Agnes could smell the winter fires as she stepped across Princes Street for the umpteenth time that day. Somewhere high above the whispering smoke the sky was an azure blue. Agnes knew that for a fact even although she might not always see it; just like she knew that things were about to change and no one had bothered to tell her.
She had been christened Agnes Lily on the first day of the War. She didn’t meet her father until she was nearly a year old as he had suffered some sort of breakdown in the early days of the fighting. To be honest, her father never really recovered and even as he was approaching his fortieth birthday his left hand would still shake and shake until Agnes was certain that it would fall off. When he thought no one was looking he would grab the wild arm with his right hand and hold it until it surrendered and shook no more. When her father did return to the bank in the spring of 1918, he walked past his old desk and sat in the chair of the former manager, Mister Stephen Andrews, who now lay undisturbed in a field in Northern France.
In the year of 1927, The Edinburgh Linen Bank was struggling. Not that it was the fault of Agnes’ father , this poor soul worked every hour that God allowed him, even roping in Agnes to deliver pamphlets to the good folks of the city as they strolled along admiring the castle. Agnes would stop off at Nancy’s Sweet shop for a quarter of pineapple chunks bought with the money she’d earned. It was on one of those days while walking home and enjoying the chunks that she realised she’d never seen her father smile.
The War had stolen her father’s sleep along with his happiness which meant most nights watching the daylight bleed in from the Firth. God knows he tried, but being a complete man was just beyond his ability these days; he could no longer carry his head high nor look after the business and his family, he was just too tired. So on the day that he walked out of the Edinburgh Linen building it was to be for the last time and as he strolled through the Saltmarket, Peter, father of Agnes Lily, broke down and wept.
To Agnes, home had been a strange landscape for weeks; doors were always being closed leaving her on the wrong side. It was weeks of whisperings and of quickly swallowed conversations as she walked into a room - then the day came when her father stopped going to the bank altogether.
“Maybe he’ll try next week, we’ll just have to see how things are sweet pea” her mother would say but next week would come and go and her father would be sitting so still as to be almost invisible. Agnes had her own worries; no father at the bank meant, no pamphlets, which meant no income earned meaning no visits to Nancy’s.
Then one night just after Easter, her mother came to Agnes’ room to tell her that the family were moving.
“Time for a change sweet pea, indeed it is, time for a change” and by June the family had moved lock, stock and barrel to a strange little village by the name of Coldharbour, nestling in the West Highlands.
As they arrived on the charabanc, Agnes considered the village to be ‘fabulous’, everything in Agnes’ life was fabulous these days, ever since she’d heard a rather absurdly dressed woman use it when she was handed one of the bank’s pamphlets.
Now as luck would have it, the little school that Agnes was to attend had stopped for the summer holidays and would not restart until August; a whole blooming summer to herself, blooming fabulous.
Coldharbour had two shops, a church and a small hall which doubled as a library. Monday to Saturday were the working days and in this village everyone had at least two jobs. Sunday on the other hand was a day of rest which allowed the villagers a time to let their belts out and breathe a quiet sigh.
Alexandra McMillan was petite and bright and lonely. Known as Alex to most of the village, at 51, she had no family to speak of, least not since her brother Ian had passed away a couple of years back. Alex ran the library every second Tuesday and every Saturday in the village hall when it was not needed by the council for something or other. She may have been small but she could fight her corner especially when the library’s needs were being overlooked by the council. It wasn’t a permanent feature, meaning that each time the library had to be set up and dismantled; an arrangement which suited Alex as she loved being busy. It wasn’t so much that the devil finds work for idle hands so much as Alex had far too many thoughts blowing through her mind and possibly too many secrets.
On the morning that the new family arrived in Coldharbour, Alex had been searching out of the window for a sign to lift her spirits when she noticed the strange little girl with whom Alex assumed were her parents. The mother had a healthy ruddy complexion where as the father was ghostly pale with that same demeanour her brother had brought home from the Front. The woman and the strange little girl were doing all the carrying of cases as the man seemed to have enough of a problem shifting himself and every few steps would let out the most heart breaking sigh.
The family moved into the old dairyman’s house. It had sat empty for over a year, ever since Stuart Mills had moved to Canada. It would be nice to see a light in the window again - Alex could look across the hill and imagine Stuart was still there. She missed him; the way they always ended up together at the dances, the way they were always discussed in the same breath as if they were destined to spend what was left of their lives together - but it wasn’t to be. Stuart had met the young Canadian girl on one of his trips to Inverness and that was that. Never make plans, thought Alex.
She didn’t think any more of the new family until the young girl came to the library on the following Tuesday. Alex saw that strangeness again – the little girl was blessed with a beautiful face topped off with wild blond hair, but the eyes - they belonged to another - someone whom God had put on the earth without giving them instructions on the rules of life.
Agnes loved books and the library was her kind of place. When she went missing in Edinburgh her family always knew to look in the nearest book shop; to Agnes they weren’t just books, they were people sitting on shelves waiting to tell you about their lives, their loves, the universe and everything in it. How could you possibly not love books? Agnes took her large selection to the old lady who stood behind the counter.
“I’m sorry dear but you’re only allowed two books at a time, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough to go around”. Agnes felt this couldn’t possibly be true but nonetheless returned four of the books.
“My name is Miss McMillan. What is yours?”
“Well Agnes, why don’t you come with your family to tea on Saturday at my house? I live in that little yellow one across from you. I have shelves of books there I’m sure you would appreciate.” Agnes carefully lifted her two books and ran off. Alex smiled.
On the next Saturday, Agnes’ mother dropped her daughter off at the librarian’s house. Agnes’ father was still too sick to visit or entertain anyone or be left alone and since they only lived across the way, her mother didn’t see what harm it would cause for Agnes to visit Miss McMillan on her own. That is how Agnes and Alex became the best of friends.
All summer long, Agnes would either be carrying books to or from the little yellow house across the street.
To Alex, Agnes was a light in an otherwise dull life but to Agnes, Alex was a mystery. She knew little except that Alex McMillan had taught English in France prior to the War.
Looking back over those years from the distance of her retirement home in Hastings, Agnes, the great grandmother, finds it difficult to remember when she first set eyes on Isaiah. She is almost sure it was as he stepped off the bus from Inveraray but even her, as an Edinburgh girl in 1927, had seen very few black people but now there was one standing in Coldharbour and all eyes were upon him. Some stared unashamed, others held conversations but never fully listened as their attention was spent looking over their companions’ shoulders probably feeling this was polite. One little boy ran up to him and kicked him. This was the day that Isaiah, twenty three years on this planet and as black as coal, turned up on the steps of Miss Alexandra McMillan.
Mrs Edith Huckerby told anyone who would listen that Mac - for that is how she referred to Alex - had taken a lover, and a black one at that, and he was inferior in years and therefore Mac would most certainly burn in hell. Agnes thought she detected a hint of jealousy in Edith’s scrupulous face as she was casting Miss McMillan into the fire and brimstone.
The following Saturday the library was closed as Alex was preparing a tea party. Many of the villagers had tried to ingratiate themselves in order to partake of a scone and a wee cup of tea but Alex was having none of it and only Agnes and Isaiah were guests.
Agnes marvelled at the light that reflected from such a black skin. Isaiah glowed, she could think of no better way to put it and the glowing made him seem constantly happy. He laughed a lot, mostly at things he has said himself. Agnes wasn’t sure if this annoyed her but she was willing to put up with it to find out the story. Was Agnes nosey or just full of a healthy curiosity? To be honest she didn’t care as this was all far too interesting to let it slip through her fingers.
“There is something I should tell you Agnes. Isaiah is my son.”
“I met his father in France. He was such a kind and brave man who marched into my life. I had never seen such an exotic sight, I was swept away. He was the only man I ever loved, apart from my beautiful boy Isaiah - who has indeed his father’s eyes. I saw those eyes in so many people through the years. I can never seem to forget them.”
“I discovered I was carrying Isaiah on a wild Christmas day in 1905, but the baby was taken away from me shortly after he was born and given to his father’s family. I could never bring a child, much less a black one, back to Coldharbour.”
“Why did you not stay in France?”
“His family did not want me there and I was no longer allowed to teach.”
“Where is he now?” inquired Agnes.
“He died in France two days before the war ended” said a sorrowful Isaiah. “He joined the Buffalo Soldiers, as they called themselves, all American and all black. I only discovered my mother was alive after my father died. When I found out that fact I arranged that we meet in Glasgow, that is, if she was willing....”
“and I was.”
“...but no one had told me my mother was white. It was a shock but she is beautiful, is she not?”
“Isaiah is to be married in the autumn in London and I am to be the guest of honour” said a very proud Alex. There was a warm wind blowing through her hair as Agnes headed back home with her head spinning.
Now all these years later in her retirement home, Agnes’ thoughts drift back to remembering how Alex went to Isaiah's wedding and never returned to the village; Agnes kept the village library going in hope and she remembers how her own father never really existed properly in that room again and on one lonely Tuesday he died of a broken heart.
Agnes closes her eyes knowing that war can change lives forever.
If Alexandra McMillan had been born in any era other than her own, she would have most certainly been burned as a witch. Luckily for her, she popped into the world the same year as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone; inspiring her father, Robert, to name his new daughter after the Scottish inventor.
Robert McMillan came down from the Isle of Skye in 1870 with the intention of working on the Oban railroad; a few days later, he fell hopelessly in love with the best looking girl in Coldharbour. They married several months before Alexandra’s birth and neither of them ever regretted the haste of their marriage. Ian, their healthy robust son, who followed three years later, was to join what everyone agreed was the happiest of families.
Robert’s hard work and honesty brought him promotion within the rail company and he was assigned the difficult route of Tyndrum to Oban; a line that was pestered by constant rock falls from Ben Cruachan. One night when Alexandra was only six years of age, she drew a picture of a train being struck by a large boulder. The following afternoon the rail crash came to pass just as it had been prophesised and no one in Coldharbour ever looked at little Alexandra in quite the same way again. She never found her own behaviour, in any way, odd and neither did her mother, and in fact they would sometimes imagine the same things at the same time. The story was often repeated in the family that at the very moment Ian fell from a ridge in Glencoe, both Alexandra and her mother felt his leg snap.
She once visited an ‘old wifey’ who lived just outside Dalmally and of whom it was said had the gift of the second sight. So one afternoon when Alexandra had finished the big school, she walked the nine miles to the wifey’s house. Alexandra apologised that she couldn’t afford to pay the woman for a reading but the woman patted her hand, told her that everything happens for a reason and that one day she would return the favour. Alexandra was told that she would be loved and not loved in the same measure and at the same time.
“You will be loved by one who does not know you are there”, whispered the old wifey “You will have your dreams but in a different flavour from the wanting of it and not within the confines of Coldharbour”.
So on the long walk back home, Alexandra came to the conclusion that she would have to leave the village at the earliest opportunity to fulfil her dreams.She would study hard, she told herself, for therein would lie the escape route. Reading and the getting of knowledge was relatively easy for Alexandra, for more than anything else in the world she loved books. Walter Scott was her favourite author and Ivanhoe, her hero, but for her, the greatest of all writers was a mister Robert Burns from Ayrshire. It was always with a hint of regret to Alexandra that she found herself born too late to marry the great man.
She could break hearts with her rendition of ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ but she knew that the breaking of hearts in Coldharbour was a waste of her time and theirs.
There was never any chance of her attending college or university in Glasgow, so she read and studied and taught herself French which, she had to admit, had limited uses in Coldharbour until one day in early spring a French family visited the village. They had heard stories about the pretty church founded by the Vikings and it had proved so interesting that they delayed their trip to Fort William.
Alex, as the French family called her, was employed as an interpreter. Monsieur Picard felt that Alex’s accent was “a little unusual but your grammar is delicious”. High praise indeed as she’d never actually heard anyone speaking French until then. She found the family both exotic and exciting and in a very short time they became close, so much so that on the day they left, they kissed a startled Alex on both cheeks and insisted she visit their ‘little chateau’ in Montparnasse, Paris. Life came looking for Alex McMillan and found her packed and ready to take the journey.
She fell head over heels in love with Paris the moment she stepped out of the train at Gare Du Nord. This was a city in the middle of the Golden Era, la belle époque, a city that was impossible to resist.
Deciding to save the little money she had, Alex walked away from the station and turned left down a narrow street clutching her five centimes map. Every open door she passed had its own smell and its own personal story. There are slivers of time, when just for that second, you know that your life is almost achingly perfect – Alex would later call these the ‘passing wonderful’ moments – those moments when you are happy to just to be alive.
She crossed the Rue De Rivoli and lost her breath with the beautiful splendour of it all, but the best was yet to come. As she rounded the back of the Louvre and crossed the Pont Neuf, she saw reflected in the sparkling River Seine the Notre Dame cathedral and she wept. If there was anywhere in the world or any time you could wish to exist then it was here Paris, autumn 1896.
A little ginger man with a large straw boater pointed out the Picard’s ‘little chateau’. No wonder he had a wry smile on his freckled face, it was such a monster of a building, easily the largest on this stretch of Boulevard Raspail. After she had pulled the black lever which tipped the wooden block which rang the bell, she was told by a woman who was in the process of bleaching her moustache to go to the rear of the building. Alex sat in the servant’s kitchen scared to even breathe when suddenly Madame Picard swished into the room and screamed out “what have they done to my little Scottish friend?”
Madame showed Alex into a bedroom that was larger than her entire Coldharbour home. “You will be happy here and you may stay as long as you wish, dinner is at seven thirty”.Alex outstretched her arms, looked heavenward then fell comfortably back on to a big soft bed, life was good and she was still just ‘passing wonderful’.
At dinner that evening, Alex was seated beside an elderly gentleman whose hands were ravaged by arthritis but whose heart was still relatively untouched. “I noticed you admiring the painting hanging on the wall. It was a gift to my very dear and close friend, Alain Picard”
Alex recognised it as a Renoir or at least an excellent copy.
”It is called ‘Dancing at Bougival’, you like it?”
“Of course” said Alex.
“I am Pierre-Auguste Renoir and you are Alexandra, the fortune teller, I have heard much about you”
Monsieur Renoir told her of his new neighbour in Montmartre who had recently arrived from the south of France and who was in want of an English teacher.
So the strange girl from the West Highlands became a teacher and a friend of one of France’s greatest painters. By December, she had moved to a flat in the Pigalle only a few minutes’ walk from Montmartre. By the following summer, her growing number of pupils had led her to set up a small English language school near the Sacre Coeur, although it didn’t pay well, she supplemented it by charging for fortune telling. By the light of day she was the paragon of sobriety but by night she sat with her comrades in cafes, smoking, sipping brandy and discussing the current troubles. On one such evening she was given a pencil drawing of herself by Toulouse Lautrec, it lay undimmed in her suitcase until it was found by her son many years later.
In late August of 1905, Alex had saved enough money to take a short holiday in the fashionable resort of Deauville on the north coast of France. It was populated, every summer, for several weeks by the international rich. Alex was hoping that maybe this was a place to find a husband before she was thirty and past her prime.
One day, as she was leaving the beach, she leaned against a post to put her shoes on when one of the straps broke. She hobbled for a short distance along the promenade before she was stopped by the most gigantic of men who asked in French, but with a distinct American twang, if he could help. Alex said of course he could.
“I’m assuming you’re not French...English?”
“Ah, the land of Robert Burns” said the very confident, very tall black man with obvious good taste, thought Alex.
“He is my most favourite of all poets” she said proudly.
“Is he indeed...is he, indeed?” and with that Jacob took her small hand in his and led her to the Saint Bernard cafe, where over a glass of cheap wine she found out all she needed to know. He had recently left the French Foreign Legion where he had spent many a happy year, he was originally from west Philadelphia, a city in the United States of America, but had left that country suddenly for reasons he would not expand upon.
“And that, my Scottish, is the story”.
When she first made love to Jacob it was on Bastille night, just as the whole of Montmartre had turned into one large firework celebration; it was her time for true happiness, right here and right now, and so another ‘wonderful’ was about to be passed.
On Christmas day, Alex found out that she was pregnant. In Montmartre there were many combinations of couples, all one had to do was throw a stone and you were sure to hit an unconventional pairing. Outside of this environment life was very different, very different indeed. Even before Isaiah’s birth, Jacob’s family had found out about the baby and were begging him to bring it home. Whatever troubles had occurred to make him run in the first place, they must have now been settled as he felt it was safe to return.
One morning Alex woke to the silence. This was about the same time as Jacob was boarding a ship bound for New York with a baby. If ever a heart was broken, it was Alex’s heart; broken all the way through and quietly done.
She returned to the family home at Coldharbour where now only Ian, her brother, remained. No one in the village saw her light a bonfire early one morning, a large bonfire which contained all the souvenirs and memories of France. When the fire eventually faded away to embers and died, so did her eyes.
It stayed that way for many years until a letter arrived from a young American by the name of Isaiah Dupont who, he believed, may be Alex’s son and he wondered if she could meet him in Glasgow.She knew from the moment she stepped nervously into the Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street that this was her son - no doubt about it, he had Jacob’s face. He told his mother that he had met an English girl while studying at Temple University in Philadelphia and that they were now engaged and living in London. He showed Alex the letter that Jacob had asked to be sent to his son if he should fail to return from the Front. It explained what really had happened to his mother and how very sorry his father was. Then Isaiah told his mother he was to be married in August and he wanted her to be at his side.
Before Alex left Coldharbour, she visited the cottage of the ‘old wifey’ who’d once lived just outside Dalmally. The woman’s daughter thanked her for the years Alex had sent money from France and told her of the difference it had made to their lives. A letter lay on her mother’s fireplace to be read by Alex when she returned.
“I can never thank you enough for your kindness and for the beautiful way you have repaid me. I know by the time you read this you will have found what you are looking for. Once you were loved and not loved at the same time and now that time has passed. Go to them.”
Alex lived well into her nineties and was lovingly looked after by her son, his wife and their three children. She never went back to Coldharbour.
Each night, as she closed her eyes, she would clutch a book of poems by Robert Burns and within seconds sleep would paint a huge smile on her face.
AGNES + STAN
As a boy, Stan thought he could remember seeing a clown being fired from a cannon at a circus in Hove. He couldn’t recollect, however, witnessing a man flying through the air. At least not one who flew straight through a pair of heavy wooden doors knocking Stan over and causing him to end up in the middle of a busy street. That sort of just didn’t happen in Hastings
Stan lived off this story for years, and he told and retold it so often that people stopped listening.
“That was how I met Logie” Stan would say to everyone and no one in particular.
On the morning we speak of, he had set out intending to go for a constitutional stroll along the older part of town. This was his sanctuary; down here he could scupper and hide by the little fishing boats and let the wind wash away his mother’s ‘inspirational talks’.
Stan was twenty four years of age, for goodness sake, and since leaving the army had never held down a decent job. The war had been long over and for a man born on the first day of 1900 he was not making a wonderful example of the new dawn. What was going through that stupid head of his? I ask you?
In life, all the best things appear to come when you least expect them, usually followed by the best things hitting you straight in the face - or making you roll out into the street - just the way Stan met Logie, as if you didn’t know.
Now here’s a question, would Stan have ever known he could be an engineer if he hadn’t met Logie? Just like there must have been another Einstein or Shakespeare out there who, for whatever reason, never got a chance to find out about their own genius. Not that I’m saying Stan was a genius but certainly Logie was one and he knew Stan had his uses.
After the ‘flying man’ episode and as a way of an apology, Logie took Stan for a drink. As so often happens in these circumstances, they found they actually liked each other’s company. So much so, that when Logie’s landlord stormed into the public house later that day “to find the mad Scottish scientist who had blown up his rented rooms” Stan lied for Logie and told the landlord that his friend “had been taken to hospital that very afternoon and could be at death’s door even as we speak” whereas Logie was actually hiding in the toilet. Needless to say, the two of them became the greatest of pals.Here was Stan, a man in need of a job and Logie in need of an assistant he could trust. Stanley Addlington was born and bred a Sussex man and proud of it, his friend John Logie Baird, or Logie as he preferred, was from Helensburgh in the West of Scotland.
Now it wouldn’t be so far from the truth to say that Logie was run out of Hastings. Logie and his landlord had an altercation in the street when he demanded recompense for the damage caused by the explosions. Logie reluctantly paid the swine and decided enough was enough, taking his inventions to a set of rooms in London’s Soho.And it was in these modest rooms that John Logie Baird demonstrated the first electro mechanical television.
Stan would tell you that he was the first face ever to appear on a television screen. He had done it to amuse himself one night when Logie was out. The problem was that since he was the only person in the room at the time, he couldn’t actually see himself on the screen but he did remember burning himself on the lights needed for the camera. When Logie came in the next day and spotted the burns on Stan’s face, he smiled to himself having guessed what his friend had been up to. Unfortunately for Stan, history chose another as the first televised face.
Those London years were the busiest of Stan’s life, forever working on Logie’s latest inventions, sometimes fourteen to sixteen hours a day. Too much work for him to realise how lonely he actually was.
In the spring of 1936, Logie decided to take a trip home to Helensburgh to see the family but due to his deteriorating health Logie asked Stan to drive him up there. This meant that Stan could take the car north and return to collect Logie at the end of the stay. Stan had only been to Scotland once before and that was when Logie transmitted television pictures to the Central Hotel in Glasgow via a telephone line from London. So yes, he would drive him to Helensburgh and then take the car on into the Highlands.
Whatever made Stan take the Coldharbour road at Inveraray is between him and his maker but turn he did and before long he was staring at a rusty welcoming sign:
‘Coldharbour: The B nniest Place in the West’.
Coming in from that direction, the village hall was the first real building you would pass. Outside Stan saw a rather pretty girl taking down a notice telling that the library was now open. She disappeared inside the hall and Stan saw this as a reason to stop.
When he entered, she was packing up the makeshift library into boxes and was apparently doing so without anyone to help her.
“Excuse me” said Stan.
The girl spoke without lifting her head. “If you’re going to tell me there’s a letter ‘O’ missing from our village sign, then I already know. It fell off last week. If you’re here to borrow books, you’re too late and anyway judging by your accent you’re not from these parts.” And on she worked.
“I just wondered.....I was wondering if you would like to come out with me this evening...for a drink or something, young lady?”
“Did you just call me young lady?” enquired the girl.
“Depends - did you want me to call you ‘young lady’?”
And the beautiful young girl thought about it and decided, yes, she did like it. So that was how Stanley Addlington met Agnes Lily Sorensen, daughter of Peter; the man who sat quietly in rooms.
Stan decided that this was as much of the Highlands as he wanted to see and found a room at Mrs Edith Huckerby’s bed and breakfast – five shillings and clean sheets.
Mrs Huckerby never told her lodger that she disapproved of Agnes and her demented father but it seemed to Stan that Mrs Huckerby disapproved of everyone. What she needed was a hard kiss on those lips, thought Stan, but decided he wasn’t the man for the job. Although her house smelt of the most delicious baking, Mrs Huckerby, herself, smelt of mothballs, probably one of the reasons why Stan did not feel he was the right man to deliver the kiss.
Stan and Agnes spent the next Sunday afternoon walking the high hills overlooking Loch Awe – Agnes liked the way Stan called it ‘Lock ah’, in fact she liked many things about Stan. She was twenty two years of age and this was the first time she had ever had these feelings.
On the following Tuesday ,as usual, Agnes set up the library in the hall but this time there were two differences: Stan was there helping and the rooms were full of the happy sound of laughter, even the sun turned up to shine through the windows.
They set up the books in an ordered fashion, crime was on the left and very popular in Coldharbour, the classics were on the right and the penny romances were in the centre; the latter proving very popular with the women and girls of the village who never stopped dreaming of their knights in shining armour.
Stan, Agnes’ knight, lifted a small vase out of a tired old box and asked what it was for.
“Ah that’s the suggestions vase, at the end of every session I read what’s been placed in it. Some suggest particular books, some just want to leave a message, some to place some money or to say thanks” said Agnes.
By the end of the afternoon Stan knew it was time to head back south to Helensburgh and pick up Logie. They intended to stay a night in Glasgow before driving to London and Stan wished with all his heart that Agnes could join him, but he knew about her father and him sitting in a room quietly.
So when Agnes’ back was turned, Stan scrawled a quick note and placed it in the jar, then he kissed her goodbye and promised lovely Agnes that he would return.
As he was driving away from Loch Awe, he looked at his watch and knew that she would soon read the proposal of marriage he had placed in the vase.Stan was just about to whistle his favourite tune by way of celebration when the car skidded for several yards before tumbling off the road. He was sure he had felt the road shaking just before the accident. As he sat stunned in the automobile, he felt it again, the earth definitely moved. The machine was stuck good and proper and there was no way he could push it out. So Stan set out to walk up the old road that followed the Orchy River to the bridge.
Nothing passed by him that afternoon and it was early evening before he arrived at a small house in Inveronan on the shores of Loch Tulla.An old man answered the door, “There is nothing we can do this evening for your transport young man, but come away inside and we’ll feed and water you”.
In Coldharbour, Agnes was clearing up the mess in the hall. There had been small earthquakes before in the area but this was a bit stronger than usual. Still, she got to work picking up all the bookshelves and the scattered books but Agnes failed to notice the broken vase lying on its side and its contents having spilled out under a wooden desk.
In the morning, Stan thanked the old couple who fed him well and who asked for nothing in return. He walked the military road across Ba Bridge and into Glencoe, finding a telephone at The Kingshouse and thereby allowing him to notify Logie that he would be delayed.
In the Autumn of 1936, Logie and his team were busier than ever supplying the BBC with their latest television technology to test against other competing systems. Logie’s group were based at The Crystal Palace, a structure moved from Hyde Park to Penge Common in 1851.
Stan had bought a small house near-by in Sydenham, in the hope that he would hear from Agnes and that she would say yes. It was nearly the end of November and Stan had begun to give up on the idea of a life with Agnes.
Several days before the Coldharbour hall was to be used for a Saint Andrew’s night party Miss McKelvie, the village hall cleaner, found the contents of the suggestion vase underneath the desk, including Stan’s proposal of marriage.
So on the night of the 30th of November and instead of dancing in the village hall, Agnes found herself knocking on the door of a house in Sydenham, south east London. She had been reluctant to go as it would mean leaving her mother with a father who sat and said nothing, but her mother told her that sometimes happiness only comes once and that she should catch it before it was too late.
Stan proposed properly to Agnes that night with the ring he had been keeping safe on a chain around his neck. It was just as Agnes had accepted Stan’s hand in marriage, that she noticed the redness of the sky. She thought, at first, it was to do with the London lights being so much stronger than those in Coldharbour but when Stan went out into the garden he could smell the smoke, then he heard the clang...clang...clang of the fire engines.
The Crystal Palace, and all ideas that he and Logie had worked so hard on over the years, was on fire.
The BBC, in the end, chose another television system just as the country drifted into war. In Hastings, Agnes and Stan got married and had two wonderful years before Agnes moved back to Coldharbour to wait on her knight returning from battle.
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.