John “Oz” Osman is sure he’s got everything under control. His dad has ditched out on him in favour of a brand-new family abroad, and his teenage sister is bouncing off the walls with rage, but Oz is determined to cope: he’s dropped out of university and taken a boring, responsible job. He’s got it all covered. Doing everything his dad should’ve done.
He’s even let go of the love of his life. No room for Kip in Oz’s new grown-up world. Kip is charm and trouble in equal measure, with a good dash of substance abuse thrown in. He’s also ruining a brilliant career in biology by his obsession with cryptids – monsters, as Oz sees them – the yetis, lake beasts and giant squids no sane man would waste his time chasing around the world. Yes, Oz is better off without him.
But Oz has a grandmother who remembers how happy Oz used to be with Kip at his side. With his best interests at heart – and a few schemes of her own – Gran sets the pair up for a reunion.
Kip and Oz have loved each other since the day they first met – but sometimes love isn’t enough. When disaster strikes their second-chance relationship, Kip takes refuge at Camp Saorsa, a remote community of cryptid hunters near Scotland’s Loch Ness.
If there’s one thing Oz is not about to believe in, it’s the Loch Ness monster. He’s not sure he believes in anything anymore, and his happy life with Kip feels like a lost dream. Will the magic of a far-flung Scottish winter be enough to draw these two lonely souls back together, and what mysteries lurk in the depths of the ancient loch?
I slipped outside. Winter had seized our stretch of coast with its usual bleak hunger, but I didn't pause to grab a jacket or to register the bite of cold on my skin. Kip was waiting under Gran's wind-stunted apple tree, the one place in the garden out of sight of all the windows. I realised that I'd seldom seen him without a ciggie or a glass in his hand. I remembered him on the steps outside the union bar, airily explaining some point of marine biology, his cigarette a firefly in the near dark. He looked oddly naked now, as if he didn't know what to do with his arms. Then he held them out to me as if he definitely did.
I strode into them. I laid my brow on his shoulder and shut my eyes. His embrace closed and he rocked me, and I shouldn't have let him, because every breath I took of him – coffee and books, just like the T-shirt, with a tang of laboratory chemicals on top – was stolen, forbidden, wrong.
Maybe he felt the same. He gave me a rib-cracking squeeze, roughly kissed my head and let me go.
There were two plastic chairs beneath the tree, Gran's idea of garden furniture. Awkwardly we sat down. “Here,” he said, unfastening his jacket. “Put this on. It's perishing out here.”
“What about you?”
“I'm okay. I've got a sweater.”
Whereas I had a vintage T-shirt, already dampening in the mist-fretted wind from the sea. I took Kip's jacket and shrugged into it, trying not to shudder with pleasure at the residual warmth from his skin. “You shouldn't have bought me this shirt. It was way too expensive.”
“Oh, it's not the one we were looking at last year. Loads cheaper than that.”
He was an effortless liar, especially when the lie was a benign one, a sweeter pill to swallow than the truth. It was one of the reasons I'd left him: I'd had enough of lies, even sugared ones that easily slipped down the throat. “Kip, it's the exact same shirt.”
“Well... Okay, yeah. But he'd reduced it.”
“At least you could've saved a bit of money on the postage. Why send it, if you were coming here anyway?”
“I wasn't that sure of my welcome.”
We sat in wind-rattled silence, the tree's bare branches clicking and creaking overhead. I wanted to take his hand, but we weren't boyfriends anymore, and you didn't do that to another lad who was just your mate. Not even that, maybe, after our year-long estrangement. “Thanks for sorting Jules out,” I said eventually. “What did you do?”
“She just needed her nose blowing. She let me brush her hair, and she put that old shirt on she used to like so much. When did she start to think she was fat?”
About the same time everything else went to shit. “Dunno. About a year back. It's just a girl thing, isn't it? Hormones.”
“Boys get it too. Dysmorphia, it's called – where you look in the mirror and can't see the real person there, no matter how hard you try. You see someone fat, or someone ugly, or whatever hurts you the most.”
I swallowed. “God. Do you think Jules has that?”
“If she does, your gran will know. I don't think so, though. She's just really unhappy.” He paused, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “And she is so sorry for what she said. That crack about your dad leaving because you were gay. So sorry.”
“She doesn't have to be. It doesn't matter.” Kip's eyebrows went up, and I ploughed on. “I hear worse from her than that all the time, Kip. It's water off my back. Look, it's her job to freak out and say dreadful things – she's thirteen. It's my job to put up with it.”
He took this in. “Speaking of jobs,” he said gently after a while, “how's it going?”
“Oh, you know. Pays the bills. Will you believe that old turkey inside had the nerve to call me in sick today? So I could enjoy my birthday tea.”
He gave a snort of laughter. “She hasn't changed much, then. Listen, I... I was at a meeting with the department heads the other day. Old Leighton-Smythe was talking about that project going on near Kielder – Eden of the North, was it called? He said there'd be loads of jobs for good engineering graduates in a year or so's time. He mentioned your name. Said it was pretty much a sure thing, if you could finish your course.”
I knew all about EON. An equivalent of the Cornish Eden Project for the northeast, huge Buckminster domes being built in the forest near the reservoir. My hands itched. I loved those shapes, those steel hexagons, the way they fitted together. I had half a dozen ideas about the challenges the domes would face in a northern environment: the cold, the wind, the same basic forces that had shaped me. “Right,” I said, shifting in my seat. The cracked old plastic promptly nipped my thigh. “Thing is, that's a bird in the bush. I've got a job in my hand right now, and I've got to keep it. Anyway, never mind me. What were you doing in a meeting with the department heads?”
“Oh. Nothing much. My prof thinks I could do my PhD, that's all, and she's trying to recruit me for her conservation study, the Tyne Valley river systems thing. That's why she dragged me along.”
“You're gonna do you your doctorate? That's brilliant.”
“Yeah, it would be. Except she'll only take me on if I give up my... my hobby.”
I stared at him. “Oh, Kip. You are not still involved with all that.”
He flashed me a rueful smile. “Worse than ever, I'm afraid. I spent six weeks last spring in southern Alaska, and in summer I hitched a ride with some Canadian kids going back to Okanagan Lake for their holidays. If you want the absolute truth, I just got back from Wales. Missed quite a bit of term. No wonder Prof Jones has her doubts.”
I stifled a groan. Kip's hobby had been a bane of mine, not just Prof Jones’s, literally since the day I'd met him. He'd ambushed me outside the engineering halls, where Leighton-Smythe had me and a handful of his other pet undergrads working overtime on an experimental filtration pump for sewage. The handsome lad from Conservation had introduced himself as Joe Kipton, on a mission from Prof Jones to beg or borrow an expensive piece of underwater sighting kit.
What he'd really meant, of course, was steal. Our underwater scope had disappeared for weeks, along with Joe Kipton, leaving me to face the wrath of the Engineering and Conservation departments combined. When he came back and learned how badly I'd got my arse kicked, he'd taken me out to dinner and told me all about his trip to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness monster.
I should have been enraged by him – or baffled by his lunacy – but instead I'd been charmed. It had taken me months to work out that his search for the creatures he called cryptids was more than a harmless leisure-time pursuit. He was completely obsessed. “All right,” I said reluctantly. “Alaska must have been Bigfoot. And Canada... Ogopogo, right? The lake monster?”
“You got it.”
“Definite footprints in the woods outside Ketchikan. We drew a blank in Canada. Nobody in Engineering will let me near their scope anymore.”
“Are you surprised? What's in Wales?”
“ABCs, a real cluster. That was pretty exciting.”
Anomalous big cats. You couldn't live with Kip for long and not learn the jargon. Or the sheer wild hopelessness of his endeavours. Kip had painted a motto on the ceiling of his bedroom in his tiny university-accommodation flat. He'd done it in phosphorescent paint so as not to outrage the janitor. At night, flat on my back in his bed, the message had glowed down at me: absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. I'd come to associate the letters, their eerie green light, with sensations of the most exquisite pleasure.
But all Kip's motto really meant was that nothing could be proved. That he'd engaged himself – his brilliant mind, the department resources he pinched over and over again until he found himself on a final disciplinary warning – in a giant waste of time, a bottomless pit of stubborn, unshakeable self-delusion. It all tied in, I'd decided, in my undergrad engineer's wisdom, to the cigs and the drinking, his addictions. His daily escapes from reality. “You know,” I said cautiously, because I might have had the right to nag him back then but had certainly lost it since, “a PhD with Jones would be quite something. She hardly takes anyone on.”
“How did the ABCs go, then? Did you get any footage? Prints?”
“Loads. It was a really good trip.”
He let go the tiniest sigh. “But it turned out to be someone's huge black Maine Coon cat. We actually caught it. The kid who'd lost it was really glad to get it back.”
I couldn't help it. A gurgle of laughter escaped me. He and his nutcase friends had spent weeks of term-time tracking some kid's missing cat. I put my face in my hands, trying to shut myself up – God knew I'd never wanted to hurt him – but I couldn't stop. I hadn't laughed like this, or very much at all, for the best part of a year. My eyes began to stream. Suddenly Kip gave a roar of his own. He flung an arm around me, almost upsetting me out of my plastic chair. And that was how Gran found us half a minute later, both helpless, hooting and yawping with laughter. She looked down on us sadly. “It's cold out here, Oz,”
she said, “and Jules is acting like a tragedy queen for letting Kip alone with you this long. You'd better both come in, if you've finished your heart-to-heart.”
All our guests had left. It was such a familiar scene, Kip helping out at the end of a party, drying the glasses Gran washed, handing them to me to put away, while the December dusk gathered and the house became a frail island of light and warmth.
He and Gran had been the best of friends, which had made my decision even harder. We finished clearing up. Gran closed the curtains. I was noticing things tonight: the nicotine stains in the fabric, although she hadn't touched a cigarette in years; the yellow blaze of the overhead bulbs in their glass shades. She'd never embraced what you'd call mood lighting. Just one more electric flex to trip over, Oz. All my childhood nights here, all the Sunday evenings Kip and I had spent with her in front of the telly, had passed in that unforgiving, somehow comforting glare. She sat down at the kitchen table and picked up her knitting. I noticed for the first time in months how small the kitchen was, how shabby.
She deserved so much better. My imagination tried and failed to place her somewhere else, in a little country cottage or a beach-front apartment in Marbella, but I thrust away the idea that she might be exactly where nature intended: nothing in my world, natural or otherwise, could possibly be right. She, Jules and I had all been cheated and dumped. The task of fixing that lay on my shoulders alone. “Right,” I said, drying my hands on a tea towel. “Time I got back to work, if I still have a job.”
She emitted a small sigh. She looked inexpressibly Gran tonight, as if some clever artist had conjured up the archetypical English grandmother, specs and flowered pinafore and blue-rinsed perm. Other people's grans didn't look like this, I'd observed. They were young and trendy, got their highlights done and went to zumba. “I know I can't turn the clock back,” she said sadly. “But I can't imagine anything nicer than if you two boys were to sit down and have a chat with me tonight. The long dark nights do get lonely.”