From his position on the pier John aches to touch the Ben’s peak as its reflection stretches across Loch Lomond like a giant upside-down portrait. Today’s bluebird sky; rare in July, miraculous in October, carries no false hopes of a late Indian summer. A light breeze from the north tickles the Loch without tainting the mirrored landscape. Against a backdrop of autumnal yellows, reds and browns, clusters of evergreen Caledonian pine climb the Ben as high as altitude and latitude allow, and a dusting of white signals winter’s early arrival on the summit, reminding John of his first ascent many years before and, for a moment, helping him forget why he’s come to Luss on his dad’s birthday.
On that February morning in the early seventies his dad, a man of few words, shook him awake before first light. After sharing a pot of porridge in silence they loaded the Ford Cortina with spare clothes, chopped-pork-pieces and flask of homemade lentil soup that also included chicken, ham and anything else past its sell-by date. They headed north towards Rowardennan where a hard frost clung to the ground and trees at sea level, and two feet of snow cloaked the upper mountain. Each breath of freezing air stabbed John’s chest the higher they climbed, but that pain melted away with the elation of reaching the summit and seeing the world from a whole new angle. Apart from a herd of deer and a few ptarmigan the mountain was empty. Munro-bagging hadn’t yet reached its zenith. As Munros became fashionable his dad would, after a few drams, foam at the mouth ranting and raving about how the growing numbers of walkers, who viewed the mountains as nothing more than a checklist, scarred the scenery by turning discrete paths, once known only to locals, into litter-strewn dual carriageways.
His dad zealously embraced what he liked to call his mountains: the Torridonian sandstone of Liathach, Ben Nevis along Carn Mor Dearg arête, the jagged Anoach Eagach in Glencoe and Curved Ridge on Buchaille Etive Mor, and Ben Lomond, whose setting along the Boundary Fault made it the gateway to the Highlands for northern bound tourists. But his jewel was The Cobbler: a mountain ignored by the box-tickers for not being over their perceived magical height of 3000 feet. Yet, for capturing the spirit and drama of the Scottish mountains, his dad knew there weren’t many equals. To reach the summit budding Edmund Hilarys must scramble through a window in the rock known as Argyll’s Eyeglass, inch along a narrow ledge with a drop of over 100 feet below and climb the last few feet to the pinnacle. With no room for error it’s not for the faint of heart, which is why John was made to conquer any fears when he reached the age of ten. To celebrate this coming into manhood, and his dad’s sense of humour, John was given a capful of J&B whisky, of which he managed to take a small mouthful before screwing his face up like a dried prune and spitting the rest out to be carried away on the laughing wind.
In later years his dad often talked of tying Philistines, armed with iPhones, global positioning systems and voice navigation, to a cut-rope and dropping them off the ledge. John pictures him staggering up the concrete slabs on the path up from Succoth, dragging Munro-baggers, dressed head to toe in their latest Berghaus four-season fluorescent waterproofs, by their detachable hoods, and putting a size 12 Vibram sole up their arse, screaming, “Today, Jemima, you’re going through the rock window.”
Smiling at that thought, his eye catches young swallows as they seem to skim over the water, playfully chasing one another, building strength for the long flight south. As a kid, he spent many days leaping from this pier, lying to friends about the water’s temperature as he resurfaced gasping for air. Now only the piping calls of oystercatchers disturb the tranquillity when they fly close to shore, while high above the mountain slopes, a golden eagle circles, surveying below for that one piece of movement signifying lunch.
Reaching into his pocket John pulls out the remains of his packed lunch; a squashed roll flung together, using scraps from last night’s leftovers from a potato salad, by his latest support worker. After taking one bite he moulds it into a ball, throws it in the air and heads it into the loch knowing it’ll satisfy something below. The scar on the top of his leg is testimony to the appetite of at least one pike, as well as a reminder of his first trip to hospital for stitches. Back then he loved the smell of hospitals, but over time that novelty wore thinner than Wayne Rooney’s first head of hair.
Rubbing his thighs to warm them he thinks back to his last days in the army. He’d been mucking about with a football in camp when he fell over a misplaced Bergen and hurt his knee. It seemed innocuous but he couldn’t get back up. Keen to return to duty, and to avoid the good-natured abuse for skiving, he swore to his mates he’d be back kicking their arses soon enough. However, to everyone’s surprise the doctor on base ordered him home for further tests. On the flight from Afghanistan he met cheery younger lads, with life-changing injuries ranging from loss of limbs to loss of sight, and was amazed at their stoicism. In return they took the piss about him not getting awarded a Victoria Cross for his heroic assault on a Bergen without a landmine or raghead in sight. They concluded that, being aged twenty-one, he was probably well past his prime and should leave the real fighting to the pros.
John enjoyed the banter and arrived in the UK with a smile on his face. However, due to the closure of Britain’s last military hospital, the Royal Haslar, he ended up in a civilian ward in Birmingham’s Selly Oak. Unfortunately, the rumours of military personnel being mistreated there turned out true and, on more than one occasion, he’d been left hungry and in pain for hours. Only the consultant dealing with his case seemed take an interest in John the person. Dr. Robertson had served in the Royal Navy for a short spell before leaving to specialise in Orthopaedic Oncology. After initial introductions and a few days of shared tales about military life and football, Dr. Robertson came in earlier than usual and, after the daily pleasantries, asked, “Have you ever heard of Osteosarcoma, John?”
“No, Doc, don’t think so. Couldn’t even have a guess.”
Dr. Robertson attempted to explain the science but soon realised it was lost on John. “Here, look at these.” He held the X-Rays up to the light coming through the south-facing window. “See how jagged the outline is on both legs just under the knees?”
“This is caused by tumours.”
“Yes.” He placed the X-Rays down and concentrated his attention on John. “Benign tumours typically grow more slowly and the bone has time to try to surround the tumour with normal bone. Malignant tumours grow quickly, not giving the normal bone a chance to surround the tumour and are more likely to have a ragged border.”
“I just want to know when I can get back to Helmand.”
“You have a bigger battle on your hands now, John. It’s lucky you fell when you did.”
Feeling anything but lucky, John pushed himself up on his bed and reached for a bottle of water. “What you talking about?”
“Osteosarcoma is an aggressive cancer, and yours is already well advanced. If we hadn’t caught it now your life would be in danger. The fact you are incredibly fit masked the weakness in your bones up until you had that freak accident. But it’s too late to remove just the tumours and surrounding tissue.”
“What do you mean too late? Are you saying I’m going to die?”
“Not at all, John. But in order to save your life we’re going to have to amputate both legs above the knee.”
Dr. Robertson had continued in more detail about where the incisions would take place and what techniques would be employed to cut the femur, but John only remembered the words “amputate both legs”. They echoed in his head many times since that day, and now, as he pushes his wheelchair closer to the edge of the pier, he looks into the deep, trying to lean forward enough to catch his own reflection. Thirty yards further out a rainbow trout leaps clear of the water and lands with a plop. John watches ripples fan out and die, as another trout leaps over to his right, followed by another, and another.
Although he’s sat on this same spot countless times in his younger days, today he feels more at home than ever before and wishes he hadn’t left it so long. For the first time he fully understands what his dad was on about when he talked of being at one with the environment. The loch and mountains feign permanence with their size and apparent stillness, but, like him and the trees shedding their leaves, they too are in constant flux. An urge to dive in washes over him like a warm wave on a Caribbean beach; an urge to be free like the birds and fish surrounding him; or as free as the breeze playing with the last of the leaves clinging for life; a life transient by design, sacrificed each year to ensure survival and long term growth.
John’s operation had been eighteen months ago, but, apart from hospital appointments, he never left the house. Shutting himself off from the world was easy enough; he didn’t have any friends or family left. This self-imposed exile, a defence mechanism, supposed to help him come to terms with his new wheelchair-bound life, had the opposite effect. When forced to venture outside he complained of chest pains and shortness of breath. These panic attacks were so frequent he missed the spreading of his dad’s ashes on the loch. It took many months before he built a rapport with the support team who looked after and helped him set up home in sheltered accommodation. But those in his initial support team had moved on to new lives in other parts of the country and, as government cuts kicked in, his care package was tendered, and a new organisation took over the contract.
It didn’t take John long to work out they’d won on price and not quality, but, as his level of professional care dropped, his mental state and willingness to fight again rose. Coming to terms with his new life, he realised he didn’t need legs to stand up for himself, and set about reclaiming his freedom. Acting on suspicions, he began leaving small sums of money around the house. Sure enough, they disappeared into the pockets of Russell, the latest sessional worker to see John’s disability rather than the person. The mysterious disappearance of his dad’s old pocket watch led to a showdown and proved the catalyst for today’s trip to Luss. John never even liked the watch; it hadn’t worked for years and was more an excuse for revenge than about principles or family inheritance.
As John expected, Russell made his excuses and popped to the Colquhoun Arms for a pint as soon as they arrived in Luss. This didn’t bother John. His upper body strength means he can manoeuvre himself around on his wheelchair over most surfaces, so getting to the end of the pier caused no problems. His only concern now is if Russell will be feeling any effects from the spiked bottle of coke he lifted from the car today.
There’s a nip in the air by the time John finally hears Russell’s voice. “You still sitting here? I thought you’d be bored or frozen stiff by now. Come on, let’s get out of here. I’m not feeling so good.”
John ignores him, preferring to take in the views, thinking of more positive times; larking around with his mates in Helmand and climbing the Ben with his dad. After checking the brakes on his wheelchair he loosens the belt around his waist. “Quick. Come here and have a look at this.”
“Look at what…water?” Russell checks no-one is around, pulls down his zip and relieves himself into the loch. “Ah, I needed that.”
John shakes his head and tuts. “Look. There’s a shoal of trout right under the pier. It’s been getting closer for a while now.”
Struggling with his zip, Russell saunters to the edge and tentatively peers over the side. “I don’t see anything. I hope you’re not pulling my leg, because you know that’s not fair.”
John leans a bit closer. “There. Look. Right there. Look at that beauty. Must be over twenty pound.”
“I still can’t see any waaaaaaaghhhh!” And with more of a belly-flop than graceful swallow dive Russell drops through the air screaming like a big Jessie. There’s a period of highland tranquillity as his high pitch wail disappears under the water, but the beautiful silence is broken when he resurfaces seconds later, gasping for air. “Argh! What the fuck are you doing?”
“Language now, Russell. Language.” John does a 360° in his chair, laughing at the funniest thing he’s seen in the last two years, as Russell struggles to climb out the water, arms weighed down by the tranquilising effect of ten diazepam and two pints of lager. “Did I ever tell you my dad’s motto, Russell?”
“What?” He splashes about trying to grab the girder. “Never mind that shite. Help me, John. I can’t hold on.”
“Come on now, Russell, don’t be going all girlie on me. Anyway, let me finish. My dad’s motto was ‘seize the day’. I think the Latin is carpe diem or something, but I’m not sure. Don’t suppose you know?”
“What..the…fuck…are you on about?”
“Well, anyway, today’s the day, Russell; my dad’s birthday…and I’m seizing it…for the both of us.”
“What has that got to do with me?”
“Come on now, Russie boy, when are you going to be a man?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Remember the old watch you lifted from the drawer.”
“I told you I never touched that watch. I’ve never even seen it.”
“Aye, aye. So you say. Well, my dad wants it back…for his birthday.”
“I’m telling you…”
As Russell continues proclaiming his innocence John discreetly pulls the watch from his pocket, smiles, then sings, “I got the power”, and with a throw worthy of Phil Taylor, bounces it off the top of Russell’s bobbing head into the loch. A lone cloud is born over the Ben’s summit as John watches ripples fan out and die in the loch, and the only sounds are a squelching, out-of-breath Russell climbing back on the pier and the distinctive yelping of a golden eagle high above.
Born in Dumbarton, Kevin McCallum now lives across the water in Paisley. He writes mostly short stories with the odd poem thrown in. More of his work can be read on his blog.