Les arbres, la neige, la montagne

25th May 2007 at 01:00
Aberdeen University's Word Festival invited secondary pupils to enter a TESS-sponsored competition to submit stories on "Oor way o' spikin" (our way of speaking). Languages ranged from Doric to German and Mongolian. Here is an excerpt from 'The Barrier' by Euan West.

It was only once the barrier had been firmly drawn over their legs that the chairlift's motion began to calm; that the valley floor and the snow which muffled it ceased to fall away.

Mhairi had barely gathered her senses by this time. She glanced about with such a wide-mouthed expression it seemed as if she had only just recovered from being dragged onboard.

On her left sat her husband and on the far right, a man bound up in a thick, bark-brown coat. He hadn't noticed them yet. Both his vision and thoughts were currently occupied by one of the steep, valley sides below.

"Duncan," said Mhairi at length, "are you sure this is the right lift?"

"Course I'm sure. I've looked at the map a thousand times for goodness sake! Lift D leads to run 24. That's where they said they'd meet us. See for yourself if you don't believe me."

The map was rolled up like a sail when Duncan drew it from his pocket. But he had hardly unfurled it when the wind seized it from him. In a matter of moments, the ruffled piece of paper had fallen far beyond the range of vision. "We don't need the map," there was a hint of indignance in Duncan's tone, "because I know lift D leads to run 24. I've looked at it umpteen times for crying out loud! Happy now?"

"Yes," said Mhairi wearily, but her expression seemed to tell a different story, "but I'd still - wait, did you say run 24? Because now that I think of it, I was pretty sure we were supposed to meet them on run 14."

"No, it can't be - I've checked so many - wait," his eyes fell on the man at the far end of the metal seat. Perhaps he would know. "Excuse me."

But the man was still peering downwards, his head, his sights, his mind still sunk into a dreamy perspective of the valley below.

"Excuse me."

Again no answer. Thoughts elsewhere. He sat as still and as silent as before.

Duncan was about to give catching his attention one last try when the man turned from the valley below to face him.

"Ah," said the man, with a smile, "je vois. J'ai pense que vous vouliez parle a moi, mais je n 'etais pas sur... ".

Duncan sat back and indulged in a long, wearied sigh. The French-man couldn't speak English and they couldn't speak French.

"I suppose it doesn't matter that much, does it? Either way, we'll be able to sort it out when we get to the top."

Right up until they emerged from that windy valley; right up until the little roofed station began to fall into view, not a word was exchanged.

And even as the chairlift began to advance over this rounded, almost dome-like portion of the mountain, all three occupants seemed to be, in one way or another, preoccupied by the sight of it.

And what a sight it was: the pale, white streaks of distant runs; the dark, olive green trees which flanked them on either side, the skiers swinging back and forth, back and forth, across the slopes.

Then there was the run directly below them. From here the snow seemed to cover the ground like a thick, white blanket on which even the tracks of skis made a faint impression. On their left not far below, stood a crowd of coniferous trees, their needles sharp and stiff in the morning air and almost directly beneath the chair lift, the delicate slicing of the snow could be made out as a skier carved his path.

Beyond the slopes, the mountain's peak thrust itself upwards; a grey, wrinkled mass of rock, snow clinging to its sides and further still, draped along the mountainside, were the long, thin forms of ridges.

"Les arbres, la neige, la montagne... " the Frenchman observed the various components of the mountain with child-like wonderment, "C'est comme un reve. Je n'ai jamais vu quelque chose plus magnifique."

"Yes," said Mhairi, still staring at the run below, "it is beautiful."

The Frenchman lifted his head in surprise. For a few seconds he looked about him in noiseless contemplation; fingers drumming distractedly on the ski poles; his mind engaged once again. And the more he thought, the more he tapped his fingers, the more he inhaled the fresh, scentless morning air, the more the idea seemed to shape and sharpen its way into one of realism.

Here was a language carpeted with snow and punctuated by trees: a language of natural beauty, of awe and appreciation; a language which all three of the chairlift's passengers could understand.

"J'ai quelque chose," said the Frenchman all of a sudden, "qui pouvra vous aider... peut-etre," and then, drawing a map from his pocket, "J'ai pense que vous etiez perdus, mais je n 'etais pas sur."

He handed the map to Duncan, whose whole face seemed to brighten at the sight of it.

"Thank you," said Duncan, "I mean... "

"De rien," replied the French-man with a smile.

The chairlift was nearing the end of its journey now and Mhairi eyed the approaching station with growing anxiety. They were now on the same level as it.

The three readied their skis and their ski poles and, once within thirty metres of the little station, let loose the metal barrier which had held them down.

The Barrier, by Euan West, 15, Aberdeen Grammar


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