Chapter Seven-To Turn and Turn Again
An Extract from the bestselling book: Erkdwala- Children of Earth by Professor Marcus Lowenstein (Oxford University Press. August 2012):
…Oddly enough, there are over seven hundred words in the Erkdwala tongue which resemble equivalent words in six modern languages: Basque, Japanese, Tungus, Yakut, Mongol and Inuit; this is indicative of a one hundred percent non-Indo-European ethnic origin. Kayleigh Ford, the woman who first discovered the Erkdwala claimed to have achieved basic fluency within the two weeks of her intensive immersion. As a Gaelic-speaking Scot, she may have a predisposition or talent for learning languages. It is unlikely that she could have mastered some of the more extrinsic grammatical structures such as the Loni tense or subject-object dualism.
The reported relationship to Basque most excited the early anthropologists. Betty Godsmith of the University of Maine was one of the first to tour Rockall in November of 2011. She held many interviews with members of the Erkdwala and Kayleigh Ford. Of course, the Basque Region of southern France and northern Spain is well-known as the site of one of the world’s richest and most advanced Palaeolithic cultures. It includes the beautiful and astounding cave paintings at places like Lascaux and Niaux. (Pablo Picasso visited these prehistoric galleries and came out at the end of his tour saying: “We have invented nothing!”) Many were disappointed to find that the Erkdwala appear to have no notion of the visual arts. Though their mythology appears to be very rich, judging by the small proportion of their legends that have so far been translated, when it comes to actually creating visual images they are totally stumped. When Ford first showed an Erkdwala man a photograph of a gannet, he ran his fingers over it and asked: “What are all these colours for?” Ford told him that it was a gannet and he replied: “That’s not true. This is a just sheet of coloured material.” The Erkdwala’s brains cannot actually interpret two-dimensional pictures and convert them into three-dimensional mental images, something that the rest of humanity takes for granted. If you show one a three-D sculpture of a gannet he will instantly recognize it, but show him a flat picture of a gannet and all he will see is a shapeless pattern. Many have taken this as an indication that the Erkdwala are a backward culture and even carry an endemic, hereditary, mentally-retarding gene. My own opinion is that this is nonsense. If anything, their lack of a visual medium of expression is a sign of a sophisticated imagination and an exceptional ability to fantasize. Their vast collection of stories is proof of that. Who needs pictures when you can see it in your head!
My own impression of the Erkdwala is one of deep wisdom and razor-sharp intelligence. I saw one man playing with a puzzle-block game and completing it first time, faster than I’ve ever seen anyone do so before. They are a very gentle, sensitive people who form the most profound loving bonds with each other and their surroundings. For them there is no distinction between living creatures and inanimate objects. In their mindset, rocks and boulders are as much alive as ponies and fish. They never seem to argue or show any hostility to anyone. They are extremely talkative and will sit around debating this and that for hours on end, but I’ve never once heard them resort to bluster. In fact aggression seems to be another unknown concept to them. (It pains me to think how they’ll feel as they learn more and more about our world, a place where aggression and violence are all too familiar.)
As is so often the case, it is the youngest members of the community who are the most inquisitive and flexible…
Zachary Neelum put down the book and yawned. It was a good book; probably the best of the four so far written in the seventeen months since the Erkdwala’s discovery. Lowenstein had been a sensible and fun scientist to work with. He was professional and objective, yet passionate about the Erkdwala cause. The other scientific author had been rather aloof and detached. The third author was Lauren Pearce, a veteran of the Battle of Mount Clow and one of Gervaise’s crowd. Her book was entitled: Empire Reborn- Eyewitness on Rockall and had a much more general theme, rather than concentrating on just the Erkdwala issue alone. Of all four writers, Pearce was the most negative and scathing towards Zach’s role in the affair. As far as she was concerned he was a Machiavellian, money-hungry blackguard who’d exploited his relationship with Kayleigh to line his own pockets. A remarkable conclusion to reach seeing as she’d never interviewed or even met him. Zach had considered suing her for libel, but had decided not to bother; he’d have a lot of trouble finding witnesses willing to back him up.
The most unusual book was written by a famous alternative-science researcher and it broached a subject that was something of a taboo in the island’s scientific circles. The Devil’s Tea Cosy had recently ignited yet another Rockall enigma: It was man made. Underneath its covering of grass and soil it was constructed of over two thousand perfectly-shaped stone blocks. Nobody could begin to guess at its purpose, but one thing was certain; it hadn’t been built by the Erkdwala. So then who had built it? The author had postulated that it was in fact an artefact left over from a prehistoric civilization; in other words, during the Ice Age, Rockall had been a mountain peak of Atlantis. Another author had claimed in a magazine article that the monument had been created by aliens in flying saucers armed with rock-cutting lasers. The few archaeologists who’d commented vehemently denied both these theories, but admitted that they were as yet unable to provide another explanation.
Zach switched on the TV and put on a film. He went to pour himself another glass of wine, but the bottle was empty. He groaned and stood up. He was halfway down the steps to the First Landing’s wine cellar when he remembered that he’d rationed himself to three bottles a day, and he’d just finished his third. He opened the heavy door and looked at the rows of horizontal bottles on the shelves. He paused for a moment then entered the cellar and took down a dry Bordeaux. One more wouldn’t hurt.
The alarm clock rang at eight o’clock the following morning and Zach dragged himself out of a sleep like quicksand. The noise rattled painfully in his ears. He reached out an arm to silence the device and knocked it off the bedside table onto the floor. It continued to jangle on the carpet. He put his pillow over his ears until the spring ran down. His head soon made its presence felt; his skull pounded and squeezed his brain. He got out of bed and could hardly stand; the room orbited around him. His body felt heavy as he stumbled to the bathroom and downed a couple of aspirin. He tripped over an empty wine bottle as he staggered back to his bedroom. Crumbs! I don’t remember leaving that there! He belly-flopped onto his bed and was asleep before he touched the sheets.
The bedside ‘phone rang and this time Zach sat up like a catapult. He could tell by the light outside that it was much later. He looked at the clock: Half-past eleven. He picked up the receiver. “Good morning, Deputy-Governor Neelum speaking.”
“Good evening, Zach; I hope I haven’t woken you too early,”
“Trevor!” Zach leaped to his feet. “Bloody hell, no! I’ve been up since eight, working on those figures you wanted for the amendments. I’ve got them right here.” He tapped the folder of blank paper lying on the dressing table.
“Good. Can you get them into the office by five?”
Trevor guffawed in disgust. “Alright, Zach. First thing tomorrow before we leave; but you must have done them by then, OK? If you haven’t then we lose our whole stake in this Treaty renewal. You got that?”
There was a pause. “Now I want you to book us seats on the Glasgow sleeper for tomorrow night.”
“I thought we were flying down.”
“Not this time.”
“But it’ll take ages on the train!”
“I know; enough time to sober you up if I have to… Don’t blow it, Zach! This summit is the most important day in either of our careers.”
“I won’t, Trevor.”
Another pause. “I’d also like you to check up on our savage friends this afternoon; see if there’s anything they want to add to proceedings.”
“Will do, Trevor.”
“Glad to hear it.” As usual, he cut the line without waiting for a reply.
Zach grinned in the mirror. His tongue and teeth were stained tar-black by the wine and he had to brush them hard. He’d lost count of how many extra bottles he’d finished off last night. There was a bruise on his elbow where he’d fallen down the cellar steps; too drunk to walk. He washed himself thoroughly, trying to cleanse himself of the stench of stale alcohol, and dressed in a clean suit. No amount of bathing could remove the purple bags under his eyes or the bloodshot in his whites. “No more drinking, Zach!” he told his reflection. “Not a drop till after the summit.”
In the cabinet beside the mirror were a few of Kayleigh’s toiletries that she’d left behind when she’d last walked out of his house A toothbrush, deodorant, and a can of hairspray. He couldn’t bring himself to throw them away and they remained there like holiday souvenirs. Christ! How long ago was it?... August Twenty-eleven. What is it now? We’ve just had New Year… Twenty-thirteen. Shit! A year and five months! Since that day he’d hardly exchanged more than a few words with her. The last time they’d touched was when she’d tried to scratch out his eyes on the Eastern Capes. Of course, you can’t avoid someone on Rockall. He saw her most days, walking around town or rambling in-country. She greeted him briefly every time: “Hi, Zach.” she’d say and looked swiftly away. Her animosity was still there under the surface. Could he blame her?
Of course the Erkdwala had survived, thankfully; but the possibility wouldn’t stop tormenting him. Sometimes thoughts of what might have been can be as disturbing as those of what actually had been.
Zach went online and booked the train tickets on the Commission’s account then he went to the garage and drove eastwards to Hasselwood. The savages had all been housed in a plexus of twisty, new cul-de-sacs. The houses were proper brick constructions like his own home, not Bower-casts. The roads were covered in black, new tarmac with square white lines. Hasselwood had doubled in size until it was almost as big as Rockall Port, partly thanks to the Erkdwala, and there was even a bus service between the two towns. Every home on the estate was virtually identical so Zach had to read the door numbers carefully. He pulled up outside one of the semi-detached houses; he couldn’t use the drive because it contained a blue Volvo. He walked up the garden path, past the finely-trimmed lawn and neat rockery, and rang the doorbell. Bing-bong! A woman answered wearing jeans, slippers and pink blouse. A feather duster was in her right hand. “Hi, Keesa.” said Zach. “How are you this afternoon?”
She shook her head and pointed to herself with a smile.
“Sorry!” he chuckled. “Kerry! I’d forgotten; you’re called Kerry now.”
She laughed and beckoned him into her house. The kitchen was white and a little bare. The taps and sink shone and the place smelled as if someone had cleaned it with too much disinfectant. The baby boy, who had been born in a cave during Zach’s visit, was sitting in a plastic high chair with a Teletubbies bib around his neck. Food stained his chin and he was playing with his plastic cutlery. Keesa scooped a spoonful up herself and pushed it into his mouth. He looked up as Zach entered the room, studying him with his big, black eyes.
Zach patted his head. “Hiya, Karsk! You’re a big lad now, aren’t you?”
“No!” Keesa raised a scolding finger. “Him Kevin.”
“Sorry; Kevin. I have trouble remembering all your new names. What’s Grayvin called these days?”
“Graham; right! Graham, Kerry and Kevin… Sounds like a family of yuppies!”
Keesa/Kerry frowned. “I don’t understand. Please speak more slowly.” she articulated clumsily in her strong Erkdwala accent.
“It doesn’t matter. How are you anyway… Kerry?”
“Me good!” she smiled very broadly. There was an odd, detached look in her eye and she swayed unsteadily on her feet. “Me have maked food for Kevin… and now me make food for Graham.” She staggered over to the freezer and produced a packet of chicken curry which she popped into the microwave. She fumbled slightly with the control buttons.
“Kee… Kerry, are you feeling alright? You look a bit woozy.”
“Yes, Zach. Me very good.” She belched.
He caught her smell as she turned back towards him. “Kerry, have you been drinking?”
She looked nonplussed. “Drink… ing?”
“Yes, drinking.” He mimed lifting a glass to his open mouth. “You smell like you’ve been on the booze.”
“Oh.” She seemed to catch on and took two glasses out of the cupboard. Then, to Zach’s astonishment, she filled both glasses to the brim with Scotch from a bottle that was standing in the window sill. She took a deep gulp from one and handed the other to him.
“You drink.” She pointed at his glass.
“Kerry! How many of these have you had!?”
She looked at him with a confused grin. “You not like?”
“There must be eight or nine shots in here! Yes, I like! I like only too bleedin’ well! But not at half-one in the afternoon when I’ve got to look after a baby!”
“Me like!” she giggled and downed another mouthful. “Me happy when me drink whiskey!”
“You won’t be happy when your hangover hits, Sweetheart; believe me!... What are we going to do with you!? You’re supposed to pick Yonnax and Queylie’s kids up from school today, aren’t you!?”
“Caroline and Tracey.” she corrected.
“Never mind that now! Well, are you!?”
“Shit! There’s no way you’ll be able to make it in your state! You’ll have to let me do it for you while… Bollocks! The baby! Oh, come here!” He snatched the glass from her hand and poured it down the sink. Then he switched on the kettle and made her a strong, black coffee. “Drink this!” he ordered.
Kerry looked frightened and subdued as she sipped.
“Now don’t have any more whiskey! You understand!?”
Zach used Graham and Kerry’s blue Volvo to drive to the school in Rockall Port. Flippin’ heck! he mused as he negotiated the tight roads of Hasselwood. Are the savages all driving!? Even if they’ve learned alright…
More and more of the scientists were bringing their families with them to Rockall and there were now enough children in the British Sector to justify the opening of the island’s first school. It was divided into two classes one for juniors and one for secondary pupils and consisted of a pair of low, single-storey Bower-casts with a playground in between. Mrs Bottomley, the headmistress stood up as Zach entered and her eyes bugged. “Mr Deputy-Governor!” she exclaimed. “Goodness me! We weren’t expecting you!”
“Sorry to drop by unannounced.” said Zach. “I’ve come to pick up a friend’s children.”
“Oh, I see… well, let me show you through to the classroom. The lessons don’t finish for ten minutes.”
The headmistress ran ahead, presumably to warn the teacher that the Governorship was making a surprise inspection. Zach walked down the hallway covered in paintings and shelves of brightly-coloured children’s books to the junior classroom where the head was holding the door for him.
The teacher was on dry old woman with an Edinburgh accent. She clapped her hands and with a scraping of chairs, the children stood up behind their double row of desks. “This is Mr Neelum.” she said to her class. “Mr Neelum is the Deputy-Governor; that means he’s the second most important person on the island after the Governor. Say good afternoon to him.”
“Good-af-ter-noon, Mis-ter Nee-lum.” the children all recited in monotone unison.
“Good afternoon.” Zach replied.
“Patrick, step forward.” said the teacher.
One of the youngsters, a boy of about eight, left his place and marched to the front of the room where he turned to one side so that he could address both Zach and his classmates. Zach recognized him as one of Queylie’s children. A year and a half ago, this boy had slept beside him in a cave on a bed of heather and horsehide; now he was a cute, British schoolboy in a stripy tie and a jumper with the school crest on it. “My name is Patrick MacRocail.” he said. The savages didn’t have surnames in their native life, so when they were registered they were all given the name of MacRocail. “I am eight years old and I live on Rockall with my mummy and daddy. My daddy works for the Black Gold Consortium and my mummy looks after our house. My favourite lesson is art and design and my hobby is computer games, football and riding my bike.”
As he sat down the other children applauded. Now Zach had spotted him, he also picked out the other savage youngsters as well; their racial differences were more apparent when they sitting alongside their peers: The pallid skin, those incredibly big, dark eyes; the fleshy lower face; the blond hair, thick and wiry like a black person’s. For the first time, Zach appreciated that the Erkdwala were in fact very beautiful people.
There were nine Erkdwala children in that class, distributed evenly, not sitting together in gangs. The savage youths had adjusted to civilized life much better and more quickly than their elders. Patrick’s English was very fluent and even his accent had almost disappeared. One of the girls was said to have learned French.
“Now then, Children.” said the teacher. “It’s home-time now, so why don’t we show Mr Neelum how quietly and sensibly we can tidy up and leave the classroom.”
The youths marched out calmly and broke into a run as soon as they were in the playground where their parents were all waiting. The teacher handed over care of Patrick to Zach. “Mr Neelum!” he piped. “Can I go to Macaulay’s house? I want to play his Ex-Fist-Four.”
“Not today, Mate; sorry. I’ve got to get you home to your mum and dad… Where’s Bryan?”
Patrick looked behind him. “He was here a minute ago.”
Zach scanned the entire playground, but there was no sign of Queylie’s younger son. “Shit!”
The teacher panicked. “Megan! Sheila! Shut the front gate! Don’t let anyone out!”
A half minute of terror followed; staff and parents scattered like ants; then a younger teacher from the secondary class called out from a clump of bushes in the corner of the school grounds. “It’s OK! I’ve found him! He’s here!”
Bryan MacRocail was curled up in a ball on the teacher’s lap snivelling. His school uniform was crumpled and stained with mud. A rivulet of blood dripped from his nose. A group of smirking secondary boys were standing to one side. “What the hell happened here!?” Zach demanded.
Patrick came running up and clasped his younger brother in a protective embrace, jabbering at him in the Erkdwala language. Bryan tearfully replied and pointed at the gang of older boys.
The teacher stood up and confronted them “What did you do to him!?”
“Nothing, Miss.” said one. “He just fell over.”
There was a long silence. Patrick looked at the older boys, at his brother and then up at Zach. “Will you take us home now please, Mr Neelum?”
As they walked away, Zach heard the older youths snigger and one muttered: “Little freak!”
Along with Patrick and Bryan, Zach also collected Yonnax’s three daughters: Charlotte, Charmaine and Charlene. As soon as they were back at Kerry’s house the girls ran upstairs to where they’d left their collection of Barbie dolls and Queylie’s two boys switched on their Playstation; the noise of bings, bleeps and booms came from the lounge and occasionally Patrick and Bryan would cheer and call out: “Gotcha!” and “Take that, Punk!”
Kerry appeared to have sobered up somewhat. The meal she had microwaved was burnt and she hastily boiled some eggs and toasted some crumpets. Kerry’s family had been living in that house for six months, but she still seemed to have little idea of how to use most of the kitchen appliances, so Zach helped her with the food. While she was doing so she chatted on her mobile ‘phone in rapid Erkdwala. Zach waited patiently for her to finish. “Graham?” he asked, pointing at her Nokia Ninety-two-ten.
“Yes. Graham come home.”
“How’s he getting on at work?”
“Work?... He good. He like.”
Zach hesitated. “Listen, Kerry; Bryan had a bit of bother at school today.”
“Bryan…” Zach tried to think of a way to paraphrase this unpleasant news for the savage woman. “Some bigger, older boys at the school… have been violent to Bryan.”
“Be what to Bryan?”
“Violent. Bullying, hitting him.”
“Vio...lent? What is violent?”
“Hitting, punching, kicking. Bang!” He pushed his fist against his cheek.
Kerry shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Damn! I don’t know how to explain it… Is there anyone around here apart from Kayleigh who speaks your language?”
“I can speak English.” She grinned like a model on the cover of a phrasebook.
By the time Graham, formerly Grayvin, Kerry’s husband, had arrived home the eggs and crumpets were done.
Graham had shaved, making him look totally different. His hair was cut short and he’d put a drop of Brylcream on top of it. He, like all the savage males, was working in the unskilled labour pool at the half-built oil terminal on the north coast. His grey boiler suit was grimy and stank of ammonia and ozone. On his chest was the motif of the Black Gold Consortium: A royal blue rectangle with a white puffin perched atop an Egyptian pyramid.
The doorbell rang about three minutes later and old Kerroj the chieftain came in. He nodded at Zach and began a long conversation with Graham and Kerry in the savage tongue while the couple ate. After about twenty minutes he got up and turned to Zach. “Come with me, Mr Neelum.” he said in his croaky voice. “We must leave these people now. They sleep soon.”
“It’s only half past four.”
“When the sun go to bed, we go to bed. When the sun wake up, we wake up… Come, I will show you a thing.”
Kerroj spoke better English than any other adult savage that Zach had met, but in other ways he had changed much less since their rescue. The Commission had returned all the Erkdwala’s belongings as part of Trevor’s amnesty, but only Kerroj still wore his horsehide suit, wooden crown and cloak of gull feathers. The only concession he had made to civilized dress were his stout brogues. “I need them.” he said as he and Zach walked along the pavements of Hasselwood. “This rock you walk on is bad for feet. You cover over real earth with this?” He kicked the paving stones. “Why do you walk on this? Why do you not walk on real earth?”
Zach paused. “Dunno. I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Look!” Kerroj pointed at a patch of broken glass. “This cut feet so bad you die! And you walk on this!?”
“That’s just kids messing about; breaking bottles.”
Kerroj shook his head. “Crazy! If I fall on real earth or grass or heather, I get up and walk again. If I fall over on this… pavement, I am broken! My blood come out!”
Zach laughed. “I’m sure you’ll get used to it, Mr Kerroj.”
Kerroj smiled thinly and glanced up at the afternoon sky. “Are you happy here, Mr Neelum?”
“Here…” He shrugged and uttered an unpronounceable word from his own language.
“Well… I’m alright, I suppose. Why?”
Kerroj stopped walking and turned towards him, looking him hard in the eye and said: “You are not happy. You are sad.”
“You are a sad man… Trevor is a very sad man. He is very very sad! More sad than you.”
“Bullshit, Kerroj! Trevor is the happiest man on Rockall! He’s got it all, has Trevor! Bastard!”
“Trevor has nothing!” said the old man emphatically. “I feel very sorry for him. We must help him.”
“Help him!?... I’ll help him alright! Head first down a flight of stairs!”
Kerroj smiled and walked on, beckoning. “Come.”
“Where are we going anyway?”
“Come, Mr Neelum.”
Zach sighed and joined him.
The savage chieftain led him along the labyrinthine streets of the estate and out along the road to Rockall Port; a journey of two miles. Zach became tired, but Kerroj was untouched by the exertion, despite his age and his complaints about the footpaths. “We’re nearly there.” he said as if sensing his companion’s fatigue.
“Kerroj, why do you walk about so much? There’s an excellent public transport system between the two southern settlements. Why don’t you just take the bus or learn to drive a car like the others have done?”
“If you go to a place you must walk there. If you don’t walk there, you cannot really be there.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Mr Kerroj… How is it that although you’ve learnt better English than the others I understand you less than them?”
“Do you need to understand everything?”
Zach stopped and stared at his receding back. His feathered robe rustled in the breeze.
They eventually reached their destination: All Saints Church of Rockall; a low, modern, pleasantly-shaped building with stained glass windows. There was a single grave in the grassy grounds, an oblong mound of brown loam with a bunch of flowers laid on top of it. Kerroj stopped beside the grave and looked down.
Zach crouched and examined the bouquet. There was a little card stapled to the paper in which they were wrapped; on it was written a message in Erkdwala. The handwriting was Kayleigh’s and he recognized one word: Zhadek. He screwed up his eyes and gritted his teeth. Then he straightened up and turned to Kerroj. “Alright! I feel guilty! I detest myself for what happened, OK!? That’s why you brought me here, wasn’t it!? To rub it in! Well, it worked! Are you satisfied!?”
The old man returned his gaze steadily during this speech. “I am not angry with you, Mr Neelum. I don’t want you to be sad.”
“Then you’re about the only one who doesn’t!”
“Zhadek is died, but it is not a thing that you did.”
Zach didn’t reply.
“Erkdwala are not angry with Mr Neelum; Mr Neelum must not be angry with Mr Neelum.”
“I caused all this, Kerroj. I got your son killed.” he said quietly. “I betrayed you all.”
“All the time, everybody do a thing that make a lot of bad happen. They say: ‘I wish I have not done that because it make bad happen.’ You see? Everybody do this, Mr Neelum. Everybody. But not everybody wish they have not. It is that wish which makes a man good.”
“But I caused Zhadek’s death!”
Kerroj laughed. “And if Mr Neelum do not make Zhadek dead then will Zhadek live forever?”
“Well no; of course not, but…”
“Everybody will be dead one day. Everybody! You, me, all people. If Mr Neelum do not make Zhadek dead then another time somebody else will. Or maybe he will get ill or walk in front of a bus, as you say.”
“That’s not the point, Kerroj! Zhadek was only forty-eight! He died young when he could have lived to be as old as you!”
“Old as me! Yes!” He laughed again. “I am old and I live! But mans die old and young; and womans and childs. How long you live mean nothing.” He raised his head slightly and looked at the southern skyline. “It’s just a piece of forever. One day is the same as a hundred years next to forever… How can I tell you about this so you understand?”
“I don’t know, Kerroj. As far as I can see it, I’m still the bad guy.”
“Listen! You see dolphins?”
“Yes; you know this persons?”
“Dolphins? Yes, of course. They’re creatures that live in the sea.”
“You see them?”
“Yes, sometimes. They’re quite common”
“Dolphin likes to jump out of the sea.” Kerroj mimed the action with his hand. “She go up, up, up. Then she fall back down. Coosh! Fall back into sea.”
Zach paused. “Is there a point in this somewhere?”
“You are a dolphin! You are born; that is dolphin jumping out of sea. You live; that is dolphin in the air; but then you always die, like dolphin always fall back into sea… Does a dolphin ever stay in the air and fly around like a bird?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then you not stay alive and live forever. You jump up into life and you always fall back into death… It is the normal thing in the world!”
“Yes! Dolphins swim in sea, jump up again, fall down again, swim in sea more; and on and on and on.”
There was a long pause and Kerroj walked over to a bench by the church wall and sat down. “Oh, I am tired now.”
Zach felt a sudden amity for the old man. He smiled at him. “Aha! Even you get tired eventually.”
“Yes, I am seventy-four years born. I get tired more now than before.” He pulled a notebook and pen out of a pouch in his tunic and began jotting.
“Kerroj! You can write!”
“Yes. I learn; Kayleigh teached me.”
“Blimey! I didn’t realize.” Zach sat down beside him and peered at the notebook.
Kerroj’s handwriting was angular and child-like, but the letters were legible. He was writing something in Erkdwala and had already filled many pages.
“What are you writing, Kerroj?”
“I make a story.”
“Barbara. The woman who make air-plane broken, who stop bad men from taking Erkdwala away from Rockall.”
“Oh, I see.” said Zach soberly. “That’s right. Her name was Barbara Kelsoe; she was only twenty-three.”
“She is Jesus.”
“What did you say?”
“I think Barbara is Jesus.”
“What do you know about Jesus?”
“Reverend Hamilton tell me about Jesus. He is a great man who give His life away for other people’s lifes. Then He come back and live in Barbara. Bad men want to take Erkdwala away from Rockall, but she stop them by hitting air-plane with her car, but that maked her dead. She knowed she will be dead before she did this! She gave her life for Erkdwala’s lifes… She is Jesus of Erkdwala.”
Zach nodded slowly. “Yes. She was a very very brave young lady.”
For a moment Kerroj looked mournful then he chuckled “I think Barbara is with Zhadek now in the other place, Atloi.”
“You reckon? What's Atloi? In Heaven you mean?”
Kerroj frowned. “I still not sure what that place is… Yes! I think they will fall in love and be married; then they will do lots of sex!” He roared with laughter.
“Kerroj, this is a church! You’re not supposed to talk like that here!”
“Er… I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know then why you do it?” He laughed again.
Zach was silent for a moment as he digested these words.
Kerroj recovered and wiped his eyes on his cuff. “Do you talk to Jesus, Mr Neelum?”
“No; I was brought up a Catholic, but I’m afraid I don’t believe in Him any more.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“I’m not religious, Kerroj. I don’t think Jesus is real. I don’t think religion is real.”
“Rel…igion? I don’t know this word.”
“God, Jesus, Allah, you name it. None of it is true.”
“But… this thing is true, of course. You have eyes! Cannot you see it?”
“No, I can’t see it; and neither can you!”
“But I can.”
“OK.” Zach jumped to his feet. “Show me where God is! Point to Him!”
“But I can’t point to God. God is everywhere.”
“And you can see Him?”
“Yes. He is real.”
Zach snorted and shook his head. “Kerroj, this is real!” He slapped the wall of the church. “This is real!” He bent down and brushed the grass. “What your eyes see, your ears hear, your hands touch; that is real! Nothing else!”
Kerroj gazed at him with a concerned frown. “You are an ill man like Trevor. You need help.”
“I do not need help!... And Trevor certainly doesn’t! Trevor is the Governor of Rockall! He has a massive salary, The Rotunda to live in! He has more money and power than everyone else on this island put together!”
“Money.” Kerroj reached into his pouch and produced a handful of coins and a screwed-up five-pound note. “This? Trevor has a lot of it?”
“Yes! One heck of a lot of it!”
“And you want a lot of it too?”
“My God, yes! What I could do if I was Governor! The world would be my oyster!”
Kerroj looked at the contents of his hand. “But money is just this things.” He held up a two-pound coin. “This is pretty; like a sea-stone, but I can find sea-stones in all places. And this is strange.” He smoothed out the fiver. “Like dry seaweed… I don’t understand why you like it so much and want a lot of it. All you can do with it is go in a shop and give it to the man there and he give you food and drink and other things.”
“But the more you have of it, the more things he’ll give you.”
“I have ninety-seventy… no, seventy-nine pound for seven days; Rockall Commission give me that. That is enough for everything I will need. Why want more?”
“Kerroj, you’re going to find that the world you’re in today is very different to the world you used to live in. You’re a civilized man now. You need to start thinking in a civilized way if you’re going to fit in with us. Your people were given the choice of staying in your caves or moving into the settlements. You chose to move into the settlements; every single one of you.”
“Not me!” replied Kerroj. “I did not! I want to live in caves and keep on with our own lifeway.”
“Well you were outvoted two hundred and ninety-nine to one.”
“Yes, I know; but I am their leader. Where Erkdwala choose to go, I must go too.” He looked down at his notebook, closed it and put it carefully back into his pouch. “Story is finished. Kayleigh will turn it into English for me then you and all others can read it.”
As if on cue, she then appeared, walking out of the church door with Reverend Hamilton and a bunch of scientists. Zach’s throat knotted and his stomach lurched. Before Zach could stop him, Kerroj had raised his hand in greeting and called out: “Hello, Reverend Hamilton and Kayleigh!”
They both turned and saw the two men sitting on the bench. Zach involuntarily shrank back. Kayleigh’s eyes met his and she remained totally composed. The young minister waved back and came walking over towards them with Kayleigh beside him. “Good evening, Kerroj. How are you today?”
“Very well, thank you. And you?”
“I’ve just been holding a party for the Advent readers. Are you having a chat with Zhadek?”
“No, he not want to talk today. I think he is busy.”
“A quiet chappie. Is he still happy with his grave?”
“It is strange for him.” said Kerroj.
“The Erkdwala traditionally don’t bury their dead on land.” said Kayleigh, looking at Zach. “They commit them to the sea in the deeps off Anderson Bay. That’s where they believe the portal lies to Atloi, Realm of the Ancestors.”
“Right; thanks.” he answered. Her voice lanced through his head like a hot needle. She hadn’t changed. Her hair had been cut and she had on a new winter jacket, but that was all.
“That’s why I wondered.” said Reverend Hamilton, smoothing down his white, cotton surplice. “Kerroj, do you think we should exhume his body and carry out another burial at sea?”
The old man shook his head. “No. It isn’t necessary now. Zhadek does not need; he is already in Atloi, good and safe.”
“Great. I’m glad he’s happy.” said Hamilton. He turned to Zach. “Hello again, Mr Neelum. Good to see you. Kerroj told me you’d be coming here today.”
“Did he?” Zach looked to the old chieftain, but Kerroj kept his gaze ahead of him.
“That’s right. He said you wanted to have a word with Kayleigh.”
“What!? I…” Kerroj had a half-smile on his face. “Right you are.” said Zach with an embarrassed grin. He looked and saw that Kayleigh wore the same expression.
Kerroj swiftly stood up and he and Reverend Hamilton began walking away. “Well, we have some business to sort out.” said the latter. “So we’ll be off now.” They entered the church, leaving Kayleigh and Zach alone. They both smiled at each other self-consciously. “So…” Kayleigh put her hands in her pockets and scuffed the ground with her feet. “How’s things?”
There was a long pause then Zach laughed and pointed to the church door. “Have those two set us up!?”
Kayleigh laughed too. “It does seem like it. Kerroj brought you here, didn’t he; and the chaplain just happened to ask me to meet him here at the same time.”
“I knew Kerroj was up to something! That sly, old fox!”
She hesitated. “Can I sit down?”
“Of course.” He shifted along the bench to make room for her. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“You too.” She sat beside him and tucked her feet under the bench, rocking back and forth on her thighs.”
“I never imagined you’d say that after everything that’s happened.”
“I’ve been meaning to give you a call, Zach. I even went as far as picking up the ‘phone.”
“So you don’t hate me any more?”
“No. And the reason I couldn’t bring myself to talk to you was because I felt guilty for attacking you.”
“Guilty, Kayleigh!? I deserved it!”
“No, Zach. I was too hard on you that day; and the days after that.” It was you that persuaded Trevor to give up on his idea of abducting the Erkdwala to America.”
“Partly, but the real credit must go to you, Dill and the opposition. We had no idea it could be so strong, especially when Barbara did that kamikaze with the Range Rover.”
“I was the last person to see her alive, you know.” said Kayleigh half to herself. “She asked me to give her love to her friends.”
Zach bowed his head respectfully.
“You prevented a bloodbath the following morning, Zach.” she continued. “Barry and his mates had guns that they’d stolen from the plane. They wouldn’t have given the Erkdwala up without a fight.”
Zach raised his eyebrows sarcastically. “And now everything’s OK? The Erkdwala are back in their caves hunting ponies and eating seaweed like they have done for the last forty millennia?”
She smiled at his sarcasm. “No. That’s why I’ve formed an Erkdwala support group with Dill, Kerroj and Reverend Hamilton.”
“He’s a nice guy, the chaplain; he could almost have me born-again!”
“He is a very good guy. He’s a Christian with a tolerant, open mind and respect for other beliefs.”
There was a pause. “I went to see Keesa, Grayvin and little Karsk today.” said Zach. “Only they’ve changed their names to Kerry, Graham and Kevin!”
Kayleigh screwed up her face with distaste. “So I hear. They’re all doing it!”
“Grayvin’s working for a pittance on Trevor’s BGC labour initiative, Keesa’s become an alcoholic and the kids are being bullied at school.”
“Some of them won’t let me speak to them in their own language any more; they insist on using English. They’re obsessed with this new life in the settlements. I’m scared they’ll forget all their old ways and become totally absorbed into it.”
“This is deliberate!” said Zach, clicking his fingers. “I knew Trevor had a trick up his sleeve the night he came up with the idea. His amnesty stated that the Erkdwala would be allowed to return to their native residence and culture, if they chose to. We all assumed that they would and played right into Trevor’s hands! He made sure that before they went back, they were shown all the glories and comforts of modern civilization and, as he hoped, they were hypnotized by them. ‘You can go back to your hard, old, primitive life if you wish.’” He parodied Trevor’s voice. “’Or you can stay here and all these wonders can be yours!’ And it worked a treat! Look at them now!”
“I should have seen through it!” said Kayleigh. “We should never have trusted him!”
“We can’t blame ourselves, Kay. Trevor’s cunning knows no bounds.”
“What can we do?”
“Nothing, unless the Erkdwala come to their senses. At least old Kerroj wasn’t taken in.”
“Indeed.” Kayleigh kissed the air. “Thank God for Kerroj! He’s their only hope! The single remaining bond with their culture.”
“We’ve got a great opportunity coming up with the Rockall Summit.” stressed Zach. “We’re leaving tomorrow. It’s going to be hard work, but it’ll be very productive. I intend to put a word in for the Erkdwala.”
“I’m going down there with Kerroj to lobby.” said Kayleigh. “We must be careful to make sure Trevor doesn’t stitch the whole thing up.”
“Huh! He’ll have a job!”
“Yeah, Zach; but remember, you said it yourself, his cunning knows no bounds.”
Zach caught his breath as Kayleigh put her hand on his and squeezed it; her eyes melted into his brain.
“Take care, Zach.”
“You too.” he whispered back.
Zach awoke suddenly when someone pulled back the curtains of his couchette with a rasp. The train had stopped and a metallic light filled the compartment from the window. Trevor’s head was half-lit like a planet in space. “Are we there yet?” asked Zach.
“No, this is Leicester. I’ve come to give you your first wake-up call. Here.” He held out a plastic cup of coffee.”
“I only need one wake-up call, thanks.” Zach glared at him and sat up, taking the coffee.
“When you’re compus mentis you can join me in the buffet and we’ll have a Q-and-A session.” He left without another word.
Zach looked out at the station platform. The clock said three-thirty-six AM. A cleaner was sweeping the concourse with a wire broom and a poster loomed over him advertising a newly-released film. The only sound was the snoring of his fellow passengers coming from behind the curtains of the other couchettes. With a jerk, the train began to move.
Trevor was the only other person in the train’s buffet car. As Zach sat down, Trevor offered him a hip flask. “Hair of the dog, Zach?”
“Not for me, ta.”
“Are you sure?”
“Trevor, I’m off the juice, OK?”
“What!? Don’t fool with me!”
“I am; I’ve decided. From now on, I’m a mineral water man.”
“Well, Zach… I’m impressed; surprised and impressed.”
“Shall we get on?”
“Alright.” Trevor picked up a sheet of A-four. “I’ll be the chair… Mr Neelum, I believe that several of our delegates are concerned by the amount of Commission capital you plan to invest in the Black Gold Consortium. The US Federal Reserve has already brought up eighteen or nineteen million dollars in shares; more than twice that of any British institution.”
“Well, Mr Chairman; the BGC has, is and always will be a viable and welcome asset to the Rockallian economy, don’t get me wrong here. I’m of the opinion that the Rockall Commission should always be in a position to sanctify a large proportion of its capital purely for the purchase of high-value stock. That proportion, however, has to be sized very carefully. We are a public organization, after all; set up by the UK government to administer all social and economic activity in the British Sector of the island, which is by definition time-consuming and expensive; but I think it necessary, considering that the market is so new. Rockall is still finding its economic feet, so to speak, and it needs the Commission nanny to guide it.”
“Mr Neelum, I’m aware of the obligation that the Commission holds towards the people of Rockall, and such an undertaking is commendable; however, I must insist that many of our delegates are concerned by the apparent priority slant your organization holds. Rockall is in effect the world’s biggest trade orchard. The fruit is ripe, but it seems that you only want to pick off two or three of the trees and spend the rest of the time powdering the feet of the other pickers. Why?”
“Without the pickers there would be no fruit. The Commission is a social organization…”
“But the fruit still must be collected before it falls and the Commission seems lethargic in its attitude towards getting out there and taking it. An awful lot of trade is going to waste. All our delegates are aware that the Commission holds the reins of the British contingent. It’s a very powerful organization; our investors must be reassured that it’s on their side.”
“Sir, please tell your investors that they need not be worried. The Rockall Commission champions the economic concerns of all. But we are talking about a virgin market. Rockall has potential; I’d swear to that! But it must be handled delicately; if not, long term prosperity may be destroyed in favour of short term gain.”
“What potential, if the Rockall Commission is setting this kind of example?”
“Mr Chairman, the island’s potential lies in what is being developed at the moment. Buildings, shops and industrial plants are still being constructed. There is also a lucrative niche for traditional highland industries like fisheries, crofting, and tweed. Along with this there is the promise of high productivity from the island’s indigenous people, the Erkdwala. I have prepared a statement…”
“What was that!?” Trevor snapped, slamming the paper down on the table.
“The Erkdwala, Mr Chairman. They…”
“Forget all that now, Zach; role-play over!... What did you say about the Erkdwala?”
Zach hesitated. “I’ve written a document about…”
“Now hang on, Trevor…”
“I said bin it!”
His sharp tone attracted the attention of the buffet server. “Trevor, will you listen…?”
“NO!... I’m the Governor of Rockall! I’m in charge and I say BIN IT!... For the duration of this summit, the savages do not exist! Is that clear!?”
Zach’s face tingled and his limbs trembled.
“I said is that clear!?”
“Yes.” he whimpered.
Trevor paused then smiled. “Good.”
The train slowly pulled into London's St Pancras station at six AM and the tousled passengers disembarked onto the dark, freezing platform. Trevor and Zach walked side by side up the concourse, dragging their suitcases behind them. Trevor wore a poker-face.
They took a cab to the Kensington Hilton. The streets of London looked strange to Zach, having not left Rockall in over two years. The tall buildings fascinated him, their facades sprinkled with frost and glowing a hellish orange in the streetlight. The taxi queued behind lorries and delivery vans, huge clouds issuing from their exhaust pipes. A cluster of newsmen were waiting outside the hotel and as the taxi drew up they mobbed it. Flashbulbs flickered in Zach’s eyes and reporters bombarded them with questions as he and Trevor fought their way into the lobby. “No comment! No comment!” he yelled at them, unable to hear his own voice above their clamour. As the doors closed, shutting them out Trevor said: “If we’d flown it would have been a lot worse. Most of them are at the airport.” It was the first time he had spoken since their conversation in the buffet car.
Zach’s en suite bedroom was large and sumptuous. He shaved, had a shower and pinned his delegate’s name badge to his left breast pocket. He smiled at himself in the mirror and read the decorated writing on the gold-plated badge: TIMMUS LLAKCOR – MULEEN YRAHCAZ.
At nine o’clock, Trevor and Zach boarded a Rolls Royce in the hotel car park, thus avoiding the press scrummage outside. A few camera lenses bumped against the windows as the car drove out, but the tinted glass shielded the interior from view. A police motorcade escorted them to North Greenwich and the site of the Rockall Summit. Security was incredibly tight. A legion of armed police had sealed off several square miles of East London and the car had to stop at a checkpoint before being allowed through. Helicopters chattered overhead and the river beyond was patrolled by naval torpedo boats. There was a horde of several hundred protesters assembled at the edge of the no-go zone. Zach couldn’t hear their chants from inside the soundproof car, but he looked round to read their placards:
FREEDOM FOR ROCKALL!
HUMAN LIFE- NOT GREED!
LET THE ERKDWALA LIVE!
B.G.C. OUT!- CAPITALISM OUT!- ROCKALL FOR THE PEOPLE!
ROCKALL IS THE ERKDWALA HOMELAND! A row of riot police, hunched shoulder-to-shoulder, held them back behind a junction. “Damn women!” snapped Trevor. “They should go out and get a job!”
Zach scanned the faces of the multitude as the car passed through the security shield and thought he caught a glimpse of Kayleigh.
The Millennium Institute stood on a finger of land girdled by the river Thames. The dome that used to stand there had been replaced by a series of low, white-tile, black-glass buildings. The grounds were dotted with lawns and surrealist sculptures. In summer the flowerbeds would be a blaze of colour, but today they were just mounds of black, frosted soil. Policemen and soldiers lined the river wall like a terracotta army. Trevor and Zach got out of the car and looked across the river at the skyscraper-riddled horizon of the docklands. The sky was cloudless and porcelain-blue, but the air stung with cold. “Look.” Trevor pointed to the west and Zach saw another helicopter flying in low over the river, escorted by two US Army gunships, their rotors slicing the morning air, their racket reverberating off the tile walls. “What’s that?” asked Zach.
The Governor grinned tight-lipped. “Selby.”
“The US president is attending!?”
“I never heard anything about that.”
“No one has yet.”
“Blooming heck! They really take our little island seriously, don’t they?”
“Our little island?” Trevor tittered and patted Zach’s shoulder.
The warmth inside the heated building was like an oven after being outdoors. The delegates were all shown to a lounge furnished with velvet settees where white-suited butlers and maids served them with coffee. There were a couple of amusing thematic touches to the room on a sideboard: A stuffed puffin, fulmar and juvenile gannet or guga; various lumps of mineral and photographs, including one of Trevor and Zach at First Landing. Zach was pleased to see the Rockall Triumvirate hanging on the wall.
Trevor left Zach’s side at this point and seemed to come into his own, taking on a completely different demeanour. He circulated around the clusters of suited men and women, chatting and laughing genially. When President Selby walked in with the Prime Minister and Ross Quentin, Trevor was one of the first at his side.
“Our Great Leader! Quite the little politician, isn’t he?”
Zach turned to see Dill standing beside him. “Dill!”
“What are you doing here?”
“Hitched a ride with Ross.” He smiled and pointed to his gold badge.
“I didn’t know you’d been invited.”
“I’m not here with the Commission. I came as an independent observer for the Christian Union of Scotland; Reverend Hamilton wangled me in.”
“Well, don’t tell Trevor that!” Zach giggled.
“I know! He’s going to be well pissed off to see me here! I won’t let on I’m just a silent observer.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not silent with me anymore.”
“Kayleigh told me you’ve got something planned for the Erkdwala.”
“Er… yes, I have.”
“Besides, I owe you one for helping save them; we all do.”
Zach only half-heard him, remembering what Trevor had said on the train.
“Did you see Kayleigh just now outside?”
“I think so.”
“Kerroj is here too! I wonder what he thinks of London!... They’re both here to lobby the delegates to support the Erkdwala; but your position should make their actions superfluous!” He slapped Zach’s shoulder. “Slay ‘em in there, Zach!” He walked away to rejoin Quentin.
Zach wished fervently that he could vanish into thin air.
At around ten the conference was called to order and the delegates diffused into the central chamber for the first session. A lone bagpiper played on the stage as they took their seats in the converted theatre. There were about a thousand guests and name cards on the backs of seats dictated where everyone sat. There was a speaker’s podium on the stage and a long table for the chairman and VIP delegates which was turned to face the audience like an altar in a church. Above the stage hung four, backlit black-and-white photographs of Rockall panoramas: The Eastern Capes, Rockall Port harbour, the Green Port domes and the departed Roosevelt Skerries. There were no photographers or reporters present; the entire two-week conference was to be held in camera.
Most of the other delegates were unknown to Zach; government and senior civil-service people mostly, but a few were in military uniform. Zach took his place on the front row and looked over his shoulder. There was no sign of Trevor. The seats were almost full now except for a three block row at the front in the centre which was labelled “Reserved”, presumably for the British cabinet and senior American officials.
At last the Governor of Rockall made his entrance, walking down the aisle between President Selby and Craig Weller, the British Prime Minister. The president said something which must have been extremely funny because Trevor threw back his head, laughed loudly and clapped him on the shoulder in a chummy kind of way. He shook both their hands warmly then left as they took their seats on the stage.
“How’s your backache?” asked Zach as Trevor sat down next to him.
“Backache? I don’t have backache.”
“That’s surprising ‘cos you’ve spent the last hour bent double kissing arse.”
Trevor chuckled in the back of his throat. “Zach, when you’ve learnt more about statesmanship you’ll realize that the real action goes on outside the hall, in the cafeteria and bar between sessions and at social evenings. I was merely exercising a little diplomacy.”
“You looked ridiculous! Do you realize how transparent you are?”
“To you perhaps, but you know me. Weller and Selby are strangers to all and never have any genuine discourse to compare with strategic inducement. I think I’ve got those two under my thumb.”
Zach snorted and shook his head.
The last people to arrive were some of the UK cabinet ministers, US Vice-President and various other second-row officials. Zach expected them to sit in the “Reserved” seating, but they didn’t. The piper stopped playing and left. “Trevor?”
“What?” He looked up from his notes
“Who are those seats reserved for?”
He turned back to his briefcase. “You’ll see.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” called the chairman over the loudspeaker. “Welcome to the Rockall Summit of Twenty-thirteen. Greetings to Mr Craig Weller, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; and to Mr Glenmar Selby, President of the United States.” A young woman interpreted his sentences into Gaelic, reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest. “Before we begin, let us rise and sing the national anthems of our two great countries.” They had God Save The Queen first then The Star-Spangled Banner. (The programme stated that at the end of the conference the order would be reversed.) Afterwards they all sat down again and Zach turned to Page One of the agenda, expecting the summit to begin, but nothing happened. There was absolute stillness and silence in the room. He panned his eyes around, but the delegates were like a tableau. “What’s going on, Trevor?”
“Shh!” The Governor waved him down.
“Shut up, Zach! If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep quiet!”
Selby and Weller rose from their seats and stood petrified facing the front. Something about the look on their faces induced a shiver of dread in Zach. More people began to enter the chamber from the side. They were clad in identical black suits like a team of undertakers. They walked across the front of the stage and took their places in the “reserved” section; there were the exact number of seats in the block for all of them. After they’d taken their seats, the two heads-of-government sat down. The chair came up to the podium to make his introductory speech and the session then began as normal.
The late-arrivers never spoke to conference or to each other and just sat impassively like a theatre audience. They all wore dark glasses and were a nondescript group of all ages; mostly men, but with one or two women. Three or four were black and one Chinese or Japanese. After the peculiar ceremony of their arrival most of the delegation seemed strangely unaware of them, treating them as if they were part of the furniture. Zach couldn’t concentrate on any of the proceedings for the whole two-hour session. At the end there was another minute of respectful silence as the black-suited people rose and left the hall through the same side door.
Zach ate quietly at a table with a bunch of Americans who talked amongst themselves about fishery taxes. Trevor was grooming the VIP’s again and never came near him. Dill was nowhere to be seen. It was only during the afternoon coffee break that Zach met up with him again in the toilets. Zach was urinating when Dill popped up beside him. “Oh.” said Zach. “There you are.”
“Shh! Just keep pissing!”
“Bloody hell! Everybody’s shushing me today!”
“Who are they!?” Dill whispered. His jaw was tight and his eyes darted from side to side.
“Who are who?”
“No idea. I asked Trevor and he wouldn’t tell me. I hoped you might know.”
“Zach! We just witnessed two men, who are supposed to be the most powerful in the world, stand to attention like lackeys and kiss their boots!”
“I know; I don’t get it either…” He broke off as someone entered the toilets and vanished into a cubicle. “I’ll see if I can get anything out of Trevor.”
“Zach.” Dill visibly trembled. “We shouldn’t have come here! It’s dangerous!”
“Get away, Dill! We’re delegates. We were invited.”
The younger man breathed deeply.
“Look; wait until Trevor makes his speech. If you can sit through that then you can endure anything!”
Dill smiled tensely. “OK, but… be careful, Zach.”
Maybe he’s forgotten what he told me on the train. Zach put down his notes and turned on the TV. A news reporter was interviewing Kerroj. “So what’s it like to be in a big city, Mr Kerroj?”
Kerroj didn’t reply and turned to take in the busy street behind him. “Wonder… wonder…” he murmured.
“The wonders of technology? Yes; I suppose it must be very different to the kind of lifestyle you’re used to.”
“Very different.” the old chieftain affirmed with a scowl.
Zach saw Kayleigh standing in the background looking irritated.
There was a loud knock on his bedroom door. “Zach?” It was Trevor’s voice. Zach snapped off the TV and opened the door. The Governor of Rockall pushed past him. “Right, Zach; I just came over to check that things are going swimmingly.”
“Fine, Trevor, fine. I’m just rehearsing my speech for tomorrow.”
“Have you?” he chuckled; there was a tense and forced tone to his voice that alerted Zach. “Silly! You shouldn’t have bothered. I’ve written your speech; here it is.” He handed Zach a sheaf of papers.
Zach flicked through them. “Hang on. What’s this?”
“It’s the speech you’re going to make at conference tomorrow.”
“This isn’t what I want to say!”
“Yes, it is.”
There was a pause. “Trevor, I gave you the stuff I’d written and told you that’s what I was going to table; about the Erkdwala’s decline…”
“I read it, Zach; I reviewed it thoroughly and I don’t feel comfortable with you presenting it.”
“But… the Erkdwala need to maintain elements of their traditional culture if they’re going to survive in society!”
“Rubbish! They need to completely break with their past and embrace the modern world in order to thrive in it! That’s what’s been happening and it’s been very successful!”
“It hasn’t! The adults have hit the bottle and the kids are having the shit kicked out of them at school!”
“The savages are being successfully rehabilitated!” said Trevor firmly. “Rehabilitated under my programme, one that is going to give them a much better life!”
“No you don’t! You agree and you support this effort; and furthermore, tomorrow you’re going to stand up, smile and tell everyone at the summit that you do! Understand!?”
“Why can’t I read my own statement and encourage a debate on the subject?”
“This is your own statement!” Trevor pointed at the pile of papers that he’d just given him. “And what debate? There is nothing to debate! Everyone is unanimously agreed that the savages are coming along fine and dandy!”
“I’m not agreed!”
“Yes, you are!” Trevor poked a finger at his face. “You are because I say you are! I am the Governor of Rockall and Head-in-situ of the Rockall Commission! You will do what I tell you, say what I tell you and think what I tell you!... And I’m telling you that if you don’t want me to call Greg Slydes, you will present this information positively and enthusiastically at the Rockall Summit tomorrow!..." He paused, panting and flushed with arousal "...‘Yes, Your Excellency'!”
Zach’s face broiled as he stared into Trevor’s eyes.
“SAY IT!” he screamed, so loudly that the china teacups rattled on the sideboard.
“Yes, Your Excellency.” Zach growled.
There was a long silence. The anger slowly subsided from Trevor’s countenance and he smiled. “Jolly good.” He patted his Deputy-Governor on the shoulder like a dog and left the room.
Zach sat down on the bed and stared at the wall, fighting back tears. A few minutes later, the ‘phone rang making him jump. He picked it up. “Hel…” He coughed. “Hello?”
“Hi, Zach! It’s Dill. You all set for tomorrow?”
“Me too! I’m looking forward to it! It’ll be great when you get on that podium, break through all that bureaucratic gloss and put the world to rights!”
“The Erkdwala deserve our respect and protection. Conference will have to face the issue.”
Dill paused. “Are you OK, Zach? You sound a bit poorly.”
"I’m fine, Dill. See you tomorrow.” He put down the ‘phone and picked up Trevor’s speech. He stood up and looked at his own face in the mantle mirror for a moment then began rehearsing aloud: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve come before you today to talk about one of the Rockall Commission’s greatest achievements: The successful integration into modern society of a degenerate race of prehistoric savages…”
Zach only slept for about two hours that night. His light slumber washed through with surreal nightmares of dungeons and torture; his limbs mutilated or set on fire. He gave up in the early hours and went to stand by his bedroom window looking down on the sleeping streets. Drunk, laughing youths staggered along the pavement and police sirens echoed around the canyons of the city. He fell into a kind of stupor where he stood and it seemed the next minute when his alarm clock bleeped. A spasm of rage coursed through his head and he lashed out at the device with his foot. It flew against the wall and shattered.
Zach couldn’t bear the sight of his own face as he shaved; he looked away from the mirror and ended up cutting himself; he dug the razor in harder, relishing the pain. Blood plopped into the washbasin. At breakfast he just sat and stared at his plate, feeling nauseous.
Time seemed to be running faster than usual; the next thing he knew he was in the back seat of the Rolls, being driven through the streets of London. He stared at the protesters, straining through the chanting mob for a glimpse of Kayleigh. He saw her and misery filled him like poison. My lovely Kayleigh. Please forgive me.
“What’s the matter with you?” demanded Trevor from the seat next to him.
“Nothing; I’m fine.”
“Well you don’t look it. Get a damn grip, Zach! We must present a confident and vigorous image to our fellow representatives. You are a confident and vigorous man, are you not?”
“Hm.” He nodded.
“What was that?”
“Good. Now when the PM walks in, sit up straight and smile.”
For the morning session, the conference was broken up into smaller workshops which met in many of the little meeting rooms that lined the gallery; each one dealing with a specific issue concerning Rockall. Trevor attended a workshop on reassessing the amount of land divided between the British and Americans, (a matter that was always being hotly debated. Both countries believed that the borderline was out of place from anything between a mile and sixteen inches.) There were a series of industrial workshops on crofting, fishing, tweed manufacture and of course the oil wells. There was a caucus for the military and security delegates, a Gaelic language workshop, an education and employment workshop, a healthcare workshop and one on the Erkdwala to which Trevor deployed Zach.
Dill sat opposite him at the table; as an observer he wasn’t allowed to contribute. Zach gazed down at the teak tabletop not raising his head, afraid to meet Dill’s eyes. He could guess what he was thinking: Come on, Zach! Say something! Aren’t you going to contest that motion!? What’s wrong!? Why don’t you speak!? One of the men from the “Reserved” seats stood in the corner looking on; motionless and disregarded by everyone, he could have been a statue. “So, shall we take a vote?” said the chair at the end of the session. “Those in favour of continuing the current McCain Rehabilitation Programme…”
Zach had to summon up all his energy to raise his hand, sickness flooding his system. He heard Dill snort in shock and disgust.
“And those against… So that’s carried then. This committee recommends that existing policy remains in place; approved by thirty-three votes to four.”
The moment the chair announced the end of the workshop Zach leaped out of his seat and fled from the room. He wasn’t fast enough; a hand roughly seized his shoulder, spun him round and jammed him against the wall. “Right! Start talking!” Dill’s face looked more hurt than angry.
“I… had to, Dill.” he whined. “Trevor made me do it.”
“How!? By holding a gun to your head!?”
“If I don’t support the McCain Rehab he’ll… he’ll sack me.”
Dill hesitated. “The fate of Europe’s most ancient culture is in your hands, Zach! Only you have the power to veto Trevor! You can’t do this!”
“I have to! My job’s on the line here! I won’t jeopardize my future!... Don't worry, the Erkdwala will be OK.”
Dill released his hold and stepped back; a bitter sneer creased his features. “You weasel! You double-crossing, little turd! I should have guessed you’d wimp out as soon as your precious, bloody career was threatened! Kayleigh was right about you!”
“Trevor’s got you eight inches up his arse! Always has, always will!... The Erkdwala culture is doomed, but who cares!? You’ll still be Governor one day! You’re pathetic!” He strutted off.
“Yes.” choked Zach to himself as the other delegates walked off to lunch. “I am.”
Zach spent most of his lunch hour vomiting into the toilet as if his self-loathing could be retched from his body. The bell rang, making him jump. This was it; the afternoon session was about to begin. Time to do what he had to do. He felt numb and dizzy as he made his way to his seat. Trevor was already there and greeted him with a friendly smile. “Good afternoon, Zach; are you alright?”
“You look a trifle queasy.”
“I’ll be OK.”
“Zach, listen.” He paused. “I think I was a bit hard on you last night. I shouldn’t have sounded off so sharply. I know this whole issue is important to you and your friends, but… my plan is for the best. You’ll see in the long run that we’re actually doing the savages a good turn. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Good man! You’ve got the speech?”
“Wonderful!” He tapped his shoulder. “Do me proud, Zach!”
“Ladies and Gentlemen.” called the chairman. “Please turn to item six on your agenda: Management of the indigenous culture on Rockall. The lead-off will be read by Zachary Neelum, Deputy-Governor of Rockall (British Sector.)”
There was a light round of applause as Zach walked up to the podium. His head spun and his limbs tingled; his mouth was dry and numb. He placed the speech on the lectern and adjusted the microphone. “Erm…” His voice echoed around the concrete chamber. “La… Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve come before you today to talk about… about… about…” His mind churned and his tongue and lips seized up. The crowd started muttering. “I can’t do it!” Zach faltered. “I’m sorry, Trevor; but it’s not fair! Rockall’s indigenous culture is going to be destroyed unless we end the McCain Rehabilitation Programme!”
There was an explosion of astonished chatter from the audience.
“Order! Order! Quiet please!” demanded the chair. “Proceed, Mr Neelum.”
“I’ve been working with the Erkdwala and I’ve seen the state they’re in. The adults have fallen into alcoholism and the children can’t integrate at school. They are withering, both physically and psychologically. Latest estimates date the landing on Rockall by the Erkdwala at fifty thousand years BC; the world’s oldest nation. This makes them a unique and immensely precious people whom the rest of humanity can learn so much from.
“I propose a motion that we shelve the McCain programme and replace it with a modified policy that respects and upholds the value of this ancient and noble race and actively promotes an interest among the Erkdwala in preserving their own way of life, rather than inducing them to cast it aside in favour of our own. Erkdwala adults should not be forced into slave-labour employment with the Black Gold Consortium…”
There was a roar of derision from the BGC delegation and the chair had to once again bring them to order.
“Instead these people should be allowed to provide for themselves in their traditional ways and barter their surplus for modern commodities only if they choose. Erkdwala children should not be forced into mainstream education and should be permitted home-teaching from their own elders in their own fashion. Their former residence in the Eastern Capes should be reopened and the people encouraged to return and live there.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Erkdwala’s interaction with western civilization is inevitable and not an inherently bad thing, so long as it is carefully controlled and the needs of the recipients made a top priority. Let this interaction with modern culture be on a one-to-one basis instead of an exercise in aggressive conformism. The fate suffered by the natives of America, Africa and Australia should have taught us a tragic and invaluable lesson. Now is the time to employ what we’ve learned. I second!”
There was total and complete uproar. Zach was deafened by a thousand voices resonating around the chamber; some booing in protest, some cheering in support. Paper missiles arced through the air. He puffed and panted; everything seemed far away as his consciousness waned. He collapsed to a sitting position on the floor. Half a dozen people clustered round him to help. Arms lifted him onto a chair. The last thing he heard before blacking out was the chairman’s shout through the microphone. “Order! Order!”
When Zach woke up he was lying on a settee in the deserted lounge, sipping water from a cup held out to him by a first-aider, one of the waiters. He tried to get up, but the man stopped him. “Easy, Mate, easy! Just lie still and relax, yeah? You took cold in the hall; some of your pals helped you through.”
Zach looked around him and saw a dozen people standing in a circle; one of them was the Governor of Rockall. “I’m sorry, Trevor.” he croaked.
“Leave us!” he barked.
Everybody turned and padded obediently away as if they’d been waiting for his cue. The first-aider stood up and carried on collecting dirty cups.
Trevor strode backwards and forwards across the carpet for a minute with his hands behind his back. He stopped by one of the large windows overlooking the river. “How long have we known each other, Zach?”
“I do; twelve years. We met on June the Sixteenth, Twenty-oh-one at twelve-fifteen PM. You were in the queue at the cafeteria in the MAFF in Oxford. I was standing behind you. You didn’t have enough money for your sausage and beans so I lent you seventy pence. Since that day, I don’t think a week has past when we’ve been apart… That’s a far better record than my parents; I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father twice in the same month!”
Zach rolled upright and put his feet on the floor. “Trevor…”
He held up his finger to cut him off. “Do you remember the night we first came up with the idea of a Rockall landing? It was October the Twenty-fifth that same year. We were in the Black Swan in Basildon at a CPSA social. We were so excited we wrote down our plans on a beer mat. I’ve still got it, you know, in the second drawer of my office desk. We took our idea to old Hollander and he approved it with the Government. Project Rockall was born and we were allowed to work on it full time. After six years of non-stop work we stepped onto the shores of Rockall. Our island.”
“So we thought.”
“So we knew!” He swung round to face him. “Have you really forgotten the dreams we shared!? Our plans blossoming into reality! Our life’s work… which you’ve just thrown away!”
“But back then we didn’t know!”
“Know what!? About the savages!?”
“Rockall has a native human population! We couldn’t just continue oblivious to that!”
“Why not!? The Erkdwala are an aberration! The last hiding place of barbarism! It was a glitch that we could have contained and erased! Their ways will not survive whatever anyone does! You know that, Zach!”
“I couldn’t do that speech, Trevor!”
“You could, but you chose not to, because you’re a mindless do-gooder like Dill! Strung along by Kayleigh with the promise of a grope in the dark!”
“That’s not true! It was my decision! I’ve got no regrets!”
“You will have.” said Trevor quietly.
“Why? Are you sacking me?”
“Yes.” There was a long pause. “We’ve been up to this point several times in our relationship, but never past it until now… You’ve betrayed the project, you’ve betrayed the people it represents… and you’ve betrayed me! Your career in the Commission is over, Zach. I’ve already been on the ‘phone to Greg Slydes. He is now the new Deputy-Governor of Rockall (British Sector).”
It was a moment Zach would remember for the rest of his life. His worst nightmare had finally come true; and it wasn’t a nightmare at all. “I don’t care.” he said.
Trevor gaped at him. “What did you say!?”
“I said I don’t care, Trevor.”
“You don’t mean that! You’re bluffing!”
“No, I’m not.” He took out his wallet, fingered off a few coins and dropped them onto the carpet at Trevor’s feet. “There. That’s the seventy P’ I borrowed when we first met; I never paid you back, did I?” He walked out of the room without looking back. Dill was waiting for him outside.
Along with his dismissal, Zach was barred from the remainder of the Rockall Summit and booted out of the Kensington Hilton. Dill managed to book him a room at the guest house in Hammersmith where Kayleigh and Kerroj were staying. He drove Zach down there and when he pulled up, Kayleigh was waiting for him outside the door. She came over and hugged him. “Thank you, Zach!”
“Trevor’s given me the bullet.”
“I know. Zach’s ‘phoned me and told me everything. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be; I’m not. It’s surprising really, but I’m almost glad. I feel quite liberated in a way.”
“Well, I respect you for sticking up for us.”
Dill stuck his head out of the car window. “I’m going back to the conference so I can hear the result of the vote.” He drove away.
Kayleigh took Zach to a nearby pub where Kerroj, Calum and Carol were waiting. They all greeted him very warmly and brought him drinks and a meal. “We’ve got to keep you fed until your first dole cheque comes through!” laughed Kayleigh.
“I just hope my speech made a difference to the vote.” said Zach. “I can't take full credit for it you know. I’m afraid I nicked some of Dill’s best lines!”
“I don’t suppose he’ll mind under the circumstances!” chuckled Kayleigh. “What was the summit like?”
“A music-hall farce!” he replied. “Everything’s already been decided by the Governorship! The summit is nothing but a stage-play to make us all think we’re part of the decision-making process! That’s why Trevor fired me; ‘cos I refused to stick to the prearranged outcome!”
“You deviated from the script.” said Carol.
“Are you alright, Kerroj?” asked Kayleigh.
The old Erkdwala chieftain was sitting at the head of the table with a vacant, feverish look in his eyes. He had been coughing loudly during the conversation.
“Kayleigh!” said Zach. “You haven’t put him on the beer have you?”
“God, no! He’s drunk pineapple juice all night… Kerroj!?”
“I am… well, Kayleigh.” the old man finally responded. “A bit… what is the word?... I want to go back to Arkdwa… Rockall.”
“Yes, yes! Homesick. This place called London is bad for me. The air is dirty to breathe; like fire-smoke in the cave.”
“We call it ‘pollution’.” said Zach.
“There is too much loud sound here. Cars, busses and air-planes flying up there.” Kerroj pointed at the ceiling. “And noise that comes from this thing.” He gestured at the pub juke box.
“But that’s music.” said Zach. “It’s meant to be enjoyable to listen to.”
“No! Not to me, Mr Neelum! It makes my ears have pain.”
“I’ll ask the landlord to turn it down.” said Carol.
“The worst thing is that in London the cheaxan is weak.”
“The cheaxan. There is not an English word for this thing.”
“Cheaxan.” Kayleigh repeated to herself. “I’ve heard you mention this before, but I’ve never understood what it meant.”
“Cheaxan is…” Kerroj picked up Kayleigh’s mobile ‘phone. “This lives because it has… elec...”
“Electricity. It’s the energy we use to make our machines work.”
“Electricity, yes! Cheaxan is electricity for people and animals and plants, and land and sea, and Earth and universe.”
“Do you mean spirit energy, like what Dill talks about? Some people call it Orgone.”
“Yes. Dill knows!”
“Look, Kerroj; you’ll be fine.” said Zach. “All you need is a cup of tea, a bite to eat and a good night’s sleep. There’s no such thing as spirit energy.”
“I’m not so sure, Zach.” said Kayleigh. Her ‘phone began ringing and Kerroj handed it back to her. “Hello?... Yes, Dill…Hold up, what’s happened?” Her face fell. “Oh, shit no!... Didn’t anyone say anything!?... OK, we’re in the pub.” She ended the call and put the ‘phone down on the table with a trembling hand. Her face was white.
“What’s up, Kay?” asked Zach.
“That was Dill; he’s on his way back.”
When Dill walked red-faced into the bar, the first thing he did was order a large spirit and gulp it down.
“What happened, Dill?” asked Zach. “Was it the vote?”
He shook his head. “The whole thing’s a swizz! Your effort was a waste of time!”
“So we lost the vote?”
“No; we won the vote!”
“I don’t understand.”
Zach gulped down another short. “The chair read out the results and declared that the McCain programme was to be scrapped. The delegates had voted six hundred and seventy-six to five hundred and twelve… Then one of those Men-in-Black from the reserved seating stood up and went like this.” He held his fist out with the thumb downwards. “The chair saw him and said: ‘Oh, sorry; I made a mistake. I meant to say six hundred and seventy-six against the shelving of the McCain programme and five hundred and twelve in favour. The existing programme will continue.’! And no bugger batted an eyelid! I went up to an official afterwards and requested to see the ballot papers; he said they’d been thrown away! I made a formal objection to the chair and he asked me what I was talking about!”
“Bloody hell! So those Men-in-Black…”
“Yes! They overruled a democratic decision by simply sticking out a thumb! And none of the delegates gave a toss!”
There was a long pause then Kayleigh said: “I think it’s time we found out who these Men-in-Black really are.”
Freezing fog hung over London, slurring the tangerine streetlamps. A car calmly negotiated the early morning traffic, threading its way eastwards through Westminster and The City. It sped up when it hit the East India Dock Road; the murk twisted into vortices around its wing mirrors. It reached the bridge crossing the river Lea at its confluence with the Thames and disappeared down a narrow street between two concrete warehouses. The street ended at a river wall. The prow of a moored container ship sheltered the lane. It was here that the car parked and stopped its engine. The roadside window rolled down and a pair of hands appeared holding binoculars.
“Do we have to have the window open; it’s bloody freezing!” moaned Zach.
“It’s too icy to see through the glass.” said Kayleigh.
“I know! Some of it’s forming on my eyeballs!”
“It’ll warm up in a couple of hours; do your jacket up tight.”
“Thanks for the advice!” He looked past her profile, the car, the wall and the ship, across the river to the Millennium Institute complex. A few specks were visible like crawling mites: Police and security staff on patrol. A police boat cruised back and forth on the river beside the far bank.
“This is quite exciting, isn’t it?” said Kayleigh.
“Yeah; it reminds me of The Professionals.”
“It was a TV series on when I was a kid. Bodie and Doyle were these two detectives who used to drive cars through upstairs windows and shoot bad guys and stuff. Martin Shaw was in it.”
“What, that old feller? Judge John Deed?... Ah, yes! I remember the programme you mean now. I watched it once on UK Gold.” She chuckled. “Showing your age now, Zach!”
He fought back a cringe, but Kayleigh picked it up.
“Sorry, Zach; didn’t mean to say you were…”
“Old? Well, I am I suppose. I’m forty-one.”
“Well, I’m not much younger: I’m thirty now; blimey!”
“That’s a lot younger, believe me!... How old is Dill?”
“Dunno. Twenty-four, twenty-five; something like that. Why?”
“No reason; I just wondered.”
She shrugged and looked away.
The sky brightened, the stars faded and eventually the crimson haze of the sun dyed the eastern horizon. Activity increased over the institute; more police showed up. By nine AM the sun was blinding, making it difficult for Zach and Kayleigh to pick out the first delegates as they arrived. “There’s Dill.” Kayleigh refocused her binoculars. “I can see him getting out of a car.”
“Right.” Zach folded his arms and sighed.
The summit attendees were all inside by nine-thirty and the activity died down again. “So what time do these guys show up?” asked Kayleigh.
“About ten, just when the morning session’s about to start.”
“So we’re looking for a coach or bus or something.”
“Probably; there’s at least thirty of them… Perhaps they’ll arrive by chopper or boat.”
“I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. I wish we could speak to Dill and find out what’s going on inside!”
There was a long silence. “You like Dill, don’t you?” said Zach.
“Yes, of course I like him. Don’t you?”
“Not in the same way you do.”
She lowered her binoculars and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, Kay. He’s young, brave, handsome, bright. He’s been a bosom buddy to you over this Erkdwala business. Besides which he’s absolutely smitten by you!”
She smiled thinly and blushed. “Dill’s a friend.”
“Yes, Zach. Why are we talking like this?”
“Because…” He ran a hand over his embarrassed face. He’d started so he might as well finish. “Kay… this is the first time I’ve sat with you for any length of time and spoken to you alone since this whole affair began. When we split up.”
She sighed. “Zach, we might well have split up anyway, even if we hadn’t fallen out.”
“Why ask why? I don’t know!” She sounded irritated. “It wasn’t working out.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t, Zach; that’s just the way things are.”
Zach paused for a long time. “Well, I’m an oldie now, aren’t I? Getting a bit flabby and grey! You’ll be looking to trade me in for a younger model!”
“That’s got nothing to do with it! I enjoyed the time we were together.”
“Yeah! All three months of it!”
Zach… I’m not suggesting that you’re unattractive or that I wanted something better… I just wasn’t cut out for a relationship then; or now... Maybe I never will be again.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Not for me. I’m happier that way.”
“And what about Dill?”
“What about him?” She raised her binoculars again.
“From the second you met him on the Kenneth McAlpin, he hasn’t been able to take his eyes off you! Talk about Cupid’s arrow!”
She sighed from behind the double lenses. “I can’t help the way Dill feels and neither can he. I’m not enjoying his attention you know, Zach!... I hope he’ll meet someone one day who’ll feel the same way about him.”
“You once told me that nobody will ever have him ‘cos he’s too nice.”
“What!? When did I say that!?”
“Years ago; when we were in the tents.”
She began to retort then stopped herself and began again. “I’ve changed a bit since then, Zach.”
“You mean you fancy him?”
“No; I don’t fancy him! I just don’t… not-fancy him in the same way I used to… There’s no such thing as ‘too nice’. Being caring and sensitive doesn’t turn me off the way it used to. It’s not unmasculine to treat a woman with affection and respect.”
“Most girls think it is.”
“I know; I used to be one of them, but like I said, I’ve changed. A lot’s happened to me since then. It’s made me see things differently.”
“So then why aren’t you shagging Dill?”
“Do you have to put it like that!?”
“Sorry. I meant to say: Why aren’t you in a relationship with my esteemed ex-colleague?”
“I’ve told you; I’m happy being single.”
He paused. “Right.”
It was half past eleven; Kayleigh and Zach had kept the Millennium Institute under close observation for two and a half hours, but the men-in-black hadn’t shown up. They drove back to Hammersmith and met up with Carol and Calum in the pub. “Where’s Kerroj?” asked Kayleigh.
“Still in bed.” said Carol. “Said he wasn’t feeling very well. He skipped breakfast this morning too.”
“He’s not himself, you know. The sooner we get him home the better.”
Zach’s ‘phone rang and he answered to Dill. “Did you see them?” asked the latter.
“The Men-in-Black? No; they’re not there.”
He heard Dill huff. “Sorry?”
“No one arrived after you lot. We waited till half-eleven.”
“But, Zach; they did! They’re here! They came in at the usual time; you must have missed them.”
“We did not, Dill! We never took our eyes off the place; I swear!”
“Then… how did they get past you!?”
“Maybe Scotty beamed them down.”
“This is serious, Zach!”
“Well, how else could they have slipped inside?”
Dill sighed. “The Men-in-Black are here; fact! You didn’t see them arrive; fact!”
“Maybe there’s a tunnel.”
“I don’t know.”
He paused. “Me neither, but we must do something soon! They’ve just quashed two more resolutions! Erkdwala women are now going to have to work on the oil field as well!”
“Shit! OK, Dill; I’ll find out what I can.” He ended the call and looked up to see the others staring at him. “We’d better go and have a word with Kerroj. Somehow the Men-in-Black got past me and Kayleigh and they’re raising merry Hell in there!”
They went to the guest house, climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Kerroj’s room. There was no answer. “Kerroj! Open the door!” She rapped on it with her fist. “Kerroj!” She pushed the door and entered the room. The old Erkdwala chieftain was lying on his back, his eyes closed and motionless; his face was white and drawn. “Oh, God!” Kayleigh gasped and dashed to his side. “Kerroj! Wake up! Please!” She grasped his throat. “He’s still got a pulse! Thank you, God! Call an ambulance, Zach; quickly!”
The ambulance arrived ten minutes later and a pair of paramedics got straight to work attaching monitor lines and an oxygen mask, fitting it onto his bearded face with elastic cords. Kayleigh and Zach rode with him in the ambulance as it threaded its way through the traffic, its siren muted inside the vehicle. Once they’d arrived at hospital the staff wheeled the inert Kerroj away and ushered his two companions to a softly-furnished lounge. Kayleigh was devastated and wept bitterly onto Zach’s shoulder. “It’s my fault! I should never have brought him here!”
“He asked to come with us, Kay. Remember?”
“I should have stopped him!”
Ten minutes later a young man in a doctor’s coat came into the room. “We need your help.” he said with a tense expression. “Mr Kerroj has dangerously low blood pressure and a weak, irregular heart beat. We’re giving him oxygen, but his breathing is getting shallower and shallower.” He put his hands to his temples. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him. I can’t find anything! Has he been in the presence of anything unusual or poisonous…?”
Kayleigh sat up sharply. “Yes!”
“Doctor! We must take Kerroj back to Rockall!”
“We’ve got to get him back to Rockall! Now!”
“Kay, what are you talking about?” asked Zach.
“What are you talking about?” The doctor stared at her incredulously.
Kayleigh leaped up and seized his hands. “Doctor, please! I know what’s wrong with him! He’s run out of cheaxan and the only way to cure him is to get him home!”
“He’s run out of what?”
“Cheaxan! Our living electricity! It’s too weak for him here! He said so!”
The doctor stepped back and scowled. “I can’t possibly allow this man to travel! He’s much too sick!”
“Doctor, I’m begging you!”
“Absolutely not!” He turned to leave the room.
Kayleigh grabbed his arm. “If you don’t send him back to Rockall he’ll die!” she yelled. Her eyes were wide and desperate. “I’ll take full responsibility! I’ll sign any form you want! Please, please, please! Let me take him home!”
The doctor gawped at her in surprise then straightened himself up. “Very well; I can’t stop you.”
The RAF nurse went up to Kayleigh’s side and put a hand on her shoulder. “Madam.” he said. “We’re coming in to land at Benbecula; we need you to return to your seat and put on your seatbelt.
Kayleigh looked up as if waking from sleep then came over to sit in her seat beside Zach. The plane took on a steep downward angle.
“How is he?” asked Zach.
“He’s lapsed into a coma.” she replied. “Do you think we’ll be too late?”
There was a gale blowing across the runway at Benbecula aerodrome. As the jet came to a halt, another smaller plane was waiting on the runway to take Kerroj on the last stage of his trip home to Arkdwa. The RAF medical team wheeled the old man through the driving rain carrying drip bags in the air and holding a plastic sheet over him to keep him dry. They loaded him aboard the second aircraft and Kayleigh and Zach joined him. Its propellers spun up and it ambled down the runway into the air. “So what exactly has happened to Kerroj?” asked Zach, gripping the arms of his seat as the aircraft was buffeted about in the wind.
“Remember he was telling us about cheaxan, the living electricity? He told us that London was lower in cheaxan than Rockall. It looks like he’s experiencing some sort of deficiency.”
“But why should he need this cheaxan stuff to survive?”
“Dunno, but he can’t stay alive without it for long. Maybe our power lines and mobile ‘phone masts and stuff interfere with this living energy field. We’re used to low intensity cheaxan so it doesn’t bother us, but he’s never been off Rockall before so he’s not. It was so stupid of me to bring him!”
“Come off it, Kay! Once we get him into the Port hospital, he’ll either recover or not, but the deciding factor will be the skill of Arlene and Dr Forbes, not some mythological ether.”
“No; you’ll see. As soon as we reach the island, Kerroj’s condition will improve… if we can get there in time.” She rocked back and forth in her seat as if trying to push the aircraft along with her body. “Come on!”
Zach looked at his watch. “We’re about halfway across; one more hour and we’ll be there.”
It was just over half an hour later that the doctor came out from behind the screened-off part of the cabin that held the patient and walked up to their seats, her neutral face giving nothing away. Kayleigh gripped Zach’s hand in terror.
“Mr Neelum, Miss Ford…”
“He’s died, hasn’t he!?” Kayleigh choked.
“No, no; not at all. In fact I’d say his condition has improved slightly. His heart and respiration have picked up and are now stable. It’s early days yet, but we have reason to be optimistic. I think he might have turned the corner.”
“Thank you.” She breathed a tremulous sigh of relief and rubbed her face with her hands. “We must have entered the high-density cheaxan belt around Rockall.”
By the time the plane landed at Mount Clow, Kerroj was fully conscious and talking, his observations normal. He was still quite weak however and was carried by RAF ambulance to Rockall Port hospital.
Kayleigh turned to Zach and hugged him. “My hero! You came good in the end!”
“Twenty-four hours ago I was working for Trevor.”
“Just shows what a long time twenty-four hours can be; and how much can change.”
It was impossible to say how it happened. Zach invited her back to First Landing for a cup of tea. He was lamenting that he might have to sell his house now that he’d lost his job. She said she’d be willing to pay his mortgage after what he’d done at the summit. He thanked her by kissing her; she kissed him back. The next moment they were rolling in each others arms on the settee; half an hour later they were in Zach’s bed making love.
Zach awoke at around six the next morning. The wind crooned on the eaves and rain pattered on the roof. Kayleigh lay prone beside him, snoring gutturally. One of her arms rested on his chest and her large, tightly-cloven bottom stuck in the air. He stretched out in the body-warmed bed and smiled.
The doorbell rang and he started. “Damn!” He got up and put on his dressing gown.
Kayleigh lifted her head and groaned.
“Shh! Go back to sleep, Kay; it’s probably the postman.” The caller rang a second time, just before Zach switched on the downstairs light. He reached the front door and opened it a crack. The wind caught it and rammed it against its stopper. Cold early morning darkness flooded in and Dill was caught in its current. “Whoa! It’s cats, dogs and brass-monkeys out there! Cheers, Zach.”
“I came back as soon as I heard.” Dill’s hair and face were drenched with raindrops. “Is Kerroj OK now?” He shut the door behind him.
“Er… yeah; he’s great.”
“I got a text off Calum as soon as I came out of conference. By the time I reached Glasgow he called to say he was out of danger.”
Well… yeah; he’s as right as ninepence… Now, Dill; I’m sure you’ll be wanting to get off home now.”
“Aw, come on, Zach; put the kettle on! I’ve been travelling all night.”
“Er… it’s a bit inconvenient at the moment.”
“Oh-ho!” He grinned. “Got yourself a girl up there, have you!?”
“Well, yes as it happens, so…”
“Who’s the lucky lady?”
“No one you know.”
“Is that so? Well…” It was too late. Zach heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs and Kayleigh appeared wearing a dressing gown. “Kayleigh…” A look of misery and horror that he’d never seen before crossed Dill’s face as he stared at her.
“Dill!” She drew in her breath and clutched the dressing gown tight to her body.
There was a few seconds of terrible silence.
Dill coughed. “I’d… better be… going then.”
“Dill!” Kayleigh took a step towards him, but he drew back from her.
“No, no! It’s alright!... I’m off.”
Zach tried to meet his eye. “Look, Mate. I never meant for you to find out like this.”
“That’s no problem, Zach.” he replied thickly, turning his face away. “None of my business really. I’m… very happy for both of you. You… make a lovely couple. I’ll catch up with you later… I’ll see myself out.” He virtually fled from the house.
“Fuck it!” seethed Kayleigh. She sat down on the stairs with her hands in her hair.
Zach went outside into the chilled rain and watched Dill running away towards the town until the darkness had swallowed him up.
Behind him in the house, Zach could hear the telephone ringing.
(Go back to Chapter 6: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2009/05/rockall-chapter-6-spanner-vs-works.html Go on to Chapter 8: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2009/08/rockall-chapter-8.html)