Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The long summer of war, part 5

Over the month the aerial ropeway grew and the cables spread out like spiders webs glittering from trees in the early morning sun. Down in the valley above the ore plant the railway snaked further up, finally completing derelict earthworks that had lain unused for decades and onwards in a fresh scar next to the road. In places the valley was so tight that the track had to go to be replaced by the rails and those needing to travel down to the city were forced to either walk the tracks or ford the riverbed when the waters were low.

That did not please the hill dwellers, but then nothing ever did. They made their complaints and the company officials on the mainland accepted them and ignored them. That only seemed to add to the resentment of the work of the outsiders.

“They take our way of life and ride roughshod over it,” they had said, “First they steal our land, then our road. What is next? Will they take our souls?”

Of course it was the empty words of those who feared change, but the company would never let the attitudes of the luddites get in the way of progress.

“For the war effort,” was the standard reply and in times of war that was all that was needed to say.

Jingoism always overruled the attitudes of the xenophobes. It did not matter that the islanders saw themselves as different from the mainlanders; in war there was only one nation.

On the tops James saw Jane almost every day. As much as her family might disapprove, they knew there was nothing they could do to change it.

Every day he dropped her back in the village on his way back down the valley. No longer did either of them feel conscious of the watching eyes. In time the villagers grew to accept it, of sorts. As one month stretched into the next so he found that occasionally locals might spare a word for him. It was a start of acceptance, but they still made sure he felt in his place, as an outsider.

By the time the long summer was drawing to an end and the first leaves on the trees were beginning to turn brown, the developments were all but done. Next would come the equipment for the mines on the tops that would feed down to the ore plant.

James knew that would polarise the locals. Some would snap for the paid jobs that would be offered. Others would curse and lament the destruction of their environment.

It did not matter; it would happen anyway despite everything. So the jobs were advertised, and applied for, and allocated. James found it truly ironic that the islanders would complain at the ‘outsiders coming in to take over’ then happily queued up to interview to work for the same outsiders. Money talked louder than beliefs?

At the docks in the town, boats arrived from the mainland disgorging their contents of machinery and heavy equipment. A second and third locomotive arrived for the railway with all new hoppers. Instead of the antiquated steam locomotive that rode the tracks now, these were diesel powered and efficient.

With a chuckle the thought had passed through James’ mind that maybe the locals would find even this a cause for complaint at the ‘outsiders changing the way of life’; he was not far from the truth.

With the ship came engineers from the company to set up and to train. For a while there was a restbite with the deteriorating relations with his wife as there were mainlanders to talk to and to socialise with. They began the steady cycle of frequenting the fish restaurant in the evenings and laughing and joking. But none of the men that had come were here to stay for long, and none of them had brought wives or girlfriends.

In time they returned one by one to the mainland waving their goodbyes on the docks from the railings on the deck of the boat, and were gone. One by one the connection with a culture that seemed so much friendlier went away, and their relationship returned to a feeling of isolation once more and the tension that that brought.


****


As August ended and September rolled on in there was a chill freshening in the winds that came in off the sea.

“We’ll be in for a hard winter,” announced the brakeman on the train as James rode it to the plant and beyond.

It had taken many months, but over time they had come to know each other and overcome the stand off that had characterised the first week James had been on the island. How that seemed so long ago! Now he was allowed to ride in the van rather than on the veranda, though outside of the solitude of the train ride the man still would not be seen to be associated with the outsider.

James looked over the stark rocky slopes of the valley as the train snaked on towards the plant. Already the first signs of autumn were beginning to take the leaves from the trees that sheltered in the rocky crevices from the stinging winds that could ravage the island.

“Are they often hard here?”

The man smiled at the inexperience of the outsider. “Indeed they can be. I’ve seen snow cover these mountains to a depth of more than fifteen feet. If it wasn’t for the frequent work crews ploughing the line here the ore plant would be forced to shut down.”

James nodded as he took the words in. How well would the aerial ropeway cope with the most severe of winter weather? Of course it would just keep on moving the carts high above the hill no matter what depth of snowfall. But what about the winds?

“Does it get windy?” he asked.

The brakeman laughed heartily. “Aye! Yes it does. I’ve seen winds whip the hills so hard that even the snow cannot stay put. In a bad year it would not be wise to be up on the tops without shelter. Even the farmers would not dare have their sheep out there when the weather draws right in.”

At the mention of the sheep farmers, he thought of Jane.


****


On the tops they sat and watched together as the first of the carts snaked along the ropeway, then another and another.

“Father will disapprove. But then, he always does,” said Jane with a smile.

“You cannot ignore progress,” said James in reply.

She shrugged. “True, but Father and the other villagers will always try.”

By the time they climbed back into the all terrain vehicle to check the last of the sheep, a steady stream of ore carts were whisking silently down the valley, passing the empties returning back up, bobbing between the silver pylons.

As the vehicle turned and rumbled down the track leaving a dusty trail in the sharp and icy air, the only other sound was the creak of pulleys and the wind whistling through the heavy steel cables.


****


Annie had been at her happiest for months when the engineers had been on the island. At least for a few weeks she could pretend there were people here who cared and were not so snooty as to shun those they saw as ‘dirty outsiders’. But one by one they had gone as their short assignments had come to an end. Only she and James were left, and she felt trapped in this place. It was like a prison to her.

Every day seemed as long and mundane as the last. She had brought books with her when they had come from the mainland, but she had not thought that the attitude of the locals would have been this way and they had all been read and reread a long time ago to try and pass the time.

James had made arrangements for more to be sent on the daily boat, but surely there was more to life than just reading books? She wanted a social life and people she could call her friends like she had had on the mainland before the company had deployed James here.

So she had gone out with a wicker basket under one arm to shop and to meet people. But she had been made to feel almost like a leper. In the shops – what few there were in the small coastal town – she found the locals would not talk to her but instead whispered and passed comments between themselves all directed against her. She had bought her wares with a tight lip and left; there seemed no point in lingering where clearly she was not welcomed.

But each shop had been the same. Finally in one she had become so angry that she had been unable to hold back the outburst.

“I’m not deaf, you know. I can hear what you are saying about me.”

With hindsight, it seemed only to add more fuel to the chatter the locals made about her.

“Rude, arrogant and seems to think we should make concessions just for her,” they would say amongst themselves.

It seemed like nothing she could ever do would ever be good enough for her to be at least partially accepted. The islanders would always find something to hold against her.

At first she had been angry, and then later on anger had turned to unhappiness. It was upsetting to find herself shunned and isolated.

James worked long hours, and they seemed to have little time together other than to eat and sleep and the occasional days off when he did at least take her to the fish restaurant.

“Why do you work yourself so hard?” she had asked one night as he came home particularly late.

He shrugged. I suppose that if I work for longer it all adds towards less time spent on this island.”

“The locals treat you badly too?” she ventured. Until now it had not crossed her mind that James might be finding things difficult. But his voice had betrayed so much more.

“They treat me like a pariah,” he said with a sigh, “If I had a choice I would have left long ago. But I don’t have a choice; I must stay until the job is done.”

They held hands, and smiled, lost in the sudden finding of solidarity. That night they snuggled together under the warmth of their blankets and watched the clouds roll in from the sea across the port through the small window in their bedroom. By the time the sun was rising again, James was long gone leaving his wife alone once more for the day ahead.

He had offered to her the opportunity to come with him up into the hills to follow him whilst at work, but she had always turned the idea down.

“I’m a city girl,” she would always say, “I would be even more out of place in the wilds of the countryside than I already am in this hole of a town.”

And so that would always be the end of that. He knew that she had a fear of the wilderness, and of getting stuck somewhere with nothing in the way of facilities. Instead she would spend her day in the town, having a simple lunch in a café she had found, and reading whatever book James had had sent for her that day on the regular boat from the mainland.

She knew that James feared that she would leave whether he came with her or not; he had voiced his fears to her on more than one occasion. Each time she had replied that she had not married him to bail out so quickly. She was with him because she loved him, and that was the end of that.

But secretly she knew that the boat was there as an option to leave. Could she really pack her few belongings and leave the note on the end of the bed for James, and go? She suspected it would be too hard, but more and more she found herself wondering about how much more she could take.

Over time she found at least some islanders whose stance against outsiders was not quite so severe. There was Padraig at the cornershop where she went to buy fresh meat and vegetables every other day. He had been stand-offish at the start; they all had. But deep down she saw in him a kind heart that questioned why tradition held the islanders should be xenophobic to those not their own.

So they had talked a little at first. Just exchanging ‘good morning’s and a simple nod and a smile. In this wilderness of isolation it was a mountain of good grace by comparison to what some of the others gave her. They had spoken a little more each time, exchanging small talk about the weather, then a little about how life was treating them. Sometimes it would be Padraig’s day off and she would have to make do with the beady-eyed woman who wordlessly served her with that look that suggested she saw Annie as lower than a dog. But Padraig would always be there the day after, and she would feel the welcome relief that at least there was some-one who she could have a few more friendly words with.

Over time he seemed to mellow, and occasionally when business was slow he would invite her to the little room behind the counter where he would put the kettle on to boil and make two cups of tea and they would sit and talk a little.

It was not much, but was a restbite from isolation. In time a small handful of other customers became prepared enough to share a few words with her. Perhaps they weren’t all bad? But it was a struggle.

Every day she could face a little better for a cup of tea and a chat with Padraig. One time she had confessed to him just how hard the attitudes against her and James were.

Padraig had shrugged and said: “That’s the way of the island folk. They don’t like others coming in and telling them what to do. Maybe in time things will change, but it’s hard to change the attitudes of generations. It’s been bred into them.”

It wasn’t an apology, but it was as close as she felt she might get for the moment to a reason she could hold in her mind and use to soothe the pain of being shunned by most locals.


****


The company official had written to him the day before, to say he was coming to talk with him. James had known from the moment that he lowered the fancy letterhead paper that it was trouble, and he was not wrong. The company had asked James to stay on, to oversee the first few months of production from the new mine, and to ensure that the ore plant really could cope with the extra demands on its capacity.

He had not wanted to, but deep down he knew that there really was no choice; accept freely, or be told to on unsettled terms. Faced with the prospect of causing bad blood and being forced to stay here anyway, he accepted, and prepared to break the news to Annie.

He thought she had taken it well at first. Standing there, nodding, her face betrayed nothing. But later on that night when he took her out to the restaurant as a peace offering, she broke down and cried.

“It isn’t forever,” he soothed.

“It always feels like it is,” she said through the tears, “I stuck it out for you, because I thought when you had done your work they would let you go home. But you’ve taken on more, and more. Is this the way it is always going to be? Going from one lousy job to another? Island hopping in the armpits of the World until the day you retire then wondering where our life went?”

There was little he could say in reply; rarely there was. He was not all that good with words, if truth be known. So he held her hand and tried to comfort her, but deep down he worried he had broken her soul.


****


The next day she dropped the bombshell that he had feared.

“I’m going back to the mainland,” she said, “I want to go home. You can come if you want, but I know you’ve committed to the company and can’t for now.”

She held his hand and forced a smile. “I’ll still be waiting for you when you come back. Just make it sooner rather than later.”

In that moment he knew she would remain waiting for him. A pang of regret ran through his mind: why did he accept the job? But deeper still he knew that the company had wanted him to stay, and when they wanted something they usually got it. There had been no choice.

He helped her pack her bag, and took her down to the dock to meet the boat when it came in. He helped her to the gangway, and they kissed and hugged until the steward politely told them it was time to go, if she wanted to make this trip.

From a railing she waved, and he waved too, until the boat drew away into the horizon and he could no longer tell if she was still there just by looking. He knew she would be though; waving until the boat had gone below the horizon and the island would be no more than a bump of hills on the horizon.

Only when there was nothing more than a smudge of smoke where the sea met the sky did he turn and leave the dockside, a tear forever in the corner of his eye. As the hoots of trawlers nosing their way back in from a night’s fishing echoed around him he made his way across to the network of sidings where a solitary switcher shuffled ore cars towards the tippler where their contents were disgorged into the cavernous hull of a waiting barge.

The train ride up the valley was especially sombre. The brakeman sensed the mood, and reached into the cabin for a bottle of whiskey he kept hidden away there for the colder of the days.

“You look like a man who could appreciate a drink,” he said, pulling the cork and offering the bottle across.

James took it gratefully and sipped.

“Care to talk about it?” asked the brakeman.

“Annie left for the mainland today. She said she couldn’t stay here any longer. The locals wore her down, and now she’s gone.”

There was not really much the brakeman could say to that. Sometimes there are times when reflective silence is the best course of action. Neither said a word as the train stopped briefly at the ore plant, then snaked on up higher to meet the carts flowing down from the tops on the aerial ropeway.


****


When Jane met him on the tops, she knew something was wrong. Through the time she had known him whilst she had never met Annie, she had heard so much about her. And she had heard also James’ fears that she would go back to the mainland, without him if necessary.

With the instinctive nature of a woman, she knew his fears had been realised. For the rest of the day as they threw themselves into their work, she did her utmost to distract his mind and to divert his thoughts away from dwelling on the morning.

But it was a losing battle and no matter what they did, by the time he dropped her back in the village and took the train from the railhead to the town far below on the coast, he had all the time he needed to himself. In his mind he reflected on what had happened and thought of all the things that had gone before.

That night he lay alone in a bed whose blankets suddenly seemed so cold and unforgiving in a room that seemed so empty and hostile.

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