Everything had been fine until I’d answered that question but now a silence hung in the air like a malevolent fart. I sucked on my whiskey and stared really hard into the bothy fire, perhaps I’d see a genie in the flames who would whisk me away from the coming confrontation. Tearing my eyes from the flickering flames I peered through the gloom and steaming socks at the other three men in the room. Rick, the one who was doing most of the talking, was still struggling to find a response to my answer to his querie. Steve, a bearded wizened elf of a man, was twisting his grey whiskers to a point with a vehemence that threatened to tear the hair from his face completely off. The last of the trio, David, who looked a bit like an English gent although he claimed Irish decent, giggled nervously. I could tell he was trying to figure out, if it came to it, and he lunged for his ice axe hanging over the fire, whether I would get there first.
Rick emitted an odd gurgle and then managed to twist it into the beginning of a sentence, “Yes…but…” David let out a short titter, or perhaps it was a sob. If we’d been in a western saloon, instead of a rain soaked bothy on the west coast of Scotland, it would have been at this point that that the piano would have fallen silent, everyone would have stopped playing cards and the barman would have reached for a hidden shot gun. “Yes but…” Rick intoned again, more confident this time. He was a big man who looked as though he had once been strong but had turned to fat. I was a little more relaxed, you see I’m not as quick as I used to be but I had worked out the answer to the problem that had been troubling David for the last few moments, I was closer to the ice axe than he was.
I’d known this point would come, sooner or later it always does. The moment I’d pushed open the bothy door and realised that I had company I’d known we’d get here sooner or later. At first the atmosphere had been welcoming, almost jovial, it always is. They’d offered me tea and we’d talked about the weather. They always talk about the weather. In glens up and down the highlands, in campsites, howfs and bothies, they talk about the weather. Or at least they do at first until they ask me that question and I reveal that I am the child of a different god. I tell them I despise everything they have spent years trudging about the hills trying to achieve. I prove to them undeniably that they have been chasing an illusion all these years and that nothing is as it seems. I ruin everything. Rick staggered to the end of his sentence like an old man who has climbed his last hill, “Yes but how many have you done?”
Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to lie, to pick a number out of the air and cling to it as my life raft in a sea of despair. Then they’d smile and nod knowingly, happily content that I was one of them, a fellow traveller in their man made topographical quest. “I’ve only 27 left to do,” I could say and everyone would grin confident I was one of the brethren and we could relax and talk about boots and rucksacks and how bad the midges were. I could do that, but I don’t, I swallow my whisky and utter the heresy, “Actually, I’m not a Munroist.” Suddenly I feel about as welcome as if I were wearing a white peaked hood and sitting in the congregation of an African American church in Alabama. Sometimes, as it was on this occasion, I’ve said something so unthinkable they can’t hear me, or at least their brains can’t deal with that information that seems so incongruous, so they respond by asking me the same question in a different way.
“Yes but how many have you done?”
“I don’t know, I’m not counting,” it’s usually then that it gets really serious. I’ve long since stopped trying to explain it, I’ve come to realise that it must be me that doesn’t understand, I am the odd one out not them. I think of the hills as rare oasis of freedom in an otherwise over regulated desert. Everywhere there are rules about what we must and must not do. The legions of people telling me what I should do are almost cancelled out by the thousands of folk telling me what I shouldn’t. I thought I could escape all this in the hills, go where I pleased, sit and look at the view if felt like it or just wander aimlessly but no, it seems I’ve been getting it all wrong. Perhaps human beings have a yearning to be regulated, sorted, categorised and numbered. Just when we had found somewhere to escape to that was not stamped beneath the heel of the corporate logo and were wondering what to do with all that freedom salvation came in the form of some bloke waving a list. Imagine the relief, no longer would hill walkers have to walk aimlessly in the hills, now there was someone who had found the piece of paper that tells us all what to do and where to go, thank God we’re saved!
In the words of Patrick McGoohan’s character Number 6, “I am not a number, I am a free man!
Back in the bothy I made a lunge for the ice axe.