1. McPherson receives a plea for help - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
McPherson read the telegram again. Although - thank the Dear - he had been in easy circumstances these last decade or more, and the Company had come through the lean years better than many, his harsh Aberdonian ancestry made him purse his lips at the sheer extravagance of it all. From New York - the whole way across the Atlantic - and getting on for fifty words or more, at an amount in shillings per word he didn’t care to think about. Fancy including unneccessary phrases such as “OLDEST FRIEND” - as if she needed to spend her money buttering him up.
He’d been her devoted slave since she was six years old.
His thin lips relaxed in a reflexive smile. In fancy he went back to the day, long ago, when he’d looked up from his slope and laid down his fine-pointed pencil at the irruption into the drawing office of a little imp; carefully rag-rolled ringlets of black hair turning under the influence of gravity and Original Sin into a forest of tangles around her head; the lace-edges of her long pantaloons showing above her many-buttoned little black patent-leather ankle bootsunder her fussy, pink-trimmed white pinafore dress. Idiotic, when one thought about it, what fashion then dictated as suitable clothing for little girls.
She’d pointed a stubby little finger at his slope and demanded, in a high imperious voice, that he tell her now what he was drawing.
“Please,” she added as an obvious afterthought, and a concession to good manners. He’d sighed, and turned to face her. He knew who she had to be, and the Gaffer’s granddaughter carried her own consequence, even if she was less than four feet in height, and wearing lace trimmed pantaloons, to boot.
“It’s a battleship. The Company has been asked to build it by the King.”
Or at least, by his Majesty’s Lords of the Admiralty, which came close enough, and higher, indeed, in McPherson’s humble estimation.
The dust motes hung in the golden light that streamed through the window. And a clean, tiny and definitely bitten forefinger tapped down on his slope.
“Good,” the small piping voice said in the tone of absolute confidence. “You shall draw it, Mr Mc -” there was a pause, there, as she spelled out his name from the small plaque on the front of his desk. “You shall draw it, Mr McPherson, and Grandpapa shall build it, and I shall command it.”
“You most definitely shall not, Miss Francesca,” a thundering voice of doom from the doorway. He looked up to see the starched righteousness of an English nanny bearing down upon him. God forgive him, but that aggressively presented bosom had been present in his mind when he’d drawn the designs for the icebreaker ship that that Polar explorer had commissioned from the Yard the year after, and heaven knew it had done the job, breasting the Arctic ice floes with indissoluble firmness of purpose.
He’d expected the little one would cry or throw a tantrum - she seemed paused on the edge of either - but at that moment a light, amused voice cut in.
“No, indeed you shan’t, Franky.”
And in three strides a bareheaded young man had crossed the drawing office, sweeping up his daughter and balancing her on his hip in a tight embrace.
“Because, Franky, that battleship’s going to be your old father’s.” The shaft of sunlight which cut into the drawing office caught them both as he swung her round, embodying them for the one perfect instant in untarnishable gold. “Ask Mr McPherson nicely, and in 20 years time maybe he’ll draw you a ship for you to command. In the meantime, you need to learn how to obey. Thank you for putting up with my little monster, McPherson. I’m sorry if she’s troubled you.”
And he’d gone, with McPherson’s honest assertion that no, really, she’d been no trouble at all dying on his lips.
He had expected never to see her again. As though the iron will of her Grandfather, the shipmaster, would have been lost to the generations who came after him. As though she wouldn’t have wandered where she wanted.
His attention fell again on the telegram.
HELP FRIEND IN TROUBLE STOP GOOD MAN WRONGLY MALIGNED STOP HIDE EVEN FROM ME STOP NO NAMES NO PACK DRILL STOP CAN TRUST ONLY YOU STOP MORRIGAN
At the signature his lips quirked again. Morrigan. The Celtic Goddess, Lady of Battles.
And Franky, to his certain knowledge, had never lost one yet. Her first being convincing everyone up to and including the First Lord that Osborne Naval Academy was at least as proper a school for a young lady as Roedean. And one much more to her satisfaction. And that of the rest of the British Empire.
He looked up from the telegram on his blotter and out through the window. It was early afternoon, but the yellowing tendrils of a peasouper were spreading upwards from the river. The naphtha lamps were spilling pools of light into the gloom. The sound of hooters announcing shift changes nad the thundering rumble of hammers and riveters - so life-affirming after those dead years of the Depression, when barely a tool had moved on Clydeside from Gourock to the Erskine Bridge - came dimly in, muffled by the fog. He hoped, briefly, that Franky’s protegé would have a safe journey of it. Where, though, to bestow him?
Another picture floated into his head - walking back from the Dominie’s in a long-ago springtime, arguing with his fellow student and dearest friend.
“Surely,” he’d been saying, “you have to take what’s in you and make the best of it?”
His friend had looked at him with a great light wakening in his face, as though he had been talking to a deaf man who had, suddenly, been granted the power of hearing.
“Aye,” Andrew had said. “But what’s best for you is no what’s best for me. Man, that’s what you have to understand. For you, it’s going to Glasgow, and drawing plans, and maybe being the big engineer for the big man in time. But that’s not for me. I have to go where I’m called.”
He’d patted his pocket then, and smiled. “Davey, I wish you the best of luck. But for me, I’m going where Robert Owen and John Calvin choose take me. You’re a good man, Davey. I doubt we’ll meet again one of these days. But I can’t be driven, Davey. I’ll only be led, and I’ll only be led if I see the light shining in front of my eyes.”
McPherson looked down at his blotter, and then tapped a brass bell on his desk. The scrawny, thin-faced boy who came at the summons woke memories of how he, too, might have looked thirty years ago. His voice was gruff as he scribbled a few words on a sheet of paper, folded it into an envelope, and told the boy to take it as soon as possible to the scribbled address, and not get lost, or waste time, either.
The boy nodded and was gone.
The fog grew thicker, pressing in upon the windows. McPherson, who was a man of sober and industrious habits, found himself staring out into it for a long time, trying to trace long-dead faces in the murk.