Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The long summer of war, part 4

As James had predicted, the villagers had not welcomed the news of what was to come. They made their protests and complained, but despite the sentiments of the islanders at large that they did not particularly like outsiders coming to interfere, the company had decreed and with the backing of the war office their will was to be done.

He rode the train many times out to the plant, to pick up his all terrain vehicle and ride up into the hills. Sometimes he saw Jane, and they rode together, helping each other in their work and passing their time in talking. He suspected that she was lonely, though he never asked. He did know for certain that she did not agree with her family and the other villagers on a great many issues.

Sometimes she would not be there, and instead he spied an old man who would scowl as he passed. He never stopped to try and chat as he had done with Jane; he knew the other island folk to be a disapproving bunch. So on these days he went off alone to undertake his work in silence, just getting on with the job he was here to do.

In the town the power came and went. It seemed that there were problems with the infrastructure all over the island. It seemed to James that there was a culture of ‘mend and make do’ and the locals resented being told of a way to do things better.

Over time, Annie settled into a routine and found one or two people within the town who were friendlier than the average islander with whom she could spend a little time. But it was a lonely existence for her, he knew, and certainly not the life that he would have envisaged for his new wife.

Within a few weeks he had mapped out the locations of the minerals and the route down which the new aerial ropeway would go to meet the extended railhead. He sent the report with more than a little pride by courier on the boat. The villagers up in the hills could grumble all they wanted, but when the company approved the work there would be little they could do but sit back and watch progress happen.

To celebrate he took Annie out for a meal, granting himself a well-earned day off. There weren’t many restaurants in the town, but they found one that served local fish dishes and had a bottle of expensive imported wine to go with it.

Over the candle things had seemed once more like old times; troubles had evaporated for an evening. That night they had retired to bed and done things that they had not had the energy or will to do since coming to the island and the next day they walked the streets and shops of the town arm in arm like tourists.

A reply from the company was not long in coming, and the boat the next day brought news that the company had approved and would be sending out materials by the next ship for construction to begin. Their brief romantic moment together would be at an end by the dawn of a new day and they would be back to the grind of a job to do and long hours alone.

Over the next few weeks as the summer progressed, so the materials arrived by boat and the routine of their island existence continued. He had to recruit locals from the town to undertake the construction work, and despite their reluctance to get involved with outsiders, work was work and money was in short supply. So they came and they grudgingly signed up.

In time the railhead would grow, edging up the valley to meet where the concrete bases for the pylons that would carry the aerial ropeway were marching steadily up towards the tops. Helped by a company supplied Helilift ‘copter they would progress at a rate that satisfied those who James had to send his reports to back on the mainland.


****


‘Plain Jane’ they had called her as a child. Nothing special and not exactly the prettiest. But she was hard working and got the jobs that needed doing done. Her Father had secretly looked to her as the workhorse of the family who would take the family farming on to a new generation.

True, there were two sons who fancied themselves as the next leaders for the family when he had gone, but secretly he knew that the only one who was prepared to do the jobs that needed doing that no other wanted to do would be her.

Whilst the brothers tended to the fields in the easy work, she would roam the hills looking for and protecting the sheep that never ceased to get themselves into difficulties on the crags. Neither of the brothers particularly liked the task, to go out in all weathers and to work hard and not rest until every sheep was accounted for.

Jane did not mind; it was a way of life, and the way she saw it was that some-one had to do it, so it might as well be her. Besides it gave her plenty of time to be away in the hills with her thoughts and dreams.

She had not wanted much out of life, but she was more intelligent than many others would have given her credit for. Often she would take with her on her long days a book to read, to learn more about the world around her. Despite the reputation, often unfairly ascribed to her by the other villagers of being a drop out and a ‘plain Jane’, she had a mind open enough to be able to see beyond the narrow outlook of the villagers.

So it had been with luck that James had happened upon her in the hills on that first day instead of some-one else. Perhaps if it had been her Father on the odd days that he chose to go up into the hills instead of her for the exercise, there might never have been the new industry.

The villagers had reacted with anger at the news that the aerial ropeway was to be built and that mining would eventually commence in the tops.

“What business is it of outsiders to come and destroy our way of life?” they had demanded at the meetings of the villagers.

Jane had tried to defend James and the company, but such a stance merely resulted in her being treated like a leper. Some had seen her with James, getting a lift in his vehicle. They saw her as a traitor in their midst, so she found herself shunned by all but her Father, though even he was not fully forgiving.

So began the tense life where she found more pleasure in being up in the hills tending to the sheep than living at home. At least there she could occasionally see James and spend the day talking together as they helped one another.

In time the work crews came; island folk but from the town which made them nearly as bad as the outsiders in the eyes of the hillside locals. By the end of the month, despite the muttering of discontent from the villagers, the plinths for the aerial ropeway stretched up at regular intervals like a set of wide-spaced stepping hills up to the tops. She watched them be built by the wordless crews. The men did not bother her, and she did not bother them.

One night her family sat tight-faced around the dining table, and all talk turned – as it now often did – to the construction.

“It will be the end of our way of life,” said Pól, her brother, “They will come and bring with them bad luck. The crops will turn and wither and the sheep will not linger on the hills anymore.”

“Aye. We shall be ruined,” said her Father amongst mutterings of approval for their words.

“Oh what rot,” Jane said, unable to contain her feelings for their stupid jingoistic and xenophobic words, “Already the work crews are up in the hills every single day, and the sheep could not care any less for them. There will be no change to our way of life and I feel ashamed to hear such silly sentiments from you, Pól and you, Father.”

It did not matter what she said though. They just eyed her with suspicion.

“I’ve seen you with the mainland man,” said Pól icily, “You two go on like you are together in marriage whenever you both meet up on the tops.”

All eyes looked to her and she felt herself blushing.

“It isn’t like that,” she protested, fighting back the tears, “He is married and there is nothing between us except helping each other in our work.”

Her brothers roared in disapproval, and there was nothing more she could say for them to hear. Finally her Father calmed them all down and demanded silence from the hubbub.

“Mark my words, girl, there never came anything good from mixing with the foreigners. He is bad news as are all those that come in from overseas.”

“He’s only here because the company sent him to up production for the war,” she found herself snapping in defence.

Her Father seemed taken aback by her outburst; it was not what he had expected from the daughter that he had grown so used to being timid. She felt a little shocked herself; she had not meant it to be quite so forceful.

“Those from overseas come to take away our jobs and livelihood and destroy our way of life,” he said slowly in a tone that suggested a reply was not being asked for, “Now I am still the head of this house and that is the end of the discussion.”

Maybe it was a sign that she had exposed in him the duplicity in what the locals claimed to believe. Whatever it was, she decided it was prudent to say no more. But her brothers still sniggered and taunted in their petty little ways whenever their Father’s attention was turned.

Jane was glad when the meal was at an end and she could retire to bed alone. In the morning she got out of bed earlier than usual and was washed, dressed and away before any of the others stirred. The actions of Pól and her Father last night along with the lack of any support from Dúggan, her other brother, sealed her opinion of her family. They were as narrow minded as the other locals, and it would take much to change their opinions.


****


On the tops she met James, and told him of her experience with her family as they drove up the track alongside the series of scars that marked newly built foundations. At least here she could speak to some-one who listened to her and cared. Above all, he sympathised because he was the newcomer to the island life who was treated as the outsider.

He told her of the strains on his life with his wife. Annie did not like the way of life here, and he feared that she would lose heart and take the boat to the mainland. It was as much as Jane could do to assure him that the way Annie must be feeling was not his fault, and that love would keep them both together.

He smiled and thanked her for her words, then changed the subject and pointed out the fresh white bases of concrete.

“They’ll bring in the pylons ready built from the mainland using the Helilift ‘copter. It should start in the next few days, and we’ll be done inside of a week. Then your villagers can have the valley back to themselves. The ropeway will pass almost silently overhead.”

He seemed very proud of his achievement.

“It does not matter what you do; the locals will not approve. However much you try and reason with them, they will not open their minds to listen.”

The vehicle stopped at the topmost concrete base where a group of men looked up from their work. Jane recognised some of them from their visits to the village to get food and water. They were islanders, following the work and trying just to earn something to get their families through difficult times. She squirmed as they took a break and watched both her and James as he got out of the vehicle to go and talk to them.

Where conversations between the men had been free-flowing and jovial just before they had arrived, now they were icy and words flowed only at the bare minimum to answer his questions. More than once she spied the men looking to her in the vehicle, and she knew again that by nightfall those in the village would know again that she had been with James.

When he finally left them to return to the vehicle, he seemed happy enough. The workmen watched him go with a little suspicion, but returned to their work fast enough.

“They make good progress. The last base is almost finished. I shall send my report to the mainland tonight and the first of the pylons may arrive by the day after tomorrow,” he said.

“Let’s go,” she replied.

He sensed the tension, then realised the truth. He glanced at the workmen.

“No matter how much they work on my orders, they are still islanders. And they eye me and those with me – such as you – with great distrust.”

“Something like that,” she said, not taking her eyes from the group.

James started the vehicle and turned it around to head back down to the village.

As before, he stopped before the final kink in the valley to let her out away from the watchful eyes of the villagers, but she stopped him.

“No. By the time those workmen get back down here, all will know anyway. I’m not ashamed of being with you, and the sooner those on the island change their ways of thinking, the better. Drive on.”

He hesitated a moment, though he saw she was serious. Wordlessly, he drove on around the final bend in the track, and stopped in the small village. Inquisitive eyes watched Jane as she climbed out, but she ignored them.

“Take care,” she said, and was gone.

He admired her courage; there was sure to be difficulties for her to show without doubt that she was willing to share a ride with an outsider.


****


It was more than a week before he saw Jane again. In the meantime it seemed that her brothers had been sent up to the tops to tend to the sheep; a job he witnessed them do scowling and without any passion for the role. He guessed correctly that there had been friction from the night that he had dropped her off. By the third day he contemplated asking one of the new shepherds whether Jane was all right, though he quickly thought better of it. There was no sense in further antagonising Jane’s relationship with her family and the other villagers.

When she finally reappeared on the tops, she sat forlornly at the same rock upon which she had sat the very first time he had seen her. By now the pylons had marched almost to the top of the mountain, and a shadow edged across the scruffy ground to within a few feet of her seat.

“I worried about you,” he said, leaning from the all terrain vehicle’s window.

She nodded. “Pól saw us arrive together in the village. From then on it seems no-one could pretend it wasn’t happening. Father was angry, though I tried to reason with him. He told me that Pól and Dúggan were to tend to the sheep whilst I could work down the valley at the farm.”

“I saw your brothers. They did not look happy.”

She laughed, and he felt heartened to see her face break into a smile at last.

“They never are when they have to do real work. Father grew sick and tired of their complaints at having to work the tops, so he reluctantly agreed to let me go back.”

“He doesn’t want you to associate with me?” asked James.

“Yes.”

He sighed. “If you do not want to associate with me any more, then I understand. Sometimes family trumps morals.”

“Oh no,” she snapped as if shocked, “I would not let my family impose on me standards that I believe are wrong.”

“Then you want a ride?”

He opened the door. She smiled and hopped from the rocky outcrop and bundled herself into the passenger seat.

“Thanks.”

It was his turn to chuckle as the vehicle moved off up the hill and they started to scan the hillside for cragfast sheep.

“Besides,” she said, “Getting a lift by car certainly beats having to walk across the tops looking for stupid sheep that have got themselves stuck.”


****


Father had not liked it, and neither had Pól or Dúggan. The village would talk, but Jane had morals that she upheld as more important than appeasing what she saw as backwards views that were held by her fellow islanders.

They had met the work crew again, preparing for the arrival of one of the last pylons. This time she had happily got out of the vehicle with James and sat on its bonnet to watch as the drone of the Helilift ‘copter drew close. Faced with her boldness, all they could do was whisper then return to their work.

They watched in awe as the pylon appeared in the distance dangling from the dot that was the Helilift. It looked like a toy until finally it came close above and began to lower. Then it was a real object, massive and shiny and new. They watched from the safe distance as the work crew guided it into place, then fastened the bolts that held its feet to the concrete pad. Then the Helilift lifted away with the hoist rope dangling free, and was gone. The whole operation had lasted no more than a few minutes, but had filled Jane with awe.

Of course, the work crew had talked, as they always did. But their words were old news, as she had again insisted on being dropped off in the village. She had told James that there was no point in hiding from progress. How true, he felt, those words were. Hadn’t he used them himself at the ore plant when he had first arrived on the island when ticking off a lazy foreman who believed there was no room for change?

The following day he had expected to see Pól and Dúggan skulking across the tops. Maybe it would be another week before he saw Jane again, he thought. But she was there, sitting on her rock and smiling defiantly.

“No hassle?” he asked as she clambered into the seat beside him.

“Plenty of hassle,” she replied with a grin, “But there’s nothing they can do. Before Father even thought of it, Pól and Dúggan flatly refused to work the tops. Anyway, I don’t think Father had the stamina to fight this matter.”

“So you won by attrition?”

“I hope it is rather more a case of slowly winning over their minds and changing their views.”

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