Short story III

Wearily, the man trudged up the dusty road. He felt slightly dizzy after the celebrations in town, but that was actually just a dim memory. A memory quickly eclipsed by the living nightmares that flashed in front of his mind's eye unbidden, unwanted but also unstoppable. Another bridge, and then he'd be in plain sight of the Atlantic. As if he hadn't seen enough of the sea during all those years. But this was different. Briefly snapping out of his dark musings, he had to step aside to let a horse and cart past. A motorcar followed shortly afterwards. The unrelenting wind blew in straight from the sea, carrying occasional bursts of freezing cold rain. Dark grey clouds scudded overhead, but he did not mind. He was home.

Another half dozen miles would do it. The distant roar of the Atlantic surf brought a faint smile to his face, a different roar than what he had been accustomed to since the war started, four years before. The first year of peace was only a day or so away, and many of the lads were on their way up home as well. The familiar line of four hills that had kept him company from town now reappeared some distance to his left, fronted by some lochs. Their colour was gunship metal grey.

The grenade slammed into the gunners’ position, exploded and lifted the gun bodily off its mountings. The gunners manning it were reduced to an undescribable pulp. With the ship heaving heavily in the swell, a wave carried them off to their watery graves. Saving him the job of clearing up. Five of them had been boys from neighbouring villages. No time to think about it, he ran to the next gun and fired a shell at the opposing German vessel. It scored a direct hit on the magazine, and the warship disintegrated in front of him...

He heaved a shuddering sigh as he dispelled the memory. So many others haunted him, day and night. Villagers in the next township looked at him with curiosity as they toiled in the driving rain, but he barely saw let alone acknowledged them.

Thoughts now turned to home, some three miles ahead, where he hoped his bride would be welcoming him with open arms. Oh, it had been a long, long four years. But they appeared to fade at the memory of their wedding day, only a few months before the war started. She had been so proud, gorgeous in pristine white, and the two families beaming. One of those photographers had been there, and heavens, what a chore to sit still while he took a picture. He smiled at the memory of his bride’s youngest brother, a little brat of six years of age, who could not sit still and was now a smudge on the wedding photograph.

Another river, another village, another loch. The afternoon was wearing on, and sunset only an hour away. A cart pulled up beside him, and the grinning face of a childhood friend in the driver’s box. “Well, what have we here. Angus, by the name of the wee man. Can’t have you walking all the way, c’mon man, jump on, I’ll drop you right at your door”. Angus gave his pal a wan smile but took the offer of a ride, even though it was only another mile to home. A cheerful sort, the carter proceeded to give all the news from the village, mainly names of those who had been lost in the war. Angus did not need to be told. He had been there when some of them were lost. He asked a few questions about some of the lassies that they had both been to school with, but he was glad when the blackhouse that was his home finally came into view.

“Thanks Ian, that took a good bit off the journey”, Angus said. His friend handed down his case, and turned his cart round to resume his own trip. “Have you got any idea what you are going to encounter in there”, the carter muttered under his breath. He waved at Angus, but shook his head when the other’s gaze was turned away.

The darkening clouds raced overhead, but at least the rain had stopped for now. The blackhouses almost seemed to want to burrow into the ground to escape the relentless wind. Devoid of colour, they appeared to be moulded into the landscape. A disconsolate cow stood next to his own blackhouse, facing away from the wind. “Mary?” Angus called as he opened the door. “Are you there? It’s me.” A lump formed in his throat as the fair features of his beloved materialised in the light of the fire.

The old lady looked across at her granddaughter, tears welling to her eyes. The television on the kitchen dresser was playing, showing the customary faces of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, locked in battle over the miners’ strike. Their mouths moved on the blueish screen, but the sound had been turned off. “He came back the day before Hogmanay”, Mary finally managed to say once she had regained her composure. “A horrible, dreich afternoon. He had walked nearly all the way from town, just Ian the Carter took him the last mile from the Dun. And did I recognise him?” She wiped a tear from her face, as it rolled down, out of her control.

“Who are you?” Angus was taken aback. Surely, she hadn’t forgotten him? “I know it’s been a long time”, he began. “Angus...”, Mary said, her voice trailing off, her face an unexpected picture of surprise, slowly changing to anger. “A long time?” she resumed presently. “You’ve been gone four years, and all you can say is ‘It’s been a long time’”, her voice pitching higher and more shrilly. “Have you got any idea what I’ve been through, with you gone from the house?” Mary carried on. “A woman on her own, with no idea whether you were dead or alive?” Angus’s mouth fell open.

His wife’s diatribe continued, but the shrillness of her voice slowly morphed into the sounds of the aftermath of a ship being torpedoed. The torpedo had struck the engine room. The screams of the engine room crew who had caught the full impact of the escaped high pressure steam from the ruptured boiler echoed in his mind. Angus had jumped overboard but was quickly pulled on board a lifeboat that had been launched. He himself looked around and saw another survivor nearby. The lifeboat was rowed to him, and just as the ship went down, the man was pulled from the water. Angus recognised him, a grandson of the island proprietor that he had been to school with.

“I sent you a telegram from Dover”, Angus managed to interrupt. “Yes, but they said the war would be over soon”, Mary rebutted. “And I never had another message from you, or from the Admiralty.” “I was called up”, Angus tried again. “I had to go at once, and I didn’t have a chance to go back home, or to get word out. Only at Dover, we had to wait there”. But there was nothing that would placate his wife. “Aren’t you pleased to have me back?” Angus said at last. And that did the trick.

“Want another cuppa, gran”, the girl asked. Mary awoke from her musings and nodded. “You know, Liz, I honestly did not recognise him when he came through that door”. Liz poured hot water into the mug, squeezed the teabag and added milk. Stirring in sugar, she handed her grandmother the fresh cup of tea. “Angus had aged, and not just by the four years on the calendar. He was in his mid twenties when we got married.” Mary took a sip of the tea. “He looked like a man of fifty. It wasn’t until I heard the sound of his voice that I recognised him”. She shook her head. “I didn’t have a clue what he had been through. I wouldn’t listen. Who’d want to hear those stories, I thought. He tried once or twice, but, it’s too horrible...”

Angus was outside the house at daybreak, attempting to do the household chores. But for some reason or other, he was unable to concentrate. Shreds of memories from his years in the war kept disturbing him, and when Mary came out a little while later, nothing had been done. Castigating him sharply, she sent Angus inside the house to make a cup of tea. “There is a lot of guys coming home tonight”, he said to Mary when she had followed him indoors. “I might go into town to welcome them”. His spouse took a sharp look at him. “I’m not having you walking all that distance again”, she said. “I’ve done without a husband for four years, and we have time to make up”. A smile crossed Angus’s face, a rare occurrence. “Not just for that”, she rebuffed him, but without the sharpness in her voice.

Mary rose to switch off the television set, where the news bulletin had just ended. She had not heard a word of it, but she held fast to her daily routine. “I’m going to bed, Liz”, Mary told her grand daughter. “You go off home now, I’ll be all right”. The young woman took the cups to the sink and proceeded to wash them. Hugging her grandmother tightly, she left the bungalow into the gathering darkness.

Hogmanay passed in a haze for Angus, his first day home after the long journey that had been the war, and the leaving of the services. Neighbours came to call in a steady procession, but Mary, sensing he was not up to much, took care of proceedings. Several of the village sailors, who had returned home before Angus, tried to entice him to join them in a journey to town, to welcome their comrades who were due on the ferry that midnight. But by that time, early afternoon, Angus himself had decided to stay put for the night. He watched the merry bunch bouncing down the dirt track and turning off at the main road to head for the bright lights. Their return would be a sharp contrast to their departure.

Not long after the cart had disappeared from sight, the unfamiliar shape of a motorcar came into view. Its appointments gleaming in the wan light of a December dusk, a chauffeur hopped out smartly and opened the door to its passenger. Dressed in naval uniform, the young man jumped out and told his driver to wait. Energetically, he strode up to the blackhouse that Mary and Angus called home, tapped perfunctorily on the front door and stepped inside. “Angus, I heard you had come home”. Rising from his chair, Angus recognised the smart figure of his contemporary. “Donald, I’m pleased to see you safe and sound”, and he tipped his cap at his superior. “Yes, and good riddance to a ghastly business”, came the quick reply.

Liz pulled her car into the bungalow’s parking space and lifted her grandmother’s shopping bags out of the boot. Mary opened the door to her house and kissed the girl’s cheek as she came past. Without her granddaughter, Mary would have to go on the bus to town to do her shopping, but at her time of life that was getting quite a lot to take on. The kettle was boiling by the time Liz had put all the messages away, and Mary made her sit down for another cuppa. She opened the oven and lifted out a freshly baked cake. “It’s still warm, but why not try a slice”. Liz gratefully accepted the offer and sat down at the kitchen table. “That last day of the last year of the war”, Mary resumed where she had left off the night before. “It never stopped for Angus. The neighbours, his mates, and to top it all, the man from the Castle”. She shook her head. “I may have been oblivious to his experiences in the war, but that man had actually been through it himself and showed not the slightest regard to the state Angus was in. Not the slightest.”

“Look, Angus, I owe you something”. Donald was not one for beating about the bush. “You pulled me out of the water when that tub was sunk off Ireland, and without you I would not have been alive today”. Angus winced at the memory. “I was flung off the bridge when that torpedo hit, else I would have gone straight to Davey Jones’s locker”. Donald’s flippant manner of speech grated with Angus, and he wished the man would make his point and leave. “Anything you want, I can get you. Name it”. Mary looked at her husband, a pitiful, cowering figure in a rocking chair. He looked back at her. She did not indicate any response. Donald grew a little impatient. “OK, I know what you people go on about. And you were promised a land fit for heroes after you did your duty. Excuse me for a minute, I’ll be right back.” Donald flounced out of the door and returned a minute later with a large ledger. “So, where are we. Right, I have it. Oh, I see. The neighbours haven’t kept up with their rent very well, have they?” Looking positively delighted at the solution to his feelings of guilt, Donald wrote a few lines in the ledger book. “You can have a third of your neighbour’s croft to add to your own.” He shook Angus’s hands, repeated his expressions of gratitude and left. The sound of the motorcar quickly receded into the distance.

“A staggering experience, Liz, one of many that week.” Mary sipped her tea as the morning sun streamed in through the kitchen window. “You may think we were pleased with the extra land.” She shook her head. “Not at that price. Don’t mistake me, it was given for free. But our neighbours were already struggling at the time, and having even less land to play with made it even harder for them. But an even more cruel blow was waiting for them.” The radio quietly played in the background, punctuating the silence that fell in the kitchen. A summer’s breeze wafted outside, bending the grass with long sweeps. The sound of the Atlantic swell, breaking on the cliffs, could be heard in the distance. To the southwest, a line of rocky hills reared up. Above them, the large wingspan of a golden eagle could be seen hovering on the air currents.

A mass of men milled round the station concourse at Inverness. An excited low roar hung over them. Hogmanay was upon them, the end of a year of horror, the last ever of years of horror. Or so they thought. Locomotives stood hissing at the platform, spewing smoke and soot into the station canopy. Finally, a train was announced for Kyle, and the mass of uniformed humanity swung for that platform. When it chugged out of the station, many were left behind. In the end, three trains were required to move all the servicemen to the coast.

A mass of men milled round the quayside at Kyle. Darkness had long fallen after three trains had disgorged their human cargo. The wee ferry to Stornoway was moored alongside, but was in no way sufficient to take the hundreds back to Lewis. Finally, Stornoway was wired and the Admiralty decided to despatch another ship to Kyle. She was called the Iolaire, named after the Royal Naval Reserve base at Stornoway. The Gaelic name meant Eagle.

Radio Four jingled out of the radio. It was just after lunch, and Liz had not left her grand¬mother, who seemed to want to talk. It was Liz’s day off work at any rate, and she always enjoyed listening to Mary’s talk of the old days. However sad some of the stories were. “Oh, there were huge parties in Stornoway after the Armistice, particularly when the lads came back. Some had been in a camp in Holland since the start of the war. Others had been in the trenches on the Western Front. Yet more had been at sea, dodging the constant threat of torpedoes. All had been to hell, and had made it back.” Mary arose and looked out of the window, where the eagle continued to quarter the hills in the distance.

The near gale force wind whistled in the rigging of the two ships that were bringing more survivors of the war north to Stornoway. Visibility was poor, but the lighthouses that marked the way home could still be made out. North Rona, Milaid, Arnish, Tiumpan Head. But were they espied correctly in relation to each other? Midnight struck and the year of 1919 commenced. Squalls of rain continued to sweep the Minch and the adjacent landmass of Lewis, and a heavy swell was running in the channel east of the island. It broke against the protruding landmass of Holm Point, at the entrance to the harbour of Stornoway. It broke against Arnish Point, on the other side of the harbour entrance. But it was too late when those breakers were spotted by the crew of the Iolaire.

The new year celebrations in Stornoway were muted, but well underway when rockets were spotted being launched a few miles to the south at the harbour entrance. Nobody paid attention, as it was thought they were launched in celebration by the crew of a ship out there. People quickly changed their mind when a fishing boat arrived, mentioning emergency rockets being fired by a ship aground at Holm Point. Nobody, the fishermen said, would be able to approach the casualty from the sea.

Dawn broke.

A mast protruded from the sea. The sea had taken. The sea now proceeded to give back. Those that had survived the horrors of war now lay scattered, broken and drowned, like so much flotsam on the shorelines at Sandwick, Holm, Melbost and as far east as Aignish. For the Iolaire had sunk on the Beasts of Holm; some seventy five had been rescued, but more than two hundred had not made it ashore alive. A hundred and forty were returned to their loved ones to be returned to their home soil. Sixty were claimed by the sea for its own, never to be retrieved.

Angus awoke to a bright, nearly windless morning after a rough night. The wind had roared in the chimney, and disturbing dreams had kept him from sleeping properly. But the new year was opening with sunshine, a promise of new life after years of darkness. A knock on the door announced a visitor. Mary was expecting a first footer, but it turned out to be their neighbour, who was anything but in the mood for first footing. The words ‘happy new year’ never left the mouth of any of the three present there. “John...”, Mary said, seeing the devastated look on the man’s face. “What on earth...”. His face crumpled and he collapsed against the kitchen table, on his knees. After a minute, he arose and apologised. “I’ve had news. Our boys, you know, the two that went out in the Naval Reserves?” Angus and Mary acknowledged. “There was a shipwreck in the night, at the Beasts of Holm. Three hundred on board, all lads from the island. Most of them lost...”

No year had ever seen such a terrible start. Beds made with fresh linen were never slept in by the person that was to have occupied them. Pots of tea were left undrunk, cooling through the night as those that were to enjoy them upon their return did not come back. Personal possessions, washed up on the shoreline by the uncaring sea, were gathered up by the villagers who found them. The remains of those that drowned were taken to the Naval Reserve base in Stornoway for identification by their relatives, to be subsequently released for burial.

The pale winter sky arced over the austere landscape. A sombre procession slowly wound its way into the cemetery by the seashore. A scene repeated many times over in the island those first days of the year 1919. Nine burials from Angus’s village were carried into the cemetery in the adjacent township. The unending roar of the Atlantic was to be their everlasting lullaby. Cowed by the shattering blow that had hit them, the villagers finally returned to their homes.

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