My name is Michael Salter, and I am dead; dead, that much I know for sure. All the rest of it – all of that I can only speculate about. I’ve had a lot of time to wonder about it: what I’m doing here and what it means, though thinking takes me round in circles, like Pooh Bear hunting the heffalump in the snow and realising he’s been following his own footprints.
My mother Ottilie was here earlier, in the wood, talking to me about misapprehensions and about guilt. She comes at least once a week and always on Sundays, from her cottage out at the coast, and she comes alone. Lately she’s been here almost every day and I’ve begun to act like somebody in hospital, alert at visiting hour for signs. I was watching as she came along the path this afternoon, a procession of one, slow-moving and stately in black. She came first to my memorial stone.
“Michael.” She spoke as if I were close by. “Today’s the day. We think today will be the day.”
I can’t remember seeing my mother ever wearing black before, but it’s the 14th anniversary of my disappearance here and … the truth is this hasn’t been any ordinary anniversary. She was unusually restless, walking along the beach, up and down, pausing at the furthest corners of the shore and struggling at moments with the depth of the grit.
“It won’t be long now,” she said, looking out over the water which stretches almost to the horizon; a vast bowl of it, many fathoms deep. The domesticated green summits we see around us here are in reality only the tops of submerged mountains: that’s what my grandfather used to say to me, when I was a child. They say in the village that the loch has moods, that when the wind blows it isn’t only the waves that rise and surge; that when it’s a dark, dark brown it’s at its most dangerous; that when the surface becomes a mirror it will reflect your profoundest wants back at you. It’s been viscous as mercury today, resembling something poured and inert, as if a silver skin has cooled on it.
Are you a ghost if nobody sees you, or are you something else? Ghost or not, I seem to have taken up residence in the grounds of the house where I was born, in the small wood planted here beside the loch in 1916. Not that I remember the moment exactly of arriving. Like the journey down the birth canal, some recollections are spared us. Too many, in fact. Memory reaches back, pausing at birthdays, Christmas mornings, the big conversations, key moments when we look into the eyes of our mother and know her in a new way; all the things that make impact on our little souls: the first bicycle, the first nightmarish week at the high school, the first proper kiss, the first cigarette and throwing up afterwards. I’m trying to get back to the earliest thing. I remember playing in the gardens at about the age of four, running along the sides of high topiary hedges. But for weeks and months that I know I was alive, there’s nothing, worse than nothing; indistinct traces left behind of something that’s gone.
My mother sat herself down, sitting up straight-backed in her usual way, in a dress that reached almost to her ankle, a black scarf twisted into use as a hairband, her fringe flattened over her eyebrows. She rubbed gently at her shins and said, “Arthritis, apparently. I’m beginning to be old.” Her thick and wavy hair, glorious once, a pinkish-gold colour, strawberry blonde, is filling with nylon-like grey. When she was young she wore it very long, flying behind her like a cape, but it’s shorter now, and worn up, fixed
A gothic tale of a declining aristocratic Scottish family, their dilapidated mansion in the Scottish highlands, and the poisonous effects of the secrets and tragedies it holds.