The dark blue van made its way along a ribbon of road flanked by calm water and rolling hills that wore snow on their peaks even in March. The breathtaking beauty of the scenery was not wasted on the van’s occupants, who had fallen into a companionable silence as they watched the Highland landscape unfold to the tune of nineties rock crackling through what could barely be described as a sound system. The back of the van was empty apart from a pair of impressively convincing fake license plates, two magnetic signs bearing the name and logo of a Glasgow-based charity that didn’t exist, a few flattened cardboard boxes and a bag with three dark green t-shirts and matching baseball caps.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name. Thy…”
“Jamie,” Hugh took his eyes off the road for long enough to give his nephew a sideways glance, “what are you doing?”
“I’m praying, so God’ll look after us when we’re doing the job.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works, pal. He’s not exactly supportive of our line of work. Besides, you’re praying in the wrong direction. You might have more luck with the guy downstairs.”
“Shut up, Uncle Hugh. You never know.”
“Yeah, ‘Uncle Hugh’. Shut up,” Andie interrupted, nudging Jamie with her shoulder and winking. “Let the wee man talk to the big man if he wants to.”
Hugh shook his head and Jamie bowed his, with as much solemnity as he could manage, returning to his prayer.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name. Thy…”
“What, Andie? Will you let me get on with it? We’re nearly there.”
“It’s hallowed be thy name. Hallowed, like holy. Not hollow.”
“Are you sure?”
“Aye, I’m sure. Why would it be hollow?”
“Cause of the Holy Ghost. Ghosts are hollow. And Jesus is dead, so he’s hollow. And actual God, the main one, he’s invisible, so he’s hollow too.”
“Aww, Jamie. No, love. It’s hallowed. I promise.”
“Shite. I’ve been saying that wrong for years then. That’s why it hasn’t been working.”
Hugh shook his head again, grinning. “Aye, that’s why it hasn’t been working.”
Jamie crossed his arms. “Fine, I’ll pray in my head if you’re going to be like that about it. Do you think he’ll still hear me?”
“Yeah,” replied Andie, with a nod and a gentle smile. “Ghosts and dead people and God can all hear you when you’re just saying stuff in your head. If you want them to, I mean. And there’s nothing wrong with talking to any of them if it makes you feel better.”
Turning to crack the window open and light a cigarette, Andie didn’t notice the concerned look that passed between Hugh and Jamie before Jamie returned to his prayer. Hugh sang along under his breath to a song that he remembered hearing on the radio for the first time when he was eight years old.
A few minutes, a few miles, a song and a half, and a cigarette later, Hugh spoke up. “Right, there’s the sign for Fort August. I’m going to pull in just up the road there. I’ll do the plates, you two do the signs, and then we’ll get changed in the back. Alright?”
“What if someone sees us?” asked Jamie, trying to disguise the nerves in his voice and failing miserably.
“No-one’ll see us,” replied Hugh. “We’ll be parked in behind that fishing hut. And we’ll be quick. It’ll be fine. You need to stop worrying so much.”
“I know, I just…it’s not just the van. We’re doing the whole thing in broad daylight. We’ve never done one in the day before.”
“You haven’t. Andie and I have. It’s a different thing from doing it at night but it’s almost easier cause you just look confident and like you’re supposed to be there so no-one questions if you’re legit or not. Rock up at a house in the middle of the night and start loading stuff into a van, and it looks suspicious as hell. Do it during the day and be brazen about it, and no-one even notices. Right, Andie?”
“Totally right,” Andie nodded. “Especially when we have our ‘uniforms’ on. Legit. As. Fuck. It’s all good. And if anyone says anything, we’re picking up donations for a charity shop. We’ve even got a list. Who’s going to argue with that?”
“Aye, I suppose,” replied Jamie, still not sounding entirely convinced. “And we’re only taking the things on the list? And it’ll be quick?”
“Easiest job ever,” said Hugh. “The place’ll definitely be empty, guaranteed. There’s no alarm and there’s a key to the front door under a brick in the greenhouse. Gotta love the trust some people place in the world, eh? Then all we have to do is load up the van with what’s on the list and we’re out of there. Sorted.”
On a crisp, bright mid-March afternoon, no-one even noticed the Glasgow International Aid van turning into the driveway of the house at the end of Chapel Road, Fort August. The uniformed volunteers went about their business, quietly and efficiently carrying a few pieces of furniture and some cardboard boxes of smaller items from the house to the van before locking the front door, returning the key to its hiding place in the greenhouse and leaving as inconspicuously as they arrived.
Once they were through Inverness and evening was creeping in around the edges of the sky, they stopped to take the signs off the van, switch the license plates back and change out of their charity volunteer uniforms. Jamie, with the residual insecurity of a seventeen-year-old who hadn’t quite accepted that he wasn’t a skinny kid in gym class anymore, changed in the cramped space in the back of the van among their haul, facing into a corner. Hugh sat in the front seat and exchanged his green t-shirt for a white one and the black leather jacket that had become a second skin over the decade or so since he’d bought it.
Andie replaced her green t-shirt with a black vest so threadbare that someone with greater concern about their appearance would have disposed of it long ago. She stood by the side of the van, ignoring the growing chill in the air, smoking a cigarette and watching two birds swooping and diving above them together in a dance of carefree abandon.