– The Second Chapter –

 

 

The next morning was dull again.  It had rained during the night, and everything was still wet and miserable outside.  He felt as gloomy as the weather.  He wanted the project to lift some of that gloom, but he wasn’t pinning his hopes on it.

 

The second chapter was in four parts.  He began to type and edit the first part.  He got annoyed again before he finished the opening sentence.  In the original manuscript, he had typed ‘a myriad of pools of radiance’.  He remembered Bill’s suggestion that it might be better to treat the word ‘myriad’ as an adjective, rather than as a noun.  Bill had been right, of course, but his suggestion had been snubbed – until now.

 

1

 

Bright shafts of sunlight pierced through the pall of grey smoke, suspended over the estuary like deathly gloom, and laid bare the blackened ruins which scarred the landscape like festering cankers; they bounced back gaily from the leaping, dancing waves, creating myriad pools of radiance on the glistening waters of the morning; they reflected sharply from the whitewashed walls of the small cottage, perched lonely and forlorn at the edge of the sea; and they penetrated into the half-darkness of the tiny living room, cascading over the face of the young man, slouched far down in an armchair and slumbering awkwardly.

            The young man awoke with a start.  It was some time before he could remember where he was, before the stark memory of yesterday’s carnage came shrieking back to haunt him.  He closed his eyes and prayed to God that it was all a terrible nightmare, that he would reawaken refreshed in the small, comfortable bed of his room in the University Halls of Residence.  It was not to be.  The same strange surroundings and the same painful memory remained when he reopened his eyes.  He could feel the warmth of the sunlight on his face and the soft leather of the chair beneath him.  He could see the smoking remains of last night’s fire in the hearth.  This was no dream.  But where was the old man?

            Robbie Sinclair had risen some time earlier and at that moment was returning from his usual morning walk with Pad.  His returning footsteps this morning were not, however, the light, near-youthful strides of yesterday, but instead were slow and deliberate – those of an old man filled with grief and sadness.  This morning he had dared not look out onto the estuary lest his eyes welled up with the fountain of grief within him.  How dearly he had loved his little home and its beautiful surroundings.  How dearly he had cherished his job and the many small pleasures that it carried.  And now?  Now they were all gone.  And for what?  What would happen now?  Grim-faced and silent, he arrived back at the cottage.

 

An hour later, the two men and the dog set off for the small fishing village of Cramond, where Robbie believed that they would be able to find the local Defence Unit.  On the previous evening, they had collected together all of the remaining supplies of food in the house and they had packed these and a number of other items into two small rucksacks.  Jeff had volunteered to carry the heavier of the two loads.  In the event of further announcements, the old man had left the transistor radio switched on all night and had discovered this morning that the prolonged use of the batteries had exhausted them, rendering the machine practically useless; this, therefore, they left behind.  As an afterthought, Robbie had brought down his small bore hunting rifle from its usual place above the mantelpiece.  He had cleaned and loaded the gun, and he had stuffed several boxes of cartridges for it into his jacket pockets.  He had only used the rifle before for pest control in the woods, but he was terribly aware that at close range a bullet from it could penetrate a man’s skull.

            Before finally leaving, the old man gave his chickens a last, plentiful feed and then locked up the cottage.  As he made his way through the garden to join Jeff, he turned back momentarily and murmured a sad farewell to his home.

            ‘Perhaps,’ he thought dolefully, ‘I’ll never see the place again.’

            At any other time, the walk along the sun-dappled pathway between the cottage and the boathouse at Cramond would have been a sheer delight to either of the two men.  Today, however, both men, old and young, pale and silent, were totally unaware of the fine beauty around them.  Even the old collie seemed to have lost its usual vigour and playfulness as it padded along behind them.  Robbie remained gloomy and despondent as he deliberated on the alarming events of the day before, while Jeff was filled with anxiety over the uncertainty of the future.  What if they ask me to kill someone?  Will I be able to do it?  Do I have guts enough?  These questions, he knew, would only be answered in time.

            It was only when they reached that part of the woodland, out of which the terror-stricken young man had rushed only twenty-four hours earlier, that the first words were spoken between the two of them.

            ‘You go on, Robbie,’ said Jeff, ‘and I’ll nip down to the beach and get my jacket and things.  I’ll catch you up.’

            The old man agreed.

            ‘Won’t be long,’ shouted Jeff as he hurried down through the trees.

            His belongings were as he had left them.  He picked up his jacket and his packet of cigarettes, disregarding the books lying there.  Some of the books were open, their pages lightly fluttering in the mild sea breeze, but they were not important to him anymore; they belonged to that part of his life which was yesterday.

            Before returning to the footpath, Jeff regarded the still smouldering estuary and thought of how different it had looked such a short time ago.  A strange and eerie silence now filled the small bay.  The cheerful chirruping of the birds in the trees was gone, and the only sounds that could be heard were the faint swish-swash of the waves on the beach and the ghostly rustle of the breeze through the coarse grass at the foot of the dune.  Despite the warmth of the morning, Jeff shivered.

 

He thought it was funny that the sombre mood of the two men matched exactly how he felt that morning.  The sub-chapter seemed fine to him, though; it brought the story along, and it hadn’t needed much editing.  But the writing still concerned him: it was so verbose, so damn flowery.  And that first sentence was a corker!

 

He continued to the next sub-chapter, living in hope.

 

 

2

 

There was no doubt about it: Callum Mackenzie was a coward – a downright, weak-willed, selfish coward.  When he heard the three consecutive explosions and realised that the large gasometers a half-mile or so behind him had literally burst apart, he rammed the big oar of his ferryboat far down into the water in a flurry of panic – an extremely foolish act, for the old wooden boat promptly spun round in a full half-circle and commenced to rush towards the bank of the river from which he had so hastily attempted to flee in the first place.  Eventually, however, with the aid of the rudder and a certain amount of luck, the podgy, red-faced Scotsman managed to swing the boat back onto its original course.  Perspiring heavily, he reached the opposite bank, moored the vessel with shaking hands, and clambered out of it and up the creaking wooden steps to the boathouse.  Once inside the house, he slammed the door behind him and swiftly locked and bolted it.  Then, with his back flat to the door, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jersey and wheezed loudly.

            Callum Mackenzie was a frightened man.  His first actions had been on reflex, purely for self-preservation, but now he was at a complete loss as to what to do next.  For too long – in fact, for all of his life – he had been directed this way and that by domineering women: first, by his mother, until he was twenty-nine years old, and then, and for the last twenty years, by his wife, Agnes.  It was they who had governed his every move in life: what he should or should not wear; what he should or should not eat; when he should eat; what should be done in times of crisis.  His mother had been dead for the past seven years, and today, alas, Agnes, his protectress and safekeeper, his pillar of wisdom and strength, was not there beside him to advise and direct him.  Earlier in the morning, he had ferried her across to Cramond so that she could make one of her rare summer visits to her sister’s home in Edinburgh.  Worst of all, she was not expected back for another two days.  Predictably, Mackenzie’s thoughts were not for her safety, but only that she should be there by his side to guide him.

 

Poor Agnes.  Poor, dead Agnes would never be by her husband’s side again.  Only minutes earlier, suitcase in hand and eagerly looking forward to her short stay in town with Eileen, her spinster sister, she was on the point of alighting from the Number 26 City Transport Bus at its second stop in King’s Road, Portobello, when the blast occurred.  A terrible, ear-rending explosion broke loose from the huge, red-bricked building of Portobello Power Station on the other side of the street, tearing down its walls and shooting out vivid lilac flames for twenty feet on all sides.  The immense force of the blast whiplashed the double-decker bus, which went crashing over on its side, crushing Agnes to death.  Agnes had died instantly, as had all of the other passengers on the bus and all thirty-eight of the residents of the small, drab tenement flats in King’s Road.

 

Callum Mackenzie, almost fifty years old, was a frightened man.  With his shock of brown, curly hair, his pained and fearful expression, his oversized seaman’s sweater, his baggy trousers, and his big Wellington boots, he presented a pitiful sight.  For a long time, he stood wringing his fat, sweaty hands, until finally, summoning up what little courage he possessed, he unlocked the door with trembling fingers, slowly drew back the bolt and stepped timidly out onto the top of the stairs.  And, with uncomprehending eyes, he looked out on the miniature Armageddon of the Firth of Forth.

 

He read over the passage again and smiled.  At last, some writing that he liked.  Compared with the wishy-washy stuff from earlier, it was so refreshing; Callum Mackenzie came to life in those words.  He thought hard for a while, but he couldn’t recall ever knowing anyone like the character.

 

He went on to the third part, keen to know what happened next.

 

 

3

 

It was a distraught and haggard-faced Callum Mackenzie who shambled along in the early mist of the following morning on the soft, dew-covered sward at the edge of the woodland, only a few yards away from the boathouse.  His hair was more dishevelled than ever, and his eyes were red-ringed and bulging with fear.  At his side, dangling loosely from his right hand, was his father’s old revolver, heavy and rust-laden.  He had had very little sleep, and he had not eaten since breakfast the day before.  For most of the night, he had sat cowering in the darkness of the boathouse, keeping vigilant watch on the flickering incandescence that was radiated from the numerous fires all along the opposite shoreline of the estuary.  He, too, had listened attentively to the Prime Minister’s broadcast on the radio, and it was this, with its chilling warning of impending invasion, that had prompted him to seek out the old gun, a relic from the First World War, and to load it ready for use.  Although he had never fired the gun before and was not even sure that it still worked, its mere presence seemed to reassure him a little, to provide some small comfort to his ever-jangling nerves.

            And now, tired and hungry, confused and afraid, he was on his way to find old Sinclair, the gatekeeper, from whom he was certain to obtain some guidance in this awful situation.  His progress was halted abruptly, however, by the sound of heavy footsteps on the pathway ahead of him.  He retreated a few paces and slid behind the trunk of a large chestnut tree at the side of the path, calling out timorously:

            ‘Who’s there?’

            There was no reply, and the footsteps continued.  Quivering uncontrollably and raising the revolver with both hands, Mackenzie called out again, this time much louder:

            ‘Who the hell’s there?’

            Still no reply.  The footsteps came closer.  There was the rustle of leaves, the crisp snap of a twig, and Mackenzie’s finger pressed down on the trigger.  The old gun roared powerfully and leapt out of his hands, throwing him backwards.  This was followed immediately by a sharp, agonising cry from the bushes ahead of him.  Moments later, his victim came crashing through those bushes towards him.  Bent double and clutching wildly with both hands at the large, bleeding wound in his stomach, the man dropped down on his knees at Mackenzie’s feet and then rolled over on his back in extreme agony.

            Mackenzie drew back in terror when he realised what he had done to his old friend.

            ‘Oh, no!’ he cried.  ‘Oh, Christ, no!’

            Biting fiercely on his lower lip, he moved back from the moaning figure.

            ‘Mackenzie, you stupid, little bastard,’ the dying man spat out painfully.  ‘You stupid fu–’

            His last words were lost in a sickening gurgle as a torrent of dark blood spouted from his mouth onto the ground.  The sandy earth greedily soaked up the blood, and Callum Mackenzie began to sob like a little child.

            Poacher Tam was dead, unwittingly murdered by his oldest friend and closest confidant.  He had been returning from his customary dawn inspection of the many small snares that he had set at frequent intervals throughout the woodland; the events of the previous day had not deterred him from carrying out his usual, clandestine business.  On the footpath, at the spot where he had been shot, lay the small sack containing the proceeds of his morning’s work: two young rabbits, a fully grown hare and a fat, juicy pheasant.  The pheasant had been intended as a gift for his friends, the Mackenzies; it was, he knew, a particular delicacy of Callum’s.

            Tall, lanky Tam, known and loved throughout the district as a quiet, kindly man, lay dead, his large hazel eyes staring vacantly upwards and his long silver hair matted with the already congealing blood that had streamed down his cheek from the corner of his mouth, opened wide in the final, convulsive moments of his life.

            Callum Mackenzie stood over the corpse of his old companion and croaked despairingly:

            ‘Tam, Tam, Ah didnae mean it ... Honest, Ah didnae mean it ... Ah didnae ken it wis you ... Honest tae God ... Forgive me, Tam, forgive me ...’

            He cradled his head in his hands and wept loudly.

 

Hours later, when Jeff and Robbie came upon him, Mackenzie was sitting with his back to the old chestnut tree.  His head was still bowed low and he was sobbing quietly.

            ‘What in God’s name have you done now, man?’ asked Robbie angrily.

            He had picked up the old poacher’s bag and was displaying it accusingly in front of Mackenzie’s face.

            ‘It wis an accident, Robbie.’

            Mackenzie looked up with pleading, tearful eyes.

            ‘Ah didnae mean it ... A wis feart ... Ah didnae ken who it wis ...’

            He blurted out the words, trying desperately to stem the continual stream of tears that threatened to overwhelm him.

            Robbie could feel some compassion for the grief-stricken man, whom he had always regarded as a harmless and amiable simpleton.  He said more gently:

            ‘Aye, we know you didn’t mean it, Callum.’

            He patted the boatman softly on the shoulder and turned to Jeff:

            ‘Take Callum up to the house, son, will you?’

            Jeff was deathly white.  The ghastly sight of the dead body, with its hideous, suppurating wound, forced upon him so suddenly and unexpectedly, had made him retch horribly.  Now, his eyes averted from the corpse, he assented feebly to Robbie’s request; weak-legged and trembling, he led Mackenzie away towards the boathouse.

            Robbie Sinclair pulled his rucksack off his shoulders and stooped down to undo the straps.  He reached into the pack and took out a blanket, which he unrolled and draped over the body, already teeming with noisy flies in the early afternoon heat.  Then, stepping back a few paces, he offered up a silent prayer for the dead man.  Poacher Tam had been a worthy adversary – and a good friend.

            Wearily and more saddened than before, Robbie picked up his rucksack and set off for the boathouse.  As he trudged along on the soft turf, a dull clunk at his feet revealed the presence of the old revolver.  Bending down to examine it, he exclaimed:

            ‘Christ!  It’s a wonder he didn’t blow himself up with this bloody contraption!’

            With an angry, disgusted jerk, he tossed the gun far into the bushes ahead of him.

 

It seemed to him that the ‘Ripping Yarns’ tone of the first chapter was not being repeated in this second one and that the writing was maturing rapidly.  Perhaps that wasn’t surprising; apart from essays when he was at school, he hadn’t written anything serious before, so maybe it had been a case of him getting into his stride by this stage.  He hoped so.

            The main thing was that the novel was showing some promise, which was brightening his day.  Sadly, he couldn’t say the same for the novel’s hero.  He noticed in this latest passage that Jeff Wheeler had gone ‘deathly white’, had proceeded to ‘retch horribly’ and had been ‘weak-legged and trembling’.  He wondered again why he hadn’t based the character on someone like himself; he was certain that his younger self would have been much feistier in the role.  Had he begun to despise the weaknesses of his own creation? he asked himself.  Or was Jeff simply a victim of his loathing of the bourgeoisie?  It was a loathing that he had developed and nurtured and honed over the years, until sometimes he thought that it had become an obsession.  It was the voice, really; that public school voice.  The haughtiness of it.  The arrogance of it.  That’s what got his back up time and again ...

            He had to stop himself.  None of this applied to Jeff, he told himself.  It wasn’t Jeff’s fault that he hadn’t been brought up the hard way, that he was young and frightened and probably immature.  The character needed time to develop.  He should be given a chance, for God’s sake!  Wasn’t that a purpose of the novel?

 

Thus chastised, he moved on to the fourth and last part of the chapter.  It was a short piece, a continuation of the story.  Other than the verbosity of the first sentence, it didn’t give him any difficulties.

 

 

4

 

The swift-flowing waters of the River Almond, clear and sparkling in the bright afternoon sunshine, gurgled happily as they rushed forward on their perpetual journey down to the Firth of Forth, there to mingle with the limp greenness of the gently rolling tide; they jostled merrily against the hull of the ferryboat, which, gracefully gliding, cut smoothly across their path; and they swirled and eddied around the vessel’s large oar as it dipped, glistening, in and out of the silvery surface.

            The boat carried three men, two of whom wore grave and solemn expressions; the other, the boatman, was nervous and afraid.  Robbie had persuaded Mackenzie to carry on, as far as was possible, with his normal daily routine, and he had asked him to ferry Jeff and himself across to Cramond.  He had promised Mackenzie that, on reaching the Defence Unit, he would report the matter of the accident with the poacher to the Unit Commander, who no doubt would send someone over to bury the dead man.  He had also promised, though with less conviction, that he would try to contact Agnes for him.

            The ferryboat arrived at the low, stone-built jetty of Cramond Harbour.  Mackenzie moored the boat and jumped out onto the pier.  Then, with outstretched arms, he helped Jeff and Robbie to disembark.  As each man offered his hand to him, he clasped it tightly, silently.  Stepping back into the boat, he waved grimly to the two men.

            ‘Guid luck, lads!’ he cried out.

            Jeff and Robbie returned the wave and walked slowly on towards the village.

 

 

– o –

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