It was pitch black when the alarm woke me. I lay there for a second wondering why I had set it so early and then remembered. I groaned and got up. I had been happy to agree to help out when Mr Robertson phoned to tell me that Ian, who I had trained up a year ago, had dislocated his shoulder at rugby practice. Last night, I had been looking forward to doing the round for one more time, but it did not feel like a good idea now.
I picked my way down the garden using my Dad’s old metal flashlight. Out with the bike and straight into the well-remembered freewheeling slalom down the dirt track, steering on autopilot round the ice-filled potholes and avoiding the worst of the bumps until I reached the tarmacadam and the street lights. The bag, stiff in the pre-dawn cold, was in its usual place.
I picked it up and knew right away from the weight that the English papers were not in yet. It was one small memory jolt after another for the next hour. Mr Robertson had written out the changes for me and had also produced a hand-written note for every household apologising for the fact that deliveries would have to be suspended from today, until he could sort something out. He had lived in the town for more than twenty years now and you could hardly hear a trace of anything except a local accent.
There had been six pupils in my own year whose fathers were Polish, but many of the soldiers who had stayed on after the war had changed their surname to their wife’s and he was one of them. His handwriting, however, still looked slightly foreign to me.
The familiar round slid past easily. Mrs Bradley at ‘Dunvegan’ must have died or moved because there was a new name on the gate and it was an ‘Express’ not a ‘Courier’ that I put through the letter box. The Pekes at ‘High Arrow’ came snuffling and yapping up, greeting me as an old friend. Tiptoeing up to the manse in case the Reverend Brown caught me to ask if I had changed my mind about the confirmation classes; crashing loudly up the path to the Wing-Commander’s house, in the hope that he might come out and give me another tip – the last one had kept me in beer in the Union for a solid week. Back to the shop for the bacon roll with Mr Robertson and another rite of passage. He told me to call him Wietold.
Then, up the hill with the English papers that I could deliver on the way home. Everybody else would have to pick theirs up from the shop when it opened. The General’s house was in darkness and I put his ‘Telegraph’ in its usual spot. The game larder was cold and bare at this time of year, but memories came flooding back of how it looked and smelt after the Army shoots when it was filled with pheasants or hares.
Crunching up the neat, gravel path of the Bishop’s (semi-detached) Palace and round to the kitchen door at the side. His housekeeper was up and doing. When she saw that it was me, she poured away the warm beaker of Ribena that was waiting for Ian and gave me a cup of coffee. We sat and talked and I lied to her about the amount of work I was doing at Uni.
Then it was time for the last half mile up the track to my house, passing the only field that the farmer/haulage contractor kept properly fenced. His daughters’ ponies cantered across and I stopped for a minute to stroke their necks. The day was going to be cold but bearable there was no wind and the sky was a uniform gray. There was no threat of snow clouds. I locked the bike in the garage and was starting up the garden when I saw the roe deer moving down from the hill.
I realised that, if I went along the bottom way, I could take a wide circle to get in behind them and get a clearer view. The bottom lane was one of my favourite spots. The high beech trees on both sides almost turned it into a tunnel. At dusk on warm summer evenings, I had, on rare occasions, been lucky enough to see the badgers come up from the sett in the field below and trot along the lane on to the hill itself. I moved along the lane trying not to make too much noise. The deep leaf litter muffled my foot steps. It was too sheltered there for any frost to have formed but, as I moved out from under the trees onto the open ground the fallen leaves were covered with rime patterns and the grass tussocks were white with hoar.
I crept up the hill to the ruins of the but-and-ben. I climbed onto the low wall which was the only one still standing. I could see the deer on the other side of the willow thicket through the gaps which they had created themselves or which my mother had made on her annual catkin raids. They were moving slowly down to their final destination which was the abandoned and overgrown patch of raspberry bushes.
From here, the view was an amplified and extended version of the one from my bedroom. The ground fell away sharply beyond the house, whose harled bulk stood out against the skyline. There was little colour in the scene. Far below, there was no sign of life on the broad gray river or on either of the bridges. On the other side, the dark gray stone gave the Fair City a sombre aspect. To the North, the snow on the mountain peaks seemed to bring them much closer than they really were. I had only spent one term in Edinburgh so far, but I was already half in love with the place. I had not yet, however, got used to the city sky being so different from the broad expanse to which I was accustomed at home. The next half hour passed quickly as I gazed out over the familiar scene.
I was getting stiff and numb and got up, intending to carry on past the cliff view and round by the Ranger’s cottage, coming back to the house by the far side so that I did not disturb the deer. As I moved, the torch fell on to the pile of stones below the wall. It was not a loud sound but it was enough for them. They took off down the hill and vanished into the dip. Two of them came out the other side and kept going but the third one did not reappear. It had been shaking its head as it ran and, just after it disappeared, one of the old fence posts round the raspberries suddenly jerked sideways.
I walked across the field to the dip. The corpse seemed much smaller than the live animal had looked. It must have put its head through a loop of the old wire whilst it was foraging under the bushes. When I startled it, it had run as far as it could until the fully extended wire garrotted it instantly. Feeling responsible, I fetched my mum’s biggest secateurs and a spade I did not want to leave the poor beast to the foxes or to the hoodie crows. The ground was bone hard but I managed to scrape out a shallow hole and to cover the carcase with earth and with compost from our heap.
I went back to University early the next day. I came back many times after that, but that was the last day that I felt at one with my hill.
Twenty five years later, I walked up to the cliff view as dawn broke on a beautiful spring day. I threw my mother’s ashes as high as I could and watched them drift down into the strath. I walked back and sat on the boulder under the wild cherry tree that had been my sister’s first habitat project. I looked out again over a town that I no longer thought of as home. To the left of the house that had been occupied by strangers for more than a decade now, there was a sea of broom bushes. The first one had sprung up that summer from the spot where I had buried the deer and the whole field, including the raspberry patch, had been colonised over the years. I cried, mainly for my mother but in part, at least, in remembrance of that bleak midwinter morning when a dropped torch sounded the death knell for an innocent creature and for my childhood pleasures and pursuits.