Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Rockall Chapter 1




I've decided to put my novel Rockall online, one chapter at a time. Here's Chapter 1. For Chapter 2 and subsequent chapters click the links at the foot of the posts. (NB: This edition is slightly different from the original one which was published as a book in 2004 (ISBN: 0954222911). I consider it a much-improved edition you'll be glad to know.)

Rockall by Ben Emlyn-Jones
(Copyright The Aldyth Press 2004. All rights reserved)

For Louisa,






And for Geraldine, as promised.
Thanks for believing in me…






With apologies to Commander
Richard Connell RN.





“As above… so below.
So we can never understand the Divine
Substance because it is infinite and divorced
from it’s effects: A mirror image, a platonic
shadow, an enigma.”

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)




“A wise man knows how much something is worth;
a fool only knows how much it costs.”

Confucius (c. 500 BC)




“Jesus, peace be upon him, said this:
The world is a bridge. Cross it, but build no
house on it. Life endures for just a moment; spend
it in devotion. The rest is unseen… Perhaps this way
the door whose key has been lost may again be opened.”

Akbar The Great, Emperor of India (1572 AD)

Chapter 1- "It's just a name on the shipping forecast."

“Christopher Columbus, eat your heart out!” said Zachary Neelum. He turned from the mirror and scrutinized his packed bags; everything he would need for at least the next six months, then he looked out of the little top floor window. A thick, steamy drizzle fell onto the dark rooftops of Oban. Archaic TV aerials bristled above the chimney pots. He washed and shaved carefully in the tiny adjoined bathroom, then he brushed his hair and dressed in warm clothes for the sea. Well, here goes! He picked up his luggage, squared his shoulders and opened the bedroom door.
He joined Trevor in the dining room for breakfast and sat opposite him at the table. Trevor never spoke as he ate, sitting bolt upright, meticulously dissecting his bacon and eggs, peeling the burnt skin off his sausages and cutting his fried bread into four equal quarters. At eight-thirty they left the B-and-B and walked side by side down the streets to the harbour. They passed children on their way to school, a milk float, a fisherman on his bike and many others going about their daily business. Not one of them gave either of the men a second glance. “Don’t any of these people know who we are?”
“No. Why should they, Zach?” replied Trevor.
The ship was called HMS Kenneth McApin, an ancient converted freighter, painted battleship grey and commissioned as a Royal Navy auxiliary. She was tied up alongside the Mull-Barra ferry, rainwater dripping from her rusty scuppers. A loose cluster of a dozen people had gathered to watch her departure, including a journalist and photographer from a local newspaper. The latter was busy taking shots of the scene. “Bloody hell!” said Zach. “Is this all we’ve got!?”
“What do you want, Zach; a brass band and streamers?”
“Well, a few more reporters and a TV crew would have done.”
“Never mind; our time will come.”
As they walked onto the crumbling concrete quay Ross Quentin came over to meet them. The Rockall Commission director was clad in a black raincoat and was sheltered by an umbrella to match. “Morning, Boys! How’re you feeling?”
“Fine. Everything ready?” asked Trevor.
“Yup! The ship’s singled up, all crew aboard, we’re just waiting for the two new-uns.”
“Damn! How could they be late, today of all days!?”
“My fault, Trev, not theirs. I only confirmed their appointment yesterday evening. They’ve had to rush up here overnight… Well this is it, Lads! The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Six years of hard work and now it’s pay-day!”
“It’s a shame you can’t come with us, Ross.” said Zach.
The big man gave a deep chuckle. “Isn’t it just! I wish I was, but some mug has to stay behind and piss about with the red tape… I’ll be waiting for your radio message. When I get it, I’ll send it on to the Prime Minister and he’ll make an announcement to the Commons.”
“Probably just a brief mention.” growled Zach. “A footnote before his Question Time.”
He was about to add more when the journalist butted in. “’Scuse me, Mate. Got a few words for the Argyll Reporter?”
“Yeah, sure… ” began Zach.
“I’ll handle this.” Trevor stepped obtrusively between them. “Basically this is a voyage of discovery. We’re departing these familiar shores for a mysterious land where man has never set foot. Pretty exiting really.”
Zach glared at the back of Trevor’s head.
The reporter scribbled in a note book. “So do you compare this expedition to the great historical explorers; people like Captain Cook?”
“Yes, indeed. I think it’s an opportunity to revive the romance and spirit of adventure that these men inspired.”
“Yuck!” muttered Zach under his breath.
“Can you tell me more about the island of Rockall?” asked the journalist.
“Rockall is a small, very remote island that lies about three hundred miles in that direction.” Trevor pointed with his hand. “It’s only around five miles square. Not much more is known about it because it has never been landed on or even overflown. It was officially annexed by the UK in September Nineteen-fifty-five as part of the Outer Hebrides missile range, but that annexation is not valid under current international law because no landing was ever made. One of the tasks of our project is to renew and ratify British sovereignty of the island.”
“Why do you think this island has never been explored before? After all, it’s not far away compared to some places.”
Trevor chuckled. “I know; it seems absurd, doesn’t it? We’re a nation of explorers and colonists! We’ve travelled the oceans of the Earth, reached the South Pole, penetrated the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa, but all that time we’ve overlooked this enigma on our own doorstep. I think it’s basically because Rockall is so small and remote that no one expects to find anything there of interest or profit. The great pioneers and conquerors just stepped over it on their way to richer, more exotic climes. Besides which the land itself is physically inaccessible: a plateau surrounded by seven hundred foot cliffs.”
“Do you think you’ll find anything there of interest or profit?”
Trevor held up his hands. “Who knows!?”
“But you’ve been working on this project since Two thousand and four. You’ve invested eight million pounds. Why?”
“Rockall represents a hole in our history. It’s a small hole, but it needs plugging.”
“Thank you, Mr McCain.”
Trevor nodded and the journalist moved off.
Zach plucked his elbow. “Why did you do that, Trevor?”
“Do what?”
“Cut across me like that. I was about to talk to that bloke and you pushed me out of the way!”
“I meant no offence, Zach. I’m simply better at PR than you. In future stick to the walking and let me do the talking, OK?” He picked up his suitcase and mounted the gangway. He turned, smiled and waved regally. A camera bulb flashed.
Resentment burned inside Zach’s forehead.
The rest of the “Rockall Twenty” made their way onto the ship, lugging their gear with them. Biologists, geologists, engineers, a nurse, everyone that the mission would need to sound out the unknown island. They were to be Zach’s sole company for at least the next few months. He watched them grimly. Broadway and Jennie were already bickering over something.
Ross Quentin came aboard to bid them farewell. He stood on the quarterdeck with his hands in his pockets, removing one occasionally to look at his watch. “Where are they?” he seethed. “They should have got here by now!” Smoke began puffing from the ship’s single funnel and dockers stood by to cast off the lines.
“Do you mean the new boys?” asked Trevor.
“Only one boy; the other’s a girl: Kayleigh Ford. She used to work on the highland development section of a Glasgow-based company.”
“And the boy?”
“Dill Gibson; dropped out of a shrink degree.”
Dill!?”
“I know! Poor lad must have been ripped to shreds at school… He’s going to be your counsellor.”
“Counsellor!?” said Zach. “Why the hell do we need a counsellor!?”
“It’s standard practice these days; you know, emotional support, problem-sharer, shoulder to cry on, whatever.”
“What are we, a women’s refuge!?”
“Zach, you’re about to spend months away from home on a tiny, windswept rock hundreds of miles from anywhere with a bunch of stressed-out people and no privacy… Ah, here they are at last!”
A taxi sped onto the harbour site and skidded a little on the wet concrete of the quay as it pulled up alongside the gangplank. Two people got out and hastily retrieved their luggage from the boot. The doors closed with a chop and the taxi drove off. The newcomers climbed up the gangplank to where the three men were waiting. “Hi.” said Quentin. “Glad you made it.”
“Sorry we’re late.” said Kayleigh Ford, a short, dumpy, young Glaswegian woman with wavy hair.
“I had to fly up last night from London.” said Dill Gibson, a hefty, dark-eyed man of similar age.
“No problem.” replied Quentin and introduced them genially to Trevor and Zach.
One of the sailors approached them. “Captain’s compliments, Sirs. We’re ready to set sail.”
“Of course.” said Quentin as if suddenly reminded of something. He shook all their hands. “Well, there you go, Folks. Rockall awaits!... God, I wish I was coming with you!” He stepped onto the gangplank. “Bon Voyage!”
As soon as he was back ashore, the gangway was taken in and the ship’s lines cast off. The White Ensign burst free at the masthead like a gull released from a cage and the whistle sounded; a deep clashing tone that echoed around Oban Bay. The deck trembled and the water churned brown as the ship pulled away from the wharf. The voyage of discovery had begun.
****************************************
“To me it’s just a name on the shipping forecast.” said the First Lieutenant. “I catch the end of it whenever I tune in to The Archers. They must have named the area after the island like Lundy or Faeroes… but what’s Malin and Forties?”
“I can’t believe we’re the first people in history to do this.” said Davies, the thickset civil servant. He’d been sent along by the Home Office to witness the formal annexation.
“We’re not.” said Parsons. He was a young, thin, bespectacled man who was representing the media. He was also filming a TV documentary, produced by Trevor, about the first landing on the island. He had brought a film crew with him and, at that moment, his cameraman and unit soundman were standing in the corner taking the scene. “Or at least we’re not the first people to visit the island, are we Mr McCain?”
Trevor swallowed his mouthful of dinner, swilled it down with a sip of wine and looked up. “There have been two historically documented voyages into the waters around Rockall.” he said. “The first was its discovery, by accident in the autumn of Eight ninety-one.”
“Eight ninety-one!” exclaimed the First Lieutenant. “That’s a long time ago. Who found it?”
“A Viking called Earl Knut Rollosson.” Trevor continued. “He lived in a Norse colony on the west coast of Ireland, but he had a brother who lived in Iceland whom he visited every year, so he knew these seas well. One day, he was returning home from one of these visits when his ship ran into a storm and was blown off course. Just when he was afraid that he was totally lost in mid ocean, his lookout spotted land. (Visibility was poor so he was extremely lucky.) Huge sea cliffs rising out of the waves. Rollosson couldn’t believe his good fortune and, I dare say, thanked Thor, Odin and all their associates as he headed inshore. He thought that he’d reached St Kilda and so was astounded to find that the place was utterly unfamiliar to all the men on board. They realized that this had to be an undiscovered country. Anyway the storm was still raging so he moved his ship into the lee of the island and waited for it to abate. When it had, he decided to reconnoitre and brought his vessel carefully in close to the cliffs, sounding the seabed all the time. For four days he rowed along the coast hoping to find a gap in the escarpment where he could land but found none. The rock wall was unbroken and everything above it was invisible. His provisions were running low so on the fourth night, when the sky cleared, he took a star shot to note his position and set sail for home.”
“Wow!” said the Parsons. “A new country! Imagine how he felt.”
Kayleigh Ford gulped and leaned forward a little in her seat. She’d been looking unwell all afternoon and when dinner was served she’d turned positively green.
Dill Gibson put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you OK, Kayleigh?”
She shook her head and clapped a hand to her mouth. Then she jumped up, knocking her chair over, and dashed from the wardroom.
“Kayleigh!” Gibson followed her. The ship’s officers all smirked. “Landlubbers!” muttered one.
“She’ll find her sea legs soon.” said the captain. “Where were we?”
“The discovery of Rockall.” said Parsons, visibly engrossed by the story.
“Ah yes.” said Trevor. “Well, that’s how Rockall first appeared on our maps. Since that date the island has only been approached on one other occasion.”
“And that’s where we come in.” grinned the captain.
“Yes indeed; the Royal Navy. HMS Northlea, under Commander Richard Cartwright, sighted the same cliffs as Rollosson on the Fourteenth of September Nineteen fifty-five. His mission was to make the island officially part of the United Kingdom. This had to be done to ensure the security of the Outer Hebrides missile range: a huge swathe of ocean a hundred miles long and sixty miles wide. His plan was to gain access to the island plateau, raise the Union Jack and cement a plaque onto a prominent location stating the Rockall was a possession of the Queen. But it was not to be. Like Rollosson, Cartwright sailed along the coast, searching for a beach where he could land a boat, to no avail. He spent a whole day over it, circumnavigating the entire island. He sent his dinghy into the lochs and around the outlying islet where Northlea couldn’t go herself, but all he encountered were huge walls of solid rock. He radioed the Admiralty and they ordered him to suffice with attaching the plaque to the foot of the cliffs at high tide. The Union Jack was raised in the dinghy which was floating in the surf below it and this is where the verbal proclamation was made. This unfortunately does not count as a valid landing. The government just had to hope that other nations with designs on Rockall would miss this particular legal loophole.”
“What a waste of time.” said Davies.
“Not quite.” said Trevor. “The Northlea expedition did collect some valuable data. The first photographs taken of the shore; a basic survey of the coastline. All will be of great help to us.”
“But if Commander Cartwright couldn’t find a way ashore why should we? What makes you think we’ll do any better?” asked the captain.
“We might find a spot that he missed. We have the means to undertake a more concentrated search, thanks to his survey; and if that fails, we have Plan B.” He grinned knowingly.
“Which is?”
“We, on the Rockall Commission ‘Twenty’ have been trained in rock climbing. We can scale the face directly.”
“I haven’t.” put in Davies urgently.
“It’s OK, we’ll guide you.” said Zach. “And we’ll make sure we attempt the climb at its easiest point.”
The civil servant stopped eating. His throat tightened and the colour drained out of his face.
There was a long silence that was broken by Parsons. “So let me get this straight. Apart from that Viking in Eight-whatever and HMS Northlea’s crew, nobody has ever even seen the coast of Rockall.”
“Correct.”
“No!” came a new voice. Greenwood, the elderly steward had come in to clear up the plates and cutlery. “I’ve seen it for one!”
“You’ve seen Rockall, Greenwood?” The captain looked up at him.
“Yes, Sir.” His toothless mouth grinned behind his white beard. “With me own two eyes. Plenty of others have too.”
“How come?”
“On a clear day you can see the place from the Hudson Bay lanes, just inside the northern horizon.” He went around the table picking up the dirty plates and piling them on his hand. “I saw it meself when I were just a lad; on the Surasia Queen out o’ Liverpool, bound for Churchill Manitoba with a cargo o’ slate. Big, black and menacing it looked! A jagged line on the foot o’ the sky.”
“Well, I never, Greenwood!” said the captain. “That’s a new one on me.”
“I don’t care to talk about it much, Sir.” replied the old man. “Folk says it’s bad luck to catch sight o’ Rockall.” He headed back to his galley without another word.
“Good grief!” said Parsons. “So this place is actually within visible range of a busy shipping lane, yet not once, in all the centuries of transatlantic passage, has someone said: ‘I wonder what that island over there is. Let’s go and have a look’.”
Nobody said anything and Trevor just shrugged.
Just before dessert, Zach got up and left the wardroom. No one noticed; Trevor, as usual, was the centre of the conversation. Along the passage was the head. From it came grunts of agonized retching and the splash of copious vomiting. Kayleigh Ford was kneeling on the deck with her face in the toilet bowl, trembling and heaving. Dill Gibson was crouched in the open doorway caressing her shoulders and mumbling reassuring nothings to her.
“How is she?”
He looked up and grimaced wryly. “Greenwood’s just been telling us how sailors used to chuck themselves overboard through the misery of seasickness. I don’t think that helped her much.”
Zach chuckled “Keep an eye on her.”
“She says: ‘Women don’t do that kind of thing’.”
“Well, it won’t be much longer anyway. We should be there by Saturday morning; and she’ll have the chance to go ashore for a few hours tomorrow on St Kilda.”
Gibson’s smile became wistful. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“There’s nothing there to see, but we’ll be able to stretch our legs for a bit.”
“Hmm.” He looked down.
Zach opened the hatch at the end of the passageway, stepped out onto the deck and let the cool sea breeze massage his body. The ship was heading north along the far coast of the Western Isles. The rain had cleared and the sky was blue. The sun was low and the ship’s shadow lay out before him for hundreds of yards, rippling as the turquoise waters danced beneath it. The dark green swards of Barra wallowed in the ocean to the east. The lighthouse on Barra Head was already lit and it winked at him mockingly.
Deep foreboding filled Zach’s stomach as he thought about what lay ahead. He had expected to feel thrilled and exited; what was wrong? “Trevor.” he muttered aloud. “You’re up to something. What is it?”
****************************************
“St Kilda ahoy!” came the announcement over the ship’s tannoy just after dawn and Zach rolled out of his bunk onto the pitching deck. He dressed and stumbled out onto the open fo’c’stle to see a crowd already there. Almost all of the Rockall Twenty were present, pointing and exclaiming at the horizon. Kenneth McAlpin trawled through a lively sea with short, white-capped waves and a stiff, gusty breeze inflated Zach’s lungs. Seagulls swarmed like wasps around the hull, screeching and diving into the brine for fish.
A range of enormous, greeny-brown mountains had risen out of the sea like a scene from a fairy tale, cutting the morning sunlight like prisms of rock. A tenuous, black fog hung over the panorama giving it a touch of haze. It took Zach a minute or two to realize that this fog was in fact a flock of seabirds; millions upon millions of them.
“It’s like a beautiful dreamland!” said Arlene, the expedition’s nurse.
As the ship approached Hirta, the largest island of the archipelago, its true scale became apparent. The vertical dimensions were stupendous. Zach craned his neck to take in the peaks stretching to the speckled clouds and the impossibly steep slope that ran up from the water’s edge. “That’s Conachair.” said Dill Gibson pointing at one of the rocky heights. “It’s one thousand three hundred and ninety-seven feet high. On the other side are the tallest cliffs in the British Isles.” It was the first time he’d spoken. Everyone else had been crying: “Wow!” and “Look at that!” and fiddling with lens caps, but the young counsellor had been still and silent as he stood there on the deck and took it all in.
“I thought you’d never been here before.” said Zach.
“I haven’t.” he replied.
There was a metallic clatter as Kenneth McAlpin released her anchor. They had hove to on the borders of a wide bay in the shade of the hills. A number of buildings were dotted across the grassy amphitheatre of the lower slope. The ship’s two launches were made ready for anyone who wanted to go ashore for the twelve hours they were planning to stay there. Virtually everyone volunteered, including the ship’s own off-watch crew.
Zach went below to get dressed for shore and heard Kayleigh Ford coughing and moaning in her cabin. “Please, Kayleigh!” came Gibson’s voice through the open door. “You must come! You’ll love it, I promise!... This may be the only chance you’ll get and you’ll regret it forever if you turn it down! Come on, get up!”
It would take both launches several journeys to move everyone onto Hirta. Trevor and Zach took the first boat with Arlene, Jennie and Wesley along with Gibson and a still rather queasy Kayleigh Ford. Parsons, the reporter, sat in the stern with his camera crew. The dinghy bounced over the surf towards the beach. As they got closer, Zach could make out more details of Village Bay. The buildings nearest the shore were the largest and most modern; many were two storeys in height. Behind them was a tight row of closely-packed houses, partly ruinous. Spread out in the background was a network of archaic, dry-stone constructions; walls, block huts and a spattering of odd, little protrusions which continued on up the steep hillside.
“That’s the old army base.” said Dill, pointing at the modern section as if he could read Zach’s gaze. “It was closed in Two thousand and five and converted into offices and accommodation for the Scottish National Trust.”
“Those buildings behind are much older though.” said Zach, turning to face him.
“The houses of Village Row were built in the Eighteen-sixties. They were home for the islanders right up to the evacuation.”
“Evacuation?”
“Yes. In Nineteen-thirty the remaining population asked to be evacuated to the Scottish mainland.”
“Why did they do that?”
“They couldn’t support their own community any longer. Most of the younger folk had either died of disease or been lured away by the bright lights of the modern world leaving thirty-six, mostly elderly people to fend for themselves. They couldn’t.” Dill spoke these words deadpan, but there was a strange, hard gleam in his eye. “Look, Kayleigh; isn’t it beautiful?” He rubbed her stooped shoulders.
Kayleigh raised her head and tried to focus her bleary eyes on the scenery around them. “Yeah.” she mumbled.
There was a pleasant surprise waiting for them on the concrete jetty. A group of fifty or so people were gathered to greet them. Two held up a banner which declared: “ST KILDA WELCOMES THE ROCKALL EXPEDITION.” As the boat swung into dock they began to cheer. Trevor stood up and gave his characteristic salute.
Waves slopped against the jetty as the painters were thrown up and the launch secured, but before the passengers were allowed to disembark a man climbed down carrying a small cocker spaniel under his arm. He released the dog into the bottom of the boat and it scampered around between people’s feet sniffing at everything. “What’s this?” whispered Zach. “Are they checking us for drugs?”
“No, rats.” answered Dill.
“Rats!?”
“Yes. These islands have a unique ecology and the introduction of any foreign species, especially a fast-breeding predator, could upset the delicate natural balance.”
“Oh.” Zach nodded deliberately.
Trevor was first out of the boat. Zach watched with revulsion as he shook hands with the warden and smiling SNT workers, Parsons and his team filming him avidly. Kayleigh needed a lot of coaxing by Dill to persuade her to mount the short ladder to the top of the jetty. He went behind her as she faltered up the rungs, patting her back sympathetically. They all walked along the jetty to the shore, the trust volunteer workers firing salvoes of questions at Trevor. They strolled along a narrow, stone track through the green fields of the bay and when they reached the SNT campus, Trevor posed for photographs with several of the staff. Zach couldn’t bear to watch. He folded his arms and turned his back, kicking at a small stone.
“Are you alright, Zach?” Dill was at his shoulder.
“S’pose.” he shrugged.
“You don’t look it.”
“S’pose not.”
“Zach!” Trevor snapped his fingers at him. “Over here! Chop-chop!” The entourage was moving towards one of the larger buildings.
Dill looked at Zach with a half-smile. “He’s quite the little touring celebrity, your mate.”
“He’s no mate of mine!” hissed Zach.
Dill nodded. “Mates don’t put each other down.”
Zach shrugged again. But at least I’ve got The First Step! he thought. It’s mine! Everyone’s agreed! He can’t take that away from me!
“Zach!” barked Trevor. “I said come here! Now!” His groupies started laughing.
“What are you going to do, Zach?” asked Dill. He had moved a little further away up the path with his arm around Kayleigh’s shoulder. She was leaning against him with her head bowed. Her hair hung down over her face, greasy and untidy. “You can go with Trevor or come with us.”
“Where are you going?”
Dill smiled. “To see the real St Kilda.”
The wind blew stronger as they left the shelter of the offices; slapping their faces, it smelled of salt and seaweed. Dill talked almost continuously as they ambled along the track. “Unique!” he exclaimed, gesticulating passionately. “St Kilda is unique in every way! Geologically, geographically, its wildlife, its human history and culture. There is nowhere else like it in the world!” Kayleigh seemed to perk up a bit. She walked more upright and gazed around herself with a little interest. “The people here had no system of money.” Dill went on. “They shared everything. The islands were owned by the Clan McCleod, but the rent was paid in the form of textiles, bird feathers and croft produce. The inhabitants lived off the seabirds and their eggs which they collected from the cliffs; a very precarious activity! Along with the crofts this was their only industry. They had the perfect political system! Inclusive democracy! Every decision was made by a committee of which every islander was a member. It used to meet daily outside this building here.” He pointed to a corrugated hut which they were passing on their right. A fluted wooden signboard hung above the window: POST OFFICE.
“It doesn’t look that old.” said Zach.
“It’s been restored… There was no crime on St Kilda, Zach! Can you imagine it!? Not a single recorded case in all its history!”
“If it was all so wonderful here then why did they leave?”
Dill sighed and smiled sardonically. “We’ve known civilization and its luxuries all our lives, Zach. Imagine if you were shown them for the first time.”
The path now ran in a shallow curve along a contour of the bay side, to the right of which was a terrace of bungalows with thick chimneys built into the sturdy gables. Most were just bare walls, crumbling in the onslaught of the elements, but a few had been lovingly repaired and decorated into the form which they must have had when lived in. There was evidence that this work was still going on; ladders, building tools and piles of timber and slate surrounded some of the derelict buildings. “Isn’t it wonderful?” said Dill. “Village Row is going to look exactly as it used to… My God! It can’t be!” He stopped dead in his tracks and gaped.
Zach followed his gaze and saw a small figure hunched on a bench in front of one of the restored houses. It was a wizened, old lady.
“Fiona!” Dill took off like an excited schoolboy, running over to where she sat, facing the sea and knitting peacefully. She seemed pleased but a little overwhelmed when Dill greeted her like a long-lost grandmother. Her bright, watery eyes looked up into his as he shook her hand vigorously. “Fiona! I hoped I’d meet you!”
“And who might you be?” she asked in a cracked, Highland voice.
“Sorry. I’m Dill Gibson; and these are my friends Kayleigh and Zach.”
Her hand felt limp as Zach took it. Her skin was thin and loose over her soft, rubbery bones. As soon as introductions were over she and Kayleigh began babbling away in Gaelic.
“Fiona’s an old St Kildan.” Dill explained to Zach. “She was born on the island.”
“Aye.” said the old lady. “Right here in this house behind me; eighty-nine years ago last Sunday.”
“Happy birthday for last Sunday.” said Zach. “Many happy returns.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Not many now! But when I do go, I’m going to be buried in the old graveyard by my family.”
“Hold on.” said Zach. “You actually live here?”
“Aye. I’ve lived here for three years.”
“I thought this place was uninhabited.”
“She’s come back!” bubbled Dill. “Back after being evacuated eighty years ago.”
“Aye indeed.” Fiona’s gaze became pensive. “I was just a wee girl of ten the day we left, but I remember everything like it was yesterday: Friday the Twenty-ninth of August Nineteen-thirty. It was wet and damp. We carried all our things down to the jetty that morning.” She pointed along the path. “Everybody was silent and quiet. It was strange ‘cos we’re normally such a chatty people. They loaded the sheep onto the ships then it was our turn.” She paused and looked up into the sky. “We’d lit all our fires one last time and it was very sad, when the ship set sail, to look and see smoke coming from the chimneys and know that we’d never be back again. When those fires burnt out, they’d never be relit.”
A group of people approached; Zach recognized some of them from the crowd who’d greeted them when they’d landed. With them were a few young children. There followed a long conversation in Gaelic. It turned out that these were Fiona’s family; descendants who’d decided to join her on her island home and rebuild the lost St Kildan community. They were all employed full time by the Scottish National Trust, though the three grandsons were planning to reopen, experimentally, one of the old crofts and, when they’d plucked up courage, engage in a commemorative seabird harvest. Dill was transparently loathe to say goodbye when the family left to return to the offices, Fiona hobbling between their shoulders on a pair of crutches.
Dill, Kayleigh and Zach continued their stroll along the path. At the end of the terrace they turned right and followed a stream up course. The slope became much steeper as it led to the huge hills at the summit of the island. They were much closer now to the little protrusions that Zach had spotted from the launch. He could now see that they were dwarf-sized, stone huts, about five or six feet high with turf roofs. “These are cleits.” said Dill, once more reading the question in Zach’s mind. “They were used to store food and equipment for the winter.” He took off again, capering over to one of the cleits and studying it zealously.
His companions both looked on and smiled. “He’s like a kid at Christmas.” said Zach.
“He’s sweet.” added Kayleigh.
Zach paused. “Well, you look a lot better, I must say.”
“I feel it. I think I just needed to get onto dry land and walk around for a bit. I’m not used to the sea.”
“Hey!” Dill called. His head popped up from behind a cleit. “I’ve found some bird feathers! They must be part of an original cache!” He ducked down again and continued his survey on all fours like a sniffer dog.
The other two giggled. “Bloody hell!” exclaimed Zach. “Where did you pick this one up!?”
Kayleigh frowned. “Pardon?”
“I mean, how did you two meet?”
“We got into a taxi together.”
“What, after a long night on the town?”
“Er… no. It was the taxi that brought us to the ship from Glasgow.”
Zach opened his mouth to reply then closed it again. There was an embarrassed silence. “Sorry… I thought… ”
“I’ve only known Dill since yesterday morning, Zach. We’re not… together.”
He slapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh, no!... Sorry, I…”
She chuckled under her breath. “It doesn’t matter.”
They continued hiking up the flanks of Conachair until about midday when the lack of time and energy forced them to turn back. The view was spectacular and the sunlit ocean looked flat, immense and desolate. A few large clouds cruised across the sky, casting gingerbread shadows on the contorted land. They clambered down the east side of Village Bay, jumped from a ha-ha wall and reached the sea by a pavement of tidal rocks. It was now late afternoon and Zach’s legs were aching.
The prefab offices of the SNT dominated the vista of the bay and its previous life as a military base was apparent in its ambiance; long, low buildings resting on concrete foundations. An hour earlier, when Zach had proclaimed: “I’m gasping for a pint!” Dill had promised him that there was a licensed premises on St Kilda. Now he led them to it; a hut with an authentic-looking sign outside that said: The Puff Inn. “Welcome to the remotest pub in Britain.” said Dill.
The Puff Inn?” said Zach. “Do they call it that ‘cos it’s very windy here?”
“No, it’s a play on the word ‘puffin’.” said Kayleigh. “A puffin is a seabird that lives… ”
“Oh, yeah!” He snapped his fingers. “I get it now.” He saw her half-smile and roll her eyes, trying to catch Dill’s gaze, but the young man’s demeanour had changed during the last hour. He’d become taciturn and a little sullen. When they ordered their drinks and took a place at a table, he sat slumped forward with his elbow on the surface propping up his head. His eyes stayed focused on the meniscus of beer in his glass.
“I could hardly understand a word Old Fiona spoke to me at first.” said Kayleigh after she’d christened her own pint.
“She was hard enough to understand when she was talking English!” said Zach. “I reckon she never had a tooth in her head.”
“I learned to speak Gaelic from my Grandma in Ullapool. I’m used to the different twangs that you hear around the Highlands, but hers… Blimey! It could have been Chinese for all I could tell.”
Dill mumbled something inaudibly.
“What was that?” she asked.
“It was St Kildan.” he repeated sharply and loudly as if talking to someone deaf, his gaze never moving from his glass. “The unique Gaelic dialect that used to be spoken here. After the evacuation the islanders gradually switched to the mainland varieties… until they were taught English, of course. I expect Fiona is the only person left in the whole world who still speaks it. When she’s dead it’ll be lost forever.”
“Some of her kids and grandkids sounded a wee bit like her.” Kayleigh looked at him with a concerned expression.
He shrugged.
Zach eventually left Dill and Kayleigh in the pub and went to catch up with Trevor, who had spent the day in the SNT office block talking to the staff and watching them work. He had to answer a lot of questions from people who were curious about his mission to Rockall. When Zach walked into the common room, Trevor was sitting on a chair with a cup of coffee at his elbow and a cluster of young SNT workers around him. Parsons and his posse stood in the corner, camera rolling. “… so you’re about to be knocked off your perch as the UK’s remotest inhabited isle!” His audience laughed. He looked up and gave an acidic grin as he spotted his colleague. “Good of you to join us, Mr Neelum… Pleasant stroll?” His question was laced with sarcasm.
Everyone in the room turned to stare at Zach and his cheeks radiated under their scrutiny. “J… just to let you know that the captain’s called. It’s time to get back to the ship.”
“I know! We’ve been waiting for you!”
Zach stammered, unsure of how to reply.
“Well, go on then! Get in the boat!” Trevor waved him away.
Zach’s gullet burned. He was about to head down to the jetty with the rest of the shore leave section, but his rage smote him. He stopped and waited for Trevor. His colleague saw him as he walked out of the office door; he lowered his head and marched past him. “Wait a minute, Trevor; I want a word with you!”
“I haven’t the time to wait a second, let alone a minute.” He strode on with his eyes fixed straight ahead.
Zach jogged at his heels. “Can you not speak to me like that, please!?”
“Speak to you like what?”
“Talking to me like I’m shit in front of all those people!”
“I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you did!”
“Prove it.”
Zach hesitated. “Listen, Trevor…”
“No, you listen!” Trevor stopped walking and swung around to face him. “You’re the one who was rude, not me! Bursting in while I’m doing an interview and saying: ‘Just to let you know the captain’s called’ in that voice! How dare you!”
“Eh!?”
“Don’t you ever speak to me like that again!” They’d reached the jetty by now and Trevor’s shouting was attracting the attention of everyone there. “I’ll take it up with Ross if I have to! He’ll have you out of the Commission so fast your feet won’t touch the ground! He put me in charge, you know!”
“What!?... No, he didn’t! We’re both in charge! Joint Project Directors!... Remember!?”
“Oh, let’s quit the pretence, Zach! I’ve always been your de facto superior and you know it!”
He gasped. “Fuck you!”
“STOP IT!” yelled Kayleigh.
The two men turned and looked at her running towards them from the landward side of the jetty.
“Stop it, the pair of you!” She cantered to a halt, puffing to get her breath back. “There’s no time for you’re stupid, childish power games!... We’ve got a problem.”
“What?”
“Dill’s gone.”
“Gone?” said Trevor. “Gone where?”
“I went to the loo in the pub and… Nobody knows. He’s missing.”
Zach and Kayleigh led the two search parties while a furious Trevor called Ross Quentin on the SNT office’s radiotelephone to explain what had happened. The sun sets late during the Highland summer, but it was gone six PM already, leaving only a few hours until nightfall. Kayleigh headed up the slope that they’d climbed that afternoon to cover the island’s mountainous interior while Zach centred his search on the cliffs that sheltered the bay. They were both accompanied by members of the SNT staff, their Commission friends and some of the ship’s crew. It was half past eight when the Warden called Zach on his portable radio. “We’ve found him, Mr Neelum. Over.”
“Thank God! That’s great! Where is he? Over.”
“In one of the Main Street houses.”
“In Village Bay? He’s been in Village Bay all this time while we’ve been hiking over the whole island!?”
“That’s affirmative. But that’s not the problem. The problem is… it seems he’s refusing to come out.”
“Say that last bit again.”
“He refuses to come out of the house.”
Zach paused. “OK, I’m on my way.”
As Zach approached Village Bay, he saw a crowd of onlookers clustered around one of the ruinous houses on Main Street. The warden came to meet him. “He’s hiding in that house over there. We’ve tried to talk to him, but he won’t reply except to say that he’s not moving. I don’t know what’s up with him.”
“Have you told Kayleigh as well?”
“Yes, I radioed her just after you; she’s heading straight down here too.”
“Good… OK, I’ll go inside and try to find out what his pickle is.” This house had yet to be restored; it was roofless and windowless with piles of broken masonry all over the bare, grassy floor. “Dill.” Zach called softly. There was no reply. He stepped over the threshold and into the enclosure of the walls. Dill was crouched in the far corner. He was sitting on a pile of old stones, facing the centre of the space like a cornered animal. In the dull evening light he was barely more than a shadow. Zach stopped a few feet away from him. “Hello, Dill.”
“Hi, Zach.” His voice was low and hoarse as if he were fighting back tears. “What are you doing here? Why haven’t you left with the others?”
“The ship’s still here, Dill. Everyone’s out looking for you. You’ve given us one hell of a fright, you know. We were worried you might have fallen off the cliffs.”
He shrugged. “Well, as you can see, I’m fine; so why don’t you all get back to the ship and take off?”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Aren’t you going to join us?”
“No… I’m staying here.”
There was a long silence. “You’re staying here on St Kilda?”
“Yes. I’m going to live here.”
“Why, Dill?”
“Because I belong here. This is my home.” He sniffed loudly a few times and wiped his eyes.
“Eh?... What are you talking about, Man? You’ve never even been here.”
“I know.” Dill gave an ironic chuckle. “Perhaps it would have been better if I never had.”
Zach shook his head. “You’re making no sense, Dill… Look, you work for the Rockall Commission, like me. Our job is to go to Rockall and explore it.”
“Then consider this my resignation.”
“Dill! You are one of the Twenty! We need you! You applied for the job, you got it! You can’t just decide on the spur of the moment… Here, have you had one too many in that Puff Inn.”
“No.” He looked at the ground by his feet.
Zach groaned and rubbed his forehead. “So what do you want, Dill!?”
“To stay here.” he said quietly. “Stay here for the rest of my life.”
“And where are you going to live? In this!?” He gestured at the naked stonework around them.
“I’ll sleep in the grass if I have to.”
“You’ll never get permission to live here, Dill! For pity’s sake get real!”
“I can…” He broke off and tensed. Kayleigh’s voice could be heard outside talking to the warden. A few seconds later she appeared in the doorway. “Hello, Dill.” she said cheerily. “How are you feeling?”
“Not brilliant.”
“Oh, Dill.” She walked over and crouched beside him, putting her hands on his shoulders. She turned to Zach. “Could we be alone a few minutes, Zach?”
“Er… yeah, sure.” He tiptoed outside, shrugging at the expectant faces of the others. After a few minutes they started chattering amongst themselves. Ten minutes passed and some of the spectators gave up and wandered off to do other things. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. The sun fell below the high ridge to the west; its glow stained the sky and there was an occasional flicker of red as it reflected down from a bird’s wing. The sky became a deep purple.
There was the noise of feet on stone from inside the walls then Kayleigh and Dill emerged from the doorway. The latter looked utterly drained and stumbled along with his head bowed, one arm around her supporting shoulders. “Everything’s sorted, Zach.” she said. “Dill is coming with us to Rockall.”
Zach was about to fire off a ream of questions, but the look in her eye stopped him. “OK.” he replied and followed her as she aided Dill down the path to the sea.
A couple of the SNT crew were laughing and joking. “Shut your face!” Kayleigh shouted at them.
Trevor was waiting for them outside the office compound. He strode over to meet them as if he intended to throw Dill bodily off the jetty. Parsons trotted close behind with his ubiquitous notepad. “What kind of bloody fool stunt do you think you’re playing at, Gibson!?” Trevor thundered.
“Leave him alone, Trevor!” Kayleigh guided Dill away from his angry boss. “He’s had a very tough day.”
“It’ll get a lot tougher if I’ve got anything to do with it! Ross is on the verge of having him confined to quarters and sent back to Oban!”
“Then he’d be a fool!” she retorted. “Because the Twenty would lose its best member!… This here is a very, very brave young man! Now get out of his face and let him have a little peace!... Put that bloody thing away!” She shoved the camera lens hard making the operator reel back.
They climbed down into the boat one by one without ceremony and the warden cast off the painter. The boat pulled into the bay with the engine on low power and began bobbing in the surf. The piercing lights of the SNT base gleamed on the water. The island’s bulk was an ash-coloured shadow against a navy sky. For the first time since exiting the ruin, Dill looked up at the panorama behind the boat. “Look Dill.” Kayleigh pointed. A pair of dark smoke trails rose up slowly from the higher ground, catching the dregs of sunlight from the west. They dispersed and thinned, as if from an artist’s airbrush. Zach followed them down to their source: two of the old village houses. “Fiona’s clan must be cooking a meal.” said Kayleigh brightly.
Dill didn’t respond. He lowered his head and moaned loudly between gritted teeth; then he buried his face in his cupped hands and wept.
“It’s alright, Dill.” she soothed. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Trevor’s face was invisible in the gloom, but Zach heard him snort and mutter: “Doctor, heal thyself!”
****************************************
HMS Kenneth McAlpin steamed westwards, leaving the shipping lanes and entering uncharted ocean. Overnight, the weather thickened and by morning the ship was rolling in a stiff gale. Everyone on board was strangely withdrawn, keeping themselves away from each other. The previous evening, once the ship had cleared the waters of St Kilda, they’d eaten a late dinner in the wardroom. Everyone had sat except Dill who remained in his cabin. Trevor had made one or two artificially jovial comments in order to kick-start a conversation, but no one responded. They chewed and swallowed in silence, cutlery clinking loudly.
At ten-thirty Zach forced open the deck hatch against the roaring, saline wind. The waves were glass green and covered with cobwebs of spume. They appeared dangerously high on this, a much smaller vessel than Zach had ever sailed on before. The crew went about their duties in red oilskins. Zach waved a brief hello to Jennie and Gareth, the Rockall Twenty’s only couple, as they staggered past him clutching the rail. Kayleigh was standing on the starboard side, leaning against the launch davits, staring out to sea. He was about to approach her, but then thought better of it.
That evening, Kayleigh was slightly late for dinner, having taken a meal down to Dill in his cabin. “Well.” said the captain. “Tomorrow morning we should hit Rockall, so I suppose you could call this our last meal together.”
“Don’t talk like that, Sir!” chuckled the First Lieutenant. “You make it sound like we’re being executed!”
Everyone laughed. Parsons was at the table, but his notepad was again in the corner filming the scene.
“I’ve been on the blower to Ross.” said Trevor. “The PM’s booked a slot just before eleven tomorrow morning.”
“That’s better than we expected.” said Zach.
“Should be on the lunchtime news.” said Jennie.
“Anything in the papers?” asked Gareth.
“Not today’s.” Trevor downed his mouthful. “But Ross is going for a page four or five in tomorrow’s broadsheets; maybe three in the tabloids.”
“Squeezed in beside the tits.” said Zach.
There was a pause. “Exciting, isn’t it?” said Elaine, the Irish geologist. “We’ll be famous.”
“Yeah, for about ten minutes!” said Zach.
“But just think!” continued Elaine. “We’re pioneers! Explorers! Out to discover the unknown, like the mariners of old! Sounding out new lands!”
“We’re not, you know.” said Davies, the civil servant. “The world’s just not like that anymore. The reason Rockall’s never been landed on is not because it’s some mysterious, distant land, but because it’s so small and insignificant that no one’s ever bothered. All we’re going to find there is rocks, grass and a few birds’ nests. No buried treasure, no impenetrable jungles full of men in leopard skin thongs.”
“Pity!” laughed Jennie.
“The age of great exploration is over. This mission is nothing more than a nostalgic reproduction. One we’ve set foot on Rockall, it’ll be just another island. They’ll never again be a Cook or Magellan or Columbus. The lands they discovered are now just a few hours away by plane; and the natives drink coke and surf the net just like we do.”
“The Global Village.” quoted Kayleigh.
“It’s sad really.” said Elaine. “Our ancestors looked at the horizon and dreamed of the infinite. We can carry our finite world around with us in a pocket atlas.”
“There’s always space, I suppose.” said Zach. “You know, new planets to travel to.”
Davies snorted. “Don’t count on it! We gave up visiting the moon and that’s only next door as far as space goes; and it costs mug governments half their GDP to launch a rocket!... No, it’ll be long after we’re dead and buried that people get into space seriously. Until then we’re stuck on this poky, boring, passe little planet of ours.” He took a swig of wine and tucked into his cabbage.
“I think that’s a wee bit melancholy, Mr Davies.” said Kayleigh.
“Realistic, Miss Ford.”
“All pessimists claim to be realists.” she returned. “You know, the world is not the tiniest bit boring or poky if you look at it closely. This Global Village has a number of fascinating, dark, little alleyways. Take St Kilda, which we’ve just visited ourselves… ”
“Kayleigh, please!” Trevor snapped, making everybody at the table jump. “Let’s have none of that!”
“None of what!?” She sat back in her seat indignantly.
“Can we leave St Kilda out of this conversation!?”
“What!? All I did was mention it!”
“Well, don’t! We had a gutsful of the place yesterday, thanks to your boyfriend!”
“He’s not my boyfriend!”
“Take it easy, Mr McCain.” warned the captain.
“Trevor… ” Kayleigh continued in a calmer voice. “All I was saying is that St Kilda is an example of the kind of… diversity that exists on Planet Earth. Even within our own country there’s a place with a culture and ecology that is totally unlike… ”
“There’s nothing on St Kilda that’s worth anything to anyone!” Trevor shouted. “No wonder the inhabitants got the hell off the place!”
“YOU’VE NEVER EVEN SEEN ST KILDA!” boomed a new voice.
Everyone rotated in their seats to face the aft hatch. Dill was standing there; his face was blanched and unshaven, his clothes crumpled and sweat stained.
There was a taut silence, then Kayleigh beamed at him. “Hi, Dill; how’re you doing? It’s great to see you out and about again. Come and sit down.”
Dill walked one step at a time up to his place and lowered himself into the chair, never taking his eyes off Trevor. “When we landed at Village Bay yesterday, you went straight into the SNT office block and I don’t think you came out once until it was time to reembark.” He smelled strongly of body odour and his hair was matted and unkempt. “You’re talking about a place you know nothing about, and are not interested in even looking at it.”
“I don’t think I like your tone, Gibson!” spat Trevor. “You just remember whom you’re talking to!”
“Why? What can you do to me?”
“I can have you busted back to Oban before you’ve got time to blink!”
Dill tittered. “Is this the part where I’m supposed to be scared?”
“That’s enough!” The captain broke in by slapping the tabletop. “Gentlemen! If you can’t sort out your differences in a civil manner then you can bite your tongues until you’re off my ship!... Now then, I think one of you should propose a toast to the journey ahead.” He nodded at Zach. “Mr Neelum.”
Zach fumbled a bit as he picked up his wine glass. “Ladies and Gentlemen… I’d like to propose a toast to the Rockall Commission and the success of our project.” Gareth and Jennie copied his gesture with their own glasses and then Arlene did. The rest followed a few moments later. Trevor complied, but kept his eyes glued to the table cloth. Kayleigh raised her own glass while filling Dill’s with her other hand. Zach cleared his throat. “The Rockall Commission and Success!”
“THE ROCKALL COMMISSION AND SUCCESS!” the others repeated, with the exception of one; Dill. Dill got to his feet and said loudly and obtrusively: “To Rockall!” He downed his wine in one gulp and marched out of the wardroom.
“Dill!” Kayleigh jumped up and went after him.
Trevor sniggered and shook his head scornfully. “Good grief! Is there no one on this mission, with any mental competence?” He looked at Zach as he spoke.
Zach felt a lightening bolt of fury for Trevor as he gazed back into his smug face. Patience! he told himself. Just wait for the morning! Tomorrow will be yours and no one else’s!
****************************************
The gale eased very suddenly at about one AM; within an hour HMS Kenneth McAlpin was sailing through a flat calm. Zach got out of his bunk and looked through the porthole. The clouds were broken and stars peeked down at the world. The sea reflected the winking moon like a pane of frosted glass. He climbed back into bed and tried to sleep. After an hour he gave up and got dressed. There was the lightest of breezes when he stepped out on deck. The air was comfortably cool and fresher than any he’d breathed before. He took off his jacket and let it wash over him through his T-shirt. The only sound was the mill-race roar as the ship tore the pristine ocean surface with her prow. He walked forward to the fo’c’stle and leaned on one of the winches. Above him on the bridge, the conning watch were dark shadows moving around behind the forward windows. The radar transmitter orbited on the top of its mast and the White Ensign fluttered in the breeze. He sat down on the deck, closed his eyes and let the sound and smell of the ship fill his head.
He awoke with a jolt and jumped to his feet. “Blimey! I must have dozed off.” he mumbled to himself. His legs and bottom tingled painfully as his circulation was restored, and he rubbed his numb flesh. The sky was brightening, so he knew, even before he’d checked his watch, that he’d been asleep some hours. Four-oh-seven; almost dawn… and almost... He dashed to the rail and stared at the horizon over the bow; just a line of sea, as sharp as a knife-cut in the clear air. “Hey, Zach!” Gareth’s voice called. There was a row of faces lined up on the bridge wings. “Come on up, Zach, you get a better view! First one to sight land gets a tot of rum! Captain’s orders!”
Zach felt a swash of vertigo as he climbed the outside stairs and stepped onto the bridge. The sea was a vast, grey-turquoise plain that seemed to swallow up the light from the sky, making it appear transparent and invisible; as if the ship were flying miles above it, or even upside down. He gripped the bridge coaming and gritted his teeth.
“When will the sun be up?” asked Arlene.
“Any moment now.” said the captain, looking at his watch. “… Wait for it.”
There was an enormous flash of emerald light from below which illuminated the ocean all around them for just a split second. It was like a silent explosion from the depths of the sea. The ships fittings and the faces of the people around Zach were frozen eerily, as if by a green flashbulb. Everyone started back in shock, exclaiming loudly. Then everything looked as it had before. If Zach had been alone, he’d have wondered if he’d imagined it. “Fuck me!” he shrilled. “What was that!?”
“Sunrise at sea.” said the captain mischievously, as if a prank of his had just come off. “Something you landlubbers aren’t used to.”
“Amazing.” said Trevor. “How does it work?”
“As the sun comes up from below the horizon, its rays pass through the sea at an angle directly in line with our eyes. This causes a kind of light resonance. You see green because that’s the part of the spectrum that travels best through water. It only lasts about four tenths of a second.”
“It’s beautiful.” said Kayleigh. “I wish I could see it again.”
“You can; tomorrow morning if you like, so long as the weather’s still fine. Any mist or rain will dampen the effect.”
Zach went to the stern to watch the dawn. The limb of the sun had poked above the horizon, flaring out into the sky above it and casting a pastel-yellow path along the smooth water. The clouds had cleared; sky was now violet, completely blank and unblemished; not even a seagull interrupted its infinity. He found the sight, smell and feel of the situation a little mesmerizing, causing him to drift off into a trance.
TOOT!... TOOT! The nerve-jangling blast of the ship’s whistle brought him back to consciousness like a blow to the head. TOOT!... TOOT! It sounded again. Zach turned and jogged forward, wondering what it could mean. Was the ship sinking? Was it about to collide with a sandbank? Then it struck him and his jog turned into a dash. Everyone on the bridge was either cheering or leaning over the coaming, staring ahead with binoculars. Trevor looked victorious, his fist in the air and a broad smile on his face. His other hand held a small tumbler into which the Master-at-Arms was pouring a coppery-golden liquid. The sight filled Zach with disgust. “I might have known you’d get it!”
Trevor just continued grinning, raised the glass and downed it in one.
Kayleigh put a hand on Zach’s shoulder and whispered: “Don’t start anything now, Zach, you’ll spoil the occasion.” Her face was shining. “Come on, have a look. We’re there!”
Zach found a place to stand at the coaming between Arlene and Kayleigh. Beneath him was the fo’c’stle of the ship, its deck covered with winches, capstans and cleats. The pointed prow inched forward across the seascape. The ocean surface glinted under the newly risen sun. The pencil line of the horizon dissected his vision… but the line was no longer straight. Directly in front of the ships track, for a few degrees either side it, was a broken and uneven row of jagged spines which glinted like yellow diamonds in the sun.
“There it is, Folks!” said the captain. “Rockall. I’ve got you there just like I said I would.”
“Blimey!” Kayleigh’s mouth was open in awe. “Look, Zach!”
She shoved a pair of binoculars in his face, bumping his brow painfully with the lenses. Through the binoculars the view jerked around like a flying insect, but Zach did manage to pick out more details of the land ahead. The spines were actually promontories lined by cliffs. Their jagged and uneven faces reflected the sunlight, making them look carotene-yellow. Sharp, ink-black shadows filled the gaps. It was impossible to judge their size from this distance and their bases were still hidden by the curvature of the Earth.
Parsons was busy taking picture after picture, his stills-camera fitted with a telephoto lens.
Zach hadn’t seen Dill arrive. The young man was standing a few feet away at the back of the bridge as still as a statue with his hands in his pockets.
****************************************
It took an hour and a half to approach the shore. The captain used the echo-sounder to pick his way through the uncharted shoals. There was an excited hush on deck as everyone stared up in wonder at the coastline of Rockall. Headland after headland stacked away to the north and south. The sun was now higher and the cliffs revealed themselves as black, basalt walls, slurred into intricate shapes by erosion. They were dappled white in places by colonies of seabirds, who also filled the air like midges, oblivious to the presence of the ship. Gannets swooped and dived into the sea around them, bobbing up with beaks full of fish.
Zach tried to guess the height of the cliffs as he craned his neck to take in their jagged edges against the blue sky. From where he was standing the promontories were as massive and imposing as planets in space. A bizarre discomfort came over him. He felt that the land was returning his scrutiny. Its invisible eyes were watching him. The rational part of Zach’s mind scolded him for thinking such nonsense, but was undermined when he realized that he wasn’t the only one.
“It’s weird, but… it feels like this place is alive.” stammered Kayleigh. Her cheeks were wan and her eyes darted back and forth with unease. “It’s like it’s watching us… It wants us to leave! We’re not supposed to be here!”
“Shut up, Kayleigh!” barked Trevor. “You’re being hysterical!”
“Leave her alone!” said Dill. “Don’t worry, Kayleigh. We’re not here to do any harm. So long as we treat the island with care and respect the land spirit won’t object to us being here.”
“Land spirit!?” Trevor’s mouth and eyebrows twisted with incredulity.
“Yes, it’s what the Japanese call Kami. Before we walk here we’ll need to ask its permission.”
“Good God!” hissed Trevor to himself. “To think there’s one born every minute!”
Dill ignored him.
“Anyway, you’re a bit premature to talk about walking here, Mr Gibson.” said Davies. “We actually have to get up there first.”
“Maybe we’ll find somewhere.” said Trevor. “Rollosson and Cartwright may have just been unlucky.”
“I bloody hope so! I’m not keen on the idea of climbing up. Couldn’t we have flown here? Then we could just put down somewhere and step out.”
“Flown!?” Zach turned to him. “Flown!?... We’re supposed to be real explorers! We’re about to go where no man has gone before! To set foot on one of the last untouched places on Earth! It’s not proper to go any other way except by sea!”
“That’s not the real reason, Zach.” said Trevor. “It’s simply a matter of practicalities. The only suitable aircraft would be helicopter and there’s no guarantee that the land or weather conditions would be good enough for it to put down here.”
“Well, I hope to God there is an easy way up, ‘cos I don’t think I’ll make it otherwise.” said Davies.
“Neither Rollosson nor Commander Cartwright ever found a way to gain access to the plateau.” said the captain. “But we’re going to try, nonetheless. Does anything look familiar to you, Curtis?”
The captain was addressing a young, baby-faced sailor with red curls and freckles who was holding an album full of old, black-and-white photographs of the Rockall coast; the ones taken by the Northlea expedition. “Dunno, Sir.” he said in a cockney accent. “Some of these features match; like that bit...” He pointed to a photo. “… and that bit up there.” He indicated a rock face a mile or two to the south. “But photos are two-D and depend on angle and lighting. We need to be in almost exactly the same place to get a line-up.”
The captain began reading from a tattered old book. “Commander Cartwright’s log states that he turned north from the area he calls ‘The Eastern Capes’, which must be what we’re seeing now. ‘These continued for three miles’, he says ‘then I reached a promontory where the land turned due west at a veritable right-angle. This I named “Cape Nelson”. On the western half of this section were some fine erosive features. The sun was setting behind the westernmost extremity of the island and by the time we’d covered the next part of the shore it was night. The southern shore looked comparatively regular and the bastion was two hundred feet lower. We continued due east until we met the Eastern Capes once more at Oh-five-fifty. This means that the island of Rockall presents an almost square chart profile’. That was when he radioed the Admiralty and was ordered to cement the plaque at the base of the cliffs. This he chose to do on the northern coast amid the erosive features.”
“Are we going to follow his course, Sir?” asked the Officer-of-the-Watch.
“No, I thought we’d go south instead. You see Commander Cartwright never saw the south coast in daylight. Perhaps there’s something there he missed. Also he claims that the cliffs are lower and more regular.”
“Good idea.” said Trevor.
“Even if we don’t find a landing site by going south we could try the north coast again.” said Davies. “Perhaps a beach will have formed since then.”
“No.” Elaine shook her head. “This was only fifty-five years ago; five minutes in geological terms. Even the millennium since Rollosson’s discovery will have produced very little change.”
Davies pursed his lips and stared down at the deck.
The captain ordered Curtis to lookout duty on the starboard rail, then he took Kenneth McAlpin a few hundred yards further out and turned her prow south to follow the coast.
****************************************
Zach looked at his watch as the second hand passed twelve above the other two. “Midday.” he said. Trevor nodded. HMS Kenneth McAlpin was now sailing westwards along the south coast. An hour ago the Eastern Capes had ended in the beautiful peninsular of Guestine Point; and then turned due west, cracked and craggy, but straighter. The cliffs here weren’t quite as high and grassy features could be seen at their lips; a tantalizing glimpse of the hidden world of the plateau. The ship was crawling slowly through the surf, allowing the lookouts to examine every contour. Almost all the passengers and spare hands were at the starboard rail; so many of them that the captain had to add seawater to a portside ballast tank in order to level the ship.
At three PM the captain told Trevor to go below to the storage hold and break out the rock climbing gear. Davies overheard him and his face paled. Zach too felt his stomach flutter. The entire Rockall Twenty had been trained in mountaineering, but that had been on the side of a quarry in Wales. Crawling up these immense rock walls like a fly would be a totally different matter. He’d always known that it was a possibility, but only now, when it was imminent, did it hit him. “Er… Captain.” He coughed to clear his voice of the fear that constricted it. “I thought we were going to look for a beach.”
“There is no beach.” he replied woodenly.
“How do you know that? We’ve only sailed round a quarter of the island.”
“And it’s taken us all morning to do so. I’m not wasting any more time.”
“Can’t we finish the circumnavigation?”
“I’m afraid not.” The captain’s voice was firm yet gentle. “I’ve been talking to your geologist, the Irish lady. She says that due to the structure and composition of the bedrock together with the climatic conditions the chances of a stable sand deposit forming anywhere on this coastline are less than one percent.”
Zach didn’t reply. He wrung his hands, fighting back a twinge of nausea.
The captain ordered the engine stopped and the anchor dropped while Alasdair, the leading rock-climber, gathered the Commission personnel together on the quarterdeck. Behind them, the ship’s crew were rigging out the davits and preparing the dinghy for launch. Everyone was grim and apprehensive as they put on their rope harnesses and helmets, but by far the worst was Davies. The podgy, middle-aged civil servant was sweating and shivering, his face drained of all its colour, his eyes twitching. His gaze shuttled between the equipment around his body and the landscape looming above. As the winches spun and the boat hit the water he went into convulsions. “No!” he whimpered.
“What?” said Trevor.
“I said no! I… I can’t do this!... I can’t! I won’t! You hear me!? I WON’T” He fled to the hatchway and darted down the ladder. Zach heard his cabin door slam shut.
Trevor went below to speak to him, but Davies had locked his door and drawn the curtains on his porthole. “Go away! Go away!” was all he kept yelling.
Trevor came back up on deck, sighed and put his hands in his pockets. “This is a very damaging development.”
“We’ll just have to do this without him then.” said Zach.
Trevor scowled at him. “Use your head, Zach! Davies is the mission’s Home Office representative! He’s here to witness our first steps on Rockall, preside over the legal annexation decree and ratify our goals! We can’t do this without him!”
“Shit!” The Twenty shifted their feet and looked at the deck. There was a long silence then the captain coughed. “OK, Chaps, this is what we’re going to do: We’re going to weigh the anchor and continue searching for a sea level landing spot; something which I gather is a little futile.” He looked at Elaine and she gave him a reluctant nod. We’ll complete our circumnavigation of Rockall, however long that takes; then, if we haven’t met with success, we’ll abandon the attempt and proceed to Oban for debrief.”
There was a chorus of indignant gasps and groans. “No! We can’t do that!” shouted Zach.
“We’ll have to, Mr Neelum.”
“I can’t believe we’re going to give up and go home!” Zach was inwardly ambivalent being pleased that he might not have to do the climb.
Trevor was the only one of the Twenty who remained calm. “Captain, this mission has been six years in the planning. The Commission has invested nearly eight million pounds. All that will be wasted if we fail now.”
“I won’t give up!” Zach yelled. “I will not leave this place until I’ve walked on Rockall! I’ll refuse to go!” A dozen voices were raised in agreement.
“Ladies! Gentlemen!” The captain raised his hands in a pacifying gesture. “We’re not giving up yet, but unless we can find a beach, or you can persuade Mr Davies to climb the cliffs, we have no choice but to admit defeat.” He turned and marched back to the bridge.
There was a rattle as the anchor was raised and a shudder as the ship’s engines were powered up. “It looks like Rockall has beaten the designs of humanity yet again.” said Dill with a smile of satisfaction.
Zach turned on him. “What!? You’re pleased about all this!?”
“I’m pleased to see how reluctant this natural wonder is to give up her secrets.”
“I don’t get you, Dill.”
“Why? Not everyone wants to see Planet Earth sewn up into little man-sized boxes.”
“Then why the hell did you join the Commission!?”
“I have my reasons.” Dill was unperturbed.
“Cool it, Guys.” said Arlene. “We’re all a bit on edge at the moment, so let’s not wind each other up any more. Now’s not the… ”
“Contact! Contact! Contact!” A voice sang out from the starboard rail; every turned their heads and looked. Curtis, the red-haired lookout, was pointing excitedly. “Beach! Fine on the starboard beam!”
There was a tremble below their feet as the engines went astern. Zach forgot his anger and dashed to the rail. When he looked in the direction Curtis had indicated, he almost fainted with delight.
****************************************
HMS Kenneth McAlpin had paddled less than a hundred yards from the point where she’d dropped anchor; just far enough for a deep, sheltered inlet to come into view. At its head, the undercut escarpment had collapsed, creating a slope of regolith leading down to the sea where mud and sand had collected around the rocks. “This is way beyond anything I dared to hope for!” chirruped Elaine. “The surf must have eroded the lower wall until it gave way. Suspended silt then condensed around the rubble base. Wow! We could easily get up that slope!”
“We’ll still need to rope up.” said Alasdair.
“Yes, but it will be a fairly easy climb compared to scaling the cliffs direct… The path to the plateau is open!”
The ship’s company ate a meal then once more the boat was prepared for launch. There was an air of thrill on the quarterdeck mixed with nervousness. As had been decided months ago, Trevor and Zach were to take the first trip ashore accompanied by Davies to preside and Parsons’ men to capture the occasion on film. The honour of being the first human being to step onto Rockall had been bestowed upon Zach. Curtis, the young sailor, had been chosen to pilot the boat. When they all appeared on deck dressed in hiking boots and carrying the flag in a roll of canvas there was reverent silence from the Twenty. Davies’ eyes were half-closed and he avoided everyone’s gaze.
“Right.” said Trevor. “Does everyone have everything they need?... Paperwork? Flag? Great. Mr Parsons, is your camera working alright?”
“Like clockwork.” The man carrying it gave thumbs up while the sound recordist grinned between his earphones.
Parsons did a quick speech for his programme, leaning against the rail with the island in the background while his crew filmed him. Zach felt someone at his shoulder. He turned and saw Curtis smiling at him. “Everything set to go, Curtis?”
“Yup! Ready when you are, Sir!” He had bulbous cheeks and freckles that made him look about sixteen. A few of his ginger curls poked out from under his cap. “You’d better sit in the bows if you’re getting out first, Sir.”
“Will do.”
There was a pause. Curtis kept grinning at him. “Must be a good feeling, Sir, to know you’ll be the bloke who’ll be walking onto land first. Your name’ll be the one in the history books, a bit like Neil Armstrong.”
“Not half! Trevor can have everything else if he likes, even the Governorship. I don’t care so long as The First Step is mine.” He breathed deeply. “In a few minutes, I’ll be the first member of the human race to step onto the island of Rockall. This is my moment of glory and I intend to enjoy it!”
“And… cut!” The camera stopped filming and Parsons broke from his pose.
“OK.” said Trevor. “Let’s do it.”
One by one they climbed over the rail and down a rope ladder into McAlpin’s launch where Curtis was feathering the outboard motor. Zach’s heart was pounding and adrenalin washed through his system as the young sailor let go the painter and squeezed the engine throttle. The boat pulled away from the ship’s flank in a wide arc. Curtis brought the tiller amidships and aimed the boat towards the beach. The towering cliffs loomed closer and closer, cutting off the sky. The smooth sea began to break into short, angular waves. The sandbank ahead looked dark and muddy. Sharp rocks poked through the sediment every few feet. The grey water massaged the alien shore with slow, lazy strokes.
When they were about fifty feet from land Trevor stood up. “Hold back here a minute, Curtis.”
“Yer what?”
“Cut the engine.”
“What’s going on, Trevor?” asked Zach.
“I said cut the engine, Curtis!”
The young sailor obeyed and the boat settled to a halt, drifting in the surf.
Zach could sense trouble and he stood up to face his colleague. “Trevor, what are you doing?”
Trevor hesitated, looking around himself as if embarrassed. “Erm… You’re not going first, Zach.”
“Excuse me?”
“I said, you’re not going to be the first ashore… I am.”
“But… WHAT!?”
“Ross says I’m to go first, not you.”
“What the fuck do you mean!? I’m going first! We all agreed! It was always meant to be me! You know that!”
Trevor sighed, reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to Zach. It was an official letter with the header of the Rockall Commission at the top and the signature of Ross Quentin at the bottom. Despite the undoubted qualifications of Zachary Neelum… We believe that for the sake of prestige and professional continuity… Extremely difficult decision… Trevor McCain has been selected… first expedition leader to set foot on Rockall. The words warped and disappeared as Zach’s hand screwed up the letter in his fist. “I… I can’t believe this!”
“I know, Zach, and I’m sorry.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to me before!? Why didn’t Ross!?”
“Because I was scared you’d pull out of the whole venture.”
“But Ross would have told me… He would!”
“He… erm… He doesn’t know that you don’t know… He thinks I have told you.”
There was an icy pause, then Zach hurled the crumpled letter overboard “This is a fix! You paid him!”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“This is my project!”
Our project. We’re partners remember.”
“But it was my idea! It took me six fuckin’ months to sell it to you! I gave up everything for this! It’s all I’ve got!”
Trevor turned aft. “Seaman Curtis! Start the engine! We’re going in!”
“No!” Zach shouted. “Turn the boat around! If I’m not going to be the First Man on Rockall then no one is!”
“Do it, Curtis!”
Curtis chuckled. “Will you two fellers make up your mind?”
“You’re not going to do this, Trevor! I won’t let you!” Zach seized the collar of his colleague’s life-jacket.
“Get your hands off me!”
“No! You’re not getting out of the boat! You’re staying here until you agree to give me The First Step!”
“This is an order from the director of the Rockall Commission! You’re in breach of contract if you fail to comply with it!”
“I couldn’t give a fuck!”
“Let go of me or you’ll be very, very sorry!”
“Excuse me.” interjected Parsons.
“I’ve worked as hard as you on this, Zach!” Trevor ignored the journalist.
“No you haven’t!” bellowed Zach.
“I've invested ten times as much money as you!”
“That’s because you’re ten times as fuckin’ rich!”
“Excuse me.” said Parsons again.
“I’ll sue you, Trevor! I’ll sue you for deception! You and your bum-chum, Ross!”
“Excuse me!” said Parsons more forcibly.
“What do you want!?” They both looked at him.
“Forgive me for butting in on your conversation, Gentlemen, but… erm… ” He glanced over his shoulder, indicating with his eyes.
Curtis was gone. His seat at the tiller was empty. Zach gasped. “Where is he?”
“There.” He didn’t need to point; his camera lens was doing that.
Trevor’s jaw dropped. “STOP HIM!” he screamed.
While he and Trevor had been arguing, the young sailor had climbed overboard and was now swimming as fast as he could towards the virgin shore. Already he was twenty yards ahead. Zach and Trevor both dived over Davies’ lap, clawing at the stern thwarts. They fumbled feverishly with the engine starter. “Press that button!... No, that one!... Pull the cord!... Fuck it!” After a series of coughs and splutters and stalls the motor chugged into life. Trevor’s knuckles turned white as he squeezed the throttle as far as it would go and the boat heeled as it surged into motion. “HURRY!”
Curtis had a good head start, but the boat’s greater speed allowed it to quickly catch him up. But then, when it was barely a yard behind, there was a tremendous bump. Zach was hurled forward, colliding with Davies and Parsons’ soundman. Trevor’s knee landed on his ribcage, knocking the wind out of him, and they all fell into the bottom of the boat; an uneven pile of bodies. Zach was the first to untangle himself and lift his head above the gunwale. When he saw what was happening, his heart sank.
Curtis gave a few more strokes then stood up in the waist-deep sea. He waded on, water pouring off his blue uniform. He ran the last few steps, splashing loudly, and jumped over the final breakers onto the rocky beach. He leaped up and down and ran back and forth, putting footprint after footprint into the sand. He cartwheeled and danced, picked up a handful of mud and threw it in the air with a whoop. “Hooray! I’m the first person in the whole world to set foot on Rockall! The first ever! Yippee!”
The camera crew picked up their equipment and continued filming.
Zach slowly got to his feet, numb, shaking his head. “No!”
Trevor’s face was a crimson circle; his lips were wide and his teeth clenched.
Zach was out of the boat before he knew what he was doing, wading through the surf, not noticing the cold. As he hit the beach he sprinted towards Curtis and watched as his own fist landed on the sailor’s nose. Curtis fell flat on his back and doubled up, covering his head and belly as Zach began kicking him. “Stop it!” He felt hands grasp his shoulders and wrench him away. Trevor and Davies held him tight.
Curtis sat up. His nose was bleeding, but he still smiled.
Trevor brought his face close to Zach’s. “Stop it, Zach! For God’s sake stop it!” He turned to the reporter who was also now ashore. “Mr Parsons, give me your camera, please.”
“Not a chance, Mate.” replied Parsons, grunting in the back of his nose with suppressed laughter.
Trevor quivered briefly. “By the authority of the Rockall Commission, to which you are bound by contract, I command you to hand over your camera!”
“You hired us and brought us along to film the first landing on Rockall, and we have. We’ve stuck by our contract to the letter. I’m not giving you my camera.”
“GIVE ME THAT CAMERA!” Trevor’s yell echoed off the walls of the inlet.
“Be quiet!” ordered Davies. The civil servant was walking slowly up the beach towards them. “Mr McCain, Mr Neelum, calm yourselves! This behaviour will get us nowhere.”
“I was first, Mr Davies!” piped up Curtis. “You saw me! They all saw me!” He pointed at the ship. There were dozens of faces lining the decks. A few were waving. “There are loads of witnesses! I got ashore first! My name’ll go down in the history books! Able Seaman Jesse Curtis: The First Man on Rockall! I claim it on behalf of the Royal Navy! Up the Andrew!” He waved back at the ship.
Davies frowned. “We’ll have to see about that, Curtis.”
“But I was first! I was!”
“Alright, you were first. But in being so you’ve presented us with a grave irregularity, one which I do not have the authority to sort out here and now. It’ll have to wait for the inquiry. In the meantime, all I can suggest is that we continue as planned with the planting of the flag. OK?... Now which of our Commission representatives wants to carry out the ceremony?”
Trevor and Zach looked at each other. “Well, I don’t suppose it makes any difference now, does it?” said the latter. “Go on, Trevor.”
Trevor sighed and waded back out to the boat. With a tight face he picked the flag out of the bottom of the craft and returned to the beach, Parsons’ notepad ogling at him. He cleared his throat and recited the words that they’d been rehearsing every evening for the last fortnight: “I, Trevor Anthony Winston August Justin McCain, together with my associate, Zachary Brian Neelum, acting on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second; on this Saturday, the Thirteenth day of June, Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nine, do hereby declare that this island of Rockall is, now and forever, sovereign territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, by the Grace of God, and of her realms and territories. Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. I plant her flag, in accordance with Her Majesty’s instructions!” He drove the flagstaff into the ground between his feet. It struck a rock. He tried again, but it wouldn’t penetrate the sand deeply enough to stand securely. He tried another place, a patch of open sand devoid of rocks, but the same thing happened. He moved again to a spot almost at the water’s edge and, with Zach and Curtis helping, managed to impale the muddy beach to eight or so inches. When they let go, the pole finally remained upright. Trevor wiped his brow and untied the cord. He pulled off the canvas sheath and the Union Jack was free. It hung slack like a folded parasol in the dead calm. Curtis saluted and they all sang God Save The Queen. The young sailor was the only one who knew all the lyrics and the other three hummed along, glancing at each other with embarrassed eyes. After the annexation ritual they all returned to the boat and managed to get it afloat again. It had struck a submerged rock hard, but its solid aluminium keel had held. Curtis took it back to the ship to pick up some more passengers. Davies and Parsons went with him leaving Zach and Trevor alone on Rockall. They turned their attention inland.
The beach sloped up steeply to become an incline of scree, regolith and moss-covered boulders leading to the top of the escarpment. Grass and small bushes stuck out at odd intervals. “Come on then, Zach; what are we waiting for?” Trevor began picking his way carefully upwards, some loose stones dislodging under his weight.
“Hey, careful, Trevor!”
“It’s OK, Zach, it fell down centuries ago.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others? Then we can rope up to be on the safe side.”
“To Hell with the safe side! You can come with me or wait for the rabble. It’s up to you.”
Zach hesitated, then followed.
The slope was about forty degrees; quite benign from a side view, but when on it looking down it felt very precarious. Zach had to concentrate hard on where he was putting his feet. The climb was made more unpleasant by the spattering of guano that covered every surface. Some of the boulders were the size of motor cars. “Trevor, if we start a landslide we’ll be squished like ladybirds!”
“Come off it, Zach! Look at these bushes! There hasn’t been a landslide here for a thousand years!”
“Yeah, but no one’s ever put their great feet on this before!”
“Stop panicking!... Hey, what do you think we’ll see at the top?”
“Fuck knows!”
“This will be a sight that no human eyes have ever seen before. Neither Rollossen nor Cartwright ever found a way up here!”
They were more than half way to the top by now, well over two hundred feet above the beach. Zach ground his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut and stopped himself from looking down.
Trevor was clambering much faster; he was thirty feet above Zach, full of energy, striding over the rocks like a mountain goat. “Nearly there!... So, what do you reckon? There might be a green, scaly, six-eyed, four-jawed monster.”
Zach laughed.
“How about a beautiful, tropical paradise populated by naked, teenage dancing girls?”
“I doubt it somehow.”
“A singularity then. A black hole of supergravity where the laws of physics break down and you get crushed to pulp and spat out into a parallel universe.”
“Hmm… More likely, I’d say… You can definitely go first!”
“Made it!” Trevor grunted with exertion as he clambered up onto a flat piece of grey rock and stood up. He gave a huge gasp of astonishment. “My God!”
Zach stopped climbing. “What!?”
“It can’t be!... I… I don’t believe it!”
“What is it!?” Zach started again, leaping over small rocks to reach Trevor’s position
“It’s incredible!”
“What is, for fuck’s sake!?” He had arrived at the flat rock and frantically pulled himself up onto it. He jumped up and stood by Trevor’s shoulder, panting hard.
Stretching away beneath their feet was the interior of Rockall: A bare heath of greenish grey, rippling with shallow hills and dips. There wasn’t a tree in sight; the largest plants being patches of bush. The soil was parted by the occasional rocky outcrop. Colonies of seabirds covered the ground in circles or ovals of several hundred nests. They paid the two humans no attention as they swooped low over their heads on their way to or from the sea. The clamour of their hoarse voices was ear-splitting. It was all-in-all a landscape fairly typical of the west Highlands.
Trevor smirked at his colleague.
“You bastard!” Zach fought back a smile. “You really had me going!”
“Well, that’s another mystery solved. Where to next; Loch Ness?”
Zach looked back down the slope. The boat had landed again and, through his binoculars, he could see Dill and Kayleigh clambering ashore. “Shall we wait for the others?”
“Why bother? They’ll find their own way up here.”
The sea looked huge and powerful from this vantage point, as it had on St Kilda. The waves were reduced to tiny wrinkles and Kenneth McAlpin looked like a roosting duck, floating in the bay. The scale of the vista gave Zach’s stomach a twinge of vertigo.
“OK, let’s check out this heap of gravel.” said Trevor. “Where shall we go first?”
Zach spread his hands. “Anywhere.”
“But we need to explore systematically. We have to gauge out the land according to considered goals and objectives; decide where to site the principle harbour, find routes for roads, a nice smooth spot for an airfield… ”
Zach laughed. “There’ll be plenty of time for that later! Let’s just wander around for a bit and just enjoy being here… You know what? I’m going to build a house for myself right on this spot. I’m going to call it ‘First Landing’.”
************************************************************
They didn’t have time to go very far. The other members of the expedition were arriving on the plateau in knots and couples. Some were climbing more slowly; Elaine was stopping almost every few feet to tap at a rock with a hammer and chisel or collect a pebble. Claire and the other biologists were examining the moss and bushes on the ascent. Both launches were now employed to ferry the team’s equipment bit-by-bit from the ship to the beach and Gareth, Alasdair, Perry and Duncan stayed below to help. It was a task that alone took a few hours, as there was well over five tons of it. The cable lift system that they’d intended to use to transport everything up vertical cliffs had to be adapted for the slope. Each package was hauled up manually by three people at the top while another two climbed alongside it to stop it being damaged or trapped on the uneven surface. By the time every item was piled at the top of the escarpment the sun was beginning to settle on the horizon. “Thank God the weather’s fine!” exclaimed Arlene. At nine PM, HMS Kenneth McAlpin weighed her anchor with a short blast on the whistle. Through his binoculars, Zach could see the crew waving to them. She headed a mile out to sea and turned eastwards for the mainland. Before long she was hidden by the contours of the cliff tops. The Twenty watched her departure with uneasy faces. They were alone now; more so that anyone else in Europe.
The mood changed; from now on there was no going back. The assembly of the camp was no longer just an theoretical problem to solve, it was a matter of survival. They forgot the mystery and excitement and focused their minds.
Night was falling fast so it was a race against time. They had to move inland a hundred yards to find a spot away from the carpet of birds’ nests. They chose a grassy patch of high ground beside a twenty-foot granite tor, with a view over the bay. Food, water and shelter were their priorities; everything else was lashed down under a plastic sheet to be seen to the following day. Trevor decreed that they should arrange their tents in a circle like a Wild West laager. They finished at midnight, after scrabbling and fiddling in the light of their portable lanterns. The wind had risen and clouds were chasing each other across the star-spattered sky. Broadway gathered water from a nearby stream, that they christened “Neelum’s Burn”, and made a pot of tea for all twenty of them. They drank in grateful, relieved ecstasy; too tired to cook, too tired to talk, bruised, grazed, blistered and aching. After the tea and a chocolate bar or two they went straight to bed, crawling into their two or four-man tents. Trevor and Zach, as Commission executives, had the privilege of an extra-large one-man tent each.
After such a strenuous day, Zach expected to drop off immediately, but he didn’t and lay staring at the fabric above his head. The lantern glows and chatter from the other tents quickly dissipated and was replaced by a canon of snores. The tent vibrated in the wind. Despite the breeze the air was warm and rather stuffy. He undid his sleeping bag and stuck his leg out, the sweat pleasantly cool on his skin.
The wind grew stronger, becoming gusty and punchy; dead still one minute, rippling the walls of his tent the next. It made strange whistling and wailing noises as it flowed around the tor outside, rising and falling in pitch and volume with each gust. The sounds made him aware of his surroundings and he suddenly felt vulnerable and isolated. The keen of the wind seemed to get louder. Elaine had told him that Rockall was at least two hundred million years old; and in all those aeons, tonight was the first night that humans were sleeping here. His brain chilled when he contemplated the unknown that lay around him, separated from his body by just a thin sheet of Gore-Tex. There could be anything outside. Anything! Strange creatures, killer viruses, giant birds… He shut down that train of thought with a scolding chuckle. But the nameless dread that had haunted him that morning as the ship approached the coast had returned. Then, with a stab of pure terror, he began to hear voices in the whining breeze: “Go!”… “No!”… “Leave!”… “Go home!” He sat up, panting, perspiring; his heart throbbed on his eardrums. He slapped his quivering hands over his ears. “Calm down! Calm down! It’s not real!” he whispered aloud. After a few minutes he cautiously took his hands away. The voices had gone. He laughed. “You superstitious fool!” He lay back down and went to sleep.
He awoke after just a short nap. Something sounded different outside. “Trevor, are you awake?” he called.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“I couldn’t hear your snore amongst the chorus out there.”
“I can’t seem to sleep.”
“Me neither.”
There was a long silence. “I was thinking about that fiasco this afternoon.” said Trevor. “That little turd, Curtis!... But never mind, I’m sure our solicitors will force the inquest to declare his First Step void.”
“Void?... Void!? Curtis was the First Man on Rockall! That’s not a legal claim, it’s a physical fact! You can’t pass an injunction that will turn back time and allow us to take his place.”
“No, but the physical facts of his action can be… deemed illegitimate.”
Zach paused. “What does that mean?”
He sighed. “It means that our names will still be the ones in the history books… Do I have to spell it out for you?”
“Ah, you’re talking about a cover-up!”
“Shh! Not so loud.”
“No, it’s too late, Trevor; and there were too many witnesses. Besides it wouldn’t be the same. I think we’re going to have to put this one down to experience.”
Their conversation weakened and died down. Eventually both men went off to sleep.
************************************************************
BOOM! There was an explosive clap of thunder that shook the whole island. Zach awoke instantly and sat up, quivering with shock. Lightening flickered through the translucent walls of the tent. Another crackling crash followed. The climate of Rockall was evidently very changeable. He huffed deeply and waited for his palpitating heart to slow; then he lay down again. A few minutes followed and several more thunderbolts. Rain began tickling the canopy; it swelled to a downpour and a damp chill filled the tent.
Zach zipped up his sleeping bag and settled down once more. The chatter of the raindrops was quite a tranquilizing sound. The tent was waterproof and he was wrapped up warm and snug. He yawned and closed his eyes.
Dubbidy-dubbidy-dubbidy…
Zach was only half awake when he first heard the sound. At first its significance didn’t hit on him. When it did, he sat bolt upright with a gasp, groped for his lantern and switched it on.
Dubbidy-dubbidy-dubbidy…
He jumped to his feet, opened the tent flap and stepped out. The grass was soaked like a sponge and cold on his bare feet. He flicked the filter down over his lantern so that it shone in a beam like a torch, and swung it back and forth, enlightening the night-time bulks of nearby hills. He saw nothing. Rain dripped from his hair. The sound began to dwindle and soon faded away into silence. He ripped open Trevor’s tent flap and shone the torch in his face. “Trevor! Trevor! Wake up!”
“Ow!” he groaned. “What do you want!?”
“Did you hear that noise just now?”
“What, the noise of you barging into my tent like a randy pig!?”
“No, before that.”
“Well, I was asleep so how could I!?”
“Horses! I heard them galloping! Their hoof-beats!”
“You’re dreaming, Zach. Go back to bed.”
“I wasn’t dreaming; they were real! I’m telling you, Trevor; there are horses on Rockall!”
Trevor raised himself up onto his elbow and pushed Zach’s torch away. “There are no animals on Rockall except seabirds and a few insects. Remember Claire’s theory?”
“There has to be! I heard them!”
“That’s impossible. How would they get here? Think about it, Zach.”
He sighed. “I know what I heard, Trevor.”
“You know what you think you heard. Now go back to bed, will you? You’re dripping on my sleeping bag.”
Zach walked back into his tent and switched off the light. His ears continued to scan the saturated air, but he heard nothing except a billion raindrops.
****************************************
“It’s a nice island.”
Trevor smoothed down one of his eyebrows. “It’s a nice island, Zach; but what are we going to do with it?”
The storm had ended by the time everybody awoke just after dawn and the blue sky was scored by lines of thin, high cloud. The atmosphere was dank and the cushions of heather squelched under their feet. They all had a cooked breakfast to celebrate their first morning on Rockall and spirits were high as they fried bacon and eggs on camping gas stoves. Water was collected from Neelum’s Burn and sterilized with soluble tablets to make it drinkable. After they’d eaten, the first job of the day was to finish erecting the campsite. Zach was getting ready to lend a hand when Trevor stopped him. He said it wasn’t appropriate for the two Commission executives present to assist the rank and file with manual labour. Instead, he ordained, they were to go exploring. This was good news and Zach immediately agreed. They packed their day bags and decided to begin their survey westwards along the coast.
Before they’d walked two hundred yards, their first foothold on Rockall was out of sight. The landscape continued the same way as around the campsite: low, but hilly and uneven. The shoreline also remained similar: sharp, towering cliffs fissured by deep erosion. Sea bird colonies lined their edges and inland, the heath stretched as far as they could see which was usually less than half a mile. There was some high ground, two or three miles to the north; a long ridge of brown heather and a dome-shaped hill whose height was difficult to judge. To navigate they carried a global positioning system and a compass. Zach sketched a rough map on graph paper as they hiked along. It was a tricky walk; the ground was uneven and covered with obstacles: usually stones or birds’ nests. The island’s avian population also presented them with another ordeal. Less than ten minutes into their walk, Zach felt a small object strike his head. He reached up and his fingers sank into warm, soft guano. “Ugh! A fuckin’ bird just did a shit on my head!”
Trevor chuckled. “Why do you think I’ve still got my hood up?”
“You guessed?”
“Look around you. It’s all over everything else; it’s bound to get on us too. You can’t stop it, so the best thing to do is just put up with it. When it dries you can scrape it off.”
“Bloody hell, Trevor; you could have warned me!”
He snorted. “It’s good luck, you know. I thought you could do with some.”
After three hours the two men sat down on a long, sausage-shaped boulder to have a rest. They ate oat bars and Trevor got out his water bottle to make a drink, adding glucose and vitamin-enriched powder which he warmed on a portable stove. While he was doing this, Zach took a little stroll up the southern slope of a nearby hill to see if he could get a better view of the island’s interior. He looked westwards and could see the ocean again. That must be what Cartwright named Copenhagen Head. he thought. By the end of the day we should have covered the west coast. Then we should… His heart misfired. “Fuckin’ hell!” he said aloud. He sprinted back to where Trevor was sitting and called to him in something between a shout and a whisper: “Trevor! Come here! Quickly!”
“What’s wrong?” His colleague switched off the stove.
“Come and have a look at this!”
Trevor frowned curiously as he followed. As he reached the bushes and stared northwards his eyes went wide. “No!”
Zach couldn’t suppress a gloating smile. “You see? I wasn’t dreaming after all, was I?”
The horses were small; their heads being on the same level as Zach’s, and they had thick, stumpy legs. They were like no other breed that he’d seen before; grey-brown with fox-red patches and exceptionally long manes and tails. In one case, they almost reached the ground and must have made it hard for the animal to walk without tripping over them. “We’ll call them Rockall Ponies.” said Zach.
Trevor appeared not to hear him. His jaw was slack and he kept repeating: “No… No… ”
“This place is full of surprises, eh?”
“It can’t be! It’s not possible!”
“It is possible, Trevor, ‘cos they’re here. Look; right in front of your eyes.”
“But how could they have got here!? There hasn’t been a land link to Europe in over four million years!”
“They could have swum.”
“Don’t be stupid! It’s over two hundred miles to the nearest land!”
Zach shrugged. “That only leaves one other possibility… Someone brought them.”
“But… that means… ”
“Yes.” He nodded slowly. “We are not the first people on Rockall.”
Trevor looked into his eyes, face flushed, lips quivering. “No! I won’t accept that!”
“Give me another explanation then.”
There was a long pause. Eventually Trevor broke away from Zach’s gaze, turned and took a few steps back, wiping his face with both hands. “Who?... When?…”
“Maybe it was our old pal Rollosson.”
“No.” said Trevor. “Rollosson clearly states that he searched for a break in the sea cliffs, but never found one.”
“Then he must have been lying. He must have landed and found a way up here; perhaps the same one we did. He was carrying live horses on his ship, presents from his brother. They obviously escaped onto the plateau and bred wild. These are their descendants.”
“But why would he lie?”
“Perhaps he and his crew wanted to make this place their own little secret.”
“Then why not just keep it to themselves that they’d found it?”
“Er… perhaps they needed to explain why they got home late and couldn’t think of an excuse. Maybe one of his crew blew the whistle. Who knows? It was a long time ago. I’m sure the facts have blurred over the centuries.”
Trevor became more composed. “Well, that remains to be seen. We’ll need to study these ponies, do some DNA tests. Let’s start by getting a few close up photos, can you manage that?”
“I’ll try.” Zach brought out his camera and removed the lens cap. The two men began pushing their way through the briar, plodding slowly and mirroring each other’s steps. The Rockall ponies were in a loose drove of about twenty, heads down, munching the long grass. “Steady as we go.” said Zach. “They’ve never seen a human, remember… Shh. There, there. Nice Horsey.”
One of them looked up as Zach and Trevor emerged from the thicket. It instantly reared up and screamed. Its fellows jerked in shock, turned and bolted north-eastwards as fast as their little legs would carry them. In a few seconds they’d galloped over the crest of the next hill and vanished.
Trevor and Zach stood still on the empty heath. “Why didn’t you get a snap of them before they’d gone!?” demanded Trevor.
“I didn’t expect them to leg it like that.”
He put his hands on his hips and huffed. “What the hell did we do wrong?”
“Nothing; like I said, they’ve never seen a human before.”
“Well, never mind. We’ll get another opportunity... Come on, let’s go. Unknown islands don’t explore themselves, you know.” He turned and stomped back down the hill. His usual officious tone had returned.
Zach raised his middle finger to the back of Trevor’s head then picked up his day bag and followed.
They didn’t see the campsite until they were almost on top of it. At first Zach thought that it was a pile of horse dung, laid in the shelter of a group of boulders beside the western cliffs. Doubt arose when they were twenty feet away and by the time they were within ten feet they couldn’t pretend any more. The two men dropped their rucksacks and stood in silence, looking down at the patch of ash and charred twigs; the significance of the find slowly sinking in. After a few minutes Trevor crouched down and scooped up a handful of cinders. “It’s dry.” he said dispassionately. “That means it’s been lit since the rain last night.” He stood up and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well… we might as well radio the camp and tell them to take down the flag.
“No!” barked Zach. His body was shaking and his hands balled into fists. “We will not take down our flag!” He snatched up his day bag and marched away.
“Where are you going?” called Trevor.
“They’re probably still here!... I’m going to find them; and when I do, I’m going to kick their arses off our island!”
****************************************
They walked quickly and spoke little, stopping for occasional rests and guzzling water from their bottles. Zach’s forehead burned. To him the landscape now looked different. Rockall, his island, his treasure and his goal was not his any more. And somewhere out there was a person leaving their dirty footprints all over it and laughing at him.
They elected to head north, sticking to the coast, knowing that the trespassers had to have a ship and were probably on or near it. They set a very fast pace, striding across the moor with the ocean on their left. They didn’t feel like a lunch break so they marched onwards with a bite of chocolate and a can of lucozade.
They’d almost reached the top of a steep ridge, one of the most prominent land features that they’d seen so far, and were beginning to pant when a rippling, roaring sound reached their ears from the other side. It was somehow familiar to Zach, but he couldn’t quite place a name to it. It quickly rose to a deafening shriek; he and Trevor involuntarily ducked and moments later, a helicopter leaped like a demon from behind the crest and shot over their heads. Zach turned and squinted at the aircraft through its warm downdraft; it slowed and banked, figures were visible inside its bubble cockpit. Anger and fear played a duet in his stomach.
The helicopter curled back on its course and approached the two men, flying close to the grass tips. Zach forced himself not to jump out of its way. It flared to a halt and two hefty men jumped to the ground as it touched down. They jogged over towards Zach and Trevor and stood still, examining them as the helicopter’s rotors wound down.
“Howdy!” said the man on Zach’s left in a deep, resonant voice. His tanned, crinkly face puckered into a smile.
“Good afternoon.” replied Trevor with a concealed grimace.
“So where did you guys spring from?” He had an American accent.
“I beg your pardon!” said Zach.
“Well, we’re kinda surprised to see you. We thought we were alone here.”
“So did we!” Zach growled.
The stranger scratched his thick, white beard. “So what are you doing here?”
“What are we doing here!?” Zach’s blood pounded in his ears.
“Calm down, Zach!” Trevor cut in with a sideways glance. “Let me sort this out! He took a step forward. “Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I’m Trevor McCain and this is Zachary Neelum. We’re here on behalf of the Rockall Commission. Welcome to the United Kingdom Dependency of Rockall.”
The American raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “I’m Professor Jack Laird and this is Professor Ray Troyman. We’re with the US Geographic Survey. Welcome to the United States Trust Territory of Rockall.”
There was a pause as Zach absorbed these words. “United States Trust Territory!? Is this some sort of joke!?”
The newcomers put hands to their faces to hide embarrassed smiles.
“This is British soil! I should ask to see your passports right now!”
“Son.” said Professor Laird gently. “This rock may be closer to London than it is to Washington, but I can assure you that you’re in America now; as sure as if you were standing on the White House lawn. That’s official.”
“Rockall is nothing to do with America! Take your chopper and get off it now!”
“Zach.” Trevor put a hand on his arm.
He shook it off. “We’ve only got to tip the word to Whitehall and there’ll be a fleet of fully-armed Royal Navy warships patrolling the coast! So if you… ”
“Zach, shut up!”
Zach swung round and walked away, massaging his nape roughly.
“Now, Gentlemen.” Trevor began. “Whatever kind of mix-up or blunder has occurred, I’m sure we can confront it in a calm and adult manner. We both live in countries that pride themselves on democracy and free speech. I have no doubt that if we sit down over a cup of coffee, we can come to an arrangement that is equally beneficial to all parties concerned.”
Laird and Troyman exchanged glances. “Very well.” said the former. He pointed to the idling helicopter. “If you’d care to step aboard, we’ll take you someplace more comfortable.
Rockall looked beautiful and twice as lonely from the air. The island had a compact, crinkly outline; and the plateau was covered in undulating heathery hills dotted with grazing ponies, patches of bush and riven here and there by black outcrops of rock. The higher land lay west of centre. Larger foothills led up to the big, round hill which Zach had seen from the south. All the contours had gentle gradients and smooth edges as if everything had been moulded from whipped cream. The escarpment that constituted the western and southern shores of the island was fairly straight with shallow bays dipping into it. On the northern and eastern coasts, however the land was much higher and the sea cliffs cloven by fjords and breaks, creating a series of continuous peninsulas and stacs like detached pieces of the mainland. As the helicopter soared over the interior, a drove of ponies galloped below. “A fine sight, isn’t it?” Laird’s voice came through Zach’s intercom headphones. “The most enigmatic piece of real estate in the Western Hemisphere. When I landed here I felt like Columbus.”
Zach didn’t reply.
The American base came into sight at the head of a short sea loch on the north coast. When Zach spotted it he bowed his head in despair. A ship lay at anchor a mile off the coast, the motif of the US Geographic Survey on its side. A lift had been installed on the cliff to bring people and equipment up from a metal jetty which was attached to the rock at the high tide mark. A hundred yards back from the precipice was a row of orange, prefabricated huts. A pile of oil drums stood around a flat piece of land that had been turned into a helipad with two other aircraft parked beside it, rotors still and drooping. A ten-foot flagpole was set in the middle of the base with the Stars and Stripes whipping at the top. Everywhere there were people; standing, walking, pointing, talking, cooking in the open air kitchen and maintaining equipment. “We call it ‘Green Port’.” said Laird as the helicopter pilot brought his craft slowly down onto the pad. “We put in here back in April, but we’re still getting settled in. There are a hundred and six of us, including forty-two women. We’ve mapped the entire north coast and… ” He recited a litany of their achieved goals and new discoveries.
Zach stumbled as he climbed out of the helicopter. He looked around himself, unable to say a word. Trevor marched confidently along between the two Americans; his head held high, his arms swinging. The staff at the base smiled in a friendly, but curious manner as the four made their way through Green Port. They were of mixed ages, but all looked bright-eyed and optimistic.
They approached a hut with the word Director stencilled on the door and Laird led them into an undecorated, but well-equipped office. Zach observed the small US flag that hung from a pencil-sized pole on the corner of the desk as he took a seat opposite the two professors. “OK.” said Laird. “You guys wanted to talk.” He spread his arms. “So talk.”
************************************************************
Zach drained his Budweiser and held the bottle upside down, so that the last few frothing drops fell onto his tongue; then he went to the bar to get another, stopping off at the barbecue for a hot dog. Music from the portable stereo droned in his ears, mixing with the lively chatter of the party. The petrol generator rumbled and tiny insects orbited the camp lights; Claire was desperately trying to catch one, but, being totally drunk, she was having no success. The one hundred and twenty-six revellers had split into a dozen talking, laughing circles, of which Zach was a member of none. Trevor stood at Jack Laird’s side, chatting and laughing with the expedition director, as he had been all afternoon.
After Laird had suggested throwing a party for the entire population of Rockall, Trevor had called the Twenty on his radio and explained the situation. Initially there’d been a lot of confusion and consternation, but the Commission team eventually accepted the American’s invitation and a pair of his staff had flown over to escort the British explorers on foot to Green Port. In the meantime, Trevor had contacted Parsons and arranged for him to download his footage of the flag planting to Laird’s laptop. (The scene of Curtis’ First Step was carefully edited out.) The professor had watched the film in his office quietly and respectfully.
Ross Quentin, on the other hand, reacted like Zach. He screamed down the radiotelephone that he intended to lodge a complaint with the US President. Laird just smiled, unruffled and thanked him for that information.
The music stopped; this was Laird’s cue. He stepped up onto an empty beer crate and cleared his throat. “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention please?” The party went into pause and looked his way. “Now, my friends will tell you that my speeches are real dumb, even when I’ve had weeks to prepare them, so don’t get your hopes up for tonight’s!”
Everybody chuckled amiably.
“Anyway, today has been a pretty amazing day, by anyone’s standards: The arrival of Trevor and Zachary and all you good people from England; and I know that us bumping into each other in this unexpected way has generated a bit of fiction. I won’t repeat what Zachary said to me earlier because there are ladies present, but it’s good to know that some British traditions are still alive and well!”
Everybody laughed loudly and turned to wave at Zach.
“But all the peoples of the world will tell you that Limeys and Yanks are always seen side-by-side, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so amazed!”
More laughter.
He turned serious. “Now, I’m a scientist, not a politician. I and all the other members of this station are simply here to do our job. We bear no ill will toward anyone on the British expedition and I’m glad to see that the feeling seems to be mostly mutual. I’m not saying that there isn’t a serious diplomatic incident between our two countries waiting in the wings, only that it’s not our responsibility to try and sort it out. So let’s leave the political shit to the suits and bigwigs on Capitol Hill and Westminster and carry on with having a good time and getting to know one another, not as Brits or Yanks, but as fellow human pioneers.”
“Hear hear!” said Elaine.
He raised his beer bottle. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to propose a toast… To Rockall!”
Everyone mimed his action. “ROCKALL!” they called out in unison.
Laird shook his head in mock-frustration. “Whoever it belongs to!”
The final roar of laughter was cut short as they all took a swig from their bottles.
Zach turned and slunk away from the party. As he left the lights of Green Port behind him, the night became clearer. He looked up at the sprinkling of stars. The central hill looked imposing as its shape cut into the dome of the sky. A few hundred yards on the music fell to a whisper; and the kiss of the surf and the rustle of breeze in the grass were the only sounds. It was still less than two days since HMS Kenneth McAlpin had sighted the Eastern Capes on the horizon, beginning what he’d long expected would become the greatest two days in his life. Not in his worst nightmares could he have imagined this. The stars wobbled as his vision blurred with tears. This can’t be a coincidence; the Yanks turning up six weeks before we do! Why oh why didn’t we plan in secret!? Why couldn’t we have kept the idea to ourselves!? All that publicity that Trevor insisted on generating! Six years of telling the whole world our intention to be the First Men to land on Rockall! Why didn’t I think of it!? Of course some other bugger’s going to nick our idea and get in there first!... “Trevor!” he seethed aloud. “This is all his fault! Trevor and that bloody big head of his!”
It was well after midnight when Zach returned to the American base. The party had all but broken up and only a few inebriated scientists were still hanging around, talking raucously amid empty bottles and greasy paper plates. There was no sign of Trevor. Zach went over to the kitchen area where the full time cooks were busy cleaning the stoves. The food had been grilled on gas-fired barbecues with pipes leading from the burners to a stack of blue cylinders propped up against the opposite side. As Zach stared at them a question arose in his tired mind. It had popped up earlier, but he had forgotten it in his frustration. Now that he was too exhausted to brood, it returned to him. “Excuse me.” he asked one of the cooks, a young, black man.
“Yes?”
“Do you do all your cooking by gas?”
“Yes, Sir.” he drawled in a riverboat accent. “We got enough gas here to fuel the moon rocket. We use it all the time; it’s low emission stuff.”
“Yes, but when these scientists go in-country, they must have some other way of heating their food. I mean you’d never be able to carry one of those big cylinders in a rucksack.”
“They don’t have to, Sir. They has little bitty cylinders to run portable burners that they carry in their backpacks. They charge them up from these big guys behind us.”
“Really?”
“Yeah.”
“So, none of them ever… build open campfires?”
“No, Sir, never. Orders from Professor Laird. No wood fires to be lit anywhere on the island ‘case it starts a grass blaze. Environmental law stuff.” He tittered.
“Hmm… right.” said Zach.
***
(To go on to Chapter 2- From Rags to Rivets:
http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2009/02/rockall-chapter-2.html )

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