No matter how much he arched his head into his HP laptop and tried to sink into the armchair, Alex couldn’t hide himself entirely from view.
“Uff non-farm payrolls up 22,000? How’s that for a curveball and a half! Hey hum, let’s unwind that dollar-yen position…” announced Tommy, poking frantically at his touch screen monitor with the furious pace of a punk rock drummer.
Alex was pretty sure that providing a running commentary of your thoughts ran contrary to the spirit of a so-called retreat. Then again, Alex was feeling more and more like an intruder at the Netpreneurs Retreat on Iona. “A place for net-based entrepreneurs and start-ups of all flavours to relax and connect on a stunning historic Scottish island,” was how the booking site described it. For two whole days since returning from Norway, Alex had immersed himself in WordPress, buying the www.sweethikinggear.com url, and fiddling with the design of his page until the moment came when he thought “Wow, Kate would never believe I could have gotten so far with this.” Then his steely motivation fractured with an ease that he even surprised himself with, to leave a site with a beautiful home page, about us and contacts sections, but a cursory “coming soon…” in the all-important ‘products’ part.
Still, yesterday he had been very happy he had decided to come here. He couldn’t face going straight back into the office after the Norway disaster. He had immediately requested the two weeks of annual leave he’d been saving for a winter sun holiday with Kate (the only way he had convinced her to spend her summer holiday in Norway, making it even more ironic she had eloped with a local farmer and stayed there). He’d headed to Manchester, then up to Newcastle to visit friends from university, neither of whom, despite being hospitable, seemed too delighted by a spontaneous visit from an old friend in midweek. It dawned on Alex when out by himself taking photos of the Tyne Bridge that he’d never been this close to Scotland, and that evening he took the train to Edinburgh. Following a day trip with a minibus full of Australian backpackers to Loch Ness, he did some Googling and came up with the Iona idea.
On his handful of trips to small islands – of which he counted Brownsea Island, Mont Saint-Michel and Gibraltar (as it kind of felt like one) – Alex had always felt an immense sense of comfort, of snugness. Was this because the sheer dominance of the sea surrounding these tiny specks of land made our lives, and everyday worries, seem completely trivial? Or maybe, on the contrary, because small islands gave the ego something to snack on, seeing as in all these places you could walk from coast to coast, scale the highest peak and still have time for a pint in the afternoon.
Whatever was going on in the back offices of his brain, Alex smiled when the wee ferry rocked up alongside the wee pier in front of a smattering of buildings and he took his first steps here on Iona, which felt very far removed from the world out there. He ambled down the road – the bigger of the island’s two roads – trying to savour every step of the 350 yards to the retreat. Baggage dumped, he could unleash his inner Robinson Crusoe and feast his eyes up and down the rocky mounds, share intimate turquoise-watered coves with gangs of puffins and peer down from the top of a cliff at the waves tickling the rocks. At other parts of the coastline, cows and sheep grazed on pastures that seemed to lop off right into the sea. It was as if someone had decided that this tiny island – a place so small the Scots couldn’t even fit a distillery on it – had already used up its full quota of stunning coastal features.
Having explored the east, south and west, Alex decided to leave the island’s north coast and its famous abbey to the following day. He went back to the retreat in the evening and found out he was the only guest that night. He read a book on the rocker by the fireplace and gracefully accepted a single malt from Gordon, the owner, who dutifully turned the logs till crackly flames illuminated his ginger beard.
The next morning, the brook that ran underneath the window in Alex’s room could no longer be seen through multiple coats of thick mist.
“Take care folks, visibility of two feet forecast today. Got a boat to Oban to stock up, Gordon” was scrawled across a whiteboard that hung above a table-football table in the common room. Alex went to eat his breakfast in silent contentment, and was staggered to see two men sitting at the work benches on his return to the common room.
“Jeez the encryption in this place is Neolithic,” said the one with an American accent and a touch screen monitor.
“Gosh!” said the other.
Tommy then said, probably not for the first time on Iona – despite having arrived on the morning ferry barely 90 minutes ago, just before the mist descended – that he was a freelance foreign exchange trader from New York who had “just fancied going some place quiet like London and maybe make some dough on sterling going nuts while I’m at it.” New York was “totally crazy”, or more accurately Manhattan was, as he didn’t claim to know the rest of it at all. “I’ve seen things that would make the Wolf of Wall Street blush – I know as he was at the Indo FX Trader awards do last year and he was hanging out with me and the guys. ‘Hell, you guys are just insane, I can’t even bear listening to you!’ he said, all crimson in the face. Ever heard of the Residence Inn at Central Park? It’s the tallest hotel in New York – all 68 floors. Anyway, two friends of mine made one another a little challenge one night. Sleep with a woman on every floor of the place – winner gets 68 grand from the other’s pocket.”
“Gosh!” said the other nervously while scratching some leg hair. He was wearing a black polo shirt and denim shorts, and had an Apple laptop whose screen lighted up his nose and cheeks on the dim morning, while his eyes remained in the shadows.
“So anyways, they’re doing well, it’s a close race, they’re a few months into the challenge and both around the 30 somethingth floor. One of ‘em’s just finished for the day, so to speak, and on the way out he sees this beautiful cleaner, Puerto Rican I think, and before he knows it, he’s talked her into a broom closet and they’re unzipping.”
Alex quietly slapped the handrest of the armchair in indignation. He raised an eyebrow and looked at the quiet guy, who was smiling while busily typing into his Apple laptop.
“And so things are getting a bit passionate,” said Tommy, laughing and raising his voice. “But then he realises, hold on a sec, I haven’t moved up a floor. So he hands her a sheet and says ‘Honey, if you don’t mind, let’s go move up to the next floor, I’ll explain later’. And out he tiptoes, it’s all quiet out in the corridor, but then beep, the elevator opens, and guess who’s in town? Only the vice president of China staying in the hotel with his entourage. They think he’s some Free Tibet protestor so they bundle him to the ground while he’s still in the buff, another guy throws a jacket over the vice pres’s face so he doesn’t have to see the whole kerfuffle. Couple of days later, he gets a letter in the mail from the Chinese embassy in DC. ‘We regret to inform you, you’ve been banned from our country for life’. Now I shit you not, this guy’s with GWU Bank, and he’s leading their Asia trading desk so that’s like ‘oh heck, career down the drain!’ Clever guy though, the next week I see on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, GWU lends 200 mill to controversial Chinese dam project. When he next touches down in Shanghai they’ve got all the banners out and they even send him to Macau for the weekend for free, all courtesy of the Communist Party. But that’s another story now.”
“Gosh!” said the quiet guy, forcing a grin until Tommy looked away from him to bury his eyes in another exchange rate graph. It transpired that the quiet guy was Ralf from Berlin. In sharp contrast to Tommy, there wasn’t much Alex knew about Ralf, apart from that he ran a start-up with some involvement in cloud computing and he was tremendously excited about the idea of wireless battery charging. Indeed, that’s the only topic he spoke freely on, and Alex wondered what was going on behind his smiley façade. There was something about Ralf’s appearance and mannerisms that made Alex wonder whether he was gay, but he dismissed the question from his mind – seeing that sexuality doesn’t deserve to be an issue on a windswept island with a population of 170.
Alex peered out of the window, but the mist showed no sign at all of releasing its hold. The sound of a sheep bleating in the distance comforted him. He thought about heading out the door, he could easily follow the road to the abbey underfoot even if he was unable to see in front of him. Better to sit it out and hope it would clear to allow him to appreciate it, he decided. That building, after all, was the key to this tiny place enjoying an its own definite footmark in history.
Alex turned his attention back to his computer, which was currently displaying Kate’s Facebook profile. The last item she had posted was still the photo of the two of them on top of the Fjord, with him pulling that cheesy grin. It pained him to look at it. If he had smiled more sensibly for photos would she still be with him? ‘You can’t be thinking like that’ he thought to himself, it just wasn’t meant to be. Still, it might be useful to know for the next girlfriend, if there was one? Or if Kate got back with him.
He had been expecting to see her at the airport. He got there six hours before the flight and sat with her boarding pass on his lap, scanning everyone entering the terminal. He had first planned to check in and request not to sit next to her, before handing her the boarding pass and walking away, making clear her betrayal couldn’t be forgiven. The closer it came to the check-in opening for their flight, the more certain he was though he would embrace her, apologise for making her anxious with the whole nuclear scare, apologise for not listening to her and then hear her out. He smiled at the thought they could hold hands in the queue for security and enjoy a wine together on the plane. But she didn’t come.
He knew he had to write to her, just to check she was okay. Due to the patchy phone coverage up in those parts of Norway, he thought sending a message on Facebook to be a safer bet. But what to write? He clicked on the ‘send message’ icon.
“Hi, are you there?” he typed out.
He hovered his index finger over the return key, but his emotions weren’t ready for this yet. What was she going to say to that? “Yes I am over there, with the farmer, just where I left you.” Obviously she was having a good enough time if she forgot about her flight home. Unless she was back in Surbiton again, waiting for him to come back to try to explain herself. But wouldn’t she write, if that was the case? Surely this whole mess was more her fault. No, she’d wait for him to establish contact, as it’s the manly thing to get in touch first. But do men really contact loved ones on Facebook? Paah! Why didn’t he just pick up the damn phone? That’s what the Norwegian farmer would do. But Alex wouldn’t get through, that would only worry him, which wouldn’t be fair when they both knew his anxiety issues. Even if he did, could he bear to hear her voice? The farmer might call out ‘Who’s that?’ in the background. Oh no, he might even call her ‘honey’. In Norwegian even! Did she speak any Norwegian yet? She surely knew a few words by now, she was the one who picked up ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Norwegian after a couple of days, and they could swap a few words while he was on the line about what a loser he is and he wouldn’t understand a thing. That would be horrible.
“Hey, you ever played this Pokémon Go?”
Alex glanced up briefly, but Tommy was looking firmly at Ralf.
“You know how it works though? People, well bored teenagers mostly, walk around with their phones all day and collect these Pokemon?”
“I just had this awesome idea. I heard that loads of the best like, rare Pokemon are waiting to be collected around water. Well there must be tonnes of them here don’t you think, and no one to collect them.”
Ralf nodded while squinting to read off his computer. Alex wasn’t sure if Ralf was actually listening.
“What if you got, like, a bus load of people from Glasgow, paid them the minimum wage to come here – what is that, like less than 10 dollars an hour? Then you could hook them up with some Pokemon addicts from Korea or whatever, who are going to give them their account details and pay to get all these rare McPokemons delivered to their bedrooms in Seoul all the way from Scotland.”
Alex sighed subconsciously.
“Ha! I’m on messenger with a friend in Tokyo and he says folk are already doing just that on these remote Japanese islands – there’s even an article: ‘Pokemon Tourists Rejuvenate Iwo Jima Economy’. I’ll be damned! He says if I Google for a Pokemon map of Iona I should get an idea of how many you can catch here.”
Ralf mumbled another “Gosh!” while typing frantically. It was if Ralf was just subconsciously waiting for the pauses in Tommy’s monologue to deliver his submissive responses. Alex couldn’t help admiring his powers of concentration to be able to still type with all this rubbish assaulting his earlobes.
“Jeez! There’s this page virtualpokemon.com. I’m already doing a virtual tour of Iona while passing all the Pokemon here. This is mind blowing! Hang on, there’s shitloads by the abbey. Wait, there’s a link popping up, read about it on Wikipedia it says. Why not?” Tommy tapped the screen.
A foghorn punctuated the few seconds of silence that followed. A boat sailing in the area had to mean the mist is lifting a little.
“Ha ha get this! You guys heard of Saint Columba who lived at the abbey? They say he could see the future. Predicted his own death apparently! Quotes Wikipedia, on the day of his death he said: ‘This night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord’s Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way of our fathers. ’ ”
Tommy read the quote out slowly and with an exaggerated mystical tone, in a way that reminded him of the evil queen saying “Mirror mirror on the wall” in the Disney snow white cartoon.
“And hey presto, ‘when the bell strikes midnight, Columba goes to the church and kneels beside the altar. His attendant witnesses heavenly light in the direction of Columba, and Holy angels join the saint in his passage to the Lord: And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last.’ “
“What a load of BS, huh?” added Tommy.
Alex snapped his laptop close. He felt an urgent desire to run over, rip the poncey monitor out of Tommy’s hands and throw it out of the front door into the mist. He resisted the urge, and instead stood of front of him staring.
“Can I help you?” asked Tommy.
“You don’t know what happened. You weren’t there. Please keep your mouth shut,” said Alex. He stormed away to his room, too quickly past Ralf to see the smile forming at the corner of his mouth.
The sun pierced through Alex’s curtains to wake him the next morning, and he looked out to see the stream babbling and a sheep nursing two lambs.
He went down the stairs to see Gordon sweeping glass by the front door. An 18th century map of Iona was hanging askew in its frame with the glass in pieces.
“Had ourselves a wee incident last night,” said Gordon.
“No way, what happened?” ask Alex.
“Turns out your American got himself in a spot of bother. He was up when my boat finally docked just before midnight waiting for the Asian stock exchanges to open so he can make a few bob or something. Anyhow at the stroke of midnight he cursed like something else, like I dunno, Ibrox after Rangers have just lost. Turns out he got some horrid virus infecting his whole computer. 20 grand that set him back, apparently, top of the range gear. This virus it just produces millions of fake files in his hard drive, so he canny find a thing in there. And you’ll never guess what they name it?” Gordon rested his hand on the broom as his eyes lit up.
Alex shook his head.
“How did you find out all this about the virus?”
“Ol’ Ralf told me bout it all, just before he toddled off for t’ day. Aye, he’s a computer security wizz isn’t he? He checked mine to see its safe and added a new anti-virus programme they all rave about in Germany.”
“And what happened to Tommy?” asked Alex.
Gordon hesitated. “Oh the American! Haven’t the foggiest where he is, he just ran straight out the door after his tirrivee here. Maybe lookin for a PC World, but there inny one this side of Dumbarton, I say he’ll be back, but then again I’ve got better things to do than troop around the island looking for him, you know?”
Alex smiled and nodded.
“So what’ll I get ye for breakfast?” asked Gordon.