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A Rope - In Case
by Lillian Beckwith

A Breath of Autumn, Chapter 1
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A Rope in Case

The March morning was full of mist; grey and inscrutable the swirling formations loped in from the sea to hover uncertainly over the village of Bruach so that the houses and crofts vanished and re-emerged in a constantly changing pattern; the land appeared to be adrift In a thick silence through which the distant throbbing of the burn and the nearer rasp of tide on shingle barely penetrated. ‘For every day of mist in March there’ll be an inch of snow in May,’ the old crofters predicted. This was our fourth day of mist in the first fourteen days of March so it looked as if we must expect an exceedingly cold May.

I had finished breakfast, milked my cow and fed the poultry and now I was preparing to catch the bus which would take me on the first stage of my visit to the mainland. The preparations entailed no searching of a wardrobe and debating which garments I should wear. A trip to the mainland meant an early morning start and an evening return and as the weather could change dramatically in that time it was necessary always to play safe and wear one’s toughest shoes, well polished for the occasion, and one’s most dependable waterproof which would have a sou-wester tucked into a pocket. I dropped my shoes into the shopping bag I was taking and pulled on a pair of thick socks and gumboots over my stockings. The path was wet and muddy so I would change into shoes when I reached the bus and leave the socks and gumboots under a seat ready for my return. Giving the fire a final damping down with wet peats and dross I reached up and took my waterproof from the hook beside the door and with it a length of rope which hung on an adjoining hook. It was instinct now to open the door cautiously so as not to disturb any wild life that might have ventured near in the early silence. I was so often rewarded for my caution; perhaps with the sight of a buzzard surveying the world from the top of the clothes line post; perhaps it would be a rabbit drinking from the hens’ water bowl or a seal close inshore eyeing the cottages as if he would like to be invited in for breakfast. But then again it might only be a hooded crow loitering with such intent over my chicken run that I had to clap my hands to drive him away. This morning the mist hid any secret there might have been and I pulled the door shut behind me. It was unthinkable to lock a door in Bruach even when one was leaving the house for a whole day. Outside I paused, looking at the length of rope I still held in my hand. Foolish of me, I thought, it wasn’t necessary to take a rope with me on what after all was to be in the nature of a day off from work. For a moment I hesitated wondering whether I should go back and replace the rope on its hook but with a shrug I dropped it into the bag along with my shoes. It seemed less trouble to take it.

When I had first come to the Hebrides Morag, my landlady had advised me always to ‘take a rope in case’, and when I moved into my own cottage a length of rope hung on the hook next to my outdoor clothes so that it was a habit to reach for a coat in one hand and the rope in the other. In fact it had become such an essential adjunct that I felt bereft if I was not carrying it somewhere about my person. Over and over again I had proved its usefulness. I might need it to catch a calf or a sheep; to carry a bundle of hay to the cow or a can of paraffin from the grocer; to tie a bundle of driftwood I had collected, or a sack of peat; to secure a boat make a temporary repair to a sagging fence or a halter for a horse. In stormy weather there was nothing so good as a rope tied round the waist for preventing one’s clothes from billowing up above one’s head. Excepting when they were going on holiday or to church the Bruach crofters were rarely without a length of rope, either coiled around an arm or protruding from a pocket.

The bus driver blew a blast on his horn as I came out of the mist and I suspected that either I was late or he was in a bad temper.

‘I’m sorry,’ I began, ‘Am I late?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’ His voice was affable. ‘It’s just that I want to see to a couple of my snares on the way so I thought I’d just hurry folks up a bit so I could get started.’

Such unscheduled changes caused no complaint in Bruach and the driver was equally willing to similarly oblige his passengers.

I sat down beside Janet. ‘You have a good poc,’ she commented, noticing my capacious shopping bag. Janet always managed to make her observations with a sort of disparaging admiration so that I felt I had to excuse the size of my bag by telling her I was expecting to bring home a fair number of purchases.

‘You’re not wantin’ to catch the train, then?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I told her.

‘I’m thinkin’ it’s just as well,’ she comforted. ‘For the dear knows how long it will take hun to see to his snares.’

‘Ach, that man an’ his snares,’ interposed Erchy, who was sitting behind us. ‘He forgets he’s here for drivin’ the bus when he’s after the rabbits.’

It took the driver no more than a quarter of an hour to attend to his snares and when he returned he dumped three dead rabbits on top of the pile of mailbags. In three of the private mail-boxes where he stopped to collect letters he left a rabbit in exchange.

‘What’s the time?’ he asked, resuming his seat after the last mail-box had been emptied. No-one replied. My watch had not functioned for months and yet I had hardly been inconvenienced by the lack of it. Time was so rarely referred to in Bruach. The bus driver repeated the question in Gaelic, shouting at old Farquhar who was very deaf. Ponderously the old man took out his cherished watch and showed him. ‘We’d best get a move on,’ the driver warned. The mist still enveloped us but on the Bruach road one could be fairly certain of meeting no other traffic so early in the morning. He put his foot well down on the accelerator.

‘Oh, how I hate the mist!’ said Janet feelingly. There were murmurs of almost passionate assent from the rest of the passengers. Bruachites, especially the women, did indeed dislike the mist. It seemed to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of their lives, cutting them off from the reassuring view of other collages where they knew company was theirs for the seeking.

The road twisted and climbed around the steep shores of the loch. As we climbed higher the mist thinned so that soon we were looking down on curling banks of it as one looks down on to cloud from an aeroplane.

‘There’s a wind on the wireless,’ the driver called over his shoulder and at once everyone became more cheerful. Wind would soon drive the mist away.

The mainland village was squalid and colourless. This may have been because it was within a day’s journey of a large town, or perhaps because it was too long since its inhabitants had forsaken the crofting life in favour of commerce. Whatever the reason I found it a cold and cheerless place to spend a day. It was only when there was a compelling need for some tool or material, the lack of

which was holding up a long extended task, that it became in any way endurable for me.

‘Have you much shoppin’ to do?’ enquired Janet when we had disembarked from the island ferry.

‘Yes, quite a bit, I want some felt and roofing nails for the poultry shed. And some vegetables if I can get them.’ I scanned my list. ‘Oh, and Sarah’s asked me to try to get her a "man-chine for the calf’s nose",’ I added with a smile. Janet smiled too. To Sarah most things contrived by man were ‘man-chines’. Cars and lorries were acceptably enough ‘man-chines’ but it was more difficult to interpret her description of a broom as a ‘man-chine for cleaning floors’ and a pillar-box as a ‘man-chine for posting letters’. The ‘man-chine’ she had asked me to get for her now was merely a U-shaped flap of wood which filled into the calf’s nostrils and prevented it from sucking the cow while still allowing It to graze adequately.

‘You’d think Yawn could make her one,’ said Janet.

‘Yawn says he’s made her dozens and that she’s lost the lot. He thinks if she has to pay for one out of her own money she’ll take better care of it.’

‘I doubt she will,’ said Janet.

There were no more than a half dozen shops in the village, one of which was a tearoom. There was also a small hotel. We visited first a poky general store where they sold meat and bacon, bread and groceries and shoes and drapery all from one littered counter. The varied smells that assailed us were dominated by the odour of old cabbages and softening onions in rolled-down sacks on the floor. Janet was trying on a pair of shoes when old Farquhar came in and announced that he wanted ‘two bread loafs an’ a pound of wee beefies.’ Dourly the assistant handed him two large loaves and then proceeded to weigh out a pound of mince.

‘What a glamorous name for mince,’ I murmured to Janet. ‘It makes it sound quite appetising.’ When my turn came I too asked for a pound of ‘wee beefies’. The assistant flicked me a look of disdain.

‘Is it mince you’re after wantin’?’ he asked severely. I went with Janet to the chemist where she bought half a stone of baking soda to alleviate the indigestion which afflicted all her family and then she came with me to the chandler’s to order my roofing felt and nails. While the assistant was counting out the nails for me old Farquhar came shuffling in.

‘Haff you any sea boots?’ he demanded.

‘Aye, we have plenty,’ was the crisp reply. Old Farquhar leaned forward, his hand cupped to his ear.

‘All that lot there,’ shouted the man, indicating the line of boots in all sizes that stretched across the back of the shop. Farquhar gave them a cursory glance. ‘Thank you very much, I will take two,’ he said with lofty indifference.

We had finished our shopping within the hour and as it was too wet to go for a walk and too early to get lunch we went into the tea room where we drank tea and chatted with the waitress who turned out to be a relative of Janet’s. Following that we ambled up to the hotel, locally known as ‘Kipper Hall’ jind ate kippers and turnips and potatoes and declined a pool of rice pudding. Janet, by discreet questioning, discovered that the hotel cook was also a relative of hers and sent the waitress to convey the discovery to her which resulted in an invitation to take tea in the kitchen. We were seated cosily in front of the fire exchanging news and gossip when the door was pushed open and Erchy appeared. He was carrying a large tin of foot-rot ointment.

‘Ah, they told me I would find you here,’ he greeted us. ‘Come away in,’ invited the cook and poured out another cup of tea.

Erchy came in and sat down.

‘Are you wantin’ us, then?’ Janet asked. ‘I was wantin’ Miss Peckwitt,’ he admitted. I glanced at him in surprise. ‘Why me?’ I asked.

‘Well, you mind I came out to see would I get a look at a boat I was thinkin’ of buyin’?’ Janet and nodded. ‘Aye, well it seems she’s out in a place a few miles from here an’ I cannot get a car to take me there.’

‘Too far to walk?’ I asked.

‘Aye, in the time I have before the bus goes away again an’ I’m no so keen to stay the night here.’

‘So why were you looking for me?’ I asked.

‘It’s this way,’ he began, and went on to tell me that there was a car available but there was no driver. The old man who owned the car had been banned from driving but if I would agree to drive it he would be very pleased to let us have the car for as long as we wished.

‘Okay,’ I agreed. ‘So long as we’re back in time for the bus.’

Janet decided to come with us ‘just for the drive’ and we collected the car from an extremely co-operative garage proprietor. The mist had by now been harried away to the hills by a bullying wind that was ushering thick spongy looking clouds in its place. Before we had gone more than half a mile they had wrung themselves out and the windscreen wipers worked steadily.

‘I met a relative of yours when I went for a drink,’ Erchy told Janet.

‘Another?’ I laughed. ‘She’s already discovered two this morning.’

‘Aye, well this fellow’s newly back from America. He’s been out there near enough to twenty-five years.’

Janet was agog with interest. ‘It wouldn’t be yon Uisdean who married my cousin’s cousin from Uist?’ She and Erchy delved Into genealogies.

‘That was him then that went away because of the ghost,’ she told us when identification was completed satisfactorily. ‘I didn’t think he’d ever come back to these parts.’

‘Is it him?’ Erchy accepted her statement without surprise. ‘Aye well he hasn’t lost his taste for whisky while he’s been away.’

‘Ach, no,’ Janet assured him. ‘He would still draw the same breath.’

‘What ghost is this you’re talking about?’ I asked.

‘You mind the one. You must have heard of it.’ Janet was emphatic.

‘I don’t think I have,’ I said.

‘Well, this fellow, this sort of cousin of mine was walkin’ home one night when he met a strange woman. He greeted her with a "Ciamar a Tha" just the same as he would anyone but as soon as he’s spoken this woman turns and walks alongside him and tells him that he’s the first person to have spoken to her for many years. He knew fine she was a ghost then an’ tried to hurry away but she would follow him. She told him she had not died by her own hand as people thought but that she had been murdered. She named her killer and pleaded with the man to go to the authorities and have the murderer brought to justice. He had to say he would, just to get rid of her but he didn’t do any more about it. The next time he was that way she pursued him again, pleadin’ an’ pleadin’. He still didn’t do anythin’ about it but she upset him so much he packed up an’ went to America.’

‘I’ve never heard that story before,’ I told her.

‘Indeed?’ Janet’s voice was puzzled. ‘It’s well known in these parts.’ The three of us became deep in thought for a few minutes and then Janet spoke again. ‘I wonder if it’s just a lot of nonsense?’

‘What, the story or the ghost?’ I asked.

‘No, indeed.’ Janet sounded prickly. ‘The man wouldn’t have told a lie. No, I was thinkin’ about the belief we have hereabouts that a ghost can’t cross water. That’s why he went to America, you see. But I’d like to know if it’s true or not. It’s a pity Erchy didn’t know who it was an’ then he could have asked him.’

Erchy said, ‘Aye, well it’s too late now. He was catchin’ the train back to Glasgow an’ he’s away back on his travels by the weekend.’

We drove on in silence. ‘What a nice man that garage proprietor seems to be,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Erchy admitted shortly.

‘He didn’t seem to be able to do enough for us,’ added Janet.


It was unlike Erchy to be so terse but Janet and I knew that questions would bring no information. We waited patiently.

‘You mind that net I sold about three years back?’ Erchy asked Janet at last.

‘I mind that fine. It wasn’t a net just, was it?’

‘No, but the net was the chief thing.’

‘I remember that,’ she said.

‘Well, it was to that very man I sold them. He didn’t have the money to pay for them then but he said he’d see me right so I let him have them. I’ve never seen a penny from him since.’

‘The man!’ ejaculated Janet.

‘He looks to be doing well enough now,’ I remarked. The garage had been flanked by a shop bearing the same name and both had looked highly prosperous.

‘He’s doin’ fine,’ Erchy corroborated. ‘He was tellin’ me himself of all the trouble he has with the Income Tax. He says they’re always after him.’

‘He must be doin’ well if he has the Income Tax after him,’ said Janet, knowledgeably.

‘Aye, he was tellin’ me he had a letter from them wantin’ money round about Christmas time so he sent them a Christmas card with his reply. He wrote on it "A Merry Christmas to you ye buggers" and he repeated "ye buggers" wherever there was space all over the card.’

‘That was no very nice of him,’ Janet observed.

‘He was pleased enough with it,’ said Erchy. ‘He believes he fairly spoiled their Christmas for them.’

‘An all this time he’s never paid you for your net,’ Janet was indignant.

‘No, he has not.’

‘Have you asked him for the money?’ That was my question. Janet, being a Gael would never have suggested such a thing could happen.

‘Indeed no!’ Erchy was shocked.

‘Maybe it’s just as well you took his car, then,’ Janet told him. ‘You’ll maybe get a bit of somethin’ back from it.’

‘It’s a shame we don’t have the time to go for a good drive round on his petrol while we have the chance,’ he said. ‘There’s plenty in the tank.’

‘We could have fairly enjoyed ourselves,’ Janet said regretfully.

Erchy inspected the boat he had been thinking of buying, rejected it with the pronouncement that it would ‘float like a bundle of hay’ and was ready to return. Back at the garage the beaming proprietor greeted us effusively. Erchy’s hand wavered in the region of his breast pocket subtly indicating that he had money to pay if the man should have the cheek to ask for it. Just as subtly the other conveyed that no mention of money must be made.

‘Take the car any time you’re wantin’ it,’ he told Erchy and seemed affronted that we had used so little petrol. I got the feeling that had we damaged the car he would have welcomed the opportunity to display further magnaminity. He was insistent that we took tea with him and his wife and led us into a passage which went from the garage to a newly built extension of the old croft house. Here we sat on modern chairs and were urged to eat quantities of shop biscuits while the old woman poured out cup after cup of thick black tea that looked as if we should need knives and forks to wrestle with it.

It was lime to go. We shook hands all round and thanked them for their hospitality, assuring them of reciprocal cordiality if they should ever come to Bruach. Only Erchy seemed to be a little ‘tongue in cheek’ with his remarks.

At the pier we found the tide was out and picked our way to the ferry over slippery weed while spray splashed and shed itself over us. Just as the ferry was about to leave there came a shout and we perceived the garage proprietor running down to the jetty, gesticulating and shouting Erchy’s name. Erchy went forward to meet him.

‘I was thinkin’ I’d never catch you,’ panted the man, as he handed Erchy a parcel. ‘You left this behind you in the car an’ I didn’t notice it until this minute just.’

Erchy gave a nod of pleased recollection. ‘Aye, that’s right so I did,’ he said, taking the parcel. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without It.’

He rejoined Janet and me. ‘Erchy, I’m sure there was no parcel left in that car,’ I told him. ‘Janet and I were most careful to check.’

Erchy gave me an enigmatic smile. ‘Damty sure there wasn’t,’ he agreed. He opened the parcel and revealed a carton of five hundred cigarettes. They were of a brand I knew he never smoked and to my look of astonishment he explained: ‘This is just the man’s way of payin’ me for my net. Now we’re both satisfied.’

It was so cold and wet on the ferry that the man who should have collected our fares chose not to leave the shelter of the wheelhouse, allowing us to make the journey free.

‘He’s no seem’ us,’ murmured Janet, in the Bruach idiom.

‘Not like it is in the summer,’ Erchy commented. ‘Then, when there’s plenty tourists on the ferry they won’t take it near the pier till they’ve got all the fares. They just keep circlin’ round makin’ sure no-one can walk off without payin’ first.’

On the island quay stood an aged and dispirited touring car with most of its side windows missing. The bus driver waited beside it.

‘The buss is broken,’ he announced. His tone made the disaster sound an everyday occurrence.

‘Broken?’ Janet exclaimed.

‘Aye. It’s away to the garage an’ they’re sayin’ they’ll not likely get it sorted before midnight.’ There was a trace of exultant pessimism about him.

‘So we’ve got to get home in this thing,’ I said, peering into the car’s unkempt interior.

‘Unless you’ll stay for the dance,’ the driver proposed eagerly. ‘There’s to be a good dance on here tonight an’ I wouldn’t mind stayin’ for it.’

‘Oh, my,’ said Janet, already half persuaded. For her a dance promised a bevy of friends and a good ceilidh in some crowded corner of the room.

Erchy said thoughtfully, ‘I’ve a mind to stay myself.’

They all looked at me. ‘I must get home,’ I protested. ‘I’ve got a cow and hens to see to tonight yet.’

‘Ach, I can get a message for someone to see to your beasts for you,’ the driver assured me.

‘No need,’ I insisted heartlessly. ‘If there’s a car to take me. I’m going back now.’

‘There’s a car all right but you’ve not heard yet who’s goin’ to drive It?’ The driver smiled wickedly and mentioned a name. ‘An’ he has a good drink on him already,’ he added with relish. I felt myself go pale. The Bruach road ran steeply along the side of the loch and at times there were literally only inches separating the wheels of the bus from the crumbling edge of the road. With a shudder I recollected the one hair-raising journey I had endured with the driver he mentioned. For weeks afterwards in my dreams I repeatedly found myself in pieces at the bottom of some precipice.

‘I’m not going with him,’! said flatly.

‘Then stay for the dance,’ the driver wheedled. ‘No.’ I knew I was being cruel but it was his job to drive the bus and I badly wanted to get home.

‘Ach, you’d enjoy yourself,’ he persisted.

‘I would not,’ I told him. ‘I don’t know a soul here. Nobody would ask me to dance.’

‘There’s Erchy. He’ll dance with you.’

‘Erchy will do all his dancing in the bar,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you a dance myself.’ His tone was generous. ‘Thank you,’ I countered. ‘And what would I do the rest of the time? Just sit there looking out of things and not knowing what to do with myself, I suppose.’

‘Ach, Miss Peckwitt, there’s no need for that. Just you eat a couple of them figs you can buy from the grocer. When you’re not dancin’ it gives you somethin’ to do pickin’ all the seeds out of your teeths. It’s what I do myself when I’m at a dance in a strange place.’

Janet turned on him. ‘That’s all right for you,’ she told him, ‘but Miss Peckwitt has her own teeth. They’re not false ones like yours.’

‘Oh,’ said the driver, a little taken aback. ‘That might not be so good then.’

He suggested that we should go for a cup of tea while he made arrangements for the car and another driver. Half an hour later he was back and commanding us to get into the car.

‘Are you no stayin’ for the dance, then?’ Janet asked. He muttered petulantly.

The only vacant places were beside old Farquhar who was ensconced majestically in the middle of the back seat. We were about to climb in beside him when the driver stopped us.

‘No, you cannot go in there. You’ll just have to squeeze up with the others,’ he instructed us. ‘There’s a ram I’m to pick up in a wee whiley an’ he’ll need to go in the back seat.’ He requested the passengers to lift up their feet and dumped my roll of felt on the floor.

It took four men to get the struggling ram into the back of the car, where full mailbags were strategically placed so as to restrict its movement. Even so Farquhar had to crouch with the animal between his legs while he held on to its horns. The rest of us huddled together with our knees bumping our chins as the old car bounced from pothole to pothole and we tried not to take too much notice of the strugglings and gruntings that came from the seat behind us along with the overpowering smell of wet fleece.

The wind was rising rapidly to a gale; the sea came foaming in beneath a mist of spray. Every now and then the driver looked up at the hood which was lifting and banging ominously. ‘You’d best some of you hang on to that,’ he advised and those who were nearest grabbed whatever handhold they could. We reached the head of the loch where the wind funnelled in from the sea and rushed screaming through the narrow strath between two ranges of hills. There was a shout of alarm as a sudden gust, stronger than any before it, thrust at the car, threatening to overturn it. We all ducked as the driver grappled with the wheel. The moment over, we sat up and saw in the same instant that there was no longer a hood on the car. Twisting round in our seats we could see the heavy canvas trailing like a broken kite behind. The driver stopped and all the passengers except Farquhar who was wrestling with an increasingly panic-stricken ram tumbled out to capture the hood. We fought the wind as we tried to pull it back over the car and secure it but the fasteners had gone and we had to stand holding it, awaiting instructions from the driver.

‘Wait now till I get a rope!’ he shouted and rooted under his seat. He produced a length of rope and passed one end under the car to a helper on the other side who pulled it up. With the wind tearing at their clothes they scrambled together trying to tie it over the hood. The driver swore. ‘The damty thing’s not long enough.’ Turning to us be asked: ‘Anybody got a piece of rope?’

‘I have,’ I replied. ‘Hold on to this while I get it.’ He weighed down on the section of hood I had been holding while I retrieved the piece of rope from the bottom of my shopping bag.

‘That’ll do it,’ he said, snatching it from me. He tied the two ropes together and we surveyed the repair briefly before climbing back into our seats.

‘I only brought that rope in case the old car needed a tow,’ the driver said.

I murmured to Janet that there would be little hope of getting a tow on the deserted Bruach road. She looked slightly puzzled.

‘We’re not likely to meet a car to give us a tow,’ I pointed out.

‘Oh, no, mo ghaoil. He wouldn’t be thinkin’ of a motor to pull us.’ She glanced round. ‘There are plenty of us here.’ We reached Bruach without further mishap and juddered to stop outside the Post Office. ‘What’s wrong with the old car?’ demanded the postman, coming out to collect the mailbags. ‘She looks as if she’s got the toothache or somethin’.’

‘I doubt she would have lost her top if it hadn’t been for Miss Peckwitt here havin’ a wee bitty rope with her,’ the driver told him.

I permitted myself a smug smile. ‘Oh, I always take a rope in case,’ I said.

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