Northern Lights – Episode 31

Alec spent the night at sea aboard the Smeaton, specially built in Leith to ferry stone from quarries to harbour and as tender for the Floating Light, now anchored a mile and a half distant from the Bell Rock.

With upwards of 24 workmen aboard as well as the Smeaton’s crew, accommodation was limited and uncomfortable.

The ship tossed, rolled and swung at anchor barely quarter of a mile from the Inchcape shoal, waiting for the tide to recede. Alec slept fitfully.

At daybreak he went on deck and had his first sight of their workplace. He stared in awe at the spread of rocks and gullies emerging from the sea as the water drained away, leaving a landscape draped in seaweed glistening eerily in the dawn light.

The sea was calm that morning, though waves licked impatiently around the hidden edges of this mountaintop of solid sandstone rock which was never still, never peacefully silent, always edged with danger. He shivered and looked away.

Breakfast for so many extra men was cooked on deck in the open air, and was a cheerful affair of bacon, eggs and fried bread, with greedy gulls screeching above.

It was nearly six a.m. and not a moment of low tide to be missed, but before the men disembarked the traditional barrel of rum appeared on deck and the flagons came out.

The foreman smith, James Dove, handed a liberal measure to Alec.

“Here, laddie, drink up, it’ll keep ye warm when we reach thon outlandish place.”

Alec recoiled from a vision of his grandmother’s disapproving glare.

“No, thank ye, sir. My grandmother wouldna like it.”

A great bellow of laughter rose from the workers assembled on the deck.

“Drink up, son, your granny’s no’ here!”

Alec lifted the flagon and drank. The fiery rum filled his mouth, making him cough and splutter as he swallowed, bringing tears to his eyes.

For a moment he could not tell if the tears running down his cheeks resulted from the first taste of Lilias’s demon drink or if, suddenly lost and alone, he longed desperately to be home.

But then his workmates cheered, slapping him on the back.

“Well done! Now ye can call yoursel’ a man,” they told him.

Encouraged, Alec drained the flagon and stood gasping triumphantly, wiping his lips.

Following the others, he clambered down into one of the waiting dinghies. Fortified by rum and hearty companionship, Alec Cargill was ready to face any terrors the rock held in store.

*  *  *  *

Lilias and Maggie had formed an agreeable business partnership, working together in the lodging-house with a harmony that surprised them both.

“We’ll need tae keep better tally than this, though.” Lilias frowned, scratching her head as she counted out the lodgers’ rental in shillings and pence, the money kept in the press in a wooden box that had formerly held ship’s biscuits.

Maggie was up to her elbows in flour, kneading the daily bread.

“My father kept accounts for all his trade, and there’s an unused day book still in the drawer. A tick on the slate would serve should anyone asks for credit,” she observed, recalling how Samuel Cameron dealt with debtors in the grocery.

“They’ll get little credit frae me, Maggie, for I’ll no’ put up wi’ late payments, but I’m sweir to write down numbers in books. I can reckon in my heid as well as onybody and read better than most, but I’m no’ so easy wielding a pen,” Lilias admitted.

“Nae bother, Grandmother.” Maggie set the dough to rise on a trestle by the stove covered with a warm cloth, and dusted flour off her hands. “Papa made sure that we three lassies attended a dame school run by the parson’s wife.

“The woman was a stickler for reading, writing and figuring so I’ll keep an account book for ye.

“Maybe we should think about starting a bank account, too, or perhaps the Linen Company could keep the money for us. Folk tell me that’s as good as a bank.”

“What?” Lilias was outraged. “Wi’ highwaymen waiting on every hill track tae rob bank messengers carrying our cash? No thanks!

“We’ll store the takings in your pa’s iron deed box under the bed. It’s safer. A thief has tae get past me to get at it.”

The pair had a tacit understanding that Maggie would write the weekly list of groceries and Lilias would attend Cameron’s shop with the order. Maggie’s emotions still remained too raw for her to face Samuel.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!