Dogs barked in the close and the stackyard. He swore at them, then he let himself in to yell A Good New Year to the almost empty house. By the time I came to find him, his jacket hung on a chairback and a lump of coal had been dumped on the stool at the stove. He shook my hand and we sat together with the darkness rising and the wind about the slates.
The New Year has often been a bold time for my neighbours and I. We’ve bragged and looked forward to things we’d do in coming summers, hoping that by talking big, we’d do it too. But we’re getting short on numbers now. I had two neighbours last year, and we three swelled to the rafters with tales of times to come. We couldn’t have known that inside twelve months our three would become two, and the biggest job we ever did as a group was trumped by the trick that one of us pulled off alone.
Notwithstanding that absence, we stacked ourselves against the silence on the night of New Year’s Day. He drank Lang’s Banana. God knows how that started, but he gets it special from Dumfries. The bottle of rum came up smelling like a Caribbean pool party and I swore at the memory of it. It stained the glass like Trodax, and I took brandy and a cigarette and tried not to breathe through my nose. An eddy of smoke pearled around the lampshade, disgusted with itself.
During the course of 2021, hares vanished from the meadow and the lèann which lies between our homes. We never had many, but the reason for that disappearance is controversial. It was the first subject we came to, and it recurred several times during three hours of conversation. A big old hare was killed on the road at the start of last year, and it was reckoned that he’d been the father of every hare in the parish. It’s no wonder they failed in his absence, and that was one idea. But we can’t deny that grass was mowed sooner than it should’ve been above the haugh. If there were any leverets, they’d have been minced. That’s my take, but what do I know? I’m just a boy.
Then we talked about hares on the hills and how they’re being shot now to protect the new plantations. Six places in this parish have been sold to become commercial forestry in the last twelve months. Jimmy Mitchell’s place sold for two and a half million pounds to an engineering firm based in Dallas, Texas. Nobody in Galloway can compete with that, and it turns out the bigwigs are buying up land to offset their carbon emissions; everything will be turned to spruce trees in the next year or two. I gather there’s money to be made, but none of it’s local. It goes instead to pension funds and global investment groups based in Denmark and Austria. If you want to meet your new neighbours for a welcoming drink, they’ll send a rep to greet you “on site”, but you’ll need a hard hat and a high-viz coat. And when they realise that you have nothing material to say, they’ll mark you down as a time waster.
The investors have begun to build fences and they’re killing out the hares and the roe deer. I told him I’d heard that a contractor drove up from Lancashire and killed eighty hares in three nights at Carsphairn. I was impressed by that because I didn’t think there were eighty hares left in those hills. It’s surprising what you can do with a thermal scope on your rifle. The Government says that feats like these will guarantee a brighter and more sustainable future for Scotland, but there’s a difference between killing a hare for the pot and being sure that you’ll never see another hare again.
There was a long silence after that. The dogs barked in the close again, but all of us were inside and it was only for the wind. Then Nobody gives a shit about this place, he said. And it’s you I feel bad for, son; you and your boy. At least I’ve seen the best of it here.
Of course we neighbours worked better as a threesome. In previous years, if one or two of us strayed and began to slip towards gloom, the third would be ready with some blast or caper to fetch the downers up again. We had our own self-righting mechanism, but two’s uneven. We didn’t speak of our missing leg as we tumbled into the quiet, and we didn’t lay plans as we usually do. When talk began again, it was only for things that we’d already done. I felt tired. There was an Olympiad of Lang’s Banana rings on the table. I tried to turn us round with that story I told you about the bull in the burn, but he’d already heard it. That’s when I knew that he was my First Foot only because he’d come too late to be the last.
He gripped a new fag in his lips, then he pulled his jacket on and went outside for a piss. He didn’t come back, and later I looked across the burn in the darkness and saw that his bedroom light had clicked off. Only ash twigs flickered in the mile-wide gap between us, and a space suddenly big enough to drive a whole year through without touching the sides.