twitcher’s cards on them and a list of birds and animals they were on the lookout for.

In the early planning stages of this trip there had been brave and foolhardy ideas about hitchhiking the 450 miles north but the mothers of the two sixteen year old girls felt that they were being permissive enough in allowing them to spend a whole fortnight camping with four eighteen year old boys.

Seats were booked on a train to Waterloo; tube stations identified in order to get them to Kings Cross station where they would board a train for Aviemore and an eleven and a half hour journey in the relative comfort of a reserved compartment.

It would have been comfortable if Trisha and Wayne hadn’t spent the previous day sunning themselves at an outdoor pool. Trisha had fallen asleep and woke up to find that her entire left side was turning lobster-red. Wayne had been slightly better covered and it was only his legs that were burnt.

Sitting down hurt. Walking with a heavy rucksack on sunburnt shoulders hurt. Trying to avoid contact with humans or carriage walls in a small compartment filled with people and luggage was impossible. Trisha and Wayne were not known for their good humour anyway but pain and anxiety made their situation worse.

It had all seemed so exciting. Going to another country – okay, so it was Scotland and joined onto the end of England – but it was still unknown territory. Kevin and Wayne had come up with the idea of visiting the Cairngorms. Although only a half-hearted birdwatcher, Trisha did not want to be left behind and neither did Tim. The idea of her daughter going away with three boys met with resistance from Trisha’s mother but Lea came to the rescue and Colin, kind calm and reasonable Colin who had no interest in birds, deer or even camping, agreed to accompany her.

Trisha had some doubts about Lea and Colin joining them. She had quite liked the idea of having all three boys to herself so having to share the experience with Lea irked a little. Trisha’s interest in Colin was far removed from romance now but would Lea start making passes at her current boyfriend?

Wayne was more handsome, more intelligent and very attentive. Perhaps too attentive at times. Perhaps veering into possessiveness occasionally, and of late he had shown signs of the angry outbursts inherited – or learned  – from both his parents.

Wayne’s mother was prone to throwing things when angry: saucepans, plates, knives, any projectile that came to hand. His father was more of slow burner whose ire was inflamed by alcohol  and whose temper led to at least one night in a cell to cool off. Trisha’s arms had already been coloured with bruises from Wayne’s controlling hands but she pushed those incidents to the back of her mind because she loved him – and she knew that he loved her because that’s what he said when he saw the bruises.

It wasn’t bruises that were bothering her now though. She had grabbed a window seat thinking that the padded arm rest would be less painful against her sunburn. It was fine while she was awake but the long journey and a restless night meant that she kept dozing off and banging against the unpadded wall.  Wayne sat next to her with a silent Tim reading NME because he thought it made him look like a musician – which he wasn’t. Lea had nabbed the other window seat, Colin dozed happily by her side and Kevin, his nose buried in his bird guide, was oblivious to everyone and everything.

Trisha woke in pain as the train went round a bend and Wayne’s full weight fell against her. She pushed him away angrily. Confused by sleep, he started to argue but the presence of four other people stopped him and he moved an inch away from Trisha and crossed his arms like a sulking child.

By the time they passed over the border, tempers in the compartment were simmering. It was too dark to read by the tiny interior lights and too dark to look at scenery. The others did their best to doze but Wayne and Trisha couldn’t get comfortable and were snapping edgily at each other.

Eventually Trisha could take no more and stepping over outstretched legs, she went in search of the toilet.

It was occupied.

She rested her head against the cool of the windowpane. Standing up – even with a full bladder – was less painful and irritating than being back in the compartment. The sun was coming up and being able to see the beauty of the mountains and trees at last, had a calming effect on her.

The toilet door opened and a man came out.

‘I’d give it a few minutes if I were you.’ he said with a grin as he walked back down the corridor.

Torn between holding her breath and having an embarrassing accident, Trisha chose the former and filling her lungs, dashed into the toilet.

It was a relief on many levels when she got back out to the corridor again. Reluctant to return to a compartment of sleeping or grumpy companions, she carried on looking out at the scenery. The train stopped for signals and there, barely feet from the track, was a squirrel. Not just any squirrel but a red squirrel. Her first.

The sight made her incredibly happy. Especially because she was the only one of the group to see the squirrel. She turned round and saw a bleary-eyed Kevin emerging from the toilet.

‘Kev! Look! A red squirrel!’

He rushed over to the window, even then, taking care not to get too close unless he bumped into her sunburn. They looked at the squirrel, and the squirrel looked back. It was a magic moment.

The engine started up again and the resultant noise made the squirrel bolt for the safety of the trees. Kevin looked at his watch.

‘We should be arriving at Aviemore in about twenty minutes. I suppose we’d better wake up the others up.’

‘Do we have to?’ said Trisha.

Kevin, reasonable and sensible as always, pulled a bus timetable out of his pocket.

‘The first bus to the campsite leaves at ten o’clock. I think we’ll all be much happier once we’ve had something to eat and stretched our legs. The station buffet should be open when we get in.’

Trisha smiled and followed him back to the compartment. She woke Wayne with a gentle kiss on top of his head. Showing rare self-control, she sat down next to him while an excited Kevin told everyone about the red squirrel.

‘Trisha spotted it first.’ he said. ‘We’re really here. It must be a good omen. Just think, ospreys, golden eagles, dippers, even ptarmigan if we can get up on to the mountain.’

HIs enthusiasm did the trick and the thought of breakfast and the final leg of their trip  to the campsite galvanised even a tired and sullen Wayne.

The station buffet was open – just  – and fairly basic but the food was hot and there was coffee to wake them up.

The bus trip out to the campsite was uncomfortably bumpy; they weren’t the only campers and there wasn’t much room for all the luggage in the boot. It overflowed into the aisle and fell against Wayne’s sunburnt legs so that he was gritting his teeth by the time they arrived.

It was worth it though. The campsite was at the foot of the Cairngorms; well supplied with toilets and showers, a shop selling food and mementos, and the three pitches they had reserved were grassy and level. The sun shone and tents went up quickly – mostly due to Kevin’s expertise and the compliance of Colin and Tim. Wayne argued about everything  –  because he could – Trisha and Lea sat on a blanket and looked at the scenery having decided that this was the most practical help they could offer.

Looking back years later, Trisha remembered seeing the ospreys after a long, hot trek to Loch Garten. She remembered sitting by a waterfall watching the dippers. It was blissfully cool under the trees by the river’s side. There was the happiness of time spent at Loch an Eilein on the hottest day of the year when they were all feeling lazy and content, mellow on cheap cider, bread and cheese from the camp site shop.

They never made it up the mountain; the golden eagles stayed hidden and by the end of the fortnight entente was no longer cordiale.

Lea and Trisha fell out. Fuelled by cheap cider, Trisha decided  that not content with taking up with Colin, Lea was after Wayne as well. Wayne, equally fuelled, felt that Colin and Tim were after Trisha. Tim and Colin were confused. Lea took it out on Colin. Kevin – who had come for a lovely bird watching holiday and not to be surrounded by anger and jealousy – was sad and disillusioned. They had to tough it out because their tickets were booked and none of them had enough money to buy another ticket.

The journey home at the end of the fortnight was worse than the original trip; none of them wanted to spend nearly twelve hours in the same small train compartment with hastily packed tents and rucksacks. Tim and Kevin were the only people on speaking terms. Trisha was wearing her hair down in order to hide the black eye and swollen cheek. Wayne made no attempt to cover up the livid scratches left by Trisha’s nails after he punched her when she wouldn’t shut up.

They were rescued at the journey’s end by their parents and taken home with piles of dirty washing. Goodbyes were short and definitely not sweet.

Trisha and Wayne’s relationship continued for another couple of weeks until he decided that head butting her was the only way to get her to behave. His mother had suggested a good slap, his father had suggested getting engaged. Trisha’s mother looked her daughter squarely in the eye and told her she was worth far more than this.

Wayne shouted, threatened and cried when Trisha ended it. She lost contact with Tim and Kevin as a consequence because they were Wayne’s friends after all. In the rush of getting things sorted out so that she could start at college to do her ‘A’ levels, Trisha lost contact with Lea and Colin too.

There were lessons learnt in that other country; it was a place of great beauty and Trisha had no regrets about going there. Perhaps, if the six of them hadn’t gone on holiday together it might have taken longer for Wayne’s violence to emerge. Perhaps, Trisha would have borne more than the bruises, bumps and black eyes.

Many years later she heard that Wayne had married. That he had children and a wife who often wore her hair long to hide the black eyes and the bruises.

She saw the red squirrel though. She had to go to another country but she saw the red squirrel.

red-squirrel_2677337b

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