Star Gazing - Extracts

Extract from Chapter 10

A fluttering at my feet told me some birds had braved my unfamiliar presence. I sat completely still, my hands cradling the warm coffee mug. Behind me I could hear a constant drip from the gutter as the sun melted the snow on the roof. With a noisy flapping of wings, the birds suddenly took flight, even though I hadnít moved a muscle and there had been no sound to disturb them. Had a weasel appeared? I felt nervous and wanted to withdraw my feet, place them under the bench, out of the way of small mammals, but I sat still and tried to imagine Ė as best I could Ė their ďbonny wee facesĒ. But it was Keirís face with its angular, slab-like planes that came to mind, his face I remembered in the tips of my fingers.

There was a change in the quality of the silence. Without knowing why, I reached for my cane, then remembered Iíd left it indoors because my hands were full and I wouldnít need it - I was only going to sit on the bench.

Iíll never know if I actually heard something before the grating noise above my head or whether I just sensed movement. Was there a creak? Did the dripping accelerate? I donít know, but when I heard the strange grinding noise above and behind me, I was already anxious. Itís not often I hear a noise I canít identify and I stood up, ready to go back indoors. As I turned towards the back door there was an almighty rushing sound and I sensed a current of cold air on my face and pressure moving towards me. Terrified, I turned and ran, my arms extended in front of me.

I hadnít moved far when the noise resolved itself into a long hiss, a thump and a wet splashing sound. Snow from the roof. There had been an avalanche of snow falling from the roof above the bench where Iíd been sitting. The bench was probably covered in snow now. I laughed at myself a little nervously and walked back the way Iíd run.

Except that I didnít. I canít have, for my hands met a tree I hadnít encountered when Iíd fled from the bench. I stood still and took stock for a moment, cursing myself for not bringing my cane out. I must have lost my sense of direction after running. Iíd panicked and stupidly lost my bearings. Now I didnít know if I was facing the house, so I would just have to find my footprints in the snow and trace them back to the bench.

The Isle of Skye - the Cuillin mountains in the distance

I bent and felt the ground with my bare hands, tracing the depressions. I followed these carefully, but after a minute or two, it dawned on me that these werenít my footprints. They were too large, too deep and too widely-spaced. These were Keirís. Iíd been following Keirís footprints, not mine, and I had no idea where theyíd led me. Feeling in the snow, I could detect only one set of footprints. An outward journey, no return. So these would probably lead to the steps down which Keir had carried me when we arrived, or they might lead to the winding path that heíd said led down to the house. Either way, this set of footprints was not going to take me back the way Iíd come.

The sun went in and I felt the temperature drop several degrees. I was beginning to feel a little concerned, but not frightened. How could I lose a house? It couldnít be far. I turned round and re-traced my steps to the tree. My extended hands found it and I told myself I couldnít be far from the house and my bench, I just didnít know in what direction they lay.

I bent down and felt in the snow for something to throw. My fingers were practically numb now with exploring the snow and my legs were damp where Iíd knelt to read the footprints. I tried to ignore the uncomfortable fact that I was very cold and getting colder. My frozen fingers found a stone. I clasped it and stood up, trying to work out in which direction I thought the house lay. I hesitated before throwing, wondering if I might smash a window. Aiming low, I hurled the stone, hoping that the sound of it hitting something would tell me if it was a wall, a door or just a tree.

Nothing. I heard the stone land with a distant sigh in the snow. It must have missed the house altogether. I found another stone and threw that in a different direction. There was a dull thud. Not the crack of the stone hitting a wall. Perhaps the bench? Or maybe just another tree? I set off in the direction of the sound, striding purposefully in an attempt to get my circulation moving again. My foot slipped on something smooth. Arms flailing, I skidded and lost my balance. There was a hideous crack as the ground gave way beneath me, plunging me to my knees into icy water.

A burn (stream) at Foyers
(Photo: D H Swanscot)

Iíd walked into a frozen pond. The cold was so intense, I screamed. I stepped back out of the pond and stood still, shivering convulsively, furious with myself, but now frightened as well. My feet and legs were soaked up to my knees. My hands were numb. I had no hat, no coat. I was wearing a woollen jumper, not even a sensible, wind-proof fleece. And I was lost. I might be a matter of metres from the house and a wood-burning stove but, to all intents and purposes, I was lost. Keir had said there were no boundary hedges or fences here. The garden blended into its woodland surroundings, so I had nothing at all to navigate by, nothing to contain me.

Iíd no idea how long Keir had been gone, nor when he would be back. But he would be back. Eventually. I was in for an uncomfortable couple of hours Ė no more than that, probably Ė but as long as the weather held, I told myself I couldnít come to much harm. I turned my face upwards, hoping to feel once again the blessing of the weak February sun.

Instead I felt flakes of snow as they drifted down and settled on my cheeks, like a chilly caress . . .