Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The long summer of war, part 6

After a long summer comes winter

It had been nearly two weeks since Annie had left, and he still felt so alone. The first letter from her had come by return of boat the following day, so he knew she was all right and waiting for him. It was good to see her neat handwriting on the page and read of her life and that she still loved him, but it was never the same without her voice in the air and the smile upon her face.

He kept the letter, and all the others that had followed it brought on the daily boat on the dresser in the room in the flat. There had been a reply to each one. It helped pass the evenings away as he wrote to her to tell her how much he loved her and that he hoped it would not be long before the company grew satisfied with the new facilities for the war effort on the island.

Every morning he sealed the envelope and took it down to the postal office at the dock to trade it with a stamp for the one that would always come with the early morning boat. Then in a routine that quickly established, he would return to the small café that Annie had once frequented and sit and read her words over a tea, ignoring the whispers and stares of the locals who still regarded him with suspicion. It did not matter to him now though. Let them think what they wanted. All he cared about was getting back to Annie.

Once the first snowfall had come, it was not long before the hills began disappearing under white. The first day had been the last in several that had been frosty from the start with breath curling in the air.

It’ll be a long hard winter.”

The words of the brakeman had stuck with him in his mind as he had ridden the train to the ore plant. He had not gone to the tops first, because he needed to oversee those who were running the machinery and to ensure that the plant could cope with the extra capacity demands being placed upon it. It was no more than a formality, but it was something the company demanded once a week in his report, so it was something he always did first thing on the morning of the Monday.

The snow came as a dusting at first. Tiny flakes that shimmered in the air like confetti falling. Quickly though they got stronger, and one by one the peaks of the hills and mountains that lined the valley faded away behind the clouds.

It’s going to be a hard one,” said the plant supervisor as he looked to the sky, “I reckon we’ll need to send out the clearing crews right away to keep the railway open.”

But it has only just started,” said James.

The supervisor laughed. “On the island the snow doesn’t give you long. Here an hour can mean the difference to getting through and being stuck in the drifts. It comes in hard.”

The supervisor was right, despite the patronising edge to his voice. James was used to mainland city snow that was brown and slushy on the streets within minutes of falling. At most there the children might manage a small snowman in the park before most of it melted. He was not used to the wilds of the far north unprotected by anything and exposed to the savageness of the weather hard in off the sea.

By the time the supervisor had finished the boring tour that seemed little more than going through the motions, the snow was thick on the ground. James was actually surprised at how deep it had become.

Thanking the supervisor, he hurried down to the waiting train, ready to head further up the valley to meet with the ropeway. Hopping up into the brake van, the brakeman met him with a concerned look.

How bad do you want to visit the mine today?” he asked.

How do you mean?”

The snow is bad. They’re likely to be marooned up there until the snow clears, and that could be days or weeks depending upon what nature has in mind.”

The train had moved off readily, but it was soon clear that there was trouble ahead. On the rear veranda of the brake van they sipped at the whiskey and watched the two strips of steel of the rails fade quickly into the white mist of flakes falling behind them.

Twice they passed maintenance crews huddling for warmth around braziers as the train went on by. Wrapped in furs and dusted in white, if they had not have moved they might easily have been mistaken for snowmen. They would have their work cut out in this weather, and it was a losing battle anyway the brakeman had said; one that only nature would win.

The train’s progress began to slow noticeably and the pair retired through the van to the front veranda to see what might be causing problems. Up ahead the diesel locomotive was almost lost into the falling snow, but a plume of black exhaust smoke showed the driver was trying to struggle on.

Snowdrift most likely,” the brakeman announced.

What will they do?”

The brakeman shrugged. “If it is too bad they’ll just have to try and back us down to the plant again and wait this one out. At least going back we’ll have gravity on our side.”

Eventually the squeaking procession of wagons ground to a halt, though the roar of the locomotive came, muted by the snow so it seemed much further away than it was.

They climbed down and struggled through the drifting snow until they came upon the locomotive crew working with shovels to try and clear the wheels. They exchanged words, and found themselves handed two more shovels. In times of need it seemed, outsiders were welcome enough to help, James mused.

It took another three attempts to make it to the loading plant, but they made it was at least a small sense of pride. Going back the wagons would be weighted with ore, and gravity would be on their side. But it might be the last easy trip to be made.

I don’t think we’ll be back here in a hurry this winter,” said the brakeman looking to the grey sky.

But we have to. The plant must be kept running,” protested James.

It summed up, in his opinion, the attitude of the islanders to getting things done as the brakemen and the two crew of the locomotive merely looked at him with a look of pity and disdain. In all the time he had spent on the island it was clear to him that they had a ‘can’t-do’ rather than a ‘can-do’ attitude, and they resented anyone who came looking for solutions rather than problems.

He knew it would not make him popular before he even said what he was going to say, but he said it anyway because the locals had never shown much warmth to him.

Whatever you might have been used to in the past is for the past only. I came here on the direction of the company to keep things running and to dramatically improve efficiency. If you don’t like that, then I suggest you start looking for an alternative job with a different company.”

He felt his cheeks burning despite the cold, but it was something that had to be said and that had been repressed for far too long.

The three men just stood open mouthed in front of him. He guessed they had not expected the outsider to take them on and rattle their world.

James! James!”

The frantic female voice came stark and clear through the snow as a shadow came from the mists and began to move closer.

If he were honest to himself, he would readily admit that he was glad of the distraction of those words that put an end to any hard and frank discussions with the men next to him.

He recognised the figure and the voice, and started out through the drifts towards where Jane was struggling up to her waist in snow.

Oh James! I needed to find some-one!”

He heard the worry and concern in her voice and immediately knew something was wrong.

What is it?”

Pól and Dúggan. They went out before the snow to round up the sheep and bring them back down the valley. Father said the worst of the winter was coming and it was wise to bring them back to the barn for safety. The snow came faster than anyone thought, and Father and I were able to make it back to the village – just. But my brothers are out there somewhere.”

She put her arms around him and hugged close, crying.

The villagers say it is too dangerous to go out and search whilst the snow is falling. Father and I tried, but we could not get far. As a last hope, I came to try and find you and ask if you can spare people to help us to search.”

Yes, of course,” he replied instinctively, though he wondered exactly what he could do given the exchange he had just had with the train crew. Looking into her pleading eyes, he knew he had to at least try.


****


Organising the men had been like trying to herd cats, but he had impressed upon them the need in the end. It had helped that those they were looking for were islanders. There were five men including the three from the train and two more from the loading plant. It was agreed that the train could ride back once loaded needing only one man to drive it, and another man was to be left in charge of the loading plant. The other three would set out with James and Jane to begin the search of the tops.

Jane had said that they had headed for the highest part of the tops before the snow had come. A call through the telegraph system to those at the mine confirmed that they had seen the men walking the fells before the snow came in.

It is a good chance that they may still be up there,” said James.

The all terrain vehicles would be useless in the weather, so they had to head out on foot. With ropes, field glasses and dried food from the stores the small group began to follow the line of the pylons of the ropeway. Standing high above the drifts, they provided the only sure markings across a desert of white.

The snowfall had lessened, but it was still falling lightly and night would be upon the valley within no more than a couple of hours. They made steady progress, though it was slow. The passing ore carts snaking up and down the hillside had diverted much of the drifts as the winds had eddied around the pylons, and the drifts were much shallower.

With the field glasses they took it in turns to scan the fells, looking for anything that stood out against the white. But apart from occasional rocky outcrops stripped bare by the winds, there was nothing and they pressed on.

By dusk they had reached the mine and tumbled thankfully into the warmth of the prefabricated buildings to be met by dust covered workers. In the opencast site beyond working under floodlights, machinery scooped and pounded rock and loaded it onto a conveyer in a process that sheltered by the slag heaps would continue despite any weather.

We saw them as the snow was coming down, but they seemed to keep their distance from the mine,” said the engineer wiping dust from around his eyes with a grubby hand. “Plenty of sheep with them on rope. We would have offered them shelter, but they seemed hell against anything to do with the mine. Didn’t want to be here.”

Pól and Dúggan have long said they wanted nothing to do with the company,” said Jane forlornly, “They called them ‘men from overseas come to rape the land’.”

Then she started to cry.

Do you have any vehicles we can use?” asked James.

The engineer shook his head. “Even the quarry trucks won’t stand a chance in these drifts. I’ve worked the ore plant for ten years, and I’ve never seen any vehicle that can overcome the island winters. I can spare a man or two, and supply them with equipment, but anyone out there lost on the tops right now is best holed up in any shelter they can find.”


****


They had set out with torches and ropes. Darkness had fallen over the tops, and although the snow had all but ceased, the lack of visibility grew worse, not better. Using the ropes to avoid becoming lost, they had snaked out in a tethered line combing the tops in the direction the engineer had said he had seen the men and their sheep go.

Each person remained within sight of the next, and augmented by two extra men from the mine they were able to stretch a reasonable line over the sea of white. But by comparison, the tops were a huge wilderness and the line was merely a speck within it.

Combing back and forth they used their torches to pick out features that loomed out of the darkness, but they turned out to be nothing more than rocks or snow-covered gorse bushes. Overhead the sky began to clear, and for the first time the stars could clearly be seen shining through with a blue-silver glow.

Occasionally a shout would echo from one of those in the line, and the line would contract to see what was found. For the first few times it proved a false alarm, but then as the night wore on, a shout brought them together and a scarf was held up soggy and damp in the light of a lamp.

Some-one was here,” said the engineer.

Jane came forward and took the soggy red woollen cloth in her hand.

Pól,” she said softly, and began to cry.

James tried to comfort her.

He cannot be too far away,” said the engineer, “There are tracks leading on from here that weren’t made by us. He must have passed this way after the snow stopped falling.”

It was true. The tracks lead up the slope then doubled back the way they had come. They were partly obscured by snow, but the weather had changed not long after the person had passed.

If we are to follow the tracks, we had better hurry,” said one of the quarry men, “The skies are darkening once more and the new storm cannot be far away.”

Looking up they saw that one by one the stars were twinkling out, to be replaced by the darkness that signalled the return of the bad weather.


****


When the storm had first arrived, Pól and Dúggan had been well on their way to rounding up all the sheep. They had protested at the task when their Father had told them to bring the flock in, but they had known that in the face of the weather it had to be done.

It had been a long time since they had properly worked the tops, and so it took them longer than they had thought. Chasing cragfast sheep down soon ate into their time, and it wasn’t until the light began to unnaturally fade that the two looked up and realised that the storm had overtaken the first of the hilltops and was bearing down on them fast.

They had moved the sheep as they found them into the stone shelters that dotted the tops. Circular and low with an open top and one gated entrance, they provided shelter for the sheep whilst keeping them penned. Later the flock could be gathered together and led down to the farm barns to shelter from the worst of winter.

Steam rose from the huddled sheep as the first of the snows had begun to fall. Out of breath and weary as they counted the numbers, they had to count them two further times to be sure of the numbers.

Another four,” said Dúggan at last.

Pól nodded. “Father will not rest until we have them all.”

His brother looked to the approaching front and the blizzard of white that was strengthening all the time. Already the pylons of the ropeway were beginning to fade from view despite their closeness.

We must work fast; there soon will be no time to get back down the valley.”

Torn between their safety and their duty, they closed the stone shelter’s gate, and headed back up the valley towards the dirty scar of the mine; the one area that until now they had subconsciously avoided, but which had to hold the remaining nomadic sheep.

They saw a worker as they passed. He called out something, but they neither heard it nor cared. Father had instilled in them a deep suspicion of the company and those who worked for them. ‘They come and rape the land’ he always said.

When snow rolls in across the tops it is deceptive. The quiet stealth of the clouds slowly envelopes and takes the land without a whistle or a cry. The falling flakes deaden the sounds, and soon what was once familiar ground becomes nothing but disorientating white.

By the time they had tracked down three of the four errant sheep, the storm had surrounded them without them noticing, and swallowed them whole.


****


The tracks were beginning to fade as the clouds rolled in and darkness reigned again save for the feeble glow of the lamps. Stretched out on the rope, they fanned on across the drifts. The tracks kept going until at last the group realised they had gone around in a full circle as the drifts made way to windswept gravel mounds and the quarry buildings loomed out of the light freshly falling snow.

He must have come for help,” said Jane, and rushed towards the lights.

The others followed. The quarry machinery was quiet, but the lights were still on in the buildings at the top of the ropeway. A quarry worker who had stayed behind met them at the door.

He came just before you did,” he said urgently, “Babbling about his brother. I think the cold has got to him, but he’ll be all right.”

Jane pushed past into the welcoming warmth of the room. Sat in front of the heater, steaming gently in the warmth was Pól. She smiled and threw her arms around him, and they hugged before she remembered Dúggan.

Where is he?”

His eyes looked to the floor, and at once she knew his words would not be good.

On an escarpment. We didn’t see it in the snow. Everything went white and before we knew it he was over the edge.”

Jane began to cry, but her brother comforted her.

He’s secure, but he cannot climb up or down. I came here to seek help.”

He looked up at the group that had followed Jane in, and for the first time looked James eye to eye. Not this time as an enemy, but as one pleading for help.

James nodded. “Then we had better move fast if the snow is closing in.”

It was the first time he had seen such thanks in the eyes of an islander who had until now been so hostile to him as an outsider.


****


The ground had given away in a blur. Snow had flown up and over Dúggan and despite reaching out for a handhold to steady himself, there was nothing.

A rock seemed to come from nowhere and winded him. But it arrested the fall. He felt numb from the impact, but he forced his frozen hands to cling on despite the pain.

Pól!” he cried out.

At first there seemed to be no answer, so he called again. This time a faint voice came through the calm stillness of the night. Carefully tilting his head back, he saw his brother gingerly sliding himself on his belly to the edge of the fall.

As the clouds thinned, his brother tried in vain to reach him, but there seemed no safe way down.

Pól!” called Dúggan at last, “Go to the mine; it isn’t far from here. There may be a rope you can use from there.”

Pól hesitated, but only a moment, then he was gone into the dying wisps of the snow.


****


The snow had begun to fall heavily again, and soon the tracks that Pól had made on his way to the mine were fading to nothing under the fresh blanket. With a pocket compass, James took a bearing before they were lost from sight completely, then the group struggled on.

Soon, the wind was whipping the snow up into stinging, icy clouds.

Stay close together!” James called out, but the wind stole the words from his lips the moment he said them, and he had to repeat himself a second time at the top of his voice to stand a chance of any of the others hearing him.

As the visibility reduced even further, he made them stop and loop the rope about each of their waists in turn so that they were held together in a chain. At least this way they would not end up losing anyone else to the storm.

It’s a bad one tonight!” the engineer shouted into James’ ear, “This looks set in and it’s only a lucky man who will survive a night on the tops exposed through this.”

James sensed that the engineer was hankering after them turning back; he could see the concern etched to the man’s face. Deep down he was inclined to agree, but behind the man he saw the pleading face of Jane, and knew that even if they turned back, she would carry on into the night. They could not let her do that.

Another hour,” he said, striking a compromise.

The engineer nodded, and slowly the chain began to move again through the drifts. Deep down, James could not help but wonder what he would have to do if they came to the end of that hour and there was still no sign of Dúggan.


****


The hour came, and he had to make the choice. Behind him he saw the row of faces looking to him for word of what to do. There was the engineer and his men, wanting to return to the safety that the mine offered. They had come this far with the compass, and by following their route he was pretty certain they could make their way back. But there were also the faces of Jane and Pól, pleading for different reasons. He stood there and saw in them the hope that he would choose to go on.

I can’t make any of you come,” James said at last, “But I am going on. Those who want to come may do so. Those who would rather head back towards the mine can go if they choose. Your help tonight has been appreciated, and no-one will think any less of you for turning back now. The storm is savage, and it is an honest man who has come this far with us.”

He saw the engineer look to his men and falter. The gamble had worked, and instead of loosing themselves from the rope and heading back, he saw them tighten the knots and shuffle forward.

We’ve come this far. We won’t give up.”

From there on he knew they would follow him into the eye of the storm.


****


For Jane, it had been a long day. Adrenaline had kept her going from the moment she had realised that her brothers were lost on the tops. When those at the village had been unable or unwilling to help her and her Father, she had gone to look for the only person she could think who would be able to help her. It was a long shot, but luck had been with her and she had found him at the loading facility at the end of the railway line. It had been pure chance that he had been there, but the World was made of chance and there was no point in dwelling.

He had known what to do, just as she thought he would. Leading the way in front of her, she felt safe again, knowing that he really would do all he could to find her brothers. The walk up the valley to the tops had eased her fears, but they had still been there. Her Father had always told her that those from the company, and certainly those not from the island could never be trusted or called upon for help, and that had been the line taken by her brothers also. But she had never believed it and ever since she had met James all those months ago she had known that the attitude of the islanders was nothing more than a fear of change.

When they had found Pól safe and well though somewhat cold at the mine, her heart had leapt. But his tale of Dúggan’s plight had also rekindled the worry. He was out there somewhere on the tops, alone and at the mercy of the cold. She had to believe he could be found even though she knew the stories told of those who had been trapped out on the tops in winter in years past.

As they had moved out again into the cold she had found comfort in James leading the way. But the cold and the exertion had taken its toll and the adrenaline was wearing off and fatigue was creeping over her.

She had been vaguely aware that some of those from the mine wanted to turn back. It was all she could do with Pól by her side to wait and hope. James had seen her fears on her face, and she had been amazed when he had persuaded so simply for them to continue. It could so easily have been different if the engineer and his men had pressed their case to go back.

So they had carried on into the night and the storm. But there was only so long that anyone could push themselves in the face of fatigue. She felt the rope looped around her waist draw tight more than once, and Pól came back to see that she was well.

I’m all right,” she said, when he asked her, but it was clear that she was not.

She stumbled again and felt the cold sting of snow on her face. She was more tired now and it was difficult to get up again. She felt friendly arms reaching down and picking her up, and words shouted in her ear that she could not make out. She tried to reassure them, but the world seemed ever so much further away.

What’s up?” she heard a voice. That was James.

I think she has simply worn herself out,” came another voice. That was Pól, though it was getting harder and harder for her to be sure. Then she thought she felt another jolt as she slipped and fell. Or was it some-one hoisting her up over their shoulder? She found it hard to tell as everything faded.

Then there was nothing as the embrace of darkness and fatigue took her, punctuated only by random moments of clarity as she drifted in and out of consciousness.


****


She awoke with a start and for a moment struggled to remember. Then the brutal harsh struggle of the day before slowly began to feed back through her mind.

Dúggan!” she cried out, and tried to move. But a reassuring hand held her back.

Hush. It has been a long night for everyone. You must rest.”

The voice was very familiar. “Pól?” she asked.

For a moment it seemed to her that maybe it had all been a dream and that now she was at home safe in the village in her bed by the warmth of the winter fire. But the memories were too clear in her mind.

She remembered the snow drifts, and the task that had seemed so forlorn. She remembered those from the mine who had come to their aid, to walk in the line held together by the long rope. She remembered the rope tugging tight, and the funk of exhaustion washing over her.

She opened her eyes, but the light was bright and hurt her and she would them tightly shut again. Somewhere close by, a log shifted in a brazier, and she felt the renewed warmth from a fire. Somewhere close by voices were whispering; she could not make them out despite trying to concentrate hard. Her mind was still fuzzy.

Where is Dúggan?” she whispered, fearing the worst that the reply could bring.

Hush. You exhausted yourself on the tops. You need to rest.”

She recognised the voice as James’.

She made to protest and to try and shake off the blankets around her.

I must find Dúggan!” she exclaimed.

Strong but gentle arms held her back.

He is safe; we found him,” came James’ voice.

The relief washed over her, and she finally relaxed and let the friendly arms tuck her back in to the warmth. Fluttering open an eyelid, she let her eyes adjust to the harsh glare. Slowly shapes and lights and shadows melded together and focused, and she saw that they were back in an office at the mine.

She lay on a bench close to the brazier. On the other side she saw another person wrapped in blankets and at one end the tousled mop of hair she would recognise anywhere as that of her brother, Dúggan. He truly was safe.

Pól and James sat in the middle by the brazier. The talked in low tones, and from their expressions and body language she knew they were on good terms. They shared a drink from a small silver hip flask. It was the flask that Pól had had since his sixteenth birthday as a present from Father and used to keep a measure of brandy in case it were needed for medicinal purposes. He would never share that with an outsider.

She looked him over, reading his body language, and smiled. Finally the most sceptical of island xenophobes had accepted the outsider as one of their own.

Turning over, she nodded off contented in the knowledge that her brother was safe and the world had changed for the better.

Morning’s Song

At the first glitter of laundered morning light they rode the aerial ropeway down the valley to the loading facility. The skies had cleared, but the snow lay thicker than anyone had ever remembered on the ground making walking impossible. From their high vantage point the air was clear and they could see mile after mile until in the distance even the ocean could be seen glittering in the morning sun.

At the village they were welcomed with open arms; even James was. Word had somehow gone on ahead of them about the daring rescue in the night. Some of the villagers were a little sheepish given the reluctance they had shown to Jane when she and her Father had been desperate for help. In a time of need, it had been James – the outsider in their eyes – who had not hesitated.

James found himself taken aside by Jane, Pól and Dúggan’s Father as the brothers were carried off into the festivities that were beginning.

The old man smiled through his beard.

I believe I owe you an apology, young man,” he said, choosing his words slowly and with much thought, “I have misjudged you in the same way that my Father misjudged those from beyond the island, and his Father did too. It has been a habit that has been allowed to continue through the generations, and now I see after what you have done for my family that there is no truth in the fears the islanders may have held.”

Old habits are hard to change,” offered James.

The old man nodded. “True. But that is no excuse not to break them.”

He put his arms on James’ shoulders. “I am sorry for the way we treated you; it was inexcusable. From now on you are welcome here as my own family are. You are an islander, and you have earnt it.


****


The party had lasted well into the night. As the villagers began to melt away into the night, James had been offered a room for the night to save the trip down the valley. But he shook his head and politely refused, as there was something he knew that he needed to do.

I have to leave,” he told them. He found with surprise that regret edged his voice. “My work on the island is done, and I have a family of my own that I must return to. I must finally leave the island to return to the mainland.”

Well,” said Jane at long last, “I do hope you return to visit some time. You are more than welcome whenever you do.”

They hugged, then he bid her and her family a good night before walking down the valley to the loading plant to catch the waiting train for the last time.

It was with a strangely heavy heart that he sat in quiet contemplation in the warmth of the brake van as the train rattled and rocked its way back towards the harbour at the town.

Letter for the journey

Dear Annie, My heart has yearned for you, and at last the time has come for me to return. I promised you for a long time that it would, and I suspect that you never believed me. But it is now true. By the time you receive this letter, I will already be on the next boat back to meet you. The winter on the island has been hard. Since the great storm though the attitude of the islanders have changed. As I told you of the rescue, things have changed so much. It seems that I finally earnt their respect, especially that of Pól and Dúggan and their Father. Now all three see to it that no bad word is spoken against me. I must admit that like you I grew to hate the island, but now I have come full circle and I must truthfully say that I do not mind it. It is not like when we first came any more. Actually, Jane and those in the village have asked when I will be back. I have told them that it depends not only on the company, but also more importantly upon you. I would not come again unless you were here by my side. They have said that they would like to meet you. In some ways I am sorry to leave. It has been a challenge, but I am proud that I have made it through. Next time we are here, if that time comes, I think I would actually look forward to returning. Right now, however, I am looking more forward to being with you. I have missed you, and look forward to meeting you off the train tomorrow. I wish never to be apart from you again. Yours forever, James

No comments:

Post a comment