There are few things more irritating than having your ears savagely assaulted by cheerful off-key whistling, while painfully striving to get fully awake on a bleak rainy day, feeling lousy and wearing a damp bathrobe. The fact that a fire in the hearth was crackling its way to a new life was not a sufficient solace.
Morosely sipping his morning tea, Cowley looked up at a beaming Bodie dangerously looming over him while holding a tray loaded with sizzling fried eggs, fried bread, fried bacon, fried everything.
"You're up bright and early today. Had a good night's sleep?" he asked acidly.
"Yeah, better than yours, I guess."
Cowley stared at him, silent. Bodie smiled. "I nearly came to your rescue. Do you often have these nightmares?"
"Never." That was true – almost. It had not happened for a long time: in the aftermath of the war, as he was mourning Doug's death and another loss, no less painful for being mute. Since then, nothing, not even the bitter legacy of Korea: a grievous wound and the experience of captivity, had managed to stir the ghosts of the past from their slumber. Well, not often anyway. "Activatingtheemotionalleversofthememory",indeed!
Bodie's thoughts had followed the same path. "Seems your elixir of doom worked beyond all expectations. On you at least."
"And not on you? What have you been dreaming about?"
Bodie made a face, sheepish and smug at the same time. "You're embarrassing me."
"I've no interest in your lubricious fantasies. However, if you can recognise the woman..."
"Did I say it was a woman?"
Cowley glared at him. "Whoever. Who was it?"
Bodie sobered. "Yes, it was a woman. No, I didn't recognise her. You know: one female's private parts look like any other female's private parts."
"Mind your language, man!" Cowley was still shocked in spite of all these years spent in mainly male company. He hated curses and obscenities equally.
"What? I was very polite. I didn't use any dirty words."
True enough, 'private parts' sounded almost quaint; at least he was spared 'pussy' and 'cunt' or whatever the latest fad in porn slang was. He scolded himself. Who was he to think he had any right to censure a twenty-four-years-old boy's sexual urges?
"Sit down and have your tea; it's getting lukewarm."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Before Cowley could ask, he added: "The elixir of doom. Am I not supposed to take it before breakfast?"
"Whenever you like, providing it's at least three times a day. Eat first; all that greasy stuff will taste awful when cold." As the young man was complying earnestly, he corrected: "By the way, it's a herbal tea, not an elixir".
"Whatever, it's a drug."
"You seem to tolerate it well." He bit his lip briefly, expecting a repeat of the too easy retort 'better than you, apparently' and felt grateful when it didn't come. He hastily offered "The taste's not too bad."
"I don't dislike it. And it makes me feel good."
Still focused on his plate, Bodie cast a side-ways glance at him. "You wouldn't have another try at it, would you?"
"Not on your life!"
"Too bad, since I said I'd drink it on one condition only, that you'd share it with me."
"Only the first time."
"Hmm, I don't remember any such restriction."
"But you just said you liked the effect it has on you. And you must know by now there is no risk drinking it." Cowley was annoyed to hear a hint of desperation in his voice.
"I know nothing of the sort. I don't know anything about the possible long-term side-effects. Anyway you promised".
They were at stalemate now. Ridiculous. There were any number of actions Cowley would be able and willing to undertake in order to reach his goals but forcing hot tea down the throat of a brawny young scoundrel wasn't one of them. He made a last attempt: "I'll share it with you once more today but only once and, if that spoils my sleep again tonight, I won't do it a third time." He pleaded, shamelessly: "You can't expect me to lie awake in pain while you sleep like a baby and dream about strange women."
Bodie laughed. "I'm not that cruel." His eyes had a slightly slanted curve when he laughed and his nostrils flared a little, like a skittish, unbroken yearling shunning the bridle. It made him look more dangerous than cheerful. It suited him. "If you take it with me morning and midday, I'm willing to spare you at night."
So, once again the deal was done and in the wee bastard's favour. Cowley gave up and drank half the content of the wooden bowl when they shared it, minutes later. It felt sweeter and less strange than the first time; the balsamic scent was soothing, comforting even.
He went to the window and breathed a whiff of cool air. "What would you like to do now?" The sky had cleared, the rain had stopped; there was a timid rainbow over the hills.
Drinking such nectar from a tin tumbler was borderline sacrilegious. Wishing he could admire its rich, purple shade, Cowley smelled his wine with a reverence almost equal to that he would have awarded a great Islay malt. Unlike port, a really good wine was a treat he could appreciate once in a while. And, sure, cousin MacLaren was a true expert in matters of vintage: this venerable "Hospices de Beaune" 1959 was a pure marvel. Which would have deserved crystal and fine linen, not a rough, silt-smelling plank.
For they were now seated at each end of an old and decayed looking (but, hopefully, still safe) wooden boat and the bottle was the last remnant of a copious picnic. Bodie's idea, of course: a picnic on wet grass and slippery gravel, under dripping trees or in the shelter of a dim shack was not exactly the kind of fun a semi-crippled old soldier would seek after. But Bodie had been respectfully persistent and had suggested the boat as their refuge. Not very comfortable, assuredly, but pleasant now that the sun was shining and a light breeze had replaced the morning rain.
Cowley's mood was fast improving in accordance with the weather and the good fare, not to mention the good booze. Or was it the potion reversing its effects eventually? MacFarlane had hinted something about a "purgative" phase of emotional turmoil preceding the "re-equilibrating" process. He could see nothing remotely "emotional" on the placid face of his young companion. As for him, he could only hope last night's spooky performance had exhausted the "purgation" part, allowing his – still steady – mind-control to push back the spooks to the bat-cave where they belonged.
The Burgundy was a nice addition anyway, he nodded to himself; this bottle had been shaken and carried around enough: it just cried out to be drunk. And so it had been, with due respect. From him at least.
The wine, as it stood, was not the only cause of his current state of bliss: it was for Cowley an unmitigated pleasure to watch Bodie rowing and sweating while he lay back, savouring his drink. Though, when you looked at it more keenly, the man wasn't sweating, actually, but moving gracefully, with smooth, effortless efficiency. The broad shoulders and strong arms, rising and lowering rhythmically, were a pleasant sight to behold from his half-reclining position. The tough and creaky leather cushion on which he was resting smelt of mould, mice droppings and fox piss; save of it, everything was perfect.
Once again Bodie read his thoughts. "It's just as well the motor-boat wasn't working properly after all; I needed the workout; was getting rusty".
"You'll have all the exercise you want if we go fly-fishing for trout in the river. But to get to the best spots, on the other side of the loch, the motor boat would be more convenient."
"I can fix it, no bother; I'll do it this evening if we're not back too late."
"Don't forget there's no power in the boat house."
"Don't need it; it's mostly about deep cleaning and oiling, but I need light of course. Hmm, I think I'll take the motor to the lodge."
"That will be an exercise, indeed!"
"Easier than dragging the smaller boat from the lodge to the pier."
"We could use the trailer. However, the track's overgrown and the wee boat's not really big enough for two grown men and their kit."
"Really? So, why did you made me clean it yesterday?"
"Ah, son; you looked like you were sorely wanting a little healthy physical exercise. You just admitted as much. Idleness is the mother of all vices, or so they say."
Bodie sighed in disgust. "I can think of better ways to spend my time. And, speaking of which, what are we doing now?"
"Are you tired of the loch already?" He let his gaze wander to the majestic landscape around them: he wouldn't get tired of it, should he live a thousand years. No need to share this bout of national pride with the young scamp, though. "Bored? Isn't the view spectacular enough?"
"It's magnificent, all right," Bodie agreed, sounding indifferent "It's just we've been here for two hours and a half, going round in circles."
"Not quite. We had lunch. And I must remind you this was your suggestion. Why I complied is beyond me!" The brat had successfully managed to spoil the mood.
Said brat flashed him an impish look: "I know why. The magic potion was actually meant for you, not me; see: it's made you almost civil." The smirk widened into a grin. Blinding.
Cowley blinked and swallowed back the biting retort he had on the tip of his tongue. He had a hunch, experience fed, that a direct run-in was not the key to the inner recesses of Bodie's psyche.
"You might be right," he said flatly, "so enjoy it while it lasts." He sipped the last drop of his wine. "What exactly have you in mind?"
"It's too late or too soon to start fishing in this area, especially now we've put all the little water people on red alert. We could still have a try, so long as you don't count on fish for dinner."
But Bodie's interest had shifted back to the motor boat, insisting he should have another look at it while there was still enough light in the boat house, as it was poorly lit through two high, narrow windows. As expected, the damned engine had persisted in its non-cooperative ways, showing there was more to it than a need for deep cleaning and oiling. The necessary tools weren't there, so the repair had to be postponed.
All the same, why so eager a concern from the man for the only fast means of transport available in the vicinity? Cowley stifled the familiar rush of suspicion and firmly reminded himself he had decided to trust Bodie, if only for the simple reason he had no working alternative.
And yet, he unthinkingly wrapped his fingers around the small metallic bottle he still kept in his trouser pocket: a nifty medical device, meant for wild animals in cages, which in a split second, could eject a needle and deliver its load of stun-serum; a nasty thing he hoped never to use again.
Unaware of this turmoil, Bodie was rubbing his dirty hands with a dirtier rag, and whistling more off-key than ever. Cowley hardly recognized the atrocious rendition of "Auld Lang Syne".
"Stop murdering that innocent tune, Bodie, and drop that filthy thing."
"But there's nothing to wash yourself with in this shack: no towel, no soap, not even a bucket of water," Bodie complained, in the irritating childish tone he too often affected.
"The place is seldom used, Bodie. Actually I'm even surprised the engine had been left on the boat." Waving to the open door, he scoffed. "I can't offer you the scented soap and lush towel you require for your creature comforts but, regarding the water, I can see plenty of it outside."
"The silt round the pier?"
"The water in the river, pure enough to be the abode of many happy, healthy trout."
"And, gee-whizz, quite tasty they are too, I'll give you that." Bodie winked, mood changing again from cloudy to sunny as quickly as a Scottish sky, "I'd gladly have another go at them."
"Not by your method, Bodie"
"Okay, as a matter of fact, I'll vote for fly-fishing if I'm given a choice; no need for a boat. And that's sport."
"I agree to that. Maybe tomorrow morning. Not sure we've the proper bait though," he mused. "We could go back to the lodge by the river bank; it's a much longer way round than the path but it makes for a pleasant stroll and I can show you the best fishing spots."
'River' was a big word for the turbulent stream tumbling and cascading down from the heights of the mountain. Only a short length of it had enough depth for a flat-bottomed boat, and not all the time. But there and a little higher up the fish abounded.
To get to the bank they had to struggle through a thick tangle of bushes and bracken, which had overgrown the one-time path. "It wasn't as dense last summer," Cowley mumbled, "Bart used to trim it from time to time."
"I guess nobody is getting any younger with every passing year," Bodie quipped, which earned him a baleful glare from the older man. "I mean," he added hastily, "this fellow, Bart, looks even older than your cousin; You can't expect him to go hiking up and down the hills every two weeks, just to keep the path to the river free."
"You don't know the old goat, and Angus is just as bad; they'd out-breathe you."
"They would, both of them, and so would I," snapped Cowley, instantly regretting his outburst. The look of knowing indulgence on the boy's face was more hurtful than jibes.
Resolutely, he sank deeper into the rising tide of shrubbery and had the satisfaction of seeing that his young companion wasn't managing much better than he was in spite of his own game leg. Put to rest for a couple of hours in the boat, his knee was unusually compliant.
His good fortune lasted exactly two minutes. The morning downpour had in places turned the path into a slippery mix of sludge and rotting leaves. Skidding suddenly on a patch of mud, he tripped on a root, his foot caught in its snare, and dived forward, unable to hang on to the entwined twigs and branches that snapped and failed his grip. In the span of a split second, the time stretched as he desperately tried to wrench his body in order to spare his bad leg. He knew what was coming before he hit the ground. A white flame of pain seared through his brain, tearing along his nerves from the top of his skull to the tip of his toes, and back. Then, black out.
When he opened his eyes again, a blurry figure was looming over him far above, in a mist of dimly twinkling fireflies.
"Don't move." The voice was dulled too, sounding muffled and distant. "I must check nothing's broken."
"N...no, leave it, I'm alright," he croaked weakly, wondering why he felt obliged to offer the conventional crap. He was far from being alright, of course: he had landed on his hip, not his leg, thank God, but the commotion of his fall had shaken it hard, then the rebound as he rolled over had slammed his knee, his bad knee, against an outcrop of rock. The pain had been severe enough to make him faint and was now fast coming back, barely mitigated. He gritted his teeth. The greyish mist was dissipating and he could see, more distinctly, the worried and disapproving face of his rescuer.
"Nonsense; don't move and let me check."
Cowley bristled at the tone of command in the youth's voice; even in his current predicament of dimmed awareness, he resented the irreverence. Besides, he'd always hated being groped and pawed about, whatever the reason or the circumstances. He'd got his fair share of it while in the military. To suffer it now from a cheeky kid, unresisting, wasn't an option: he tried to sit up by resting on his good leg, wedging his left foot against a big stem and was swallowed at once by a wave of sharp pain. His foot now! He slumped back down in sheer misery.
"You, old fool!" Bodie exclaimed, affectionately.
He let go. Dazzled, he sensed strong, knowing hands unbuckling his belt, unbuttoning his shirt and lifting it open, pulling down his trousers, roaming along his limbs: swiftly first, then slowly, carefully, gently pressing on his chest, shoulders, hips, legs and feet, searching for signs of any abnormal torsion, bump or swelling. They were warm, skilful, healing hands. It hurt. It felt good. He loathed himself for feeling so good under the light but steady kneading of firm, rough fingers. It had been so long since the last time he had allowed himself to have male hands laid on him, working to give him pleasure…
Bodie stopped just before it all became very embarrassing.
"At first glance you don't seem to have anything broken. Yet your knee is getting pretty swollen and so's your ankle. And your left arm is badly bruised. You should have them X-rayed, just to be sure."
"That's out of the question."
"Don't be daft!"
"Don't be rude!"
"I only want to help: I'm not a doctor and you need to be taken care of by somebody more competent than I am."
"Angus is perfectly competent in those matters, I'll call him with the RT."
"We have to get back to the lodge first!"
That was the sorry fact. There was a steep hill to climb and it wasn't easy even for a fit walker. And he had now two gamy legs. Cowley felt suddenly terribly helpless...and very naked. At least he had recovered enough strength to get dressed on his own. Or so he thought. But simply sitting up and lifting himself from the ground to adjust his trousers needed a bodily support; with only his good knee and the opposite elbow left to use he could manage, but barely. However his injuries made his movements pretty awkward and, after two failed attempts, he had to accept Bodie's help. Standing up was quite another story. Jaw clenched in angry resolution, clutching Bodie's arm ferociously, he tried to rise by resting on his sound foot, but his knee yielded and he slumped into the young man's embrace. Bodie hauled him up and held him firmly.
"You stubborn old git! What do you think you're doing?"
"We must go back; I have to walk."
"No way! Your ankle may not be broken but you've probably sprained it, and your other leg isn't working either."
"There's no choice."
"Of course there is! Ever heard about what's called a 'fireman's lift'?"
God forbid! That really would be the final blow.
"No, no and no! Anyway you're not able to carry me, that way or otherwise."
"Ah? Just try me!"
Staring up blankly at the overhanging foliage for a couple of minutes didn't bring any better ideas. Sending the boy alone to the farm for help? Or to the lodge as to fetch the RT? He was fairly sure Angus and Bart would be in town for the week's errands, not forgetting a stop at the local pub, as they used to do every Saturday, and wouldn't be back before dinner time. That would mean he had to spend long hours lying on that muddy ground in his now wet clothes. A sprained ankle was bad, but pneumonia was worse. As stubborn and prideful that George Cowley could be, stupid or unreasonable he was not.
So; he wasn't going to escape this. "Didn't you say not long ago you were getting rusty and you needed physical exercise?"
"Absolutely!" Bodie's smile was radiant.
"Well, it's a case of 'be careful what you wish for'."
"Don't fret; I won't let you down."
"In whatever sense you mean, I'll take you at your word."
"Let it be so, then". In Cowley's mind it was the gloomy equivalent of "Alea jacta est".