‘Where are you?’
‘Oh sorry, you don’t know. We are up past Fort William. The fog seems to prefer lower ground. We are quite high up in a government facility on the side of Ben Nevis at a place called Achriabhach. You must get to us soon. What transport have you got?’
‘Bessie–she’s a Bedford coach.’
‘Have you got oxygen on board, food and drink?’
‘Yes we have all of that. Jeanie’s our quartermaster … oh she’s just woken up. Do you want to say hello?’
I was pushed unceremoniously out of the chair by Jeanie.
‘Hello, Pumpkin,’ he laughed. ‘I hear you haven’t lost your voice.’
‘I—I thought that you were dead.’ She said in a strangled tone.
‘I know, honey; we thought you were too. Anyway, try to get here soon. The colonel here has just told me that there are some red flares in the store room on the ground floor, near the garages. Get some of those and when you are near, set a few off. You will never find this place, so just set them off from the centre of Fort William. You are about a hundred and twenty miles from here. Don’t leave where you are until tomorrow. If all goes well, you should make it to us in three or four hours. We’ll keep a lookout from noon tomorrow. Can you do that?’
‘Yes, of course, Daddy.’
‘Wait a moment…Your mum has just said that she wants to come and get you, but the colonel says that it just doubles the risk. He seems to think that as you have come so far, you’re resourceful enough to get here by yourselves. Do you think you are?’
‘Yes, of course, Daddy. May I speak to Mummy?’
‘Yes, all right.’
I smiled at hearing my mum’s voice. I was choking up at this time and wasn’t capable of speech. Jeanie more than made up for it though.
And now the story continues…
We spent the night in the main building of the complex. It was a quiet night, thank goodness, but I found it very difficult to sleep. I was so happy discovering that our parents were alive. It seemed incredible that–god willing–we could see them the following day.
We had a sort of celebration that night as the sun set behind the hills and clouds came up, swiftly followed by a fine rain–or Scotch mist, as we called it.
I thought that we had no real need to keep an eye on our food, but Jeanie, being ever-practical, said in no uncertain terms that we would be daft to go mad, and leave anything behind because we still hadn’t arrived at our final destination yet, so we had to be cautious. Still, we did have a nice meal. Spam fritters, potatoes and baked beans may not have been posh food, but it was tasty and filling.
For afters we had jam roly-poly out of a tin, and custard. We had ginger beer and orange squash to wash it all down.
I must admit that I felt rather packed to the gunwales after all of that. We lounged about for a while and talked quietly about what might happen the following day, but didn’t stay up for long because we wanted to make an early start in the morning.
Jeanie changed the dressing on my leg before I went to bed, and although the wound still looked nasty and a bit inflamed, it wasn’t too bad.
As was our usual habit, we all slept in the same room. We were on the top floor, which happened to be the cafeteria. It had good all round views and we were able to keep an eye out for the fog. We took turns on ‘fog watch’ and I took the first spell with Eve. We chatted while we watched to keep ourselves awake.
‘It’s great that your parents are alive,’ Eve said.
‘Yes. I must admit that I’d nearly given up hope.’
‘What do you think they will say about your being a girl?’
‘I don’t know really. I hope they accept me–they will, I am sure they will.’
Even I could hear the tiny doubt creeping into my voice so I changed the subject.
‘I’m sorry you’ve lost your mum and dad.’
She looked at me and bit her bottom lip, a habit that she had when she was thinking. ‘Yes, I miss them sooo much. I wonder what they would think of me? I was once a strapping boy, into lots of scrapes and now, look at me, in a dress and, unbelievably, not bothered by it. I should be more worried and upset, but I’m not. I even had a dream the other night where I was marrying a man and I was in a beautiful wedding dress and I felt really special. Why should that be?’
‘I don’t know, but I think that it’s part of the effects of being changed into a girl. The fog must have affected our minds as well as our bodies,’ I said as I rubbed my tummy which had started to ache a bit–from all the food, I presumed.
‘Maybe you’re right. I wonder if they know where it came from?’
‘Where what came from?’
‘The green fog.’
‘My dad didn’t say. We’ll know more when we get there. It’s so frustrating being this near and not able to go and see them yet. I didn’t want to drive at night though, so I suppose that it does make sense to stay put until the morning.’
We were up bright and early the following morning and after a quick breakfast, we were on our way. Baby Arthur was being particularly noisy, and it was only after having his dummy stuck in his mouth that he finally quietened down.
Before leaving, Jeanie had a quick word with Dad on the short wave telling him that we were just about to leave.
‘Be careful, dear,’ he told her. ‘There have been reports of a build up of green fog coming from the east. We’ve got a spotter plane up now to monitor things–’
‘Oh we’ve seen that before a few times!’ Jeanie replied excitedly as we all gazed at each other and grinned.
‘Yes, we are lucky. There’s a landing strip just behind Fort William. It’s about the only flat bit around here. Anyway be safe, and don’t forget the flares.’
‘We won’t Daddy. Give Mummy our love!’
‘I will.’ He laughed.
It was so nice to hear him again and know that in few short hours we would see them. I was dying for a gorgeous big hug! Being a girl now I didn’t have to make do with a strong, manly handshake!
We retraced our route through the Argyll Forest Park on the A815 heading north and then followed the waters of Loch Fyne on our left. It had stopped raining about an hour before, but there was a stiff breeze which would help dry the roads fairly quickly.
Soon we were back on the A82 and we stopped again at the high point known as Rest and be Thankful to stretch our legs and scan the area for any signs of the foul fog. Apart from a slight green tinge on the eastern horizon, there was no sign. The wind was coming from the west anyway, so it seemed unlikely that the fog would bother us unless the wind changed direction.
At Tarbet we took the A83 road north and I felt a little lump in my throat as I saw the signpost for Fort William.
In no time at all we were by the banks of Loch Lomond and we all had a bit of a sing-song
'O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne’er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon'.
After singing it several times. I think even Arthur must have recognised the lyrics as his howling was almost in tune!
The road was quite narrow in places, to our left was the side of the banking and to the right some stone walling with the loch behind, its waters a bit choppy in the wind. It was somewhat of a relief that there was little danger of vehicles coming the other way because it could have been rather a tight squeeze.
The clouds got thicker as we continued up the lochside and flashes of lightening could be seen on the other shore and beyond the mountain of Ben a’Choin. I turned the headlights on as it was getting that bad, especially when we went through trees.
I couldn’t go fast as the road was all twists and turns and I didn’t want to lose control. All too soon the rain started, lightly at first, and then in earnest.
It was almost dark outside now, and I felt the winds buffeting old Bessie as I struggled on. Before long the far shore was no longer visible, the lightning flashed more regularly and I was aware of the rumbling thunder above the loud whine of Bessie’s gearbox.
Eventually, we reached the head of the loch and stopped off in the station car park at Ardlui Railway Station right next to the small station waiting room. The rain eased off slightly and we all took the opportunity to use the loos by the side of the waiting room, but were reluctant to go in there because of the rather nauseating smell and the flies.
There was a bit of a scramble as to who went first. Ben dashed out first, and didn’t waste any time finding a convenient tree against which to lift his leg.
As I was being clever, I used the gents, my nose wrinkling a great deal at the smell of stale urine still wafting around.
I looked at the urinals and grinned ruefully, realising that I would never be able use one of them ever again or see how high my wee would reach up the wall!
Once we all finished doing our stuff, we ran back into the bus and dried ourselves off as best we could. It was still raining cats and dogs, and the thunder was rolling around the mountains as if God was moving his furniture.
We were all scratching ourselves because the midges up here were as big as horses, and bit us fiercely. I never remember them biting me so badly when I was a boy, so perhaps they liked the taste of girls better. That’s the one down side of Scotland–flaming midges!
Luckily Jeanie, wonder of wonder, had some ointment for us to use and also some foul smelling spray for those brave enough to use it, as a repellent. There were no takers.
It seemed like a good idea to have some orange squash and biscuits while we waited for the weather to ease enough for us to continue and Eve and I took the opportunity to have a look at the battered old map book to try to work out how far we had come and how far we had to go.
We reckoned that we were almost halfway, with about sixty miles to go–maybe two and a half hours if things go well?
As I munched on a Royal Scot biscuit, I looked out through the rain- and midge-splattered windscreen. There were a few cars and a bus very similar to our Bessie sitting in the corner of the car park looking a bit forlorn, if a bus can do that.
‘Och well,’ I thought, ‘we had good old Bessie, she would see us through.’
About forty minutes later, the weather improved somewhat and I felt that it was safe for us to continue on our way.
‘All ready?’ I called back.
‘Yes!’ came the answer.
I made myself comfortable in my seat, turned on the ignition and pressed the starter button.
Strange... I tried again.
Nothing; the engine wouldn’t start. It didn’t even try to turn over.
‘Oh hell,’ I muttered to myself, ‘trust me to say that Bessie would see us through!’
‘It won’t start,’ said Nicola helpfully. Ben barked in agreement.
The others said nothing, aware that we needed Bessie to get us to Fort William.
‘Stay here’ I said pulling on my mac and hat and stepping outside in the drizzle.
I opened one side of the bonnet and saw the trouble straight away. Even a non-mechanically-minded person like me could see that the engine was covered in oil and some gasket or other must have blown, covering the whole thing in a fine layer of black, glutinous, oily gunge.
I went back inside and sat on the front passenger seat.
‘The thing won’t go,’ I said simply. ‘The engines busted.’
‘What shall we do?’ Julie asked, sounding scared as she cradled Arthur in her arms.
‘I don’t know. We can’t walk.’
‘This is daft,’ said Eve after a minute of staring out of the rain and mud splattered window.
‘What?’ Jeanie asked.
‘There’s another flaming bus sitting over there. We’ll use that!’
‘It looks a bit sad and deserted,’ Sarah said, doubtfully. ‘I bet she hasn’t been used in ages.’
‘Well has anyone got a better idea?’ Eve asked, rather snappily, I thought.
‘We could try, I suppose,’ said Jeanie.
Leaving Julie to be nursemaid (she liked that job and hated getting wet), we all trooped out and went over to the other bus, trying to avoid the puddles and keep our berets on in the wind and rain. I love Scotland but sometimes the weather is a bit much.
The bus was another Bedford, like Bessie but red with a green roof and ‘MacBraynes’ written on the side in gold letters, with the silhouette of a kilted highlander wielding a targe and a claymore underneath it–a familiar sight to both Jeanie and I.
‘She’ll get us hame,’ Jeanie remarked with a big grin. ‘MacBraynes rule the Highlands,’ she added quoting a well-known saying.
It was unlocked and we piled in. It was not exactly tidy inside, probably due to the driver not being able to return to his depá´t before the fog did for him.
‘A bit untidy in here,’ Sarah remarked, turning up her nose.
‘We’ll soon clear her up,’ Jeanie replied, sounding all bonnie and bright; ‘if she works that is,’ she added more doubtfully.
I sat on the driver’s seat and, of course, there was no key in the ignition. I tried the one from Bessie and–joy of joys–it fitted, and better still, it turned.
I made sure she was in neutral, turned the key and pressed the starter button… … … … …nothing–not a so-and-so dicky bird. ‘Well that’s that,’ I announced, feeling like hiding in a corner and having a good cry.
‘The battery might be flat,’ Eve suggested, who, in her former life as Adam had obviously been a practical boy.
‘What about the battery from Bessie?’ Jeanie suggested. ‘We’ve got a tool box–there’s one under the back seat.’
‘I suppose we could try,’ I said despairingly. I must admit to feeling a bit down. Only fifty or sixty miles to go to our destination and then this happens! On top of that, my leg was throbbing, I had a headache, a tummy ache and my breasts hurt. I wondered if I was coming down with something.
I just sat there feeling lethargic and dreadful all at once and wondered what the heck was wrong with me while the others went to Bessie, somehow got the battery out and, using a platform luggage trolley, wheeled it over with the tools to the “new” bus.
While Eve and Sarah wrestled with the nuts and bolts with Nicola and Julie looking on, Jeanie came back into the bus and gazed at me.
‘You look a wee bit peaky; does your leg hurt?’
‘Aye, a wee bit,’ I admitted, ‘I’ve got a headache–and other aches and pains.’
‘Want an aspirin?’
‘Hang on then, hen,’
She went to her medical box and, moments later, returned with a pill and a cup of water.
Thankfully I took the pill and just shut my eyes for a moment, rubbing my tummy.
I cracked one eye open; I couldn’t bother with the other one.
‘Eh?’ I asked.
‘Feeling all grumpy and crotchety?’
‘I wonder––?’ she repeated.
‘Wonder what, girl? Look why can’t you stop talking in riddles and tell me what’s on your mind?’
‘You might be starting your period––’
‘–My WHAT!’ I ejaculated.
‘Period.–girls have them, you know. Mine’s due any day now. We're twins, so our bodies might be sort of synchronised with each other.’
‘What’s a period? I thought it’s what Americans call a full stop.’
She looked at me sadly. ‘Hasn’t Daddy given you the birds and bees talk yet?’
‘No, he was going to do it in the next hols; the boys at school talked about––things–but you never knew if they were telling fibs or not. Mind you I’ve learnt a lot about girls from the inside, so to speak.’
‘Look, sis, Mummy will give you the ins and outs of it when we see her. She told me about things ages ago because girls mature quicker than boys. I had my first period four months back. It frightened the life out of me, even though Mummy warned me what to expect. Matron, gave me the necessary things and now I’m used to it, though I do hate it, as it’s totally yucky, but still, you’ll be okay too–once you get used to it.’
‘Used to what?’
‘But you haven’t told me what a period is!’
‘Mmm, no sorry, Allie, I haven’t, have I? I’ll keep it simple, because Mummy will want to go into it in more detail and I’m not very good at ’splaining things. As a girl grows up, her body has to get ready to have babies; every month an egg is produced so that a baby can be made. If it isn’t used, the body has to get rid of it and other things needed to make a baby. The way it does this is to have a period where you bleed a bit. It isn’t much–if you’re lucky–but all it is just the waste material that has to be taken away so next months egg is able to get ready––’
‘–I’m not a hen? I don’t want to lay eggs!’
She laughed. ‘It’s not quite the same as hens.’
‘I’ll never want a fried egg again–or any other type.’
‘Will you get off the idea of hens eggs–ours are different.’
‘Well, if you say so. Are you saying that I am going to start bleeding from down there?’ I pointed vaguely to a place between my legs.
‘Erm, yes, it happens roughly every twenty-eight days–that’s why most females call it “the curse”.’
‘How long does it go on for?’
‘’bout a week.’
‘So let’s get this clear; I’m going to bleed down below for one week out of every four?’
‘Oh great, and do I feel like this every month too?’
‘Like I want to go and crawl under a rock and die?’
‘Well, pills help and everything. It might be that you won’t feel so bad after a bit. It’s all new to you, just now. With me, it began getting less horrible after the first couple of months.’
‘And how do I stop messing up my clothes?
‘I’ve got some sanitary towels you can use. Look, while the others are busy, let’s go to the lav and I’ll sort you out–’
On inspection, there were a few spots of blood on the gusset of my knickers and I had to wear a sanitary towel; it was held in place by a tight-fitting pair of white briefs–Jeanie called them “linings”–with my usual knickers over the top. All in all it felt bulky and rather like a sort of nappy.
It was at times like this that I wished I was still a boy.
When we got back to the bus, the battery had been replaced and everyone was waiting for us. Eve and Sarah were wiping some grease from their hands.
‘Where have you been?’ asked Nicola.
‘To the lav,’ I mumbled.
‘You were a long time. Why are you walking funny?’
‘Never mind,’ I replied, feeling myself blushing.
I climbed back into the driver’s seat and then after everyone had stepped back out of the way, I pumped the accelerator pedal, dipped the clutch, said a bit of a prayer and then pressed the starter button.
The engine turned over slowly, but didn’t start.
I waited a moment and pumped the pedal a couple of times and then tried again.
The engine turned over slightly faster. I was just about to stop, when there was a big bang that set off Arthur, then another that got Ben barking and then the engine roared into life with a huge pall of black smoke belching out of the exhaust pipe halfway down the right hand side.
To a series of cheers and claps I drove the bus across to old Bessie and while keeping the engine running, the others transferred all our things to our ‘new’ bus.
I think we were all sad to leave Bessie. I promised myself that if we managed to get ourselves out of this mess, I’d come back and somehow get her going again.
The fuel gauge said that we had just over a quarter-tankful of petrol and I hoped, one, that it was accurate and two, there was enough get us to Fort William. I wasn’t sure if there were any petrol stations on the way, and so we had to just hope that nothing else would go wrong.
We had to name the bus, of course. I was all for Bessie MkII, but the others poo-pooed that, making me go into another sulk.
In the end we called her Nessie and that was good enough, I suppose.
As we drove out of the car park and continued our journey, everyone shouted goodbye to Bessie, who looked a bit lonely and forlorn in the car park. She had done us proud and got us out of many a tight spot and for that I was eternally grateful to her.
The roads followed the railway line for a while until we reached Crianlarich, which was a junction with the line from Perth and Callander to Oban. Nessie was quite nice to drive–the clutch was easier than Bessie’s, and the steering was a bit lighter too, for which I was thankful.
We passed a couple of “dead” cars and a few lorries as our journey continued, but there were no signs of life. The roads were comparatively flat here with hills either side. It was pleasant country but not as pretty as other places on our journey. Sometimes the railway line joined us and at others swung away from us as it found a different route to our common destination–Fort William.
I noted that Nessie tended to heat up a bit on the uphill sections and cool down on the downward ones. I had no idea how she would behave around Ben Nevis, but would find out soon enough. Luckily, the roads invariably followed the water side or went through valleys, so I wasn’t too worried yet. Also the fog had kept away, so that was another thing that we didn’t have to worry about for the moment.
Why did I think these things? Was it tempting fate? I don’t know.
After going through The Bridge of Orchy with its big hotel and a few other houses we continued on. On the left were the mountains of Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh, all very nice and good walking country, that is if we were not trying to get to Fort William and safety.
I noted as we went through the countryside with a river to our left and the railway line on the right that it all looked quite empty of life. No more hardy sheep on the hills that I could find; we did see the occasional car, and a few lorries with occupants who would never move, see or feel again .
Then, we passed another bus, similar to Nessie, that had ploughed into a wall. It was a school bus. I had no idea if it had been coming or going to school, but the pupils and the driver had all perished.
How many more horrendous sights would we see? When would it all end? I wondered with despair.
I was feeling very emotional at the moment but judging by the others, it wasn’t just my period, menses or whatever it’s called that was making me feel awful. Everyone was feeling the strain, and I dreaded the next corner, where goodness knows what other horrors we would have to witness.
It was only the thought that we were so near to our parents that kept me going.
Shortly after that, we stopped for a toilet break. I wanted to continue, but when nature calls, you just have to stop.
I went behind a convenient large rock and did the necessary. The Izal toilet paper wasn’t very kind though, and I wished that someone would invent some softer paper for my poor sore behind!
On a lighter note, my sanitary towel only had a few spots on it and I supposed that I wouldn’t mind if that was all I had each time my monthly visitor arrived. I did wish though that I didn’t feel so rotten. I yearned for nice hot water bottle on my tummy to ease my aches and pains.
Soon everyone was finished and we were able to continue on our way.
We were heading towards the stunningly beautiful Glen Coe–site of the apalling massacre in February 1692.1 Our family had camped in the glen once, about two years before. It’s a place that everyone must see if they can. It’s one of the loveliest places on Earth.
We passed Altnafeadh at about twelve thirty, and despite our stops, we were going quite well. Up ahead, the snow covered mountains came ever nearer. It was cold outside and there were pockets where snow still lay. We were about six to seven hundred feet up here and although not really high, at this time of the year, you can feel it when you are wearing skirts!
Mind you, according to our old Geography teacher, Ben Nevis was about four thousand four hundred feet high. I hated to think how cold it was up there!
I coughed slightly and my chest felt tight. I wondered if, what with everything else, I was coming down with a cold.
The road rose a bit and there was a bend up ahead where the glen started proper. I was getting to feel even colder now. The heating in the bus was laughable, and we really needed to stop and put on some more clothes, but we had stopped enough for today and I wanted to get where we were going in the shortest time possible. Looking at the others in the rear view mirror, they were all either asleep or just staring out of the windows. The chatter had stopped after seeing those poor kids on the bus. No more sing-songs today.
I coughed and I felt a bit of wetness down below. I wasn’t sure if it was wee or, yucky blood, but I was thankful that I was wearing some sort of protection. I didn’t want to spoil my skirt–
I stopped thinking about my skirt as I topped the brae and studied what lay ahead.
I pulled the bus up on the side of the road and stared at Glen Coe, which had opened up before me.
There were gasps from behind as the others had noted that I had stopped and realised why.
Jeanie came forward and just said. ‘Oh, crivvens!’
Before us, as far as the eye could see, between the mountains on either side, in the glen, was a sea. A sea of green, pulsating, slightly luminous fog, covering the road completely and going half way up the mountains on either side. It must have been half a mile across––
My thanks go to the brilliant and lovely Gabi for editing, help with the plot-lines and pulling the story into shape.
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