In their own hut, in the section for ratings, Freddie McFadden and Phineas MacPhee were passing the longueurs of the Antarctic night, neither in watching the Southern Lights, playing billiards nor engaging in philosophical debate, the preserves of Angrez aesthetes and heteroclites—as they tended to consider English Officers, which also included Lowland Officers, all of them unco strange articles—but in the much more manly pursuits of draughts, darts or dominoes, the traditional pastimes found in Highland public houses or mountain bothies and score-sheets littered the table, the floor and bed, and in drinking single malt whisky, which may not have sharpened up their intellects but did wonders against the all-pervasive chill; but they did hear the door open and both looked round in surprise, to see four familiar figures enter, although so engrossed in their own conversation were the visitors that they did not immediately realise where they were: "fer fuck sake!" said McFadden and, "them again!" said MacPhee, which did cause four pairs of eyes to swing up and towards them, and the leader to rub his eyes so fiercely that it looked for a moment as if he might gouge them out, then he stopped, stared at them and snapped: "fer fuck sake, them twa, we've ta'en the wrang turnin, again!"
And that was how it came to be that, in the antelucan darkness of an Antarctic night, Maude Lyttleton and Oyzell Zegan were in their cups in Hut 7, having passed the hours since leaving The Wheelhouse, much to the surprise of Commander Abernathy, in the company of Bernie Cohen and the Loch brothers, Duddingston and Campbeltown, discussing Life, The Universe, Space/Time, the facticity of homonymous homophenes, the fatuity of homoeroticism in Ancient Greek art, the Improbability Theories of Walter de la Mare, John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells as a Blueprint for the Paradoxical Paradigm, whether another Pandemic on the same scale as the Spanish Flu in 1918 would ever strike? "no way," Maude and Oyzell assured the Glaswegians, we've come from the Spring of 2020 and can assure you that with modern medicine, an advanced understanding of infection control, a global communication network like you guys haven't even dreamed of, and international co-operation that will make the League of Nations look like a Brownies' Picnic, and the technological ability to track almost every citizen in the world, for they will all carry a mobile signalling device which ensures no hiding place, so any virus that raises it's ugly head is going to receive a sever beating with a wet fish! the likelihood of Sir Parlane MacFarlane's involvement in every Murder since Cain did for Abel, what possible hold the notorious Scottish baronet could have over Dominic Doubleday and—even more astonishing—Martin Elginbrod, Edinburgh and Scotland's most successful Solicitor/Advocate since Deacon Brodie invented sliced bread, and whether it would ever be possible for Celtic to win the Treble of Scottish Cup, League Cup and League Title in three consecutive seasons: "absolutely, categorically, and definitively impossible!" declared Duddingston, rather surprisingly showing himself to be a Bluenose, at which Maude said: "£100 says they'll do it within the next 77 years," and "you're on," cried Duddingston, gleefully shaking her hand and in a stage-whisper to his brother, "that's money in the bank, Cammy," while to Oyzell, Maude hissed: "we'll find a way to take them back to 2020 and collect!"
"Have you seen the Southern Lights yet?" asked Bernie Cohen, as they tucked into Spotted Dick and custard, but with a mouthful of pudding, Oyzell merely shook her head and shrugged, so Bernie explained: "like the Northern Lights but more overt, instigated by the same source in the sun, truly heterochromatic but with the colours even more defined, a total Wowser, absolute simplex munditiis, glorious—of course, you've been in the Sick Bay, I forgot, no windows—but the point is, I believe there is a link between the Lights and the Wormholes, the Cosmic Rays provide the acceleration, after all, to pass from 1947 to 1943—let alone Glasgow to the South Pole—in an instant, must require some acceleration, and the Commander told me that your claim is to have gone from Melrose in the year 2020 to some place in the Highlands, Glen Rum?" and Oyzell corrected him, "Glen Glum," and he continued, "okay, Glen Glum, in the middle of the 15th century, and then, and then, you came here, Antarctica, and now! and was it instantaneous? well, the brothers and I were blown up in a sewer and we're a bit confused over how long our journey took, but it was quick, what about you?" so Oyzell said that the first transfer—as she called it—was elongated, time and space seeming to be bent, or curved, at an impossible angle, but the second, probably because they entered at the same point where MacFarlane, Doubleday and presumably Elginbrod, had exited, and if they had recently escaped from Tabarin, maybe they had gone straight to Glen Glum and left the link open: "but I really don't know very much about this—it is outwith my experience, although Maude and her friends have been investigating many such appearances and disappearances, because there seems to be a kind of Hub under the Eildon Hills in Melrose, with lots of Wormholes converging there, or radiating from it, ach, in out, shake it all about, it's the same difference, but I don't know it from nothing, Maude's the one you should speak to," so Bernie suggested that after coffee, "it's Nicaraguan," they should go back to The Wheelhouse and rescue Daphne: "the brothers and I have our own Hut, you're welcome to come over and we can talk there privately," which, to Oyzell, sounded like a
When they had carried their trays to a table furthest from the counter, and were starting on their Walrus Stew, Bernie asked Oyzell if she minded not being able to keep Kosher here: "doesn't bother me in the least," said the older woman, "if I'd stuck to that I'd probably have starved to death three or four or five times over - oh I go to the synagogue in Melrose, but for me, that's more cultural than religious, and Rabbi Burns is an old friend, him and Zelda both; how about you, Bernie?" and the young man paused before replying: "my parents weren't, aren't, Orthodox, but we always observed the Sabbath, the Festivals, but I think for my dad it was a habit, what Jews did, he's a lawyer, a solicitor—as I am—but the laws we work with are man-made, not God-given, which isn't to say that God doesn't interpose himself in the affairs of men, and maybe guides legislators and jurists to reach the conclusions he wants—consilience can take many forms and a consensus may involve people who are on opposite sides of the fence over a dozen different issues, but on two or three they agree, for different reasons they may reach the same conclusion, and your Rabbi Burns would probably suggest that it is the conclusion God chose for them to agree on," and Oyzell laughed: "don't make assumptions about Shmuel, you don't know him, he's very nuanced, can always see the other person's point of view, I suppose he is truly empathic, unlike me," and Bernie asked: "in what way aren't you empathic?" and Oyzell said: "I saw too much during the Shoah, too much evil perpetrated by human beings on other human beings, no other species does that and that made me decide that I wouldn't waste my time on people I didn't like, or disagreed with—oh, I wouldn't harm them or anything like that, but life is too short to waste on people who. . . . .are schmucks, there's plenty of do-gooders who'll come to their rescue, they are the true masochists, I ain't!" and Bernie grinned across the table: "well," he said, "you're ornery, I think the American term is, definately not a pickthank, and that I like; solicitors and advocates are supposed to take on any client and represent them to the best of our ability, but not to lie for them—if someone is accused of a crime, but maintains his innocence, then even if I have a feeling, or a judgement based on the evidence, that he probably did it, but he insists that he didn't, I will cast him in the best possible light I can—every man or woman is entitled to the most vigorous representation—but outside of the Court, I can walk away and be myself," and Oyzell smiled: "just like actors," at which Bernie blushed, then nodded, "yes, the Court is just another form of theatre, but it can be a place of life and death, which makes it more important that evidence is tested to the utmost," which was when Oyzell glanced out of the window, saying: "it's just like a desert here, inhospitable, unforgiving, isn't it?" and Bernie nodded: "except that a desert has usually no water—here you might starve, but it's no xeriscape, you can drink as much as you like," and indicated their empty plates, "and if you are lucky, enjoy the fruits of the sea, too," and Oyzell asked: "we've had the walrus, is there a carpenter on the menu?" but before he could reply, she said: "let's cut to the chase, Bernie, what do you really want to talk to me about?"
And that was when one of the civilians approached Oyzell, half-apologised and half-snubbed the Doctor, interposing himself between Dalhousie and the elderly lady and introduced himself: "my name's Cohen, Bernie Cohen, and my two friends over there are the Loch brothers, Duddingston and Campbeltown, I understand people are saying that you and your friend are from Melrose, and claiming to be from the Future, is that true?" and Oyzell laughed, slightly embarrassed by the young man's directness, but when he asked if she was Jewish too, she began to relax: "forgive me," she said, "but all the questions we have been asked begin to pall, especially when the third or fourth time they are just reframing of previous ones," and Bernie nodded: "it was the same for us, of course they have to be careful in case the Germans try to plant spies and our account was quite unbelievable anyway—I don't think that a spy would try such a shaggy-dog story and expect to get away with it—but we were able to identify the other group, and when they realised that the man passing himself off as Hamish MacDonald really was Goering, of course they accepted what were telling them, didn't understand how it happened, how it was possible, but when Lawrence Oates, Captain Oates, who was believed to have died during Scott's attempt to reach the South Pole, turned up suffering from frostbite, but alive, and no older than he'd been in 1912, they had to accept our story, and now yours too; look are you hungry? the officers only seem to want to drink this stuff they call Simkin, but if we go through to the Bukateria, that's where the NCOs and Able Seamen eat, the cooks rustle up some good, hearty grub and I want to ask you a few things myself already."
Later that day, Maude and Oyzell—both dressed in navy-blue fatigues and knitted white woollen roll-neck jumpers over generic vests, underpants and socks—were accompanied to The Wheelhouse by the Camp Medical Officer, Doctor Benjamin Dalhousie, an Edinburgh graduate who clearly doubted if any good doctors could possibly come from anywhere else and seemed to apply this generalisation to the Royal Navy as well: "I am told," his strangulated Corstorphine vowels causing Oyzell actual physical pain and she wondered how Daphne could bear his conversation so stoically, "that persons who are not only not from Edinburgh, but also not even from Scotland, have apparently served with some degree of distinction, but they are, I would strongly advise, assessments often made by other persons whose origins are from England, Wales or even Ireland, and hardly capable of standing up to scrutiny," and Oyzell wondered how he viewed her, with her German-Jewish origins, although assumed that his lack of anything approaching a bedside manner was less to do with her gender and more with her name, Oyzell Zegan not being common in Edinburgh or even Glasgow, she supposed, but it really didn't bother her, the less of his speech she had to endure the better, and the orderly, Jock Tamson, had been extremely kind and caring to a woman old enough to be his grannie, and anyway, once he had established Maude's antecedents to his own satisfaction, Dr Dalhousie had been solicitous to the maximum degree—enquiring about the Marchmont Lyttleton's, the Grange Dumbiedykes, the Morningside Somervilles, Duddingston Davidovas, Hermiston Lillicos, and the various Goldfishes, Brevitys, Mountcastles, Montelimarts, Ladywoods, Baillies, Connaughts and Pumpherstons who lurked around the edges of her family bush and by the time they reached the Mess, he was positively preening himself, but that was when Commander Abernathy interposed himself and the Doctor was let gulping like some kind of mouthbrooder trying to contain it's young: "never fash yourself over him, Miss Lyttleton," said Abernathy, convivially "he's the very worst kind of Edinburgh snob, thinks he is caviare among mere cod roe, and to be honest he's no great shakes as a sawbones either - his orderly, Tamson, does most of the medical work now, and if we all get back to Blighty, I'm determined to do what I can to get that lad a place at Medical School - all he does in his off-duty time is read medical books and practice dissection on dead penguins," so, of course Maude asked: "was he called up before he could go to University?" and Abernathy chuckled: "he was never going to Uni, Miss Lyttleton, he comes from a place in West Lothian called Polkemmet, and was to have followed his father and uncles and grandfathers before them down the local Pit, but he volunteered, was desperate to join the Navy—no idea why, he'd never been to sea, never even the seaside—but his eyesight let him down, so he asked if he could be a Medical Orderly, he'd got various First Aid certificates from the BB, you know, practical things and a fair bit of theory too, and if someone looks promising, the Navy'd rather keep a hold of him than see him found a place in the Army or Air Force, and after a year at sea, he was chosen to join us, here, and shows great promise; but here, have a glass of Simkin," handing a glass full of sparkling bubbles and Maude asked: "what's Simkin?" and the Commander laughed: "it might come out of a Champagne bottle, it might be white and bubbly, but if I told you it was Champagne you might be inclined to call me a liar - actually one of our Petty Officers has knowledge of the wine trade, his family have relatives who have an estate in France and he spent a lot of summers over there; the grapes are South American and Louis, that's the chap's name, Louis La Planque, turns them into this, don't worry, it's very palatable, and it's strong, just a shame it isn't Champagne," and as they clinked their glasses, Maude said: "bon chance, Commander," and he returned: "slainthe."
But when Maude and Oyzell stepped through the shadow cast by the gnomon, they stepped into another place, quite different from the leafy glade above Glen Glum, utterly different from Scotland, they might even have been on the Moon! but it wasn't a Moon made of green cheese, this one was blindingly white—as white as snow! and freezing—they were in the middle of a blizzard, could see no further than a few dozen yards, and although in daylight, it was a light so diffused and splintered by the snow that they had no sense of direction, after a few stumbles and a joint fall, pulling each other down, and then struggling to their feet, they had no idea of their point of arrival, no chance of simply stepping backwards into Glen Glum; and Maude realized that reconnoitring in these conditions would be impossible—they would likely die of the cold which was already numbing their bodies and their brains; and then Oyzell picked up the other danger, and screamed above the howl of the wind into Maude's ear, "someone's shooting at us!" and Maude sank down and they wrapped their arms around each other, welcoming death if it would end the biting cold; which was how they were when a pair of British Naval ratings found them just moments later, and barely soon enough to save them; Freddie McFadden all but fell over them, firing his rifle as he ran, stooping low and Phineas MacPhee almost ran slap, bang into him, but luckily, Phineas had the portable wireless and summoned help, which wasn't far behind, then leaving the two mysterious women in the hands of a pair of medics, McFadden and MacPhee continued the pursuit of the Kriegsmarine raiding party, part of an encirclement of the German Submarine Base, while the two Englishmen loaded the unconscious women onto a sled and headed back to Operation Tabarin where, after twenty-four hours in the Sick Bay, they were interviewed by Commander Archie Abernathy who didn't turn a hair at the story they could scarcely believe themselves: "we'll get you kitted out with some warm clothes, men's I'm afraid, we've never had any women here, not even Wrens, for all that we are neoteric, the concept of Ladies," that word, with all it's Morningside inflection, set aside from all the others, "in a war zone, is not one that even my Masters in Whitehall would try to impose on us here, but then I'll take you up to The Wheelhouse, that's what we call the Officer's Mess, and you can meet some other, errm, unexpected arrivals - but don't get the idea that you and them are Peck's bad boys and girls, being punished for doing what you didn't oughter, we did have three exceedingly bad apples just a couple of months ago, but they corrupted a young lad and managed to escape from the Brig—there weren't any Germans at their base at the time, the consensus is that they probably got lost and succumbed to frostbite and that's the last of them," and at the mention of three, Maude and Oyzell exchanged an anxious glance: "their names weren't MacFarlane, Doubleday and Elginbrod, by any chance," and Abernathy blinked in confusion, "why, yes," he said, "three traitors if ever I saw any—the fourth fellow claimed to be Scots too, tried passing himself off as a Hamish MacDonald, but with the help of some very enterprising Glaswegians you'll meet, we managed to identify him as Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, yes, oh yes, the very same!" and he left them to absorb what he had told them and went off to brief his junior officers.
There was a surfeit of theories, of course, Melrose being Melrose and just the right size of an Unco Guid wee toon for stories to circulate faster than the Ben Hur when the shows arrive at the Greenyards, and rather strangely—and quite out of character, for Maude if not Madame Oyzell—after being intensively questioned by the Police, and a terse statement by Detective Inspector Gordon Brevity which was rather a masterpiece in obfuscation, they gave no interviews to the press or broadcasting media and it was only at a private Welcome Home party at May and Cristo's house, that the two semi- or demi-celebrities finally told us, having sworn all present to secrecy on pain of being tickled to death if a word—even a syllable—was uttered outside these eight walls, and in a way it was rather an anti-climax: "well," said Maude, after Oyzell had told us about their meeting with Blind Harry and the boys, and wee Padraig Macaroon o Minestrone (known to his best friends as Kwasi in honour of his famous ancestor who fought alongside The Lochlann) who having pulled the Battle-Axe from the rock which had held it fast for centuries, grew up to become the rightful King Kwasi I of Scotland who defeated the English at Flodden, reclaimed Cumbria and Northumberland and changed the map of Great Britain and established the course of History for all time, and then the dreadful encounter with MacFarlane, Doubleday and Elginbrod—fancy him being The Red Etin—their defeat and deaths and the return of Maude and Oyzell to the glade and the absolutely astonishing disappearance of all three bodies—plus heads—in puffs of smoke, even repeating the two words she spoke in the silence that followed, "I happened to notice a slender column of basalt nearby, which had obviously been set up yonks before as a rather primitive gnomon, and that the shadow it cast was interrupted, as if a slice had been taken out of the middle of a Frankfurter, or a cucumber, and I remembered that the three monsters had appeared from somewhere in that direction, though further to the left, or west, so I suggested to Oyzell that it may possibly be a gateway back to Melrose, even the same one we ourselves had passed through when of course the shadow of the gnomon would have pointed in a quite different direction, indicating that the gateway was attached to the gnomon rather than the location, and dear Oyzell said, 'let's go for it, I'm starving,' and we went for it—but I have to disabuse you of the idea that the gateway led us straight home—now, as my beloved Daphne and all you dear friends and relations know, I'm not one to awfulize a situation. . . . ." and someone—who, I will not name, for fear of retribution—called out, "no, Maudie, you just make it worse!" and this broke the ice, for both Maude and Oyzell were laughing, Daphne was roaring, there was cheering and hilarity and even Rabbi Burns could be heard hooting and clapping and Rebbetzin Zelda whispering: "careful Shmuel, those buttons I sewed on your shirt won't hold if you bounce about like that!"
Let us transect the piffle: Peter Boo's wife, whose name I had rather unforgivably forgotten—if something unforgivable can have mitigating degrees—is, of course, as I was reliably informed by Aunt Maude this morning, Noushka, and their children are Athena (8) and Paris (6) and while some begrudgery has been evident in certain quarters that an Edinburgh Writer to the Signet should be virtually squatting in Talbot House with it's Toc H Curators, Algie and Aggie MacDuff, almost identical twins, not a married couple, it is only fair that I explain—in the vaguest possible terms—that Peter has taken a sabbatical from his legal practice and, although he has successfully trousered a substantial sum for the sale of the old family house in the city, he is presently unemployed, although doing a lot of voluntary work to help renovate Talbot House—which is why his appearance now is pretty schlubby, with daubs of paint on his clothes and face, pieces of plaster in his hair and holes at the knees of his dungarees, but knowing that Toc H's finances are exiguous, he contributes a fair sum every month to pay for his family's rooms and board—according to Auntie May, who is Aggie's Bridge partner every Wednesday afternoon in the Holy Trinity Church Hall—while contemplating his future, and there has been talk—although informed or not, I can hardly say, not myself being a gossip, and don't look at me like that!—suggesting he may be considering taking Holy Orders, which can take several years and mouths still to be fed, so his cash reserves will certainly not be increasing, and Auntie Maude. . . . .oh, did I ever explain about how Maude and Madame Oyzell came back to us?
I saw Peter Boo this morning, when I went down to the Co-op for the Sunday papers—The National for Auntie Crist, Observer for May, Herald for Daphne, Scotland on Sunday for Maude and my Sunday Post—and he told me—from the other side of the High Street—that he'd managed to sell his Edinburgh house and his wife and kids had moved down here, just before the Lockdown and they are all squeezed into Talbot House with Algie and Aggie; apparently the house sale had been delayed because the buyer—English, nuff said—tried to gazunder him, making a lower bid after the price had been agreed, not realising that, in Scotland, once an offer has been made and accepted it is binding in Law; it seems that Mrs Boo—I forgot her name and was too embarrassed to ask, as it would have been shouted across the street and in Melrose such a thing would be, according to Daphne and Maude, terribly infra dig! whereas in Norway you could bellow it across a fjord and no-one would turn a hair—is having some difficulty in adapting to the various Border dialects, accents, syntax and unique vocabularies, much to the amusement of Algie, Aggie, and the kids, who apparently—despite having only attended school here for a week, because of the unfortunate timing of their move—are already sounding like Melrosians from the internetworks based on Melrose Grammar, the local Primary School and St Mary's, the Prep-School beside the Greenyards, they have joined on-line—vetted by Aggie—and through WhatsApp and Zoom they can blether all day and half the night—or would if they got half the chance—with lots of the local kids, and can't get her head round Dod, or Doddie meaning George, oo being Broad Haawick for we, and the various forms of umny, amnae, ammnt, amurny and naw being subtle and discrete forms of denial, and used dependent on what particular thing the speaker didn't, wouldn't possibly, couldn't if he tried, daren't, or hadn't said, done, promised or had been witnessed by two or more citizens of good-standing attempting, and her most public faux pas to date was catching sight of Doddie Weir coming out of the Co-op and calling across the car park to the kids, knowing what fans of Rugby and the legendary player they are, that if they were quick they'd see Daddy Weir in his tartan suit—maybe nothing to write home about as far as malapropisms go, but it certainly got enough laughter there to keep her away from the shop for a week, which she put to good use in the library of Talbot House and it's extensive range of Latin and Greek works—accumulated mainly by Aggie—and as Mrs Boo had read Classics at St Andrews she feels very much at home in that room, and even put a small note on the door saying that 'the adespota student who didn't know a Doddie from a Daddy is undertaking a short retreat as penance so please do not disturb' and at the end of the week, in the sitting room, found Peter, Aggie and Algie, with a place set for her and a cake that had been sent addressed to her, with a note that said, 'for the anonymous student of Greek, the provider of this cake should be similarly adespota,' and she guessed at once that it came from Doddie!
I didn't even check the caller display—my Aunts and I were enjoying a reminiscence night, the cancellation of Eurovision having prompted the BBC to screen an entire evening of Highlights from previous years and we had just voted for Abba's Waterloo as our favourite Eurovision song from a selection of the past 64 years, many of which I only knew from hearing May, Cristo, Maude and even Daphne, singing as they peeled tatties or danced with the hoover or, rarely, the lawnmower—but I immediately recognised my caller's Selkirk accent as that of Patsy, the bodacious Asda driver who had brought our order yesterday: "ah wud gazunder ye, ye ken, ony time, Teri," and surrounded by the Aunts, my reply must have been an incoherent croak, for she continued: "sno like ye tae be sae terse, Teri, huv ye sumdy wi ye?" and leaving the room, on the pretext of answering a call-of-nature, I hurried into the downstairs loo, then said: "oo're unner Hoose Arrest here, so naebdy but me and the Aunties, otherwise I'd happily invite ye ower, an soon's oor Lockdoon's Unlocket, ye kin come ower an gang ower, unda, sideyweys, upside-doon as ye please, am urny fixated on ane position, bein as am broad-minded an against self-imposed limitations oan sexual expression as much as ony ither societal limitations, sae ma only no-go area is bondage, ah divnae tie or get tied," and she giggled: "thon's mair like the Teri ah like, untersed," and with that she promised to call me again, blew a kiss that near burst ma ear-drum and hung up, which is probably why I was singing Sandie Shaw's 1967 winner, the monody—to my tender years, being 17 years younger, a different generation—Puppet on a String and wondering if I really wanted to rekindle my brief affair with Patsy, or was just suffering from Cabin Fever, and ready to respond to any offer, irregardless of it's origin, advisability or future, when I re-entered the living-room and was transfixed by four pairs of eyes, pinning me against the wall, until May said, rather kindly, I thought: "if you could make the coffee, Teri, I put the kettle on while you were otherwise engaged and there're scones and pancakes too, or whatever you fancy," and winked, something May never does, and the second unexpected wink I have received in scarcely over twenty-four hours!
The delivery driver wha brocht wur order frae ASDA this gloamin wis young Patsy Primigravida fae Selkirk—weell, her faither's no a Souter wi a nomenclature like thon, but her mither wis born 'n' breed, hur maiden name wis Broon and ther's aye been Broons in Selkirk since afore Fletcher's time—an she stares at me, face reflectin recognition an a stirrin o memry, a wee bit fuddled by drink an a bash o the pash: "hoo div ye wannit, Miss Somerville?" she asks, bold as brass, wi a twinkle in her ee, so ah took a keek at whit she was cairtin—muckle pack o TRs an big boattles o laundry liquid an saffner—an ah sed: "thae gazunder the sterrs, bit it's a bit o a squeeze if ye'r time-ridden," an she noddit back at me: "stymied agin, beat by the cloak, an the Socially Disappointin Regs," she says, ackshally gien me a wink—div fowk still gie winks in these Pandemic Times, when ther's nae opportunity tae keep the promise—then smirks: "but aince the Lockdoon's liftet an wur lowed tae be nicer tae the custymurs oo trust, ye'll kin show me the wey ye like things pit, unner yer stairs, an hoo fer, Teri, ye ken?" an ah hud te laff: "oh, aye, hen, ah ken well enuff whit yer meanin, an ah'll keep ye tae that," so she pit the shoapn oan the back step, then stept awa, blowed me an aloud distant kiss, pit her airms roon hursel an gied us a virtual cuddle, an wi a cheeky grin oan her freckled face, turned an wiggled bak tae her van an gied me a wave fu o dooble entenders as she drove aff.
When the telephone - or more accurately, Sir Parlane's mobile - rang a few minutes later, Dominic urged him to answer it: "they saw us coming in, Christ if we hadn't made it we were sitting ducks, so they know we're here," and with some bravado, MacFarlane did, said: "actually, I can't talk at the moment, there's a rather aggressive door-to-door salesman been pounding on ours and we're waiting for the police," but the person on the other end who spoke wasn't interested in such flippancy: "sounds like the Malt's given you a little pot-valour, Sir Parlane, but if you are up to something, be assured that we have a tight perimeter and there is no way you will get off the island, so. . . . ." which was when MacFarlane cut in on him: "just so you know, this is a self-contained, bomb-proof sealed unit, there's no way you can get in and we can survive more than a year down here, so why don't you just fuck off and tell your bosses that it didn't work. . . . ." but MacFarlane was also interrupted: "we're not here about the simony, with statements from The Bishop of Buddleia and the Archbishop of Archway, we'll leave that to the Church of England to proceed against you and we're not interested in your financial scams—though I can't speak for the Financial Conduct Authority—and before you hang up, you might want to reflect on the refulgence of Ranulph Ochan'toshan, he does seem a little bit more flamboyant today and I find that the more in-your-face he becomes, the more nuggets of truth are contained in his stream-of-consciousness ramblings, a bit like automatic writing, you see, the truth has a way of insinuating itself among the lies, I think it's called a subconscious desire to get everything off his chest," but MacFarlane had ended the call and was staring bleakly at Doubleday: "if they've got Ralphy, you know what that means—he'll talk and walk and sell us down the river, if we can't get to the portal. . . . ." and Doubleday smiled: "it'll have to come to us!"
MacFarlane shrugged: "some loons on the ferry, larking about - everybody on Barra thinks we're a couple of superannuated 60s rock-stars with more money than sense, wallowing in nostalgia, preening our femina like lady ostriches, whaddaya call them? hens I suppose, listening to our greatest shits on repeat and gawping like grinagogs at our haydays when our old band's on one of those Top of the Pops reruns, nobody knows our real names, it's just a coincidence," but Doubleday snarled back: "it's pelagic or aerial, gotta be one or the other, you reckon? either a small sub out there on the Minch, watching us through the periscope, or somewhere above, a spy-drone, controlled from Barra, one of those old cotts up the hill, video transmitted back there, what's the range? can't be too far, he stared directly up, narrowing his eyes, catching a tiny glint, a barest reflection: "we've slipped-up somewhere, what? how? probably never know, but. . . . .fuckit, Par, run, weave, and giving MacFarlane a push to start, started running as fast as he could, they both were, over the rocks, up the short slope, feet pounding on the grass, round the south side of the Black House, heading for the back door, when the bullets raked up the turf behind them, MacFarlane flinging himself at the door and falling though, Doubleday crashing on top of him, kicking the door shut, and the sound of shots striking the steel, made to look like the traditional, panelled wood but infinitely safer when you are wanted by someone—plenty of someones—and they lay panting in the dark lobby: "definately a drone, then," said Dominic, hauling Sir Parlane to his feet, then leading the way down the stairs, "but that doesn't rule out the submarine either, better than a cottage, no names, no pack-drill, enough sea to disappear into, plenty of deep-water lochans to be able to surface, launch or retrieve your spy. . . . .hell, it's a fuckin assassination drone!" he threw a few switches and steel shutters slid over the windows, above and below ground, "we'd better sit tight just now—we can keep an eye on the whole island on the monitors—but it's good that we dug the tunnel, they'll think we're trapped here and they don't have to rush, well, neither do we, hey, you're shaking, Par, here's a drop of the Pure, best cure after a shock like that," and as MacFarlane swallowed his in one gulp and poured himself another, he snarled: "trying to kill us? evil fuckin bastards! with a drone? sneaky fuckin bastards!" and Doubleday raised his own glass: "never spoke a truer word, Par, sneaky fucking bastards is what they are, whoever they are!"
As they hurried up the spiral staircase, MacFarlane could hear Doubleday humming 'Roll Out The Barrel' and laughed: "hark at you, Dom, that song's a bit of a motherhood statement from you, I can always tell that you're hyped up, glad to be free of the old al desko for a a bit of physical action, and even chasing a will-o-the-wisp such as the flotsam or jetsam from one of the ferries going into or coming out of Castlebay is enough to get your juices pumping!" and Dominic replied: "you're probably right enough there, Par, but if I'm right and there is a message in that bottle, I'm claiming the mural,"and pushing through the front door, MacFarlane couldn't resist calling back over his shoulder: "or Muriel, as that auld biddy on Corrie used to call her picture wall," and the two hustlers scrambled down towards the eastern shore of the tiny island, Dominic checking the sight-line he had picked to show him where the floating bottle had been and. . . . .there it was, bobbing just a few yards away from the breakers, though on this side they were hardly more than ripples and even the shore on the other side was hardly battered, so sheltered were they by the spine of the curving archipelago, with Barra and Vatersay providing a useful wind-break, and as MacFarlane watched his Partner in Crime use a child's fishing net, on a long bamboo cane, to catch the bottle and bring it carefully ashore, he couldn't help but congratulate himself for his own foresight, in recognising the perfection of this lonely place both as a base for their microfinance scams and a safe have which, with it's own generator and the easy access provided by satellite communications and the internet, meant they could function here for as long as they wanted, safely under the radar - literally! and that tip-off last year from his friend in Oxford about the likelihood of another pandemic, but on the same sort of scale as the 1918 flu one, within 12 months, had been just the nudge they had needed, and here they were, in Lockdown, with enough stores to keep them going for more than a year and not a cloud in the sky, and then he noticed that Dom was frowning, holding a piece of paper he had taken from the bottle: "what is it, Dom? a shopping list, or the mobile number of a 12-year-old who lives on Mingulay with her aged grandparents and pet sheep and dreams of being rescued from a life worse than death by a bonnie prince from over the water, or an infamous Scottish baronet or, if he's too busy, his dashing Man of Business?" but Doubleday shook his head, and said: "it's addressed to us—by name—'Sir Parlane MacFarlane and Dominic Doubleday, Muldoanich'—and the message is—'I'm watching you, boys, right now'!" and it was the reflex of self-preservation that made MacFarlane's head swivel as he scanned the horizon, mentally checking everything he saw, from a rock barely cresting the surface of the water, to a distant island, but Doubleday was looking up at the sky and wondering just how high would a drone have to be to be both invisible and inaudible?
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