Short story XXII

Slowly but inexorably the clouds filtered in from the west. The thin January wind sighed through the grass and bracken, now black, brown and yellow. The year was but a few days old, and the Hogmanay parties were only just beginning to fade from memory. The service bus rattled across the causeway, with only the driver on board. Each township had slipped by, with no-one interested in joining the service. Presently, the bus disappeared beyond the expanse of the inland loch. Grey clouds drifted in on the wind, as it began to bend the grass and ruffle the branches of whatever tree was around. Not many. Only the austere hills of the east reared up to stand out against the darkening sky. The little chapel stood lonely at the cross roads. The bus was now only a tiny white spec to the south, and was not noticed by the tanker lorry driver who turned north towards the causeway. Spanning the narrows between the two islands, only a narrow gap was left for the tide to flood and ebb.

Darkness fell as the wind rose further. The gale that was blowing in was not an unusual occurrence in these parts by any standards, and winter was the time for such weather. The last bus of the day slowed down as it became exposed to increasingly severe squalls, and the lashing rain made the drive a demanding experience. After passing the last turn-off before the causeway, the driver switched on his high beam and slowed to less than 25 mph. Heavy pulses of rain blew across his path, almost completely obscuring the roadway. For a moment, it appeared as if someone was trying to cross the road in front of the vehicle. Surely not? Nobody in their right mind would be out and about in weather like this. Were his eyes playing tricks? After a quarter of a mile, half way down the causeway, headlights appeared to come in the opposite direction - two cars in fact. Although their headlights were dazzling the bus driver, he never came across the vehicles. There was nothing there. Apart from lashing rain, howling winds, flying spray. And the odd wave splashing across the causeway. At the far end of the causeway, blue flashing lights appeared. “You’ll be the last one across tonight”, the policeman said. “Did anybody come from the opposite direction, say the last five minutes?” The policeman shook his head. “We’ve been here for a quarter of an hour, monitoring conditions. Nothing has gone north. Or south. You’re the only vehicle.” The blue flashing lights had been stationary when the driver saw them. The car headlights had appeared to be moving towards him, and they were white in colour.

The police car ventured onto the causeway, where driving conditions were now almost impossible. The flashing blue lights illuminated the water, breaking over the boulders lining the roadway. One wave overtopped the defenses and slammed into the vehicle. The officers were relieved to gain the opposite shore. When a lull occurred in the wind, they quickly retraced their route. No other vehicles were seen. The roadblock at the other end remained as it had been. In the distance, unseen through the flying foam and rain, two pairs of headlights slowly approached from the west, paralleling the shoreline. They did not reach the causeway. The district remained in complete and utter darkness, as it had been since the storm commenced, following a general power outage.

The night became frenzied. Even more so after the power went off, just after the storm began. The wind roared and howled, buffeted the windows to near breaking point. Spray hit the windows with the force of bullets, exacerbated by the pebbles that the waves were throwing up from the shore nearby. The noise was deafening, nerve-shredding, incessant. The house stood up to the onslaught. But nerves did not. Soon, two sets of headlights were seen moving away, parallel to the shoreline. Not, as was thought, to safety. But into worse peril than would have been encountered inside four walls.

Deceptively quiet, morning broke. Powerlines sagged where their poles had snapped off, sand covered roads near the shoreline. Banks of pebbles had shifted from beaches, and in places approached houses. One house stood empty, embedded in shingle from the beach, just down the road. The Atlantic thundered away on the western shores, the force of the storm gradually subsiding from the swell. The road across the causeway was reopened. None had crossed that night. Phonelines were buzzing, where they still operated, neighbours enquiring of each others' well-being. Aye, it had been a bad one. Very bad indeed. One phone went unanswered, although the line had stood up to the overnight storm. It finally rang out. Those that had been expected from across the causeway had not arrived.

The news struck like a bombshell. Damage is one thing, it's an inconvenience, it's costly. Cars, roofs, houses even, can be replaced. But people cannot. When two cars drove away from the onslaught of sea and wind, of spray and shingle, little did their occupants realise in the terror of the night that this was the worst action they could have taken. Many a time in the past had the South Ford taken those that had ill-advisedly attempted to cross between the islands. Another five were added to the toll that night. Where sands shifted, and tidal surges ebbed and flowed, three generations were lost.

This story is based on the true events of January 2005, and is dedicated to the memory of the deceased. Lionacuidhe and Uibhist a Deas still mourn.

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