Photograph by Marta Bevacque, Story by Kate Ellis
I’m a few miles from the cabin when a notification beams into the sky, red capital letters shout - ‘WARNING: EXTREME HEAT. STAY INDOORS. GOV.UK’
This was predicted yesterday, so the roads up here are empty; no one wants to risk getting burnt or caught away from home. My car’s air con is working but I’m still sweating and can see heat rising from the tarmac ahead. I swerve to miss a new sink hole before turning onto the old forest road.
Our cabin is on the opposite side of the loch to the Munro. It used to be in shade from tall leafy trees, but now sits surrounded by their trunks, huddled like a crowd of skinny sentinels.
I park as close to the door as possible and fumble for my keys. I take a couple of deep breaths to brace for the heat before cracking the car door open and heaving myself up. Birds chatter above me and I hear a motorboat engine from the water. Bio fuel, burnt pine and dust whirl up my nostrils. The key’s stiff as my back and I can feel my neck burning as I worry at the old lock. Arthritis makes it tricky to grip so I breathe slowly, try again, remember to dislodge the door with my shoulder this time and I’m in. I shut it behind me and stumble through the fust to the air con. I draw the curtains and lower myself onto the cold tiled floor to recover as sweat drips from my forehead.
I can still hear everyone’s voices when I visit, this kitchen used to be full of demands: “Pass a beer, Kath” or “More lemonade, Aunty!”, my nieces shrieking as they jumped into the loch. I can almost smell sun cream in the air. My brother moved them to Greenland years ago, the first allocation they got. After that I came here with Helen and we spent quiet sweaty summers lounging in bed, walking and watching the last snows thaw on the peaks, and tried not to think about the future.
The temperature settles and I pull myself up on the counter, my dodgy hip creaking as I rise. I open the curtains just enough to see the mountain. It’s naked and brown now, like everywhere. Driverless tractors work its shallow slopes, churning what little earth is left and adding to the ever present mechanical hum.
In my favourite photo of Helen, she’s looking at that mountain. It was taken the first year we came here. She’s on my bed facing away from me but she heard the click of my camera, turned and said “stop it,” I jiggled my breasts in apology and her scowl shifted to a smile.
The whole family was here that year and we taught a baffled Helen our New Year’s Day tradition. Before breakfast we go outside, stand in a spaced-out row facing the cabin and dig our boots deep into the fresh snow. We shut our eyes and on the count of three, fall backwards into the white. When we open our eyes, for a moment it’s too bright to see but gradually our vision is filled with sky. The myth goes that when we step up, we leave the past behind in our ‘snow grave’ to be covered by the next snowfall and begin the year fresh.
It’s been decades since that was possible. According to some news sites, the tip of the North Pole is still white though I reckon the images are doctored. I often think it’s funny how we learnt to doctor images before we learnt to doctor reality. It’s also funny how close I came to finishing my next book before running out of time. Only a few chapters to go and now it’ll be erased along with the rest of my data. I used to think eighty was old, but like every milestone it feels insignificant when you’re nearly there, nothing would change if it wasn’t for the Age Limit. I remember authors winning literary prizes in their eighties, reaching their prime in their ninth decade. I would not be less useful, less imaginative or more of a burden tomorrow, the population would not exceed capacity. That’s funny too, the final joke. Ha ha.
I used to film a lot up here, there’s dozens of clips of us standing, blinking next to our snow graves or looking over the loch. The kids sucking ice lollies at Christmas, Helen coy in her bikini on a February break, a selfie I took on our final ascent together with a hairy cow shitting in the background. They’ll be in that digital bog somewhere, clogging up the precious finite space, tangled with footage of strangers fucking or fighting, arty shots of old fashioned trees, people protesting the new age limit, composters being abused in the streets.
My data will be erased automatically when I Switch Off, only my few physical publications will exist. It won’t matter what I did or didn’t do, who I loved. Any money left will go to the state. My family will be notified of my passing and reminded about the benefits of a timely end. ‘The great leveller’, some call it.
In the morning I make coffee and watch the sun rise into another empty blue sky. When I’m finished, I shower, dress, and put my Switch Off pill in my pocket. I unlock the door, and lay the pill on my tongue, compliant to the end, the perfect citizen. It tastes like a Polo and the smooth sweetness transports me to feeling light headed on a hike, Helen joking that a mint would sort me out and we both sucked and gazed over the vista.
Once the outer layer is gone, the texture becomes granular and my mouth goes dry. I ease down into my snow grave position worrying the auto tracker won’t be triggered and I’ll lie here frying before the composters arrive. The blazing blue sky fades.
Kate Ellis is a writer and bookseller based in London. Her short fiction has been published in Open Pen, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and The London Short Story Prize Anthology among others. In 2020, she was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Foundation Award for her debut novel. She runs the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize. @katesmalleyelli
Marta Bevacqua is an Italian professional photographer and director based in Paris. Represented by Open Space Paris. Her many clients include: Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, Glamour, Samsung, Dior, Vichy, Grazia, La Perla, Lancome, Universal Music. You can find more of her work here.