Stan McWilliams is a Donegal-based writer, with roots in Co Antrim. A parent of three grown children, a farmer, and wind farmer, his writing takes inspiration from a rural environment, his Antrim and Leitrim roots, and a wide range of life experiences across the globe. After a career, encompassing engineering, teaching, and farming, Stan started creative writing in 2019 and has produced a series of short stories, a mixture of memoir, family-related tales, and fiction. His work has been published in the Leitrim Guardian, in Fingerpost, in the Ulster-Scots publication Yarns, and he has contributed a number of readings at a Tenx9 events. He was awarded the Leonard Perpetual Literary Trophy by the Leitrim Guardian for 2022. Recently he was awarded a bursary to the John Hewitt Summer School 2022. He has undertaken a number of writing courses including with IWC, and with Curtis Brown Creative in June 2022. He contributed to the Blood Sunday 50th Community Writing Archive. Drafts of the stories are in his regular blog https://thecurlewscall.home.blog/ He is a member of the Derry writing group “This writing thing …”.
Walking the goat track
By Stan McWilliams
Leaving the heady expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that wraps the Donegal coast and the flat rock of Tory Island stranded on the northern horizon, I was exhilarated coming down the steep slopes of Errigal mountain. My steps were confident on the loose gravel path, my head clear and refreshed, just what I needed. It was a beautiful morning, a blue sky deepening as the sun reached its late summer zenith. I thought I was alone on the mountain that day when I surprised Peter on his way up, having his lunch behind a large boulder.
A few years ago, I arrived in Dublin to take a Master’s in English at Trinity College, loved the city and stayed. Afterwards, I worked for a large social media company, managing several teams that moderated their content. I saw the worst of it. It’s hard to believe what some people post. Ireland’s wild places became my refuge where I walked as often as I could. John, my boyfriend from the North, warned me that I would suffer if I stayed. But the salary was very good and there was a certain excitement, feeling you worked at the cutting edge of media. And I loved the city’s lifestyle, even with the chaotic onset of the Covid pandemic.
There was something unusual about Peter, not physically, well yes, he did have an impairment, I could see that. He wasn’t frail for the seventy years I guessed he was, in fact, the opposite, he had a big strong frame, topped with a shock of white hair that struggled out under his beanie. No, it was more that he looked out of place. He had good boots and a jacket, but something told me he wasn’t a regular walker, that perhaps he was on some mission or pilgrimage. I got a feeling that I shouldn’t ask. John would have said, ‘There’s a thran look about him’. Perhaps it was the dark rings about his eyes and the hint of a scowl that made me wary. But once or twice when he smiled at something I said, he was transformed, matching the brightness of the day.
I had my lunch with him. Maybe it was his age, reminding me of my father who I had recently lost, so far away in Bangalore, a daughter feeling protective. When he stood up to go, I saw the weakness in one leg and his need of a stick. We had arranged to meet up later and exchanged mobile numbers. And so, off he went, slowly upwards on the white path, raising his arm and stick against the blue sky in a final salute, and me back to the car, a walk on Bunbeg beach later that afternoon.
As I write this, a year and a half later, I’m back to full health. I should have listened to John and resigned before I took ill. We are married now and living in a small mid-Antrim town. From our house there is a clear view of Slemish mountain, and I’ve walked to its flat peak a number of times. I’m enthralled by its history, particularly its connection to the young slave boy who would later become St Patrick. During my recovery I picked up the strands of Peter’s life, twisted as they were, and to that day on Errigal, him marking the fiftieth anniversary of a fateful night.
Peter escaped Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 lockdowns and drove west across the border to Errigal mountain in the west of Donegal. From the two cars parked at the roadside, he had crossed the wet and boggy lower slopes of the mountain, tricky for anyone, more so for him an elderly man with a weak leg. Now on the drier slopes of the quartzite mountain with its tapering peak, he rested, leaning on his stick before moving slowly on. He followed a network of worn paths on the increasing slope. As a skylark sang somewhere overhead, Peter focused, not on the climb or distance to the summit, but on the next step, and the one after.
Nearly an hour later he needed to stop and found a sheltered spot behind a large rock for an early lunch, the stark upper slopes of the mountain visible just ahead. He was eating his way through a fat supermarket sandwich when he heard the crunch of gravel on the path above him, and a young woman appeared. He sat up in surprise. Dark-skinned, possibly Indian, he thought. They greeted each other, he curt, with a soft mid-Antrim accent and she with a light unusual cadence slipping out over perfect English, an accent he felt confirmed his hunch.
“We must be the only two on the mountain today,” she said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“No,” said Peter, forcing a weak smile, seeing her gear that looked new, everything appropriate to the mountain. He wiped crumbs off his thin everyday trousers.
They ate in silence for a while, as he expected her partner to arrive at any moment. But to his surprise they slipped easily into conversation. She was from southern India and had been in Dublin for three years and was now on a few day’s break, on her own. He was on a day’s walk, having driven from his home across the border in County Antrim.
“Saavani. Saavani Reddy from Bangalore,” she offered with a broad smile.
“Peter Wright from Ballymore in County Antrim,” he returned, reminding himself to smile and taking Saavani’s head bobble as an affirmation.
“Would you mind doing me a favour?” he asked having finished his sandwich. “I forgot to text my daughter to tell her where I am. My hands are too cold up here.” He held out his phone, but she used hers to text the message, as he rhymed off his daughter’s number.
“If she asks whose phone this is, just say I’m walking with a friend. If you don’t mind.”
“Done!” she said as the message and reply are sent at a speed he cannot comprehend. “Are you staying in Gweedore?”
“I am. In Bunbeg,” he decided.
“Maybe we can meet later, for dinner?”
“I’ll be at An Dorus Dearg, if I’ve pronounced that right,” although he seldom took up such offers.
“So, let’s have your number?”
He rose awkwardly to leave, aware she was observing him.
“Will you be alright up there?” Saavani asked. In the past he would have reacted angrily, feeling an unwanted intrusion and sympathy, but he has learned to let it go, to breathe slowly in and out.
“Yes. I walk the hills regularly,” Once a year, he thought, and this is a tough one.
“It’s steep from here on up. When you get to the top, there’s a short path, like a goat track, to a second peak, you should probably give it a miss.”
“I will. See you later.”
“An Dorus Dearg at eight. You take care.” She watched him until he had disappeared behind the boulder.
Fifty years previous, a day after finishing their last school exams, Peter and Aileen walked up Slemish mountain under a full moon; to mark an end and a beginning. Cutting the car’s headlights at the end of a rough track swelled the beauty of the silvered landscape, the air warm with days of full sunshine. They stared at the broad textured mountain ahead, like a sleeping giant turtle, where the slave Patrick herded pigs staring at the same moon.
Peter took the rucksack from the back seat, threw it over his shoulder and locked the car. Aileen led the way knowing the route. Over a final gate, a curlew called somewhere ahead, they stopped and kissed. The moonlight walk was a simple one, yet dreamlike, as if their boots floated over the bone-dry ground.
On the summit they stood arms around each other’s waists facing the distant lights of the town, Lough Neagh a thin mirror far off, behind them the southern edge of the Antrim Hills dropping away in darkness to the Irish Sea.
“It’s so simple, so peaceful, from here.” Aileen says with a sigh, “You and I, opposites they say, yet together under this soft blanket of stars. And down there, creeping fear and death.”
“You have a way of weaving words,” he said softly touching her cheek. “Maybe one day I’ll find a way to make something beautiful with numbers. It’ll be away from here.”
“A month and we’ll be gone. Different places, different lives.” She said, her hand drawing Peter’s mouth to hers. A snipe drummed somewhere below them, its haunting thrum. They opened a half-bottle of whiskey, raising small cups to the full moon.
“To love and life!” The first mouthful rasping their throats, on the second feeling the warming glow.
Lying on a rug under an irradiant moonlight that might have scorched, they drank some more and made love. It was passionate, confused, and short. Afterwards, they lay tangled, wrapped in the blanket. A meteor streaked overhead and died in the silky blackness. The landscape dulled a little as a light layer of high cloud covered the moon. A chill breeze woke them, awkward and exhilarated. It was well after midnight when they packed up the blanket and the unfinished whiskey and made their way off the top.
Missing their upward route, they scrambled over some steep rock. One of them slipped, reaching out for the other. Hands gripped, they fell the short distance onto a scattering of rocks. Aileen was briefly unconscious though she soon came round but was unable to stand. He injured his right ankle, thinking it badly sprained. After making her comfortable, Peter hobbled towards a farmhouse near their parked car, where the tenor of the night changed dramatically.
Both had life-changing injuries. The virtuous folk of the town, of which there were many, including his own family, condemned the stories of alcohol and sex, imagined full-moon debauchery on the mountaintop. They ‘Tut Tut’ at coarse jokes that circulated in the town; whispered, ‘Sinners marked for life.’ Aileen had a minor brain injury that affected her balance. During the months of rehabilitation, she refused to accept the impact of the accident, making her a difficult patient. When she realised the reality of her future with the limitations of permanent impairment, a disability, the twenty-year-old became angry, then deflated and depressed. She heard the consultant’s sympathetic words that were intended to encourage, ‘You can still lead a full life,’ as a prison sentence. When Peter visited her in the rehab ward she raged at him for their stupidity, blaming herself for the accident. Neither family made contact with the other, each keeping their distance as cross-community feelings tightened in an atmosphere of growing strife and violence.
“This place takes you down when you reach too high. When you think you can outwit the past, get away from it, you get punished.”
“We’ve put our courses off for the year, that’s all. We’ll start again next year. You’ll recover.”
“No! Where can I go? What can I do? I’m disabled for life. Ruined!” she spat at him, Peter’s optimism rising her anger. He thought of their night at the top of Slemish and fell silent looking at her until she screwed up her face at him. He left feeling he had been spilled over a waterfall and was tumbling in the spume, lost.
A month after the accident and still limping, Peter’s ankle turned out to be broken. It was then badly set, and six months later it had to be broken again and reset. The result was a weakened ankle joint and a permanent limp. Now it was his turn to rage against Providence. His family supported him saying there were plenty of opportunities, a place in the family accountancy business among others, and that God had a plan for him. Like Aileen, this made the young man angry, but unlike her, his anger had nowhere to go; an upbringing in his Christian family found no place for such feelings. But anger will eventually find a way out. For Peter it smouldered, turning against his family, his community, haunting much of his life.
A year later, Peter took up his course at Manchester University easily completing the three-year course in accountancy. His student life was uneventful: brief relationships, a few repeated exams, a summer working abroad with friends, weekend trips to Liverpool’s clubs and bars. But his limp was an ever-present reminder of that moonlight night with Aileen, the memory ever swamped by his heaving resentment against his homeplace and community. He didn’t attend his graduation and left college with no lasting friendships.
After working in Birmingham for two years, he returned home to take over the family practice on his father’s retirement. Ignoring all advice, he dropped long-time clients, many with links to his father’s church, preferring more challenging ones; the near-bankrupt, women twisted out of inheritance or wealth, men with dubious or terrorist reputations. Loyal staff soon had enough of the daily testy exchanges with the upstart and resigned. He hired new ones. He had an aptitude for law, enjoyed thwarting the family’s brass nameplate while there was still money in the account. The business thrived. When Peter’s father realised what was happening, he tried to wrestle back control, but to no avail. Peter was wily in using all the legal avenues to retain full ownership. In the middle of this unseemly family dispute, father and son at loggerheads, his father died.
Aileen remained at home and after some years of rehabilitation and education, took up a job in the Civil Service in a nearby town. She remained living in her family home and never married. Peter met her a few times after starting college, but these events were full of rancour, and they soon lost touch. Something in her had changed, he often mused, some vital spark had gone out. Peter continued to revere the memory of that night on Slemish mountain and began a series of solitary summer walks. They were intended as a memorial but only served to stoke his smouldering anger against the community he felt had turned on them.
Over the following years, Peter took little care of his personal or social life; bristled at charitable sympathy or expressions of kindness. He scorned religious affiliation and repelled attempts by various churches to reach him. His moral compass, he believed, was free from the threat of eternal damnation; his life a personal struggle against the vagaries of fate. Peter lived through two broken marriages, leaving bitterness and one daughter. After his second divorce, he inherited a farm on the edge of town. On a ten-acre plot, there was a house and a number of red-painted barns and sheds. The latter had been rented for many years previous to a motor mechanic. While the yard in front of the house was clear, everywhere else was crammed with broken or dismantled cars and machinery. Surrounding this confusion, were the farm’s fields, rented on a long-to a neighbouring farmer, and bounding the fields on three sides, like walls, were red-bricked housing estates with their tall leylandii hedges: the edge of the town’s creeping expansion. He kept all existing arrangements in place, and as soon as probate was complete, he moved in.
Now in his sixties and thinking of retirement, Peter sold the practice in the town and worked from the farmhouse. He turned away most clients who tried to follow him, and was now even more choosy, favouring the desperate: illiterate farmers, those hounded by officialdom, or those whose habit of burning all brown envelopes had reached the stage of an imminent prison sentence. He discovered ‘the mechanic’, John, was actually, a family of mechanics; most likely some of them are living back there, he was not sure. They fixed anything that moved, and much that did not. They could make you a stockcar or repair your boat. Peter liked to know they are out there, to hear the odd screaming rev of an engine or the bark of their big Alsatian guard dog. Occasionally they chatted over mugs of tea in dirty cups sitting on their workshop sofa, made from the leather back seat of some scrapped high-end car. The boys, naturally, would fix his car, while he took care of their accounts.
He had a few friends. They were considered by the town as being like himself, odd, cranky, aberrant. A woman-friend cooked for him a few days each week or brought in dinner which they ate together. He took her on regular excursions to places like Fair Head or Malin Head, empty extremities with a windy purity, referring to nothing but themselves. Each appreciated the companionship yet expected little from the other. When fire gutted her house, she and her cats moved in with him. They shared his bed, but neither had any intention of making it permanent. His daughter saw him once a week, she was thoughtful and had come around to make no comment on his lifestyle. He could now take this as a quiet affirmation.
The summit was open, stunning blue and vertiginous. A tang off the wind was sharper than other hills he had walked; Errigal, a challenge to mark the anniversary. Between bouts of effort and concentration on the upper rocky slopes, he caught glimpses of the coast far below. He took time to recover, finally easing himself straight and breathing deeply. The strain of the climb began to fall away and with it the struggles of the years, the anger and resentment. His eyes closed and tears fell, taken by the wind.
There was a small path, the goat track, across to a second summit some forty metres away at about the same level. He considered it briefly and invigorated by his achievement stepped onto the path, its gravelly edges dropping off sharply. He felt exposed but confident, moving slowly and using his stick when he needed to.
When he reached the peak, he sat with his back to the westerly wind and the sea, feeling the sharpness of the rock beneath him. He took out the remainder of his sandwich. The wind snapped the wrapping away before he could react, his eyes following its dizzying path. Pulling up the hood of his jacket against a chilling breeze he finished the sandwich and reached into a pocket for a small hip flask. Opening the cap and filling it carefully with the golden liquid, he raised it to the sky.
“To life, to love,” the words smothered on the wind. He took a drink, letting the whiskey slowly burn its way down. There was not a day, nor a dark moment when he didn’t think of the simplicity of that night, lying together on the top of Slemish mountain, their innocence turned in the moon-washed light. But somehow over his later years he had managed to find, in that frozen memory, a waypoint, where there was a choice, where new directions were possible, and today it was an evening meeting at An Dorus Dearg.
The first wisps of mist arrived on the wind as he prepared to leave. Within a minute he is cocooned inside thick cloud, his steeple-view of the coast lost. He took a steadying breath, adjusted his rucksack, and finding his balance, started back across the goat track, its end now lost to him.