Young Mungo

Words by Douglas Stuart
Photographs by Bea De Giacomo and Massimiliano Bomba

A sharp wind blew across the loch and snapped the fabric of his cagoule in its hurry. The air was clearer than he had ever tasted, and when Gallowgate wasn’t watching, he tilted his head back and put his tongue out into the breeze. It tasted green like spring grass, but there was a prehistoric brownness to it, as though it had searched an entire age through damp peaty glens and ancient forests, looking for its way to wherever it was going. 

If he had known the words to describe it, he would have said he could smell the tang of the pine forests, the bright snap of bog myrtle, vetch, and gorse, and then underneath it all, the damp musk of dark fertile soil, the cleansing rain that never ceased. But to Mungo, it was green and it was brown and it was damp and it was clean. He had no words for it. It just smelled like magic. 

He had never been any place where the greenery didn’t eventually end. He had once roamed the untended fields around Garthamlock but they had been spoiled with burnt-out cars and burst settees, and you couldn’t run through the long grass for fear of things that might cut into your ankles. Now, as they walked through the forest, he was dizzy with the thought that he was only one of a handful of people who might ever have been here. There were no sounds, no birds, no animals skittering across the forest floor. It was soothing to be part of something so unspoiled. 

They came across the bleached skull and bones of an old sheep. Gallowgate ran his fingers over the curled horns and explained it was a ram, “a man sheep.” Mungo fished around in his cagoule pocket until he found the disposable camera that Jodie had given him. The roll was half-spent already, wasted on silly snaps of Jodie experimenting with a home-cut fringe. The only sound in the understorey was the scritch-scritch of the film winding on. The flash stopped the leaves in their swaying. Even St Christopher stopped his lamenting. 

They crossed a dim clearing in single file. Gallowgate squatted; he took the time to show Mungo what stinging nettles looked like, and when they came upon an ocean of the plants, he hoisted the bare-legged boy on to his back. Gallowgate charged through the undergrowth like a saddled mule. He whinnied as his jostling shook gurgling laughter from Mungo. The more Mungo laughed, the harder Gallowgate cantered, until Mungo’s shrieks echoed off the thick canopy and Gallowgate was panting heavily. 

It had felt strange at first, to wrap his bare legs around Gallowgate’s waist, but he felt safe upon the man’s back. As Gallowgate put him down again, he rubbed the chill from Mungo’s shin bones, and Mungo wondered if he had read the man wrong. Mungo glanced up the path but he couldn’t see or hear St Christopher behind them anymore. Gallowgate didn’t seem concerned, he hauched into the ferns, and kept marching onwards. 

The sun was dipping behind the hills by the time they reached the lochside. After the confines of the forest, the loch suddenly opened up and it was almost too expansive for Mungo to take in. He stumbled down to the shoreline. 

The day was drawing in the last of her colours, and as the softest violets and apricots bled away into the horizon, he was sad to have not arrived sooner. Mungo tilted his head back and walked in a circle. The sky above him was a darkening blue smeared with faint streaks of lemon. He hadn’t known that the sky could hold so many hues – or he hadn’t paid it any mind before. Did anyone in Glasgow look up? 

He let out a small awe-filled sigh. All this beauty in the sky was mirrored in the loch as though Mother Nature was bragging. Gallowgate grinned with pride. “Wait till you see the sky the night. Ye’ve never seen a black like it.” 

Gallowgate offered Mungo his shoulders to sit upon, so Mungo could glimpse the other side before it vanished entirely in the dusk. From this height Mungo thought the loch must be two miles wide and a hundred miles long. 

On the far side it was hemmed in by stout hills whose slopes were split like the underlying rock had torn through the very fabric of them. All the colours were patchy and mottled. It seemed to Mungo as though the hillsides had been blanketed in some giant threadbare rug. The moss green and drab brown were rubbed away in patches to reveal the grey granite as if it were the underlay of the land. There were scatterings of purple moor flower and golden gorse, and here and there were little pockets of white snow, clinging stubbornly to the deepest fissures. 

The loch diminished out of view on the left. To the right it turned around a lazy corner and disappeared behind a wall of pine trees. Mungo thought how it was ten times bigger than his scheme, bigger, perhaps, than Glasgow herself. 

He had seen the sea twice before. There the water was always shaking and churning. But here the tide was lazy and the surface was glassy as a puddle. Nothing moved except for the buzz of black midges that swarmed low and excited a ripple of hungry fish. The loch looked colder and deeper than he could say. It looked sad, like it had been forgotten. Quiet, like it kept its secrets. 

Gallowgate lowered the boy. He rubbed his hands over Mungo’s cold back and then hurried across the broken rocks that lined the shore. Tucked into a moss-covered slope was a pile of rough-hewn boulders that vaguely resembled a bothy. There were parallel walls and Mungo could still make out the crumbled doorway and a gabled far end. Out- side the bothy was a firepit and a semicircle of larger boulders for sitting on. Thick biting midges thrummed in the shadows. 

“Ye’ll get used to them,” said Gallowgate, handing the boy a large dock leaf. “Rub yer legs with this and ye’ll be awright.” 

Mungo rubbed at his bare legs until they turned green and slick with chlorophyll. The biting flies seemed undeterred. 

St Christopher hobbled out from the treeline. He plonked himself down by the lochside and dunked his feet in the icy water. With his angular bones and his grey tweeds, he was just another rock on the shoreline. 

Gallowgate marshalled the setup of camp around the stone fire ring. He took off his trendy nylon bomber and the knees of his Italian denims were soon damp as he unpacked the pile of plastic bags. From the backpack he unfurled two thin-looking tents. The two-man tent he erected inside the abandoned bothy. The smaller tent he staked across the far side of the camp, on a bed of dry shingle, almost as far away from the other as possible. Mungo helped drive the curved metal pegs into the ground with a flinty rock. “Shouldn’t the tents be closer together?” 

Gallowgate looked at the boy and shook his head. It seemed he meant it to be a friendly smile, but it was without warmth, and Mungo thought he saw a flash of menace cross his thin lips. Perhaps, like Hamish, he didn’t like for his authority to be questioned. 

“Naw. Better to be far frae the fire,” Gallowgate said. He went back to pulling the guy line tight. He strummed it to check its tension. “Don’t youse want to see the stars?” 

Excerpted from Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, published by Picador. 

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Scottish Highlands