The gentle lapping of the oars as they dipped in and out of the water and creaked against their rests was the only sound for miles around as the old man and the boy made their way out across the water. The little rowing boat cast out wide ripples into the reflections of the still skies above, steely and pale blue.
“Where are we going?” Ben asked his granpa sitting opposite, pulling forwards then back against the oars with practiced ease.
“Yonder,” replied granpa with a nod. Ben turned to see they were approaching a tiny island rising from the centre of the lake. No, not a lake, Ben remembered, a loch granpa had said. Loch Arben. Ben wondered if it was all loches that held ancient monsters or just Loch Ness.
Ben was never really sure about how he felt coming to stay with grannie and granpa up in their little croft in the middle of nowhere – further north even than Inverness, and that was a long way. On one hand he missed all his chums, thinking enviously of how they would be spending their summer holidays playing football and getting into all sorts of mischief without him. Grannie and granpa had no telly and, worse, no computer so Ben had to resort to playing on his Nintendo DS till the battery ran out and he would pester granpa to let him use a power socket to charge it back up again, being told instead to go read a book. But somehow he also enjoyed staying up in that tiny stone house that always smelled of honey and soot, huddling up by the wood burner and listening to grannie tell funny, old stories. And at night it was so dark outside, so completely quiet, that Ben could pretend he was an explorer in deep space. There something about the landscape up there as well – Ben couldn’t put it into words but he just felt more at ease once the hills and mountains had started to rise up about him. Their heathery slopes didn’t care how he dressed or what he did or didn’t say; the trees and the rivers bore no interest in his Facebook updates or grades at school. They merely existed, just as they always had, and therefore, so could he.
“Ye know,” started granpa. “When ah was no much older than you are now, mah own granpa brought me to Loch Arben an’ took me out on a wee boat, jus’ like this one. In those days there weren’t no internets or tee vee. Weren’t many cars or machines neither, no’ up ‘ere. Was jus’ us an’ the land back then.”
On one of the far shores, a heron jumped up from amongst the roots and reeds, taking flight with a grace unbefitting its size. It passed silently overhead and out of sight.
Granpa continued: “We have a tradition in this family ye see, a sort ah test to prove that we’re worthy ah living on this land. Ah did it, me father did it an’ his father an’ his father an’ so on.”
“What is this test?” Ben asked nervously.
“Ah’m gonna drop ye off on that wee island… an’ then ah’ll come back for ye in the morn.”
Ben turned to look at the nearing island again, at its steep banks and shadowy branches, then back at granpa. The old man’s expression with its thick gravelly beard and creases deeper than Ben could have imagined possible, gave nothing away.
“You’re going to leave me alone there all night?” said Ben. “But it’ll be freezing! What will I eat? Where will I go to the toilet?”
“Wouldn’t be a test if it was easy now was it?” granpa replied.
Ben bit his lip and started planning – at least he’d worn his fleece and waterproof. First thing he’d do would be to scour the island and be sure there was nothing else on there with him, nothing to unsettle him in the gloom of night. Then he’d gather branches and make a little shelter to protect himself from the wind. Maybe he’d be able to knock some rocks together and start a fire like they did on TV? He’d have to go without food probably but how hard could that be? But what about something to drink though – was the loch water okay? Probably best not to risk it.
A short bump told Ben they had arrived at the island. He looked up at its slopes, thick with moss and fallen needles. It smelled earthy and damp.
“Ready?” granpa asked.
Ben wanted to say no, to stamp his feet and demand that granpa stop being so cruel and take him back to shore. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to seem like a baby, didn’t want to fail his legacy and besides, if all these ancestors of his had managed it, then why shouldn’t be? Maybe it’d even be good for him.
Carefully Ben clambered out of the boat and onto the island. The air suddenly felt slightly chillier. His legs felt like they might give up at any second. He turned to face granpa and watch as he rowed away.
“Now, ah’m gonna say to you, the exact same words mah granpa said to me, aw those years ago, when ah stood where you do now,” announced granpa, resting himself against the oars for a moment then cracking into a wide, rosy grin. “He said: Ah’m only kiddin’!”
Ben let out a sound that was part laugh, part scream as he watched the old man begin rocking back and forth with wicked merriment.
“So you’re saying I don’t have to stay on the island?” said Ben, getting back into the boat.
“No’ unless ye desperately want tae,” answered granpa, having to stop rowing occassionally to wipe the tears from his eyes. “But ye’d miss out on the mince an’ tatties yer grannie’s making fer supper.”
“You’re a horrible old man, you know that granpa? A horrible old man,” said Ben doing all he could not to join in laughing.
“Aye, ah know. No denyin’ it! If it makes ye feel any better, if you have a grandson ah yer own one day then you can bring em out ‘ere an do the same to them. How’s that sound?”
“It sounds cruel,” Ben smiled. Feelings of anger were quickly subsiding to relief as they drew ever nearer to shore once more and to that steaming plate of mince and tatties. “I would’ve done it you know – if what you’d said had been true about you and all the others, then I would have done it as well.”
“Aye, ah know ye would ‘ave,” said granpa, straight-faced now. “Maybe that’s whit the real test is. Yer a brave wee boy – daft right enough – but brave. Tell ye what, ye can chop some fire wood fer me when we get back instead.”
“Fine then,” said Ben, once again completely unsure whether he loved or hated being in this place with these people.
Then another thought took him – that perhaps it didn’t matter how he felt, good or bad, that in the end, these days were numbered anyway. Not just in terms of the holidays but the years after; soon there would be girls and exams and other distractions, then work or university. And of course, granpa and grannie wouldn’t be around forever – what would happen to the croft after they were gone? These days would soon become lost as mere memories to the ever turning wheel of time. Ben felt a slight shiver then resolved to try and make the most of the time he had left at the croft. After all, he was only passing through.
Overhead the colour was slipping from the sky and the first stars were showing their faces. Somewhere an owl gave a long hoot. Evening was approaching and tomorrow would be a new day.
Buy David’s Book:
You can also find David’s book, The Thief of Sleep, at Amazon.