“You’ll never know unless you try,” encouraged Gordon Ramsay, as they watched the silver streaked water bubbling in the moonlight. They were a little way off from the rest of the group, the gurgle of the burn mingling with the distant chatter and laughter. A faint tang of smoke - bonfire, tobacco, and other substances - drifted across in the still air.
It was Friday 12 August, 2022. Kirkton Burn had become a regular weekend gathering place for the group of friends, all in S5 at Thursfield High. Aged 17, they were due to take their Highers the following summer. They had a week of summer holidays left before they would get down to the nitty gritty of S6, their final year of school.
Peter dipped his fingers into the water. It felt icy, despite the balmy evening. Kirkton Burn frothed out of the mountain a little way above them, then dived underground again before finally coming up slightly lower down, to flow as a stream the rest of the way into the valley, eventually joining the River Dee. The short subterranean stretch formed a u-shaped sump with a narrow hairpin turn, just wide enough to allow an adult to get through.
“Oh, I’m going through with it,” Peter assured his friend. “In a bit. Let’s go join the others.”
As they turned to cross the grassy hillside, Ailsa Black was coming towards them. “Pete, I know what you’re thinking,” she said, looking him in the eye. “It’s dangerous. Google it. Jack Grice died here, ten years ago. You don’t need to impress me, Pete. It’s stupid.”
Peter smiled. “I’m doing it, Ailsa. Kudos to all who’ve done it before me. Nobody’s been through for a while. I’ve read about that Jack. He was insane. Got through the burn with no problem, then came back and drowned trying it a second time. What’s the point of that? I’m only planning the once.”
Soon, they were sitting with the others in a circle around the fire. Gordon pulled out a hip flask and offered it around. Only Pete accepted, taking a swig that made him cough and gasp. Gordon smirked. “OK, so here we all are, the final meeting of S5 before we metamorphose into S6 and our parents start expecting us to take life seriously again.”
There was a murmur of sniggering. Gordon went on, his angular features starkly shadowed in the fire’s glow. “So this is the last chance for Amaranth Hellion to get us. She’s up here, ye know. This is where they buried her, at the end of the seventeenth century. In an unmarked grave, so as not to attract the wrong types. She’s here, somewhere, near the burn.
Ailsa scoffed. “Och, on yer bike, Gordon. Witches belong in legends and fairy tales, not in twenty-first century Scotland. Don’t be thinking you can scare us with all that old crap.”
Gordon turned squarely to face her. “Are ye sure, Ailsa? Something drew Jack Grier back up here, on his own, a week after he’d successfully done his initiation. He went back in and didn’t come out. Until they found him deep down, in the hairpin, the next day. Not a pretty sight after all those hours under the water. They say there was a fearful expression on his dead face.”
A moments silence, then Gordon went on. “Some say Amaranth Hellion still walks these hills, still lies in wait for the unwary. Once she’s got her eye on you, she’ll eventually get you. Ignore at your peril.”
Peter Ross got to his feet, unbuttoning his shirt. “Gordon, if you’re trying to scare me out of doing the swim, you’ve no chance. I’m going for it.” Balling and dropping his shirt, he unfastened his belt and lowered his jeans, revealing the swimming shorts he was already wearing. Then he was off, back up to where he and Gordon had stood a few minutes before, his friends tramping a long a few feet behind.
Ailsa clasped her hands and watched nervously, almost feeling the cold bite through Peter’s skin as he slipped feet-first into the deep water. Then he took a deep breath, ducked his head under and he was gone.
The seconds seemed like hours. Ailsa found Gordon’s hand; he gripped hers firmly and told her it would be OK. Pete would be through in a few seconds. It was about three strokes, he said, down to the hairpin, then you clambered your way around, then pushed off and it was only a stroke or two till you broke surface. Ailsa nodded, pulling away and scampering over to the egress, where the black water welled up. Tick. Tick. Too long. Where was he? She turned behind her.“Gordon?” There was urgency in her voice. “Where is he, Gordon? It’s been too long.”
Gordon looked distracted, his eyes fixed on the bushes a few feet away. Instinctively, she followed his gaze. Had there been a small movement? A figure, fleetingly there, then gone? No, just shadows. Then, suddenly, Peter exploded from the burn, blowing water, gulping in air, shivering. He pulled himself up. They grabbed him and got him up. His towel appeared from somewhere and Ailsa held it out to him.
A still moment of silence. Just the water’s babble. Peter’s hands stayed by his sides. “Pete?” Ailsa frowned in puzzlement.
Peter’s mouth yawned open. A guttural, animal roar rent the stillness of the night. Then he was off, haring down the hillside. His stunned friends paused, as if paralysed, then set off after him, Ailsa and Gordon leading the pack. “Pete! Stop!” Gordon panted. “What’s got into ye? STOP!”
A thud. Peter was horizontal, unmoving, when they caught up with him. He had tripped and hit his head. A trickle of moon-black blood ran down his temple. “Shit, somebody get help,” Gordon ordered.
Police Constable Angus West strapped on his side tank and secured the demand valve. “The Good Divers Always Live,” he muttered, mentally checking Training, Guide, Depth, Air and Light. All boxes ticked. His training and experience, as a police diver, were more than adequate for a very short dive like this one. He had been a recreational cave diver for years and had taken part in the historic rescue of twelve young boys from the flooded Tham Luang Cave complex in northern Thailand, in the summer of 2018. Today’s assignment - to check what was down there, that could have driven a seventeen-year-old out of his mind the previous Friday - would be a breeze by comparison.
Angus passed the end of the guide line to Constable Charlie Wills, who secured it to a stout rock, pulled to test, and nodded. Angus knew the depth was only a dozen feet. There would be no need for decompression procedure. He had plenty of air, and the statutory three sources of light, all of which he tested in front of Charlie. Taking a look around him at the cloudy, grey, Aberdeen Saturday morning, he stepped forward and plopped into the burn as Charlie started his stopwatch.
The daylight receded above, as Angus controlled his buoyancy, pacing his descent toward the dark depths of the hairpin. Tucking up his knees, he rolled into a head-down attitude, his torch penetrating the murk, the smoothed rocks of the hairpin visible ahead and below. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Angus and his colleagues had assumed the boy must have seen something awful, something that frightened him so badly he became hysterical and took off down the mountain, falling and knocking himself out. Since then, he hadn’t uttered a word. Latest news was he’d regained consciousness in hospital but wasn’t speaking yet. The doctors couldn’t find any serious head trauma, so it should just be a matter of waiting for the concussion to pass.
Angus reached the hairpin and began to feel his way carefully around. Although snug, the aperture was way wider than many of the sumps he’d negotiated. Still, those kids were stupid, trying it at night with no line, no equipment and no training. That poor young Jack Grier had come alone - an absolute don’t do, in the diving world - Angus was forever glad he hadn’t been on call that day, when they’d had to pull the kid out.
Wait. Something was wrong. As Angus rounded the hairpin, looking for the circle of daylight above, the view began to darken. His light couldn’t be failing. He’d checked the battery a thousand times. Keeping calm, as per his training, he reached for the first backup light. And then, without further warning, the rocky wall pixellated and he was not in Kirkton Burn any more.
The scene was straight from Ideal Homes. It was the epitome of perfection. He was looking at a dream bathroom. The unblemished white bath sported a crystal-clear shower window with black lines creating mock panes, though which he could see the stylish black shower mixer and head. The walls were tiled flawlessly; the grout smooth and even. Beneath his bare feet, he felt warm, non-slip floor tiles, laid level and even. A slim washbasin and towel rail, both the stuff of designer dreams, lay to his right. He saw he was wearing a fluffy white bath robe.
Had he lost his sanity? He guessed he had not, for his rational mind told him he was twelve feet underwater, wearing diving equipment, not in a palatial bathroom. His next thought was that he recognised this place. The bathroom was in his own home - it was the conversion he and his wife had dreamed of but never made into reality, before she’d died, too young, of cancer, the previous year. Was she here, he wondered? In the house? He turned around, half expecting her to be there, warm smile, maybe a cup of tea she had made for him. She had loved to give him little surprises and he missed her more than anything.
Then he was looking at the grey rocks of the hairpin at the bottom of Kirkton Burn. Instantly switching back to trained diver mode, he played out the guideline and struck upward for the light of the surface above. As he did so, he noticed that his primary light was working normally. He broke surface, looked around him and saw Charlie click off the stopwatch.
In that moment, Angus West felt hot tears behind his diving goggles, and a sense of overwhelming, agonising loss, stronger than anything he could remember feeling since he’d broken up with his first girlfriend, almost forty years before. Even when Jenny had died, he’d not been overcome with a wave of crippling sadness like this. He’d put it down to age, to it being easier to deal with your emotions when you got older. Teenagers could be completely nuked by things a more mature person might brush aside. “Pull yourself together, ye sentimental old gawp,” he muttered, blinking away the tears and heaving himself up out of the burn.
“Nothing down there,” he said to Charlie. “How long was the dive?”
“Ninety-four seconds,” came the reply.
Angus decided not to tell Charlie about the flashback. His performance review was due soon and he wasn’t ready for compulsory retirement yet. No, it must have been a funny turn of some kind. It had passed now. He was fine.
“What do ye mean, I cannae see him?” Anger sharpened Ailsa’s Scottish accent.
The staff nurse remained professionally calm. “Miss, I’m afraid Mr Ross isn’t being allowed visitors just now, except his immediate family. You can come back tomorrow. Please phone first and we’ll tell you if you can visit him then.”
Taking a breath to reply, Ailsa saw the security guard get out of his chair by the entrance door. She swallowed. “Er, OK. I’ll try again tomorrow.” She turned to leave.
She recognised the voice. It was Pete’s mother, Brenda.
“Ailsa, I’m sorry Pete’s not well enough to see you today. Thing is… nurse, can Ailsa and I talk somewhere?”
The staff nurse motioned to an empty cubicle. “You can have five minutes,” she said curtly, checking her fob watch.
They sat on the hard plastic chairs. “Ailsa, it’s like this. Pete came around, started yelling - we couldn’t make sense of anything he was saying - then he tried to… harm himself. Started hitting his head against things, like the corner of the stand by his bed. They had to sedate him for his own safety. No point you seeing him while he’s like that.”
Ailsa stared into space as the words sank in. What could have happened to Pete, down under the waters of Kirkton Burn, that had driven him crazy like this? He was a strong swimmer and he’d only been down there a matter of seconds. Yes, she knew it had felt longer, but Gordon had timed him and that’s all it was. Maybe he’d hit his head during the swim, before the second bump as he’d run away? Could there be brain damage? But no, the doctors had said it was concussion. They were supposed to be the ones who knew.
Brenda reached out and they clasped hands.
“What the hell?” grunted Angus West, setting down his tea cup and rising from his arm chair as the thundering on the door continued.
He drew back the bolt and opened the door. A girl of around seventeen stood on the step. He knew who she was. “Ailsa Black. Recognise you from the case file. You’ve come about Peter Ross.”
“Yes, I have,” replied Ailsa, with forthright politeness. “I went to the police station yesterday but they turned me away. Just kept repeating there was nothing out of the ordinary at Kirkton Burn. Well, if you ask me, it’s not ordinary when a boy’s perfectly fine one minute and then too insane to speak the next, yelling in terror and running away from his mates for no reason.”
Angus shook his head. “I’m sorry, miss. There’s nothing more I can tell you. I didn’t find anything unusual in the burn.” He hoped he sounded convincing.
“Mr West,” she said, her gaze holding his. “I saw the report on the dive you did up there. It was on the sergeant’s desk at the station.”
Angus clenched his jaw. Morons, leaving that out on the front desk. Didn’t they realise how good kids are at reading upside down these days?
“I saw your name. I recognised it because you were on the news a couple years back, after the Thailand cave rescue. So I looked you up. And I saw something else in that report. The last line of the Kirkton Burn report said you weren’t yourself when you came up.”
Damn Charlie. What had he written?
“You’d better come in,” said Angus, holding the door wide.
The girl was persuasive; there was no doubting that. She had come straight to the point, before she’d even sat down on his sofa.
Ailsa had explained she was sure something down in the water had driven Peter out of his mind. That conviction had been strengthened, she said, by what she had read in the police report on the sergeants desk. Angus had seen something too, hadn’t he?
Recognising a worthy adversary, Angus had come clean and told her about the dream bathroom experience, and the strong emotion he’d felt afterward. “And I’m sure the effect on a young boy would be stronger. You teenagers, your hormones are out of control. You take stuff hard. And sometimes there are other things. I’m a policeman, miss. I know what goes down at those bonfire parties. Had young Peter taken anything?”
Now the authority had passed back to Angus. Ailsa’s eyes went to the floor. “No comment,” she replied.
Angus nodded. “It makes sense. He’s impressionable; he’s got drugs and alcohol in his system. His sweetheart is close at hand.”
A faint blush from Ailsa.
“As he makes the dive, holding his breath, his brain short of oxygen, something happens to him. He has a flashback, or a dream experience, and it triggers a powerful emotional response. By the time he reaches the surface, he’s in trouble, mental health wise. We have to keep him away from Kirkton Burn until he’s stabilised.”
Ailsa nodded. “So he doesn’t end up like Jack Grier.”
Angus nodded. “Exactly. Jack Grier must have been the same. He felt the draw of the ideal world he’d glimpsed down there. It shows it’s a common experience in young people who try that dive. Hell, I had breathing apparatus so my brain was well oxygenated, and I still had a powerful hallucination. A hormonal teenager, holding his breath - he would have seen paradise, and he wanted to be there.” A pause. “He got his wish.”
One Friday in the summer of 2039, Councillor Mrs Ailsa Ross finished her Zoom meeting, cleared her desk and prepared to head home for the weekend. Her PA, Bonnie, popped her head around the office door. “Mrs Ross, there was a call about the wall around Kirkton Burn. Really bad line, all crackly. Could barely hear. Funny voice too. Bit cranky, full of threats and curses. And the caller’s name is really strange.”
Ailsa frowned. Kirkton Burn. Memories. Seventeen years ago. Peter had recovered; they’d finished university, then married and settled in their home town. As soon as she could, she’d had the burn enclosed, to keep people out - especially vulnerable teenagers. Complaints from the public about civil liberties, the high-handed council walling off local beauty spots, were not uncommon.
“Give me the caller’s name and number; I’ll follow up on Monday,” replied Ailsa.
Bonnie passed over a phone call pro forma. Date & time: Friday 12 August, 2039. Subject: Wall around Kirkton Burn. Caller name: Amaranth Hellion.
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Good job :)) I loved reading your story and the pace was great and you are a skillful writer. Could you please read my latest story if possible? :)) Thanks :))
Rob: It was my pleasure to read this as your Reedsy Critique Circle partner. You told a fascinating story, one that imparted a lot of information to anyone unfamiliar with diving. It especially resonated with me because my grandson is a scuba diver and will be diving into some Florida underwater cave next month. I feel like I gleaned a lot of information from your story without being on info overload. So you did a good job. It was like a ominous mystery story and adventure rolled into one. Your dialogue seems authentic and comfortable...