8. An unexpected visitor arrives at the bothy - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Improbably, Joe’s prescription worked; the effects of a wash and a shave, and the promise of solid food made by the appetising smells filling the bothy from the Primus stove over which Joe had been engaged for the last few minutes were surprisingly effective in restoring Dex’s sense of balance. Dressed, but still shaky, he had exchanged his camp bed for the battered leather chesterfield in front of the fire (and how had McAllister managed to get that bulky piece of furniture up the rough track from the hamlet at the bottom?) and been strictly forbidden by Joe to exert himself any further until he’d had something to eat.
And Joe had been amusing him with a light, rapid-fire flow of Legion gossip; nothing too demanding and nothing which required a response more demanding than “Uh?” or “You don’t say?” when a firm knocking sounded on the door. Joe turned, looking questioningly at Dex.
Dex shrugged. “It could be the housekeeper from the manse. She’s been coming up once or twice a day to keep an eye on me.”
Joe made up his mind. “Well, whoever it is, there’ll be smoke coming from the chimney. We can’t pretend not to be here. And, like you say, it’s almost bound just to be someone delivering milk or something.”
But Dex noted he slid his gun, which had been resting on the table, into his trousers pocket before unlatching the heavy door. And only someone who knew Joe as well as he did would have detected the wariness which underlay his pose of assumed nonchalance as he took in and recognised the figure standing in the doorway.
Dex made a quick reassuring gesture, one which he hoped only Joe would picked up, but from McAllister’s expression he somehow doubted that. And he had caught McAllister’s quick, appraising estimate, and guessed he knew Joe was armed, too.
But Joe had caught Dex’s signal too; his posture changed, and his face relaxed into a welcoming smile. And, in turn, McAllister’s wariness dissipated.
“You’re a very perseestant man, Mr Sullivan,” McAllister said. Joe shrugged, stepped back into the room, and resumed turning over the rashers of bacon in the frying pan on the stove. McAllister closed the door tidily behind him, looked from him to Dex, and back again, and his wintry expression relaxed into a smile. “Though I’m relieved to find you’re evidently not the blackguard I took you for at first. It was a matter of no small concern to me when Hamish McDonald phoned to alert me from Tarbert that you’d followed the Annie Laurie so far, ye ken.”
Joe looked up. “But that could only have been yesterday evening! How did you manage to get here in the time?”
The old foundry-master shrugged. “Oh, the trams start running out to Gourock early. And then the ferries are fine and convenient. And once you get to Dunoon, it’s nothing but a wee bitty step across country, if you’re used to it.” He looked ruefully down at his feet. “Though I regret that I’m no such a good hand on the hills as I used to be.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “It’s a good ten miles from here to Dunoon. Rough country, too. If you like, I’ll give you a lift back on the motorbike when you have to go.”
McAllister pursed his lips. “Would that be the unco contraption I saw propped up by the front door? Man, if you came over the Rest and Be Thankful on that in the weather we were having yesterday then all I can say is you must have as many lives as a brace of cats, and no decent respect for your own neck.”
Helplessly tickled by the aptness of the summary, Dex uttered a quick, sharply stifled bark of laughter. Joe, his face alight with amusement, shot a glance back at him, before turning back to McAllister.
“I confess, it’s something that has been said about me before,” he said. “But it was the day before yesterday, actually. I’ve chased the Annie Laurie from Campbelltown to Lochgoilhead, and from Ardrishaig to Holy Loch. By way of Strachur and Tignabruiach, At about 11am yesterday an adenoidal brat in Inverary told me that he “didna’ doot but she was away to Broderick Bay the afternoon.” At which I nearly killed the child.”
His eyes still dancing - it warmed Dex’s heart to see it - Joe turned to McAllister.
“It seems you have more pull in this neighbourhood than a Neapolitan heavy would have in Mulberry Street, NYC.” He saluted. “I respect you. Sir.”
And he grinned at him with lazy assurance.
The old engineer grinned back at him with equal assurance. “I’ll be grateful if ye would pass on your views to Davey McPherson. Ye ken; I’ve always held by the opinion that if ye treat a man as a man - oh, granted, ye’ll have your disappointments, but there’s human nature for you - but ultimately that’s the way ye’ll be rewarded. In your own soul, if no-where else. Though I didna’ doot, the West Highland way of soaking the Saxon might not have played its part, in all justice.”
His eye fell on Dex, sitting on the bed, leaning back against the wall cupping his coffee.
He turned from him to Joe; his eyes needle-bright, his side-whiskers bristling
“Doubtless this means you’ll be minded to deprive me of the best foreman I ever had, imph?”
Dex hadn’t thought of that - he gulped - but Joe was making a small gesture with his hand towards him - leave it to him - and then he turned to McAllister. His face, for once, was utterly without any attempt to charm, bluff, befuddle or bemuse.
“I need him. I admit that. I’ve - “
His voice dropped into a register Dex had never heard from him before.
“I’ve suffered losses where I’d not have expected them, and people have - let me down - and I do desperately need Dex’s help if we’re ever going to sort things out. And I don’t know yet what’s going on, but I do know it has the smell of something big. Big and nasty. It is your decision, but - look - I’m not spinning a line when I say it could affect the fate of nations.”
Joe coughed, and turned fully towards McAllister.
“It’s in your hands, McAllister. I’m not owed anything. In fact - I know I’ve behaved pretty shabbily, and that - well, things wouldn’t have got out of hand if I’d been doing what I should have done. So. I can’t order. I can’t demand. I can only ask. And I am asking. Whatever I get is whatever you both choose to give me.”
He stood up. He paced across the lime washed bothy like the tiger which restlessly patrols his thirty-foot cage, and turned to face McAllister’s forthright eyes. And realised that he indeed had a fight on his hands.
“It’s your choice. But I know your business. Our business. And I know what an engineer like Dex is worth.”
McAllister looked fiercely at him. “Do ye? Do ye truly?”
Joe turned to Dex. His face was desperately urgent.
“Dex-? Dex-? Have you ever realised that what you and your team do is what underwrites everything I ever do in the air? There’s not a move I make - there’s not a stress I put on the smallest nut of the lousiest kite I ever put into the air that isn’t your gift, and that of your team. Have - have you ever read Kipling’s poems?”
He was shaking his head automatically - for what time had he ever had to read poetry? Realising, Joe put his head on one side. His eyes went glassy for a moment as he called the lines to mind. His voice was careful: invoking memories of an elementary school child reciting with practised periods and pauses, and half an eye on the watching schoolmarm and her waiting cane:
“The sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve or rest.
It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly -“
He gulped, and swallowed half the poem, losing it completely. And the old engineer, glaring fiercely at him, took it up.
“They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they dam’ well choose -“
And so through to the end.
When he had finished McAllister looked at Joe.
“I’ll grant ye know your poetry, Mr Sullivan. But do you know this one, then:
“Oh, Lord, thou hast made the world below the shadow of a dream.
And by and large I take it so - excepting always steam - “ ?
No? Pity. I’ve never read anything which summarises the soul of an engineer better. A pretty poor excuse for a human being, Rudyard Kipling, to my mind, but when he wrote, times were when you could see him reach out and stroke the very cheek of Heaven.”
McAllister shot a look at Joe then, and at Dex. Both held their ground.
“Do what you will, laddies. It may have been short, but it’s been a privilege working with you - Mikey. But -” he shot a fierce glance at Dex. “You’re not over the influenzy yet, laddie; not by a long chalk. So I’ll no be expecting you at the workshop on Monday, whatever you decide. Be mindful of that. And don’t let him bother you into going back to the workbench before you’re recovered fully, either. You won’t do much for “the fate of nations” if you can barely stand, ye ken. Understood?”
He nodded, unable, momentarily, to get any words out. In fact, there was a hot prickling behind his eyes which was ridiculous, really; must be an after effect of his illness. He ducked his head, hoping that neither of the others would notice. Thankfully, the conversation continued above his head.
“So,” Joe said conversationally to McAllister, “may I help you to bacon and eggs? You’ve had a long cold trip to get here.”
There was a pause.
“Aye,” McAllister said. “I don’t mind if I do. And it’ll set me up for the journey back. Since I can see he’s in safe hands now.”
There was the chink of plates and cutlery around him. Dex kept his head down, feeling the warmth and acceptance of friendship around him as a gift he thought he had forever forfeited, and not feeling quite ready, yet, to take the gift that was offered him.