Cycling across the suspension bridge over the wide, fast-flowing river Joanne Ross glanced down—no, no bodies. She looked up at the pink-red castle filling the skyline and the town circling around it—no, no ambulances, no fire engines, no accidents. On the last few panting yards up the cobbled steepness of Castle Wynd she looked towards the police station and courthouse, hoping for anyone, anything of interest. Then she caught herself.
What are you? Some kind of ghoul? Wishing for death and drama so you can have a scoop on the front page of the Gazette? So you can impress your editor? So you can be somebody?
It was Tuesday, the day before deadline on the Highland Gazette, and the weekly anxiety was always the same: Would it be the same roundup of the same stories of the same place and people, with only the date changed? Or would a real news story break in time for deadline?
Joanne arrived in the office before the others—as usual. She wriggled onto the high chair; pushed her thick, nut-brown hair behind her ears; rolled a small piece of copy paper into a huge typewriter; flexed her fingers, readying herself for the battle with words and machine.
Rob McLean, the other reporter on the Gazette, clattered through the door in an icy mist of semi-arctic air. It was April and despite the calendar and the daffodils and the spring blossoms, winter had yet to leave.
He threw his scarf on the desk; Joanne threw it back at him. Keeping his motorbike jacket on, he parked himself on the desk.
“Where are the others?” he asked.
“Probably trying to find something of interest for the front page,” Joanne replied. “As should you be. Deadline? Tomorrow afternoon? Same as every week? Remember?”
He looked down at her green-eyed brightness, “Aye, I remember.”
They grinned at each other and Joanne was reminded why Rob was her friend.
When she first met the self-styled star reporter, just out of his teens, ten years her junior, darling of girls ages three to one hundred and three, the only son of one of the most illustrious solicitors in the county, her initial reaction was distrust; men who were this good-looking—men with wheat-colored hair and startling blue eyes and a wonderful, cheeky grin—should be untrustworthy. Or so she had believed until she became friends with Rob McLean.
The telephone rang. Rob leaned across the reporters’ table and grabbed the receiver.
“There’s a fishing boat on fire in the canal! Right next to the bonded warehouses. Maybe the whisky will explode!”
“Really? Can I have your name?”
“It’s me, Rob, Hector.”
“Not you!” Rob’s groan made Joanne stop typing and listen.
“Suit yerself. I’m away to take more photos.”
“Can whisky explode?” Rob spoke into a dead receiver.
“There’s a boat on fire down by the whisky warehouses.” He jumped off the table. “See you later.” He was out the reporters’ room like a rabbit with a ferret on its tail.
Joanne thought for all of two seconds. “Wait for me.” Three steps behind, she raced down the stone stairway.
“I’ve a feeling this is the front page,” Rob said as he bumped the motorbike off the pavement.
“You’ll be more unbearable than usual if you’re right.”
My mother-in-law can tut all she likes, but thank goodness I’m wearing trousers, Joanne thought as she swung onto the back of Rob’s bike.
Before she had a chance to button her coat, they were off in a red streak down towards the river, across the bridge, off to investigate the fire. Rob’s overlong, straw-yellow hair caught her in the eye and the straight stretch of road—like any other road leading out of any other town, bleak, mean, and littered—went by in a blur. They flew past a school, a long row of grey council houses, past the Caledonian football grounds, up the slight rise to the canal, coming to a halt in the queue of traffic held up by the half-raised, articulated bridge. It had opened to allow the boat to pass through to the flight of locks to begin the slow, spectacular process of being lifted from sea level to the much higher canal to continue the journey to Loch Ness and beyond.
Three cars, one lorry, and two cyclists were waiting on the town side. More vehicles were queued up on the opposite side of the canal. A small group of spectators were chattering away, excited by the fire. Clouds of thick, black, oily, acrid smoke blew hither and yon, fanned by a capricious North Sea wind, blotting out the distant hills and mountains. The fishing boat was well alight.
Joanne glanced towards the canal locks. She looked quickly away. The memory of the small boy found murdered there last year made her desperately sad; the memories of the suspicion that stalked the town, of the betrayals, and most of all of her own guilt, still hurt.
I believed the word of a monster. I chose not to believe the obvious. Never again will I close my eyes and ears, and ignore my children’s stories simply because they are children.
In spite of being a single mother escaping from a violent marriage, Joanne Ross was determined never to repeat her loveless childhood with her girls.
A waft of smoke enveloped her, breaking her reverie. She started to cough. The smell irritated her nostrils; a cloying mix of burning rubber and incinerated herring, it would take days to get out of her clothes and hair and put her off fish for a good while.
A scurry of firemen were scrambling about, shouting, dragging hoses, trying to find a way to reach the drifting boat, all the while knowing it was a lost cause: the herring smack was as ablaze as a sacrificial Viking longboat at Up Helly Aa.
“Look at that!” Rob elbowed Joanne, mesmerized by the frantic scene below.
They watched the uniformed figures dancing along the towpath, their cries and shouts borne in the wind like the cries of squabbling seagulls. Two firemen were pulling a reluctant hose, another dropped a hand pump into the canal, others were using long pikestaffs to stop the boat from drifting and at the same time keep it away from shore, away from the bonded warehouse holding a good portion of the whisky of the Highlands of Scotland.
The canal basin was mirror-still, making a double image of the fire and the centuries-old, stone buildings along the towpath. At the far end of the tongue-shaped waters, she could see the Black Isle crisp and clear, its lower slopes delineated in violent yellow gorse. With the distant hills, the topmost snowy tip of Ben Wyvis, and infinite blue sky, the setting was so picturesque that the oily smoke belching from the fire seemed a desecration.
The harbormaster stood rubbing the top of his head in frustration, unable to do anything about the disaster jamming up his precious canal and preventing the bridge from being lowered. His shouts at no one in particular were completely ignored.
Spectators from the neighboring village of Clachnaharry, the site of one of the many mostly forgotten battles in Scottish history, gathered on the opposite bank of the canal. The spectacular inferno set them hooting and skirling like Saturday-matinee Red Indians, the cries even louder as a bright burst of flame shot up, sending showers of sparks heavenward.
In the midst of the mayhem, Hector Bain, camera wielded like a weapon, was taking pictures. In and out of the crowd he ducked, stopping still for a second to take a shot, darting off for a different angle, feverishly trying to round up some of the firemen for a better composition, working the scene like a border collie with a panicked flock of sheep.
It took Joanne a moment to realize that this multi-colored miniature of a person with two cameras and what looked like his schoolbag round his neck was not an orange-haired troll. It took the morning for her to realize that Hector Bain was Rob McLean’s nemesis.
“Let’s get closer.” Rob was off.
Joanne needed no encouragement. There was something elemental about a fire. They hurried down the towpath to join the mêlée. The massive iron gates that guarded the warehouses and guarded the bonded whisky for the taxman were open for once. As they got nearer it was obvious the boat was doomed. The bridge and wheelhouse were gutted, the engine room well ablaze. Joanne spluttered. Another gust sent a swirling stinking black cloud of fumes in their direction. Her eyes watered, her nose now hurt.
“Over there!” Rob pointed and grabbed Joanne’s arm. They made for the lee of one of the bond warehouses where Hector, or Wee Hec as he was usually known, was winding on a new roll of film. Then, eyes focused like a bird of prey, he popped out, took a series of quick shots with his second camera, stopped, surveyed the scene, and, absolutely sure of his judgment, crouched down and shot another series from a different angle.
A dull whoomf, more an implosion than an explosion, then a shout of “she’s going down” brought an anguished cry from a fisherman standing on the edge of the towpath, oilskin leggings and wellie boots streaked with oil, face blackened with soot, his hair singed.
“This your boat then?” Rob asked going over to him.
“Get lost!” the man snarled.
“I’m from the Gazette. I just want to ask . . .”
Hector swung his camera towards the fisherman, clicking furiously. Two others from the crew, young lads, were coming up fast behind their mate. The three, legs akimbo, stood in a menacing line. Rob backed away, hands up.
“Okay, lads. Okay. I can see now’s not the time. Maybe later, aye?”
He went to step forward, to offer a cigarette, but the skipper was after Hec.
“Get that bloody camera out o’ ma face.”
Wee Hec stepped behind Joanne, trying his best to hide. The man reached around her, snatching at the precious Leica camera.
“Leave him be.” Joanne tried smiling.
Too late. The fisherman had Hector by his Clachnacuddin supporter’s scarf. Joanne kicked Hec’s assailant hard in the ankle. He let go and turned on her, more in surprise than in anger.
“Give him the film, Hec,” Rob shouted.
The man stopped.
“You only need the film, not his camera.” Rob was holding his hands up, attempting to placate the fisherman.
“I’m no giving up ma film.” Hec was trying to hide the camera inside his duffel coat.
“Then you’ll no mind your nosy friend getting a dooking.” The man was on Rob in an instant.
“Give him the film, Hec. Give him the film.”
No chance. A huge shove, a yell, a splash, and Rob was in the canal. It was deep even at the edge, but his leather jacket, his pride and joy, was soaking up the water, pulling him down. His waterlogged bike boots didn’t help. And to crown it all, Hec whipped out his camera and started taking pictures of the floundering reporter.
Hearing the clicks, the man turned back towards Hector. Joanne moved fast. Later, she and the skipper were to wonder where her strength came from. Straight at him, the high kick landed right in the stomach. With a loud “ooof,” he doubled up, more winded that hurt, more surprised than angry. And Wee Hec was gone, running up the path, his stubby legs pumping, his coat flapping, running towards the firemen and the shelter of the shiny red engine.
“Never. You didn’t.”
McAllister interjected at all the appropriate moments. Encouraging. Amazed. Amused. Trying hard not to laugh. The editor-in-chief of the HighlandGazette more than admired Joanne, and he loved the way she told a story with her face, her whole body describing the action.
“Where did you learn to defend yourself like that?”
My marriage, she thought. “In the ATS during the war,” she said.
She could never explain that she had joined the women’s army to escape her mother, only to become trapped by a husband.
“But go easy on Rob will you?” she asked.
“Well it’s not every day you get rescued by a lassie.”
“That’s what I mean.”
Joanne looked at McAllister. She saw a resemblance to a bust of a French philosopher; she noticed the touch of grey at the temples and thought, not for the first time, what an interesting face.
“Half-drowned by some fishermen. Rescued by a lassie. Pulled out by the Fire Brigade . . . I’ve half a mind to print the account.”
“Don’t you dare! Rob would never forgive me for telling you.”
“Sorry. I’ll try to restrain myself.” He smiled. “But what was all that about? Not just an accidental fire, you said.”
“No, no accident according to the firemen.”
McAllister leaned back in his chair; Joanne opened her notebook and explained.
She had been at the fire station for the previous hour, talking with the chief fireman and some of the crew.
The firemen cheered Joanne when she walked in. They’d seen the fracas with the skipper, watched as he tried to get his breath back—not injured but severely embarrassed. Now, as they were cleaning and stowing their equipment, the men were quite happy to talk to her—along with some teasing.
Not that Joanne told McAllister this. What happened, no one knew for certain, she told the editor, but these men are professional firemen, they know their business. Two of them had been in the worst fires of the war—in the Clydeside blitz.
“It was what we call an ‘incendiary device,’” one fireman told her.
“Any clearer than that?” Joanne had asked.
“A petrol bomb in a milk bottle to you, dear,” an older crewmember said, and he knew a thing or two about those weapons. He had been a member of the Billy Boys gang in Glasgow in his youth.
“Do the police agree?”
“The police take their report from us and we know our business.”
“Of course.” Joanne flushed slightly, not meaning to question their professionalism. Looking around her, seeing the men, the machines, the efficiency with which they treated their equipment, she knew that if the firemen said it was a petrol bomb that had started the fire, a petrol bomb it was.
McAllister heard Joanne out. “So, a Molotov cocktail, eh? The anarchist’s favorite weapon.”
“I bow to your extensive experience in those sort of things.”
“Aye.” He shook his head and sighed. “I’ve seen the damage a simple Molotov cocktail can cause. It was a favorite of the International Brigade in Spain. But not very usual in these parts.” He thought about it for a moment. “Anything more?”
“It became a bit scary towards the end,” Joanne replied. “I know the skipper was distraught about losing his boat, but why so angry over a few pictures? And why would someone burn down a herring boat? Another thing, the boat is from the Black Isle, the skipper too, so the harbormaster said. So why were they going through the canal, all the way through the Great Glen to Fort William, with a full hold of fresh herring?”
“Why not to her home port you mean?”
“Exactly. And then there’s the mystery of the crewmen, they’re from the Isles.”
As McAllister was listening to Joanne, as the different strands of the story mounted, his night-dark eyebrows, the only part of him that betrayed his thinking, rose or wriggled with each complication.
“Why does a local skipper have strangers for a crew?” she asked.
His eyebrows signaled, “Why?”
“Fishing boat crews are like families. So if they’re not family members, it’s usually men from the same home port. The skipper on this vessel—The Good Shepphard—is from the Black Isle; the crewmen, they’re not even from the east coast—they spoke Gaelic.”
When she finished, McAllister looked at his scrawled notes and saw how much information she had collected in only a few hours. For a woman who had been the typist on the newspaper not three months since, she’s come a long way.
“This is a great front-page story. Let me have your article by the end of the day.”
“Me?” Joanne stared at him. “But I’m new in the job. I’ve never done a major story.”
“I’ve been waiting weeks to launch the newly designed Gazette, you know that.” He pointed at the notes he had made. “This is the best news story we’ve had in a long while—it’s dramatic, mysterious.”
Joanne looked down at her hands, nervous, excited, trying hard not to blush. I’m too old to blush, she told herself, “I’ll do my best,” she told the editor.
“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you were up to it,” McAllister was impatient with Joanne’s lack of self-belief, “and don’t forget, with Don McLeod as subeditor, most of what you think is your best writing will be cut by that ruthless red pencil of his. So, get the sequence clear in your head, then don’t think too much, just write.”
As Joanne left the editor’s office to cross the four steps to the reporters’ room, she hugged herself.
“My first real story,” she muttered, “my first front page.”
Hector Bain, part boy, part man, part troglodyte, with a more than passing resemblance to Oor Wullie, that well-loved cartoon character from a Scottish Sunday newspaper, trudged through the promise of a spring morning. In a land where winter was said to reign for eight and a half months of the year, brisk would best describe the weather.
Such an innocuous word, “weather,” a word that only a native of the Highlands would use to describe the cloud-scudding, bone-crushing, ear-piercing, gusty wind that blew straight from the North Sea, down the Firth, down the Great Glen, over a succession of lochs, where it met the gales of another wind that arrived, unencumbered, three thousand miles from the wastes of Labrador. Locals would call these half hourly blasts of horizontal rain “showers” and outsiders would describe them as a “deluge.”
Not that Hector noticed. Trotting through the town, smiling at acquaintances, grinning at contemporaries, answering inquiries about the health of his granny with, “She’s great,” or, “She’s brilliant,” or, “She’s grand, thanks,” up the steep cobbled wynd that clung to the lee of the castle, head down and coat held tight to protect his precious cameras. A right turn—he arrived at his destiny. Only the semi-spiral stone staircase in the tall, narrow building to climb and he would be there in the sacred lair, there in the reporter’s room, the heartbeat of the Highland Gazette.
“Cripes, it’s Oor Wullie!” Don McLeod said.
“No it’s not. It’s a gnome from my mother-in-law’s rockery.” This came from Joanne.
“You’re both wrong. It’s Horrible Hector,” Rob declared with an uncharacteristic scowl. Addressing the cocky figure standing expectantly in the doorway he asked, “So, Wee Hec, what the heck are you doing here?”
The apparition stepped into the room proper.
“Hiya Rob. What like?”
At five foot two inches short, wearing clothes for an eleven-year-old and with two cameras round his neck, he looked like a wee boy dressed up as a photographer for Halloween. But the cameras round his neck were serious. Together, their net worth would buy a motorcar.
His red, sticking-up hair and his turnip lantern grin gave Don the Oor Wullie joke, but, so far as anyone knew, the cartoon character didn’t have the orange freckles with matching sodium light hair.
Joanne’s guess at garden gnome came from the lime green knitted woolen tourie—far too big for Hector’s head and weighted down to one side by an enormous bobble. A black and white Clachnacuddin Football Club supporter’s scarf completed the outfit. Hat and scarf had been knitted by his granny who could never find her glasses, and it showed.
Still grinning at the threesome sitting around the reporters’ table, Hec waited. When it became obvious that neither Don nor Rob were going to introduce him, Joanne spoke.
“We weren’t formally introduced yesterday. I’m Joanne Ross, I’m a reporter here. This is Don McLeod, deputy editor. You know Rob.”
“I know.” Hector continued grinning until Joanne decided this was the natural state of his face.
“So,” Joanne asked since her colleagues continued to ignore the apparition, “what can I do for you?”
“It’s more a case of what I can do for you, Joanne.”
“Mrs. Ross to you, boy,” Don growled at the newcomer.
“Here’s ma card.”
He handed the offering to Joanne. She peered at a hand-cut, hand-printed rectangle of cardboard the color of spam.
“Hector Bain. Photographer. The Highland Gazette.”
Rob reached over the shared desk and snatched the card from her.
“Did you use your wee sister’s printing set?”
“Highland Gazette? What’s this about?” Don’s frown made the lines on his fifty-maybe-sixty-something-old face resemble a relief map of his native Skye.
“Morning. I see you’ve met our new photographer.” McAllister stood in the doorway, enjoying the consternation.
“Him? We’re to work with him?” Rob poked a finger at Hector.
“I’ve heard of some daft things in my time, but this takes the biscuit,” Don McLeod told the editor.
McAllister shrugged. “You asked for a photographer. I got you a photographer.”
“Aye, but what else is he besides?” Don replied. “I know you’re keen to get the new Gazette launched, and yes we’re desperate for a photographer, but not that desperate.” He narrowed his eyes, squinting through the smoke of his fifth cigarette of the morning, which dangled from a corner of his mouth.
McAllister checked the clock. “Let’s get on, we’ve a paper to publish.”
Don spread the new-look layout over the High Table, his blasphemous term for the square table used by the reporters. Five large typewriters took up one end and the layout filled the other. The gap between table and walls made a passage just wide enough for two to pass if they were good friends.
Joanne leaned over and took a look. “Don, you’re an artist!” she exclaimed.
“Oh my, Mr. McLeod, this is wonderful.” Mrs. Smart, the office manager, had come in and was looking over Joanne’s shoulder.
“It’s certainly different,” Rob contributed.
“Not bad at all,” was McAllister’s opinion.
Don McLeod’s chest swelled like a wee bantam cock about to chase the chickens. He opened his mouth to explain more, stopped, stared, looked at the gangling figure in the doorway—six foot three would be Don’s guess—and said, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”
It was the nut-brown face and the plus fours and the tweed deerstalker hat, which could have easily been a pith helmet, that made Don think of the legendary explorer.
“Mortimer Beauchamp Carlyle, actually. But please call me Beech. Everyone does. How do you do?”
“Fine, thanks,” an awestruck Rob replied.
And like a character out of a Boy’s Own Adventure novel, darkest Africa chapter, the gentleman stuck out his hand. Rob took it and immediately, in spite of at least fifty years between them, they became fast friends.
“Beech will be writing our new Countryside column,” McAllister explained.
“Oh really? And who’s doing Town?” Rob had meant this as a facetious remark and nearly fell off his stool at the answer.
This time McAllister had consulted his deputy and Don had agreed with him. Margaret McLean was as well informed about goings-on in the town as Don McLeod, but in an entirely different social strata. Birdlife and nature, on the other hand, meant nothing to Don—nor to most of their readers. Don cared little about farming practices, but anything that stirred up the farming gentry was fine by him. The final argument on the hiring, McAllister wanted kept secret. But Don knew. Beech was on the board of guardians, that obscure body that oversaw the finances of the newspaper for the investors.
“ ‘Town and Country!’ ‘McAllister’s Mischief,’ that’s what it should be called,” Don was to remark later over his usual pint and a half. And as usual, he was not wrong.
With Don McLeod as deputy editor and chief subeditor; Joanne Ross and Rob McLean on reporting duties; Hector Bain the photographer; McAllister the editor-in-chief, writing the leader and obituaries; and Mrs. Smart overseeing the finances, they were all set to revamp a newspaper essentially unchanged since 1867.
Later that afternoon McAllister was sorting through the photographs of the fire. They were spectacular. He finally chose one showing flames shooting up through the decking, an oily black cloud of smoke ascending towards heaven, the name of the boat, The Good Shepphard, clear, the whole disaster showing in duplicate on the flat-calm waters of the canal basin. And in silhouette, to one side of the picture, his body conveying his anguish, was the skipper—Alexander Skinner of the Black Isle.
“Great front page for the new Highland Gazette,” McAllister murmured, happy at last. “Let’s hope this story runs for weeks.”
© 2011 A. D. Scott