2nd January 2019
I see a man coming through the falling snow. From a distance through the curtain of white he looks hardly human, like a shadow figure.
As he nears me I see that it is Doug, the gamekeeper.
He is hurrying towards the Lodge, I realise, trying to run. But the fallen, falling snow hampers him. He stumbles with each step. Something bad. I know this without being able to see his face.
As he comes closer I see that his features are frozen with shock. I know this look. I have seen it before. This is the expression of someone who has witnessed something horrific, beyond the bounds of normal human experience.
I open the door of the Lodge, let him in. He brings with him a rush of freezing air, a spill of snow.
‘What’s happened?’ I ask him.
There is a moment – a long pause – in which he tries to catch his breath. But his eyes tell the story before he can, a mute communication of horror.
Finally, he speaks. ‘I’ve found the missing guest.’
‘Well, that’s great,’ I say. ‘Where—’
He shakes his head, and I feel the question expire on my lips.
‘I found a body.’
Three days earlier
30th December 2018
New Year. All of us together for the first time in ages. Me and Mark, Miranda and Julien, Nick and Bo, Samira and Giles, their six-month old baby, Priya. And Katie.
Four days in a winter Highland wilderness. Loch Corrin, it’s called. Very exclusive: they only let four parties stay there each year – the rest of the time it’s kept as a private residence. This time of year, as you might guess, is the most popular. I had to reserve it pretty much the day after New Year last year, as soon as the bookings opened up. The woman I spoke with assured me that with our group taking over most of the accommodation we should have the whole place to ourselves.
I take the brochure out of my bag again. A thick card, expensive affair. It shows a fir-lined loch, heather-red peaks rising behind; though they may well be snow-covered now. According to the photographs, the Lodge itself – the ‘New Lodge’, as the brochure describes it – is a big glass construction, über-modern, designed by a top architect who recently constructed the summer pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery. I think the idea is that it’s meant to blend seamlessly with the still waters of the loch, reflecting the landscape and the uncompromising lines of the big peak, the Munro, rising behind.
Near the Lodge, dwarfed by it, you can make out a small cluster of dwellings that look as though they are huddling together to keep warm. These are the cabins; there’s one for each couple, but we’ll come together to have meals in the shooting lodge, the bigger building in the middle. Apart from the Highland Dinner on the first night – ‘a showcase of local, seasonal produce’ – we’ll be cooking for ourselves. They’ve ordered food in for me. I sent a long list in advance – fresh truffles, foie gras, oysters. I’m planning a real feast for New Year’s Eve, which I’m very excited about. I love to cook. Food brings people together, doesn’t it?
This part of the journey is particularly dramatic. We have the sea on one side of us, and every so often the land sheers away so that it feels as if one wrong move might send us careering over the edge. The water is slate-grey, violent-looking. In one cliff-top field the sheep huddle together in a group as though trying to keep warm. You can hear the wind; every so often it throws itself against the windows, and the train shudders.
All of the others seem to have fallen asleep, even baby Priya. Giles is actually snoring.
‘Look,’ I want to say, ‘look how beautiful it is!’
I’ve planned this trip, so I feel a certain ownership of it – the anxiety that people won’t enjoy themselves, that things might go wrong. And also a sense of pride, already, in its small successes . . . like this, the wild beauty outside the window.
It’s hardly a surprise that they’re all asleep. We got up so early this morning to catch the train – Miranda looked particularly cross at the hour. And then everyone got on the booze, of course. Mark, Giles and Julien hit the drinks trolley early, somewhere around Doncaster, even though it was only eleven. They got happily tipsy, affectionate and loud (the next few seats along did not look impressed). They seem to be able to fall back into the easy camaraderie of years gone by no matter how much time has passed since they last saw each other, especially with the help of a couple of beers.
Nick and Bo, Nick’s American boyfriend, aren’t so much a feature of this boys’ club, because Nick wasn’t part of their group at Oxford . . . although Katie has claimed in the past that there’s more to it than that, some tacit homophobia on the part of the other boys. Nick is Katie’s friend, first and foremost. Sometimes I have the distinct impression that he doesn’t particularly like the rest of us, that he tolerates us only because of Katie. I’ve always suspected a bit of coolness between Nick and Miranda, probably because they’re both such strong characters. And yet this morning the two of them seemed thick as thieves, hurrying off across the station concourse, arm in arm, to buy ‘sustenance’ for the trip. This turned out to be a perfectly chilled bottle of Sancerre, which Nick pulled from the cool-bag to slightly envious looks from the beer drinkers. ‘He was trying to get those G&Ts in cans,’ Miranda told us, ‘but I wouldn’t let him. We have to start as we mean to go on.’
Miranda, Nick, Bo and I each had some wine. Even Samira decided to have a small one too, at the last minute: ‘There’s all this new evidence that says you can drink when you’re breastfeeding.’
Katie shook her head at first; she had a bottle of fizzy water. ‘Oh come on, Kay-tee,’ Miranda pleaded, with a winning smile, proffering a glass. ‘We’re on holiday!’ It’s difficult to refuse Miranda anything when she’s trying to persuade you to do something, so Katie took it, of course, and had a tentative sip.
The booze helped lighten the atmosphere a bit; we’d had a bit of a mix-up with the seating when we first got on. Everyone was tired and cross, half-heartedly trying to work it out. It turned out that one of the nine seats on the booking had somehow ended up in the next carriage, completely on its own. The train was packed, for the holidays, so there was no possibility of shuffling things around.
‘Obviously that’s my one,’ Katie said. Katie, you see, is the odd one out, not being in a couple. In a way, I suppose you could say that she is more of an interloper than I am these days.
‘Oh, Katie,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry – I feel like an idiot. I don’t know how that happened. I was sure I’d reserved them all in the middle, to try to make sure we’d all be together. The system must have changed it. Look, you come and sit here . . . I’ll go there.’
‘No,’ Katie said, hefting her suitcase awkwardly over the heads of the passengers already in their seats. ‘That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t mind.’
Her tone suggested otherwise. For goodness’ sake, I found myself thinking. It’s only a train journey. Does it really matter?
The other eight seats were facing each other around two tables in the middle of the carriage. Just beyond, there was an elderly woman sitting next to a pierced teenager – two solitary travellers. It didn’t look likely that we’d be able to do anything about the mess-up. But then Miranda bent across to speak to the elderly woman, her curtain of hair shining like gold, and worked her magic. I could see how charmed the woman was by her: the looks, the cut-glass – almost antique – accent. Miranda, when she wants to, can exert serious charm. Anyone who knows her has been on the receiving end of it.
Oh yes, the woman said, of course she would move. It would probably be more peaceful in the next carriage anyway: ‘You young people, aha!’ – though none of us are all that young any more – ‘And I prefer sitting forwards as it is.’
‘Thanks Manda,’ Katie said, with a brief smile. (She sounded grateful, but she didn’t look it, exactly.) Katie and Miranda are best friends from way back. I know they haven’t seen as much of each other lately, those two; Miranda says Katie has been busy with work. And because Samira and Giles have been tied up in baby land, Miranda and I have spent more time together than ever before. We’ve been shopping, we’ve gone for drinks. We’ve gossiped together. I have begun to feel that she’s accepted me as her friend, rather than merely Mark’s girlfriend, last to the group by almost a decade.
Katie has always been there to usurp me, in the past. She and Miranda have always been so tight-knit. So much so that they’re almost more like sisters than friends. In the past I’ve felt excluded by this, all that closeness and history. It doesn’t leave any new friendship with room to breathe. So a secret part of me is – well, rather pleased.
I really want everyone to have a good time on this trip, for it all to be a success. The New Year’s Eve getaway is a big deal. They’ve done it every year, this group. They’ve been doing it for long before I came onto the scene. And I suppose, in a way, planning this trip is a rather pitiful attempt at proving that I am really one of them. At saying I should be properly accepted into the ‘inner circle’ at last. You’d think that three years – which is the time it has been since Mark and I got together – would be long enough. But it’s not. They all go back a very long way, you see: to Oxford, where they first became friends.
It’s tricky – as anyone who has been in this situation will know – to be the latest addition to a group of old friends. It seems that I will always be the new girl, however many years pass. I will always be the last in, the trespasser.
I look again at the brochure in my lap. Perhaps this trip – so carefully planned – will change things. Prove that I am one of them. I’m so excited.
So we’re finally here. And yet I have a sudden longing to be back in the city. Even my office desk would do it. The Loch Corrin station is laughably tiny. A solitary platform, with the steel-covered slope of a mountain shearing up behind, the top lost in cloud. The signpost, the National Rail standard, looks like a practical joke. The platform is covered in a thin dusting of snow, not a single footprint marring the perfect white. I think of London snow – how it’s dirty almost as soon as it has fallen, trodden underfoot by thousands. If I needed any further proof of how far we are from the city it is this, that no one has been here to step in it, let alone clear it. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. We passed through miles and miles of this wild-looking countryside on the train. I can’t remember the last time I saw a human structure before this one, let alone a person.
We walk gingerly along the frozen platform – you can see the glint of black ice through the fallen snow – past the tiny station building. It looks completely deserted. I wonder how often the ‘Waiting Room’, with its painted sign and optimistic shelf of books, gets used. Now we’re passing a small cubicle with a pane of dirty glass: a ticket booth, or tiny office. I peer in, fascinated by the idea of an office here in the middle of all this wilderness, and feel a small shock as I realise it isn’t empty. There’s actually someone sitting there, in the gloom. I can only make out the shape of him: broad-shouldered, hunched, and then the brief gleam of eyes, watching us as we pass.
‘What is it?’ Giles, in front of me, turns around. I must have made a noise of surprise.
‘There’s someone in there,’ I whisper. ‘A train guard or something – it just gave me a shock.’
Giles peers through the window. ‘You’re right.’ He pretends to tip an imaginary cap from his bald head. ‘Top o’ the morning to ya,’ he says, with a grin. Giles is the clown of our group: loveable, silly – sometimes to a fault.
‘That’s Irish, idiot,’ says Samira, affectionately. Those two do everything affectionately. I never feel more aware of my single status than when I’m in their company.
The man in the booth does not respond at first. And then, slowly, he raises one hand, a greeting of sorts.
There’s a Land Rover waiting to pick us up: splattered with mud, one of the old kind. I see the door open, and a tall man unfolds himself.
‘That must be the gamekeeper,’ Emma says. ‘The email said he’d pick us up.’
He doesn’t look like a gamekeeper, I think. What had I imagined, though? I think, mainly, I’d expected him to be old. He’s probably only about our age. There’s the bulk, I suppose: the shoulders, the height, that speak of a life lived outdoors, and the rather wild dark hair. As he welcomes us, in a low mumble, his voice has a cracked quality to it, as though it doesn’t get put to much use.
I see him look us over. I don’t think he likes what he sees. Is that a sneer, as he takes in Nick’s spotless Barbour, Samira’s Hunter wellies, Miranda’s fox fur collar? If so, who knows what he makes of my city dweller’s clothes and wheeled Samsonite. I hardly thought about what I was packing, because I was so distracted.
I see Julien, Bo and Mark try to help him with the bags, but he brushes them aside. Beside him they look as neat as schoolboys on the first day of the new term. I bet they don’t love the contrast.
‘I suppose it will have to be two lots,’ Giles says, ‘can’t get all of us in there safely.’
The gamekeeper raises his eyebrows. ‘Whatever you like.’
‘You girls go first,’ Mark says, with an attempt at chivalry, ‘us lads will stay behind.’ I wait, cringing, for him to make a joke about Nick and Bo being honorary girls. Luckily it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him – or he’s managed to hold his tongue. We’re all on our best behaviour today, in tolerant holiday-with-friends mode.
It’s been ages since we’ve all been together like this – not since last New Year’s Eve, probably. I always forget what it’s like. We fit back so quickly, so easily, into our old roles, the ones we have always occupied in this group. I’m the quiet one – to Miranda and Samira, my old housemates, the group extroverts. I revert. We all do. I’m sure Giles, say, isn’t nearly such a clown in the A&E department where he’s a senior registrar. We clamber into the Land Rover. It smells of wet dog and earth in here. I imagine that’s what the gamekeeper would smell like, too, if you got close enough. Miranda is up front, next to him. Every so often I catch a whiff of her perfume: heavy, smoky, mingling oddly with the earthiness. Only she could get away with it. I turn my head to breathe in the fresh air coming through the cracked window.
On one side of us now a rather steep bank falls away to the loch. On the other, though it’s not quite dark, the forest is already impenetrably black. The road is nothing more than a track, pitted and very thin, so a false move would send us plunging down towards the water, or crashing into the thickets. We see-saw our way along and then suddenly the brakes come on, hard. All of us are thrown forward into our seats and then slammed back into them.
‘Fuck!’ Miranda shouts, as Priya – so quiet for the journey up – begins to howl in Samira’s arms.
A stag is lit up in the track in front of us. It must have detached itself from the shadow of the trees without any of us noticing. The huge head looks almost too big for the slender reddish body, crowned by a vast bristle of antlers, both majestic and lethal-looking. In the headlights its eyes gleam a weird, alien green. Finally it stops staring at us and moves away with an unhurried grace, into the trees. I put a hand to my chest and feel the fast drumbeat of my heart.
‘Wow,’ Miranda breathes. ‘What was that?’
The gamekeeper turns to her and says, deadpan, ‘A deer.’
‘I mean,’ she says, a little flustered – unusually for her – ‘I mean, what sort of deer?’
‘Red,’ the gamekeeper says, ‘A red stag.’ He turns back to the road. Exchange over.
Miranda twists around to face us over the back of the seats, and mouths, ‘He’s hot, no?’ Samira and Emma nod their agreement. Then, aloud, she says, ‘Don’t you think so, Katie?’ She leans over and pokes me in the shoulder, a tiny bit too hard.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. I look at the gamekeeper’s impassive expression in the rear-view mirror. Has he guessed we’re talking about him? If so he gives no indication that he’s listening, but all the same, it’s embarrassing.
‘Oh, but you’ve always had strange taste in men, Katie,’ Miranda says, laughing.
Miranda has never really liked my boyfriends. The feeling has, funnily enough, generally been mutual – I’ve often had to defend her to them. ‘I think you pick them,’ she said once, ‘so that they’ll be like the angel on your shoulder, telling you: she’s not a good’un, that one. Steer clear.’ But Miranda is my oldest friend. And our friendship has always outlasted any romantic relationship – on my side, that is. Miranda and Julien have been together since Oxford.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Julien when he came on the scene, at the end of our first year. Neither was Miranda. He was a bit of an anomaly, compared to the boyfriends she’d had before. Admittedly, there were only a couple for comparison, both of them projects like me, not nearly as good-looking or as sociable as her, guys who seemed to exist in a permanent state of disbelief that they had been chosen. But then, Miranda has always liked a project.
So Julien seemed too obvious for her, with her love of waifs and strays. He was too brashly good-looking, too self-confident. And those were her words, not mine. ‘He’s so arrogant,’ she’d say. ‘I can’t wait to hand him his balls next time he tries it on.’ I wondered if she really couldn’t see how closely he mirrored her own arrogance, her own self-confidence.
Julien kept trying. And each time, she rebuffed him. He’d come over to chat to us – her – in a pub. Or he’d just happen to ‘bump into’ her after a lecture. Or he’d casually be dropping in to the bar of our college’s Junior Common Room, ostensibly to see some friends, but would spend most of the night sitting at our table, wooing Miranda with an embarrassing frankness.
Later I came to understand that when Julien wants something badly enough he won’t let anything stand in the way of his getting it. And he wanted Miranda. Badly.
Eventually, she gave in to the reality of the situation: she wanted him back. Who wouldn’t? He was beautiful then, still is, perhaps even more so now that life has roughed a little of the perfection off him, the glibness. I wonder if it would be biologically impossible not to want a man like Julien, at least in the physical sense.
I remember Miranda introducing us, at the Summer Ball – when they finally got together. I knew exactly who he was, of course. I had borne witness to the whole saga: his pursuit of Miranda, her throwing him off, him trying and trying – her, finally, giving in to the inevitable. I knew so much about him. Which college he was at, what subject he was studying, the fact that he was a rugby Blue. I knew so much that I had almost forgotten he wouldn’t have a clue who I was. So when he kissed me on the cheek and said, solemnly, ‘Nice to meet you, Katie,’ – quite politely, despite being drunk – it felt like a big joke.
The first time he stayed at our house – Miranda, Samira and I all lived together in the second year – I bumped into him coming out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist. I was so conscious of trying to be normal, not to look at the bare expanse of his chest, at his broad, well-muscled shoulders gleaming wet from the shower, that I said, ‘Hi, Julien.’
He seemed to clutch the towel a little tighter around his waist. ‘Hello.’ He frowned. ‘Ah – this is a bit embarrassing. I’m afraid I don’t know your name.’
I saw my mistake. He had completely forgotten who I was, had probably forgotten ever having met me. ‘Oh,’ I said, putting out my hand, ‘I’m Katie.’
He didn’t take my hand, and I realised that this was another mistake – too formal, too weird. Then it occurred to me it might also have been that he was keeping the towel up with that hand, clutching a toothbrush with the other.
‘Sorry.’ He smiled then, his charming smile, and took pity on me. ‘So. What did you do, Katie?’
I stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
He laughed. ‘Like the novel,’ he said. ‘What Katie Did. I always liked that book. Though I’m not sure boys are supposed to.’ For the second time he smiled that smile of his, and I suddenly thought I could see something of what Miranda saw in him.
This is the thing about people like Julien. In an American romcom someone as good-looking as him might be cast as a bastard, perhaps to be reformed, to repent of his sins later on. Miranda would be a bitchy Prom Queen, with a dark secret. The mousey nobody – me – would be the kind, clever, pitifully misunderstood character who would ultimately save the day. But real life isn’t like that. People like them don’t need to be unpleasant. Why would they make their lives difficult? They can afford to be their own spectacularly charming selves. And the ones like me, the mousey nobodies, we don’t always turn out to be the heroes of the tale. Sometimes we have our own dark secrets.
What little light there was has left the day now. You can hardly make out anything other than the black mass of trees on either side. The dark has the effect of making them look thicker, closer: almost as though they’re pressing in towards us. Other than the thrum of the Land Rover’s engine there is no noise at all; perhaps the trees muffle sound, too.
Up front, Miranda is asking the gamekeeper about access. This place is truly remote. ‘It’s an hour’s drive to the road,’ the gamekeeper tells us. ‘In good weather.’
‘An hour?’ Samira asks. She casts a nervous glance at Priya, who is staring out at the twilit landscape, the flicker of moonlight between the trees reflected in her big dark eyes.
I glance out through the back window. All I can see is a tunnel of trees, diminishing in the distance to a black point.
‘More than an hour,’ the gamekeeper says, ‘if the visibility is poor or the conditions are bad.’ Is he enjoying this?
It takes me an hour to get down to my mum’s in Surrey. That’s some sixty miles from London. It seems incredible that this place is even in the United Kingdom. I have always thought of this small island we call home as somewhat overcrowded. The way my stepdad likes to talk about immigrants, you’d think it was in very real danger of sinking beneath the weight of all the bodies squeezed onto it.
‘Sometimes,’ the gamekeeper says, ‘at this time of year, you can’t use the road at all. If there’s a dump of snow, say – it would have been in the email you got from Heather.’
Emma nods. ‘It was.’
‘What do you mean?’ Samira’s voice has an unmistakable shrillness now. ‘We won’t be able to leave?’
‘It’s possible,’ he says. ‘If we get enough snow the track becomes impassable – it’s too dangerous, even for snow tyres. We get at least a couple of weeks a year, in total, when Corrin is cut off from the rest of the world.’
‘That could be quite cosy,’ Emma says quickly, perhaps to fend off any more worried interjections from Samira. ‘Exciting. And I’ve ordered enough groceries in—’
‘And wine,’ Miranda supplies.
‘—and wine,’ Emma agrees, ‘to last us for a couple of weeks if we need it to. I probably went a bit overboard. I’ve planned a bit of a feast for New Year’s Eve.’
No one’s really listening to her. I think we’re all preoccupied by this new understanding of the place in which we’re going to spend the next few days. Because there is something unnerving about the isolation, knowing how far we are from everything.
‘What about the station?’ Miranda asks, with a sort of ‘gotcha!’ triumph. ‘Surely you could just get a train?’
The gamekeeper gives her a look. He is quite attractive, I realise. Or at least he would be, only there’s something haunted about his eyes. ‘Trains don’t run so well on a metre of snow, either,’ he says. ‘So they wouldn’t be stopping here.’
And, just like that, the landscape, for all its space, seems to shrink around us.
If it weren’t for the guests, this place would be perfect. But he supposes he wouldn’t have a job without them.
It had been everything he could do, when he picked them up, not to sneer. They reek of money, this lot – like all those who come here. As they approached the Lodge, the shorter, dark-haired man – Jethro? Joshua? – had turned to him in a man-to-man way, holding up a shiny silver phone. ‘I’m searching for the Wi-Fi,’ he said, ‘but nothing is coming up. Obviously there’s no 3G: I get that. You can’t have 3G without a signal . . . Ha! But I would have thought I’d start picking up on the Wi-Fi. Or do you have to be closer to the Lodge?’
He told the man that they didn’t turn the Wi-Fi on unless someone asked for it specifically. ‘And you can sometimes catch a signal, but you have to climb up there’ – he pointed to the slope of the Munro – ‘in order to get it.’
The man’s face had fallen. He had looked for a moment almost frightened. His wife had said, swiftly, ‘I’m sure you can survive without Wi-Fi for a few days, darling.’ And she smothered any further protest with a kiss, her tongue darting out. Doug had looked away.
The same woman, Miranda – the beautiful one – had sat up in front with him in the Land Rover, her knee angled close to his own. She had laid an unnecessary hand on his arm as she climbed into the car. He caught a gust of her perfume every time she turned to speak to him, rich and smoky. He had almost forgotten that there are women like this in the world: complex, flirtatious, the sort who have to seduce everyone they meet. Dangerous, in a very particular way. Heather is so different. Does she even wear perfume? He can’t remember noticing it. Certainly not make-up. She has the sort of looks that work better without any adornment from cosmetics. He likes her face, heart-shaped, dark-eyed, the elegant parentheses of her eyebrows. Someone who hadn’t spent time with Heather might think that there was a simplicity to her, but he suspects otherwise; that with her it is very much a case of still waters running deep. He has a vague idea that she lived in Edinburgh before, that she had a proper career there. He has not tried to find out what her story is, though. It might mean revealing too much of his own.
Heather is a good person. He is not. Before he came here, he did a terrible thing. More than one thing, actually. A person like her should be protected from someone like him.
The guests are now in Heather’s charge, for the moment – and that’s a relief. It took no small effort to conceal his dislike of them. The dark-haired man – Julien, that was the name – is typical of the people that stay here. Moneyed, spoiled, wanting wilderness, but secretly expecting the luxury of the hotels they’re used to staying in. It always takes them a while to process what they have actually signed up for, the remoteness, the simplicity, the priceless beauty of the surroundings. Often they undergo a kind of conversion, they are seduced by this place – who wouldn’t be? But he knows they don’t understand it, not properly. They think that they’re roughing it, in their beautiful cabins with their four-poster beds and replaces and underfloor heating and the fucking sauna they can trot over to if they really want to exert themselves. And the ones he takes deer- stalking act as if they’ve suddenly become DiCaprio in The Revenant, battling with nature red in tooth and claw. They don’t realise how easy he has made it for them, doing all the difficult work himself: the observation of the herd’s activities, the careful tracking and plotting . . . so that all they have to do is squeeze the bloody trigger.
Even the shooting itself they rarely get right. If they shoot badly they could cause a wound that, if left, might cause the animal to suffer for days in unimaginable pain. A misfired headshot for example (they often aim for the head even though he tells them: never go for it, too easy to miss) could cleave away the animal’s jaw and leave it alive in deepest agony, unable to eat, slowly bleeding to death. So he is there to finish it off with an expert shot, clean through the sternum, allowing them to go home boasting of themselves as hunters, as heroes. The taking of a life. The baptism in blood. Something to post on Facebook or Instagram – images of themselves smeared in gore and grinning like lunatics.
He has taken lives, many of them in fact. And not just animal. He knows better than anyone that it is not something to boast about. It is a dark place from which you can never quite return. It does something to you, the first time. An essential change somewhere deep in the soul, the amputation of something important. The first time is the worst, but with each death the soul is wounded further. After a while there is nothing left but scar tissue.
He has been here for long enough to know all the different ‘types’ of guests, has become as much of an expert in them as he is in the wildlife. But he isn’t sure which variety he hates more. The ‘into the wild’ sort, the ones who think they have in a few short days of luxury become ‘at one’ with nature. Or the other kind, the ones who just don’t get it, who think they have been tricked . . . worse, robbed. They forget what it is they booked. They find problems with everything that deviates from the sort of places they are used to staying in, with their indoor swimming pools and Michelin-starred restaurants. Usually, in Doug’s opinion, they are the ones who have the most problems with themselves. Remove all of the distractions, and here, in the silence and solitude, the demons they have kept at bay catch up with them.
For Doug, it is different. His demons are always with him, wherever he is. At least here they have space to roam. This place attracted him for a rather different reason, he suspects, than it does the guests. They come for its beauty – he comes for its hostility, the sheer brutality of its weather. It is at its most uncompromising now, in the midst of its long winter. A few weeks ago, up on the Munro, he saw a fox slinking through the snow, the desiccated carcass of some small creature clamped in its jaws. Its fur was thin and scabrous, its ribs showing. When it spotted him it did not bolt immediately. There was a moment when it stared back at him, hostile, challenging him to try to take its feast. He felt a kinship with it, a stronger sense of identification than he has had with any human, at least for a long time. Surviving, existing – just. Not living. That is a word for those who seek entertainment, pleasure, comfort out of each day.
He was lucky to get this job, he knows that. Not just because it suits him, his frame of mind, his desire to be as far from the rest of humanity as possible. But also because it is very likely that no one else would have had him. Not with his past. The man sent to interview him by the boss had seen the line on his record, shrugged, and said, ‘Well, we definitely know you’ll be good for dealing with any poachers, then. Just try not to attack any of the guests.’ And then he had grinned, to show that he was joking. ‘I think you’ll be perfect for the job, actually.’
That had been it. He hadn’t even had to try to excuse or explain himself – though there was no excuse, not really. A moment of violent madness? Not really: he had known exactly what he was doing.
When he thinks about that night, now, hardly any of it seems real. It seems like something glimpsed on the TV, as though he were watching his own actions from a long way away. But he remembers the anger, the punch of it in his chest, and then the brief release. That stupid, grinning face. Then the sound of something shattering. Inside his own mind? The sense of feeling himself unshackled from the codes of normal behaviour and loosed into some animal space. The feel of his fingers, gripping tightly about yielding flesh. Tighter, tighter, as though the flesh was something he was trying to mould with sheer brute force into a new, more pleasing shape. The smile finally wiped away. Then that warped sense of satisfaction, lasting for several moments before the shame arrived.
Yes, it would have been difficult to get a job doing much of anything after that.
2nd January 2019
A body. I stare at Doug.
No, no. This isn’t right. Not here. This is my refuge, my escape. I can’t be expected to deal with this, I can’t, I just can’t . . . With an effort of will, I stopper the flood of thoughts. You can, Heather. Because, actually, you don’t have a choice.
Of course I had known it was a possibility. Very likely, even, considering the length of time missing – over twenty-four hours – and the conditions out there. They would be a challenge even to someone who knew the terrain, who had any sort of survival skills. The missing guest, as far as I know, had nothing of the sort. As the hours went by, with no sign, the probability became greater.
As soon as we knew of the disappearance we had called Mountain Rescue. The response hadn’t been quite what I’d hoped for.
‘At the moment,’ the operator told me, ‘it’s looking unlikely we can get to you at all.’
‘But there must be some way you can get here—’
‘Conditions are too difficult. We’ve haven’t seen anything like this amount of snow for a long time. It’s a one-in-a-thousand weather event. Visibility is so poor we can’t even land a chopper.’
‘Are you saying that we’re on our own?’ As I said it I felt the full meaning of it. No help. I felt my stomach turn over.
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. I could almost hear her thinking of the best way to respond to me. ‘Only as long as the snow continues like this,’ she said at last. ‘Soon as we have some visibility, we’ll try and get out to you.’
‘I need a bit more than “try”,’ I said.
‘I hear you madam, and we’ll get to you as soon as we are able. There are other people in the same situation: we have a whole team of climbers stuck on Ben Nevis, and another situation nearer Fort William. If you could just describe exactly your problem, madam, so I have all the details down.’
‘The guest was last seen at the Lodge, here,’ I said, ‘at . . . about four a.m. yesterday morning.’
‘And how big is the area?’
‘The estate?’ I groped for the figure learned in my first few weeks here. ‘A little over fifty thousand acres.’
I heard her intake of breath in my ear. Then there was another long pause on the end of the line, so long that I almost wondered if it had gone dead, whether the snow had cut off this last connection to the outside world.
‘Right,’ she said, finally. ‘Fifty thousand acres. Well. We’ll get someone out there as soon as we can.’ But her tone had changed: there was more uncertainty. I could hear a question as clearly as if she had spoken it aloud: Even if we get to you, how can we be certain of finding someone in all that wilderness?
For the past twenty-four hours we have searched as far as we can. It hasn’t been easy, with the snow coming down like this, relentlessly. I’ve only been here a year, so I’ve never actually experienced a snow-in. We must be one of the few places in the UK – bar a few barely inhabited islands – where inclement weather can completely prohibit the access of the emergency services. We always warn the guests that they might not be able to leave the estate if conditions are bad. It’s even in the waiver they have to sign. And yet it is still hard to process, the fact that no one can get in. Or out. But that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in now. Everything is clogged with snow, meaning driving’s impossible – even with winter tyres, or chains – so our search has all been done on foot. It has just been Doug and me. I am beyond exhausted – both mentally and physically. We don’t even have Iain, who comes most days to perform odd jobs about the place. He’ll have been spending New Year’s Eve with his family: stuck outside with the rest of them, no use to us. The Mountain Rescue woman was at least some help with her advice. She suggested checking first the sites that could have been used for shelter. Doug and I searched every potential hideout on the estate, the cold stinging our faces and the snow hampering our progress at every turn, until I was so tired I felt drunk.
I trudged the whole way to the station, which took me a good three hours, and checked there. Apparently there had been some talk amongst the guests of getting a train back to London.
‘One of the guests has gone missing,’ I told the station master, Alec. He’s a hulk of a man with a saturnine face: low eyebrows. ‘We’re looking all over the estate.’ I gave him a description of the missing guest.
‘They couldn’t have got on a train?’ I knew it was ridiculous, but felt it had to be asked.
He laughed in my face. ‘A train? In this? Are you mad, lass? Even if it weren’t like this, there’s no trains on New Year’s Day.’
‘But perhaps you saw something—’
‘Haven’t seen anyone,’ he told me. ‘Not since I saw that lot arrive a couple a days ago. No. Woulda noticed if there were a stranger pokin’ about.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘perhaps I could have a look around?’
He spread his hands wide, a sarcastic invitation. ‘Be ma guest.’
There wasn’t much to search: the waiting room, a single caretaker’s closet that appeared at one point to have been a toilet. And the ticket office I could see into through the window: a small, paper-strewn cubicle from which, through the money and ticket gap, came the scent of something sweetish, slightly rotten. Three crushed cans of soda decorated one corner of the desk. I saw Iain in there once with Alec, having a smoke. Iain often takes the train to collect supplies; they must have struck up something of a friendship, even if only of convenience.
Just beyond the office was a door. I opened it to discover a flight of stairs. ‘That,’ Alec said, ‘leads up to ma at. Ma private residence’ – with a little flourish on ‘residence’.
‘I don’t suppose—’ I began. He cut me off.
‘Two rooms,’ he said. ‘And a lavvy. Ah think Ah’d know if someone were hidin’ themselves away in there.’ His voice had got a little louder, and he’d moved between me and the doorway. He was too close; I could smell stale sweat.
‘Yes,’ I said, suddenly eager to leave. ‘Of course.’
As I began my tortuous journey back towards the Lodge I turned, once, and saw him standing there, watching me leave.
Doug and I found nothing, in all the hours of searching. Not a footprint, not a strand of hair. The only tracks we came across were the small sharp impressions left by the hooves of the deer herd. The guest, it seemed, had not been active since the snow started coming down.
There’s CCTV in one place on the estate: the front gate, where the long track from the Lodge heads towards the road. The boss had it put up to both deter and catch poachers. Sometimes, frustratingly, the feed cuts out. But the whole lot was there to watch this time: from the evening before – New Year’s Eve – to yesterday, New Year’s Day, when the guest was reported missing. I fast-forwarded through the grainy footage, looking for any sign of a vehicle. If the guest had somehow left by taxi – or even on foot – the evidence would be here. There was nothing. All it showed me was a documentation of the beginning of this heavy snowfall, as on the screen the track became obliterated by a sea of white.
Perhaps a body had begun to seem like a possibility. But the confirmation of that is something so much worse.
Doug pushes a hand through his hair, which has fallen, snow-wet, into his eyes. As he does, I see that his hand – his arm, the whole of him – is trembling. It is a strange thing to see a man as tough-looking as Doug, built like a rugby player, in such a state. He used to be in the Marines, so he must have seen his fair share of death. But then so did I, in my old line of work. I know that it never quite leaves you, the existential horror of it. Besides, being the one to find a dead person – that is something else completely.
‘I think you should come and take a look too,’ he says. ‘At the body.’
‘Do you think that’s necessary?’ I don’t want it to be necessary. I don’t want to see. I have come all this way to escape death. ‘Shouldn’t we just wait for the police to get here?’
‘No,’ he says, ‘They’re not going to be able to make it for a while, are they? And I think you need to see this now.’
‘Why?’ I ask. I can hear how it sounds: plaintive, squeamish.
‘Because,’ he draws a hand over his face; the gesture tugs his eye sockets down in a ghoulish mask. ‘Because . . . of the body. How it looks. I don’t think it was an accident.’
I feel my skin go cold in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the weather.
When we step outside, the snow is still coming down so thickly that you can only see a few feet from the door. The loch is almost invisible. I have shrugged on the clothes that are my de facto outdoor uniform in this place: the big, down Michelin-man jacket, my hiking boots, my red hat. I tramp after Doug, trying to keep up with his long stride, which isn’t easy, because he’s well over six foot, and I’m only a whisker over five. At one point I stumble; Doug shoots out a big, gloved hand to catch my arm, and hefts me back onto my feet as easily as if I were a child. Even through the down of my sleeve I can feel the strength of his fingers, like iron bands.
I’m thinking of the guests, stuck in their cabins. The inactivity must be horrible, the waiting. We had to forbid them from joining us in the search, or risk having another missing person on our hands. No one should be out in these conditions. It is the sort of weather that people die in: ‘danger to life’, the warnings say. But the problem is that to most of the guests, a place like this is as alien as another planet. These are people who live charmed existences. Life has helped them to feel untouchable. They’re so used to having that invisible safety net around them in their normal lives – connectivity, rapid emergency services, health and safety guidelines – that they assume they carry it around with them everywhere. They sign the waiver happily, because they don’t really think about it. They don’t believe in it. They do not expect the worst to happen to them. If they really stopped to consider it, to understand it, they probably wouldn’t stay here at all. They’d be too scared. When you learn how isolated an environment this really is, you realise that only freaks would choose to live in a place like this. People running from something, or with nothing left to lose. People like me.
Now Doug is leading me around to the left shore of the loch, towards the trees.
‘Doug?’ I realise that I am whispering. It’s the silence here, made more profound by the snow. It makes your voice very loud. It makes you feel as though you are under observation. That just behind that thick wall of trees, perhaps, or this pervasive curtain of white, there might be someone listening. ‘What makes you think it wasn’t an accident?’
‘You’ll see when we get there,’ he says. He does not bother turning back to look at me, nor does he break his stride. And then he says, over his shoulder, ‘I don’t “think”, Heather. I know.’
Three days earlier
30th December 2018
Of course, I didn’t bother looking at the email Emma sent, with that brochure attached. I can never get excited about a trip in advance – just seeing photos of turquoise seas or snow-capped mountains doesn’t interest me. I have to actually be there to feel anything, for it to be real. When Emma mentioned this place, the Lodge, I’d vaguely imagined something old-timey, wooden beams and flagstones. So the building itself comes as a bit of a surprise. Fucking hell. It’s all modernist glass and chrome, like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Light spills from it. It’s like a giant lantern against the darkness.
‘Christ!’ Julien says, when the blokes finally arrive in the Land Rover. ‘It’s a bit hideous, isn’t it?’ He would say that. For all his intelligence, Julien has zero artistic sensibility. He’s the sort of person who’ll walk around a Cy Twombly exhibition saying, ‘I could have drawn that when I was five,’ just a bit too loudly. He likes to claim it’s because he’s a ‘bit of rough’: his background too grim for anything like the development of aesthetic tastes. I used to find it charming. He was different: I liked that roughness, beside all those clean-behind-the-ears public schoolboys.
‘I like it,’ I say. I do. It’s like a spaceship has just touched down on the bank of the loch.
‘So do I,’ Emma says. She would say that – even if she really thinks it’s hideous. Sometimes I find myself testing her, saying the most outrageous things, almost goading her to challenge me. She never does – she’s so keen just to be accepted. All the same, she’s reliable – and Katie and Samira have been AWOL of late. Emma’s always up for going to the cinema, or a trip shopping, or drinks. I always suggest the venue, or the activity, she always agrees. To be honest, it’s quite refreshing: Katie’s so bloody busy with work it’s always been me going to her, to some lousy identikit city slicker bar, just to grab three minutes of her time.
With Emma it’s a bit what I imagine having a little sister would be like. I feel almost as though she is looking up to me. It gives me a rather delicious sense of power. Last time we went shopping I took her into Myla. ‘Let’s pick out something that will really make Mark’s jaw fall open,’ I told her. We found exactly the right set – a sweetly slutty bra, open knickers and suspender combo. I suddenly had an image of her telling Mark that it was me who helped to pick it out, and I felt an unexpected prickle of desire at the thought of him knowing that it was all my work. It’s not Mark, of course, never has been. I’ve always found his unspoken attraction nicely ego-stroking, yes. But never a turn-on.
With Katie absent and Samira busy all the time with Priya – she is a bit obsessed with that child, it can’t be healthy to share quite so many photos on social media – I have found myself falling back on Emma’s company instead. A de nite third choice.
I have been looking forward to this, to catching up with everyone. There’s a security to it, how when we’re together we fall back into our old roles. We can have been apart for months, and then when we’re in each other’s company everything is back to how it always was, almost like it was when we were at Oxford, our glory days. The person I most want to catch up with is Katie, of course. Seeing her this morning at the train station with her new hair, in clothes I didn’t recognise, I realised quite how long it’s been since I last saw her . . . and how much I have missed her.
Inside the Lodge, it’s beautiful – but I’m glad we’re only going to be having meals in here, not sleeping. The glass emphasises the contrast between the bright space in here and the dark outside. I’m suddenly aware of how visible we would be from outside, lit up like insects in a jar . . . or actors on a stage, blinded by the floodlights to the watching audience. Anyone could be out there, hidden in the blackness, looking in without our knowing.
For a moment the old dark feeling threatens to surface, that sense of being watched. The feeling I have carried with me for a decade, now, since it all began. I remind myself that the whole point is that there is no one out there. That we are pretty much completely alone; save for the gamekeeper and the manager – Heather – who’s come in to welcome us.
Heather is early-thirties, short, prettyish – though a decent haircut and some make-up would make a vast improvement. I wonder what on earth someone like her is doing living alone in a place like this; because she does actually live here – she tells us that her cottage is ‘just over there, a little nearer to the trees’. To be here permanently must be pretty bloody lonely. I would go completely mental with only my thoughts for company. Sometimes, on days at home, I turn on the TV and the radio, just to drown out the silence.
‘And you,’ she says to us, ‘have all of the cabins nearest to the Lodge. The other guests are staying in the bunkhouse at the other end of the loch.’
‘The other guests?’ Emma asks. There is a taut silence. ‘What other guests?’
Heather nods. ‘Yes. An Icelandic couple – they arrived yesterday.’
Emma frowns. ‘But I don’t understand. I was certain we had the place to ourselves. That was what you told me, when we spoke. “You should have the whole place to yourselves”, you said.’
Heather coughs. ‘I’m afraid there has been a . . . slight misunderstanding. I did understand that to be the case, when we spoke. We don’t always rent out the bunkhouse. But I’m afraid I was unaware that my colleague had booked them in and – ah – hadn’t yet got around to filling it out in the register.’
The mood has definitely been killed. Just the phrase ‘the other guests’ has an unpleasant ring to it, a sense of infiltration, of trespass. If we were in a hotel, that would be one thing, you’d expect to be surrounded by strangers. But the idea of these other people here in the middle of nowhere with us suddenly makes all this wilderness seem a little overcrowded.
‘They’ll be at the Highland Dinner tonight,’ Heather says, apologetically, ‘but the bunkhouse has its own kitchen, so otherwise they won’t be using the Lodge at all.’
‘Thank God,’ Giles says.
Emma looks as cross as I have ever seen her, her hands are clenched into tight fists at her sides, the knucklebones white through the skin.
There’s a sudden Bang! behind us. Everyone turns, to see Julien, holding a just-opened bottle of champagne, vapour rising from the neck like smoke.
‘Thought this would liven up the gloom a bit,’ he says. The liquid foams out of the top of the bottle and splashes onto the carpet by his feet: Bo holds out a glass to rescue some. ‘Hey, who knows . . . maybe the other guests will be fun. Maybe they’ll want to come and celebrate New Year’s Eve with us tomorrow.’
I can’t think of anything worse than some randoms coming and spoiling our party; I’m sure Julien can’t, either. But this is his Mr-Nice-Guy act. He always wants so badly to be liked, to seem fun, for other people to think well of him. I suppose that is one of the things I fell in love with.
Heather has helped Emma bring glasses from the kitchen. The others take them, smiling again, drawn by the sense of occasion that has just been created by the champagne. I feel a rush of warmth. It’s so good to see them again. It has been too long. It’s so special, these days, all being together like this. Samira and Katie are either side of me. I hug them to me. ‘The three musketeers,’ I whisper. The innermost ring of the inner circle. I don’t even mind when I hear Samira swear, softly – my hug has jolted her into spilling a little champagne on her shirt.
I see that Julien’s offering Heather a glass, even though you can tell she doesn’t want one. For goodness’ sake. We had a tiny bit of a disagreement over the champagne yesterday, in the vintner’s. Twelve bottles of Dom Pérignon: over a grand’s worth of champagne. ‘Why couldn’t you just have got Moët,’ I asked him, ‘like a normal person?’
‘Because you would have complained. Last time you told me it gave you a headache, because of “all the sugar” added in the standard brands. Only the nest stuff for Miranda Adams.’
Talk about pot calling bloody kettle black. It always has to be a bit extra with him, that’s the thing. A bit more extravagance, a bit more cash. A hunger to have more than his fair share . . . and his job hasn’t helped with that. If in doubt, throw money at it: that is Julien’s go-to solution. Fine . . . mine too, if I’m being completely honest. I often like to joke that we bring out the worst in each other. But it’s probably truer than I let on.
I let him buy the bloody champagne. I know how much he wants to forget the stress of this year.
As I expected, the woman, Heather, isn’t drinking it. She’s taken one tiny sip, to be polite, and put it back down on the tray. I imagine she thinks it’s unprofessional to have more than that, and she’s right. So, thanks to Julien’s ‘generosity’ we’re going to be left with a wasted glass, tainted by this stranger’s spit.
Heather runs us through arrangements for the weekend. We’re going deer-stalking tomorrow: ‘Doug will be taking you, he’ll come and collect you early in the morning.’
Doug. I’m rather fascinated by him. I could tell he didn’t like us much. I could also tell that I made him uncomfortable. That knowledge is a kind of power.
Giles is asking Heather something about walking routes now. She takes out an OS map and spreads it across the coffee table.
‘You have lots of options,’ she’s saying. ‘It really depends on what you’re looking for – and what sort of equipment you’ve brought. Some people have arrived with all the gear: ice picks, crampons and carabiners.’
‘Er, I’m not sure that’s really us,’ Bo says, grinning. Too bloody right.
‘Well, if you want something very sedate, there’s the path around the loch, of course’ – she traces it on the map with a finger – ‘it’s a few miles, completely at. There are a few waterfalls – but they have sturdy bridges over them, so there’s nothing to tax you too much. You could practically do it in the dark. At the other end of the scale you’ve got the Munro, which you may be interested in if you’re planning on “bagging” one.’
‘What do you mean?’ Julien asks.
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘like a trophy, I suppose. That’s what it’s called when you climb one. You claim it.’
‘Oh yes,’ he says, with a quick grin. ‘Of course – maybe I did know that.’ No, he didn’t. But Julien doesn’t like to be shown up. Even if he has no artistic sensibilities to speak of, appearances are important to my husband. The face you present to the world. What other people think of you. I know that better than anyone.
‘Or,’ she says, ‘you could do something in the middle. There’s the hike up to the Old Lodge, for example.’
‘The Old Lodge?’ Bo asks.
‘Yes. The original lodge burned down just under a century ago. Almost everything went. So not a great deal to see, but it makes a good point to aim for, and there are fantastic views over the estate.’
‘Can’t imagine anyone survived that?’ Giles says.
‘No,’ she says. ‘Twenty-four people died. No one survived apart from a couple of the stable hands, who slept in the stable block with the animals. One of the old stable blocks is still there, but it’s probably not structurally sound: you shouldn’t go too near it.’
‘And no one knows what started it?’ Bo asks. We’re all ghoulishly interested – you could hear a pin drop in here – but he looks genuinely alarmed, his glance flitting to the roaring log fire in the grate. He’s such a city boy. I bet the nearest Bo normally gets to a real fire is a flaming sambuca shot.
‘No,’ Heather says. ‘We don’t know. Perhaps a fire left unattended in one of the grates. But there is a theory . . .’ Heather pauses, as if not sure she should continue, then goes on. ‘There’s a theory that one of the staff, a gamekeeper, was so damaged by his experiences in the war that he set fire to the building on purpose. A kind of murder– suicide. They say the fire could be seen as far away as Fort William. It took more than a day for help to come . . . by which time it was too late.’
‘That’s fucked-up,’ Mark says, and grins.
I notice that Heather does not look impressed by Mark’s grin. She’s probably wondering how on earth someone could be amused by the idea of two dozen people burning to death. You have to know Mark pretty well to understand that he has a fairly dark – but on the whole harmless – sense of humour. You learn to forgive him for it. Just like we’ve all learned that Giles – while he likes to seem like Mr Easy-going – can be a bit tight when it comes to buying the next round . . . and not to speak to Bo until he’s had at least two cups of coffee in the morning. Or how Samira, all sweetness and light on the surface, can hold a grudge like no one else. That’s the thing about old friends. You just know these things about them. You have learned to love them. This is the glue that binds us together. It’s like family, I suppose. All that history. We know everything there is to know about one another.
Heather pulls a clipboard from under her arm, all business, suddenly. ‘Which one of you is Emma Taylor? I’ve got your credit card down as the one that paid the deposit.’
‘That’s me.’ Emma raises a hand.
‘Great. You should find all the ingredients you’ve asked for in the fridge. I have the list here. Beef fillet, unshucked oysters – Iain got them from Mallaig this morning – smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, caviar, endive, Roquefort, walnuts, one hundred per cent chocolate, eighty five per cent chocolate, quails’ eggs’– she pauses to take a breath – ‘double cream, potatoes, on-vine tomatoes . . .’
Christ. My own secret contribution to proceedings suddenly looks rather meagre. I try to catch Katie’s eye to share an amused look. But I haven’t seen her for so long that I suppose we’re a bit out of sync. She’s just staring out of the big windows, apparently lost in thought.