Friday, 13 February 2009

Rockall Chapter 2

Chapter 2- From Rags to Rivets

It was a major turning point in the attitude to the island of Rockall, and therefore the life, of Dill Gibson. He watched, along with everyone else on the decks of HMS Kenneth McAlpin, as Jesse Curtis lowered himself out of the boat into the water as quietly as he could and struck out for the beach. Trevor and Zach were quarrelling rabidly about something, so rabidly that they were totally oblivious to the little sailor swimming ahead to steal their thunder. It then occurred to Dill that Trevor and Zach probably both wanted to be the first ashore and were arguing over that very subject. The delicious comical irony of the situation hit Dill so hard that he exploded into a helpless mirth, as did his companions. He tried hard to keep watching, but his eyes were streaming so much that he could hardly focus. He panted like a dog; almost suffocating from laughter.
The ship’s officers and crew began cheering loudly, urging Curtis on. When the boat ran aground and Curtis reached the shore they roared in triumph. Many of the Twenty joined in. Jennie ran down to her cabin to fetch her camera. “Look at ‘em!” chuckled Gareth. “Look at ‘em! They can’t believe it!”
Trevor and Zach stumbled around on the virgin shore, seemingly dazed and incredulous; unable to grasp what had just happened. Then a fresh row broke out and Zach attacked Curtis physically.
“WHOA!” jeered the onlookers.
After another minute things seemed to settle down on the beach and they continued according to the schedule, but back on the ship people were still laughing. The Commission executives were not popular with the Rockall Twenty, who continually complained about their attitude and conduct. To them, this moment was poetic justice and they would never let Trevor or Zach forget it. Dill shared their merriment, but there was a part of his mind that reprimanded him for finding amusement in Zach and Trevor’s distress, especially Zach’s.
However, the event turned out to be a very positive catalyst. The apprehension that had been weighing them down all morning vanished instantly to be replaced by a far more cheery and optimistic atmosphere. The Twenty prepared for landfall almost as if it were a holiday. This new attitude was doubtless generating a lot of Light Energy too, which would make the Rockall Spirit happy; and much more likely to be hospitable towards them. As for Dill himself; a whole half hour had passed without him thinking about St Kilda.
Dill climbed down the rungs of the ladder one at a time, careful not to tread on Kayleigh’s fingers. He dropped into the rolling boat and crouched on a thwart next to her. She grinned at him, squinting slightly in the sunlight. “Well, this is it… Are you OK?”
“Yeah.” he replied. “Bloody excited!” The launch pulled away from the ship and he felt the air go chilly as it passed into the shadow of the great cliffs. Kayleigh bit her lip. “Are you OK?” he asked her.
“Half of me’s still not sure.” she said. “I still feel we’re not meant to be here.”
He put his hand over hers. “Don’t worry. There’s no harm in being here if we mean no harm.”
“It’s not us though, Dill; it’s the others.”
As he raised his face and looked up at the cliffs, Dill felt a deep shiver of exhilaration flow through him. Power radiated off the rock bastions above. He could feel their dense solidity inside his heart. This place was primal and pure; as deep as the oceans and as ancient as the hills. The forever-unheard cries of the seabirds filled his ears; as if the swooping, diving gannets held secrets of Rockall’s obscure past and they were speaking of it quite freely in their own cryptic language.
The boat jarred lightly as it grounded on the shoals by the beach. The pilot cut the engine. “Out you get.” he commanded. Dill swung his legs over the gunwale and lowered himself into the ankle deep water. Cold sea soaked into the top of his hiking boots. It sluiced off his shins as he plodded ashore. Kayleigh, Elaine, Dino and Johnny followed him. The sand was soft, sticky and pliable. Dill’s boots pushed deep into it and around them the wet, muddy top layer rose up in a displacement hump. He raised his foot and the print of his step, one of the first ever on this land, was visible. Silted water dripped from his toecap. Beneath the surface, the sand was lighter in colour and grainier. It held the cast of his boot sole well, the heavy tread marks keeping their shape. Within two seconds it began to fill with opaque, brackish water. Glistening fronds of seaweed covered the beach and sand-encrusted shells lay half buried. Black rocks of all shapes and sizes paved the way; their surfaces almost invisible beneath infestations of barnacles and limpets. The smell of brine and life was overpowering and Dill began to feel light-headed. Kayleigh chuckled. “Your face looks like a beetroot, Dill!”
He nodded. “I never imagined it would be like this, Kayleigh.”
The boat turned round and gunned back to the ship to pick up more passengers. Elaine was crouching down beside a kidney-shaped boulder, examining it through a magnifying glass; while Dino and Johnny were standing by the flag, looking around themselves as if unsure of what to do next.
Further up the beach was the high tide mark. Above it the rocks were dry and clean of marine organisms; instead they were splattered with guano, some of it fresh slimy and pungent, elsewhere it was old and dry white streaks. Dill’s companions were beginning the long climb up the slope of shattered rock face to the plateau. He could see Trevor and Zach picking their way around the summit; their dwarfed silhouettes gave scale to the magnificent vista. He walked up the beach, the ground becoming steeper and more rugged with each step, and started the ascent himself.
During the following hour it became apparent to Dill that if he were going to live on Rockall he would need to develop a very good head for heights. He forced himself to look down the precarious ramp to the beach where the two boats were dropping off more of the Twenty and their equipment. He was well over a hundred feet above them at this point and they looked as small as ants. Kayleigh was finding the climb very hard going. He stayed with her while she rested and gave her gentle encouragement as she hoisted herself up the natural stairway one rock at a time, panting and shivering. The others were overtaking them now, laughing and calling out to each other enthusiastically. Only the biology and geology crew were trailing them as they reached the plateau, dizzy and weary.
But there was no time to celebrate or take in their surroundings. McAlpin’s captain wanted to sail for home before nightfall and the crew were basically just dumping the Commission’s cargo on the beach and leaving them to deal with it. Dill was immediately sent back down to the beach with a rope which he lashed to a three hundred-pound crate of folded tents and sleeping bags. Working with Alasdair and Duncan, he lugged the package up to the plateau. It took forty-five minutes and by the time they arrived they were all out of breath; their limbs aching and their hands blistered. But there was no rest; just a five minute breather and a couple of gulps of water and they were on their way back down for another load. All in all, Dill made four trips; and by the end of the last one his hands were bleeding and his shins black with rock dust and bruises. What made it bearable was that all his companions had worked equally hard and were exhausted too.
Unfortunately, and much to the annoyance of the work party, there were two exceptions: Trevor and Zach. The Rockall Commission executives had spent the whole afternoon strutting back and forth advising and cajoling everyone else. “Where do those two get off!?” Gareth had griped to Broadway as they stopped for water halfway up the ramp. “Look! Sitting on their arses and letting the rest of us do all the work!”
“They’re in charge.”
“So? Does that mean they can’t get their hands dirty as well?”
“I suppose so.” she shrugged.
“We should insist they get stuck in too!”
“What do you suggest; a strike? Look at where we are! This isn’t some factory in the middle of a town; and I don’t want to sleep out in the open tonight.”
“Me neither… but they’re still a pair of greasy twats!”
She giggled.
Dill sat down beside them and looked up at the silhouettes of the Commission executives. “Trevor might be, but don’t be too hard on Zach. He’s cool. I think Trevor pushes him around a bit.”
“Then more fool him!” snapped Gareth. “If he’s chosen his side then he has to take the rap that comes with it!”
“Be fair, Gareth!”
Gareth grumbled under his breath, but Broadway smiled. “I know what you mean, Dill.
The ship had departed and humanity’s first night on Rockall was about to begin. Despite the time of year a raw wind had sprung up and was blasting across the plateau, penetrating their clothes. Dill’s fingers were numb as he fumbled tent pegs out of their wrappers and drove them into the primordial earth. He’d not had the same training as the others, so he let himself be guided. “Let’s have these tents in neat order, Chaps!” commanded Trevor clapping his hands. “Not dragged around higgledy-piggledy! In a circle, close together, like the cowboys used to do with their wagons! Move along now!” The sense of urgency grew as the sky darkened. At last Dill’s tent was erected and secured; his home for the next few months. He and his tentmates, Gareth, Duncan and Dino bundled inside and unrolled their sleeping bags onto the floor. Kayleigh poked her head through the flap to announce that a pot of tea was on the boil. “Thank fuck for that!” gasped Gareth. “I could murder one!”
Zach had discovered a stream about half a mile from the campsite, another first. No one had the energy to object when he asked if he could name it after himself. Broadway went over to the new watercourse with an empty can and came back with it full. A gas burner was dug out and the water poured into a mess pan. Dill tried not to gulp his tea with relief and delight. No one even bothered with milk and sugar. The weather had turned and it had become balmy and humid. He was already half asleep and dreaming as he staggered into his tent and collapsed into his sleeping bag. He was asleep before he had time to do up the zip.
Sunlight shining in through the tent walls slowly woke Dill up. He stretched and yawned feeling too comfortable to stir. Eventually the smell of frying eggs and bacon tempted him and his companions out into the open. He was more ravenous than he had been in years and spirits were high as steaming plates were handed round. Water from the stream was sterilized with chemical tablets to make it drinkable. It had rained during the night and everything was slick and wet, so they ate on their feet.
Work began again almost as soon as they’d cleaned their plates. “Come on, People! No dilly-dally!” said Trevor standing up. “The job’s not over yet. Zach and I will be out all day on a survey hike. By the time we come back I expect everything else set up and running, understand?” Such was Trevor’s farewell. The Twenty watched resentfully as the executives strolled away westwards for a day of enjoyment and discovery; then they took a deep collective breath and got to work.
By mid afternoon Gareth and Dino had managed to get the petrol generator up and running. It chugged noisily as the two engineers tuned and tested it. Now they had electricity to charge up their laptops and lanterns. Dill decided to plug in the short-wave radio and try it out. He called Ross Quentin who was anxious to find out how the Twenty were getting on. Dill gave him a progress report and the Commission director sounded satisfied and relieved. As soon as they had signed off a call came in from Trevor. “Come in, Twenty. Over.”
“Hello, Trevor; Dill receiving you loud and clear. How’s things going? Over.”
“Er… Not bad, but… we’ve made a couple of unexpected discoveries.”
“What like?”
“It turns out… we’re not alone here after all.”
“Come again. I don’t think I received you.”
“We’ve bumped into a group of Americans. They’ve got a base on the other side of the island. They’ve been here six weeks, so… I’m afraid we’re not the first people on Rockall.”
Everyone surrounding the radio set gazed at each other and frowned. “Trevor.” said Dill. “We’re not sure what’s going on. Can you confirm? Did you say that we’re not the first people on Rockall?”
“That’s affirmative. We’ve discovered a colony of horses as well.”
“He’s nuts! This is a wind-up!” muttered Gareth.
“Dill, it’s not as bad as it sounds.” came Trevor again. “These folk have been very kind and welcoming. They’re having a little knees-up tonight and they’ve invited all of us. A helicopter is going to fly across and drop someone off to show you the way. Acknowledge please.”
There was a long, perplexed silence. Dill keyed the mike. “Erm… Very well, Trevor; standing by.”
Nobody really believed that Trevor wasn’t making the whole thing up until the helicopter appeared in the sky half and hour later.
They spent the night on the floor of a storeroom in Green Port amid boxes and bottles of provisions. Their hosts had made the place quite comfortable, laying out put-you-ups and sleeping bags. They’d even left cartons of fruit juice and a bottle of aspirin in anticipation of their guests’ needs. Dill awoke with his head pounding and his stomach burning. He screwed his eyes shut and listened to the congregation of groans and curses from his nineteen bedfellows.
They began the trek back across the island to their camp site, staggering from the trailing edge of their hangover. The Americans had all come out to see them off and wish them good luck. “We’ll be seeing plenty of each other, I’m sure.” said Professor Laird. “This joint is too small for living separate lives!” Trevor had thanked him for the party and shaken his hand like a true politician. Elaine had kissed his cheek.
They used a compass and Global Positioning System to navigate back south across the centre of the plateau. Dill walked beside Kayleigh. It was cold and raining lightly. “Dill.” He looked over his shoulder to see Trevor striding quickly to catch him up. “Dill, I’d like you to do something for me.” He wiped the raindrops off his spectacles.
“What’s that?”
“We need some surveying done. A rough map of Rockall made. A note of all the geographical features, that sort of thing. It’ll take you several days. Can you manage that?”
“I expect so.” Dill was delighted, but common sense told him not to show his feelings to Trevor. “What will I need?”
“Pop by my tent after lunch and I’ll give you the starting prices; OK?”
He shrugged. “Sure, Trevor.”
“Good.” He dropped back to talk to Zach.
Dill clenched his fist. “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is great!”
Kayleigh shook her head. “You’re so naive, Dill. Can’t you see he just wants you out of the way?”
“Why would he want that?”
“I think he sees you as a disturbing influence.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Yes you are, Dill; and I mean that as a compliment. Trevor’s afraid you might lead a revolt against his little kingdom.”
Dill paused. “That’s not my intention.”
Kayleigh grinned slyly. “It doesn’t have to be. Just not being in awe of him is enough.”
Dill’s hangover was eventually cured. He headed out that very afternoon, carrying Trevor’s map-making kit and instructions. He started by walking north and plotting the course of Neelum’s Burn. It was the sweetest little stream that he could possibly imagine. The water was as pure and clear as liquid diamond. Why do we bother with those neurotic steritabs? Dill wondered with a chuckle. As if only water that’s been processed, filtered, cut with harsh chemicals and irradiated is fit for humans to drink! He crouched down and dipped his hand into the chattering stream. The sharp, crisp cold of it shot up his arm and coursed around his body, refreshing him and filling him with energy. My God! I put one hand in here and it’s as good as a morning swim! He cupped his hand, and lifted some of it to his lips. He gasped as it filled his mouth and ran down his throat. How could water taste like this? The finest champagne came nowhere close to it. He stood up panting and looked down as the stream bubbled and eddied along its course. Russet sediment and jewel-like rocks lined its bed. “Thank you.” said Dill to the stream.
Neelum’s Burn was about five feet wide at its “estuary” where it sluiced off the plateau in a deep, capacious gorge. It fell in a series of cataracts and spread out over the boulders at the foot of the precipice, to meet the sea in a delta of little mini streams. Further up its course it became narrower, deeper and more rapid. After about two miles it was joined by several tributaries in a confusing confluence; making it hard to see which one was the main stream. Dill looked at his GPS and made a note of the location, then decided to follow the biggest one towards the west. This stream was making straight for the huge, dome-shaped hill and he hoped to maybe discover its source. He plodded uphill and the watercourse slowly weakened and fragmented into many little brooks which in turn split into smaller ones, until Neelum’s Burn was no more than a series of puddles and mud pits in the grass. Dill put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. “That was quite an adventure.” he said to himself. He felt like he’s just walked up the Nile. He opened his folder, put a cross on the map and wrote: Possible source of Neelum’s Burn next to it. He took some photographs of the scene, emailed them to Trevor and carried on.
The dome-shaped hill was a magnificent sight, and it gave Dill a magnificent feeling as he trudged up the flank of it like Hillary on Everest. The Americans had already christened it “Mount Clow” after some long-dead patron of the USGS. The name sounded pleasant in his mind and he got the sense that the hill approved too. It loomed proudly over the verdant plateau, visible from ninety percent of it. As the slope evened out and Dill stepped up onto the tallest point on Rockall he raised his arms in the air and whooped. The whole island laid spread out beneath him. There were fewer birds overhead and the grass was relatively clear of guano. The droves of ponies looked like insects as they galloped around on the heath, four miles away, where the land began rising up to meet the Eastern Capes. It was pure, wild, free and full of life. Here on Mount Clow, Dill felt the presence of the Rockall Spirit more strongly than ever. “Thank you for showing me this.” he said. “I’ve never seen such beauty in all my life. I feel very privileged to be standing here on your land.” He didn’t listen out to hear if the Rockall Spirit would answer him. Land Spirits don’t communicate with words. They like to reach out in other forms. She would reply to him in her own time and in her own way.
The evening was creeping on and the temperature dropped. Dill decided to spend the night on Mount Clow. He took off his rucksack and unpacked his portable, one-man tent. He dug little holes for the pegs rather than just thrusting them into the ground because he didn’t want to run the risk of impaling an earthworm. The soil of Rockall was chocolate brown and had a fragrant, musky scent. It was coarse in texture and stuck hard under his fingernails. He hadn’t bothered with a stove and had brought along only cold rations in ready-to-eat pots. He lounged on the grass outside his tent and ate them slowly, watching the crimson eye of the sunset over the great ocean to the west.
He was about to go to bed, but then remembered that it was a long time since he’d done any meditation. He kept telling himself to find a spare hour, but something else more urgent to do always cropped up. He carefully tidied away his rubbish, then sat up cross-legged, circled his hands in front of his belly, and began his breathing exercises. After a few minutes his mind began to offline and his thoughts became distant and detached from his consciousness rather than anchored to them as usual. He stopped counting his breaths and relaxed, allowing the emptiness to envelope him. He was nowhere and everywhere, outside time and space. There was no Now or Then or Here; only Dill, in the simple act of being.
He never timed himself during meditation; he simply came out of it when he was ready, usually after sixty to eighty minutes. On this occasion, when he returned to his home universe, night had fallen and it was dark. Pitch dark, without streetlights or headlights; something that he, as an English town-dweller, was not accustomed to. It caught him off guard; he couldn’t even see the ground under his bottom and he experienced a moment’s vertigo. It had been raining and he was drenched. He found his way into the tent by touch and lit his lantern; then he crawled into his lightweight sleeping bag and drifted off into slumber.
Dill awoke suddenly in the heart of the night. Raindrops were hosing down onto the canopy of his tent. His luminous watch said three-fifteen AM. He felt fully alert, as if he’d been awake for hours; so he sat up as straight as his tiny tent would allow, undid the flap and looked out. Invisible rain flicked the tip of his nose. He listened to the music of it pattering onto the moist ground; the delicious perfume of damp grass and earth filled the air.
A high-pitched yell of excitement broke in on his reverie, making him start. It was muffled by the rain, but sounded close. It was instantly joined by half a dozen more, shouting together like footballers calling for the ball. Before Dill had time to think, an equine scream split the night in two and there was a rolling thunderclap of galloping hooves. A drove of ponies pelted away down the hillside; soon their racket faded behind the curtain of water. Another voice hollered something.
“Who’s there!?” called Dill.
There was silence; everything was as it was before.
Dill reached behind him for his light and flicked it on, momentarily blinding himself. He shone it out over the hillside, the rain illuminated like falling dust motes. He it panned left and right until its beam picked out the hazy figures of two people thirty or forty yards away. “Hey! Who are you!?” The figures were frozen. They were much too far away to tell, but Dill could sense that they were looking at him. He dived out of the tent and jumped up, the wet grass icy cold on his bare feet. Immediately the pair of strangers bolted. Dill ran after them. “Hello! Come back! It’s Dill! Who are you!?” The strangers were sprinting like athletes. Dill’s torch beam lost them; he swung it left and right, trying to reacquire them, but saw nothing. He stopped running and stood still, rain dripping off his hair and eyelashes. He stared out into the downpour and listened for a few minutes, but picked up nothing. It was as if he’d imagined it. He slowly walked back to the tent and dried himself off as best as he could before returning once more to his dreams.
Dill woke again at five-thirty, just after dawn. Despite his broken sleep, he felt energetic and refreshed. He ate a couple of grain bars for breakfast and opened his laptop. There were two emails from his parents and one from Trevor, ordering him to head towards the east and spend the second day of his tour checking out the highlands near the Eastern Capes. The news broadcasts centred on political commentary about the worsening global fuel crisis. Since the brief articles on the First Landing, there had been no further mention of Rockall. “Oh dear; that’ll piss Zach off!” he chuckled. “And as for Trevor… ” He packed up his tent and set off towards the west. He felt relaxed and carefree, but he still occasionally pondered over the mysterious encounter of the previous night.
He jogged down the western flank of Mount Clow, descending three hundred feet in half a mile. The hill levelled out and met the western coast. Here the land was less grassy and the cliff tops were covered in bare rock and a scattering of boulders. They reminded Dill of the scenes filmed by spacecraft on the surface of Mars. Some were beautifully shaped and seemed to have individual characters of their own. He photographed them and made a careful note of their location. He even gave a few of them names: Dead Elephant Rock, Pumpkin, Sausage, Spotty, Dolphin, Fat-Black, Doughnut, Stonehenge, Trevor’s Nose, Mini-Cooper, Badger, Rough Diamond. He ran his hands over their cold, hard skins slimy with rain, whispering a few words of greeting.
He walked northwards along the coast, sketching his map, taking pictures here and there, casually chatting with the Land Spirit and the Divas of the rocks; and strolling in a leisurely manner. He arrived at Sunset Head just after midday and sat down near the edge of the escarpment to eat his lunch and stare out at the rolling, grey sea. The eastern side of the promontory cut sharply into the body of the island to form a deep, semicircular bay. Here, the edge of the plateau had again collapsed, forming a slope like the one at First Landing. However this slope didn’t go all the way down to the water’s edge; it ended about two hundred feet above. Beneath it the precipice was as solid and unbroken as always. This rockslide also looked a lot different to the other, being smoother and less steep; soil had also formed on top of it until it almost covered the regolith like a heavy snowfall. Dill’s sharp eyes spotted a pair of yellow specks on the grassy side of the bay: Tents. It took him an hour to walk over to them. The two occupants came out to meet him. Their names were Manny and John; American geologists whom Dill remembered from the party. They told him that they had already named their location “Peary Bay” in honour of Captain Robert Peary, the Arctic Explorer. Dill asked them about the incident on the top of Mount Clow the previous night and the men denied all knowledge. This he found disconcerting. “But I didn’t dream it.” he said. “There were definitely at least two people up there last night. They scared a group of ponies. If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
“Beats me.” replied John.
“Maybe it was the Rockall Demon!?” said Manny with a giggle.
“What’s that?” asked Dill.
“Oh, a couple of us have seen it. Andre did just two weeks ago; remember, John?”
“Oh, yeah!” said the other American. “He came back to the Port late after doing some bores out at Anderson Bay; and his face was as white as a ghost! ‘Hey, Guys’ he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this!’ And he told us how he’d almost bumped into this creature. Wide, red eyes; screaming like a banshee. We expected him to start laughing, but he didn’t. He was totally serious… We’re not flaky cooks, you know; we’re scientists. But he seemed so Goddamn certain. It shook us all up and no mistake.”
Manny nodded.
Dill left them after half an hour and continued westwards around Peary Bay. For the first time, he felt slightly uneasy about being alone. “I’m not alone.” he reminded himself. “I’ve got the Land Spirit and the Rock Divas to take care of me.” But all the same…
He had only to walk another half mile, then the Land Spirit gave him the greatest gift imaginable and all his fears evaporated. He saw the Roosevelt Skerries.
Dill arrived at the far side of Peary Bay and found his way blocked by a stony ridge. He clambered up it and slid down the other side without looking up. When he did, the sight which met his eyes froze him to the spot. For the next two miles, the edge of the plateau had fractured violently making a complex of islets, peninsulas, conical rocks, arches and sea stacs. These had been in turn moulded by the action of the elements over an incalculable amount of time. The end result was a vista that was so beautiful that Dill found it painful to look at. It was as if a giant sculptor of insane genius had been creating his life’s work; his hands kneading and squeezing the granite flesh of Rockall like clay. This, surely, could not possibly be part of Planet Earth. The energy of the Roosevelt Skerries electrocuted Dill like a bolt of lightening. He cackled like a lunatic, grinding the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, and fell to the ground laughing and weeping at the same time.
He turned his back on the sea and walked southeast; his body trembling, his brain sparking like and overloaded computer. He realized that he should have been prepared for this. The vibrations of Rockall were too pure and powerful for his system to take; even for one who was accustomed to high levels of Light Energy. He’d grown up in a town very close to the huge stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge and had always been fascinated by them and the mythos of their origins; but nothing he had so far experienced touched on this. He eventually could bear it no longer. He stopped walking, dropped his rucksack and began his grounding exercises. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and picture a cross in a circle intersecting your lower chakras. He told himself. It took about five minutes until he was able to continue his mission. He put another few hundred yards between himself and the coast, then elected to pitch camp early; he deserved a rest.
Dill felt deeply fatigued and was in bed by seven PM; He drifted off to sleep easily, despite the sunlight shining through the tent fabric. He slept soundly all night and awoke well after dawn. He ambled eastwards across the centre of Rockall during the day and trudged slowly up the rise onto the higher ground. Here the grass was thicker and longer and the ponies wandered in greater concentration. He encountered twice as many droves as he had while exploring the west. Why did they prefer this side of the island? He made a mental note to email Claire when he next had the chance.
Early in the afternoon he came across a bizarre land feature that the American’s called “The Devil’s Tea Cosy.” It was a conical hill, over fifty feet high, of amazingly regular proportions. It stood out very prominently in the middle of a wide, flat region of more than a square mile. Its base was a virtually perfect circle and its sides were straight and equal around its entire perimeter. If he had seen it anywhere else but on Rockall, Dill would have assumed that it was artificial. How could nature produce something like this? He opened his laptop and emailed Elaine about it, including his question to Claire.
He dropped his rucksack next to the hill and took an evening walk up to the Eastern Capes, the highest cliffs on the island. Here he stood for over an hour, gazing out over the sea in the direction of home. Two hundred and fifty miles away were the Hebrides and the known world, but Dill could easily imagine that the ocean in front of him stretched forever. He took a few snaps for Trevor’s album, then strolled back to the Devil’s Tea Cosy to make camp at the end of his third day of exploration.
“Dill! Come on, Mate; rise and shine! It’s gone eight!”
“Huh?” Dill sat up, shaking the sleep from his head. The shadows of people outside fell across his tent. “What?... Who’s that?”
“Well, it’s hardly going to be Revenue Scotland, is it? Come on, you sleepy head. On your feet.” It was Kayleigh’s voice.
He poked his head out into the open to see Kayleigh, Elaine and Claire. He got dressed and packed up his camp.
“We got your emails yesterday.” said Elaine. “I’d heard of this place; Jack Laird told me. I asked Trevor and he gave us permission to come out and assist you. (To tell you the truth, I think he was quite relieved. I don’t think he’s very happy with your progress.) He said we could take one other person to act as a field assistant; who else would we choose?” She put a hand on Kayleigh’s shoulder.
Kayleigh smiled at him. “How have you been keeping?”
“Er… great.” Dill had become so used to solitude that the sudden presence of other humans flustered him slightly. “I… saw the Roosevelt Skerries on Tuesday.”
“We took a walk up there yesterday. Aren’t they beautiful? They must be the ‘Fine erosive features’ that Cartwright talked about. A description that hardly does them credit.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Dill gazed deep into her friendly face.
Elaine spent more than an hour studying the Devil’s Tea Cosy. She stalked round and round its base; kneeling down, pushing at it with her hand, unsuccessfully trying to climb it. Her mop of dry blonde curls whipped about in the wind. “Remarkable!” she mused. “Absolutely remarkable!... What the hell is this?”
“That was my question.” said Dill. “I hoped you’d be able to tell me.”
“Well, I know what it is literally. It’s a soil accumulation of some kind; but not like one I’ve ever seen before… How in God’s name did it form? It’s so equilateral! It actually reminds me of a Neolithic barrow or tumulus.”
“But they’re man-made and this is natural.” said Dill.
“I know; that’s what’s so extraordinary about it. I mean, it’s just sitting here in the middle of nowhere! It doesn’t make sense… I’ll have to come back another day and take some bores. I’ll have a word with Jack; maybe he can shed some light on the subject.”
They walked off westwards together. Dill kept looking over his shoulder, watching the Devil’s Tea Cosy get smaller and smaller as they left it behind. The rain had cleared and it was a bright, breezy day; much warmer than the few previous ones. Round, broken clouds scurried across the sky, casting undulating shadows on the landscape. Ponies gambolled like lambs on the primeval heath. “I don’t know why the horses prefer the eastern half of the island.” said Claire in answer to Dill’s question. “Maybe it’s the flatter ground or better quality grass… It’s one more Rockall quandary to add to the list… Hey! Look! Another one!” She broke away from where she was walking beside Dill and ran over to a patch of bushes. She fell to her hands and knees, squealing with excitement.
“What is it?” Dill jogged over and knelt down beside her.
“This!... Kayleigh! The camera!” She was pointing to a small shrub growing at the base of one of the bushes. It sported a pair of golden-red flowers with overlapping petals and an orange centre. “Amazing! Rosa Rockalli… The Rockall Rose!”
“What? This is a new species?” asked Dill.
“Completely new and totally unique to this island! I discovered it on Monday.” Claire leaned close and scrutinized it proudly through her large, thick spectacles.
Kayleigh reached down and cupped one of the flowers between her fingers; with the other hand she focused the camera.
“Careful!” barked Claire. “Don’t hurt it! It may well be very rare. This is only the fourth one I’ve found. Isn’t it lovely!?... And it has flowers, which means there are pollinating insects here.”
“I’ve seen a few flies buzzing around.” said Kayleigh, downloading the photographs to her laptop.
“So have I, but I haven’t been able to capture any specimens yet.”
“The insects might be unknown as well.” said Dill.
“Maybe, or maybe not. Some of the plant life here is familiar. The heathers are all identical to types you see in Scotland, so there must be a physical link; the seabirds I suppose.”
“Yes, they eat seeds and pick up pollen or burrs while on the mainland; then they fly here with them unawares… This bush is common-or-garden blackberry.” She put her hand into the branches, brought out a berry and popped it in her mouth. “Hmm, very sweet. Though I’ve never seen them out this early before; must be something to do with the climate.”
Dill sat up and looked around himself. “We’re going to have to be very careful that our presence on Rockall doesn’t affect the environment.”
“I’m afraid it will, Dill; that’s inevitable.” Claire tenderly scraped some material from the heart of the flower with a thin, metal spatula and spread it onto a microscope slide. “Just being here is enough. Touching the ground, breathing the air. Our skin, hair, lungs and bowels are loaded with alien material; pollen, insect sperm and eggs, mites, lice, viruses and bacteria. Rockall is going to change because of us; in fact it’ll already have started. We can slow the change, but we can’t stop it.”
They rambled on westwards until they met the flanks of Mount Clow where Dill had been two days earlier. Claire wanted a good look at a Rockall Pony, but this was difficult because they were very shy; especially when they had foals, never allowing the humans closer than fifty feet before bolting. Nevertheless the biologist was undaunted and combed the ground near where they’d been like a detective. “Aha!” she cried with a huge smile, crouching down beside a patch of gorse. She took out a pair of tweezers and plucked a tiny bundle of hair from one of the spines.
“Is that horse hair?” asked Kayleigh.
“Yup; from a mane or tail, I guess. I’ll whip it under the microscope when we get back to camp. Also I’ll save a strand for Cambridge University; they want to do a DNA analysis.”
Claire was in a buoyant mood after that, but there was even better to come. An hour later, as they approached the crown of a small rise, the biologist gave a gasp of delight and bolted towards a collection of small, white objects lying in the grass. When Dill got closer he could understand her reaction; they were horse bones. “Wow! Just look at him!” she bubbled. “He’s magnificent!”
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?” asked Dill.
“The size. He’d have stood ten or eleven hands high. I haven’t seen a mare as big as that… Here’s the skull and jaw, see? These are his vertebrae; and check out the ribs.”
“How did he die?” asked Kayleigh.
“Old age, probably. They have no predators and I haven’t seen them suffering from any diseases.”
“Where’s the rest of him?” asked Dill.
“The rest of his bones. I can see his head and spine, but where are his hips and legs?”
Claire stood up with a puzzled frown. “You’re right; the skeleton’s incomplete… Strange. Perhaps Arn and Lottie took them.” She was referring to the American biologists. “We’ll soon find out.” She picked up the skull. “His teeth are in good nick. The grass here is very coarse, so they’ve evolved an extra-thick layer of tooth enamel, see? I think it’s incredible that an island this small has such a rich food chain that it can support a creature like this.”
“Where did the Rockall Ponies come from though?” asked Dill.
Claire chuckled. “If I had a penny for every time someone’s asked me that! Nobody knows, Dill. It’s a great mystery. The DNA test should reveal their ancestry; that will give us a clue… Hey, what’s this?” She was scrutinizing the base of the skull. “There’s something stuck in here.” She brought a skewer out of her tool kit and started poking. “He’s got a foreign object jammed in the jaw hinge… Got it!” Something small and bright fell onto the grass. She picked it up and held it out for them all to see. It was a wafer-thin sliver of crystalline stone, just an inch long. It tapered to a point and had a slightly receding chevron base.
“How did that get in there?” asked Kayleigh, prodding it with her finger as it lay in Claire’s palm.
“He must have swallowed it. I imagine he picked it up with a mouthful of grass. Maybe that’s how he died; choked to death.”
“Ah! Poor thing!”
“It’s razor sharp. It could easily have punctured the oesophagus and caused a haemorrhage.”
“It reminds me of one of those flint arrowheads that were used by stone-age people.”
“Well, it’s not that, obviously; it must be something else… Over to you, Elaine.”
The geologist picked it up with two fingers. “It looks like mica or quartz. There’s a lot of it about here and it often fractures into thin, regular sheets. It’s light enough to have been carried up here on a gust of wind.”
Dill was examining it very intently. “It looks almost artificial. The sides are as straight as a ruler. Are you sure it hasn’t been carved?”
“Who by?” Elaine chuckled. “Is someone on Rockall a Neanderthal man in disguise?”
“My money’s on Gareth.” said Kayleigh and they all laughed.
“It would explain the horse’s death.” persisted Dill. “Shot by an arrow; and the missing bones. They butchered the poor thing right here and carried some of it off for a barbecue.”
“If anyone here was hunting these animals I’d have them on a barbecue!” growled Claire. “There are less than two hundred; and even the loss of a single fertile stallion could upset the ecostatic balance and cause them to spiral into extinction; taking several other species with them probably.”
“Claire, I’m sure that’s not the case.” Kayleigh reassured. “If anyone was doing such a disgusting thing, they’d use guns or snares or whatever; not go to the trouble of whittling a stone weapon.”
There was a pause. Elaine put a hand on Claire’s shoulder. “Crystals often shatter into smooth, regular shapes, Claire. It’s because of their molecular structure.”
“Well, when I next go to Green Port I’ll be having a good look around just in case.” Claire’s voice was low and her eyes blazed.
Elaine called Jack Laird to ask if it was convenient for them to visit and got an affirmative reply straight away. She grinned broadly as she switched off her mobile phone. It was a quick, two hour walk to Green Port. A helicopter rose into the air from behind a rise; beyond which, as they crested it and saw, was the American base. As they walked down towards the buildings some of the residents came out to meet them with friendly smiles. Broadway and Sarah had also called by to enjoy the USGS’ hospitality. “Hi there, Guys!” said Laird. “Nice of you to drop in. Hope you’ve recovered from the party.”
“Jack!” Elaine stepped forward and took his hands. “Lovely to see you again.” The two geologists smiled warmly at each other, then went off for a stroll together to discuss their work.
Meanwhile Claire was creating a bit of a scene. She hadn’t gone as far as direct accusations, but she was looking and talking daggers at the American contingent.
“Hunting the ponies!? That’s nuts!” said Lottie. “No one on this mission would dream of harming the fauna on this island!... Goddamnit, Claire! If I knew something like that was going on, don’t you think I’d be as angry as you!? Don’t you think I’d put a stop to it!?”
The Americans allowed Dill and Co. to use their ablutions block and they enjoyed the novelty of a shower with hot, running water; there were also flushing toilets. Dill was curious about how this was possible, so Professor Ray Troyman volunteered to take the visiting Britons on a tour of the Green Port facilities. “I’ll show you our waterworks.” he said. He led them westwards along the cliff tops, following two green metal tubes that ran along the ground, linking the living quarters to a peculiar structure on the edge of the escarpment. A pair of green water tanks dominated the installation and in between them was a small hut. Everything was connected with everything else by a mycelium of pipes. A second pair of tubes emerged from the building and ran to the cliff edge where they bent vertically downwards. Dill walked over to this point and saw that they stretched right down into the sea. “The left hand pipe brings seawater up into the plant.” said Troyman. “It’s filtered to remove the salt and other impurities, then pumped into Green Port to be used. The sewage is pumped back here where it is distilled in an electric boiler. We then let it flow down into the sea. It’s totally clean and non-polluting. Not only that but it’s very efficient. The falling purified waste water flows through a turbine that powers the pump that brings the fresh water up; a bit like an elevator counterweight.” He smiled proudly with his hands on his hips as he surveyed the waterworks.
“I have a question.” said Claire. “When you’ve finished distilling the sewage, what do you do with the… erm… ”
“Shit? I’ll show you.” He opened a cabinet on the side of the machine and produced a block of brown, dry, flaky material like burnt wood.
“Ugh!” choked Kayleigh. “How can you hold it in your hands!?”
“It’s OK; it’s been sterilized by the heat of the boiler.”
“And what do you do with these things?” inquired Claire.
“Export them to a backyard supplier.” he chucked. “They make a great fertilizer actually… No, we bury them in-country.”
Then Laird and Elaine joined them. Dill was taking a walk a few yards away from the others and the American professor sidled up to him. “So, Dill; what do you think of Green Port?”
“Fantastic! I’m quite envious actually. You’ll know what I mean when you see our camp.”
“Ray likes to show off a bit; I hope you don’t think we’re being arrogant.”
“No of course not, Jack.”
“Actually I feel kinda guilty rolling in luxury while you guys are out there clinging to the freezing rocks in tents. I don’t like to think of you people in that situation… especially Elaine.” He looked down at the ground and blushed lightly. There was a pause. “I understand you’re the mission’s counsellor.”
“As well as a general dogsbody, yes.” said Dill.
“Can I ask you something?”
He hesitated. “Elaine… is she… married at all?”
“No, I don’t believe she is.” Dill smiled, feeling a sudden affection for the older man. “Is that good news?”
He blushed again. “Yes, you could say that… I got divorced ten years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
He shrugged. “It was for the best… I got a son and a daughter in Minnesota, both of whom I’m very close to.”
“That’s good.”
“My boy’s in college and my girl’s in systems technology. She had her own boy last year.”
“A grandson! Congratulations, Jack!”
“Thanks, Dill… You know, Elaine’s a wonderful woman; beautiful, intelligent, pleasant; typical Irish. But I’m a little old for her perhaps.”
“Not really, Jack. I mean she’s forty-seven.”
“I could still be her father; just.”
Dill laughed. “Get away, Jack! You two would make a great couple.”
“Does she mention me?”
“All the time. In fact I had a feeling about the two of you the moment you met. I’ll put a word in for you, Mate.”
“I’m grateful, Dill.” His mien lightened. “And what about you? Have you made it with Kayleigh yet?”
“You what!?”
“You mentioned great couples; well, here’s another one!”
“Don’t be daft! She’s just a friend!”
“That’s not what your compatriots seem to think. Anyway, see you later.” He walked away and went to speak to Elaine again.
Dill stood beside the waterworks listening to the strange bubbling, hissing and gurgling noises it made. He thought to himself for a while, then raised his head and looked to the west. A small solitary figure could be seen in the distance. It was Kayleigh, picking her way over the chaotic terrain towards Cape Roosevelt, the western edge of Green Port Bay. Dill hesitated for several minutes, and then decided to follow her.
Kayleigh let her arms swing as she strolled, as if happy to be on her own and enjoy the peace and quiet. Dill didn’t want to disturb her and trailed her by a good distance. Eventually she reached the end of the cape and sat down on a large boulder, right at the peak of the promontory and faced the west; taking in the view of the Roosevelt Skerries; the opposite side from which Dill had seen them two evenings earlier. The sun was setting behind the gargantuan giants’ city of rock. They made Kayleigh’s outline look tiny. Dill stopped walking about three hundred yards behind her and took a seat himself, watching her. The sun blinked out through the gap between two stacs, casting its beams over the cape like a spotlight. It slowly lowered itself into the ocean, like a man getting into a hot bath and there was an explosive flash of green light from the depths, like the one they’d seen at dawn when they’d first sighted the island. The sky turned ultramarine; the clouds looked like black bruises on the heavens and stars began glowing. Kayleigh was just a black shape, sitting on the rocks in the same position.
Dill gasped with shock as she stood up and began walking back towards him. He felt strangely shy and almost guilty, as if he’d been spying on her while she took a skinny-dip. It was almost dark, so she didn’t spot him until she was just a dozen feet away. “Oh… Dill, it’s you.”
“Yeah. Er… Hi, Kayleigh.”
“Hi; what are you doing out here?”
“Just watching the sun go down.”
“Yeah, me too.” Her face was invisible in the gloom, but he could see her wispy hair moving in the light breeze. “Beautiful wasn’t it?”
“Come on, Mate. We’d better get back to base. The others will start worrying about us.”
“You go ahead. I’ll follow along; I just want to stay here on my own for a few more minutes.”
“Jolly dee.” she replied brightly after a hesitation. “I’ll see you in a tick. Watch out for the Rockall Demon!” She carried on walking.
“Yeah?” She stopped and turned back to face him.
“I… I really ought to thank you.”
“Thank me for what?”
“For convincing me to leave St Kilda.”
“Oh… No problem.” She continued walking, making her way carefully along the rock-strewn ground in the dark. Soon she was out of sight.
Dill awoke when Gareth undid the zip on the tent flap. His dark shape filled the moonlit doorway. He stepped over Dill’s feet and kicked off his boots. Dill looked at his watch: Three-eleven AM. “Where have you been?” he demanded.
There was a pause. “Eh?” Gareth mumbled.
“It’s gone three o’clock, Gareth. We’ve been worried about you.”
“I… I’ve been taking a few soil bores for Pete out at Peary Bay.”
“At this time of night?”
“Yeah.” he said sharply as he lowered himself into his sleeping bag. “Is that against the law or something?”
“No, but… ”
“Then belt up and let me sleep!” He pulled up the zip and rolled over to face Dino.
Dill lay propped on his elbow until pins and needles set in; then he unzipped his own sleeping bag and stood up. He dressed fully in trousers, boots and jacket; even though he only planned to be outside for a few minutes. The wind was gentle and fresh and coming in from the west. The music of waves crashing against the rocks, a sound that had hardly left Dill’s ears for over two months, was moderate and resonant. He wasn’t surprised to see that there was a light on in one of the women’s tents. He heard voices and girlish giggling. Gareth wasn’t the only one coming home late.
He headed away from Rockall Port out onto the dark moor. The burbling of the petrol generator gradually faded away into the background sough of the breeze. The huge sky was sprinkled with stars. The moon, shining hazily through a thin, high sheet of cloud, lit up the landscape in soft, silver light. The bodies of roosting seabirds were white blobs covering the ground. They cooed and squeaked tranquilly in their sleep.
Even on a moonless night, Dill would have been able to find his destination easily; all he had to do was follow the stink. The tiny, upright tent stood flagrantly in the centre of a flat meadow two hundred yards inland of the tent town. It was actually moving further away by about a yard a week. Whenever one Pit was full, it was covered over with soil and a new one was dug; the tent was put over it and the cycle began again. He started to pull back the flap when a woman’s voice cried: “Oi!”
“Sorry, Elaine.” said Dill.
“Didn’t you know I was in here?”
“Well, you’re quieter than most people; and you leave the light off.”
“Fair enough… Well, I think the niff’s less in the dark. It’s psychological, but it works.”
There was a pause. “Hurry up, Elaine! I’m holding up my guts with my fingernails here!”
She stepped out, her face in shadow. “Be quick, Dill; or the Rockall Demon will get you!”
“Don’t you start!”
She laughed and slapped his shoulder, then turned and trudged off back to the camp.
Dill reached inside and switched on the lantern, illuminating the white, plastic commode seat. He found that, for a change, it was pleasantly warm when he sat down; thanks to Elaine. Like many people he left the flap open. In order to protect the island’s environment, no chemicals were allowed to be used anywhere, including the toilet; and in an enclosed space the stench was smothering, especially when the Pit was nearly full. He scratched his uncomfortable, thick beard wishing that he could shave. He hadn’t seen his face in a mirror since being on board Kenneth McAlpin, but he could guess what he looked like. He wiped his bottom with toilet paper and cleaned his hands with an antibacterial tissue which he placed in a covered bucket on the ground with cotton buds, toilet rolls and gory sanitary towels.
When he got back to the tent, Gareth, Duncan and Dino were all snoring in clashing chorus. For the first couple of weeks on Rockall, Dill had been unable to sleep through it, but now he’d become accustomed to the racket and shut it out of his mind. Before ten minutes had passed, he’d drifted away into a world of sleep.
Spirits were high the next morning. For the first time in six days the weather was fine which meant a cooked breakfast in the open air. After nearly a week of living off oat bars, munched in tents as the rain lashed down outside, the inhabitants of Rockall Port were going to taste real, hot food.
All four men in Dill’s tent woke up together to the sunlight streaming through the orange fabric walls. Duncan announced the start of the day with a loud, rank fart; something that was as traditional as a cock crow. “Ugh!” choked Gareth. “You dirty, fuckin’ bastard!” He opened the ventilation flap wide. Then he proceeded to pick his nose with a handkerchief wrapped round his finger and roll the retrieved substance into little balls. Worst of all was Dino, who had brought several magazines with him to Rockall. He pulled one out of his rucksack and turned to face the wall with his sleeping bag over his head. His shrouded form began to rock back and forth while he panted and grunted. “Do you have to do that here!?” demanded Gareth.
“Where else is there?” Dino replied.
Getting dressed was difficult and the only way to do it was to take it in turns. The tent was just twelve feet square and almost the entire groundsheet was taken up by their rubber sleeping mats and bags. The ceiling was seven feet high in the middle, but it sloped down to just six inches at the edges, making it necessary to stoop nearly all the time.
The space inside the little circle of tents had been christened “The Brekkers”. It was about forty feet across and laid with plastic mats to stop their feet churning the ground into mud. A parliament of camping chairs was arranged around the central cooking area, composed of a gas stove set in bricks. “Morning, Kay.” said Dill.
“Hiya, Dill.” Kayleigh smiled back at him. She had already finished the daily chore of wiping the crusts of guano off the tent walls and had started the breakfast, pouring little packets of desiccated pasta into mess pans of boiling water.
“Want a hand?” he asked.
“Open the sauces if you like.” she said as she stirred her pots.
Dill got to work with the can opener. “You know, you do twice as much cooking as anyone else.”
“Do I?”
“Yeah, not to mention the bird shit; haven’t you noticed?”
“No… Well, I don’t mind. I like doing it.”
“So long as the others aren’t taking advantage of you.”
“You’re a fine one to talk, Dill; listening to Jennie’s tales of woe all day long.”
“It’s my job, Kay; I am the colony’s counsellor.”
“You’re too nice, Dill.” She sprinkled a pinch of salt into the bubbling water.
There was a long silence. “Well… It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” said Dill.
“You’ve said it! And that means one thing: Washing! I feel like I’m covered in glue! I need to get this grease out of my hair and feel clean clothes against my skin!”
Who could have pictured a life like this?” He looked up wistfully. Jet trails were scrawled across the deep blue sky like lines of chalk.
Lucky bastards!” she muttered.
“The folk on those planes. A nice, warm seat and hot food served by a stewardess.”
“You know what though, Kay; I wouldn’t swap places with them for anything.”
Kayleigh chuckled incredulously. “Eh? You’re kidding!”
“No, I mean it. Despite everything; these last two months have been the happiest in my life.”
Most of Rockall Port’s residents were already up and about, slurping coffee and reading their laptops. Most notable were Gareth and Jennie. They normally sat in neighbouring chairs, but today had chosen seats as far away as possible from each other. Kayleigh lowered her voice to a whisper. “What time did Gareth come home last night?”
“About three.”
“Same time as Broadway… ” She broke off as Arlene approached the hob to pour herself a cup of tea.
Breakfast was the colony’s primary social event. Cooked food had become their vice; a replacement for alcohol. As they gulped mouthfuls of bacon, eggs and pasta they spoke loosely and jovially. Jokes were cracked and if it were someone’s birthday, they would sing and give the individual an extra slice of bacon. Men and women would huddle separately and gossip would be exchanged. Department heads would brief their colleagues on the day’s tasks and activities; and then everybody would lie back to let their breakfast go down, watch the news and answer emails from their loved ones on their laptops.
This morning, as usual, the last of the Twenty to enter the Brekkers were Trevor and Zach who never rose from their private tents before eight-thirty. As they stepped up to their chairs Alasdair imitated the sound of a bugle between his pursed lips. “Pray silence for Our Glorious Leaders!”
Trevor was well within earshot of the remark, but appeared not to hear it. “May I have your attention, please?” he said. He carried a clipboard, but from where he was sitting, Dill could see that it was blank. “You might be interested to know that today is the Fifteenth of August; sixty-four days since First Landing.”
“What day of the week is it?” asked Broadway.
“Er… ” He checked his watch. “Saturday.”
“We should challenge the Yanks to a football match.” said Alasdair. “Sorry, I meant saaaaccer.”
“Right then.” continued Trevor. “I need two people to do a crap run. Thank you for volunteering, Dill and Elaine.”
“Eh?” They frowned at each other.
“Also we should take advantage of this pleasant weather; forecast says it won’t last. I recommend that everyone gets as much ablutions and laundry done today as possible… Gareth, how are the plans coming along for The Hilton?”
“Finished, Trevor. It’s just a case of finding the time and decent weather for construction. I’ve decided to use empty petrol cans as corner posts.”
“Good idea. Zach’s ordered a set of folding tables too. They should be in our next replenishment drop.”
“When will that be?” asked Arlene.
“Friday, weather permitting… Does anyone want to add anything?”
“Yes.” said Dill. “Is there any more news on plans for the permanent base?”
“I’ve had an email from Ross saying that he’s still negotiating contracts.”
“But that could take months! Winter’s approaching fast! We need that base, Trevor!”
“No problem.” said Wesley. “We can always take off home if it gets too bad... In fact is there any point in us staying here all through the winter?”
“No, Dill; think about it. Living here then will be an even greater pain than it is now and the weather will be much too bad for us to get any decent work done. The Commission will be paying for us just to be here for no good reason.”
“Isn’t just being here a good enough one!?”
“Calm down, Dill. I’m afraid Wesley’s right. There’s no great dilemma here. If the permanent base isn’t ready in time, we’ll simply abandon the mission until next spring.”
“What!?... You mean go back!?... Leave Rockall!?”
“We can’t do that!”
Trevor put his hands on his hips. “Dill! We can’t stay here all winter with just these tents to live in! Winds average Force Seven and you get five inches of rain a day! We’ll be blown from here to Barra Head! Hold your brain together for God’s sake!”
“So we leave Rockall to the Americans.” said Alasdair. “What do you say to that, Zach?”
Zach didn’t flinch. He sat loyally at his master’s right shoulder, his face noncommitted.
“All we can do is what we’re doing now.” Trevor placated. “Working as hard as possible to get the permanent buildings delivered and set up. Hopefully a withdrawal won’t be necessary… Right, any other business?... No? Then carry on.”
As soon as breakfast was over, all the men got together and walked across to Neelum’s Burn with their wash bags. They always used a very secluded spot, hidden from view of the camp; just a dozen yards from where the brook poured from the plateau into the sea. They stripped naked and jumped into the ankle-deep stream, laughing and splashing. The water felt as cold as liquid gas as Dill poured it over his stinking, grimy body; but the sight and sensation of all the dirt dissolving off him, leaving clean white skin beneath, invigorated him. The iron-fisted pollution directives meant that they weren’t allowed so much as a bar of soap to wash with. The only detergent permissible was what had become known as “slap”; a mixture of salt and lemon juice. As Dill smeared it all over his body and massaged it into his hair, his eyes stung and the scent made his mouth water; but it got him clean. Great clods of guano that had dried into his hair and beard melted away delightfully. During their bath, the water in the brook turned black. They brushed their teeth with granular salt and rinsed their mouths with drinking water. They used more slap to wash their clothes, then returned to Rockall Port, red cheeked and smooth skinned, to let the women go and have their turn. For the rest of the day, the camp was covered with a web of washing lines, their clothes steaming in the sun and rippling in the wind. The perfume of slap hung over everything.
Just before lunchtime Elaine caught up with Dill and they left the base to do their “crap run”, one of the colony’s least popular duties. It was divided into two basic tasks, the first of which was the worst. Dill and Elaine took a shovel and headed out to the toilet tent. They dismantled it and removed the commode, then buried the reeking Pit in soil. Then they proceeded to dig another a little way away. Dill tried very hard not to harm the earthworms, which Claire told him were a different species to the mainland variety. They reassembled the tent over the new Pit and changed the bag in the bucket.
There was only one place where the people of Rockall could correctly dispose of their waste: The Atlantic Ocean. Their rubbish was crushed, compacted using a vice and fed into sacks of organic cellophane which were piled up next to the storage area at the head of the ramp, lashed down against the wind. There were four sacks today. Elaine and Dill took two each and cautiously descended the slope into Rockall Port Bay, being careful not to burst a bag on the sharp rocks. After sixty-four days, the Union Jack was still writhing valiantly atop its pole, but to be sure, they had raised a second one back at the camp. A few feet above the high water mark was the little crevice where the colony stowed its lightweight inflatable dinghy. Dill and Elaine removed the ballast rocks from its bottom and hefted it down to the water’s edge. Dill added several large stones to the bags to make sure that they’d sink, then loaded them aboard. Elaine started the outboard motor and steered the little boat out to sea.
The weather was bright and breezy and the craft pitched neatly over the short, blue waves. It took about twenty minutes to reach the point where the Rockall Shelf ended and the seabed began to shoal down into the abyss. The dumping point was marked by a red buoy. Elaine throttled back the engine and Dill rolled the bags over the gunwales into the water, where they vanished with a loud splash. The boat bobbed up higher in the water with the weight gone. The two of them looked back at the island. “It’s a fine sight from here.” said Elaine.
“Yeah.” In the sunshine, Rockall glowed green on top and browny-black on the cliff walls. The panorama was blurred as usual by the haze of flying seabirds. “Have you seen Prof’ Laird lately?” he asked her.
“He’s a little busy; apparently some congressman’s paying a state visit to Green Port next week.”
“What a bummer!”
“He said the American equivalent of that.” She was silent and pensive for a few seconds; then she remarked: “Zach’s been very quiet lately.”
“So you noticed as well.”
“I thought he might have put in a word this morning about wintering here. A few weeks ago he’d have challenged Trevor about the idea of leaving, but… He’s gone a bit zombified, if you know what I mean.”
Dill nodded. “I’ve always felt sorry for Zach. Trevor lives in a world of his own; all eaten up by rules and regulations, but not Zach. There’s a part of him, deep down, that’s trying to break away from all that… I’ll try and book a session with him.”
“He’s a strange man. Fiery one minute, subservient the next; and Trevor browbeats him. I don’t think Zach’s ever got over landing on Rockall and being gazumped by the Americans; and Trevor’s taking advantage of his despair.”
Dill smiled. “You don’t like Trevor, do you?”
Elaine chuckled. “If I did, I’d be the only one!” She powered up the engine and they headed back inshore. Her curly, blonde hair bounced in the wind as she sat at the tiller.
Dill and the cheery, Irish geologist had become good friends. At forty-seven, she was the oldest member of the Twenty, but had one of the youngest minds. She was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her work and, apart from Dill himself, was the only Rockall Port resident who never complained about their ascetic living conditions. She was renowned for her energy, trekking for hours in-country, and was never seen without the tools of her trade: a hammer and chisel.
As she and Dill stowed the boat away, Dill’s eyes caught something gleaming in the muddy sand. He crouched down and picked up a half-buried pebble. It felt rough from the sand grains that were stuck to it and was solid in his palm, weighing three or four ounces. He took it to the water’s edge and washed it in the sea; then he held it up to the light. It was as black as slate and scored by cracks and nodules worn down slightly by the abrasive sea. Some patches were so smooth as to appear glass-like and transparent, almost liquid. He felt that he could see through them, deep into the heart of the stone. He rolled it over and over in his fingertips, caressing its different surfaces. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed deeply, taking in the perfume of the ocean; salt, sand, life and water. “A little piece of Rockall.”
Elaine leaned closer to examine it. “No.”
“That’s Palaeozoic sediment with a bit of coal; too old for this bedrock. It probably washed up here from southern Ireland. Now this… ” She bent down and began picking at a head-sized rock. “… is a piece of Rockall.”
“So’s this really.” said Dill defiantly. “I found it on Rockall, didn’t I?”
“Keep it.” she responded. “I’ll cut it open later and see if there are any diamonds inside.”
She laughed. “Only tiny ones; a few micrograms each. Not even enough for a gramophone stylus…” She lowered her voice and winked at him. “And certainly not enough for Kayleigh’s ring.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t answer and just continued working on the rock with a grin on her face.
Dill blushed.
You can’t keep a secret on Rockall. Dill reminded himself. When Jennie booked a counselling session, he already knew what it was about, as did every other member of the colony. When he was studying for his psychology degree, he sat in during interviews at Relate in Swindon. The relationship guidance service had an office with a couch and pretty pictures to put their clients at ease. Out here on Rockall there was no office, or indeed any place in the camp where he could work in private; so he tended to take his sessions out for rambles along the western cliffs.
Jennie’s face had been as tight as a drum all day and when she and Dill left the camp after lunch she began to weep unchecked. Dill let her get it out of her system, giving her a tissue and putting a supportive arm around her shoulders. “It’s Gareth!” she sobbed. “He’s shagging Broadway!”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know!”
“Well, I had heard rumours, yes.”
“Oh, come on, Dill! You know what that place is like!” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “You’ve only got to think something and everyone else knows about it!”
“Have you confronted Gareth about this?”
“No, but I know it’s true and he knows I know. He’s hardly said a word to me all week and when I even look at him he just ignores me… But not Broadway; oh no! He’s all over the bitch like a rash! ‘Can I help you carry that, Broadway?’ ‘Do you want a hand with the stocking out, Broadway?’ ‘Broadway, Broadway, Broadway.’ He’s been eyeing her up since Wales!”
“Your training programme?”
“Yeah. And she’s been giving him the come-on too, the little tart! You know she’s screwing a Yank as well? One of the chopper pilots.”
“Who, Anton?”
“No; Larry, that stupid, Yank tosser! Why do you think she’s always clean, eh Dill? ‘Cos she gets a hot shower twice a week at Green Port and pays for it by spreading her legs!”
A gannet on a nearby nest stood up and squawked at them, flapping its huge wings as a warning that they were getting too close. Dill gently guided his distraught client away from it.
“They’re all at it!” exclaimed Jennie raising her hands. “Even Elaine’s bonking Old Man Laird!”
“Yeah, but he’s a nice guy.”
“Aren’t they all, Dill!” She laughed bitterly. “Maybe I should do the same! Why don’t I go over there right now and fuck one of those Yanks!? Teach Gareth a bloody lesson!”
“Oh no, Jennie! Don’t! Not just for revenge!”
She sniffed and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her woollen sweater. “But I hate the fucker! He’s ruining my life! And as for Broadway!...” Her teeth gritted and her fists clenched.
There was a pause of about five minutes. They stopped to admire a family of ponies who were grazing at the crest of a nearly ridge. A tiny foal was suckling while its mother munched at the grass and heather. “How long have you and Gareth been married?” asked Dill.
“Five years in October.”
“What made you want to come to Rockall?”
“Gareth’s one of the best archaeological technicians in the country. Ross poached him from Edinburgh Uni. He was earning thirty-two grand a year and Quentin promised to double it if he was willing to spend a year on an uninhabited island. I went with him; being his wife and all.”
“You see, there can’t be many married couples who are forced to live in these circumstances; isolated from family and friends, living the pockets of eighteen other people. You sleep in one tent with three women; he sleeps in another with three men. It’s bound to put a strain on your relationship… Do you mind me asking: have you actually spent any quality time alone together since First Landing?”
“Not a lot.” Jennie looked at her feet, stepping around a pothole in the rocky ground. “We’ve only made love once. It was last month when we were up east, collecting samples from those granite formations near the Cosy. It wasn’t very good ‘cos we were in our tent; and we both ponged like stray dogs… Besides, he’s always had a roving eye, Dill. Even at our wedding he was drooling over one of the bridesmaids.”
“Maybe if we go home for the winter you can use it as an opportunity to make amends. Go off on second honeymoon; spend Christmas together.”
“That’s if I’m not in jail for murdering Broadway.” she muttered in a chilling voice.
After the evening meal, Dill decided to investigate Jennie’s claims as well as Gareth’s alibi. He left Rockall Port as covertly as possible and followed the course of Neelum’s Burn upstream to the foothills of Mount Clow. On the north side, he descended four hundred feet into the steep, hemispherical bite-mark of Peary Bay. The slope was very precarious, ending in a sheer drop to the ocean. It reminded Dill of a theatre balcony and made him feel dizzy. As usual there were American tents there. It seemed that the USGS scientists had made Peary Bay a semi-permanent forward base camp. “I’ve been taking a few soil bores out at Peary Bay.” Gareth had said. If he were telling the truth then he’d have labelled the bore sites with red tags; a bit like tiny golf flags. Dill climbed down the treacherous slope with a hand behind himself to steady his descent. If he lost his footing, he could well roll down right off the edge of the plateau. The tents were situated on the east side on more level ground. Four men were reclining on the grass nearby beside a portable gas stove. Dill recognized two of them. “Hiya, Jake, Felix!”
“Hey there, Dill! How’s it going?”
“OK. I came by for a cool breeze; do you mind if I take a look around.”
“Sure, Dill; we’re finished here for the day.”
There were some markers dotted around the cove. Dill took a close look at each one, but they were all of the American kind. Nobody from the British contingent had been here recently, unless they’d forgotten to tag a bore. He stood still and let his vision pan across the grass and eventually his eyes did spot a flash of colour. He approached it from downslope; at first thinking that it was a marker that had fallen over, then he thought that it looked like a fragment of crisp packet. It was only when he was a few feet away that he realized what it was: a condom. So it was true. He sighed. The problem with Jennie and Gareth was something that he’d long predicted. The Spartan, isolated life they were leading was bound to cause psychological unrest. Europeans were natural pampered city-dwellers; accustomed to physical comfort and one-to-one contact with others. Ross Quentin had been very disconcerted when Dill had ordered a hundred-pack of condoms in the previous month’s supply drop and had sent him an indignant email refusing his request. Dill had riposted that as man-on-the-ground, Quentin should trust his judgement. Either he posted the johnnies or Rockall could end up with its first ever human conception; an event that would surely scandalize the whole project. Quentin capitulated without further persuasion.
Dill started climbing back up the slope to go home when a thought struck him. The semen in the condom would decompose within a week, but the rubber itself could be lying there for thirty thousand years. Dill shuddered at the thought of this piece of dirty human garbage polluting the beautiful, pristine ecosystem of Rockall. He turned back, screwed up his face in disgust and picked up the floppy, purple strip of rubber. He was about to take it down to the cliff edge to dispose of it in the sea when he remembered that its spermicidal lubricant was potentially harmful to aquatic microorganisms. He remained standing where he was, lost in indecision, the condom dangling obscenely from his finger tips. He pulled a handkerchief out of his day bag, wrapped up the greasy article and shoved it into a side pocket with his binoculars; intending to take it back to the Pit and throw it into the bucket where it could be removed from Rockall hygienically. He felt nauseated at the thought of what he carried in his bag and walked swiftly after wiping his fingers thoroughly on the grass. “You owe me one, Pal!” he told the Land Spirit.
There was a beautiful, rose-coloured sunset that evening. Thin clouds glowed translucent near the horizon and the sea shimmered and fluoresced. The evenings were definitely drawing in; a reminder that summer would soon be at an end. Dill was halfway along his route home and had just reached the source of Neelum’s Burn when he looked up and saw a human silhouette standing on the peak of Mount Clow. He took out his binoculars and trained them on the figure. It was short, stocky and feminine. “Kayleigh.” Dill murmured out loud. His hands trembled as he put his binoculars away. Almost without thinking he started climbing up the hill towards her. She was watching the sun as it sank beneath the sea; just as she had been when he’d seen her on Cape Roosevelt during that magical first week on the island. He reached the top of the hill; Kayleigh was lit up like a golden statue in the evening light. She turned and smiled. “Hiya, Dill.”
“Hello, Kay.” His own voice was a little hoarse and he panted. “Fancy meeting you here. It’s a small island.”
She chuckled. “So small, yet so big… What are you doing out here?”
“I had to get away from the camp for a few hours.”
“Me too.” Her eyes glinted in the sunlight; half her face was illuminated and the other half was an ash-coloured shadow. “I love the peace and quiet of being alone out here.”
He took a step back. “I’m sorry… I’ll… ”
“No, no. I didn’t mean that. Stay here.”
They said nothing for several minutes and just faced the west, watching the gulls wheel and soar in front of the sunset. “They don’t realize.” said Kayleigh, so quietly that Dill thought that he’d imagined hearing her speak.
“The others.” She spoke without turning her head. “The camp is a nightmare, Dill. Everyone treading on everyone else’s toes; snapping and sparring over clean socks. They feel so hemmed in and isolated. But out here is all the peace and freedom in the world. I wish I could make them understand.”
“I know what you mean. They’re fools in Paradise.”
“I never get tired of being in-country. Whenever it gets too much at the camp, I just go for a stroll and I soon feel better.” Kayleigh had a rich, soft, husky voice and a mellow Glaswegian accent. “Dill, do you really believe that there’s a… an intelligence to this place?”
“The Rockall Land Spirit? Yes… And I’m glad there’s someone here I can say that to who won’t laugh at me.”
“I’d never laugh at you, Dill.” she said fervently.
He quivered slightly under the intensity of her gaze.
“But if you’d told me three months ago, I’d have been pretty sceptical… not now though. You know, sometimes when I’m strolling about in-country with the wind in my hair and the grass under my feet, I remember what you said and I understand. I feel I’m dealing with Rockall as a person rather than a place. I’ve never felt like that before. Mind you, I’ve hardly ever been outside Glasgow in my life!... Are there many land spirits about?”
“Oh, yes. They’re everywhere; even in a big city like Glasgow.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met who believes in them.”
“But in a city you can’t hear them because it’s too noisy.”
“In most of it, yeah; but there are quiet places in Glasgow; the parks for instance. If I sat peacefully in a park and concentrated, would I hear a spirit?”
“Possibly. But when I talk about cities being noisy, I don’t just mean full of loud sound; I mean they’re thick with mental smog: Anxiety, insecurity, frustration, fear, anger, worry, crappy newspapers and magazines, mind-numbing TV programmes. How can people in Glasgow say with such certainty that spirits don’t exist? It’s like a bloke saying: ‘There’s no such thing as music.’ when he lives inside a roaring jet engine.”
Kayleigh had been listening avidly to Dill’s words. “And it’s different out here isn’t it?”
“God, yes! Out here the air is fresh and peaceful; thoughts can flow unhindered and you can let your mind fly free.”
There was a pause. She grinned slightly. “Dill… Could I hear the Rockall Spirit if I listen?”
“Of course; anyone can hear her.”
“’Her?’ It’s a broad, is it? How do you know that?”
He shrugged. “Dunno; I just get a sense of female vibes.”
“Right. So what do I have to do?”
“To listen to the Spirit?”
“Yeah; I’d like to have a chat with… her.”
Dill took a step towards her. “OK; close your eyes… Now, empty your head completely so you’re thinking of absolutely nothing.”
Now Kayleigh had her eyes closed Dill could admire her properly for the first time, as he’d wanted to ever since they’d first met in Glasgow. Ross Quentin had called him at ten PM the evening before, where he’d been staying at his friend’s house in London. “Mr Gibson, I’m phoning to let you know you’ve got the job.” His voice sounded urgent.
“Great; when do I start?” Dill asked.
“Six o’clock tomorrow morning at Oban harbour in Scotland.”
“Scotland!? Tomorrow morning at six!?... How…?”
“Get you arse to Heathrow airport! I’ve booked you onto the one-fifteen AM flight to Glasgow. There’ll be a taxi waiting for you at Arrivals.”
Dill packed in ten minutes and was running to the nearest Tube station by ten-thirty.
The flight was delayed an hour and by the time he finally stepped out onto Scottish soil he was bleary from nerves and lack of sleep. A taxi driver was waiting in the concourse, holding up a signboard: GIBSON. He led Dill to his cab and sped off along the quiet, early morning streets. To Dill’s surprise, they didn’t drive straight out of the city but headed into town. “We’ve going to Partick to pick up someone else.” said the driver when Dill queried.
He glanced at a slip of notepaper. “Er… Ford. Kayleigh Ford.”
They drove onto a dismal-looking council estate and parked beside a grey terrace. The driver went to one of the houses and came back accompanied by a dumpy, young woman with a suitcase. She climbed into the car, smiling brightly. “Hello, you must be Dill… I’m Kayleigh. I’m going to Rockall with you.”
As Dill had looked back into her eyes, all his fatigue and worry had vanished instantly.
“I can’t hear the Spirit yet, Dill.” Kayleigh’s eyelids flickered in the evening light.
“Keep trying, Kay. Clear your consciousness, open your soul.”
Her lips pursed and she burst out laughing. “Are you taking a photo of me!?”
“No, of course not.” He laughed too.
“It’s no good.” She wiped her eyes. “I kept seeing images of myself walking round the goal-mouth at Ibrox Park.”
“It’s OK, keep trying. It takes a lot of practice to actually think of nothing at all. You’ll get it.”
“What will happen when I do?”
“You’ll start seeing and hearing things you’d never imagine in your wildest dreams! The whole world will open out before you, as if someone’s just handed you the key to a secret treasure chest.”
She chuckled and slapped his shoulder. “You should be a poet!”
The sun was gone and twilight brought a penetrating chill to the air, so Kayleigh and Dill set off back to Rockall Port. “’Dill’ is an unusual name.” said Kayleigh.
“Not in Wiltshire where I come from.” he replied. “Half the folk down there are hippies. My mum’s into natural remedies so she named me after a medicinal herb.”
“What would you be suffering from to be prescribed dill?”
“It can cure a lot of things; most notably flatulence.”
Kayleigh shrieked in merriment. “Bloody hell! ‘Thanks a lot, Mum!’”
“It’s not as bad as my middle name.”
“Which is?”
“Out of Lord of the Rings?”
“Yeah; it’s my mum’s favourite book.”
“I saw the films a few years ago.”
There was a pause. “Why were you named ‘Kayleigh’?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. My parents liked it, I suppose. I think it sounds a bit Nineties and common like ‘Courtney’ or ‘Jordan’.”
“No, not at all. I think ‘Kayleigh’ is a beautiful name.”
She giggled and brushed his arm with her hand. “It has Scottish origins actually. Maybe they did it to please my gran. She was a real Highland lass.”
“She died a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Thanks; so was I. We were very close. I used to spend every school holiday with her. She taught me Gaelic and helped me when I took it up at college.”
The two-hour walk to Rockall Port had flown by. It was pitch dark and the camp was a tiara of lights lying on the black landscape. “Thank you, Dill, for a lovely, interesting evening.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re… welcome.” Her face was invisible in the dark and the touch of her soft, warm lips on his skin was delightful shock. He began to glow and tremble. The spot where she’d kissed burned like a brand.
They split up and headed for their own tents. As Dill opened the flap, Gareth, Dino and Duncan were in the middle of a game of poker. They all turned to look at him, cards in hands. “Hi, Dill.” said Duncan.
“Wotcher, Lads.” Dill dropped his day bag onto his bed. “Good day?”
“Not bad.” They never took their eyes of him; the card game was on hold. “So… been anywhere nice this evening?” Sly grins creased their faces.
“I took a hike up to Peary Bay and Mount Clow.”
“So did Kayleigh.” said Dino.
“Oh, did she?” He felt himself flush.
Gareth sniffed. “Here, what’s that smell?”
“What smell?” Dill breathed in deeply and sensed a slight stench in the air. “Hmm, yeah. Dunno what that is. It’s not me.”
“It must be. You’ve just come in.” Sniff sniff. “It’s coming from your day bag. What have you got in there?”
Dill bent down, and sure enough it got stronger as he moved his nose close to his day bag. It was an unpleasant odour; a chemical, rubbery kind of odour and… “Ugh! Oh, God!” Dill leaped back in revulsion. He composed himself. “Er… Yeah… Sorry, Lads. I know what it is now. I’ll…” He snatched up his day bag and fled from the tent. He jogged out to the toilet tent and dropped the condom into the rubbish bucket, handkerchief and all. It had leaked slightly into the bag pocket. He washed his binoculars thoroughly with water from his bottle then poured more into the pocket and tipped it out. He felt faint and nauseous. He chastised himself vehemently. “Shit! How could you let yourself forget about that!?” He sighed and ran a hand over his brow. “Kayleigh! That’s how!”
Dill awoke to the sound of raindrops; something that was becoming more and more routine. He booted up his laptop and selected BBC News. He then sat up in his sleeping bag to eat breakfast: a bowl of cereal made with watery condensed milk. “Anything on the telly about us?” asked Duncan.
Dill shook his head.
“Why did you ask that, Dunc?” said Gareth irritably.
“I just wondered.”
“Well, wonder no longer! ‘Cos nobody at home gives two shits about us! We got in the news once, and once only: First Landing! After that, everyone just switched over and carried on watching Eastenders! Even Parsons’ documentary was cancelled! Sometimes I think we’re just wasting our fuckin’ time here!” He rolled onto his back and sighed.
No one spoke for a while then Duncan said: “What is in the news today, Dill?”
“Just more about the fuel crisis. The Prime Minister’s been on. He says they might have to introduce petrol rationing… Makes me glad I’ve never had a car.”
“I don’t get it.” said Dino. “I thought there was loads of oil in the world.”
“Not enough though.” continued Dill. “World demand has risen threefold since Two thousand. The modernization of developing countries means that every African family now wants their own car.”
“It shouldn’t be allowed!” Gareth interjected. “Let ‘em stick to their donkeys and carts!”
“Maybe we should all do that.” said Dill.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” sneered Gareth. “Let’s all go back to riding bikes and stop the ice caps melting! Hey, man!”
“But it’s true, Gareth! Burning fossil fuels is poisoning the Earth! The more we burn the worse it gets!”
“Maybe one day someone will discover an alternative fuel source.” said Duncan. “One that’s cheap and environmentally friendly.”
Dill rolled over to face him. “Someone already has, Duncan! Lots of people have! But these alternatives won’t be used ‘cos the oil industry won’t allow it! They make too much money out of oil!... Remember that scientist at Oxford who was working on nuclear fusion power? He died last year in a mysterious house fire and he ‘just happened’ to have all his notes in his bedroom so they burned with him… Pull the other one!”
Gareth sniggered. “I suppose the people who killed him are the Hollywood directors who filmed the moon landings a secret studio.”
Dill grimaced. “Mock if you will… But I just hope we have enough time to study Rockall before she vanishes beneath the rising sea levels.” A twinge of sadness passed through him.
“Huh! I won’t miss the bugger!” Gareth put his hands behind his head and stretched.
Dill didn’t reply. Three months of living virtually on top his three tent-mates had toughened him up. His survival instinct had developed and almost Buddhist ability to detach.
The tent flap unzipped with a fast, high-pitched rip. A cold blast of wind and raindrops filled the tent, making everyone clutch their limbs tightly to their bodies. Trevor’s head appeared, glowing with stress and covered by a dripping cagoule hood. His voice matched his features perfectly. “My watch says it’s half past nine; but it must be wrong, because if it was half past nine you lot would be up and working!”
“Er… well…” began Duncan.
“Don’t bother, Duncan! I’m not interested in hearing your excuses; or anything else from you until you’re all dressed and outside! Now move it!” He disappeared, leaving the tent flap open.
Gareth stood up and kicked at his hiking boots. “One of these days, I’m going to murder that cunt!” he growled.
“Yeah!” chimed in Dino. “Let’s push him off Cartwright Head!”
“Leave him to me.” said Dill. “I’ll have a word with Zach about him.”
“Zach’s a wet lettuce!”
“Well, I think it’s about time he dried out.”
Today was a Sunday and Elaine, being a devout Roman Catholic, always began it by saying prayers. She knelt down on the heather behind her tent; looking odd with a rosary in her hand while clad in yellow waterproofs and Wellingtons. Everyone stood silently in the Brekkers watching. Kayleigh and one or two others mouthed silently along with her. Trevor sighed impatiently, folding his arms and tapping his toes. “At last!” he said when she finally stood up and came over to join them. “Perhaps you should have entered a convent instead of coming to Rockall.”
“God! He’s really on the warpath today!” Kayleigh muttered.
Dill didn’t respond; he was looking at Elaine. The geologist was stone-faced and her eyes avoided Trevor’s, blinking with affront. “Leave her alone, Trevor!” he blurted involuntarily.
Trevor looked up from his clipboard and gaped at Dill. “What did you just say to me!?”
“I said, leave her alone!”
There was a few seconds’ silence; everyone else stared straight ahead, as still as waxworks.
Trevor lowered his clipboard and took a few steps towards him. “I don’t think you should speak to me like that, Dill.”
“I don’t think you should speak like that to Elaine.”
“Just you remember who I am!” He stopped with his nose three inches from Dill’s. His eyes were grey behind his rain-frosted spectacles.
“I know who you are, Trevor.”
Governor Trevor McCain to you!”
“Rockall has no governor yet. It’s a scientific research zone and its sovereignty is being contested.”
“But when the sovereignty issue is finalized I will be Governor, whether Britain wins or the USA! And when I am I will have complete control over everything that happens here! No one will so much as breath on Rockall without my express permission! Is that clear!?”
“Crystal, Trevor.”
“So if you want to be one of those that get it, you’d better learn to address me respectfully! Or you’ll be out on your ear, Son!”
Jawohl, mein Fuhrer!” Dill shouted stamping his foot and lifting his arm in a Hitler salute. The others tittered.
Trevor started back, his face red and tight with fury. Then he shook his head and returned his attention to his clipboard. “Right then; we’ve got a busy day today… ”
Trevor’s morning briefing usually took less than five minutes, but today he made it drag on for quarter of an hour. The sky was the colour of old dishwater and freezing rain pummelled down on them. It beat a continuous drum roll on his cagoule hood, trickling over his forehead and into his eyes, He tasted his own nasal mucous on his lips. Weak seams in his jacket and the tops of his Wellingtons began to let in patches of cold wet. He started to shiver and had to resist the compulsion to clench his numb hands. Don’t give him the satisfaction! The moment the briefing was over, Trevor tossed his clipboard to Zach and marched back to his tent. The colony stretched and stamped their feet like soldiers dismissed. Before Dill could go anywhere a raincoated figure threw their arms around his waist and a hooded head kissed him. It was Elaine. “Thank you, Dill.” She then let go and walked off without another word.
Kayleigh put a hand on his shoulder. “Well done, Dill! Shame there aren’t more like you.”
“It was no big deal.” he replied. “I disliked what he did. Elaine always says prayers on a Sunday. It’s a Rockall tradition; like Duncan’s farting.”
“Well, you certainly taught Trevor a lesson; the arrogant dickhead!”
“Don’t be too hard on him, Kay. A lot of these obnoxious power-freaks suffer from deep insecurity and low self-esteem. We have to challenge him over his behaviour, but he deserves our pity and support, not our condemnation.”
Kayleigh smiled broadly. “You’re still too nice, Dill.” She kissed him on the cheek and trudged away; her short, stubby form splashing through the puddles and mud; the motif of the Rockall Commission on the back of her cagoule.
He stared after her, his heart thudding in his gullet.
It was now late September, their third full month on Rockall. The weather had deteriorated noticeably during the last fortnight. The sun showed its face less and less; torrential rainstorms were becoming longer and more frequent until they almost seemed to blend into one. High wind had caused major problems, damaging equipment and hampering work as well as social routine. Also significant was the drop in temperature. Even during the brief periods of sunshine the colonists had to jacket up when going outdoors. The Atlantic summer was over and the forces of autumn were firmly in command. The worsening weather and its effect on living conditions ate into the spirit and temper of the Twenty. Arguments like the one that morning were regular and predictable. Suppressed grudges and dislikes burst out onto the surface. The men shouted at each other and even traded blows; the women bitched over the smallest matter. Little niggles that used to make them laugh now made them fume. The prospect of leaving Rockall to winter at home was becoming more and more popular.
The Twenty’s principle project at that time was the construction of the “Hilton”, a longhouse made mostly of stone which would give everyone a warm, dry place to work, eat and bathe; now a necessity. First, a rectangular drainage ditch was dug, ten feet by twenty. It was three feet deep and one wide with flat stones on its bottom to ensure a smooth flow. It was set in the watershed of Neelum’s Burn and before long the ground was firm enough to begin building the walls which were made of stones supported by empty petrol drums, their contents guzzled by the generator. Collecting the stones turned out to be the longest and most difficult task. The obvious place to look for loose rock was the ramp, but Elaine vetoed this. “It looks a little unstable as it is.” she told Trevor and Zach. “If we go picking bits out of it we could start a landslide. We don’t want anyone getting crushed, do we?”
“And we don’t want to lose our only access to the sea.” added Trevor. So the colonists had to spend hundreds of man-hours combing the heath for lumps the right size and shape for The Hilton. They had no wheelbarrows or hods so every piece had to be carried home by hand.
“Zach!” Dill called. At that moment Zach was pottering around on the edge of Cartwright Head, the eastern extremity of the Rockall Port Bay.
He looked up at Dill as he approached. “Alright, Dill.”
“Let me give you a hand, Zach.”
“Ta very much.” Zach had found a scattering of loose, flat basalt; ideal for building purposes. They tucked one under each arm and set off back to the camp a mile away. “I’m surprised to see you out and about.” said Dill.
“Trevor sent me to lend a hand; we need to get The Hilton finished as soon as possible. No one has any clean clothes left.” He spoke in a flat tone, his eyes transfixed as if in a trance. He walked like a robot.
“It Trevor wants The Hilton finished so quick, why doesn’t he get out of his tent and lend a hand himself?”
Zach shrugged.
There was a pause. “About Trevor… ”
“What about him?”
“He’s driving us round the bend! We’re supposed to be a team, but he just spends all day lolling about the camp while we do all the graft.”
“It’s not lolling. He and I are administrators; we do the organizational work that keeps the mission going as well as trying to maintain our future plans.”
Dill thought for a second then nodded. “OK, fair enough. But Trevor’s conduct is still deeply concerning. He talks to us like we’re servants!”
Zach sighed and didn’t respond for a few seconds. “I’ll have a word with him.” he mumbled.
Neither of them spoke for a while. Dill let himself drop behind Zach, but then thought of something and caught him up. “Zach?”
“There’s another matter I need to discuss with you.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“I’m worried about the winter.”
“Join the club; it’s got nineteen other members.”
“I want to stay.”
“I know.”
“Zach, if we had to throw in the towel it would… really piss me off.”
“It wouldn’t be throwing in the towel, Dill. We just pack up shop in November, spend the winter at home and come back in March next year to carry on where we left off.”
Dill hesitated. “When will the decision be made?”
“Pretty soon; and I tell you, everyone will be behind going home. We need a break.”
“What about the new base?”
“Ah, yes! The long-sought after permanent base. Well, I don’t reckon it’ll make any difference now. Even if we get it shipped out before winter, we probably won’t have the time or good weather to build it.”
“But if it does get delivered and set up, then we stay?”
Zach half nodded and half shook his head. “Possibly; it depends on our morale. If the crew still want to walk then we walk.”
“So what can I do to help?”
“Let me and Trevor get on with our lolling about the camp, ‘cos that’s the only way we’ll make progress.”
“Point taken.”
“Now let’s get back to camp, we’ve got piles of work for this afternoon.”
“Is the replen drop still on?”
“If the weather doesn’t get any worse. And it better not ‘cos we’re rock bottom on every supply. We’ve got no spare juice for the generator at all; it’s on its last tank-full.”
The Hilton was almost finished. The actual construction was led by Gareth and assisted by Dino and Alasdair. The latter had been a builder with the Scottish National Trust and had repaired ancient crofts all over the Highlands. Gareth was totally manic as he worked, stripping down to a T-shirt and letting the rain soak his skin. He paused only shout at the collectors: “You call that a stone!? It’s a motherfuckin’ pebble! Now go and get me something bigger!”
Dino was kept busy beating the empty petrol cans with a mallet. Dill wondered if he were making steel drums, but then noticed that he was beating them into flat metal sheets: Roof tiles. Nothing was wasted in Rockall Port. The wooden frame for the building was made out of pieces of the crates used to drop their supplies. Strips of these would be nailed together to make a door. Petrol cans loaded with small stones were placed in the corners to stabilize the structure; and a tube of welded baked bean cans would be set into the gable to act as a ventilation flue.
They had a late lunch of oat bars, soggy biscuits and lukewarm tea which they consumed standing or sitting cross-legged in their tents, then mustered at three PM. Zach had radioed Quentin to confirm the approximate time and they all headed up onto Mount Clow to wait.
Physical communication between Rockall and the outside world wasn’t easy. Nowhere on the plateau was suitable for aircraft to land and they’d already experienced the difficulties of reaching the island by sea. However the success of the mission depended on the exchange of goods in both directions. In mid July, a chartered aircraft had been sent to Rockall to pick up the geological and biological specimens that had been collected. The only way to achieve this had been by a sky tether. The items were enveloped carefully in bubble wrap and attached to a one hundred foot cable. The cable was looped and suspended in the air like a tightrope, between a pair of forty-foot high, flexible booms held aloft by Dill and Perry. The small propeller plane skimmed in over the heath, its engines echoing off the hillsides. The first time it missed and had to bank round for another run. The second time, the hook underneath the fuselage caught the cable and whipped the package up into the sky. Dill had been warned not to grasp the rod too tightly in case the slip knot at the top failed; in which case the plane would have dragged the package, cable, rod and whoever was holding it up into the air. He was relieved when he felt only the lightest tug as the loop was snatched from its top. The plane flew off back to the mainland with their specimens safely on board. Getting items onto Rockall was slightly easier.
Just two minutes before four o’clock they heard the rumbling whine of turboprop engines and the lumbering, grey shape of an RAF Hercules transport plane emerged from the low cloud base. It was a strange feeling to see something from the outside world after three months of solitude. The faces of the other colonists beamed as if they were being visited by an angel. Wesley lit a coloured smoke flare. The aircraft flew over Rockall from east to west at five hundred feet, checking the wind’s speed and direction; then it banked sharply over the western cliffs and came back on a reciprocal course, its rear cargo door yawning open. A trio of wooden crates rolled out into the slipstream, their parachutes whipping into shape. Everyone on the ground cheered. These crates were the colony’s lifeblood; their one link to the rest of the human race. Inside them were food supplies, water sterilizing tablets, petrol for the generator, spare parts for the equipment and tents, gas for cooking, software for their laptops, tools, salt and lemon juice for making slap; personal items like books, clothes and most importantly of all letters, greetings cards and presents from family and friends back home.
“Thank God!” said Kayleigh in a heartfelt voice. Her face was alight as she squinted through the rain. The crates were drifting southwards, riding the gusts and eddies of the Atlantic breeze. The Twenty followed them with their eyes, sneering as they looked up into the sky, trying to work out where they were going to land. “They’re floating an awfully long way today.” said Perry.
The terrible truth seemed to occur to all of them at the same time. “RUN!” yelled Trevor.
They capered down the side of Mount Clow and sprinted along the banks of Neelum’s Burn as fast as they could, trying to keep the descending crates in sight. “No! Please, no!” puffed Kayleigh between pants.
As they came over the final rise they saw that it was pointless. The first and second crates were far too high and passed forty feet over their heads, tipping and rolling in the wind. The third was drifting a bit lower. With a crash, it touched down a few yards from the brink of Cartwright Head. Its parachute still held air and it began dragging. “Quickly!” Trevor shouted.
Gareth was ahead of the others and he pounded over to the crate.
“Careful!” called Dill “Don’t let it pull you!”
Gareth reached the five hundred pound crate and seized its binding straps; then he dug his heels into the ground. He had saved one of the crates with just ten feet to spare. “Well, one’s better than none, I suppose.” panted Zach.
But the elements had not yet given up their prey. A huge gust roared across the bay, filling the parachute like a balloon. The crate jerked closer to the edge, pulling Gareth off his feet. He hung onto it, the toecaps of his Wellingtons rattling over the stones. Jennie screamed. Dill pelted towards him. “Let it go! Let it go! LET IT GO!”
Gareth obeyed as the crate teetered and fell. He landed on the lip of the precipice and his legs rolled off the edge tugging over the rest of his body. He screamed and lashed out at the ground, his fingernails grasping the slippery, wet rock. He swung round like a pendulum to hang there five hundred feet above the rock-filled bay. “HELP ME!” His eyes bulged in panic.
Dill dived onto his belly like a rugby player and slid the last couple of yards. Gareth grabbed his arms like a meat hook, his nails tearing into Dill’s Gore-Tex cagoule. Someone else seized Dill’s belt and both legs and together they tugged Gareth up onto solid ground. They all lay there, panting hard. Jennie was crying; she fell to her knees and flung her arms around her husband’s waist. Gareth looked at Dill with an earnest smile. “Thanks, Mate.”
“No problem… That gear’s not worth dying for, you know.”
He laughed weakly. “I know.”
They watched as the crate struck the water with a strident ploosh. It floated in the foaming surf; the two others were nearby, parachutes rippling in the sea like dead jellyfish. “They’re still afloat!” said Elaine. “Let’s get out there in the boat and drag them in!”
“It’s no use.” said Trevor. “Look.”
The wind and current were drawing the crates quickly out to sea. They were also riding lower in the water as they flooded. Within five minutes they were gone. The parachutes were the last things to disappear; dragged down helplessly into the depths by the sinking containers.
The Rockall Port residents stood in silence and gazed at the empty ocean for many minutes.
The rain eased that evening and the clouds parted near the horizon to let the sun peek through. It illuminated the overcast from below in a series of tangerine ripples. The mood was sombre in Rockall Port; everyone sat in the Brekkers, hunched in reflection. Dill watched drips fall from the tent guy ropes, glinting in the coppery sunlight. The tone of the generator changed suddenly making his ears prick up. It misfired a few times, coughed, spluttered and died. The sudden hush pressed hard on his eardrums. The generator had run almost continuously since the camp had been erected in June, being stopped only for maintenance and oil-changes. Its sound and smell were so omnipresent in Rockall Port that Dill had stopped noticing them. But now, its absence left a big aural hole in the ambiance of the campsite. Other sounds became more pronounced and he started noticing new ones: The creak of the tent mountings in the breeze, the squeaky joints of his metal chair.
Kayleigh turned to him and asked rhetorically: “So, is there no more petrol?”
Dill shook his head.
“Oh, dear.” She ran her hands over her face.
Trevor and Zach appeared, the former with his usual clipboard. “Alright, People.” he said. “I’ll give it to you straight… We’re in trouble. I’ve been on the radio to Ross and he’s coordinating an emergency relief drop which he hopes to put out here by Friday.”
There was a noise of collective disgust from his audience. “That’s six days!” groaned Sarah.
“I know, but it’s the best he can do. In the meantime we’ve got to think and organize extremely carefully. I’ve done an inventory with Broadway, Arlene and Zach; and we’ve come up with a six-point rationing plan to make our remaining resources last.
“One: Food. Eight hundred calories per person, per day. That’s about one meal portion, an oat bar and a cup of tea with a single sugar. We’ll all get pretty hungry, but we won’t starve. Unfortunately we’ll have to eat everything cold; there’s not enough gas to heat it up because of our next problem.
“Two: Water. Steritabs are almost gone, so we’ll have to boil every drop we drink. There’s just enough cooking gas to do this for everyone, consuming two pints of water per day; ample for these weather conditions.
“Three: Medical supplies. These will no longer be administered for minor conditions such as colds or headaches. Arlene has enough only for emergencies; let’s hope we don’t have one.”
“Four: Slap. We’ve got two bottles left and I think it’s only fair that these are given to the women. We boys will just have to stick it out.
“Five. Toilet paper. Again, it’s a girl thing; ask your big sister. Chaps, clumps of grass will have to do.
“Six. The generator. Our most serious deficiency. It’s run out of petrol and there’s no more. This means no electric convector heaters in the tents and no batteries for our laptops and lanterns. Warmth and light will be a big problem. Wrap yourself up at night and use your lanterns sparingly.”
At that moment, Trevor was interrupted by a blast of wind that tore through the camp, making the guy ropes hum and the Union Flag crackle. Dill looked up and the seed of an idea came to him.
“Right, any questions?” concluded Trevor.
“Yes.” said Duncan. “We know now we can survive until the next replen drop, but will that one actually land alright? I mean, what’s to prevent today’s cock-up from happening again?”
“The RAF crew who delivered our supplies this afternoon were very distressed when they heard the news. Apparently, it was an unavoidable error; unpredictable windflow patterns which made them misjudge the drop. It’s highly unlikely to be repeated… Yes, Elaine.”
Dill stopped listening. He was fertilizing the idea in his mind to see if it would grow, and it did. When Trevor’s brief was over Dill caught up with the colony’s engineer. “Gareth, can you do me a favour?”
“For the bloke who saved my arse? Anything.”
“Is the generator air-cooled?”
“Yeah; it’s just like a little car engine.”
“Good. I’ve got a plan on how to solve our lack of electricity, but I can’t ask Trevor’s permission ‘cos he’ll just refuse; you know what he’s like. So we’ll have to do it tonight when everyone’s asleep.”
Gareth rubbed his hands together with glee. “Doing something behind Trevor’s back!? Count me in, Dill!”
They sneaked out of the tent at one AM and tiptoed across the camp to the little cabinet where the generator was housed. Gareth dug a reel of wire and a spare tent pole out of the stores and they got down to it. “Are you sure this will work?” asked Dill.
“Can’t see why not.” he responded cheerfully.
Dill assisted him by handing him the tools he needed. The operation was finished by three AM and they crept back into their tent, giggling like mischievous schoolboys.
The next morning, when they all woke up, it took about ten minutes for somebody to notice. “Hey!” yelled Duncan. “This heater’s on!”
“You what? It can’t be.” Dino crawled across the groundsheet and put his hand over the little convector. “Blimey! It is! But that’s impossible! We’ve got no electric!”
Gareth and Dill caught each other’s eye and winked.
It took just five minutes for the message to circulate around Rockall Port. Everyone bundled out of their tents to scrutinize the new phenomenon. A seven-foot pole was protruding from the roof of the generator housing at the top of which was a cylindrical device with a small rotor at one end whirling in the stiff breeze. A pair of wires ran down the pole into the chipboard cabinet.
“What the hell’s going on here!?” Trevor demanded, pushing through the crowd. “What have you done to the generator!?”
“Good, isn’t it?” said Gareth. “It was Dill’s idea.”
“It’s a wind turbo-generator.” said Dill. “Seeing as we’d run out of petrol, Gareth and I decided to modify it so that it could run without petrol.”
“It was a very simple job.” said Gareth. “We just detached the dynamo from the driveshaft and rigged the cooling fan onto it instead; then we mounted the whole thing on top of this spare tent pole. I rigged up a gland between the inner and outer slots of the pole, so the whole assembly rotates to catch the optimum wind force… ”
“And why did you not ask my permission to do it!?” Trevor’s eyes were blazing like hot coals.
“We wanted it to be a surprise.” Gareth’s jowls tightened with suppressed laughter.
Trevor’s face flushed so deeply that Dill thought that he’d burst a blood vessel. “Look, Trevor; be reasonable.” Dill said. “Think of the advantages of this system. Not only do we now have power when we thought we wouldn’t, but if we make this permanent we won’t need petrol supplied any more so we can pack a lot more food and other goodies into our replenishment drops. And we can strike fuel bills off the Commission expenditure ‘cos wind is free.”
“This rig-up is easier to maintain.” added Gareth. “It doesn’t need oiling and sparkplug cleaning and battery testing and all that palaver; and it has no complicated moving parts to break down.”
“And it doesn’t make an infernal racket and fill the air with stinking exhaust.” resumed Dill.
“I don’t care!” hissed the executive. “When the next batch of petrol arrives on Friday, you will dismantle this… unholy contraption and refit it together the way it used to be! Is that clear!?”
He was drowned out by bellows of protest and cheers of support for Dill and Gareth. They eventually arranged themselves into repeated chants of: “WE WANT THE WINDMILL! WE WANT THE WINDMILL!”
Trevor stood bolt upright, flushed and trembling, hands clenched into fists, taking in their defiant faces. Zach was looking up into the sky with the vacant, innocent gaze of a tourist in the customs queue. “ALRIGHT!” yelled Trevor. “ALRIGHT!... Have it your own way!... Fools!” He strode away furiously to jeers and roars of triumph.
“Hey, Zach!” called Duncan. “Did you see what just happened!?” We just stood up to Trevor! We damn well stood up to him!”
Zach didn’t respond; seeming unaware of what was going on.
Two weeks later The Hilton was finished and the colonists held a grand opening party. Alcohol was forbidden by the Commission’s charter, but the colony’s freedom from dependence on petrol meant that a hundred or more pounds of extra luxuries could be ordered for the occasion; including a new gas stove, real meat and real vegetables, not dried or pickled or canned or vacuum sealed, but fresh. There was also a twenty-pint barrel of pasteurized milk and a pot of cocoa.
The Hilton was a major achievement; the first permanent building ever to be erected on Rockall. It was also the first to be constructed using local materials. It was big enough to fit every resident of Rockall Port inside together around two big patio tables that had been donated by B&Q, one of the expedition’s sponsors. The interior was windowless and lit by a pair of lanterns. The floor was covered by plastic mats, the same as were used in the Brekkers. It was well-insulated and draught-free; a single convector was enough to keep it perfectly warm and dry. Before they moved in the furniture, Dill walked about inside with a sense of awe. He’d forgotten what it was like to be in an enclosed space.
On the night of the party the fresh food was handled as if it were Holy Communion. Kayleigh and the other cooks carried the roast chickens, sides of beef, fried potatoes and vegetables with the utmost care from the cooking pit to the new building. As it was placed on the table, everyone gave a great cheer. Heavenly scents wafted around the chamber, reminding them of their distant homes. Dill’s stomach groaned and his mouth watered with longing. He wolfed down mouthful after mouthful, the tastes and textures making him dizzy. For dessert there was apple crumble and custard. When it was all gone he could hardly bear it. One meal was not enough. It was also more than enough; his belly bulged in front of him, as did everyone’s.
Mugs of warm, frothy cocoa were passed round. There were jokes and stories; humorous or saucy cartoons were played on somebody’s laptop. Quizzes and verbal agility contests followed with bottles of cola and chocolate bars as prizes. Despite all the good cheer, Dill’s enjoyment was hindered by thoughts of Kayleigh. He wasn’t sitting beside her; she was on the other table next to Elaine and Broadway with Arlene and Jennie opposite her. Instead Dill was stuck between the Gruesome Twosome. Trevor, to his right, sat primly and ate and drank meticulously as he discussed politics. Zach, to his left, gave him monologues detailing his rise to power within the Civil Service. If it were possible to get inebriated on cocoa, he was. “Did you know, Dill?” he slurred, dropping spots of brown saliva on the table top. “Did you know… there are one thousand six hundred and ninety-four British Isles?”
“No, I didn’t.” responded Dill quickly.
“And of those one thousand six hundred and ninety-four, only seventy-nine are inhabited?”
“Yes. This made me and Trevor curious, so we got together one day, in Two thousand and two, and carried out a private survey through the population records office. We found out that over ninety-nine percent of the archipelago’s population live on the two biggest ones: Mainland Britain and Ireland; the seventh and twentieth largest islands in the world respectively. Did you know that?”
“This actually constitutes a pathological residential imbalance. Yes it does, Trevor!” He leaned across Dill’s lap, pushing his inner elbow against Dill’s chest to point a finger at his fellow executive.
“Not necessarily.” said Trevor.
“Yes necessarily!”
“No. You see, Dill; what Zach is describing is not pathological at all; on the contrary, it’s hugely progressive. It represents a unity of population through the standardization of culture. All the most successful nations on Earth have been the ones which have a single language, a single economy, a single religion, a single political system; especially with a large urban community, because it’s in the cities that uniformity can be most easily achieved and individuals who reject it can be most easily contained and reeducated. In this last century the UK has been reversing progress by promoting minority languages like Welsh and Gaelic, as well as minority religions like Islam and Roman Catholicism. Not to mention the plethora of national and regional assemblies which keep popping up out of the woodwork. This is an extremely backward policy. Let’s not forget that when our country was disenfranchising minority cultures in favour of the standard English one, we had an empire that spanned the globe! Diversity is a millstone around the neck of development. Look at the Philippines; an archipelago just like the Britain, but instead of uniformity they have a dozen languages, half Catholic, half Muslim; every island different from the next and what happens? They get conquered and bled dry by superior nations; and quite rightly too! To be a strong, powerful country we must streamline ourselves. Let’s get rid of this absurd, sentimental desire to champion socio-evolutionary dead-ends.”
“You think the Welsh, Scottish and Asian people should give up their independent ways of life and become English?” asked Dill.
“My goodness, yes! If they have any sense, they will. It’s the only way to better themselves and their country.”
“Makes sense to me.” drawled Zach.
“And what if they don’t want to?” asked Dill.
“Then we need a strong, intelligent government which will take the responsibility of either reeducating them or, as a last resort, deporting and imprisoning them.”
Dill closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Detach… Detach… Detach… You’re not here, you’re somewhere else. Sitting on the ground, in-country with Kayleigh. Talking to her. Looking at her.
Everyone was happier, Dill observed. The weather remained atrocious, life remained hard and bare; but ever since the day of the failed replenishment drop a significant change had come over the colonists. Nearly all their tension and depression had evaporated overnight. A new spirit of determination and positivity had set in. Dill sat alone in the freezing drizzle while the others were either out or sheltering in their tents, musing for a long time and trying to figure out the cause of this sudden change in the collective psyche of Rockall Port. Perhaps it was a gift from the Spirit herself. She may have decided to welcome them as guests rather than invaders. He let his eyes run along the horizon. The only moving object in sight was the wind turbo-generator, reeling on its shaft. Then it struck him: this object was the real source of their good mood. Not only because it gave them constant and unlimited electrical power and made their lives cleaner and easier, but because it symbolized a revolt against the authority of Trevor. The peasants had stood together and rebelled; and they had won. The balance of power had evened out. Everyone was now aware that they had the ability to control their own destiny and Trevor was now acutely aware of the limitations of his government. The turbine was always there to remind him, riding above the fabric rooftops of Rockall Port like a banner of freedom.
“Come and look at this, Dill.” said Kayleigh.
Dill came over to where she was kneeling and saw that she was holding the stem of a plant. It was a little green shoot with a single white flower. He knelt down beside her and let his shoulders nuzzle against hers.
Kayleigh’s hands were small and she had short, pink nails. Her brown, curly hair was sticky and unkempt; gobs of guano and bird feathers matted it like dreadlocks. Her skin was lined and greasy from life on Rockall, but her blue eyes gleamed as brightly and as deeply as they had when she’d got into that taxi in Glasgow. Her eyebrows were quite thick for a woman’s. She was short, barely five feet tall and had a plump, wholesome figure. She was so beautiful.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Another new plant species; the fifth so far.”
“Does it have a name?”
“Claire calls it Amacoia Rockalli. This is a young one.”
“Does she want a nectar speci?”
“No, she’s got plenty of those; you know Claire, Miss Efficiency Two thousand and nine… I reckon she’ll be happy with just a note of its location.”
“I’m on it.” Dill pulled out his map and GPS.
A little later they sat on Dead Elephant Rock for lunch and took their provisions out of their day bags. “How long is it now since First Landing?” asked Dill.
“Nearly four months. Today is the Seventh.”
“The Seventh!? Really?”
“Yeah. It’s Wednesday.”
“Blimey! It’s my birthday in two days! How could I have forgotten!?”
“Well, good job I reminded you! Make sure you claim your extra slice of bacon.”
“I will. God, it’s times like that that I miss my mum and dad… Don’t get me wrong; I love it out here, but… ”
“There’s no place like home.” She grinned at him.
“Sort of.” He shrugged. “Of course if I was in Beckhampton right now, sitting down for lunch with my folks and my brother, I’d miss this place. The word ‘Home’ can refer to many places in my mind… How about you, Kay? Do you miss your family badly?”
“A bit.” She looked up into the sky as one of the American helicopters flew over. “Wow! That’s the way to travel!”
Dill admired the soft skin of her throat. “One question we’ve never asked each other is ‘why?’.”
“Why what?”
“Why we chose to come here.”
She chuckled. “No, we haven’t… Well, for me it was pure impulse. I was bored and pissed off by my life in Glasgow. I used to have the shittiest job you can imagine; translating Gaelic language documents in this dusty office for a pittance. My mum’s a school dinner lady and dad got made redundant from Rosyth shipyard a year ago, so we don’t have much money in the house. I was surfing the net one evening when this pop-up appeared on the screen. ‘Hard-working, Adventurous Person wanted urgently to live on an unexplored island. (Six months minimum) Apply online or by telephone.’ I didn’t think much about it until I saw the salary: Twenty-five grand! I called down to my folks and they told me that there was no harm in phoning for further details. I rang the number and Ross Quentin picked it up. He sounded relieved. ‘Thank God you’ve called!’ he said. ‘I’m willing to offer you the job right now, but I need you to start tomorrow morning.’ I was a bit thrown by this, but it was a say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ situation so I said ‘yes’. I went down and told my parents that I’d be leaving for Rockall at five o’clock the next morning. They took it very calmly; as I said, we need the cash.”
“I see what you mean; and we are getting paid well for this.” said Dill. “You know, I’ve often found that the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life are ones I’ve made on impulse. It’s as if a light just switches on in your head and you say ‘I’ve got it!’ I can ponder about something for a long time, weight up the pros and cons and come to a considered conclusion. I’ll know it’s right, but it still won’t feel right. In these cases my instincts are almost always vindicated. I tend to follow my heart rather than my head nowadays, ‘cos if something feels right I know I can’t go wrong.”
“So coming here was a snap decision for you too.”
“Kind of. I’d just dropped out of university. I couldn’t handle formal studying and exams, so qualifications were out of the question. I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I’d always loved unspoiled, open countryside and a friend of mine on the county council heard about the Rockall project and recommended it to me. Money wasn’t a factor for me though; my mum and dad both work full-time in jobs with good money.”
“What do they do?”
“My mum’s a vet and my dad’s a Druidic chaplain at a hospital in Salisbury.”
“A what chaplain?”
“Druidic. You know that in hospitals you get these vicars who go around and tend to the patients, reading them prayers and stuff?”
“Well my dad’s one of those except he’s not a Christian, he’s a Druid; a pagan.”
“Oh, does he dance round a campfire and put flowers in his hair and things like that?”
Dill laughed. “Sometimes, but not at work; the nurses and doctors wouldn’t put up with it!… No, Druidism is Britain’s most ancient Shamanic religion; it goes back to prehistoric times. It’s a very different faith to Christianity with a totally different notion of God.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that there were enough pagans to justify a hospital employing one as a full-time chaplain.”
“There are in the West Country and they’re growing in number all the time.”
“My family are all Church of Scotland.” said Kayleigh. “My mum and dad don’t go to church except at special occasions, but my gran was very God-fearing; she used to go every Sunday. She used to say that pagans were all into black magic and devil-worshipping.”
“With all due respect to your gran’s memory, Kay; that’s totally false. It doesn’t sound as if she knew much about paganism.”
“So what are Druidics all about?”
“The main, basic difference is that instead of a single, all-powerful God who sits above the world looking down at it, we see Him as existing within His creation in many different forms; Gods and Goddesses, non-physical beings like the Rockall Land Spirit.”
“You say ‘we’. Are you Druidic too?”
He shrugged. “In a way. I used to be a member of an order, but I left. It was getting a bit too over-organized; like conventional religions... There are also a few bigots among them too; people who hate Christians. One bloke I knew even firebombed the church in my village.”
“You can understand how they might feel though, Dill. After all, Christians used to burn you lot at the stake.”
“There might have been a little baby being christened in the church when it was set alight. Did he burn anyone at the stake?... Yes; atrocities were committed against ‘unbelievers’ by Christians long ago, but I think that’s all the more reason not to behave like them ourselves.”
They finished their meal and continued their survey westwards. There were much fewer nests now, making it easier to walk. Most of the chicks were grown up and able to fly and feed themselves. Dill stopped by the cliff side and looked up at them soaring and diving beside their parents; a few patches of brown juvenile feathers were still visible on their bodies.
“You don’t want to leave, do you?” said Kayleigh.
“No, I don’t.”
She put her hands in her pockets and looked down at the breaking sea, shamefaced.
“But it looks as if I’m going to have to, because the rest of you want to go… don’t you?”
“Dill.” she faltered. “You’ve been so good to me; you’re my best friend on Rockall. You deserve to be happy and I can’t stand the thought of hurting you, but… I think it’s best all round if we pull out. We’ll do ourselves no favours by wintering over. It won’t be forever.” She added this last sentence hastily. “Just a few months, then we can come back to stay. Next year we’ll have the permanent base… Please don’t hate me!”
“Kayleigh.” Dill took her hands. “I never could if I tried… How you vote is entirely up to you. You choose to take the path of what you feel is right. I’ll respect your decision as much as I respect my own.”
“So we’re still pals?”
“To the death!” He grinned at her.
She chuckled with relief. “I thought I was letting you down.”
“Well, you’re not.” He sighed. “I don’t think it’ll make much difference anyway. Elaine might back me up, ‘cos she won’t want to be away from of Jack Laird. Morag and Pete might. Perhaps Arlene… No not Arlene… I’ll be outvoted for sure.”
“It means a lot to you though, doesn’t it?” She looked up at him out of the corner of her eye. Then she said quietly: “I’ll vote ‘Stay’ if you want me to.”
“What? No, Kay! God no! You vote for what you want.”
“Alright. Thanks, but… I just know you’ll be upset when we have to go back. You will, won’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’ll survive.” He laughed. “Roll on next March!”
The Ninth of October was Dill’s twenty-second birthday. As per tradition, he received two rashers of rehydrated bacon for breakfast rather than the usual one. The advent of The Hilton meant that they could enjoy an indoor cooked breakfast every day. He sat at the table beside Kayleigh while everybody raucously sang him Happy Birthday.
Without waiting for the carousal to die down, Trevor struck the table loudly four times with his stainless steel cocoa mug. Hush descended and all faces turned his way. “Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dill Gibson Appreciation Fund. Now could we please focus on more immediate matters?”
Kayleigh sneered at his sarcasm.
Trevor once again pretended to read from his blank clipboard. “I’ve received an email from Ross; carbon copies have been sent to all your laptops. It reads, and I quote: ‘Good news; kit for permanent base nearly ready. Will be shipped to you before mid November. Keep it up. RQ.’ Right, so now at least we have a fixed date; light at the end of the tunnel if you wish. The problem is that the new base will take at least a fortnight to assemble. We may not be able to move in until the beginning of December, by which time winter will be well underway. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture, People; the next two months will be difficult and dangerous and the building work doubly so. I know that some of you, or perhaps even more than that, are expressing a desire to withdraw from Rockall for the winter and return in the spring to build the permanent base then… Therefore we have a choice, one which Ross has decided to leave entirely up to us; and I think the only fair way to carry out our choice is to hold a ballot. It will be a secret ballot, in which all of us will be allowed one vote with just two options: whether to stay or go.
“This ballot will begin in precisely forty-eight hours time on the morning of Sunday the Eleventh of October. Tomorrow evening we will hold a hustings at which Wesley will present the case for leaving and Dill will present the case for staying. After you’ve slept on the matter you shall vote and the outcome of that vote will be final. If the result is to stay, we shall carry on as well as we can, maintaining the tents and The Hilton and wait for the permanent base which we will assemble and then occupy throughout the coming winter. If the result is to leave, I email Ross and set up a plan of evacuation which shouldn’t take long; we ought to be off Rockall by the twenty-first at the latest. But it will be a temporary intermission; we’ll return again to carry on our work, probably at the beginning of March next year.”
Kayleigh put up her hand. “Can’t those who want to leave leave and those who want to stay stay?”
“No; that’s totally impractical. The colony functions as a single unit. Suppose Arlene and Broadway chose to leave, then the ones remaining would have no qualified medical practitioner. Suppose Gareth did, then you’d have no engineer.”
Kayleigh nodded her head reluctantly to this.
“No more questions? Very well; that’s everything covered for now. Carry on.”
Everyone soberly retuned to their breakfasts. Alasdair began singing: “Girl, you’ve gotta let me know. Dum-dum-dum-da-da-da. Should I stay or should I go? Dum-dum-dum-da-da-da.”
Dill’s head was gyrating to comprehend the task that had just been assigned to him. “Why me, Kay? Why did he pick me?”
“’Cos he knows you’re the one who’s keenest on staying. He picked Wesley for the same reason; he’s the one who first suggested packing up for the winter.”
“I’m the keenest… and I think probably the only one.”
She shrugged and looked down.
“My God! We’ve really had to put up with some fuckin’ shit these last four months haven’t we!?” This drew a laugh from the electorate, all seated round the table in The Hilton.
“Wind, rain, cold, filth everywhere; in our food and drink, on us. We’ve been half-starved, cut off from our homes and families. Every day has been a struggle. A struggle to keep ourselves nourished, a struggle to keep ourselves clean, a struggle to prevent ourselves being blown into the friggin’ sea!” He paused for effect. “My friends, we have faced discomforts and indignities that few British people ever experience… and we have triumphed over them. We have done so much good work, so much invaluable research for the academic community of the world. We deserve to pat ourselves on the back… Go on, do it!”
Another laugh and a few people reached over their shoulders and did so.
“No one deserves a break more than we do. A chance to heal ourselves and restore our energy. I want to see my wife and sons; to spend Christmas with them. I want to sleep in a real bed, have a long soak in a hot bath, go down to the pub and have a cool, smooth pint of beer; and then home for dinner, a juicy pork casserole with roasties and carrots, ice cold white wine, pineapple sponge and custard for dessert.”
Dill saw a few of them lick their lips.
“My friends, Rockall will still be here in the spring… and so will we! We will carry on this noble and worthwhile task throughout next year and beyond, but we won’t be living ramshackle tents; no, we will have proper buildings like those at Green Port… but to make it worth while we need this break! If we stay here through the winter, we’ll have at least six more weeks in these tents. Six more weeks, with the weather getting worse every day. It’s almost winter, folks! An Atlantic winter of near constant rain, gales, blizzards and freezing temperatures. If we have to build the new base in those conditions, well…” He raised his hands and let them fall to his thighs with a slap. “Even if we should succeed, which I doubt, how are we going to get our work done? We’ll be just living here for no purpose.” He paused again. “My friends, we are running away from nothing! This is not a retreat, it’s a strategic withdrawal. For the sake of our health, sanity, effectiveness and for sheer common sense… I urge you to return a vote of ‘Go’!” He went back to his place, sat down and took a gulp of coffee. Trevor and Zach applauded him.
Dill got to his feet and walked round to the head of the table. Like cricketers they had tossed a coin; Dill had won and decided to speak second. He trembled and swallowed hard to clear his clenched throat. “My fellow Rockallians.” (He liked that bit.) “What are we doing here? Why are we living on this tiny scrap of land so far from home and enduring all the hardships that Wes just mentioned? Are we tidying up the loose ends of British history? No! We are pioneers! Explorers! Founding Fathers of a New World! Columbus couldn’t go home for the winter. He couldn’t nip back for a meal and a bath just ‘cos the weather got a little rough. What about Captain Scott? He was faced with the coldest, most hostile environment on Planet Earth and he didn’t quit. He stood up, stared it in the face and carried on walking!”
“Yeah, and look how he ended up!” interjected Gareth. “A human Cornetto!” Everyone laughed.
“The point is that he had the true spirit of adventure!” continued Dill. “He’s probably looking down on us right now and laughing at us for being so feeble! What are you!?” He pointed at each of them, meeting their eyes one at a time. “Civil Service admin contractors? Glorified clerks? Pen-pushers in Gore-Tex... or true explorers and innovators of the human race!?... Be the latter! Vote ‘Stay’!... Thank you.”
There was dead silence as Dill returned to his seat. “Nice one, Dill!” Kayleigh whispered, elbowing him gently.
“I didn’t mean a word of it.” he whispered back. “I just told them what I thought would best persuade them.”
Trevor stood up and cleared his throat. “Take one each.” he said and began passing along sheets of paper torn from a notebook. The scene reminded Dill of Jesus at The Last Supper. “Tomorrow morning, from Eight AM, there will be a sealed ballot box standing here on this table. You must write nothing on your paper except one of two words: ‘STAY’ or ‘GO’. Anything else and your ballot will be declared spoiled. The polls will close at eleven AM, then the seal will be broken in the presence of all and the votes will be counted. Think carefully tonight, People. Remember the hustings and choose.”
After that they went their separate ways. Normally they’d hang around The Hilton chatting and drinking tea and cocoa until late, but not tonight. There was a taut atmosphere in Rockall Port and everyone seemed to be shy of everyone else. Most went to their tents and a few headed in-country for a stroll. Dill and Kayleigh sat on Dead Elephant Rock watching the sun clawing through the smothering cloud as if trying to catch one last glimpse of the world before night time dragged it down. The wind was sharp and gusty and a few heavy drops of rain fell intermittently. “Trevor’s really enjoying himself!” growled Kayleigh. “Pompous, little shite!”
“It’s the only way he knows how to prop himself up.” responded Dill. “He has neither the social skills nor access to any common ground with anyone. He doesn’t know how to form relationships with other people. He’s a very lonely man.”
She laughed. “When are you going to stop being so bloody nice… Ooh!” She put a hand to her stomach.
“Are you OK?”
She winced. “A bit sore in the guts. I threw up earlier as well. Must be that canned mince.”
“Do you want to see Arlene?”
“No; it’s not something to bother her with.”
“You’ve been looking a bit peaky all evening, now you come to mention it.”
“I’ll be fine… So what do you think’s going to happen in the morning?”
“I’ll lose Nineteen-one.”
She hesitated. “Nineteen-two.”
“What?... You…”
“Don’t try to stop me, Dill. I’ve made up my mind.”
“No, Dill! This is for me as well as you. Things have changed. I see Rockall differently. I understand why you love her and I do too… I really want to stay now.”
Dill sighed with a smile. “Thanks.”
“Besides, we might have the permanent base by… Ow! Christ, that’s bad!” She wrapped her arms around her belly and squeezed. “I’ll be on the Pit all night, I reckon!”
“Come on, let’s get you back. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
A storm blew up overnight. Dill awoke to the sound of waves thundering against the cliffs and the wind whistling against the tent. The sunlight was muted through the textile canopy. He unzipped his sleeping bag and sat up. He was alone in the tent; everyone else had already got up and left. He looked at his watch: Nine-fifteen. There was no briefing today; that’s why he’d slept so late. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out the little slip of paper given to him by Trevor the previous evening. With a stout felt marker he wrote the word ‘STAY’ in square capitals across the middle, using his laptop lid as a hard surface; then he folded it, put it back in his pocket and stood up to get dressed.
The tents were whipping around in the gale and the windmill was spinning round like an aircraft propeller. Dill had to pull his jacket tight and lean into the wind as he trudged over to The Hilton. Once or twice a gust hit him so hard that he was forced to just crouch on the ground until it had passed. Inside the stone building almost the whole colony was around the table. They were unusually quiet; reading, drinking cocoa or on their laptops. Claire, Johnny and Sarah were dissecting a soil bore in one corner while Elaine had a pile of sand under her microscope. The ballot box was an old cardboard one from the stores. It had three semicircular creases along two sides where the tins it used to contain had pressed out against it. It was taped shut and a slit had been cut in the top. Trevor and Zach sat beside it, guarding it like dragons. Dill walked up and pitched his voting slip neatly into the slit.
“Well, I think that’s all the votes in.” said Trevor. “We might as well count now. Is anyone not here?”
“Kayleigh.” said Arlene and Morag simultaneously.
Dill turned to the nurse. “What’s up with her?”
“Mild food poisoning. I’ve given her some paracodol and an antiemetic and told her to stay in bed.”
“Yes, but she has voted.” said Trevor. “So, let’s please get this over with.”
“Two minutes, Trevor.” said Dill. “I’d just like to pop across and see her.”
He sighed. “Go on, then. Just don’t give us all her germs.”
Kayleigh was lying on her side, enveloped by her sleeping bag. As he entered her tent she rolled onto her back and smiled up at him with her pasty, white face. “Hiya, Dill.” she croaked.
He knelt down beside her. “What’s happened?”
“I came over worse in the night. Arlene reckons it’s food poisoning. Maybe I ate one of those magazines you were talking about!” She laughed. “Ow! My belly’s killing me!”
“Arlene said she’s given you some medicine.”
“Yeah, and I feel a bit better.”
“Good. They’re about to count the votes. Are you up to coming over to The Hilton?”
“No, you go and let me know the result.”
“OK.” He was about to leave, but something stopped him. Almost subconsciously he lifted his hand and began stroking her soft, brown hair. His heart started racing and he felt his skin glow.
She looked back at him with a quizzical smile.
“K… Kayleigh?... If we have to go home… c…can we keep in touch?”
“Er… yeah, sure.”
“You will come back next spring.”
“Of course… Dill, I need to sleep now, OK?” She rolled over onto her side facing away from him.
He studied the back of her head for half a minute, then got up and left the tent.
“That was two minutes, fifty-three seconds, Dill; you lied.” said Trevor.
Dill bit back a retort and slumped into a seat at the far end of the table.
“Right. Does anyone have anything to say before I count the votes?... Good.” Trevor ceremoniously picked up the ballot box and tore the tape off the lid. He opened the flaps wide and put his hand inside. He pulled out the first slip and looked at it. “’GO’!” He held it up so that the whole room could see it, then spread it out on the table. Zach ticked the clipboard. Out came the second one. “’GO’!” Trevor held it up again and placed it on the table beside the first one.
The third slip read “STAY” and Dill recognized his own ballot. Two-one so far.
“’STAY’!” Trevor placed it on the table a little way from the others; he was going to lay them out in two columns. “’GO’!… ‘STAY’!”
That must be Kayleigh’s. Dill thought.
“’GO’!... ‘GO’!... ‘STAY’!... ‘GO’!... ‘STAY’!... ‘STAY’!... ‘STAY’!”
“My God!” muttered Dill aloud. “They’re neck and neck! I don’t believe it!”
“’STAY’!... ‘GO’!... ‘GO’!... ‘STAY’!... ‘STAY’!”
“We’re ahead! Impossible!”
“’GO’!... ‘STAY’!... ‘GO’!... That concludes the count. The results are as follows: ‘Go’ Ten votes. ‘Stay’ Ten votes. I declare the ballot a tie.”
There was pandemonium as everyone started talking at once. Answers were demanded, accusations were fired. Dill alone sat quietly, staring at the two rows of paper on the table.
“SILENCE!” shouted Trevor and waited for the rumpus to die down. His cheeks were blanched and his jaw trembled. “I need you to keep your heads, People!... Now, we’re faced with a very tricky situation… ”
A blast of cold wind broke into The Hilton. It whipped and eddied along the table, picking up the voting slips like dry leaves and scattering them against the wall. Everyone turned towards the open door. Kayleigh stood against the stone jamb, teetering feebly on her feet. Her eyes were red and glazed, her cheeks white. “Help me!” she cried, collapsed to her knees and vomited onto the floor.
Everything happened very quickly after that. Arlene took charge and began throwing streams of orders in fast succession. Dill, Gareth, Zach and Pete all helped to carry Kayleigh back to her tent while Trevor got on the radio to Ross. The nurse was seething. “Why didn’t I see it!? Why didn’t I see it!?” she kept repeating to herself.
“What’s wrong with her?” asked Dill, watching Kayleigh in her sleeping bag quivering and groaning.
“Dunno exactly. Appendicitis, burst duodenal ulcer, ectopic pregnancy; it’s bad whatever it is. She needs to be in hospital.”
“How soon?”
“About six hours ago.” Arlene’s fingers were tight as she drew up a syringe full of medicine.
“Ectopic pregnancy?” said Gareth with a half-grin. “Don’t look at me, Jen!”
“Shut up!” Arlene yelled at him “Somebody get that moron out of here!”
Trevor burst into the tent. “RAF rescue is a negative, ditto Coastguard and the RNLI. They can’t deploy a helicopter in this weather.”
“They have to!” said Arlene. “If she doesn’t get to hospital soon she’ll die!”
The next couple of hours were like a delirious dream to Dill, as if he were sharing a bit of Kayleigh’s illness. Quentin reported to say that he’d been passed on to Royal Navy command and they were diverting a nearby ship to come and pick Kayleigh up. It would arrive in three hours. “Too long… too long!” growled Arlene.
“It’s the best they can do.” said Trevor.
The frigate HMS Norfolk came in sight at two PM. According to Quentin’s instructions, they lit a flare at the top of the cliffs and then made a stretcher out of spare tent poles and packing cord. They carried Kayleigh in her sleeping bag wrapped in a Gore-Tex sheet; Dill, Gareth, Zach and Wesley taking a corner each. Arlene walked behind them, carrying a drip bag of fluid which connected to a vein in the patient's arm. Transporting Kayleigh from the plateau to the beach was the most difficult thing Dill had done on Rockall, up until then. The wind punched and beat them mercilessly. The slope was flowing almost river-like with rainwater; every boulder was as slippery as a lump of wet ice. Driving rain and sea spray blinded Dill so often that he gave up trying to blink his vision clear. They found their way to the sea more by touch than by sight.
A boat from HMS Norfolk arrived at the beach a few minutes after they did. A quartet of sailors, including the ships medical officer, jumped ashore and took the stretcher from them. Arlene began hurriedly conversing with the doctor, shouting and gesticulating to break through the wind. As the sailors loaded Kayleigh aboard the launch Dill almost instinctively tried to follow until one of them stopped him. “There’s no room, Mate.” he said.
“She’ll be OK, Dill.” Arlene put a hand on his shoulder.
The boat sped off towards the ship, leaping like a dolphin over the mountainous breakers. Soon it disappeared behind the curtain of windblown surf.
Back on the cliff top, Dill could see the orange blob of the dinghy as it was loaded aboard the low, grey warship and smoke issued from the funnel as HMS Norfolk set sail for the mainland.
When he entered The Hilton, Arlene was in the middle of a heated radio conversation with the ship’s doctor. “Look, you heard what I said back there, didn’t you? Over.”
“Affirmative. Over.”
“You’ve seen her BP; check out her temperature! You must operate now! Over.”
“The ship’s tossing like a cork in a mill-race! Any attempt to perform a laprotomy now would be highly dangerous! Over.”
“Not as dangerous as peritonitis! Over.”
“That’s a negative your request! Now sod off and let me do my job! Out.” The radio went dead.
Arlene sighed and hung up the mouthpiece. “The ship’s making full speed for Carloway on Lewis. From there an ambulance will take her to hospital in Stornoway.”
“Midnight at the earliest. We’ve just got to pray she can hang on till then.”
Their faces were blank; Elaine took out her rosary and crossed herself.
On reflection, Dill was surprised how relaxed he was. He guessed it was a psychological rejection of the fear and worry that he ought to have felt. While the others sat round the radio in The Hilton following the race against time, he went to his tent and lay down. He read a book all afternoon and even slept. He woke when he heard the tent flap opening. It was dark outside and Arlene was kneeling down beside him with a drained look in her eyes. She informed him that Kayleigh was out of danger. She was being looked after at the Western Isles Hospital on the Isle of Lewis after surgeons had removed her inflamed appendix.
Dill felt dizzy. He returned to sleep and didn’t wake again until the following morning.
The wild dash to save Kayleigh’s life had, for the first time in months, put Rockall back in the news; albeit on a regional level. The following afternoon she was interviewed on a Gaelic language TV station. The Twenty sat in The Hilton watching it on their laptops. Kayleigh was sitting up in a hospital bed wearing a blue surgical gown. She looked tired and ashen, but appeared not to be in pain. The dialogue was all in Gaelic, but at the click of a mouse Dill called up English subtitles. “I’m feeling much better.” Kayleigh said with a weak smile. “Last night is was total blur. All I remember is the agony in my stomach. I’d like to thank the crew of HMS Norfolk as well as the ambulance and medical team who saved my life. I’d also like to say hello to my mum and dad and all my friends on Rockall…”
When the news story was ended, everyone switched off their laptops and filled The Hilton with smiles. Arlene was especially pleased and relieved. “God bless her!” she said.
“When do you reckon she’ll be back?” asked Dill.
“For Heaven’s sake give the girl a chance!” snapped Trevor. “She’s just had major surgery!”
“He only asked, Trevor!” shot Arlene.
“Well, he shouldn’t! Damn stupid question!”
Several people sat back and folded their arms.
“I take it you’re all ready to get back to business… Good! Our first task today is to return to considering the future of our colony. If you’ll recall, that’s what we were discussing before Kayleigh fell ill. Now the votes were Ten-all. So we’re divided half-and-half between those who want to stay here through winter and those who want to pack up and go home till next spring. With Kayleigh absent, the most democratic thing to do will be to have a second ballot. There are nineteen of us now, so there can be no tie. I’ll prepare the box again and…”
“No need.” interrupted Dill. “Kayleigh voted ‘Stay’.”
Trevor hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, she told me.”
“Does anyone want to contest that?”
“Yes.” said Claire. “With all due respect, Dill; why should we decide on your word alone?”
“Because I’m the ‘Stay’ party spokesman. Why should I lie when that lie will bring about my own defeat?”
There was a silence while they all processed the new situation. Claire nodded.
“I won’t block a second ballot unless you’re all agreed.” said Trevor.
More silence.
“Very well then. The final result is as follows: ‘Stay’ Nine votes. ‘Go’ Ten votes. I declare the ‘Go’ party winners by one vote. I’ll send Ross an email now announcing our decision.”
“What happens then?” asked Duncan.
“He’ll arrange a ship to come and pick us up.” Trevor had a self-satisfied expression on his face as he tapped away on his laptop keyboard.
Dill felt oddly resigned and indifferent. All eyes were on him as if the others expected him to object, but he merely smiled at them and shrugged.
Quentin’s reply came an hour later. Hi Trev and All! Are you sure? Why not think it over and let me know tomorrow morning? RQ.
Trevor frowned. “What on Earth does that mean?”
Later that afternoon, Dill sent an email to Kayleigh. Hi, Kay! How are you? That was quite a scare you gave us! Saw you on TV today, glad to see you’re looking better. Hope you get out of hospital soon. You might like to know that we’ve taken your vote off the ballot. That means the “Go’s” have won. So we’ll be leaving Rockall ourselves soon. I’m not as sorry as I thought I’d be. The place just isn’t the same without you. What are you planning to do this winter? Take care and get well soon. Dill xxx.
He sat and waited for a reply. He waited, and waited. After two hours he closed his laptop and went to The Hilton for dinner. When he went to bed there was still no response. He fell into an uneasy slumber.
He awoke at midnight; the tent was pitch black. The only sound was the rush of the sea and the music of his companions’ snoring. He remembered the email and sat up. He switched on his lantern and reached for his laptop. Kayleigh had still not replied. He deliberated for half an hour then wrote her a second email. Hi, Kay. Did you get my email from earlier? Dill xxx. An answer came just before the stroke of one. Hi, Dill. Yes. Being discharged Friday hopefully. Going to Glasgow to see mum and dad. All the best. Kayleigh.
Dill looked up from the screen and stared into the darkness until his eyesight went blank. Then, as if a circuit in his brain fell suddenly into place, he snapped out of his trance and composed a reply. Great, Kay! Perhaps I could come and visit you when we get back to the mainland. It would be great to see you again. Dill xxx. His finger quivered hesitantly as he clicked the “Send” window.
After vainly waiting an hour for a reply, he switched off his lantern and settled down again. He slept very lightly, waking up every half hour or so, each time checking his inbox for messages. At four-thirty he gave up. He chided himself half-heartedly. Come on! You can’t expect her to enter into an online chat in the middle of the night! She’s getting over an operation! Leave her in peace!
He fell into a sad sleep.
Dill was dragged out of his dreams by the sound of a ship’s whistle. He sat up with a start. It was seven-thirty and dawn light filled the tent. He assumed that the sound had been his imagination, but then he heard it again. The others were waking up too.
TOOOOOOT! It came once more, echoing and rattling off the cliffs. “What the fuck’s that!?” exclaimed Gareth.
“Come on!” said Dino, pulling on his trousers.
Everyone bundled out of their tents at almost exactly the same time and stared out to sea.
TOOOOOOT! A merchant freighter was lying about two miles off Rockall Port Bay. With a splash of white foam, it let go its anchor. Trevor was on his portable radio. “Unidentified ship, Unidentified ship, this is Rockall Port Control. Please identify yourself and state your intentions. Over… Unidentified ship…”
“Who the hell do they think they are!?” grumbled Claire. “This is a restricted area of special scientific interest! People can’t just drop by unannounced!”
“They’re lowering a boat!” said Jennie.
“Come on, let’s get down the beach!” said Gareth. “We may have to see ‘em off by force.”
The nineteen colonists made down from the plateau as fast as possible, one eye on their uneven staircase, the other on the approaching launch. They spread out in a line along the beach, toes in the surf, arms folded. The boat was curving into the bay. It contained a single man crouching at the tiller in orange oilskins. Trevor bellowed at him through a megaphone. “AHOY THERE! DO NOT APPROACH THIS SHORE! YOU ARE DENIED PREMISSION TO LAND! REPEAT!...”
The man waved at them. He was a tall, thickset character with a bushy beard and hair; familiar somehow. “Here.” said Dill. “Isn’t that…”
“Ross Quentin.” said Jennie.
“Damn it!” Trevor’s shoulders slumped. The megaphone dropped to the sand.
Quentin laughed happily as he climbed from the boat. “Surprise, surprise!” he boomed.
Everyone mobbed round the Commission director, showering him with questions; except Trevor who stood at a distance, flushed and scowling.
He pulled his hood down and stared up at the land above. “It’s nice to see this place at last. Wow! The photos don’t do it credit!”
Quentin was curious to see Rockall Port and examine the work they’d been doing. He wasted no time in ascending the ramp to the top of the cliffs. Despite his genial manner, nobody had any doubts that this was a surprise inspection. To their utmost amusement, Trevor appeared very perturbed by the presence of his boss. He spoke obsequiously, trotting by his heels like a dog. “What’s that, Trev?” asked the director, pointing at the windmill.
“A wind turbo-generator, Ross. It’s a way of generating free, clean power. We thought it was nicer than having that noisy, smelly petrol engine, as well as cheaper.”
“So that’s why you stopped ordering petrol. Good idea, Chaps!... Did I just say something funny?” He glanced curiously as he noticed their expressions.
He then went to admire The Hilton. “I’ve been to see Kayleigh.” said Quentin. “She sends you all her best wishes.”
“We’re looking forward to seeing her again, Ross.” said Dill.
“Eh? She’s not coming back here, Dill; not yet at any rate.”
“No, I meant we’d see her when we get to Oban.”
He looked hard at Dill. “Oban?”
“Yes, I presume that’s why you’ve come out here; to take us home for the winter.”
The director chuckled. “Not necessarily. That’s the surprise… Look.” He turned and pointed at the ship. A helicopter was spooling up from its pad on the foredeck, its rotors spinning faster and faster. Presently it lifted up into the air, trailing a cable beneath it. The cable was attached to a huge crate. There was a moment’s straining, then the aircraft rose up with its load and came towards them, flying higher and higher until it was on a level with the cliff tops.
“What’s that?” asked Zach.
“Your new home.” Quentin grinned.
“The permanent base!”
“Yes. The factory found the spare parts they were looking for last week. I could have called you, but I thought it would be more fun to bring it out here myself. Any excuse to visit Rockall!”
The helicopter came chattering in overhead. It brought the crate gently down onto the heath and released the cable; then it rotated in the air and headed back to the ship to collect another. There were ten in all and the helicopter laid them evenly along the plateau.
“There’s room on the ship if you really want to come home.” said Quentin, raising his voice over the noise of the aircraft. “But I thought you might like to reconsider.”
“Well, I suppose we could hold another ballot…”
He was interrupted by a roar from the Rockall Port residents. “Stay! Stay! Stay!” they chanted.
Trevor shrugged. “Carried.”
The director didn’t remain long on Rockall. By late morning the ship was getting ready to sail and they all escorted him back down the ramp to the beach. He shook everyone’s hand and bade them each a warm farewell. His grip was cool and firm, his smile kindly. “So long, Dill! Keep ‘em all sane for me!”
“Ross, about Kayleigh…”
“She might be quitting the Commission, Dill. I’m sorry.”
A feeling like icy water ran down his back. “But… but why?”
“I don’t know; she wasn’t very chatty… Look, Mate; she’s just been through a frightening experience and I’m sure her thinking’s all over the place. Give her some time alone and she may well change her mind… Elaine! Take care…”
They stood on the edge of the cliff and waved as the freighter got underway and turned to port steadying out due eastwards. When it had vanished over the murky horizon Dill went to his tent and opened his laptop. There was no email from Kayleigh.
That very afternoon they began construction of the new base. The crates from the ship contained all the prefabricated material and interior fittings of the permanent buildings. Gareth became like a child with a new toy, moving excitedly from case to case, flicking through the biblical inventory. “Come on, you lot! Let’s get moving!” he yelled, hurling a pile of spades onto the heather.
The first phase involved the digging of two oblong trenches fifty feet by twelve; eleven inches deep. The measurements had to be precise, Gareth insisted, if they didn’t want to end up with an uneven floor. Everybody joined in except Trevor and it took three days. On completion of the dig they all had blisters on their hands and aching backs, but they only had until the following morning to recuperate, then it was time to start lining the trenches with wooden planks; the container crates were broken up to provide them. After that, hundreds of gallons of cement had to be mixed. There was no mechanical mixer that one usually sees on a building site; the colonists worked by hand, stirring the sand and powder in buckets with leftover planks and spreading it out in the trenches. They laid plastic sheets over them to keep the rain off and very slowly the cement dried and hardened.
The next few days were spent loitering impatiently as a storm raged. Dill, in particular, hated the inactivity. He needed to keep busy; to keep his mind occupied.
When the sun came out on November the First, it felt like a miracle. The colonists almost ran over to the building site to break out the wall panels. The walls of the buildings were four inches thick and made of a multi-layer packing of wood and fibreglass. They were just light enough for five or six people to manoeuvre them by hand. Metal piles were sunk deep into the cement and the wall segments slotted neatly into place; or they were meant to. Gareth had to be physically pulled off Pete when the young geologist measured wrongly and drove a pile slightly out of place. More cement had to be mixed to fill the hole left when the pile was dug out and moved.
Over the following two weeks the new base began to take shape and the Rockall Port residents could see roughly what it would look like when it was complete. It would be a modest affair in comparison with Green Port, but far superior to the tents. It consisted to two huts, heated, waterproofed and divided into compartments by interior panelling, sealed with copper rivets. Each hut had five bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, store and large communal lounge-cum-workroom. The colonists would be sleeping two to a room in bunkbeds. Trevor typically changed the plan and decreed that one of the communal rooms would be his executive office and bedroom. The other would be a study/laboratory and they could continue to use The Hilton as a lounge. There were fewer protests than Dill expected; everyone was too exhausted to care. They just wanted to get the construction work over with and move in.
The huts had a very clever device on the roof that collected rainwater and filtered it for use. This was then stored in holding tanks in the bathrooms and kitchens. After use, the water was dumped into a drainage duct that sluiced into Neelum’s Burn. There was no fancy sewage processor like the Americans had and the Pit would remain a large part of life in Rockall Port. The kitchen stove was electric and there was even a washing machine and refrigerator. Two purpose-built wind generators had been included in the package completely removing the need for gas as well as petrol; save a gallon or two for the boat.
Their new town was situated thirty yards east of the tent circle on a gentle rise to aid with drainage and to give the double-glazed, Perspex windows a view over the bay. There were floor panels too that were hammered in over the cement. They were varnished and had a pleasant parquet texture; the colonists would be able to walk around indoors with bare feet. There were even rugs for the bedrooms: pure luxury!
On Saturday the Twenty-first of November, after more than a month of toil by nineteen people, most with little or no building skills and experience, the new base was finished and ready to be occupied. A case of champagne had somehow been bootlegged into the last replenishment drop to aid them in a little base-warming party. Broadway squirted some of it over the walls shouting: “I name this town ‘Rockall Port’! God bless her and all who live in her!”
They packed up the tents and stored them in a cache next to the boat at the base of the cliffs, (They might be needed again; who knew?) then they bundled in through the doors, singing and laughing. The first thing they did was have a wash, taking it in turns to use the new bathroom. The novelty created arguments if someone jumped the queue or spent too long inside. All the men shaved and the slop bucket filled up with bristle. The water heater gave them a lukewarm, if not hot, shower and bottles of slap were as much a part of festivities as the ones of champagne. The huts ended up smelling like a lemon tree. They changed into clean clothes and piled their dirties into the washing machine, then they finished off the champagne with jokes and songs until the sky outside turned black. They leaped joyfully onto their bunks and felt soft mattresses under their backs for the first time in five months.
The next day, Dill got an email from Ross Quentin informing him that Kayleigh had handed in her resignation. She would never be coming back to Rockall.
Dill awoke before anyone else on Christmas Day. It was nine o’clock and the sun had only just risen. When he was fully conscious, he noticed that there was something strange about the light glowing behind the curtains. He sat up and lowered himself down from his bunkbed, careful not to disturb Zach who was snoring away beneath him. He whipped open the curtains and squealed in wonder. Rockall was covered in a thick blanket of snow. He fumbled with exhilaration as he dressed in a rush, stepping into his boots and fitting his gloves. He had to push hard to get the door open; the hinges had frozen solid and a great drift blocked it. The chill, dry air hit him like the open door of a deepfreeze. He sunk in up to his ankles and took a few steps through the powdery fall, savouring the crunch under his soles.
The brown and grey rock and heather had transformed into a rolling expanse of pure, cold white that filled his vision, making him reel with vertigo. A few flakes were still falling from the streaky sky. On a nearby slope a Rockall Pony was nosing its way into a drift to try and reach the buried grass. Dill took a few more plods forward then looked back at his footprints. It seemed a pity to spoil such a scene with these great, ugly, oval marks, but as he looked towards the cliffs he found more spoors; some pony footprints and a row of triangular gull’s feet tracks. He moved closer to the precipice and looked down at the sea. The steel-grey water steamed like a hot bath as the warm Gulf Stream met the cold Arctic air.
He heard excited voices behind him and looked back to see his fellows emerge. The hut looked like a cream cake, its roof upholstered with snow. For a few hours, the residents of Rockall Port became children again, throwing snowballs at each other, building snowmen and sliding down inclines on improvised sledges. The bleak, frozen landscape reverberated to the sound of human joy.
By three PM it was starting to get dark again and the temperature was dropping fast. Everyone came inside and glowed in the warmth of the hut. Dill had just finished a webphone conversation with his mother and father and was answering a multitude of Christmas greetings from his friends and family, when he decide on impulse to write an email to Kayleigh. Over the last few weeks he’d been trying very hard to forget about his friend and accept that they’d parted company for good. All his messages to her since had gone unanswered and his reason pleaded with him not to do it. It’s a waste of time; she won’t reply! Leave her in the past where she belongs! But the niggling urge wouldn’t go away. “Follow your heart, Gibson.” he muttered aloud to himself. With a shaking hand, he clicked “Create” and typed her name into the address box. It appeared after just three letters; still stored in his system. As soon as he started, he realized that it would be a long one. His thoughts poured out of him through his fingers onto the keyboard.
Hi, Kay. Sorry I haven’t written to you for a while, but we’ve been very busy catching up on the work we lost during the building of the permanent base. Sorry you haven’t had the time to reply. You’ve been busy too, obviously.
Things are going really well. Everyone’s still on a high from moving into the huts and life is a lot easier now. It’s snowing at the moment and Rockall looks beautiful. It’s years since I’ve seen a white Christmas!
We’ve had the results back from the Staffordshire University DNA tests on the Rockall Ponies. Claire’s theory that they’re cousins of the Dartmoor breed is wrong. They’re even more ancient! Their mitochondria link them to the horses of Siberia and Mongolia, though only very distantly. They are as unique as gee-gees get and how they ended up on the island is still a big mystery, for which nobody has any theories.
There’s only one person on Rockall who’s not happy and that’s me. Despite all the creature comforts we’ve got now, I much preferred our days in the tents. I miss you, Kay. You were my best friend on the island. I often lie awake at night and wonder how you’re getting on. I’d be so happy if you’d change your mind and come back. Please reply and let me know you’re well. Take care. Dill xxx.
Christmas evening was spent in The Hilton. They had a turkey dinner and pudding with all the frills. There were online video conversations with families, wine, brandy and drunken carols; but better than all of that for Dill was an email from Kayleigh, the first words she had uttered to him for over two months. Hi, Dill. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And I’m very very sorry. Kay.
“’I’m sorry?’ What does she mean by that?” he wondered.
On Boxing Day the weather changed with the usual Rockallian abruptness. Low pressure moved in blowing milder air from the south. The temperatures rose ten degrees, a storm whipped up and heavy rain pounded the island, washing away all the snow in a matter of hours. Dill watched sadly from his bedroom window as the familiar mat browns and greens of the plateau returned. Raindrops trickled down the Perspex pane.
It was New Year’s Eve and Dill was feeling very dejected. He spent the day lying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling. At seven PM Gareth and Alasdair brought him a glass of Cartwright-Rollosson Cider, Rockall’s first vintage. Jennie and Sarah had brewed it in an old cement bucket out of apple cores and peelings. It had been bubbling away under the kitchen sink for several weeks and its creators claimed that it was now perfect. Dill took an experimental sip and almost choked. “Bleedin’ heck! It’s got quite a kick to it!”
“Well, I did spice it up with a couple of shots of vodka.” explained Gareth. “My dad smuggled a bottle in with my new mittens.”
“I wondered what that exquisite bouquet was.” said Alasdair. “I’ll put some on my hair to protect me from lice!”
“You going to get out of bed for midnight?” Gareth asked.
Dill grinned. His mood had lifted slightly. “Yeah, call me at eleven.” When they’d left him alone he lay back and stretched. Self-pity is the most destructive of all emotions. He always told his sessions. “Time to start practicing what you preach, Gibson!”
He didn’t have to wait until eleven. There was a quiet tap on his door just after eight-thirty. “Yeah?” he yawned.
The door creaked slowly open and Elaine poked her head into the room. Her face was tight and downcast. He could see other people standing in the shadows behind her.
“What’s up?” he asked, alarmed by her expression.
She didn’t speak.
“There’s been an accident, hasn’t there? Is it mum or dad?… Tell me!”
Elaine raised her right hand. Between her thumb and forefinger she held a Microdisk™. She spoke in a cracked voice. “It’s just come on the TV… I’m so sorry, Dill.”
Dill’s heart pattered with dread as he jumped down beside her and took the Microdisk™ from her open hand. He booted up his laptop, slid the disc into the drive and clicked “Play”.
The recording is of a Scottish celebrity chat show called Hello TV. It is set in a theatre studio with a live audience behind the camera. The host is a glamorous, dark-haired woman called Lorraine Kelly. She is sitting opposite a small, smartly-dressed man whose caption identifies him as “Malcolm Tustian- Businessman”.
Lorraine: “Good evening and Happy Hogmanay. My guest tonight is one of our nation’s greatest success stories. A roving entrepreneur who became a self-made millionaire before his twentieth birthday. From humble beginnings as a pub landlord in Edinburgh, to a catering and leisure empire, shipping magnate, publishing and oil. He has long been Scotland’s Richest Man and also dubbed: ‘Scotland’s Most-Eligible Batchelor’. However, the second label no longer applies for as the press announced today, amid a whirlwind of publicity, he is engaged to be married!... And so, Scotland’s Best-Kept Secret can now be broken… Tonight, exclusively on Hello TV, we can finally reveal the identity of the mysterious character, who will no doubt soon be dubbed: ‘Scotland’s Most-Envied Woman’.”
The studio lights dim and the orchestra plays a drum roll. The camera focuses on a pair of glittering, silver curtains. With a clash of cymbals, they swing apart to a huge round of applause from the audience and a fanfare from the band. A woman beams and waves to the camera, then walks forward onto the stage. Lorraine and Malcolm are both standing. She shakes the hand of the former and kisses the latter. The music and applause cease and all three sit down. Malcolm and the woman are holding hands. The newcomer is in her late twenties and rather short and plump. She has a cheery smile and has been well-made over.
Lorraine: Well, the question the whole world wants to know is: Who are you?
Woman: My name’s Kayleigh Ford and I’m from Partick in Glasgow. (She waves to acknowledge a few members of the audience who cheer at the mention of the place.) And you know how we met, Lorraine, because you were there!
Lorraine: You do look familiar somehow… Of course! IFSAL! The girl who passed out on the stage!
Malcolm: I know; an amazing piece of fate. Almost enough to make me believe in luck! There can be few couples who meet in such an extraordinary way. If I’d picked a different winning ticket…
Lorraine: My gosh! It’s incredible, isn’t it!? That’s one for a Mill’s and Boon novel and no mistake! I’m sure it’ll all be in the papers tomorrow…
The laptop fell from Dill’s numb, tingling hands.
Elaine picked it up and switched it off. She sat down beside him on the bunk and laid a hand on his arm. “We thought we should show you this straight away. Better that than you finding out later. I know how you feel about her, Dill, and I’m very sorry… Do you want to talk?”
He tried to reply, but his larynx was jammed. He shook his head.
“OK, but you know where I am if you need a friend.” She kissed him on the temple and left the room.
Time passed. Five minutes, an hour, two hours; Dill didn’t know. Then Gareth dropped by to see how he was. “Do you still want to join us in The Hilton? It’s nearly midnight.”
Dill shook his head.
“Come on! It might cheer you up.”
Another shake.
“OK.” he shrugged. “Look, Mate… I feel really bad for you. I know you had a thing about Kayleigh… I envy you a bit actually. There were never any fireworks-in-the-sky with me and Jennie… But the point is, however bad it seems, it’ll pass soon. Forget about her, Dill! She’s long gone! I mean, this Jock ponce is a multi-billionaire! They’re getting hitched on a yacht in Sidney Harbour, for crying out loud! How can any guy compete with that!?... Tell you what!” He lowered his voice. “Broadway fancies you!... Yeah, always has done! She told Jennie the other week. Get in there, Son! She’s quite a raver, you know.”
Dill remained silent.
Gareth stood up. “Well, I’m… er… off to see in the New Year. Come over if you change your mind.” He turned to go.
“Thanks.” Dill forced a smile. “You’re a good pal.”
A short while later, the sound of voices carried over from The Hilton to Dill’s bedroom. “TEN… NINE… EIGHT… SEVEN… SIX… FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE… HAPPY NEW YEAR! HOORAY!” The inebriate strains of Auld Lang Syne filled the air of Rockall, welcoming in Two thousand and ten.
Dill lay down, buried his face in his pillow and wept.
(Previous chapter:
Chapter 1- "It's just a name on the Shipping forecast..." )

(Next Chapter:
Chapter 3- The Unmanifest )


  1. Wonderful Ben!!! I am going to come back when I have time to read the whole thing-loved what I was able to read-best to you as always from Arizona!

  2. Thanks, Dev. Greetings to you too from Oxford. Enjoy the novel!