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The Under-manager

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Under-manager

The Under-manager


Charlie Gregory


Scotland, 1998

The fog rolled in again overnight, blanketing the wild headlands and hiding the stern cliffs. It seeped up Bone Geo as far as the Shoalhaven Reef and now stood before us like a solid white wall. Above us, the Bool Head siren wailed like a banshee. Somewhere ahead, the Pentland tide thundered through the Brig.

I leant on the plywood cabin that Alexander had knocked-up in the bow of the Pentland Dancer and looked back with longing at the sun-drenched shore. The waterfall glinted like spilt diamonds in the early morning light. The cottage, with its fringe of thatch, looked safe and inviting at the foot of the cliff.

The lass who had appeared at the top of the crag was now descending the tortuous path to the shingle below, sure footed as a mountain teg as she leapt and skipped among the boulders. I recognised her; the tinker-girl who often wandered the headland, barefoot and alone, and sometimes spent the night with Alexander. ‘Your girlfriend,’ I shouted, pointing over his shoulder.

I hoped he would take us back to see what she wanted. But he only laughed and shouted above the pop pop popping of the engine. ‘Freya? Yon’s a wildcat, boy. But she’s a fine critter for all that.’ Then we were in the fog and it was six months colder.


Alexander was standing at the door of my cottage when I arrived home from work that morning. I spotted him as I came jogging along the track. He was unmistakable, even at that distance, slim and over six feet tall, dressed as always, in down at heel gumboots and a blue polar-necked jersey, with his cap shoved to the back of his head.

‘Ah, Daniel,’ he called, in that deliberate way of his as I came to the gate, ‘so that’s where you are. I’ve been knocking for ten minutes. I thought you’d died in your sleep or something.’

‘Near enough,’ I told him. ‘I’m dead beat and desperate for bed.’ Monday was normally my day off, but one of the radio officers had gone on the tiles the previous evening and didn’t turn up for his night shift. It was my job, as under-manager, to fill the gap on such occasions. Until recently that was just a minor inconvenience because, at 30, I was on the threshold of a big career. But now, with a redundancy notice stuffed in my wallet, I wasn’t so happy.

‘Ah well,’ Alexander adjusted the cap on his thick black hair and stared at the fog that hid the sea. ‘Will you do me a favour before you go to your bed? I’ve a job to do while the mist is handy. It’s thick enough to hide me from prying eyes but I need your help.’

I winced. I’d done favours for Alexander before. Taking the key from its hiding place in the gutter, I opened the door. ‘I’m tired, Alexander. I want to get to my bed. OK?’

‘I think you’ll come when you ken what it is.’ He was still staring in the direction of the sea. ‘It’s the wreck out there. It’s a job on the wreck, and the customer asked for you especially.’

I frowned. ‘Asked for me?’ That was hard to believe. I’d been in Caithness for six years now, but apart from my girlfriend, Terry Ann, and Shona, the lassie from the bungalow, I knew hardly anyone. My cottage on Bool Head was a mile out of town and isolated. I had colleagues of course, up at the radio station, but they were mainly incomers like me. There was nobody who would approach Alexander and ask for me by name, especially about a job on the wreck.

‘Yes; the customer said, “Your neighbour from the headland,”’ Alexander seemed ill at ease, ‘“yon tall thin man with the fair, cropped head; the one who works at the Bool Radio.” You can’t have it clearer than that.’

No, that was clear enough. I frowned. ‘Who is this customer? What does he want?’

‘Ah well, I’m not to identify the customer.’ He was still staring in the direction of the sea. ‘But the job is to get the big radio transceiver off yon Cypriot ship that’s lying down there in Bony-go. That’s why they asked for you especially. It’s because you’re an expert with the radio. They want you to check it and bring it ashore undamaged.’

I shook my head vigorously. ‘No dice,’ I said. ‘It’s not my line, Alexander. I don’t go in for plunder. You know that. The penalties are too high for me. I leave piracy and that kind of thing to the likes of you.’ Alexander was descended from a long line of wreckers and plunderers. Scavenging was in his blood. He was about 40 now. But the bright blue eyes and jaunty gait made him seem younger. When he wasn’t poaching or fishing he was raiding the wrecks that littered the coast thereabouts. In the Bool Town bars they said that, as the stricken crew abandoned ship over the starboard side, Alexander was tying the Pentland Dancer up on the port side.

Avoiding my eyes, he pulled out his pouch and began rolling a cigarette. ‘Ah well, you might change your mind, Danny boy, when you hear the message they sent.’

‘Message? What message?’

‘Ah well, they ken about you and Shona,’ he said, tucking the pouch back into his pocket. ‘I’m to tell you that “Faroe would be interested to ken that you sleep with his wife when he’s away at the sea.”’

A flash of anger flushed my face. Nobody talks to me like that. I was shaking and sweating, arms at my sides, fists clenched. ‘Bastard!’ I blurted. ‘Who is this guy? You’d better tell me, Alexander. What’s his game? Blackmail?’

‘That’s the message.’ He lit the cigarette, still avoiding my eyes. ‘It’s the message they told me to give you. And yes, “It’s blackmail,” they said.’


Alexander, now in yellow oilskins, negotiated the invisible dangers of the reef, navigating with uncanny instinct, like a salmon tuned to the vibrations of a distant river.

We entered the deep water by the sharp rock that he called his ‘mark’ and nosed along the south side of the Geo. Massive cliffs, dark threats in the gloom, loomed above us. The Devil’s Brig roared and growled like a mad ogre lost in the fog. Gulls cried and complained on the ledges above.

Alexander studied the shadows and sounds and run of the waves. Then suddenly, without obvious reason, we turned and went north towards the terrible din on the far side of the cove.
The waves grew higher and steeper. We pitched violently, bows flying and crashing, drenching us with spray as they banged rhythmically into lumps of black water. I jammed myself against the cabin and held on.

I saw the blurred outline of a ship through the fog. It took shape and became clearer until I could read the name on the stern;

As we edged along the port side, the vessel leant over us, silent and menacing. She mistook Bool Head for Duncansby and turned west into Bone Geo, instead of the Firth as intended. Now the hull lay twisted and broken among the rocks at the foot of the cliff.

The crew had gone, disappeared without trace. ‘They abandoned ship on the ebb tide,’ Alexander explained at the time. ‘Being strangers, they didn’t ken the danger and were sucked into the Brig. Then it devoured them – gobbled them up. But they’ll be back. Their remains will appear in the lagoon after the spring tides.’

Alexander reckoned that everything that fell into the sea for five miles in any direction would eventually be channelled back through the Brig. ‘Everything gets trapped in there and swills back and fore until the spring tides,’ he once told me. ‘The springs lift everything over the reef and fling it into the lagoon, like a gift from the devil.’

Alexander knew everything there was to know about the Brig and the Geo. His forebears had lived on the beach for a couple of centuries and accepted the ‘devil’s gifts’ as a right. Before them, another clan had lived in the same way for millennia.

‘But you never see bodies,’ Alexander said, ‘only bones. The razor-sharp rocks of the Brig flay the flesh from the corpses. And the force of the water smashes the skeletons. That’s why the lobsters and crabs of Bony-go are famous the world over. They’re packed with firm flesh and have a special taste to them because the water they live in is like a rich broth.’

I knew he was right. I always felt there was something sinister about the black hole that runs through the narrow peninsular on the north side of Bone Geo. They call it the Devil’s Brig. And I can see the connection. The Pentland tide forever charges through the bridge in a frenzied shuttle of perpetual motion, which pummels the north side of the cove into a boiling cauldron of white water.

The KYPROS ROSE had broken her back, for’ard of the accommodation. The aft end of number two hatch was under water. Alexander swung the tiller and we moved over the main deck. As we approached the ship’s starboard rail I leapt for a ladder and made the painter fast to a step.
We climbed up slimy rungs and slithered across tilting decks until we came to the wheelhouse. Alexander slid open the door and launched himself down the incline with a loud thumping of gumboots. I followed, grabbing hold of the chart table to stop myself crashing into the bulkhead.

‘Ransacked,’ I muttered, glancing about. Everything I would have expected to see in a wheelhouse had gone, except the radio and broken old radar. ‘You’ve been here before.’ I nodded towards the damage.

He produced a roll of tools from the pocket of his oilskins and placed it beside the radio. ‘They want you to test it,’ he said. ‘Then remove it without damage. But we’ll have a dram first. Do you see any problems?’

I didn’t answer. I did not see any problems – but I did see the bottle that appeared in his hand. It was not the usual bottle that Alexander produced, full of the barbaric spirit he distilled in the cave overlooking the Geo.

This was a whisky bottle, a litre bottle, still sealed. Its distinctive shape and shading were unmistakable; a mountain crag, coloured purple and grey to resemble heather and rock. I didn’t need telling that it contained The Waters of Macduibh.

When he broke the seal and twisted off the top, the contents exuded a haunting aroma of ocean winds, sea wrack, peat and pine forest – with a hint of bourbon and vanilla. He took a long swig before licking his lips, handing me the bottle, and saying, ‘here, Danny boy, take a drop o’ the creutair.’

My eyes closed involuntarily as I took it from him. I knew what to expect. When I put it to my mouth and drank, my soul was floating through golden fields of ripening barley. Highland maids trilled Gaelic hymns by smouldering peat fires on the banks of crystal streams. I lingered over the savour, at one with nature and humankind. ‘It’s been a long time,’ I murmured, greeting it with my tongue like the deep kiss of a beloved. ‘A long, long time.’

I had tasted it a couple of times before. The first was in the Caledonian Club in Durban, back in ’87 when I was 19 and on my first trip with World Trade Bulkers. The agent for a Liberian tanker paid for our drinks that day. Our crew saved his company from an eight-figure loss when we pulled off a salvage job in the Indian Ocean against all the odds. I tasted the Macduibh again in ’Frisco in ’95. Another agent paid for it that time, on the shipping company of course, to take the sting out of my second redundancy. I think my expression told him I was a candidate for the Golden Gate Bridge.

‘Great,’ I said, thrusting the bottle back at Alexander. ‘The real Macduibh; matured in home-made oak casks that have spent 50 years soaking up illicit bourbon and are then sold on the black market by Kentucky moonshiners. Then it’s put to bed and left to slumber in the Macduibh Cave, the only place known to man that holds the required temperature for 365 days of the year, while the creutair mushrooms in value.’

I glared at him. ‘Do you want me to tell you more, Alexander?’ I demanded. ‘Because I can tell you more, much more. Like – Macduibh Industries make it by a so-called secret process. Then every so many years, with a great fanfare, they launch a commemorative release of a limited batch. And with every release the price of a bottle is £1,000 more than it was the time before. But in the meantime the bottles already out there have become collectors’ items and are worth five times as much as the latest bottles. It’s a massive con trick to get the super-rich to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a bottle of pop.’ I was angry and frustrated with him as he sniffed the neck of the bottle, wallowing in the bouquet.

‘Look at the date on the bottle,’ I shouted, ‘1998! It’s this year’s baby, already 75 years old, bred for auction at the Whisky Exchange where it’ll hit the deck running at £7,500 a litre – £1,000 for every decade of its idle life. When the speculators get their paws on it, it’ll be worth twice that. And that’s only the first month. So tell me, Alexander, how the bloody-hell did a stray bottle end up in your oilskins?’

‘Ah well, let’s say it was a present from a friend.’ He shoved his cap further back on his head and studied the fog.

‘No!’ I banged my fist on the table. ‘Let’s say, bollocks!’ That bottle worried me. ‘You don’t buy this stuff in the corner shop. You only ever see it in display cabinets in tycoons’ mansions and posh clubs. It’s not for drinking. It’s too bloody expensive, liquid-gold kind of expensive. I’ve been there, Alexander – hundreds-of-pounds a dram! This stuff’s destined to be valued at six figures a litre. It’s in a higher league than the Nun’s Island that went for £100,000 at Sotheby’s; or The Macallan 1926 that brings 25 grand on the London Whisky Exchange. It’s in a league of its own because Macduibh exploit the market. They target the people who want it for show and prestige. Owning a bottle of that stuff’s like having a cock that dangles below your kilt; priceless!’
I jabbed my finger at him. ‘Your friends don’t give presents like that, Alexander. Your friends can’t even save up the fare to go shopping for it. Anyway, you don’t have any bloody friends.’

He took another swig and replaced the top. ‘Ah well, maybe I’ve got friends you don’t ken about.’ He slid the bottle back into his oilskins and produced his tobacco pouch, ‘friends with the influence.’

‘Listen,’ I felt uneasy. ‘I know you can’t get television down here in sleepy hollow; and I know that you don’t follow the news. But you do live in Scotland. And you hear people talk. So you must know that, a couple of weeks back, someone hijacked a juggernaut. Then someone hijacked another one, last week. It’s getting trendy. One driver’s dead, and a security man’s in intensive care. Those juggernauts had cargoes of whisky. And the brand name of the whisky in both cases, is The Waters of Macduibh. It’s hot stuff, Alexander. Everyone’s on the look out for it.’

He looked hurt. ‘Ah Danny,’ he said, lighting a newly rolled cigarette. ‘Do you think I’d mix with the likes of yon? Hijackers and killers and the like?’

‘Maybe not.’ I couldn’t be sure. ‘But watch it, that’s all. Come round-up time, you go for slaughter with the herd you graze with.’

‘The fog’s lifting,’ he nodded towards the window and began to move. ‘When it feels the heat of the sun it’ll shrivel as fast as a gelding’s bollocks and we’ll be on view to the world. Test the set and get it ashore, quick Danny.’

I turned and flicked the battery switch to, ON. Nothing happened. The voltmeter was stuck on zero. ‘No juice,’ I said, tapping the glass. ‘It’s dead. There’ll be a box of batteries somewhere; big batteries, like the ones in a truck, but 24 volts. They’ll be on the bridge-wing or up on the monkey-island, somewhere like that. Get cracking; let’s find ’em.’

He looked sheepish. ‘Are they batteries like they use for the fishing boat radios?’

‘Don’t tell me,’ sometimes he made me despair, ‘you took ’em ashore and flogged ’em to someone.’

‘Ah well, there was this customer in Scrabster ...’

‘That was the power supply. How can we test it without power?’

He looked crestfallen. ‘Then we don’t ken if it’s working or not?’

‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘It works OK. I was on duty when she ran aground. The alarm alerted everyone in the North Sea. And when the captain screamed “MAYDAY” it was so loud that it woke Big Tex, the station alcoholic. What wakes Tex, works. That’s my rule of thumb. And it’s dry-enough in here. So if it worked then it works now.’

It was a simple enough job to unbolt the set and remove the leads. I stripped it down to its constituent parts, transmitter, receiver, and supply-and-charging unit. Carrying it over the slippery, sloping decks and down the slimy ladders, posed a problem.

Alexander came up with the answer. He went down to the Pentland Dancer and brought back a net and rope. Then I lowered the equipment over the side while he stood in the boat to receive it.

The fog rose rapidly while we worked, forming a canopy over the geo from cliff to cliff. Then, under the blows of the sun, it continued to lift, evaporate and shrink. Suddenly the day broke through like a great spotlight, filling the cove with heat and light. The mist became cotton wool clouds that broke into fluffy white birds that soared and shrank like scores of skylarks. Then we were cruising home under clear blue skies.
Looking up at the cliffs on the south side of the Geo I could see the great gash, like the slit of a pillbox, about a hundred feet above the sea. I knew, as well as the locals did, that was the cave they called the Burrows. Alexander kept his guns and equipment in there. And that’s where he made his fierce whisky, when the wind was from the south west and would carry the fumes away from the land and over the sea to fall as acid rain on the forests of Norway. The cave was up there on full display, but only Alexander knew how to get in.

As we came from the reef into the lagoon the tinker lass emerged from the cottage and strolled down the shingle. She was in her early 20s, tall, slim, and tanned by the sun. Her rich auburn hair was crewcut like mine. The sleeveless blue sweater and short denim skirt gave a heartening display of strong shapely limbs. As she came to the rock that served as a jetty I threw a rope, which she trapped with a bare brown foot. ‘Did ye get it?’ she demanded, making us fast to a boulder.

‘Yes, it’s in the wee house there.’ Alexander pointed for’ard to the cabin.

‘Does it work all right?’

‘Ah well, yes of course, it’s fine,’ he assured her. ‘Sounds just like the BBC.’

‘Aye, then move yer arse,’ she snapped. ‘My feyther wants it at Wasster. And he wants it ev-e-now.’

I scrambled ashore and stood beside the boat, putting the equipment down by the girl’s feet as Alexander passed it over the gunnel to me.

‘Is that all?’ she demanded, when we’d finished. She seemed unimpressed.

‘That’s powerful stuff,’ Alexander said sagely, strolling round and checking the moorings, ‘full of the side bands. You can speak anywhere with that; talk to anyone. Not like the little sets I got you; those are just toys. This is the most powerful set in the world. Isn’t that right, Danny?’

‘Well I wouldn’t go as far as to say that,’ I said. ‘But it’s not bad.’

She glared at me and frowned. ‘Well hump it up the cliff,’ she ordered. ‘And put it in the van. My feyther wants it taeday, no’ next week.’

Alexander kept his old blue Bedford van at the top of the cliff where the track ends and the precipitous path drops down to the beach. The van was many years old and eaten by rust. ‘Not worth the tax and insurance,’ he would say, ‘so I don’t bother.’

When we got the equipment to the top of the path, Alexander tugged open the door at the back of the van. ‘Just dump it in,’ he told me, ‘on top of the sacks.’

I set the transmitter inside among the canvas and rubbish. When I slid it, to wedge it and make it safe, it caught on a sack and pulled it aside, exposing a rifle. The gun, a Lee Enfield 303, was even older than the van. Alexander pushed past me and covered the weapon with a single quick move. ‘Sshhh,’ he whispered, ‘not a word. But I never go to Wasster without taking a friend.’

‘Get in,’ the woman told me when the equipment was loaded. ‘Feyther wants tae see ye.’

She made for the front door and climbed into the passenger seat. Alexander was driving. That relegated me to cargo with the junk in the back. ‘No thanks,’ I told her. It wasn’t my style. ‘I’ll be off to my bed now.’

‘Ooh, away tae bed are we?’ she sneered through the open window. ‘Ye’re a great boy for the bed. Aye, I’ve been watching youse. It’s any bed for youse, eh? Tuesday night it’s the bed in the bungalow. Where is it on Monday afternoon?’

‘You bloody bitch!’ I leapt forward and snatched at the door.

‘Danny; Danny;’ Alexander leant across from his seat and held me at bay with a big red paw. ‘Calm yourself; calm yourself. Just get into the back and be a good chap. Think about Shona. Save Shona from trouble.’

I didn’t answer. But as I climbed into the van I was trembling with rage.

‘He’s English,’ she snarled, as we rattled and shook along the track. ‘I can tell by his tongue. Yon bastard’s English. Ye never said he was English.’

‘Ah well, you didn’t ask,’ replied Alexander.

‘There’ll be blidy murder,’ she told him. ‘My feyther hates the blidy English – aye, and so do I.’


We rattled over the headland, passing my place and Shona’s bungalow without comment before entering Bool Town from the east. We travelled on in sullen silence, with a view over the harbour as we passed Fishers Brae. There was a miniature traffic jam in Kirk Square where the bus from Wick terminates and struggles to turn by the statues of the Highland Warrior and Victorian do-gooders. A couple of minutes later we negotiated the bustling High Street, teeming with town and country folk, then on into the windswept fields beyond.

At the T-junction, by the radio station, we turned left and headed south down the coast. I moved towards the front of the van, watching the empty world drift by the windscreen. We drove through a treeless land of vast sky and seascapes, past lonely crofts and ancient castles, idyllic villages and prehistoric ruins.

Where the finger-post points to Watten we turned inland to travel over a wild moss where the shades of green would confound an Irish poet.

Alexander was the first to speak. ‘Do you ken this lassie?’ he called over his shoulder.

‘No,’ I said. I knew she was a tinker and I didn’t like her, but that was all.

‘Well, you’ve heard of Fartag?’ he glanced back at me. ‘Fartag – with a Croix de Guerre. This is his daughter, Freya. Freya – Queen of Wasster. And you’ve heard of Wasster?’ He broke into song,
‘Little island,
in the mireland.’
He burst into laughter and produced his bottle from somewhere. ‘We’ll all have a dram and make friends,’ he said.

I didn’t answer. I didn’t care who she was or where she came from. I didn’t like her and I didn’t want to make friends.

After taking a swig he passed the bottle to Freya. ‘And that’s Daniel,’ he told her, ‘Daniel Toxteth – from Liverpool. According to the geography that makes him an Englishman.’

She wiped the top of the bottle, took a swig, and then passed it back. He took another mouthful then handed it to me over his shoulder. ‘There you are, Daniel; like you said, the real Macduibh.

‘Aye,’ she whipped round in her seat and glared at me through wild green eyes. ‘Scotch whisky,’ she hissed, ‘Macduibh – the best in the world. But no Scotsman ever sees it, because it’s all for export. The London government makes a fortune in tax from it.’ She snarled as she spoke. Those strong white teeth could tear me apart. ‘Scotland makes it. England takes it.’

‘You’ll get your own parliament this year,’ I said, sipping the nectar. ‘They’ll get your money back for you.’

‘Own parliament my-arse; blidy English-puppets more like,’ she snarled, throwing herself round to face the front. ‘It’s home rule we need – no’ devolution.’


Through the screen I saw bracken-clad swells, like the rollers of a dark ocean, undulating as far as the eye could see, shining with the purple sheen of awakening heather. The empty road rippled over the wilderness to the far horizon like a long brown stream, bulrushed by furze, swelling here and there into the pools of passing places.

Something hauled into view in the distance, just a dot; a small boat on an empty sea. As it approached it grew bigger and formed into a cattle truck, taking the width of the road. Alexander pulled into a passing place to let it go by.

Freya turned, snatched the bottle from my hand, put it to her lips and took a gulp. ‘It could be Angus,’ she said.

The truck slowed as it closed in and the driver and Alexander edged their vehicles round one another. Freya thrust the bottle at Alexander and then opened the door and hauled herself out until she could see over the top of the van. ‘Oy,’ she shouted. ‘I thought youse’d gone for Zitsar.’

‘Och aye,’ drawled the driver, in a Buchan brogue. ‘I’m awa’ the noo. Round by Tongue and Lairg, ye ken. There’s a lot of police activity on the sooth road, they tell me. So I’ll go by the west coast.’

‘Good thinking,’ she told him. ‘I spoke tae Zitsar on the phone last night. He got tae Campbeltown OK. He said he would travel tae Ullapool overnight in the fish lorry.’

‘So it’s all going tae plan,’ drawled the driver. ‘I’d best be awa’ then.’

The drivers tooted farewell and we sped apart.


As we headed up a ridge the landscape became more barren and eerie. Rocky outcrops rose from the heather. Megaliths appeared on hilltops like petrified figures, along with cairns, burial mounds and circles of stones.

I felt a kind of presence, over all and through everything. As if the Picts, who lived and died there all those centuries before, were watching and resenting our intrusion.

On the summit ahead, away from the road, I saw the remains of a broch, a Pictish tower, long since plundered and ruined. Now it was just a ring of stones about five feet high, surrounded by debris. A head bobbed down, getting out of sight as we approached. ‘Lookout for Martians,’ I told them. ‘This is where that police car disappeared the other week, vanished without trace – crew and all. “Mystery Moor;” the papers call it. “The Caithness Triangle,” according to the tabloids.’

They stared ahead. Nobody spoke.


‘There you are,’ said Alexander when we got to the top of a ridge, ‘the Dubh-flows of Wasster.’

A vast dark-wilderness lay before and below us, like peaty tundra, spangled with a thousand lochans that glistened like jewels in the sun. ‘Feast yer eyes on it,’ said Freya, bitterly, ‘’cos its time’s running out. The English fat cats have got their claws intae it now. Aye; they’ve been buying the ground for peanuts and getting government grants tae cover it with trees. The bastards have been grabbing our land and using it tae line their pockets. It’s the Highland Clearances all over again. History repeats itself – if ye let it. But it won’t be so easy this time. We’ll fight for it. We’ll drive the bastards out. My Christ we will.’

The road ran along a narrow causeway to a patch of high ground that rose like an island from the middle of the bog. The mire on either side stretched, flat and empty, to the ramparts of the distant mountains. Ahead of us, Morven, Maiden Pap and the rounds of Scaraben stood purple against the sky like the silhouette of a nature-goddess lying beyond the foothills, legs splayed in the innocent abandon of sleep.

‘That’s Fartag’s place,’ said Alexander, ‘on the island, in among the woods.’

The woods, as he called it, was a plantation of ancient sycamores that covered the north and western slopes of the island to shelter the house from the winds that continually batter the county. From a distance the trees appeared to be dead. But as we approached I saw there were leaves at the extreme ends of the branches. A colony of rooks had built their nests there and made it their home.

We pulled off the road in front of a dilapidated building that had once been a shooting lodge, a single storey cottage like mine. It looked abandoned. Boards covered the windows and, on the roof, a web of frayed rope was all that prevented the buckled chimney stack from crashing to the ground.

The area between the house and the row of old stables was piled high with fish boxes. The remainder of the island was a scrapyard, a mountain of rusting old cars, tractors and broken farm implements.

As I jumped from the van I saw the winter fuel-supply on the far side of the road; great stacks of peat piled high to dry. The diggings between the stacks had filled with the oily brown waters of the bog and lay like stagnant disused canals.

Vicious looking men rose from their tasks among the scrap, eying us suspiciously. I recognized them. They were the wild ones who came into town at the weekends and got paralytic drunk before punching and kicking each other senseless. Letters in the press complained about their behaviour – cursing and pissing in the streets.

Alexander and I lifted the equipment out of the back of the van and set it on the ground. When he saw me glance at the bulge where the sacks concealed the Lee Enfield, Alexander caught my eye and gave a wink. ‘I always bring a friend,’ he said.


The man they called Fartag came out of the house; short and wiry, in his late 70s with a battered old cap on the back of his head and white stubble covering his chin. He thrust his hands deep into the trouser-pockets of an ill-fitting brown suit and coughed and spat as he circled the equipment. I’d never seen him before but I knew all about him. He was famous throughout the county.

Fartag was a sniper with the Highland Division during the Second World War. One day, in France, he climbed to the top of a church tower and, single-handed, held off a company of German infantrymen while the village priest evacuated the women and children and a couple of injured resistance fighters. The French gave him a Croix de Guerre for that.

But it was one Armistice Sunday, when the fighting was over, that he earned his name and fame. The people of Bool Town gathered in Kirk Square to pay homage to the fallen. Organisations paraded before the cenotaph. The Provost and dignitaries assembled to pay lip-service with a display of fine robes and haughty importance. A Piper played a pibroch.

The sniper, with a group of old soldiers, tagged on at the back of the crowd. They stood on the periphery, heavy with medals, ennobled by experience, sipping from mysterious brown bottles.

Eleven-o’-clock came. Silence fell over the land.

The sniper farted!

The blast, powerful and lusty, caused a minor stampede in the ranks of the Women’s Institute. The Scouts and Territorials collapsed, helpless with laughter. Then, as Brownies and Guides rolled on the ground, convulsed by hysterical giggles, the authorities abandoned the parade.

We followed Fartag into the house. It was dark inside, like a cave. There were chinks of light round the boarded windows but, apart from that, the only illumination came from an oil-lamp that stood on the large table.

Two other men joined us. They could be brothers, tall and sinewy, not an ounce of flesh between them.

Growing accustomed to the gloom I took stock. It was similar to my place. A door at the back led to the bedroom. Yet the bodies of sleepers had left hollows in the straw that covered the living-room floor. The lamp shared the table with a hand-portable VHF radio that had obviously come off a ship. I recognised the waterproof cover and knew the set’s specifications. It had the power of the much bigger shipboard installations. Seafarers used that equipment in search and rescue operations.

Apart from that, the medals pinned to a board on the wall were the only things of note.

Freya and one of the men disappeared through the door into the bedroom. They re-appeared carrying bottles of Macduibh. After a confab they set them on the floor along with some glasses.

‘Sit!’ Fartag nodded towards the rest of the furniture, an assortment of boxes and crates. ‘Let’s talk business.’

Pulling up a crate I glanced at the VHF radio – it was switched on, ready to respond to a call. Curious, I thought.

‘Calum!’ Fartag barked. ‘Get yon big wireless. It’s by the back of the van. This man’ll explain it.’

The woman opened a bottle and poured two fingers of Macduibh into each glass. As she passed round the refreshments, Calum and his brother, who answered to the moniker Duncan, brought in the equipment. They threw it on the table with a clatter and bang then withdrew to the shadows and stood, arms folded over their chests, like braves at a powwow.

Fartag cleared his throat and spat on the floor. ‘Show me yer tricks, boy,’ he ordered. ‘Explain y’ contraption. Speak tae a man on a ship.’

The lack of sleep left me relaxed and the whisky gave me a rosy glow. ‘It’s no good like this,’ I said, happily. ‘It needs rigging. It has to have an aerial and a battery.’

He glared at Alexander. ‘Get the man what he wants,’ he ordered.

Alexander oiled his brain with a shot of Macduibh. ‘I ken nothing about batteries and aerials,’ he said, lighting a ragged cigarette. ‘When you asked for the walkie-talkies I brought you those,’ he nodded towards the handset. ‘And you were happy with them. So when you said that you needed a wireless, I got you this big set. And Freya said that she wanted the thin man from the headland to explain it – and this is him.’ He pointed at me. ‘You asked for nothing more. And I brought nothing more.’ He drained his glass, adjusted his cap, and relit his cigarette.

‘Jesus Christ!’ Fartag sprang to his feet. ‘What kind of an expert’s that?’ he roared, pointing at me. ‘I ask him tae put me through tae a man on a ship and he only has half the equipment.’

We weren’t getting anywhere fast. No-one seemed to know where they were going or how to get there. As my only desire was to be back home in bed, I took the initiative. ‘Tell me exactly what you want,’ I said. ‘And if I can – I’ll tell you how to do it.’

Fartag’s fist hammered the table. ‘Ye’ll tell nobody nothing,’ he roared. ‘I give the orders round-’
Freya silenced him with a glare and wave of the hand. I felt her breast on the back of my neck as she leant over my shoulder to replenish my glass. ‘This friend o’ mine – Zitsar,’ she said in a low voice with her lips to my ear, ‘has promised tae do me a favour. But he’s demanded a communication’s set-up as a condition. That’s tae prevent a cock-up. We have tae contact two ships – a fishing boat and a foreign freighter. That’s why we need the wireless. But we don’t ken how tae fix it up and go about things. That’s where youse come in. We want ye tae show us what tae do. But it’s secret, very secret; like rip out his tongue and blind his eyes kind of secret. Ken what I’m saying? If anything gets out, ye’re dead! Understand?’ She snapped her fingers. ‘Dead!’

I shuddered. This was tricky. The girl was steely and her playmates were volatile and nasty. I knew that for sure. I’d seen them in action on Friday nights. Now her voice summed it up; chilling. The whole situation was surreal. I couldn’t take it in. A few hours ago I was covering a shift in the radio station. Now I was in the middle of a bog; surrounded by brutal nutters and threatened by a madwoman.

I’m trapped, I thought. I’ve got to get control. The best tactic, I decided, was to keep them happy and appear to co-operate. Then, at the first opportunity, I’d get to hell out of it. ‘Your communications won’t be secret,’ I told her. ‘Unless everything’s in code. Because, when you go on the air, anyone who’s listening will hear what you say; stands to reason. But if you don’t identify yourself it’s possible to make an illicit broadcast without getting caught. Fishermen do it all the time. It’s illegal and I don’t want to get involved. But if you promise not to quote me I’ll tell you how to go about it. Whereabouts are these ships? And what nationality are they?’

Her expression went harder. ‘If I told ye that, it wouldn’t be a secret.’

I swilled the liquid round the glass. ‘Listen; if I’m going to help you I need the facts. I have to know where the ships are to see if they’re within range of the equipment. And you said the freighter’s a foreigner. So – do the crew speak English?’

The green eyes narrowed. She looked across at her father to gauge his reaction. His face was impassive. ‘Aye well,’ she said at last, ‘the fishing boat’s Scottish. She’ll be somewhere near the Pentland Firth. And Josip – Zitsar – says we have tae contact the freighter 24 hours before she arrives in the area, maybe sooner. I don’t ken if anyone aboard speaks English. I doubt it.’

I took a slug of whisky. ‘You can talk to the fishing boat,’ I said. ‘That’s like phoning daddy.’ I nodded at Fartag. ‘But the freighter’s not so easy. Twenty-four hours could put her two or three hundred miles away, depends on her speed. That’s way out of range for this set. You might be lucky in the middle of the night. But this is August and there’s a fair amount of daylight. If the crew can’t speak English, what’s the point in shouting at them anyway?’

She snatched the glass from me. ‘How does Bool Radio manage? They speak tae foreigners. And they say they send messages across the Atlantic. How do they do that then, eh?’

‘Power,’ I told her, reaching for my glass. ‘That’s how we send messages across the Atlantic. We have big transmitters and special aerials.’

‘Oh yeah?’ she said, holding the glass out of my reach, ‘but how d’ye talk tae foreigners?’

‘Morse code,’ I said, ‘and a special language, Q-code. At least – we did. But it’s all changing. Everything goes over to satellite next January. In fact the Brits kicked Morse into touch last Hogmanay. Bool Radio’s the last station left. We’re all going redund-’

‘So,’ she interrupted, filling the glass to the brim and pushing it back at me, ‘we’ll have tae do that then won’t we, the code stuff.’

I nodded towards the equipment. ‘Listen,’ I told her, ‘I don’t want to get technical. But that’s radiotelephone equipment. It’s for short-range work. And the crew have to speak English when they use it because that’s the international language. So if you want to use this set you’ll have to wait until your man gets closer – then try him in English.’

‘Twat!’ Her knuckles slammed into my temple.

‘Shit!’ My head jerked, hitting the glass and spilling some of the nectar. ‘That bloody-well hurt,’ I yelled. ‘Y’ stupid-bitch.’

‘Hurt?!’ Her face was evil. ‘Ye’ll ken fuckin’ hurt if ye play tricky wi’ me boy. Stop the bullshit and answer the question.’

‘I’m not tricky. I’m trying to help.’ I took a quick gulp of Macduibh. She might get rough again and it was too valuable to waste. ‘That set won’t reach the ship. You need Morse or satellite. Morse is going out of fashion and you haven’t got satellite. You asked a question. And that’s the answer.’ I took another sip.

Crack! Fartag’s hand hit the table. ‘D’ye still have the Morse stuff at the Bool Radio?’

‘Well – yeah.’

His eyes drilled into me. ‘Get a Bool Radio set out here. Ye talk for us. Do the code stuff.’ It was an order.

‘I can’t.’ This was bloody frustrating. How could I get it across to them? ‘The Bool Radio transmitters are massive. They’re as long as this room. The aerials are a hundred feet high.’

Fartag glared. He was evil now. Freya was behind me. I tensed. What next? I wondered. ‘The code’s more or less finished,’ I told them, desperate to get my point across, ‘except for a few ships from the poorer countries. Some of them still carry radio officers and use Morse. But they’re few and far between.’

‘No problem,’ Freya was at my side again, topping up my drink. ‘Go tae the radio station and speak tae the man on the freighter from there. Do it after night when there’s no one around.’

‘There’s always someone on duty,’ I said. ‘The station goes 24 hours a day. Everybody hears everything.’

She walked across to the bedroom and opened the door. ‘Duncan,’ she called, ‘a word in yer ear.’

The tall wiry statue sprang into life and bounded across to her.

I sipped my whisky and gazed at Calum. I’ll stare him out, I decided.

‘Calum!’ Duncan stood framed in the bedroom doorway. We all looked across at him. ‘Bring in the boys,’ he said with a sneer. ‘She’s going to dance.’

Calum left the room without speaking.

Fartag reached for a bottle and topped up all round. ‘Scotland!’ he shouted, raising his glass.

‘Sliante,’ said Alexander absent-mindedly. His gaze was fixed on the bedroom door.


‘Cheers!’ I said, taking a drink.

The obnoxious men, who I had seen outside, filed into the cool darkness and gathered in bunches. They talked in loud, foul-mouthed voices. There was an air of excitement and expectation. ‘The lassie’s going tae dance,’ they told one another. Duncan moved among them handing out glasses and filling them with cheap wine.

When Calum returned he carried a bagpipe. It groaned like a defeated animal as he squeezed and tuned it. Then he paced up and down at the end of the room with his wild music skirling about him.

Fartag joined in, breaking into song in a high reedy voice;
‘Oh flower of Scotland
when will we see
your like again?
Duncan! More wine for the boys. Keep those glasses full,’ he shouted.

Calum swaggered proudly up and down in the shadows. The men grew rowdy and cursed and sang;
‘And stood against him,
proud Edward’s army,
and sent him hameward
tae think again.’
‘Drink up, man,’ Duncan refilled my glass. ‘Can’t you keep up with us?’ he sneered.

The drink tasted like a mixture of whisky and wine. There was something of each – and something more. ‘Cheers,’ I told him, and took a long swig. I was beginning to enjoy myself.

The wild atmosphere appealed to me. About time I had a good piss-up. Time to join in the singing;
‘But we can still rise now.
And be the nation again.’

The music changed to a fast lilt, a lonely and rhythmic melody, as Freya came dancing from the bedroom. The men parted before her as she kicked her legs at them in time to the music, laughing and mocking as they leapt away. She skipped round the floor, dancing behind me and patting her hands on the top of my head.

‘Clear the table,’ shouted Fartag, setting the VHF between his feet. The men snatched up the equipment and stowed it away in a corner. One stood by the table, holding the lamp.

‘Give us The Highland Fling,’ yelled Fartag. ‘Play the Fling.

The pipe changed tone. There came a heavy drone and a steady rhythm. It was nostalgic and melodious stuff that went for the pit of my stomach. Freya placed a bare foot on my thigh and a hand on my shoulder as she went on to the table. Duncan filled my glass. I drank it down in a gulp. It was my kind of party.

Calum piped The Devil In the Kitchen. Freya danced above me, wild and impetuous, flinging and turning. The men joined in with ear-piercing shrieks. Every time she turned she caught my eye and gave me a grin. I began to warm to her. She might be human, I thought. She might have a soul.

‘Come on Sassenach,’ Duncan sneered, refilling my glass, ‘you’re falling behind.’

Ignoring his taunts, I smiled up at the woman who leapt and kicked above my head. I was in party-mode now.

‘Swords,’ roared Fartag. ‘Bring the swords.’

The pipe cut abruptly. All went silent. Duncan brought two swords and set them in a cross on the table.

The pipe groaned again. Then the melody came, slower this time, repetitive and intricate. The woman moved round the swords in time to the music, straight-backed and haughty. In each quadrant she turned to the weapons and danced defiantly – eyes fixed on the glinting cross.

I watched her feet, flashing hypnotically in the half-light, tapping the complex pattern of the notes among the sharp blades. The melody was nostalgic and yearning. The drone mesmerised me. My brain swam in alcohol. The music came faster. Her feet moved quicker and quicker.

Then the pipe cut suddenly. It was all over.

Duncan refilled my glass.

Freya stood with her hands on her hips, breathing heavily, lips slightly parted. She looked down at me through partly closed lids. Duncan collected the swords.

‘Again,’ she told Calum. He played again, slow and repetitive. The woman moved round the table, arrogant and lissom. Then she danced the defiant dance with her eyes locked on mine. She moved closer and began tapping the intricate notes on the top of my head; first with her left foot then her right; then with the left ... Calum piped faster. The rhythm drummed in my skull.

The pipe cut.

Freya towered above like a vanquishing warrior. My mind was in turmoil. ‘Now boys,’ she shouted, ‘The Reel O’ Tulloch.’ Men shrieked with excitement. The pipe howled and droned as Calum retuned. Duncan returned with another refill.

The reel began, haunting and fast. Freya curtsied and peeled off her sweater, standing tall for a moment, a slender nymph with creamy firm breasts. Then, with a screech of laughter, she flung the garment among the men, sending them yelling and punching in a drunken scrum. Now she was dancing, feet pounding the table in triple time, breasts aquiver. The mob stopped fighting and turned, mechanical and wide-eyed, then moved slowly back to the table, gaping and rubbernecking

She scooped at my arm, pulling me up to join her. The men began chanting as she dragged me round in a clumsy dance while unbuttoning my shirt and pulling it off. Notes flew at me faster than rain in a westerly gale. My head spun. I was stupid and stumbling. My reasoning went. I tried to kiss her. She avoided my mouth, shrieking with laughter. She clawed at my belt and then my zip. My trousers fell, tangling my ankles. I kicked them aside and fumbled with hooks. Her skirt fell away. There was nothing beneath.


Brrrr-rupip! The noise roused me from a deep sleep.
Somewhere in the caverns of my subconscious a dormant memory pricked up its ears and barked a warning. My mind surfaced, like released flotsam shooting up from the depths of a dark ocean.

I sensed that I was not alone.

I sensed other things too – like a hell of a hangover. Not the shrunken brain and slightly pissed feeling that the whisky-drinker learns to live with. This was the work of a Mickey Finn. Psychedelic lights flashed in my eyeballs. Drums banged and echoed in my cranium. There was an overwhelming desire to throw up.

I fought off sickness and feigned sleep while carrying out the seaman’s kit-check. Left foot? Present! Left leg? Attached! Right foot? Present! Right leg ...

There were two of everything that comes in pairs and one of everything else. The main casualty was my tongue. It lay, and tasted, like a dead rat rotting at the bottom of the sewer that had once been my mouth.


Brrrr-rupip! The noise came again. Memories flickered in my mind like the black and white images of a fairground peep show.

I was back in Egypt – Alexandria. I met up with a crowd of Norwegian sailors. We hit town together. Then I lost them. I was drunk and confused and couldn’t find my way back to the ship. I wandered the backstreets and alleys shouting for a taxi but couldn’t find one.

A group of men began shadowing me. I felt nervous and jumpy. Then I spotted a small hotel and ran inside. It was ill lit and dirty. Sleazy, but it was refuge. I booked a room, took more drink, and then went to bed.

In the morning, when I woke, there was a woman astride me. I was a bit surprised but these things happen. I wasn’t going to spoil her day so I lay back, gritted my teeth, and tried to recall who she was. I couldn’t. Then I realised – we were not alone. It was the flash that confirmed it. There was a man beside the bed. He had a camera.

The landlord doctored my drink. My head and tongue told me that much. Then, while I slept, I was appointed male-lead in a set of pornographic postcards. I leapt up with a roar and went berserk, flinging the woman at the wall. She struck it with a sickening thump, moaned, and slumped to the floor while I was tearing into the man; hammering with my fists; slashing with my hands until he fell to the ground, unconscious.
I pulled on my clothes, leapt up and down on the camera and left without paying the bill.



I sat bolt upright, struggling to focus my mind.

I was stark naked on a grubby bed. The room was much like my own bedroom, ill lit by a small window situated somewhere behind me. But it wasn’t my bedroom.

Freya was leaning on the doorjamb. A grey Polaroid camera hung from her neck. She waved a photograph to and fro, willing it to develop. She held more photographs in the other hand. ‘’Lo-there,’ she said. ‘Ye take a good photi. How d’ye feel?’

‘About to die,’ I said, inadequately. Suddenly I felt very bare and vulnerable. I swung off the bed and jumped to my feet. ‘Ohhwhhh!’ The pain ripped through my skull like a cleaver. I buried my face in my hands. My mouth watered and there was a compulsion to be sick.

The woman laughed.

‘Where are my clothes?’ I demanded, warding off pain and illness.

‘Over there, in the corner,’ she said. ‘I collected them up for ye. Ye’re awfy untidy when ye’re anxious.’

‘I wanna go home and die,’ I moaned, struggling into my trousers.

‘Christ; don’t die,’ she said. ‘I’m tae young tae be a widow.’

‘Eh? Widow?’ I stopped struggling and stared at her, confused. ‘What d’you mean – widow?’ I demanded.

She jerked away from the doorjamb and took a pace forward. ‘Hey! Youse’d better remember,’ she shouted. ‘About last night, I mean.’

‘’Course I remember,’ I stalled, racking my brain. I remembered the piping and dancing – and pulling her skirt down.

‘Jesus Christ!’ She was spitting mad. ‘Ye’d better remember,’ she repeated.

‘I do; I do,’ I insisted. ‘We danced on the table – me and you.’

‘Danced!’ she screamed. ‘Who’s talking about blidy dancing? I’m talking about shagging. Youse shagged me – with all that blidy crowd looking on. The bastards were cheering ye.’

‘God help me.’ I collapsed on the bed, averting my eyes and fumbling with my shoelace. She could be lying of course. ‘No,’ I shook my head. ‘I don’t remember,’ I said.

‘What about crying?’ she demanded, ‘and asking me tae marry ye? Forgot that too, have ye?’

I cringed and concentrated on the shoelace, overcome by guilt and remorse.

She suddenly spun round and flung herself out through the door. Now she was ranting and raving at her father in the next room.

I wandered across to the window and stared vacantly outside. A large stack of peat blocked the view.


‘I’ll jog yer memory.’ Her voice rasped from behind me.

I whipped round, startled. She was back in the room – a wad of photographs in her hand. ‘Try that for a start.’ She held a picture up for inspection. A naked man and woman performed the sexual act on a table in front of a crowd. I was the man. ‘And that,’ she said; ‘and that, and that ...’

She had a full set of photographs, some taken in front of the crowd, some in the bedroom. ‘OK. OK.’ I waved her aside. I’d seen enough.

‘Ooohh,’ she mocked. ‘So the nice sober gentleman doesn’t want tae ken what the nasty drunk did last night, eh? Well let me tell ye something, mister. I was stone cold sober last night. And I lived through every minute of it.’ She jabbed me viciously with her finger. ‘Now youse gonna blidy-well live through it. Ken what I mean? I’m no cheap little whore ye found in a pub. I’m a respectable woman. I’m proud. I’ve got dignity. Youse pleaded with me last night. Youse pleaded with me tae marry ye. Aye – in front o’ witnesses. Youse seduced me,’ she screamed. ‘Ye used my body – ye bastard! And now youse just want tae walk out and forget it – don’t ye? Ye wanna leave it all behind and pretend it never happened. ’Cos I’m not up tae yer fuckin’ highfalutin English standard – am I? Aye – I ken what ye’re thinking. But I’ve got photigraphs. I’ve got witnesses. I can prove everything. I’m yer wife now. I’m yer common-law wife. D’ye ken what I mean?’

I understood all right. She’d succeeded where the Egyptians failed.

‘Woman!’ It came as a bark from the other room.

‘That’s my feyther,’ she said. ‘He wants a word with youse.’


Fartag sat at the big table fondling a bottle of Macduibh. Duncan and Calum stood beside him like a pair of waxworks. Alexander slept on the straw; snoring and snorting like a sow on a truffle-hunt.

‘Sit, boy,’ Fartag pointed to a box then glared at Alexander. ‘Get yon drunken bastard out o’ my sight,’ he roared.

Duncan and Calum sprang to life, dragged Alexander out through the front door then padded back to their stations.

‘Right; this big wireless at Bool Radio,’ said Fartag. His face was hard. ‘Ye’ll do the code stuff and talk tae Zitsar’s man on the ship for me, eh?’

Bool Radio! The name flashed in my mind like an intuition. I looked at my watch; half past seven. ‘Hell! What day is it?’ I wanted to know.

‘Tuesday,’ Freya looked up from spreading the photographs over the table, ‘forgot that too, have ye?’

‘I’ll have to go soon,’ I told them. ‘I’m on duty at half eleven.’

Fartag took a swig of whisky and jerked his head at the pictures. ‘That’s my lassie ye messed about with. I could take yer balls off for that.’

I glanced at his face. There was no humour. He meant what he said. I shuddered.

‘She’s Duncan’s woman.’ He jerked his thumb at one of the dummies. ‘And ye took her in front of the crowd. Duncan’s wild about that, mind.’

I fixed my eyes on the man who stood like a statue beside Fartag. ‘Where I come from,’ I said in a loud voice, ‘a man who sets his woman up for another bloke is called a pimp. And you can tell Duncan this, too. The last man to photograph me on the job had to crap in a muslin-bag for a fortnight and pan for his gold-fillings.’

‘Don’t get tricky with Duncan, boy. He’ll take ye apart. These photographs, though. I could make a few bob selling these, eh?’

‘She’s your daughter,’ I said.

‘She kens her duty,’ he growled.

‘Eh!’ Freya protested. ‘Youse leave my photis alone. These are my wedding pictures,’ she sneered. ‘Maybe I’ll send a set tae that girlfriend o’ yours. Yon Yankee-piece. I suppose we should call her yer ex now, eh? ’Cos ye’re my man now. Where is she by the way? I’ve not seen her for a while. She’s no’ packed youse in has she? Just when we need her.’

So that was the game. I saw through it now. The photographs were an incentive, another turn of the screw, more blackmail.

They couldn’t know it but Terry Ann was the ideal target. She was born and bred in the American mid-west, the Bible Belt, a well-bred countrygirl, modest if not demure. Compared with this lot she was like a saint.

In contrast, I’m a tearaway, act now, think later, no sooner a word than a blow. I hate myself for it but I can’t help it. It’s in the breed – Scouse.

Terry Ann changed all that. When she was around I acted differently. She influenced me; made me a better person. I needed her. And I wanted her respect. I loved that girl but couldn’t express my feelings adequately. Whatever the cost I wouldn’t let anyone hurt her. And those obscenities that Freya was pushing over the table would crucify Terry Ann.

‘Forget my girlfriend,’ I told them. ‘You won’t find her anyway. She’s home in the States, in a shooting competition.’ That was true. She’d flown out to New England to represent the company in the Moose Mountain Rifle Championships.

‘She won’t be back here for months,’ I added. That wasn’t true. She was due in Caithness tomorrow. And the way the wind was blowing that created a problem.

The pack always bays at the runt, the one who runs scared. Bluff is the answer. I would pretend I didn’t care what they did; act as if I was impregnable, had no weak-points, didn’t give a damn who saw the pictures. That way, I figured these people would ease-off. At the same time, if I pretended to co-operate they might lower their guard long enough for me to grab the evidence and run.

Freya came and stood over me. Her thighs pressed against me. ‘We’ve got a surprise for her when she comes back, eh? All these wedding pictures,’ she nudged me and winked, ‘and some lively stories, eh? about youse and that one on Bool Head.’

She pulled her nose and put her face close to mine. ‘Didn’t ken I was keekin’ at youse, eh?’ She looked at her father. ‘In there every Tuesday, so he is. Whenever Faroe goes away tae the sea, this one jumps in his bed.’

‘You bloody bitch!’ My temper flared. I shot to my feet; box clattering behind me. It was always the same. I knew exactly what I should do; had it sussed, then someone pushed me too far and I lost control.

‘Sit!’ Fartag hammered the table.

I glared at him then thought better of it and pulled up the box and sat.

‘Faroe’s my trusty friend,’ he said. ‘He’s one o’ the clan. Cross him and ye cross all. When Faroe gets wind o’ this he’ll put yon whore-of-a-wife o’er the Brig. Then he’ll come after ye, boy. He’ll kill ye; never doubt that. He’s the wrong man tae cross.’ He shook his head. ‘Ye’re making dangerous enemies, boy. And ye’re making them fast.’

I scowled at Freya. That bitch got me into this.

She laughed, leaning over me. ‘Never heed,’ she said. ‘There’s no problem if ye do as yer tell’d. But if ye don’t – a lot o’ people are going tae get hurt. Yer little Yank and Faeroe’s wife will go through the fires of hell. But youse’ll no' ken that, ’cos youse’ll be dead.’

‘OK. Tell me what you want,’ I said, hoping to get a grip on the situation.

‘Bool Radio,’ she pressed her legs against me. ‘We want ye tae pick up a message – that’s all.’

It was time to concede. ‘I’ll try; but it won’t be easy. Bool Radio’s full of eyes and ears.’

‘Now ye’re talkin’,’ said Fartag. ‘Calum! Duncan! Swear the man in.’


Duncan strode into the shadows and returned with a rucksack. It clinked and looked heavy. When Calum scowled, inclining his head towards the door, I rose and followed them outside with a feeling of foreboding.

Clear of the building they handed me the rucksack and ordered me to put it on. It felt as if it was full of boulders. ‘Is this where you hide the lead?’ I muttered, weighing it with my hand before slipping an arm through a loop.

Pulling one strap over my right shoulder I reached back to grab the other with my left hand. As if at a signal the men pounced, grabbing me and forcing me down. They took me off-guard. Entangled in webbing and weighed down by boulders I couldn’t fend them off. They were forcing my arms behind my back. I writhed and tried to lash out with my feet but I was heavily handicapped. One of them flung a stunning blow with a fist to my jaw. I blacked out for a second. Then I was on my knees and they were tying my wrists behind my back.

A canvas bag went over my head. I was in total darkness. Something was looped round my neck. It felt like a noose being pulled tight on my throat. Someone began tugging me along like a beast in a mart. I tried to resist but the knot tightened and choked me.

There was a banging; someone was hammering on a door.

‘Who’s there?’ That was Freya’s voice.

‘A man in the dark.’ That was Duncan.

‘Does he want light?’ That was Freya again.

‘He does.’

‘Bring him in.’

They launched me forward, staggering and tripping across the floor. The straps of the rucksack dug in and pained my shoulders. A door slammed behind me.

‘Yon’s a terrible burden,’ said Freya. I gritted my teeth as she tugged at the rucksack. Breathing was difficult and the canvas stank. ‘Ye’d get used tae it in time,’ she told me. ‘Most people carry a burden. They’re born with it but they don’t ken, so they live with it. They don’t ken they’ve got a burden ’cos they’re kept in the dark, like youse are now.’ She tapped the blindfold.
‘Politicians hide the truth from the people.’ Her voice was hard and bitter. ‘They keep them in the dark. So folk are blind tae what’s really going on.’ She was still tapping the blindfold.
‘Workers are kept with their heads just above water, and no more. They work day-in day-out tae make ends meet; overtime at the weekend tae put jam on the bread. Keep them too busy tae think; that’s the name o’ the game. D’ye ken what I mean?’

She prodded my ribs. ‘That’s the working class’ burden,’ she ranted. ‘Scrooge’s wages, coupled with the blindfold of toil.’ Her voice was bitter. ‘With the tabloids feeding them shit about who’s shagging who at the top of the tree; and a full page spread of some tart’s cellulite and sagging tits – tae keep their pathetic minds away from the realities of life.’

She grabbed my tether. ‘Not much about the English stealing our Scottish Oil and squandering the profits,’ she raged. ‘Not much about that, eh? The thieving bastards!’

She jerked the rope and I tensed. ‘People ken there’s something wrong with the system but they can’t fathom what. They ken they’ve got masters; dictators, with jobsworths tae rattle the chains and make decent folk jump.’

She started leaping about, tugging my leash. I stumbled after her, choking and blind, desperate to keep the reins slack as she danced round the room. I was fighting for survival as the knot slackened and tightened; releasing then throttling; relaxing then strangling.

After an age she eased off and the ligature loosened. ‘Folk are just wage slaves, commodities, held in contempt and dragged from cradle tae grave by politicians and bosses,’ she lectured. ‘And they can’t break free. Ken what I mean?’ She was standing still now, but I was uneasy and tense – dreading the next move.

‘Duncan,’ she snapped, ‘take the rope off.’

Rough hands removed the noose.

‘Calum – tie it round his gut.’

It bit into my flesh through my shirt as it was tightened on my waist.

‘Feyther; take off the sack. Give the man light. Show him the truth.’ Someone snatched at the sack. The lamp was unlit. The room was dark. I strove to focus my eyes.

‘Can ye see?’ she asked.

‘Not much.’ I could make out shadows.

‘How many folk are in the room? Quick! Quick! Come-on! Name-’em! Quick!’

‘Five ...’ I was confused. ‘Five – including me.’

‘Name ’em! Name ’em!’

‘You ... Calum ...’ I narrowed my eyes, trying to make sense of the looming shapes, ‘Duncan ... Fartag and me.’ I peered into the gloom. ‘I can’t see any others,’ I muttered wearily.

She struck a match and the lamp flared. ‘Try again,’ she said.

I looked round. There were just the three of us, Freya, Fartag and myself.

‘Duncan and Calum didn’t come in,’ she said. ‘I fed ye false information. When we took the sack away ye thought ye could see but it was still dark. I conned ye with part-truths. And youse believed what ye were led tae believe ’cos part-truths are convincing. They’re more dangerous than no truth at all.’ She walked over and opened the door, flooding the place with light.
‘That’s how yer leaders get people tae join political parties, and follow religions and fight wars. They manipulate folk. Politicians use the media tae control ye with invisible reins. Now – d’ye want tae go free?’

‘Well … if you insist,’ I said.

‘Come on then.’ She beckoned for me to follow her outside. ‘Only those who’ve been freed themselves can make other folk free. Freedom has a price. And the price is pain.’

She cupped her hands round her mouth like a loudhailer. ‘Men!’ she screeched, like a fishwife in a pub-fracas. ‘Get over here! And move yer blidy arses!’

The men by the stables abandoned their tasks and began moving towards us in a ragged gang. Duncan, who appeared from one of the buildings carrying a red flag, joined them and led the way. Then Calum came swaggering up, pipes at the ready.

‘D’ye ken the flag?’ Freya asked.

‘Looks like the B-flag – dangerous cargo,’ I said.

‘Aye well, it’s the Martyrs’ Flag.’ She drew herself to her full height.
‘Ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
their life’s blood dyed its every fold,’
she sang.

‘So what’s the badge?’ I asked, without caring, when I spotted the green insignia on the red cloth.

‘TLN; True Loyal Natives,’ she told me. ‘One day ye’ll ken what it means; but not now.’


The crowd gathered round. My hands were still bound. The rucksack bit into my flesh, straps pinching and rubbing, forcing me to keep moving my shoulders, looking for comfort.

‘Quiet!’ Freya screeched. ‘This man will take the oath of allegiance.’ She held up a hand to silence the mob. ‘Youse – Toxteth,’ she yelled. ‘D’ye swear tae be loyal tae the clan at all times? in all ways? on pain of death?’ She tugged on the rope and glared at me fiercely. ‘Tell them ye do,’ she ordered.

The mob fell silent. The only sounds were the harsh, ‘Caw cawing,’ of the rooks in the trees and the wind in my ears. I stared at the savage faces. They were all round me, everywhere. It was surreal. There was no escape from this God-forsaken place. And Freya still had those photographs. I had no option but to go along with the flow. ‘OK,’ I muttered. I had no idea what clan she meant but I didn’t like the sound of the pain and death bit. Nothing was real here. But it all blended in with the nag in my shoulders, banging hangover and aching jaw.
‘Answer me properly!’ she screamed. ‘Let them all hear ye! Tell them ye swear tae be loyal!’

‘OK. OK,’ I told her; anything for a quiet life. ‘I swear to be loyal,’ I told the crowd.

‘D’ye hear that, boys?’ she yelled. ‘This man wants tae be a kinsman o’ the clan – a blood brother. Now!’ she screamed. ‘Baptise him!’

The pipes droned. Calum began swaggering up and down to the strains of, Scots, Wha Hae. The men closed in. I thought they were going to release me. But then they rushed forward, shouting and laughing, jostling with each other and grabbing at me. I lost my footing in the scrum and was thrown off balance by the rucksack. I felt as if I was going down but couldn’t use my arms to save myself because they were bound. But the mob was so close I couldn’t fall over. Then they were gripping and hoisting me aloft.

I hoped I was in for a triumphal march like, Welcome the New Boy. But a voice in my skull said it wasn’t to be. I was horizontal above their heads and they were jogging over the paddock and across the road.

‘Halt!’ That was Duncan above the piping. He snapped a command. I felt the men sway. They gave a great heave and I was hurtling through space; helpless; instinctively braced. Bang! A flash of light and I was out cold.

I came-to on my back in the bog; winded; a leaden weight pinning my shoulders. I was sinking; arms tied; rucksack dragging me down by the head.

‘Help! For God’s sake help!’ I cried. But there was no response. I’m on my own, I thought. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to get to firm ground. I wriggled, trying to swim like an eel, but sank faster. Ooze was clogging my mouth and nostrils. This is it, I told myself. The bastards have killed me. I’m dying and this is what it’s like … an ordinary day … sky … clouds … Oh Terry Ann … Terry Ann, I won’t see you again. I’m so sorry. I do love you …


There was solid ground under my back and I was shivery-cold. At the sound of voices I tried to open my eyes but the lids were leaden and wouldn’t move. I was weary and weak. When I managed to force my eyes open there was daylight. Everything was blurred. I tried to focus. That’s a house. But what house? It’s not my place. So where? Oh ... yeah ... Wasster. Awwh God – no. I’m still at Wasster, so it’s more of the same.

I realised then that Alexander and Freya were crouching beside me. They were helping me into a sitting position. I caught a glimpse of my body. It was covered in stinking peat. I was soaking wet and there was vomit on my chest. Two men suddenly appeared and threw buckets of icy water over me. It took my breath away. Cursing and choking I gasped for air. I’d had enough. I couldn’t take much more.

‘Let him be,’ Freya told them.

Alexander began to clean me. ‘I should never have gotten you into this,’ he said.

Other men stood idly by, watching and smirking.

‘The boys saved yer life,’ said Freya.

‘Bully for them,’ I told her.

‘They had hold of the rope all the time.’

‘They’re full of fun,’ I muttered, ‘but don’t invite me to their next party.’

‘Youse owe them a favour. Youse owe them your life. That’s how it works around here. We’re all in debt tae each other; brothers and sisters; kin. All equal – but no one’s indispensable. D’ye ken what I mean?’

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t stand any more of her nonsense. ‘Can I go?’ I asked.

‘Ye’re free till we need ye.’

‘Can we destroy the photographs?’

‘Ye’re very hurtful. Those are my memories. And my feyther wants them for the records. We have something on everyone. It’s good for discipline. Folk down south have something on me.’

‘I must have a word with them,’ I said. ‘I might have grounds for divorce.’


I let myself in at the main door of the radio station and went straight to the mess-room. There was always a change of clothes in my shiny-green metal locker because I usually ran to and from work. My addiction to fitness was a legacy of the school boxing team and college karate club. I selected blue jeans, white sweatshirt and white trainers.

My distorted reflection mocked from the gloss paint of the corridor walls as I padded over the highly buffed wooden floors. In the washroom I jumped under a cold shower and let icy water drum on my head as I peeled off the clothes that stank of the bog – pummelling them with my feet as I washed.

Tuesday was the first day of my working week. Today I covered the midday meal-relief from 1130 to 1330. Then I was free for the afternoon but returned for the evening shift at 1700. I was a cog in a complex pattern of shifts. Radio officers came and went throughout the day, more for the busy periods, less for the quiet, two for the night shift.

I jumped clear of the water and towelled myself vigorously. My brain felt as if it had broken loose from its moorings and there was a taste of alcohol on my breath. Reeking of carbolic I returned to my locker, collected my headphones, and made for the ops-room.
Terry Ann wasn’t back yet. Her office door was ajar and everything was just as she’d left it. The cover was still over the computer. The pens and paper clips lay undisturbed in the tidy and her raincoat hung on the hook beside the cabinet.

A lonely butterfly fluttered in my stomach. I needed her badly. When we were apart I drifted like a ship with no rudder. In the space of her short trip home I had already been unfaithful with two women. And those photographs ... I stopped dead in my tracks. ‘Hell! What a mess!’


Alexander dropped me off at the radio station on his way home from Wasster. He was full of apologies; sorry for all the trouble that he had caused.

But he wasn’t much help. He knew nothing about the True Loyal Natives except that he was a reluctant kinsman himself. He was blackmailed and thrown in the bog too. They threatened to expose the trade in poached salmon and venison and home-distilled whisky. ‘How low can they stoop?’ he wondered.

He didn’t know what Fartag and Freya were up to. But he knew that Faroe was involved. So Alexander guessed that it was something to do with fish. Maybe they were breaking the herring-quotas or using illegal mesh nets to supply the Klondykers with undersized fish, ‘or poaching for salmon or something.’


I pushed open the door of the ops-room and entered a bedlam of activity and noise. Urgent voices bawled from batteries of speakers, demanding immediate attention. Morse code, now on its deathbed, echoed among polished, battleship-grey consoles in a complexity of pitches and tones. Teleprinters burst into life, clattered noisily, died, then sprang back alive. Fax machines whirred. Telephones shrilled. Radio officers, tethered by the cords of their headsets, peered at VDUs and hammered Morse keys or typed on keyboards. General duty officers dashed to and fro, ferrying forms, answering phones and handling queries.

Some radio officers, sitting at the points, worked assiduously, concentrating and tense. Others lounged back in their chairs, monitoring calls by the cosy glow of indicator lamps. Then, when the work-pressure eased, they leant over consoles, talking in the subdued voices of men overtaken by events.

Making my way to my console I was aware that this was the birthplace, the heart, and now the Waterloo of ATOMIC – the American Telegraphic Organization of Marine International Communications – the only foreign company with a franchise to operate a commercial marine radio station inside the UK.

ATOMIC got the right as a reward for communication-services rendered to the British during the First World War. Since then the outfit had grown into a multinational giant with a chain of radio stations covering the globe. Bool Radio, which was the first, always remained the biggest and busiest.

Things change. As far back as ’87, when I first went to sea, we were phasing teleprinters and fax machines on to the ships. There were rumours then that Morse was on its way out.

As the final decade of the twentieth century approached I, like Bool Radio and everyone else in the industry, found myself in the midst of a technical revolution. Terrestrial communications were phasing out as satellites took over. Cable and high-frequency radio transmissions – the lifeblood of Bool Radio – became little more than a backup. Computers, digital systems, word processors and beacons took over the work of the radio officer.

It was a double blow for the likes of my fellow radio officers and me because the world trade recession meant there were fewer jobs anyway. During the 1980s, ship owners in the west had no option but to lay-up their tonnage. Crews from the traditional seafaring nations were laid-off and drifted into other industries.

When trade began to pick up again, competition was fierce. Only the ruthless and efficient would make it. Owners flagged-out their ships; registering them in little known islands where they could dictate the rules, shake off the unions, employ Third World labour and slash wages. New types of ship came into being. One bulker could do the work of ten of the older vessels. Automation phased out personnel.

Bool Radio was in a time warp. It was history. To be viable the station needed fleets of ships pumping thousands of messages into it, using old-fashioned Morse. But the code I heard now was the last of its kind; our customers had dwindled to a few ships from the poorer nations, resisting a change they couldn’t afford. There was no profit in their paltry messages. They couldn’t pay the bills anyway. So ATOMIC was pulling out. At 30, I was going down for the third and final time.


There was no need to look at the rota because the routine was the same every Tuesday. I walked straight to the primary control-point and plugged in my phones. From here we monitored the Distress and Calling channels and distributed local RT traffic among the workers. Controls on the higher frequencies handled the more distant ships.

There was no formal handover because Big Tex, the man I relieved, had abandoned the position and gone home early. It was a perk he got for being bigger and more ruthless than everyone else.

I studied the logbook. There were no vessels on turn. Big Tex didn’t accumulate work. The old sod was a drunk and his qualifications were fake – but what could you do? I automatically reached for the speakers and adjusted the volumes, which the big-man had set at low.

A fishing boat was calling on channel sixteen, VHF; and a couple of foreigners were shouting for link-calls on the RT Distress and Calling frequency, 2182 kHz.

The coloured repeater-lamps on the control panels told me which channels were clear. I manipulated the forest of levers on the face of the console and spoke into the mike, passing the anxious seamen to my workers.

From now on the job was simplicity itself, which was a good thing because I was in no mood for anything complex. As other ships called I gave them a turn and put them on the waiting list. Then I doled out the queue to the work-points as they became free. My only other tasks were to keep the distress watches and to broadcast the traffic lists, navigation warnings and weather forecasts at pre-arranged times.

My mind was in turmoil as, turning the gain higher, I set my phones on the worktop and began pacing up and down in front of the console. I couldn’t make sense of the events of the last 24 hours; Freya; filthy photographs; Fartag, dishing out Macduibh like tap water; the TLN; death threats; blackmail; me – plundering a wreck. And Terry Ann was due back anytime. What a bloody mess.

I thought I was set for life in Bool Radio; just serving my time as under-manager before being put in charge of my own station. But now there were no stations. ATOMIC was never a benevolent society, mind. It took its pound of flesh. You needed a radio officer’s first-class ticket and two years sea-time, just to get an interview. And the shift rota put me on nights every Friday. But, then again, if the night was quiet I could get my head down for a couple of hours, so I didn’t have to waste Saturday in bed. Sunday and Monday were my official days off. So, in theory, I could spend the weekend with Terry Ann, and have Monday to do as I pleased.


There was a sudden burst of activity on the old telegraph Distress and Calling frequency, 500 kHz. A fleet of ships were talking among themselves in squeaky Morse code, like squabbling rodents. The high-pitched transmitters and fast staccato-Morse, earmarked them as easterners using old Soviet equipment. These guys were a mixture of Latvians and Estonians.

Countries of the former Soviet Union lagged behind in the technical revolution. Their ageing ships still carried radio officers who sent messages in Morse code. The ships that I could hear now were the Klondykers; old acquaintances who I knew by their call signs. They were back early – before the start of the mackerel season. I listened for a moment to see what they were up to.

It was what I thought. They were arranging scheds and testing communications before the real work began. I’d read in the Fishing News that the Latvian factory ship was already on station off Ullapool. It was early this year. The mackerel season didn’t begin till September.

EEC rules prevented non-member states from taking the fish for themselves. So the Estonians and Latvians anchored a factory ship in Loch Broom and bought mackerel from the local boats at a guaranteed cheap rate. They processed it there on the spot. Then fleets of fish-carriers ferried the finished product back to the Baltic. The local Scots called these ships and their crews the Klondykers because they came every autumn on a mini gold rush. The trade was good for everyone. Mackerel were plentiful and easy to catch but they wouldn’t bring any money on the Scottish markets.

The rrrip-rrrip-rrrip of their Morse played hell with my hangover and blocked the channel, which might still be needed for urgent communications if an ill-equipped ship developed problems. I considered blasting them off the air with our most powerful transmitter. Then I yawned and let it pass.

The thought of Ullapool sparked a memory. Freya said something about Ullapool on the trip out to Wasster. It was when she shouted to Angus, the lorry driver. What was it she said? Something about Zitsar ... Zitsar had arrived in Campbeltown and would travel to Ullapool overnight in the fish lorry. Then Angus said that he was on his way over to Ullapool to collect Zitsar.

And later, in the house, Freya said something else – when she was persuading me to contact the foreign ship. She said, ‘but Zitsar, that’s Josip, says we have tae make contact twenty-four hours before ship arrives in the area,’ or something like that.

Zitsar? Josip Zitsar? That’s a damn funny name. What was he doing in Campbeltown anyway? Why travel to Ullapool in a fish lorry – overnight? Come to think of it, why was Angus worried about police activity on the south road?

At half-past one, the small bespectacled figure of MacWhirter came over and plugged in his phones. He was in his 30s and married, with two kids and a mortgage. Redundancy would come hard to a man like him. He’d been a radio officer ever since he left school and knew nothing else. But now it was over. The key-bashers’ days were gone. ‘I’ll take you up,’ he said.

I unplugged my phones. ‘All quiet,’ I told him, ‘we’ve cleared them out.’

‘That’s why they’re closing us down.’ He dropped into the chair, spreading his copy of the local newspaper, The Press and Journal, over the worktop. The banner headline screamed of another “WHISKY HI-JACK”. Further down the page they were still pondering over the disappearing police car. Fishy, I thought. Is there a connection between the two? And if so – where do Freya and the True Loyal Natives fit in?


Alexander was sat in his van at the end of the drive, waiting for me, when I came out of work. The bearded bikers who flanked him wore studded leather jackets. They could be Hell’s Angels, but I knew they weren’t.

‘Ah, Danny,’ he called when he saw me approaching. ‘Freya wants to see you. She’s at my place right now. Jump in and I’ll run you out there.’

I accepted the offer and got in beside him; maybe there wasn’t much option. ‘What does she want?’ I asked.

He shrugged and lit a cigarette but gave no answer.

We travelled through town and over the headland in comparative silence then jerked to a standstill at the end of the track. As we climbed from the van into the bracing air and roar of the Brig the bikers did a U-turn and zoomed away in a cloud of dust.

We picked our way down the path and over the pebbles into the cottage. Freya stood beneath the low beams of the kitchen-cum-living-room, holding a bottle of Macduibh.

I watched as she poured us a drink. Alexander threw peat and driftwood on the fire. ‘Now isn’t this cosy,’ I said, ‘The Three Musketeers and a bottle of cheer.’

‘Aye,’ she thrust a glass at me. ‘And Josip Zitsar’s over at Wasster.’

‘Oh goody, you can take his photograph.’

‘Aye well, he wants ye on night shift on Wednesday and Thursday this week.’

‘Eh – tomorrow night?’ That came as a shock. I didn’t expect it so soon. I thought I had time to think and work out a plan. ‘I can’t,’ I protested. ‘I’m on day shift on Wednesday and Thursday.’

‘Can’t?’ she snarled. ‘Can’t means, won’t!’ She took a pace forward and thrust her face into mine. ‘Listen tae me, mister. There’s a set of photigraphs over at Wasster that say ye can. They’re all set tae go off tae yer nearest and dearest. And there’s my feyther and Duncan and the rest of the boys, straining tae cut off yer balls. So ye’ll blidy-well do as ye’re tell’d.’

Alexander came over and joined us. ‘She’s right, Danny. You’re going to stir up a whole lot of trouble if you refuse. Think of Terry Ann. You could surely change your night shift, if it’s only for her sake.’

I sipped the whisky and toyed with my glass. Shit creek without a paddle, I thought. The more I did for these people, the deeper I got involved. The deeper I got involved, the stronger their grip on me; a destructive spiral, but I had to stay around long enough to get hold of the photographs and stop them shouting the odds about Shona.

An element of curiosity was creeping in. The message they wanted me to collect from the freighter might give me a clue about what they were up to. If I played along with them and became some kind of trusty I might find a way of turning the tables and doling out retribution. So I would toe the line – at least, for the time being. But I would put on a show of reluctance first. I didn’t want to appear too keen. ‘I don’t want to get involved in hijacks or anything funny,’ I said.

‘Shut yer fuckin’ trap!’ she shrieked. I seemed to have touched a raw nerve. Which was what I wanted. She was screaming and shaking with rage. For a moment I thought she might attack me but she turned on Alexander. ‘Ye treacherous bastard! What does he ken? What’ve ye told him? Ye fuckin’ rat!’

‘Nothing – I told him nothing. I don’t ken anything,’ he protested. ‘You should be more careful what you say, Danny,’ he admonished, ‘getting people excited like that. She might have dropped the whisky.’ He took the bottle and placed it out of harm’s way. ‘Now calm yourself, Freya. Just give him the message. You can rely on Danny. Danny’s all right.’ He looked at me. ‘You’ll speak to the ship for her, won’t you Danny?’

‘It depends. Like I say, I don’t want to get involved in anything naughty.’

Her slim fingers delved into the pocket of her skirt. ‘This is for youse – from Zitsar.’ She thrust a paper under my nose. ‘It’s in yon code stuff. Ye’ve tae explain it tae me, so’s we ken that ye understand what it means.’

‘It’s straight forward,’ I told her, taking the paper and scanning it. ‘It’s a message from the ship’s radio officer to me.’ I ran my finger along the lines of text:
QSO 200200Z
QRX 210200Z 512KHZ
GAP CS 999
‘GAP is the call sign of Bool Radio. DE means from. So – the message says – radio officer at Bool Radio from the radio officer on the ship. We will make contact, that’s what QSO means, at oh-two-hundred on the twentieth. Z means GMT. Oh-two-hundred GMT is oh-three-hundred local time. Five-twelve kilohertz is the channel he wants to use. The next line says that the message will contain his time of arrival at a given position; QTH means our position. Then it goes on to say that we will meet again at the same time on the 21st; QRX means the time of the next contact. Then he gives the ship’s identification – three ones. And Bool Radio must identify itself by three nines.’ I thrust the paper back at her. ‘That’s it,’ I said.

She put her lips to my ear. ‘Do this for the TLN and youse’ll go places. Ken what I mean?’

‘I just want the pictures,’ I told her, ‘and to be rid of the lot of you.’ I was already wondering how I could wangle a night shift on Wednesday and Thursday. My official night shift was on Friday. That’s when I worked a day shift followed by a night.


That night, driving through the town after the evening shift, the trauma of the last couple of days began to take its toll. I was tired to the point of exhaustion. But I felt relaxed and confident too, because arranging the change of duty went exactly as planned.

I approached two radio officers, MacBain and Stuart, with a tempting proposition. If they covered my day shifts on Thursday and Friday – I would do their respective nights on Wednesday and Thursday. They both jumped at the offer of a day shift for a night shift with no loss of pay. There should be no problem exchanging messages with the ship. I would have to be careful, that’s all.

Leaving the town, I turned on to the track that goes over the headland. At the Fairy Hill, a thirty-foot mound with a hollowed top, I braked and approached the bungalow slowly. The drive-light was lit and the bedroom curtains were wide apart. That was the sign that Faroe was at sea and the coast was clear.

Further along I pulled into a passing place, a popular spot for lovers. A car parked there, deep into the night, attracted little more than a knowing smile. I climbed out, locked the door, and walked towards the bungalow, tired but relaxed.

It was about this time on a Tuesday night, two weeks ago, that I first got involved with Shona. I came jogging down the track after an evening shift with nothing more on my mind than a few cans of beer and a spot of TV when, suddenly, a woman’s ear-splitting scream and terrible wail of anguish ripped the night apart, setting my flesh a-creep and chilling my blood. ‘No-! Please-! No-! she was yowling as she came into view, grappling with a man in the eerie shadows of the drive-light.

I knew her by sight. She was my neighbour. We had an eye for each other. She was in her mid-twenties, tall and slim, with a kind of Nordic beauty – always in tight jeans and sweater. She would make my day as I passed her by, tossing her blond locks and lighting her face with a smile. So now I automatically wheeled in at the gate. ‘For God’s sake help me!’ she screamed when she spotted me.

The man had his back to me and didn’t realise that I was there. He was shorter than me, but thickset and built like a bull, roaring and bellowing in some foreign language. I clocked him as a drunken seaman who had strayed from the harbour.

He looked a likely-lad but I had the advantage, the element of surprise. I took it. A foot lashed into the back of his knee and crumpled him down as a fist crashed into a nerve centre, killing an arm. Enraged by pain he came lumbering round, launching a death charge like a blinded beast. I dropped at his feet in a tight ball, transforming his weight and momentum into my ally, sending him crashing over me, nosediving along the drive.

I sprang to my feet as he scrambled to rise, instinctively slamming a foot into his turning face; self-preservation, indoctrination from the Liverpool streets. ‘If dey go down, finish ’em off. If dey gerrup up yer a goner.’ I stood over him, ready and willing to kick again. But he just lay there, writhing and vomiting teeth. I relaxed. It was over. No need for the coup de grace.

He moaned pitifully, blood streaming down his chops as I helped him to his feet. ‘OK, old soldier,’ I told him. ‘The war’s over; the wounded go home.’ I guided him down the drive and away from the house. Then, at the gate, I pushed my hand into the small of his back and launched him into the night with a kick up the arse. ‘Piss off!’ I shouted. ‘And don’t ever come back!’

I stood at the gate until I was sure he had gone. Then, when I looked round, she was still on the doorstep, breaking her heart. I ran back to the house. ‘Everything’s fine,’ I said quietly. ‘He’s had enough. He’s gone home to bed.’

She looked up and nodded. Then, blinded by tears, she stepped forward, slid her arms round my body and buried her face in my shoulder. ‘Och, I feel dreadful,’ she sobbed. ‘I’m so scared. I’m shaking all over. He tried to ...’

I led her into the house and closed the door. ‘Who is he?’ I asked. ‘Have you seen him before?’

She sniffed and threw back her hair. ‘They call him Joe. He says he’s Russian. He was here on Saturday night with a crowd of tinkers. That one, Joe, is a friend of theirs. They were all drinking with my husband until the small hours. Joe kept looking at me – watching every move. Then he got drunk and began to follow me and touch me. It got really scary. He must know that my husband’s at sea just now. That’s why he came back. But I’ve only ever seen him that once; until-’

‘When your husband comes home you’d better tell him what happened. I don’t think Joe’ll ever come back. But your husband should know what you’re up against. A girl like you needs protection.’

‘Och, my husband doesn’t care ...’ She choked on her words then burst into tears again and collapsed on the settee, burying her face in the cushion.

I knelt beside her, stroking her hair. I felt awkward and couldn’t find words.

The crying tailed off and she moaned to herself. ‘Nobody cares,’ she sobbed. ‘I wish I was dead.’

Then she suddenly took control and swung into a sitting position. ‘Och, you must think I’m daft.’ She got to her feet and flicked back her hair. Her eyes were puffed and her cheeks were wet. Then she forced a smile – like a warm ray of sun between April showers. ‘I’ll fix you a drink,’ she said. ‘I know – try the vodka.’

She took my hand and led me across to a cabinet that groaned with strange bottles. ‘I must seem stupid, crying like that.’ She selected a bottle and unscrewed the top. ‘But it all builds up. I’ve never seen my husband sober since the day that we married. Not even then. When it gets too much I have a good cry.’ She tossed her hair back over her shoulder and handed me a glass. ‘But I’m all right now – really. Crying’s a great tonic.’

I took the glass. Then I picked up the bottle and puzzled over the hieroglyphics that covered the label. ‘Russian,’ I said, ‘the blood of the Steppes. Joe didn’t come empty handed then.’

‘Och – the vodka?’ She looked round at me and brushed back her hair. ‘That’s not from Joe. My husband gets that off an Estonian ship in the Pentland Firth. He barters fish for it.’

We drank the spirit and talked and laughed until her problems dissolved. Then, without meaning to, I glanced at my watch. ‘God,’ I said, draining my glass. ‘It’s gone three o’clock. I’d better be off.’

‘No,’ she touched my arm. Her face was serious. ‘I mean ... don’t go. Not just now – please.’ She was in full control of herself. And I knew what she meant.

In the morning, before I left, I promised to return the following Tuesday.


Now, as I walked towards the front door, I felt uneasy. I imagined invisible eyes out there in the night – watching. I looked round, nervously, but beyond the range of the drive-light there was nothing – just blackness. I rang the bell.

‘Who’s there?’ she demanded from behind the door.

‘It’s me – Danny.’ I looked back in the direction of the Fairy Hill. I wonder? I thought. I wonder?

As the door opened, a heavy perfume drenched the night. Then Shona was there, a vision of creamy flesh in a plunging nightie that ran out of silk just north of the crotch of her flimsy pants. This girl craves affection, I thought.

When I followed her into the living room she handed me the vodka that was already poured and waiting. ‘D’you know what I wish, Danny?’ She dropped on to the settee, bright blue eyes peering up at me. ‘I wish it was always Tuesday. And I wish it was always night.’

I swigged from the glass. The contents were vaguely oily and reminded me of Stolichnaya. ‘Where’s Faroe fishing this trip?’ I asked, conversationally.

‘Och,’ there was a hint of disgust in her voice, ‘nowhere. He’s back in Scrabster again – with engine trouble.’

‘Scrabster?’ That gave me a start. ‘Hell! That’s less than a half-hour taxi trip. Say he decides to come home?’

‘He won’t.’ She laughed, tossing her hair and patting the cushion. ‘He phoned – a wee while ago. And he’s stupid with drink. He’s bringing the boat round to Bool Town tomorrow morning. That’s if he makes it.’

‘Why wouldn’t he make it?’ It seemed an odd thing to say.

‘Och, he’s been acting very strange, lately. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing half the time. He was in Scrabster with engine trouble on Monday. He stayed there all day. Then he was at sea all the rest of the week. But he didn’t catch a thing. He said the engine was playing-up again. Then he spent all last Friday in Bony-go – at anchor. He said they were there to fix the engine.’ She reached out and took my hand, pulling me down and snuggling against me.

I wasn’t in the mood for the love-game tonight. There was something sinister going on. I was involved and I wanted to know why, and what it was. I don’t like anyone stealing a march. And Freya was spying on us. She knew that Shona and I were having an affair. But she hadn’t told Faroe, even though Fartag said that Faroe was a clansman.

Freya said that one of the vessels she wanted me to contact was a fishing boat. Faroe was a fisherman. So was he the one I had to contact? My mind was racing. Freya had a visitor just now, someone who had travelled to Wasster from Campbeltown – via Ullapool. That’s where the Estonian Klondykers were. Freya called her visitor, Josip – Josip Zitsar. The name of the guy who attacked Shona – was Joe, I thought. He’s a Russian. And Shona said that he was here with the tinkers. Freya and Fartag are tinkers.

On the top of that, Faroe was getting vodka off an Estonian ship that went through the Pentland Firth. And Zitsar wanted me to contact a mysterious ship tomorrow night. What ship? I wondered. Is there some connection?

That message – the one that I deciphered for Freya – was in radio jargon. So it came from a radio officer, but they’ve nearly all been phased out, except by some of the poorer nations – like Estonia. The Klondykers still have radio officers.

I felt as if I had several bits of a jigsaw, but the key piece was missing. That was irritating. I needed more information but there was no one to ask, unless Shona knew something. ‘This vodka’s not bad,’ I said. ‘And you reckon that Faroe gets it off an Estonian ship?’

‘Hm-hm,’ she was nibbling my ear, sharp teeth tickling painfully and turning me on.

‘That Joe, you said he’s a Russian. Is he off the ship? You know, the one that doles out the vodka?’

‘Och nooah.’ She sounded peeved. ‘Don’t let’s talk about this; not on a Tuesday, Danny.’ Her lips found mine. They were soft and wet. I responded for a moment and then pulled away.

‘How do you know?’ I said. ‘How do you know that he isn’t off the ship?’

‘Because.’ She was really peevish now.

‘Because what?’ I demanded.

‘Because they discussed the ship. Joe came here with that Fartag and his daughter. They brought him to see my husband. Then, when I poured Joe a vodka, he saw the label and asked where we got it. And my husband said that it came off the ship. Then Joe got excited, because he knew the ship.’

This could be the clue that I was looking for. ‘What’s the ship’s name? And how did Joe know it?’

‘Och, the name’s gobbledegook. But Joe had been on it.’

‘When?! Where?!’

‘Och, I don’t know where. He just said that he was on it four days earlier. He went there to see Coughalot and stayed on board overnight.’

‘Who the hell’s Coughalot?’ She was going in circles.

‘Shewhhh.’ She gave a sigh. ‘The ship’s captain. It’s a joke-name. The boys call him Coughalot because they can’t pronounce his real name. It’s a rhyme or something. This Joe was delighted with it. He kept shouting, “Coughalot! Coughalot!” and roaring with laughter. But anyway, he’s a friend of Coughalot. Aw, Danny, stop asking all these daft questions.’ She had her arms round my neck. ‘Love me, Danny. Please tell me you love me.’ Her hot-wet mouth locked over mine.

I closed my eyes as our tongues tumbled and romped. She slid round, forcing herself between my legs with her knees on the settee, her sweet soft-body hot against mine.

I cupped her head in my hands and eased it gently away. ‘I do love you, Shona,’ I said, comfortingly. ‘But this is important, really important, for both of us. So I want you to think. When was the first time that Faroe got vodka from Coughalot?’

‘Och, I don’t know.’ She pulled away, pouting, swinging round to sit on my thigh with her legs between mine, arms folded in a sulk. ‘I don’t take any interest.’

‘Think, Shona – please. Then we’ll go to bed for a cuddle.’

‘Hmmm,’ she closed her eyes – thinking. ‘Well, he definitely got something in May. I remember, ’cos it was a Wednesday.’

‘A Wednesday? What’s special about Wednesday?’

‘My husband always comes into the harbour on a Wednesday, to be ready for Thursday’s market. But that Wednesday he didn’t arrive. It was the early hours of Thursday before he got back.’

‘What does that prove? Where does Coughalot fit in?’

‘On the very last haul on that Wednesday they caught a huge bag of fish. It was too big to pull on board so they decided to tow it into Bool Town. Then this Estonian ship came alongside and asked for a fry of fish in exchange for some vodka. The Estonians often do that. So the boys turned-to and filleted a pile of fish for them. They’re good like that. So, as a return-favour, the Estonians swung a derrick and lifted this bag of fish on to the Eilean Dearg’s deck. The Eilean Dearg is my husband’s boat.’

She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. ‘After that, the boys sat out in the bay, gutting this huge bag of fish. That’s why they were late home. When they came in they were laughing and talking about Coughalot. And they had all this vodka that they got for the fish.’

‘There’s a lot of it left,’ I said. ‘And Faroe’s supposed to be a big drinker. He must have had more since May.’

‘What is this, Danny?’ She jerked herself to her feet and glared at me. ‘Have you come to see me or talk about my husband? Who cares about his damn vodka?’

‘I’m trying to stop Joe from causing more trouble, Shona. He’s back in the area. And we don’t know what he’s up to. He’s out at Wasster just now. And Fartag’s daughter, Freya, knows about us – me and you.’ Shona had a right to know. ‘Freya spies on us. And Freya and Joe are a bad combination. One way or another they spell trouble.’ I took her arm and pulled her gently on to my knee. ‘I need as many facts as I can get. Try to remember. Then we’ll go to bed, eh?’

Her face clouded. ‘Spying on us? Oh, Danny.’ Her hand went to her mouth. ‘If she tells my husband he’ll kill us.’

‘Think, Shona.’ I took her hand from her mouth. I felt cruel. But I had to know.

She blinked back to reality. ‘Och ... Yes ... Yes, there was another time,’ she said. ‘In June, on the longest day. It was a Sunday. I remember that because we had the solstice-party and midnight-swim on the Friday night, like we always do. Then my husband sailed on the Sunday night as usual. That’s when they saw Coughalot again, in the Firth. My husband had no fish aboard because he’d just left port. But Coughalot gave him vodka all the same. He said that he was in a good mood because he was going home to Estonia. I got to know this later of course, from the conversations I heard.’

‘Was that the last time they got vodka?’

She frowned and looked thoughtful. ‘There was another time, about a fortnight later. It was on a Sunday again, after my husband sailed. Coughalot saw them and invited them aboard his ship. I remember it because, when they came home, the boys were discussing it and saying what a coincidence it was, meeting Coughalot again.’

‘That time, the one on the longest day, you said that Coughalot was bound home for Estonia. Did anyone say whereabouts in Estonia?’ I was desperate for clues.

She shook her head. ‘No, just Estonia.’

A few things were beginning to click into place. I was pretty sure that the Russian Joe who attacked Shona was the Josip who was out at Wasster just now – the guy who wanted me to contact a ship. And, if he was a friend of Coughalot, it was reasonable to suppose that the ship that he wanted me to contact was Coughalot’s vessel.

Once I had the name of the ship I would be able to trace its movements. That would tell me the ports where it traded. And the area that a port was in might give me a clue about the kind of cargo the ship was carrying. If she was a regular in Milford Haven she was probably a tanker. Liverpool meant general-cargo. But if she went to Ullapool she was a Klondyker. Between the cargoes and ports there might be a lead about what these people were up to.

I did have one clue. On the longest day, the 21st of June, Coughalot was bound for Estonia. So, at that next meeting with Faroe, a fortnight later, he was coming away from Estonia, heading west through the Pentland Firth.

I moved Shona gently aside and got to my feet. ‘Have you got a calendar?’ I asked.

‘In the kitchen on the wall, och Danny, I’m fed up with all this.’

Looking at the calendar I studied the days and dates, starting in the middle of June. That final meeting between Faroe and Coughalot must have been on the night of the 5th of July, which was a Sunday, Faroe’s sailing day. At that time, Coughalot was outward bound from Estonia, heading west.

This is the 18th of August, I told myself, studying the dates. So Russian Joe was here with Fartag on the 1st of August, which was the Saturday before we had that fight. And he said then that he’d spent the night on Coughalot’s ship four days earlier. That was somewhere round the 28th and 29th of July. But the ship was in the Pentland Firth on the 5th of July, which was 3 or 4 weeks before Joe was on it. So where the hell was Coughalot when Joe met him?

Shona appeared at my side, barefoot and silent. She took my hand and led me into the bedroom. ‘Och, Danny, you seem different tonight,’ she said, as she clambered on to the bed. ‘Please don’t be different.’

I stripped off my clothes and tumbled beside her. ‘I’m very tired,’ I murmured, pushing her hand down to my loins. ‘You’ll have to help.’

She pulled away from me – stripping off her nightie and pushing down her pants.

My mind wandered back to Freya and the events of the past two days. That girl could ruin my life with those photos. And she knew about Shona and me. That spelt danger. I needed a trump card.

Shona cuddled into me and slid a leg over mine.

A great heaviness came into my eyes. Freya, Fartag and Russian Joe were up to something, and I had to find out what.

‘Danny,’ Shona said, urgently. ‘Danny.’

The bed was warm and snug. My eyes were very heavy.

‘Danny.’ She was pulling at me.

My body went leaden. My eyes wouldn’t open.

Danny, Danny – you don’t want me.’

‘’Course I do,’ I assured her, ‘just need a little help.’ Women are so unreasonable.

‘Danny! Oh ...!’ She tore away, and flung herself down with her back to me.

I drifted off, smiling and content.

I woke with a start. There was a motorbike, loud and close-by. It was speeding away, growing fainter and more distant.

There are no motorbikes on the headland.

Then there was sleep.


The Under-manager will be in the bookshops (online only) in 3 or 4 months time.

It has 21 Chapters and approximately 224 PP

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