Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Electrician's Story (2012) by Bobby Stevenson

There was a time during the war when Coldharbour was neither one thing nor the other. The permanent part of town consisted of the main street, the harbour and the muddy road that led to the old castle. Yet, in the spring of 1942, a tented village grew that stretched all the way back to the McKenzie Falls and increased the size of Coldharbour by three fold. 

Most of the incomers were American soldiers waiting to go to war but there was also a scattering of British, Dutch, Polish and Free French commandos, added to this mix were several of the allied naval ships nestled in the bay; Coldharbour was considered a safe berth. 
Looking back, there are some who might say that these were Coldharbour’s most exciting days. 

If it was particularly exciting or busy at Mrs Huckerby's, then that would depend on whom you talked to. She had turned over the house to the government at the start of the War with the proviso that only a better class of gent would occupy the rooms. As Edith would tell you herself, it was seldom the case.

In Fort William, in the 1920s, Edith had been used to a very superior type of clientèle - those who took golfing tours of the Scottish Highlands - until her husband, Mr Allan Huckerby, ran away with a housemaid and all the money Edith had deposited in Fort William’s superior bank. Mrs Huckerby felt she could no longer hold up her head in social circles and so, on a dark night, she took her son Donald and the emergency money she had secreted under the bed and escaped to Coldharbour. 

Through hard work and sheer determination, Edith built up a nice little business where travellers could find good food and a clean, spacious room  but in the war years the military now allocated bunks and so space was very scarce indeed. 

Mrs Huckerby had moved Donald into the attic as a temporary measure, expecting him to move out and go to war like all the other men in Coldharbour. What neither of them knew, was that Donald had a heart defect from birth and was found to be unfit to fight. "He might drop dead at any moment" said the doctor, leading Donald to sleep on Mrs Huckerby’s bedroom floor when the house was full.

Although the army had its own boffins for electrical wiring and such like, Coldharbour didn’t have an electrician to speak of. The last one had been shot in Belgium and most of the houses were still lit by oil  and heated by the peat bricks from Ewan’s fields. 

But, one way or another, electricity had arrived in town and Mrs Huckerby insisted that her house was to be the first to have electrical light, even if it did mean Donald having to work day and night to achieve this. She had a ‘Switching-on of the lights’ ceremony (or soiree as they liked to call it in these parts) to which only Coldharbour’s good and great citizens were invited. Within a couple of months, both Mrs Huckerby’s house and the castle had been appropriated for war work which didn't stop Edith reminding everyone that the castle wasn’t fully fitted with electrical power unlike her bed and breakfast. 

Due to the friendly invasion of Coldharbour, the Duke of Inverkeith and his wife had vacated the castle in favour of a gamekeeper’s cottage, which stood high above the village and was handy for spying on poachers. The problem was that Lady McFonal, the Duchess, had become used to what little electrical power they had at the castle and insisted that Teddy, the Duke, install it without fail in the cottage before she would set foot in the blasted place. Teddy, being a man who liked a quiet life, immediately employed Donald Huckerby for the job. The Duke and Duchess moved to their flat in Edinburgh while the work was being carried out. 

Donald was only twenty-two and refused to let a little thing like dropping dead at any moment get in the way of living. He enjoyed the days spent at the gamekeeper’s cottage and it kept him away from his mother’s gaze. The only downside to the work was the cottage itself. There was a particular atmosphere about the place, that gave you the feeling you were being watched by someone or something. When Donald reluctantly told his mother his feelings, she told him to grow up and be a man and insisted the story about the gamekeeper’s ghost was just an old wives' tale.
“What gamekeeper’s ghost?” was Donald’s immediate reaction.

It seems that the old, old, old Duke – Teddy’s great grandfather - had married an Austrian girl whose beauty was renowned as far away as Oban. The downside was, that when the old, old, old Duke found her in the arms of the gamekeeper he shot them both, right there in the cottage.
“That’s the story?”
“That’s it” insisted Mrs Edith Huckerby “Isn’t that enough, Donald?”
Donald was now sorry he had asked the question because he knew where it was going to lead.
“If I had a gun, I would have shot your father and that scarlet woman before they had a chance to run away with all our money” and this discourse repeated itself all the way through their evening meal.

Donald had judged it would take him about four weeks to complete the wiring of the cottage, however with a little help from a couple of the American army guys he had finished it in just under three. The Duke and Duchess were happily informed, in their town flat, that the gamekeeper’s cottage was fully wired for electricity and ready for them to move in.  

The Duchess decided that the Christmas season would be the perfect time to invite the locals and some of the selected armed forces who would join them in a Christmas Evening soiree. This would let the Duchess show  her new lighting and, according to her, give a boost to the village morale.

The Duke of Inverkeith’s entourage consisted mainly of young boys, too young for war, and of old men. So when one of them contacted the Duke to inform him that there was no electrical wiring actually in the house and asked whether they should bring more candles, the Duke immediately assumed that the man was a fool. This was a judgement hastily made. On closer inspection, no wiring of any sort could be found in the gamekeeper’s cottage. 

Constable McKelvie was called away from his normal war duties in Fort William to investigate this most serious of cases. He, too, quickly came to the conclusion that no wiring existed or had ever existed inside the cottage. 

Donald Huckerby swore an oath on a stack of bibles that the wiring had been installed and that most certainly he was out of pocket and required immediate paying. Whatever double dealing had been involved, it was nothing to do with him. The constable could not locate the two Americans, who had kindly helped Donald, as they were already on their way overseas.

Edith Huckerby took the whole episode as a slight against her family and wondered why the police force weren’t chasing real criminals; hadn’t they seen the behaviour of Agnes Addlington, wife of Stanley and friend of a particular American soldier? Edith called in ‘The Old Wifey’s daughter’ who lived just outside Dalmally to investigate if a poltergeist or a similar spirit could be responsible for the disappearance of the electrical wiring. Although the daughter felt a presence in the cottage, she was sure it was the ghost of some long clan chief who was not that particularity interested in electricity.

Donald felt aggrieved and decided the only way forward was to re-wire the cottage in its entirety and at his own expense; that way, it would stop his mother’s constant references to their loss of status in the community and stop the locals referring to him as the ‘Wire Liar’.

So not only did Donald pay for all the new materials himself, he managed to re-wire the house in just two weeks. This time he brought the locals in to see the place and to observe the lights going on and off. This attracted a spontaneous round of applause that caused Donald to make a spontaneous speech; his mother was very proud.  

The Duke and Duchess ( Teddy and Lady F as they were known to friends in the United States) were far too busy with their social lives in Los Angeles to return home to see the wiring installation. They would return in the spring of ‘43.  

They eventually returned home in July of that year and again they had organised a large function to welcome colleagues and family from around the Coldharbour area to join them in a little Summer soiree.
And again, when the staff arrived to open up the house for cleaning and airing, the wiring had completely vanished. Not a trace of electricity was to be found for love nor money in the gamekeeper’s cottage.   

People couldn’t call Donald a liar this time as they had all been present when the lights went on and off. As the church minister had quite rightly stated  - it would have been foolish for a man, such as Donald, to remove all the wiring that he himself had paid for, so surely there had to be another explanation that did not involve poltergeists . 

No one in the village could think of any way to explain the phenomena, especially Constable McKelvie who had kept the supernatural at the top of his list of suspects. Mrs Huckerby grew ever more desperate as she was no longer invited to high tea at the Big House at Tyndrum, nor was she even asked to help with the first aid in the village hall. So desperate times meant desperate measures and she decided to bankroll Donald in one more attempt at re-wiring the gamekeeper’s cottage.

By now the Duke and Duchess had grown bored of Coldharbour and decided to wait out the war in a large rented property in Guelph, Ontario in Canada. 

Donald was to re-wire the cottage and this would be celebrated by an Electricity soiree thrown by Mrs Edith Huckerby. Everyone, who was anyone, would be invited including those in the Big House at Tyndrum but not the women who organised the first aid in the village hall. 

Donald re-wired the house in a record time of eight days and he allowed any passing party, who were nosey enough to ask, to inspect his work and watch the lights going on and off. On the night of the soiree, Mrs Huckerby led the convoy of goods that were to be prepared for that evening’s party. The first thing she did, when she entered the gamekeeper's cottage was try the light switch - the second thing she did was shout “Donald!”  

Once again, the wiring was completely stripped from the walls but this time it looked like whoever had done it, was in a hurry.Sergeant McAllister from the Inverness branch of Her Majesty’s police force was called upon to solve the mystery once and for all. He noted - and was surprised that no one else had mentioned it - that there was no sign of a break-in at the cottage. Whoever had removed the wiring had not broken into the property. So did they have a key? Was it the work of a ghost? Or was there a more obvious answer? 

The following night, Sergeant McAllister asked that Constable McKelvie and Donald meet him in the village hall at 11.30 pm exactly. They were to wear dark clothes and, in case of emergencies, bring a blunt instrument with them. 

Donald decided it was for the best not to mention anything about this to his mother and met the two policemen in the village hall at 11.30pm, prompt.  
The Sergeant asked the two to be silent until he told them otherwise.
“Do not make a sound unless I tell you to, or make a movement unless I tell you to.” 

They were ordered around the back of the gamekeeper’s cottage and, with the use of a key from Donald, they entered via the rear door. 

“There was no sign of a break in, and no sign of damage of any sort. So maybe whoever it was wasn’t trying to steal the wiring but maybe they were attempting to stop anyone moving in.” whispered Sergeant McAllister. 
“Why would you do that?” asked Donald.
“Good question – probably due to the fact they didn’t want anyone to know they were there.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Donald again.
“That is what we are about to find out.” 

As they quietly climbed the stairs they could hear talking in one of the upper rooms.
“That sounds foreign.” whispered Donald.
Sergeant McKelvie nodded it was indeed and then signalled that they should enter the room on his count of  three.
"One...two....three" and then, with a joint effort, they battered down the door with their shoulders. The two men with the binoculars were totally surprised, making it easy to overwhelm them. 

“Job well done” said a satisfied Sergeant McAllister as he led the two handcuffed men down the stairs. Donald seemed particularly pleased with himself and when he told his mother of the adventure, she was already thinking of  ways to organise a Hero soiree for a few selected friends. It wasn't to be however, as the man from the Ministry told them that if it was known that two spies had been watching the movement of troops and ships it could cause widespread panic - it was all better left unsaid.

It didn’t stop Mrs Edith Huckerby informing everyone that her son had been decisive in ending the War. Our hero Donald moved to Inverness and married a local girl, where they had two sons. 

Donald didn’t drop dead at any moment, as the doctor had warned him, instead he died in his sleep one night, after telling his grandson all about the time he caught the foreign spies. 

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