Novel number three. I’m more surprised about this than you are. After two thrillers, I’m indulging myself by writing a literary novel. At one level, it’s an adventure, a coming of age story. At another, it’s about nationhood, community and the survival of the species. Nothing too ambitious, then. The working title is The Eagle Dares. What follows is the prologue. First draft. Comments welcome. As always. If you enjoy it, please share it.
Who can tell what the eagle dares,
her DNA unwinding instructions
to muscle, tendon and pinion;
heaved from Hell’s gate;
ice-scoured tops and corries
to a tiny arc of bay?
This day of all days, he rose to meet the morning before it came to meet him. This day when he might be a free man again; when he might become a father.
He came naked to it, a pre-dawn tumescence already shrivelling in the chill; regret at leaving the shared cocoon of their bed stilting his zeal. In the anonymous darkness, boards creaked; clothes murmured; Catriona breathed sleep for two, beached on her back, resting after a night punctuated by contractions.
Down the threadbare stair, he scooped barrelled water, frost bitten from snow-melt lochans; prised reluctant feet into stiff boots; scuffled with a wayward door; and went out into the remains of the plush night. Not yet released from its permafrost, the path threatened to betray each footfall; the gate swung easy on oiled hinges; the road was a dark blur of crazed asphalt.
Standing on the gravel arc of the bay, he let his stream rush into green-stained stones. The moleskin nap of the loch stretched taught in its broad canyon, the mountains of Knoydart unresolved as yet. A dinghy, upturned flotsam from a winter storm, provided a seat. He began to roll a cigarette. First of the day, last of his life. That child had a lot to answer for, and her not yet born.
The scrunch of boot on gravel gave notice that he was not alone. He put the rollie to his lips; hoicked his lighter from a waistcoat pocket.
“Looks like it’ll be a grand day, Iain.”
No one else it could be.
“Aye, Rab. Are ye well this mornin’?”
The lighter rasped; its flame painted a tenuous image of two men who might have been father and son.
“She’s very close, I reckon. Agnes will be on her way from Glenelg in an hour. Just needs the bairn to make up its mind, now.”
Iain rubbed the side of his face.
“Give her my best, will ye? Tell her I’ll be up to wet the bairn’s head once it’s all over.”
“I’ll do that.”
They looked out over the loch. Dawn’s outriders were creeping in. Iain’s voice fell soft in the emerging landscape.
“Any word from London?”
“Not a squeak. Even with the state of the post, they’ve had plenty of time by now to reply.”
Iain turned to look at him.
“Still not answering their phone?”
Smoke dribbled from Rab’s lips and he blew it, clean and long.
“Nope. Nor are the lawyers.”
“I’m thinkin’ we’ve seen the last of the Crocket family.”
“I’m thinking you’re correct.”
The older man’s focus drifted. An otter barked sharp alarm across the water and brought him back to the moment.
“Peg and I were tryin’ to mind the last time they stayed at the Lodge. Must be more than two years now. Apart from the time Terence came by. Him wi’ his ego inflated wi’ hot air and yon suit that must have cost more than you and I spend on food in a decade.”
Rab nipped the rollie and put the dowt in his pocket.
“He was a disgrace, him. Sins of the father, in my opinion.”
He stood up.
“I’ll let you know if I hear anything. In any case, we need to get everyone together and decide where we go from here.”
Each man went his own way as the sun raised mountains around them. Rab headed back to the house. Catriona was awake. He sat on the bed, put his hand on the mound of her belly.
“How’s the lass?”
“He’s fine. Wanting to get out, is my impression.”
He leaned forward and kissed her.
“The sooner the better.”
The exigencies of the day took over. He wakened the old, black stove from its slumber; topped up the soon-to-be-simmering kettle; made porridge. Agnes Macfie arrived in a stout bustle of tweed coat, brown hodden dress and midwifely accoutrements.
“I’ll away up and see her,” she said. “You’ll have the hot water and clean cloths to hand when the time comes.”
“Right ye are, Mistress Macfie. And I’ll bring up the croissants and poached quails in a wee while.”
Agnes sniffed and heaved herself up the stairs. Rab went back to the kitchen, added more peat to the stove, made tea and refilled the kettle. Water pipes groaned and twanged.
“’Hot water,’ the wumman said and hot water she shall have,” he muttered.
The mugs of tea felt like a peace offering. Agnes was plumping pillows.
“How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Fine. And she’ll be better wi’out you hangin’ around like a long drink o’ watter.”
Rab and his wife shared a smile. Conspiratorial.
“Aye, well,” he said. “See and let me know if you need help.”
Agnes shooed him out, a cockerel that had strayed into a forbidden section of the hen house. He clattered down the stairs, arms flapping, tongue clucking, laughing at the anachronism that was Agnes. Lucky to have her, though. Driving eighty-four miles to hospital in Inverness sans fuel was a tricky proposition.
A mug of tea drifted with him into the parlour. Furniture gathered around like old friends. He’d been there at the inception of every one. Oak and ash, alder and gean. He was the axe-wielder; intoner of the blessing; the man who cried “hup!” to the horses; half the saw pit team. Later, he shaped the planks and limbs to the beat of Catriona’s imagination with adze and plane and sanding block. She the artist and he the craftsman. Symbiosis. A metaphor for their love.
He rested his head on the chair back, the lilt of the tea still fresh on his tongue, and minded when they had met.
Rab Stewart and Catriona Gallagher in Tobermory. Him: bed-warm and rumpled from a night with Shona (or was it Marie?); reeking from whisky, an endless procession of rollies and, no doubt, sex. Her: fresh and long-necked, scrunched up hair the colour of wheat and a smile to stop a man in his onward rush to self destruction.
He came haring down Back Brae, bunnet at a devilish angle, waistcoat half buttoned, shirt tail flapping a truce behind; turned into Main Street, by the craft shop, and ran into her. A moment more intimate than either of them might have desired. The sense of her, shoulder and hip, was a ghostly burn on his skin for days. Later, she confessed that the smell of him was the stuff of nightmares. His flustered apology and her gracious acceptance was all that passed between them. Except, that is, for an invisible alchemy, a quantum entanglement of the soul, that worked on them while apart and drew them together again; the stay-at-home green-eyed sculptress and the dark-haired wandering woodworker. The hearth and the wind.
She went with him in his home on the sea; sailing from port to port, anchorage to anchorage. In the end, though, the hearth cannot flourish on water. It needs a place to rest, dry and secure, where its flame can be nourished. He knew this and that it would become a wormhole in the complex physics of their love. This love that was a new and wonderful thing to him. He sailed them into Loch Hourn, to the tiny village on the arc of bay under the mountain; sought out his old friend Iain McKenzie.
“Last time I was here, you mentioned a job.”
Iain looked at him, half smile, half frown.
“Aye. It’s still available. It’s not something that’ll be of interest to you, though.”
But it was. He presented his new employment to her, along with the tied cottage that came with it, as a present for their first anniversary.
Agnes was on the move. The creaking of floorboards traced out her purposeful meanderings. The idiocy of giving up the smokes on such a day hit. He stretched, yawned; held his fingers up. Trembling. Shit. Not to worry. He and Catriona had a pact. She would override Agnes when things hotted up. He relaxed; tried not to think about the itching in his fingers, the crawling in his blood. A vision of strangling Terence Crocket drifted without consequence. He brushed it aside. The Crocket family popped up and marched around in his head: a parcel of rogues, right enough. He and Catriona had only been six months in the cottage when old man Crocket sent the village a big man called Ormroyd with a face roughly hewn from a turnip, a Saville Row suit and an accent that came from darkest Barnsley. He introduced the two thugs that came with him as his “associates.” He talked a lot about tenancy agreements, diversification and financial leverage, but the bottom line was clearance. Empty the houses and turn the place into a holiday destination. On the basis of Rab’s performance at the first meeting, he was elected village spokesperson. Ormroyd hadn’t been best pleased.
“D’you mean to tell me,” he’d bellowed, “that I’ve come all this way t’ middle o’ fuckin’ nowhere and for me sins I get to talk wi’ a fuckin gyppo? Or tinker? Or itinerant or whatever damn name you people go by.”
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Rab had replied, rolling himself a cigarette, “but I have to say that flattery will get you nowhere.”
The relationship had gone downhill from there. Ormroyd and the Crockets had clever London lawyers and bottomless bags of swag from decades of fleecing the unsuspecting and indulging in arcane financial skulduggery. The villagers, to their utter amazement, had a Secret Weapon. She was called Brigit: mountain rambler; kayaker; Edinburgh Barrister. Brigit was a regular visitor to the village. She stayed with the Torrances, who had a low flying bed and breakfast thing going on. It turned out that Brigit was to London lawyers as Global Warming was to icebergs. The threat of eviction melted away and transmuted into the War of Attrition.
Now, all that was history. The Crockets and their ilk were getting what they deserved. The Pan World Capitalist Dreamliner, minus its undercarriage and finally out of fuel after almost four centuries, had crashed and was ablaze. One way or another, everyone was caught up in the wreck.
Agnes was on the move again. A door opened. She came half way down the stairs, arms folded.
“She wants ye. Kens fine I don’t approve of men bein’ around at the birth, but she’ll no listen.”
He went up and left the Crockets to the mercy of the furniture. Catriona was sitting up in bed, She looked cool, relaxed; held out her hand. He took it and sat down. In her eyes: soft moss by the burn’s edge; the tantalising gleam of gold.
“You have a grand face, Rab Stewart,” she said. “One of these days I’ll get you to sit for me.”
He felt the lightness of the moment, the relief from the weight of events.
“Now, where on earth did that thought come from?” he said.
“I was just wondering who the bairn would take after. He could do worse than look like his father.”
“Och, away,” he said. “The lassie won’t be thanking us if she ends up with my conk, for goodness’ sake.”
Her eyes clouded and she sucked air. A contraction took hold and she held tight to his hand.
Outside, the land began its wakening from winter hibernation and drew warmth from an uncertain sun. The eagle cleared the ridge and felt the first stir of a thermal. She stretched feathered fingers, circled slow and easy. Underneath her, the mountain slope fell away to clinging stands of naked trees. Far below, the arc of bay glittered. Senseless to the events of people, she spiralled to her own genetic imperative. A movement on the rockbound track of a rushing burn caught her eye and she began the well rehearsed descent towards her prey.