The loch.

This is a true story, as true as I could possibly make it. The only part of it which I have changed is that I have written it in the first person, when it fact it happened to my best friend. He rang me while he was walking and told me what was happening as it unfolded.

It was a few days short of Halloween, late in the year but early enough in the day to still have a half hour of daylight when I pulled up next to the loch, parking my campervan as unobtrusively as possible. An elderly couple were just getting into their car; they waved, smiled and drove away leaving me and my two dogs alone to savour the silence.

The views were almost too much to take in. We stood next to a sandy beach, surrounded by forest, and were able to gaze towards Cairngorm, the tops white, already wintry. Smiling broadly, I set off to walk the west side of the water to the Green Loch, a walk which we have taken many times. In the absence of both people and livestock, I unleashed the dogs and threw a ball for them about a dozen times. Racing after it used up some of their surplus energy and then we settled down to our walk, the dogs investigating all the smells and sticking close.

We were not in any hurry, the path is too obvious to get lost and we know it very well; so I dawdled along, the dogs mostly leading the way, though they were never too far ahead. I had not been paying too much attention when I realised two things. One, that the light was beginning to thicken, and two, that the dogs had stopped in front of a tree about twenty feet away. They were not barking, but were very alert, just standing and staring intently at the tree.

We were at this point about half way between the two lochs, and there was nothing about this tree which looked different from any other, but as I drew closer and caught up with the dogs, I started to experience a feeling of dread. Standing with the two dogs, the hair raised on my arms, a sudden sweat on the back of my neck, I realised that the normal, busy silence which you find in the countryside was now absolute. No birds, no wind sound, no little noises from the undergrowth; only the sound of my breath and the hammering of my heart. Standing with the dogs, I too stared at this tree.

Trying to be rational, my legs nonetheless felt like jelly, my breath was panicky, and when I spoke, trying to reassure the dogs my voice was croakey with fear. I had meant to tell them to get on, that it was only a tree, but what actually came out was, “Okay, that’s a scary tree,” and the sound of my voice breaking the silence was more than I could bear.

“Go on, get on round, what’s wrong with you?” I finally managed to order the dogs, and we three almost ran, around and past it.

I can’t speak for the dogs but my legs were definitely wobbly and my heart was racing; fear prickled across my shoulders and down my spine, but once we were well past this gradually eased. I did not look back but was gradually able to rationalise, telling myself that the dogs were obviously spooked and that I was reacting to them; the truth though is that the dogs had not seemed afraid at all, just watchful.

I was just beginning to feel a bit less disconcerted, when we came to a burn rushing towards the loch. Both dogs love water and if I don’t want them getting wet then I have to hold them back. This time though, the older collie stood back, barking hysterically. She refused to cross the bridge, instead barking and barking at the water. I had to put her back on her lead, and physically drag her across.

She usually only barks like this when she is warning me about somebody at the door, but of course we were alone; just the two dogs and me.

The burn safely behind us, we continued our walk. It had stopped being fun and in the gathering dark I was aware of beings flitting in and out among the trees. Some of these were feelings rather than shapes physically seen, some manifested as shadows in my peripheral vision. One or two were solid, but at the same time they were two dimensional, like figures cut from paper; except that these figures were alive and moving. I saw one sitting on a treestump, others darted between the trees, grinning and waving at me. They flitted in and out of my vision, aware I’m sure of my discomfort.

You might ask why I did not turn back immediately? There seemed to be little point. Since we had passed by the tree and the burn, the familiar route had changed somehow. I knew that we would have to turn and go back soon but I was putting it off, for however unnerving things were I was very reluctant to have to cross the bridge over the rushing burn, and pass by the tree once more on the way home. In the meantime the dogs were perfectly happy. Occasionally they would bark at one of the shadow people but on the whole they seemed quite unafraid.

Of course we retraced our path at some point. As we grew closer to the dark stream the dogs treated it as casually as they normally would. The shadow people seemed to stay behind us now, not following us over the bridge.

I looked for the tree warily having marked its spot well, but it had vanished. Brave now I walked up and down the path, searching. I spend a lot of time in the mountains, walking, cycling and snowboarding, and always know exactly where I am, it can be deadly in the hills to make mistakes. The tree though was definitely no longer there and the otherworldly feeling had disappeared with it, making the rest of the walk back to the van completely mundane.


Picture a waiting room

It has the look of waiting rooms everywhere. Neutral grey walls, a stack of well thumbed magazines which nobody wants to read, on a table. The top one has been pulled to one side and lies open at a picture of some celebrity. A vase of fresh lilies drops a heavy perfume which pervades the room.

People sit around. All ages are represented, but a disproportionate amount are elderly. They stare at the panels above the many doors as they light up with names. People walk through the doors, and those still seated await their turn.

On the walls are signed photographs of famous clients. There is a water cooler with plastic cups next to it, a sign invites you to help yourself. A young man with frightful injuries limps painfully over and helps himself to a cup of water, drinks it with difficulty, and immediately starts to relax.

A sign lights up and an elderly couple get up holding hands; they smile as they walk to the door. A receptionist appears and touches the old man’s arm. “Not yet, Mr. Jameson, just your wife this time.” She smiles encouragingly, “You won’t have long to wait.”

Immediately Mrs. Jameson has walked through the door, another name flashes up. A young woman with a small child looks at it uncomprehendingly. Her little boy is fractious, he is feverish and crying. His mum is crying too, silent tears running down her face.

The receptionist comes over and holds out her hand to the boy. “I’ll take Billy now,” she says kindly. “If you would just wait here?”

” No.” The mother stands up, tries to hold onto her child, “I’ll take him through.”

“That’s not possible,” the receptionist chides gently. “Just wait here. It will be all right, you know.”

She takes the boy’s hand and walks to the door. Billy’s mum is crying desperately now; “Please, let me take him.”

“Look,” the receptionist says.

Billy turns to his mum and smiles. He has stopped crying and in fact looks radiant. All traces of pain and fear have left his face. His mum will remember how he looks now for all of her life.

As the receptionist and the child walk through the door, she says;

“Good evening, Death. I have Billy here for his appointment.”

We don’t always wear wings.

As a tiny baby when she had been put in her crib, she would watch the colored lights dancing in front of her. As she grew stronger, she reached out, giggling and trying to catch them. There was a mobile above the cot, wooden farm animals painted in primary colors, and her parents would smile and ask her if she was trying to catch the little piggy wigs?

Grace was not interested in the wooden pigs though, she was trying to bring the lights back to her heart. She remembered them, although she had no concept from where.

She was a good baby, which meant that she brought pleasure to her parents and did not fuss, or cry much. An affectionate child, she would beam big, gummy smiles at everyone. Even people who were unimpressed by babies, who usually turned down requests to hold friend’s children, they all loved Grace.

When she was put in her cot at bedtime she would invariably look to the lights and clap once she had learned how to do so, and smile. As she grew the lights started to coalesce into one beautiful rainbow colored column, and this in its turn became a small, perfectly formed figure, neither male nor female, radiating love.

Grace fancied that she knew this person. As she grew in comprehension, she was able to distinguish him? her? from her parents and wider family; meanwhile her parents kept the mobile and placed it next to her first real bed because she loved it so much.

Upon developing speech, she did not talk of this figure, assuming everyone could see it as clearly as herself, but her parents heard her chattering over the baby monitor sometimes. Occasionally it sounded as though she was being answered by somebody, but although they always checked, Grace would be lying in her bed, and of course there was nobody else there. Eventually, they decided that the baby monitor was picking up sounds wirelessly, from neighbouring houses.

Neither would admit it to the other, but both were relieved when Grace became old enough that they no longer needed to use the monitor.

During her second birthday party Grace grew unexpectedly cross when her daddy sat down next to her. She pushed him away, and said that he was squashing Coco. Who was Coco, her parents wondered? Grace told them that he was her friend.

As her vocabulary increased she talked about Coco more frequently, referring to Coco sometimes as he, sometimes as she. Her parents got used to their daughter having an imaginary friend, and assumed that she did not yet understand gender, but the truth was that sometimes Coco looked like a little girl, sometimes a beautiful man. Whichever form Coco took however, Grace always knew who it was.

As Grace grew older and started school, she realised that chatting to Coco, and about Coco, made other people uncomfortable. They would often laugh at her, so she stopped referring to her friend, but that did not mean that they stopped communication. When nobody was around, Grace and Coco talked nonstop. Grace wanted to know why other people were rude, but Coco explained that not everyone could see angels.

“Are you an angel then? ” Grace asked Coco who at that moment was showing as a small girl.

“Of course, Silly; I’m your guardian angel” laughed Coco, and the two continued coloring in complex patterns in a book.

Grace asked why, if Coco was an angel, she did not have wings and was told that angels did not always wear wings, that they did not necessarily need them in this dimension. However Coco stood up and his outline wavered and changed.

Grace watched in awe as Coco became a shimmering mass of light and beauty, vaguely human in shape, and with an enormous pair of wings beating very gently as the angel hovered a foot from the floor. Grace’s eyes filled with tears of happiness, her heart felt unable to process the enormity of love, and Coco turned back into a form she could more easily comprehend, the little girl who played with dolls.

On her seventh birthday Grace had a party. Several of her friends had been invited and her parents had hired a magician. As she and her friends sat down to watch, she clapped with the same pleasure as her friends as balloons were twisted into various animal shapes, lots of clever tricks were performed and the climax was the magician taking off his tall black hat, and asking Grace to check inside.

Putting her hand into the hat, she felt something soft and warm, and withdrew her hand uncertainly. Asking the magician to lift it out, he produced the sweetest brown and white baby rabbit and handed it to the birthday girl. Grace was overjoyed with her new pet and could barely wait for her friends to go home so that she could share her joy with Coco. This however was short lived.

Coco did not appear until Grace went to bed, and her bunny was in a new hutch with hay and chopped vegetables to eat, a bowl of water and a mound of straw in a separate bunny bedroom.

Coco explained to Grace that she would not be seeing him regularly now, not even frequently, though he would always be around to protect her. When she did see him, she might not recognise him unless she kept her heart always open. No matter what life threw at her, he told her, the answer was always love.

Of course Grace did not understand and begged her friend to stay just a little longer. Coco said there was other work for angels, but she must never be afraid, and to remember that angels did not always have wings.

They lay together on the bed, one little girl cuddling another, until Grace finally stopped sobbing and fell asleep. Coco kissed her gently and simply disappeared.

She was subdued the next morning, the apparent loss of her friend heavy on her heart, but at least she had her new friend the rabbit, who with a childs logic she called Squirrel.

She and Squirrel spent all of her free time together, the rabbit thrived and learned to come when called, to play games, to sit quietly next to Grace when she was otherwise busy. Grace did not forget about Coco; she would remember the angel throughout her long life, but Squirrel took much of the ache from her heart, and she accepted her new life without her first friend.

When Grace was eleven years old, just a few weeks after her birthday, she was stroking Squirrel who sat quietly in her lap. He was quieter than usual, seemed to be uninterested in the little treats which she offered him. Running her fingers gently over his soft fur, she realised that something was not right, and as a sudden wave of fear clutched her heart, Coco suddenly appeared in front of her.

The joy at seeing her friend did not remove the anxiety about the warm, soft body in her lap. Coco hugged her and Squirrel before explaining that he had come to take the rabbit, that it was time.

Grace cried out that Squirrel could not go, that since Coco had left her, she needed Squirrel. Coco told her gently that he had never left her, that he had explained that she would not see him but that he would always be there looking over her. She asked him to leave Squirrel anyway.

Coco told her that it was her choice, but that her rabbit was sick and in pain. Soon the pain would become intolerable for the little animal but he would linger for a couple of weeks yet, hating what his life had become until he managed to leave it behind.

“But can’t you help?” Grace begged.

“That’s why I’m here” Coco replied, and asked if she remembered the advice he had given her.

“Love is the answer to everything” Grace said.

She sat and looked at Squirrel, he nuzzled her finger and she handed him carefully to Coco, charging the angel to take him straight to Heaven. Coco gave her a brilliant smile as he lifted Squirrel from her and turned into the shimmering light filled being which he had shown her long ago.

Grace’s mother came to see why her daughter had shouted out, to find her holding the still warm body of her rabbit, tears running down her face though she was smiling at the same time.

Her parents held a funeral ceremony for Squirrel. Grace thought it unnecessary, she knew that Squirrel was gone and in Heaven but realised that her parents were trying to help her so went along with it. As her daddy filled the sad little grave with soil and Grace planted a sunflower above it, she saw a squirrel in the tree at the bottom of the garden, watching her. She remembered Coco telling her that angels don’t always wear wings, and blew a kiss to the squirrel who seemed pleased, if that was possible.

Grace was offered another baby bunny, but politely turned it down. Her parents told her that it would help her to deal with losing Squirrel, but she told them she was fine, that she would see Squirrel again eventually.

Grace grew older, went to college where she fell in love then fell out of love. She experienced heartbreak, and she broke the hearts of several others. Her life was unexceptional but she was mostly content. She married at thirty years old, and in time had two children, a son first then a daughter, and thought that life could not get any better. Good things happened and sometimes unpleasant things, but Grace was always steadfast in her belief that the good was to be enjoyed while the uncomfortable should be endured and learned from until it passed.

Her children grew and her son married, her daughter got married a year later. She welcomed their respective spouses into the family and life trundled on.

The day came when Grace went to the doctor because she was experiencing frequent dizziness and odd fainting fits. After many tests the doctor sat down with her, and with a serious face, told her that her time on earth was limited.

Grace smiled, told her not to look so gloomy, that everyone had limited time. Thinking that Grace had not understood, the oncologist said gently that she had months at best, possibly only weeks, and that although Grace could have pain relief, nothing could be done to change the final outcome.

Grace leaned over, smiling as she patted the doctor’s hand and told her not to worry, that everything was as it should be. She then thanked the doctor for her time and help and got up and went home.

It was tricky letting her family know, they were very close, but as everyone must do in such circumstances she did her best. There were tears of course, and disbelief, but ultimately people came to terms with things.

Reality started to become very thin for Grace, and three weeks later her son and his husband turned up and told Grace that the adoptive process which they had been going through was finally bearing fruit, that she was going to become a grandmother. She saw coloured lights dancing around her son in law, and hugged the couple, telling them how happy she was and that although she was leaving, that she would always, always be watching out for them.

Her family made sure that there was always somebody with her and on what would be her final day on this earth, she and her daughter were sitting together enjoying the warmth of the sun coming through the window. Her daughter tucked a blanket around her and pointed in astonishment to where a small, brown and white rabbit sat, looking in through the patio doors.

Grace smiled beatifically. Her daughter asked if she could see the rabbit, but Grace told her that it was an angel, that they did not always have wings.

Her daughter walked over to the rabbit, intending to pick it up and put it in a box until she could find its family. When she turned around at a slight noise, Grace had slipped away. Her daughter briefly saw a flash of light fill the room, felt a wave of love wash over her, then she went and sat with Grace, watching the dancing, colourful lights, until her brother came to see how she and their mother were doing.