The Long RidgebyHighland Fox©
I hate working shifts, especially when I don't get anti-social hours allowances. I'd worked the weekend and Monday, and now had the middle of the week off, when everyone else was busy. There was no way I was going to sit in the flat on my own with a book, not with the weather forecast the way it was.
There was, I reflected, an advantage with being single, however. It meant I could take off wherever and whenever I pleased, work permitting. There was no over-attentive, over-sexed, and emotionally immature boyfriend making demands on my time. I'd also had enough of the bustle of Dundee. My body didn't need a rest, but my head needed some peace and quiet. So, on Monday evening I raked out my maps of the Grampian Mountains to plan a route, complete with a couple of possible places to wild camp and emergency escape routes in case the weather did something unpredictable, as it often does. I checked that with the summer bus timetable, which sends one bus an hour along the alleged Class-A road that my start point lay upon. Then I packed my rucksack and went to bed, setting the alarm to give me time to catch the first bus out of town in the morning.
I'd got three days, one of which I'd need for laundry, shopping and other essentials, and shortly after midday of the first of those days I was in the hills, climbing the slightly rugged slopes of Meall Garbh. It was hot and sticky, and a full pack for wild camping and walking is heavy, even for summer purposes. I'd stripped down to shorts, T-shirt, boots and socks, and slathered on high-factor sun-screen. It was definitely too hot for underwear, but there was almost no-one to see me, if that, and people hiking in the hills tend to have other things on their minds than jumping strange women. Still, I was coated in sweat in minutes. I'd learned early on to drink a lot on days like this. Dehydration has several ways to kill in the hills, all of them unpleasant.
I was on the summit ridge before I encountered another human being. She was bent over, peering at a boulder. As far as I could see from her crouched position she was about average height. She'd got a red and white Arab-style headscarf wrapped round her head to keep the sun off. She was also wearing a long-sleeved pale blue modern wicking baselayer, light walking trousers, boots, and a large rucksack with what looked to be a lightweight tent strapped to the side. The hose from a portable water supply poked from the top of the rucksack. A pony-tail the colour of ripe wheat, tucked to one side of the rucksack, fell most of the way down her back, with a few strands being picked out by the wind.
There's a sort of unwritten social code in the hills. Personal space is a wide area, and while it's fine to comment on the weather or ask if there's rough ground that you need to avoid ahead which the map doesn't show, you stay out of that space and don't disturb anyone unless they look like they're in trouble. After all, shit happens, and there have been two deaths on the Aonach Eagach Ridge above Glencoe this summer already, never mind the rest of the country. This woman was properly kitted out, and didn't look the type to get cragfast on The Cobbler.
On impulse, I broke that rule.
'Excuse me? What have you found?'
She looked round, back and rucksack swivelling. I tentatively reviewed my conclusion about this person's gender. A flash of irritation at being disturbed crossed his or her face, followed by a friendly smile, then an eyebrow flash from behind small, copper-plated unisex spectacles. A quiet voice gave little away.
'Lichens on the rock. They're really pretty.' I couldn't place the accent, maybe Central Scotland but lacking the hard glottal stops of the big cities, but there were hints of Northern England too, although nothing strong. I could barely hear what was said over the wind. It was high pitched for a man, low for a woman. It was a nice voice, strongly accented, but balanced in a way I couldn't define. A head inclined towards the boulder, which I took as an invitation to come and look. Lichens? Lichens were boring, surely? I crossed the last few feet between us and knelt down to look.
'They're really colourful.' She (or was it he?) pointed at the chaos of pastel shades, and I suddenly saw what (I took another quick glance – no breasts, or at least very small ones) he was getting at. What was grey from a distance was nothing of the sort close up. A bewildering range of colours covered the entire surface of the rock.
'I've never even looked at something like this,' I said, turning to look at this strange person. I was coming down on the side of man by now. I looked at his throat. There was the bulge of an Adam's apple, not particularly prominent, but definitely there. That probably clinched it. He grinned, then shrugged.
'Most people don't think to look. Look at this.' He stood and pointed into a cleft in the rock at about head height. He had delicate hands, not a lot bigger than mine. I wondered what they'd feel like, then tried to forget it. The biggest lichen I'd ever seen was growing inside the cleft, protected from the wind and rain. It was yellow, upright and branched, unlike the ones that clung to more exposed areas, and a good five or six inches high inside a cave that wasn't much bigger.
I was speechless for a few seconds. 'Do you often look at things like this?' I asked.
'Whenever I get the chance,' he told me. 'I've been known to literally chase butterflies across hillsides.' He grinned at me. 'That's probably hundreds of years old. How many people do you think have seen it? Dozens, maybe?'
I thought that might be a fairly high estimate. 'I'm just so used to looking at the scale of the landscape up here, or where I'm going, I just don't think to look at such things.' I took a closer look. There was definitely something in this. This was one very unusual guy!
'I learned a long time ago that I miss a lot doing that. These days I pay attention to detail. I've got a thing for lichens. Two totally different types of organism that have learned to live together and can cope with conditions that would kill just about anything else as a result. They've found their niche and they're incredibly successful. You should have a look at them in the Cairngorms.' He smiled again. Was he flirting? I wasn't sure, but the heat and the smell of fresh male sweat were already acting like a dangerously potent drug. I'd be the one chasing butterflies if I wasn't careful. I made an effort to cool my mind down. I didn't particularly want a relationship, and I definitely didn't want a casual fling. I took my mind back to something safe – the rock in front of me.
'It is so rare to meet a man outdoors who cherishes a worthy thought in his mind, which is independent of the labor of his hands,' I heard myself quoting.
'There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,' he explained.
I found myself just staring at him. I'd never met anyone who'd recognise the American Nature philosophers, never mind cap a quote!
'Sand County Almanac. That was Thoreau, if I remember right?
I nodded, almost speechless.
'Want to see more?'
Was that him giving me a line? Some line. 'Yeah. Okay,' I heard myself saying. I admitted to myself he was turning me on
'You doing the ridge?' he asked.
I nodded. 'Food for two nights, plus all the gear. Thought I'd walk out to the main road and get the bus home in time to get some sleep before I go back to work.'
'Sounds good. Provided I'm home by Friday night I can more or less do what I like.'
I wasn't sure if I wanted to spend that much time with someone else, and I'm not sure if he was either. He set off over the ground towards the main track, being careful where he put his feet. I was looking at the ground with a new eye. 'How does lunch on the top sound?' he asked.
'Yeah, OK,' I told him. The track wasn't wide enough to walk side by side, so we had a conversation with him looking back over his shoulder when he talked to me.
'What's your name, by the way?' he asked.
He turned, stopped and offered his hand, mimicking the proper gentleman. 'I'm very pleased to meet you, Rachael.' Another smile. 'They call me Neil.'
"They call me Neil," I thought. As if his name was only a social point of reference.
He turned again and set off up the ridge. 'I don't know many people familiar with Thoreau,' he told me.
'I've read some of his stuff. I like to think I've got some glimpse of what he was talking about, but it looks to me like you almost live it.'
He gave a self-deprecating laugh. 'I try. When I'm not working, I'm in the garden, in the hills or with my nose in a book. Thoreau is one of my favourites. These days I freelance, which helps. I can work out my own schedule.' He looked forward to check his footing. 'Proofreading, copy-editing, a bit of writing. About as secure as a belay on rotten sandstone.'
I liked the analogy. 'At least you're using your mind.'
'Do you do a lot of climbing?'
'When I get the chance. I don't work what you'd call regular hours, and I'm not good enough to do something that risky solo. Hill walking is a different matter. Running too, but I did my knee in coming off the Cruachan Ridge in a hurry and I'm having to be careful with it. Tore the medial ligament according to my doctor, so I've got it strapped up, but nothing's going to stop me walking.'
I could see he did a lot of that. The pack he was carrying was obviously heavy, but it wasn't appreciably slowing him down. He carried it easily, with a gait that suggested he was entirely comfortable on rough ground. I imagined he'd look totally out of place in a city. I liked the way he moved, confident on supple legs, utterly alert to his surroundings. I've heard of people moving like a cat. Neil was more like a fox.
I tried to control a thought that we had a lot in common.
We sat side by side on the summit for a lunch of pieces, looking across to hills that were purple in the haze in the distance, and down into the corrie. A solitary raven called a throaty 'pruk-pruk-pruk' as it wheeled above the lochan at its head. I turned and studied my new companion. He was short, built for running on bad ground. I put him in his twenties, early thirties at the outside, freckled, with pale blue eyes. I suddenly realised I was looking deep into them and flushed. That earned me another smile.
He returned to his piece. I privately admitted to myself that it wasn't nothing at all. This little guy was turning me on.
I led the next section of the ridge. Neil was a mine of information. The little sparrow-like birds that called 'pheet-pheet-pheet' on the slopes were meadow pipits. His real knowledge turned out to be botany, which he admitted having studied as part of a 'dead-end course the Bru sent me on.' Although the tutor hadn't covered much in the way of montane habitats he'd learned enough to teach himself the material that had been missed out. He stopped often, with an infectious enthusiasm pointing out delicate alpine flowers and hardy mosses and grasses.
Hours later we made camp on a dry spot above a burn. Neil removed a sports-grade joint support from his left knee, taking his boot off first and then replacing it. Dinner was reconstituted meals out of packets, cooked over lightweight gas stoves and eaten while we compared reading interests. Our first meal together was hardly gourmet. The pans, plates and cutlery were submerged in the burn to soak.
I stopped myself. I could see where this was leading. The big question was simple to ask, harder to answer. Did I want this? I decided just to see where it led. I'd caught him studying my legs, so I knew the feeling was, at least to a point, mutual. I could always strike off on my own if that was what I felt I needed.
Neil removed his head-scarf, revealing a high forehead, slightly lined either from stress or weather or both, topped with hair that was fine but not thinning. I tossed my hat in the general direction of my tent. We did the washing up, and then lounged quietly away from the low roar of the burn, comparing notes of memorable days in the hills and near misses with the weather.
The burn was becoming increasingly appealing. By this time the only people on the hills would be camping wild, and there was little chance of there being anyone but us for miles in any direction. I was sweaty from the day's hike in hot weather, and would smell ripe in the morning if I didn't get a wash. Normally that wouldn't matter. Alone in the hills, if you stink, you stink and nobody else will care. The problem, of course, was this guy, who appeared to want both my body and my company as much as I wanted his.
Silence fell, or as close to silence as you get in the hills. I listened to the sound of the running water, the wind, birds calling off in the heather, a sheep somewhere off on the hillside. The mountains have moods, and unless you're in the middle of a storm the evenings move very slowly. There's a time around late afternoon when it changes from an active feeling to quiet. Logically it has to do with the temperature changing and the birds responding to that. Otherwise I keep an open mind. If you're not used to it, it can make you very nervous. I've seen the inexperienced run from the hills. Once it settles down it eases into evening and night. If it's warm, it's very peaceful. Scratch anyone who spends a lot of time in the hills, ask them about their sense of spirituality, and they'll equivocate.
We could have been the only humans, alone in the world. I cocked my head, looking at Neil, who had his eyes closed, apparently listening to the sounds of the mountains. I acknowledged something important to myself. He was attractive. We had a lot in common. If I didn't make damn sure we started something over the next few days the chances of me meeting him again in the next ten years were, to be blunt, remoter than Ladhar Bheinn in a blizzard. Solo hillwalkers are an independent, self-reliant lot at the best of times. He could be gone in the morning. I'm not the sort of woman to jump straight into bed with someone. I'd met my first serious boyfriend at university – a good relationship while it lasted, or at least until I found he'd been cheating on me.
Since then, a couple of abortive dates had persuaded me that it probably wasn't worth the effort. This was a decision that might just change my life. If I got it wrong, I'd be hurt, but I realised I'd regret it if I didn't use everything I had at my disposal to at least find out if something serious might work. Nice guys are hard to find. Most of those already have boyfriends. We also had a surprising amount in common. His sensitivity was really turning me on. How many people did I know who read Thoreau and Leopold?
I decided that the fluttering in my tummy was fear of rejection mixed with honest lust. I didn't know whether he'd just decide to head off on his own in the morning. I'd about concluded that I didn't want that. I was on the pill – it's useful to be able to control your cycles when you spend a lot of time in the hills, and I used to get really bad cramps once a month. He'd mentioned in passing that he was blood donor, which meant he was clean of most of the really nasty diseases. It came down to a balance of risk. It also came down to the fact that the calm and relaxing feel of the mountains in the evening.
On the other hand, seducing him was not my style. Relationship first, sex later.
Logic was clearly going to get me nowhere. That left feelings and action.
'I think I'm going for a dip.'
He half opened both eyes, and looked at me through the slits of his eyelids. 'Want me to clear off for half an hour?'
'If you clear off for half an hour, it'll be too cold by the time you get a chance to get a wash.' I ignored the fact that there was probably another pool lower down where both of us could get some privacy and that the day had been warm enough to give him more than half an hour. 'You smell. By the morning, you'll stink.' I grinned at him. He grinned back. It wasn't an insult – he knew it was true. I stood, reached over, grabbed both hands, and hauled him to his feet.
He gave token resistance, and rose. I decided to leave one of those hands where it was. It was delicate, and felt sensitive. I wondered, more wildly this time, what it would feel like to have those hands exploring my body. I felt him almost pull away, with that slight tension from his arm, then let that hand rest in mine. He looked into my eyes with a small, almost shy smile and gave what might have been an almost imperceptible nod. My heart skipped, then started to pound. This could get out of hand very quickly if one of us didn't stop it. I decided I didn't want to stop it, and if I had to seduce him to catch him I was damn well going to. I'd never seduced anyone before, but there's only one way to learn.
We walked, hand in hand, down to a large, moderately deep pool in the burn, with grass on the edge of an overhanging drop-off to the brown peaty water a foot below. I let go of him and sat to remove my boots and socks. A moment later, he did the same. I suspect if either of us had been alone we'd have been barefoot by the time we'd made camp, but sweaty feet are a social no-no at the best of times. I stood and shrugged out of my T-shirt, leaving my breasts bare. I made sure he was paying attention and, almost facing him, stripped off my shorts. I slid into the pool, turned round to face the bank and started to rinse off. Mountain water can be cold, but this had been in full sun all day and was pleasantly warm. I watched him remove his baselayer, stained with his sweat, and drop it on the ground, then start on his trousers. He had shoulder bones that half the women I know would kill for. My eyes roved over a flat tummy, with no sign of a beer belly. No six-pack either, which was good. Those look plain horrible. A bulge under his boxer shorts showed the effect I was having on him, giving me a decidedly feminine sense of power. He paused, then removed them. His spectacles were folded up and left on top of the pile of clothing. A cheap watch joined them.
Most definitely a guy. I felt my eyebrows rise in appreciation. Men look a bit silly with their clothes off, but I couldn't help feeling really turned on by a cute one like this. He followed me into the pool, then turned his back on me, splashing water over his body. I felt a little flash of irritation. That was how it was going to be, was it? Was this rejection, or a man playing hard to get? Fine.
I waded over to him and flipped his long hair out of the way. Then I began rubbing his back with water. His upper back and shoulders were strongly muscled, his arms only slightly less so. You can tell what sports someone does by what muscles they've got developed. He wasn't pumping iron, but he also wasn't spending all his time with a book in his hand. He stopped and let me work, apparently enjoying it.
'You were forgetting your back,' I told him. Neither of us was going to pretend that was any more than an excuse. I felt him relax. I think that was the point he finally made his own decision. He turned. I left my hands on his nude, wet body. Pale blue eyes, black pupils wide with arousal, looked deep into mine. His hands found my waist and then slipped around my back. The he drew me forward, gently, as if worried I might pull away and giving me the opportunity if I wanted to take it.
As if. My hardening nipples brushed his chest. Warmth was growing in my belly. Then he brought his face, slowly, carefully, to mine. His tongue circled my lips once, twice, then slipped gently inside my mouth to explore. Our tongues touched. His ran gently over mine, then under the roof of my mouth, and I drew him closer, pressing our bodies together, sliding my hands down to cradle his small bottom. More muscle. This was not a person in imminent danger of a cardiac problem. I wanted to feel him against me. What I'd seen just now had obviously just been a partial because what pressed against my mound now was long, hard and out of proportion. I opened my mouth further to breathe and we broke for air.