Gathering the Hill by Cath Barton

The website had said the road was rough and “Unsuitable for Nervous Drivers”, but after Porlock Hill it held no terrors for me. It stretched seawards, the grass on either side sheep-shorn. We could see no further than the next bend, until we reached the brow of the first hill and the downward snake of the track appeared ahead of us. There was no sign of the lighthouse.

On the final stretch there was a sheer drop on one side, but a fence gave at least the illusion of safety. And then it was there, in front of us, the long low building tucked into the cliff, the light on the seaward side rotating, slow flashes in the dusk.

As we drew into the tiny parking area there was a rumble, a fall of small stones and the thud of a sheep’s hooves behind. We both jumped, then laughed nervously.

“Just as well that creature didn’t decide to drop down thirty seconds earlier!” I could hear that I sounded breathless.

Malcolm put his hand on my shoulder as if to steady me, and smiled.

“Come on Lou,” he said, “Let’s go and see what we’re in for.”

I hadn’t expected the steps down. I thought a lighthouse was something that stood up proudly, not something that would hide, lie down under a hill.

The others weren’t due for another hour or so. We had the pick of the bedrooms, chose the one at the far, outer end, with windows on two sides. We could see anyone approaching down the back steps too. I said that to Malcolm who guffawed: “And who, my darling, is going to be coming down the back steps?”

I was thrilled, literally thrilled, at him calling me darling, pulled him to me and hugged him. But he immediately pulled away, said he would put on the kettle and was gone. The magic faded and I sank back into familiar sadness.

I turned to the seaward window, into which the light would shine at night. A thick glass wall had risen inside me, keeping me firm, keeping me still. My protection. I thought it was because of what had just happened, because of Malcolm’s sudden retreat into coldness. I stood there for five minutes, I was sure it was no longer, and I was shocked at Malcolm’s angry face as he burst back into the room.

“Your tea is stone-cold. There’s no sign of the others. I can’t find matches. What have you been doing all this time? Why are you standing here in the dark?”

The words tumbled from him so fast there was no sliver of space for me to respond. I just looked at him, my heart pounding, my thoughts frozen. I know now of course that it was fear, not anger that had seized him that first afternoon, and that he was trying to protect me. But at that moment I was cowed behind my internal wall and the tears came hot and fast.

He turned back into the long corridor and was through the first set of swing doors before I could even start my protest. I followed, powerless to do otherwise.

At the far end of the lighthouse building the rooms were smaller, warmer, friendlier. In the sitting room there was a mock wood-burner in a fireplace between two alcoves with built-in cupboards. I turned it on and the room immediately glowed red. I sat down on the easy chair next to the window. The turning light was visible from here too. I pulled the curtain against it, and drank the cold tea as Malcolm came into the room.

“I’ve made you a fresh cup.”

He was holding a cup of tea in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He put down the tea and stood over me sipping his wine. I would have preferred wine too, but I didn’t dare say so.

A sudden thump on the front door nearly made us spill our drinks.

“Thank God for that!” he cried, dashing out of the room, spotting the light carpet with his red wine.

The others tumbled through the door in a flurry of sorrys for being late, and how lovely to see yous, but as I pushed the door closed on the darkness I felt something, something unwelcome that would have come in if I hadn’t been firm. There was an awkward moment with the others after we’d eaten the lasagne and all drunk quite a lot of red wine and Malcolm said something about it being lovely beef and I said it wasn’t, it was lamb, and they all turned and stared at me. And I said what? or something like that and they just laughed and I didn’t get it, just shook my head. I was looking at them from behind the wall, the glass wall inside me. I remember looking round at the shining faces, as if they were in a film and I was watching it, not in it with them. And they obviously hadn’t noticed anything, not anything at all.

I’m surprised now how well I slept that first night, especially as we couldn’t close the shutters on our bedroom windows, and so the light came in, a white flash every fifteen seconds, but it was strangely soothing. I must have fallen asleep quickly and I woke to a sea-bright morning.

Malcolm was turned away from me, tucked up as if in a shroud. I touched him and he made a little wriggle, so I slid out of bed quietly and went to the seaward window. Out there in the blue distance there were dolphins jumping. I turned, wanting to call Malcolm to see them too, but something told me he wouldn’t thank me. I looked back out to sea and it was flat calm. Maybe they hadn’t been there at all. But at breakfast the others said they’d seen them, their miraculous exuberant curving through the water. It felt good, that shared experience.

We talked about what to do, walks along the cliffs, lunch in a pub maybe. There were red deer, rutting at this season. If we were lucky we might see them. If not, we’d see sheep, one of them said. And laughed. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t know what was so funny about sheep.

Everyone pulled on boots and coats. I couldn’t find my gloves and went down the corridor to our bedroom to look for them. Once I was through the second set of swing
doors the building was dead quiet, I might have been alone there. But I knew I wasn’t. I stopped at the door of the bedroom. There were little padding sounds. Someone was in there. I couldn’t go in.

And I couldn’t say, couldn’t tell the others. They would laugh. So I told them I was tired, hadn’t slept, needed to stay back. They believed me, crazily, and clambered up the steps and away round the corner at the top.

I knew I had to be methodical. I could work it out. I needed to count the steps first of all. Then look for other ways to and from the building. I didn’t know how long I had. And it was hard to concentrate, with the weight of the wall inside me.

I climbed up the stone steps – twenty one, then a break, another twenty one, another break, then sixteen to the top. I thought about the lighthouse keepers, up and down every day, running most probably. They wouldn’t have counted. But they were in the natural order of things. Before the sheep, before most people had stopped seeing or listening to what is out there.

Down the first set of sixteen to an iron gate, and then there’s a raised path running the length of the building to a set of steps on the far side, the ones we could see from our bedroom windows. I stood looking down, counting. Getting different totals each time I did it. I was so focused on the steps that I didn’t see the sheep appear. I heard it first, the plaintive baaing. I froze, then somehow managed to get my feet moving, one foot in front of the other and counting, counting each step to keep calm. When I got through the iron gate I made myself take several deep breaths before embarking on the downward steps at the other end. Twenty one down. Pause, breathe, glance around. Nothing. Steadily, this was no time to slip, the second twenty one, and then fast across the concrete past the clothes line and through the front door, locking it behind me.

I went into the sitting room, but the red wine stains on the carpet were so bright they hurt my eyes. So I forced myself to make a cup of coffee and took it into the dining room and sat at one corner of the big wooden table. I was sure now that there was no way to the lighthouse other than down those steep steps, no way to or from the sea below the building. No-one would attempt that scree slope.

There was a picture on the dining room wall opposite the window which I hadn’t noticed the first night. It was a dark painting of a hillside on which a sheepdog was rounding up a flock of sheep. I made myself look at it, told myself it was normal, completely and utterly normal. I concentrated on the title, in a cursive script: Gathering the Hill. I drank my coffee, one calm sip at a time, all the time looking at the details of the painting.

Then in a heartbeat the cup fell, fell from my hand, and coffee spurted across the pale bare floorboards, staining them dark. And then, as I looked on from behind the wall inside me, the picture fell too, fell from the wall, and I watched the glass shatter as if in slow-motion. I was still clearing up the shards when the others arrived, driven back early by a sudden hail storm. I told them I’d accidentally knocked the painting off the wall. They didn’t quiz me, why would they?

Someone made soup and we all sat round the big table and they talked about what they’d seen on the walk and how you couldn’t see the lighthouse from anywhere, people just wouldn’t know it was there. I half-listened, they didn’t notice, not even Malcolm. He was getting close to one of the girls, probably thought I couldn’t tell. The truth was I knew everything. I supped my soup, not tasting it, focused on the painting. It was back on the wall and clearer now without the obscuring glass. Everything was becoming clearer to me. The sheep were moving, slowly but definitely. I blinked and they stopped. I knew I needed to count them.

Afterwards everyone went to their rooms. This was, after all, meant to be a relaxing weekend. They’d been drinking wine with lunch, were tired after all that climbing on the walk. Malcolm squeezed my shoulder.

“Okay, Lou?” he said.

I knew he didn’t really care. I said I was fine. I knew that if I went to our bedroom he wouldn’t be there, but I didn’t want to see him not there and I didn’t want to see the sheep and anyway I had to do the work on the picture.

I counted forty five sheep, and they were in a shape of a comma. It was very clear.

***

This is good, I’m getting somewhere, but now I’m feeling sleepy myself. I have to go to the bedroom. I stay close to the wall, the shiny wall, the wall the colour of buttermilk. Through one set of double doors. Glance down the stairwell with the blank wall at the bottom. Nothing. Through the second set of corridor doors. All the bedroom doors are closed. There’s conversation. Quiet. Malcolm and the taller girl. See, I know.

I keep going. Into our bedroom. There was someone there just before. It smells rank. One of the windows has been opened and shut again, the catch not fully engaged. I look out of the seaward window. The water is flat calm, the blue turning to purple as the light fades. It fades early at this time of year. The time when the deer are rutting, the time of the gathering of the hill.

I am not sleepy any longer because now I am sure, and I know what I have to do. I look through the end window, out at the steps. The sheep is sitting. Our eyes meet. On the left there are two oil tanks. I can see that there is a leak from one, it is a small leak and it has probably been going on for some time. If there was a match… But there is no match, there is no need. The wall inside me is my strong protection. The sheep are coming down from the hill. I will go back and count them on the picture. I know already that there will be more, because they are arriving, coming down the steps.

There is time and it is safe, everyone in their rooms, occupied. The building is becalmed and I walk down the centre of the corridor. Through one set of double doors. I don’t look down the stairwell, keep my eyes ahead. Through the second set of doors and turn right into the dining room. I sit and look at the picture and count. Fifty three sheep, the shape of the flock an expanding oval.

I go into the kitchen for the knife, the big one from home. You can never trust knives in holiday rentals. Back down the corridor with it in my left hand. All is quiet. I open the end door. I approach the sheep. She doesn’t move, just keeps looking at me.

Afterwards her eyes are still open, but she isn’t there.

I wash my hands and the water runs red. Back in the sitting room I wonder whether I washed them well enough, because there are red spots on the carpet. I should try and clean them off. But I am tired now. I will sit down and wait for the others to come. This time they will not laugh. This time they will help me.

 

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Cath Barton

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her debut novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a short story collection inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Website: www.cathbarton.com

Twitter: @CathBarton1

Facebook: www.facebook.com/cath.barton.5

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