Wednesday 7 July 2010

The long summer of war, part 1

The sun glittered off the mountains in the first of the morning sun. It was a cool start to what would soon be a sweltering summer heat. Soon the sun would rise higher into the sky, bathing the rocky outcrops and barren gorse bushes in a fiery glow that would bake the already dry and cracked ground even harder than cement.

From a rocky seat that protruded from the course and browned grass of the slopes, Jane sat nibbling on the bread and cheese that she had brought with her from the village far below for her breakfast. She had set out long ago up the mountain pass when the sky was still dark and before even the glow of the new day had begun over the dark sea that stretched from the island shores to the horizon. She had climbed up the dust track at walking pace, looking for the sheep that forever seemed to lose themselves to the mountainsides. How was anyone supposed to make a living from this land?

The sheep were always wandering. The stupid beasts; always there would be one that had got itself cragfast on one of the rocky ledges. Why did they always follow their noses looking for the sweet new grass growth and never realise that they would eventually find the end of the ledge with no room for them to turn around? Already the family flock had lost several of their number to falls and starvation by not being found by the helpful shepherdess before it was too late.

A twinkle of light reflecting off something moving far away on the track below caught Jane’s eye, and she found herself drawn back out of her thoughts to the tiny vehicle moving slowly up the hill. It was too far away to hear its engine tone yet, despite the pleasant stillness and tranquillity of the mountain air.

Who might it be, she wondered? Few people ever bothered to head this far from the village. And at any rate, there was no-one she knew who still had a vehicle that worked.

When war had broken out two years before, the men from the towns had come and requisitioned anything that worked.

“For the war effort to protect the islands,” they had said.

They always had a reason, backed up by the threat of government bullying if people did not comply. It had been legalised theft – such an oxymoron of a term – in her mind. Those from the town, grown fat in their living off the taxes of the farms and the industries that clung to the slopes, never knew the hardships of real work. They only saw what they could take and get away with. It had not been anyone from the villages who had had a hand in starting the war.

The vehicle came closer still as she watched. Over the calling of the occasional bird she could now hear the faint chugging of its engine as it struggled for purchase up the gravel of the steep switchback track. Again she wondered why anyone from the towns might want to travel this far. There was nothing up here except the rocks and the occasional sheep. Even the prospectors had dismissed the high ground as holding nothing of value to the industries.

At last it came close and she watched it draw to a halt below her rocky seat. It was one of the faded all-terrain vehicles, like those that had been taken from the protesting farmers years before. There had never been any compensation and the farmers had been left to struggle and do the work of machines by hand instead. There was never any help from the government.

The engine died away to silence and a man climbed from the vehicle. She watched as he shielded his eyes from the sun and looked up to where she sat on the rock.

“Hi there! Can you tell me am I on the right road to the tops?”

She was surprised. He wasn’t an islander. The accent gave him away as some-one from the mainland. From as long ago as Jane could remember, there had been a rule between those farmers on the outlying islands that there was no dealing with outsiders. The most that anyone would tolerate were those from the town, and then only because they had to. Outsiders were different; in times of war especially, they spelt nothing but trouble. They were not welcome here.

Slowly she patted from her lap the crumbs from the bread she had eaten, and stood up.

“Who would be asking?” she said slowly, her accent so much more musical than this man’s had been.

He looked crestfallen. Perhaps he had stopped and asked the same in the village and had got no help there either.

“My name is James Weston,” he replied. His voice was slow and measured as he looked to see her expression.

“What business do you have here?”

He seemed annoyed, though he kept his annoyance in check. She knew then that he had received no help from the villagers.

“I’m with the company,” he said at last, pointing to the side of the all-terrain vehicle.

She followed his outstretched hand and saw under the dust that had stuck to the vehicle in its climb along the track the faded logo of the mining and refining company that had for longer than anyone seemed able to remember provided the main source of wealth for the islands.

At best, the locals regarded those from the company with some suspicion, as those who had sold out to the men that came from over the seas.

Jane felt a sudden pang of guilt. As much as it had been drummed into her throughout her life not to deal with those who were not islanders, it seemed wrong to be so cold and so rude. So she sat down and her shoulders sagged with a sigh.

“These are the tops,” she said at last, indicating with an outstretched hand the rolling mountain slopes that surrounded them.

The man seemed a little surprised.

“You were expecting more?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“No. Well, I don’t know. It just seems an anticlimax to find the place and find it looks little more than nothing. Those in the village would not help me, so I've just driven on and on until I came upon you."” She nodded. “The islanders tend to want to have nothing to do with outsiders.”

“Are you not an islander too?”

His stark question took her aback. She hadn’t expected such a question from the man.

“It seemed so rude to ignore you,” she replied at last.

He nodded again; satisfied it seemed with the reply.

“It is never easy,” he said, “during wartime it is hard for everyone. I came with my family to the islands because I was told to. Those back at the main headquarters in the homeland need the resources. That’s why they sent me out here.”

She thought it was strange how he seemed so eager to tell her much in his forlorn voice. It seemed as though he had not wanted to come. A thought crossed her mind, something that her Father had said to her years ago by the fireside when she was a child. He had said that sometimes during war the hardest job was to choose not to fight, but to stay behind and do the jobs that needed to be done but took none of the glory. In her Father’s case that had been to farm the land and make sure that the food to feed the troops kept on coming.

She looked Mr. Weston up and down. In his case it had been to be shipped to the most outlying territory to do the unsung work that would keep the metals and minerals coming for an ever-hungry war effort.

“You wanted to fight for your country,” she said at last, “But instead they sent you out here to the edge of the World where no-one will acknowledge your efforts for the war.”

He seemed surprised at her words, but she could tell they were the truth.

“Well, I must be getting back,” he said at last taking one last look around the barren hills, “Perhaps I can thank you by giving you a lift? It is a long walk on foot back down to the village.”

Jane shook her head. “No. I have sheep to care for. It is a long day for me before I am ready to return to the village. But thank you for the offer.”

She watched as he got back into the vehicle, and the engine coughed into life. He quickly turned it around and pointed it back in the direction of the valley below. With a wave out the window, the vehicle set off on its way leaving dust rolling in the hot air.

She rose from her seat and watched the twinkle of sunlight reflecting on the vehicle until it was nothing more than a dot moving across the hillside. Then she set off up the hillside towards the bleatings that told her experienced ears that here was the first of the cragfast sheep that would need her help today.

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