On the Sneck

by Neil Campbell

Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016

By a ruined house, she could hear the strange burbling sounds of ptarmigan. Before the final ascent up Ben Avon, she paused for an energy bar, and then, mindful that a clear sky could turn to mist within seconds, headed up the steep zigzag path and made for the distinctive tor of the summit.

Back down on the Sneck, where boulders lined the ridge, she sat down to take in the panoramic views. Mountains became enveloped in cloud. She ate a piece of cheese, and Toby, the dog, licked her face. In the distance, a tiny figure walked towards the boulders of the Sneck from the other side of the mountain.

*

Danny was in the running club. Skinny, not an ounce of fat on him. The race was part of the highland games in Ballater. Of course, he won, he always won. She’d seen online the race he’d won in the Pentland Hills, and the series of other wins detailed in the monthly newsletter that came in the post. She was clearly the best-looking woman in the Ballater race. Why hadn’t he looked at her? All day long she’d had old farts smiling her way, leering in her direction, talking to their mates behind her back. There was nothing like running to keep you in shape.

She was sitting in the back of the car, changing out of her running shoes when Danny walked past.

‘Congratulations,’ she said.

‘Thanks,’ he answered, walking on a little before glancing around.

Daft move, she thought, saying hello while taking off her sweaty socks. But he had looked back.

She sat in the car on the way home, weaving her way through the narrow roads in the Vale of Alford. She put her foot down, as the sun changed the colour of the barley fields from gold to orange to pink. She turned on the headlights, took them as her guide, curving around roads she drove in dreams. Tonight, she pushed it, on one occasion skidding across the tarmac and leaving tracks on a mud bank above the meandering Don.

When she got home she could hear them all in the living room. It sounded like they were watching the Olympics. She put her muddy gear straight in the washing machine and then went for a bath, locking the door behind her. She ran the fancy taps, stripped off her clothes. Mud was spattered on her legs and bottom. She touched herself. She got in the bath, the water scalding hot. She lowered herself in gently. After washing away the mud, she lay there touching her floating breasts. She turned on the radio to cover the sounds. It was tuned to Radio 4.

*

After changing her profile picture to one of herself in running gear, she sent a ‘friend request’ to Danny via Facebook. After about a week he replied, saying he’d just come back from a cross-country skiing holiday in Norway.

They met at The Boat Inn, near Aboyne, on a day he’d walked up Ben Avon. She parked at the side of the pub, recognized his 4×4. She struggled to get her wedding ring off. Then she went in the tap room and saw him standing at the bar.

‘You know about the railway?’ he said, seeing if she knew about the unusual feature in the dining room. The model train ran around and around, high up on the wall.

‘Yeah.’

‘Famous for it.’

‘I’ve never seen the point. Anyway, are you getting me a drink?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Vodka and orange.’

There was a hen party going on around them, women in pink cowboy hats etc. There were always hen parties. They would hire the village hall in Alford, getting coaches out from Aberdeen to get pissed in the middle of nowhere. She’d done the very same thing herself. Then they’d gone and moved to Alford. A little grey house, just like so many others in Aberdeenshire.

Danny didn’t say much, except when she asked him about running. He was ambitious, confident, driven. He kept stretching his arms, the tight t-shirt riding up to show off his six pack as if by accident. They had another drink. But the hen party was getting noisy. Would he sit in the car with her for a bit? He would. They walked through the unlit car park and she heard herself breathing.

They sat there a moment in the car. Then he put his hand on her thigh. She was already a little wet; she could feel it. She drove the car over to where he had parked his 4×4. When she turned off the engine he put his hand between her legs. He began kissing her. Then he lifted her top and kissed her cleavage. Soon he was rubbing her clitoris through her jeans. She opened her eyes and looked at his face. They kissed again. She lifted her breasts out of the bra and he licked and bit her nipples. By now she was soaking wet. He kept on rubbing her clitoris with his finger until she cried out and leaned away.

‘Who told you how to do that?’ she said, pulling down her top.

‘Don’t know…nobody.’

‘Fucking hell.’

‘I want to be inside you.’

‘I’ve got to get home.’

‘Oh come on.’

‘No.’

He got out of the car, slamming the door, and walked over to his 4×4. He switched on the headlights. They stretched across the car park, illuminating the white walls of the pub. She made to wave, but he just drove away.

She left Aboyne, and drove the dark twisting roads of the vale, narrowly missing a deer that ran across the road before her. She stopped near the village hall to put her ring back on. She got back to the house. They were all watching the Olympics again. She went to the bathroom, locked the door, climbed into another scalding bath. Turned on the radio.

*

They met for coffee in a department store filled with old people. Not far from the train station at Inverurie. She wondered why the hell he’d wanted to meet in the department store. On the way out, he sat on an expensive farm vehicle and made childish noises. He said it was his dream to own a farm. Finally, he suggested going back to his.

The first thing she noticed was the smell of his running shoes. They lined the hallway. In the living room, there was a big telly. It dominated. There was a dining table, with a pile of running magazines on it. In the corner stood an old-fashioned dresser, with what looked like a shrine, filled with running medals, t-shirts and trophies.

‘You want a coffee?’ he said, turning on the telly.

‘Another one? Not really. You got any booze?’

‘No. I don’t drink. Alcohol is poison. You’d get better times too if you stopped drinking. I’ll have a drink after a race or a walk but I don’t drink at home. I think I’m going to stop entirely.’

‘Okay, chill out. You don’t have to go off on one.’

‘I’m not.’

He put the Olympics on. ‘I’m not watching that,’ she said. He changed the channel. Some farmer squeezing cow teats on Countryfile.

She curved her back and it lifted her breasts. But he didn’t move. She picked up the remote control and turned the telly off. Walked over to him, stood over him. Then she straddled him on the couch and circled around. She felt him. She got back off and stripped naked. He took off his pants. She liked what she saw. She straddled him again, shoving her large breasts in his face. He kissed them, licked them, pressed them, nuzzled them. He took an age to get the condom on. Then he took her hand and placed it around himself, asking her to guide him in. She gasped when he did. It had been so long. He had the sense to hold back while she got where she needed.

Afterwards, she sat on the couch next to him. He got up and put his pants on. She laughed, felt pleased with herself. This kind of thing cleared the shit from your mind. A woman was nothing without sex. She needed it. All women needed it. God, all the other nonsense people did with their time. Garden centres, baking. The whole country was baking cakes. Why? And why had sex stopped feeling so good? Why did this moment feel like something rescued? 40 wasn’t old for fuck’s sake.

She watched as a man on Countryfile got giddy watching starlings. Thousands of them in the sunset, at the end of a pier. She began to feel cold. Went to the bathroom. The shower curtain was filthy on the inside, and orange bacteria grew between the tiles.

*

They went for a drive around the distilleries. At Glenlivet, they listened as a languorous Scottish guy spoke laughable French to tourists. Danny didn’t even drink whisky. When she had the free dram at the end, something that set fire to her throat, he didn’t bother. When she spent forty quid on a bottle of it in the shop he said she was daft.

They went on another drive. This time to Cullen. They looked at a sculpture of a dolphin, the wind whistling through it on a freezing promontory. They headed into a café where she had Cullen Skink. She hadn’t tasted it for years. It was trendy now. The soup made her burp, and she had an unpleasant aftertaste in her mouth all afternoon. Later, a man smelling of whisky showed them around his boatyard. He was building a wooden fishing boat to an old design, and it was absolutely freezing in there.

Another time they went to Portnockie. Ate some cheese sandwiches on the pebble cove near the Bow Fiddle Rock. She couldn’t see it. From any angle. She had no idea what a bow fiddle looked like anyway. They drove back to his and fucked on the couch. She found herself exaggerating, reaching for something no longer there. Some of the sounds he made were ridiculous.

*

She’d almost forgotten to take off her wedding ring, that first time. Now she didn’t bother, so Danny would see the ring every time they met. Yet he carried on. He wasn’t lasting long enough for her anymore either. That first time, when she thought about it, had been the longest. It occurred to her that he didn’t give a shit about her needs. He had clearly never given a shit about her family either.

She saw anew the face of her husband in their three children, and resolved that the affair with Danny would be her one and only fling. It hadn’t been an affair, really, she thought. They hadn’t met that many times, had they?

She reckoned that Danny always had a few women on the go. Probably didn’t give a shit about any of them either. She couldn’t believe how, in the first weeks of the affair, she had considered taking the kids from their father, divorcing him. She thought the divorce would be easy, and taking the kids the hard part.

But her husband had stayed solid. He put up with all her moods, that extremely difficult month in the early stages of the affair when she’d tried to tell him. God, what a disaster that would have been, to fuck the whole family up, just to be with Danny. A man who kept medals on show in his living room and grunted like a pig.

She’d been seduced. It wasn’t her fault. She drew a line in the sand, bought a dog, a poodle cross. They called them poo-dogs. She called him Toby after her first boyfriend. She’d heard once that he’d become a multi-millionaire.

She gave up running, and started walking in the mountains instead. At first her husband said he wanted to come with her. But she convinced him to stay home and look after the kids. One day, after coming back from another walk up Ben Avon, she sat at the kitchen table, looking across their back fence at the rolling fields of barley made golden by the evening sun. There were a couple of young deer in there. Occasionally they stopped to peer across the barley in the direction of the house. Her husband came in. She smiled and pointed towards the deer, but there was something in his eyes she’d never seen before.

Neil Campbell

On the Sneck was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016, as chosen by Courttia Newland.