Thursday, 8 July 2010

In the first beginning (Atlantic)

The following is part of the discarded material from the first draft of 'The Atlantic Connection'. I would have otherwise just deleted it, but here seems a good place to dump it. It was originally the beginning, and I wrote myself into a corner and really didn't like it. So I binned it all and started again.

From the chair behind the desk in this office, he could see everything. Not just what the broad picture windows could offer of the view across the city, though that was a view that cost a lot of money in the centre of the city.
Running down the centre of the long table in the office, below the mezzanine where his own personal desk lay, banks of monitors set into the top scrolled their endless displays from around his empire. Behind him, another wall had yet more flatscreens set in it, each patiently displaying reams of data on loops.
Those screens that showed the outside World seemed at first glance to be taken with a camera, perhaps on some-one’s shoulder. An ever-moving silent World at eye-height, hushed into monochrome in the darkness of night in the City.
Two showed an image of this very office, and in the centre, sitting back in his chair and deep in thought, was Julius.
It didn’t seem to bother him that they were watching. Who really cares that machines could watch? That was his view. To him, the two genetically engineered Assassins stood by the door were no more than organic machines here in the task of his personal bodyguards.
Once they had been human, but science does not sleep or stagnate in the hands of the curious. Especially when morals or ethics did not bind the curious. There was a lot that could be done beyond the stifling prying of regulation.
The application of science had been swift and absolute. Using adaptations of organic computing technology, they had been enhanced and tamed to become the most efficient of assassins.
There was one small flaw that had at first made them controllable, but had quickly become an Achilles heel. In the transformation into Homo Superior, they had lost their emotions and ability for truly independent thought.
Because of this, Julius had come to think of them as mere machines. Others were scared of the human form that did not think for itself but was told what to think from the main Citybase computer network.
The Assassins were not without their enemies, both within Citybase and beyond. But so long as Julius – the head of the Syndicate – pursued the programme, then the warnings and discomfort of others were not important.
Footsteps echoed in the corridor from outside, drawing him from his thoughts. The two impassive Assassins did not move, though data flashing on the screens showed they had registered the sounds.
He moved soundlessly to the doors and waited for the steps to draw up outside. Without waiting for chance for the newcomers to knock, he opened the door. He had been expecting them.
“Come in,” he said to the heavy-built man outside.
The man nodded, and entered. Julius stood to one side as a short man in technician’s robes followed and then two women.
As they passed, the technician nodded his greeting, but the two women ignored him. Looking to their eyes, he saw the characteristic stare of the Assassins, behind green eyes that hid the implants that made their vision systems work.
The technician scuttled to the flatscreens and began entering information on a keypad. Screens flickered and changed in front of him, and he was lost to his work.
The other man directed the women to stand in front of the other two Assassins, and stood to one side waiting for Julius as he shut the door and turned to inspect the two.
“Second generation, Connolly?” he said at last.
“Yes,” replied Connolly.
Julius nodded, seemingly drawn in with looking the two up and down. Both were smartly dressed in tailored skirt suits. They reminded him of his secretary in the ante office, though she was at least naturally human.
“I’ve got the data entered now,” said the technician, finally looking up from the screens.
“Okay Dreyka,” said Connolly.
The technician shuffled down off the mezzanine.
“So,” said Julius at last, “What am I waiting for?”
“All improved,” said Dreyka happily in the fast talking of some-one who is more accustomed to talking to his computer than to people, “Better nerve kinetics and quicker responses. They also have capacity for independent thought. I’ve been able to isolate the errors in the first generation process to give these subjects their emotions. I found that only with emotional responses to external stimuli can a subject become able to extrapolate a response to it such as a normal human might.”
Julius looked to Connolly.
“Translated from techno-babble to English, that means what exactly?”
“More human than human.”
He nodded, ignoring Dreyka’s irritation of feeling sidelined. Peering into their eyes, he could sense nothing other than their impassive stare to the opposite wall.
“What are they thinking?” he asked.
Dreyka glanced to the flatscreens where data scrolled.
“They are waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“For this meeting to end.”
“So they can go back to the labs.”
“That doesn’t sound like independent thought to me,” said Julius.
Dreyka shrugged. “They’re just not interested in you.”
Julius shot him a sharp look, and the man shifted uncomfortably.
“You promised me something more than the first generation. Yet they seem no different. I expected interest and involvement in their surroundings,” he said.
Dreyka tapped some commands into the keypad, and two of the screens flicked to showing an image of Julius and the room: live feed from their retinal implants.
Julius did not seem so impressed.
“I get that from all of your toys. Show me something new.”
“Ask them a question.”
“What’s the point?”
“Just ask them,” pleaded Dreyka.
Julius sighed, though did as he was asked and turned to one of the women. She had the green eyes that all the Assassins had, and a faraway look.
“What is your name?” he said at last, struggling to think of what could possibly asked of a machine for idle chat.
“Elizabeth.” She responded flatly.
“And her?” he continued, glancing to the second.
Dreyka shuffled, agitated. This wasn’t quite the triumph he was looking for.
“Not impressed,” warned Julius.
“What are you thinking?” asked Dreyka to the woman.
In a first generation Assassin, there would be no human-like answer. Their minds would not process such questions in any other way than with pure computer logic. The answer would have been of relevance only to their technician.
Instead, Elizabeth looked across as her eyes refocused and looked Julius up and down slowly.
“I’m a little bored of playing word games with you.”
Julius was taken aback. No Assassin had ever talked back like that. Both Connolly and Dreyka looked nervous; even Syndicate personnel would not have dared to say such frank things to Julius.
But Julius was impressed. He scrutinised the woman more closely, looking to see that she really was an Assassin and not just an ordinary woman sent to test him. He glanced to the screens and back again, noting how the image of him could only becoming from her optics. At last he seemed satisfied.
“Very well. What can they do for us?” he asked.
“Almost anything,” replied Dreyka with a smile, “No-one will suspect them as Assassins until too late."
It was a limitations of the first generations that whilst their initial effects had been devastating, people were quick to learn and soon had devised ways to spot them. Their effectiveness had diminished as their reputation and stories about them had spread. Such was the way with all advances; others learnt to adapt, which a first generation never could.
“I have concerns,” said Connolly, breaking the glow of the meeting.
Julius looked to him.
“I don’t like these creatures. They scare me,” he went on, “I don’t think we can ever have complete control.”
“Scared, you?” scorned Julius, “However that fear is just what I want people to feel arounf them. They are a new tool and weapon to make us great again.”
“We can be great without them,”
“Not this great.”
Connolly sighed. It was always this way, to try and reason with Julius. There was no point to continue; he never listened.
“How many do you have?” Julius asked Dreyka, ignoring Connolly.
“Just these two. The process is proving hard to replicate.”
“Then two will have to do for now.”
He looked to the pair. “They pass well enough, but can they walk the walk?”
He considered for a moment.
“We’ll take them to the Starlight tonight, to see whether anyone notices. They’ve seen the first generations, but I’d like to see if they can spot the second generation. If they pass the test, then I want them in the field to evaluate by the end of the week.”
Dreyka nodded. “I will have them ready for tonight.”
Dreyka and Connolly turned to go, but Julius stopped them and looked at Elizabeth.
“Do you understand what has been said?”
“You want to go and flaunt us to your business rivals and see if they realise that we are just Assassins.”
She looked at him, and he felt a shiver run down his spine. It thrilled him that his machines could finally reason with him.
He laughed, returning to his chair.
Connolly nodded to the pair, and they filed out together in silence.

The view from the window and back into the room.

Everyone's computer has a view. Unless you have your eyes shut, you are going to see something whilst you sit there typing. For a lot of people I guess that includes a window and I'm certainly amongst them. What can I see from where I sit? Well, my window looks out over the cul-de-sac where we live. Whilst it is a quiet backwater, it is off the main duel carriageway that forms the town's ring road, so I can see a lot of traffic as it pulls up at the intersection.
When I write I do sometimes find myself looking out of this window as I compose my thoughts. On a day like today the sun is shining brightly from a clear blue sky where there isn't a cloud in sight. It's rather nice. I can see the school children waiting at the bus stop at the end of the road, and the fire engines and police cars going in and out from the police and fire stations that are just down the road - there goes one now.
The road is tree lined, and so has a nice atmosphere to it. At the moment I've been watching the leaves fall in the autumn, but during the spring and summer it is full and green. There is also a railway line behind the left-hand row of houses, and a station beyond the trees. I get to know what time it is when I hear the sound of the squeal of brakes as the train pulls up at the platform or the revving of engines as it accelerates away. That is of course unless it is late! There is also a big steel girder bridge over the dual carriageway, and you can hear the change of wheel noise as it rumbles across it - there goes one now! Sometimes we even get on a weekend steam trains pulling through on a railtour from Carnforth. If I hurry down into the back garden as soon as I hear them I can usually catch a good sight of them. I’ve never got a photo yet though.
Of course, the room itself can be considered interesting too. If I look into the room I see the second largest upstairs room of the house. I am a total pedantic neat freak, so it is always just so. I inherit this streak from my Mother, though she is twice as bad as I am! Still, I like living in a clean and tidy abode.
The desk upon which I have my keyboard, mouse and monitor is solid pine with drawers in. I keep my clothes in this room, so the drawers contain knickers in one, camisoles and slips in another, stockings and suspender belts in the next one down, and several fancy corsets in the bottom. No pencils or post-its here! I might be neat, but I am rarely organised.
On the right side of the desk top is a turntable for playing LPs, and off the side of the desk is a 'mound' of technology, for want of a better word. A large server (usually switched off. What use do I really have for a powerful quad core techno-beast?) A file server and a former server that is now used as my desktop computer (well, it was cheap, and it works as a computer with a lot of power and plenty of drive space). There is also audio equipment from my time working in radio, occasionally used now though not as much as a decade ago.
Beyond that is a CD player and a laser mono printer, and beyond that a pine bookcase to match the desk with the assortment of books and things that didn’t really belong or fit on the main bookcases downstairs in the lounge.
At the far end is a single bed, convenient for lying on and thinking at. It's a not so well known fact that an author is legitimately allowed to daydream to formulate and develop ideas! It also doubles as a guest bed for whenever we have parties. At its side is a solid oak table in the shape of an octagon. My parents bought it many years ago from a junk shop in Sutton Coldfield just after they got married - they had a house but very little furniture. How times have changed. The lady in the shop said: "Keep bobbing, ducks!" as they left with the table, and they still have no idea to this day what she meant.
In front of the chimney breast is the antique oak chest that Zoë affectionately calls my 'train porn chest' on account of the fact I store a lot of model railway equipment in it. It came from my grandmother's house when she went into a home. It was made with salvaged timber from an old sailing ship being broken up in Hull in the 1930s/1940s. Sat on top of it is a quarter of my model railway, being used as a diorama to display models. Space is at a premium and the other three-quarters lie stored in a cupboard.
At one end is my writing bureau. Another antique piece from my parents' stash of surplus furniture. They came a long way and did 'keep bobbing' and when I moved out and got a house of my own I furnished it with all the surplus furniture that sat dusty in storage. My Father was glad to finally get his loft back.
Then we reach the final corner, and a pine wardrobe for the rest of my clothes. Strangely it is the only wardrobe in the house - Zoë prefers the judicious use of the floordrobe or the chairdrobe in our room. It drives me mad, but then I guess if we were both neat freaks, we would probably find that a whole lot more difficult to live with. I have too many clothes, and it brims with stuff hanging on the outside as well as the inside. There is a drawer at the front and I fill it with bras. What always gets me is how I can have so many clothes and yet still have absolutely nothing to wear? Oh a girls' life!
Does that yet bring an end to the guided tour? Well I suppose so. I look again to the window and see the sun has moved in the sky quite quickly since I started writing. It's brighter now, and the school children are gone - I guess their double decked bus came and went whilst I was hard at work. The traffic is also much lighter. It seems to just melt away when the time reaches nine o'clock and rush hour ends. Now would be a good time to get my car from where it sits just out of view below the window if there was anywhere I wanted to go. But I don't.
Nextdoor reverses his car from its parking space. Will he ever learn to drive properly? Does revving the guts out of a car from cold really improve its ability to move? I thought not too. Now I see the postman, coming with his big red sack. I wonder if he will bring any letters for us? Some days we get tons, and others we get none; it's all very hit and miss.
A knock on the door and I finally have to shift from my chair and go from my little den. Maybe there is some post for me after all.

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

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.

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.


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.


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.”

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."