Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The long summer of war, part 3

“Usfolk and themfolk don’t mix,” her Father had said sternly.

“That’s just not right,” Jane protested, but there was no way of convincing the sceptical islanders who were stuck in their ways.

It did not matter what she said; they had an argument against it. Faced with the wall of closed minds, she decided there was little use to trying to justify her actions. She knew they were right. Did it matter what others in the village thought?

So she had gone out early the next morning, slipping out before even her Father had risen from his bed. She did not feel like being with them as they sat around the breakfast table, stuck in their ways. By the time they had realised she was gone, she was already up on the tops, looking for the sheep.

She had become so engrossed by her work that she never heard the approaching all-terrain vehicle until it was nearly upon her. Perhaps the wind had been blowing the wrong way? At any rate she turned as the engine coughed and died and saw James climb from it.

“You came back?” she said slowly.

He smiled, pulling equipment from the back of the vehicle.

“Yes. Despite the attitudes of the locals, I have work to do.”

“Don’t tar me with the same brush as for the locals,” she said curtly, “I stood up for you last night against them when they were talking about you coming here.”

He paused a moment, a tripod withdrawn halfway through the back door in his arms. He thought and then nodded his head at her.

“Then I thank you for standing up for me.”

She found a suitable rock and sat down to watch. It was time for a break anyway, she figured, and in truth she was a little curious as to what he was going to do. Not even the islanders grown fat in the coastal town ever bothered to wander up here. It made a change from chasing the sheep.

He had a set of instruments in a felt-lined box that he mounted on the top of the tripod. Then he took the tripod and began taking sightings through it both up and down the valley and writing whatever he was doing neatly in a little notebook.

“What are you doing?” she asked at last, her curiosity demanding to be satisfied.

“Taking readings,” he said, not looking up from the instrument.

“Readings of what?”

“You probably wouldn’t understand.”

She felt a little irritated. Was he patronising her? She wasn’t sure.

“Try me,” she replied flatly.

“Surveying for an aerial ropeway.” He pointed up the slope. “You’re not going to like it, but I guess I owe it to you to tell you. There’s going to be a new mine up there, just over the top. The geologists found the deposits years ago, but no-one ever did anything about it.”

She remembered them: the three men who had spent a week climbing all over the tops, banging with their hammers and daubing white painted crosses on some of the outcrops of rock. They had never said much about what they were doing, and it had seemed that at times they had treated their stay up in the hills as a jolly from real work than anything else.

“I remember them. They came and messed around and painted lots of white crosses then left.”

But the villagers had accepted them as islanders. After they had gone, nothing had happened and even though some of those white painted crosses remained, faded by the weather, the whole episode was never mentioned by anyone in the village.

‘Good riddance,’ her Father had said, ‘Scaring the sheep flocks with their nuisance.’

The thought occurred to her that he would not take kindly to what might be happening as a result of their work.

“Father won’t like it if you’re going to mine up here,” she said, “The sheep are his livelihood, and a lot of other people’s beside.”

“It won’t be such a disruption. The ropeway will carry the ore down the valley with barely a sound once it’s built, and the railway will get extended up a little way to meet it.”

She thought of the railway. They had talked about building it further but had never got beyond earthworks up part of the lower valley. ‘What point would it be?’ others had said, and it was just left at that.

“Progress,” she muttered.

He smiled, sensing that in Jane at least he might have found an islander who understood about the future and what inevitability it could bring.

“If you saw the geologists at work, could you help me?” James asked.

He pulled a map from a pocket and carefully unfolded it to spread on the bonnet of the vehicle. She saw the pleading look in his eyes, and her shoulders sagged. Whether she helped him or not, change would come anyway to the valley. At least, she thought, if she helped him she might be able to influence things in some small way and limit any impact.

She felt her way carefully down the rocks and stood beside him leaning over the map.

He pointed with a finger a series of symbols she did not understand.

“They were supposed to have marked what they found, but when I got here I cannot find half of what they claimed to have marked, and the other half I can find are all in the wrong places.”

She nodded. The map meant nothing to her, but she had seen those fading paint marks more than a thousand times as she had roamed the tops seeking out the sheep.

“I can help, but I have sheep to find too.”

“Would it be quicker to look for them in a vehicle? And on the way you could show me the marks?”

She saw the pleading look in his eyes, and could not help but to smile.

“Yes. It would.”

He smiled and put away the map before hurrying around to open the door for her. Inside the car she felt a pang of guilt.

“I didn’t tell you my name last time. It’s Jane,” she said.


****


So they spent the day roaming the tops. It had been a long time since Jane had ridden in a vehicle. The government programme ‘to aid the war effort’ had taken any that had been left in the village that still worked. There had been no compensation and the farmers had been left to struggle.

Bouncing over the last of the rocky track, they made faster progress than she had ever managed on foot. As he drove she scanned the crags looking for the sheep that had got themselves into trouble. When she saw one she told James to stop and they spent a few moments getting the sheep free. It was a help to have him there, and he was not above putting some time in to help her climb the rocks and carry the sheep down.

As they travelled she pointed out the faded paint marks and he would stop to take a bearing with his instrument and to write notes on the map. In between, they talked and gradually she came to know a little more about him and he knew a little more about her.

They could not have been from such a different background. He had been public school and University educated whilst she had learned all she needed from her brothers and from her mother. There was so much he knew, but at the same time he was never patronising or aloof about anything. He had a warm personality and was friendly. She realised she felt safe with him and actually was enjoying the day.

She told him more of the mentality of the islanders, and hoped at least in a small way that she could help him to understand them in a way that would help him. He seemed impressed at her knowledge of the weather patterns and the ways of nature to be able to read the countryside and know so much about it.

He told her also of his wife, and how they had come newly married to these shores far away from the mainland. He told her of his wife’s unhappiness of being on the island and the strains it placed.

She sensed the pain it brought, and tried to seek to reassure him, but deep down she realised that the culture shock she envisaged of being taken to the mainland world James had talked about must be the same culture shock that his wife was finding now on the islands.

Some worlds were destined to never easily collide.

The day went by quickly, though they achieved much and talked about much more. Even before the sun had started to dip lower towards the horizon and the sea that twinkled there they were on their way back down the track towards the village. It was much earlier for Jane than she had ever finished before.

“You had better drop me here,” she said at last as they approached the final turn.

James nodded. He already knew that the village folk would ask too many questions should they turn up together.

“They will ask why I finish so early, but I shall wait a few minutes for you to pass through before I carry on. Less questions will be asked that way and it will just be, easier.”

He respected her wishes. Despite the day spent talking like old friends, he knew that the other islanders were not so tolerant and helpful.

As she climbed out he called out after her. “Thank you. You were a great help, and I appreciate it.”

She nodded. “If I see you again up on the tops, then I shall gladly help again.”

Then the door shut, and she was gone to the edge of the track. He waved as the vehicle set off, and then she disappeared behind the rocky outcrop in the kink of the road.

Passing through the village he saw more than one icy stare of the locals, and he knew that Jane’s fears of their reactions should they know she had been helping him were more than justified.


****


He left the all terrain vehicle at the ore plant, and rode the train back down to the town. They would not let him ride with the locomotive crew, so instead he took a seat at the veranda of the brake van.

“You can’t ride in the cabin,” the guard had announced, “Company rules.”

There was never any point in arguing with the islanders; they had made up their minds to make his life as difficult as possible, and there was not anything that would be likely to shift their views on that.

So he huddled in the cold as the first of the rains lashing in from the sea stung his face. It was not the greatest way to travel, but it was a lot quicker than driving. Perhaps that would give him a little extra time for Annie, if she would appreciate it.

But the enforced island life had taken its toll. He saw that much in her face as she opened the door a crack, the candle flickering behind her in the breeze.

“Power went down this afternoon,” she said forlornly as he took off his jacket and wriggled free from his damp boots.

“Did anyone say when it might be back?” he asked, sensing the tension.

“They wouldn’t talk to me,” she said.

There was no use in trying to tease conversation from her. The islanders had already begun to grind her down, he could tell. How much longer could he try and keep her happy before she turned tail and ran?

As they ate their cold supper in silence and retired to bed under the comforting warmth of blankets, he thought silently in his head of the fears that she would take the boat back to the mainland and he would find her gone on his return one day.

“It’s not forever,” he said in the darkness.

She snuggled closer for warmth and kissed him on his forehead. The brief moment of intimacy filled him with hope.

“I know,” she replied, “Now go to sleep."

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