I’ve been a thief. My excuse, typical if inexcusable: being always skint!
When Jack Rafferty–the island’s only policeman–came to our door, he took me aside, knelt down and told me about a place where they lock up ten year old thieves. I decided right then the building of a boat should no longer be a childhood dream, but a necessary means of escape. Jack did scare me, I’ll admit, removing his helmet and yet still ducking to come through our front door was somewhat terrifying, but it was seeing the tears roll down my mother’s face that left me with a memory I’ve never forgotten. I’d never steal anything ever again. That’s what I told myself. Never!
Before tourists, the island’s remoteness was its beauty. Life on Mull was anything but sentimental. We lived with the constant of a nor-easter, blizzard conditions in winter, sometimes in spring, and for many months we lived and worked under an iron-gray sky. There was nowhere to live on the island but between the mountain and the sea. The summer brought its warmth: the emerald greens, gold, orange, browns, pinks and blues that glowed, lighting up the mountain’s south side. In so many ways living on the island was easy, but then there was the real island, the real folk, the fishermen and the wives of the fishermen. There was suffering. I grew up hearing my mother cry on a regular basis, listened to her sobs in the next room, sleepless nights of anxiety about bills, and then those deeper sobs every time my father left the harbor, heading for the Minch or the Bering Sea.
Uncle Jimmy, was the most eccentric member of our family. I mean, trust me, he was eccentric from early on, but if I’m to shorten this tale, then let me begin when he was more than half way through his life. My father said it really began when his brother purchased the 1955 clinker built trawler, twin mast, near a hundred and forty tons, and half sunk! He paid fifty pounds for her scrap and was the laughing stock of the island. Four years later Jimmy, in his sixtieth year, restored her to be the finest vessel in Tobermoray’s harbor. Heartbreakingly, however, Sea-spray II, as he named her, was pushed aground in a storm that grew bigger and more bullish than that morning’s mischief implied she’d be. The grinding undertow had sucked her onto the submerged granite at the base of the mountain, a hundred yards offshore. Jimmy, then penniless and heartbroken, left the island for the mainland, returning on his seventy fourth birthday.
By the time he returned, I, too, had escaped the island, never becoming a fisherman, being just out of stomach, and having nothing else to leave out there. Sure, I’d wanted to follow my father, show others that I could be a ‘chip off the old block!’ But it wasn’t to be. I left home to join the Coastguard, my brain was then fully engaged. My only responsibility was to learn to fly helicopters, five years in flight school, and indeed, those years were to be some of the best years of my life. I was only twenty-five. I qualified my wings flying the HAR3 (Sea King). Seven years later my ‘patch’ was sectioned over the Outer Hebrides, Malin, Rockall and Bailey. I’d achieved my dream, to be working over my father’s head.
On December fourth, that first year of my command, I got word that Jimmy was sick, dying in fact. When I got to the hospice he was almost dead, gasping for breath beneath an oxygen tent. It was difficult to hear him; so soft, so lifeless was his voice. Three of his best pals were with him; Sid, Harry, and my father, Frank. We talked at Jimmy’s bedside, mostly about old times, thinking we were giving the old lad some joy, when I noticed a movement in his finger. Looking into his eyes, I saw he was building up the strength to speak.
“Have you never taken a risk in your life, lad?’ he spluttered, chest hardly drawing breath, as though it might rise just one more time. Jimmy was wearing an old woolen vest, and wheezing, while his hands, all veins and loose skin, lay perfectly still at his side. I responded that the risks I took, I hoped, were calculated ones. Jimmy beckoned me closer with a cobwebbed spiny finger. I felt uneasy, afraid of his weakness.
“Not one of us has ever taken a risk,” he said in a whisper, “there was a time when we were free men,” and he coughed, choked up bile, which hung from his lip, and said, “…see me right, lads, that’s all I ask.”
The nurse, wondering what the whispering was, used Jimmy’s coughing bout as a reason to come and stand close. “I should be taking that vest off you, Jimmy,” she said.
Jimmy mustered up half a lung of breath, and doing so spoke his last two words before his image, his breathing, his body, and the light of his day faded. The expression on the nurse’s face has never left me. Jimmy had managed to couch his anger with the merciless efficiency of a monofilament fishing line in just two words. The nurse, flushed of face, turned away, muttering under her breath, unaware that French was to be the last language Jimmy ever spoke. It was 11.20 P.M.
Less than two hours later I drove the old Dormobile van, headlights out, around the back of the hospice before leaping out and opening the rear doors. On the second floor of the hospice, a window grudgingly faltered open. Sid leaned out. I gave the all clear. My father, Harry and Sid lowered the netting with Jimmy’s wasted body wrapped in bed sheets. Jimmy must have choked blood; because it blossomed on the sack like a rose in the moonlight. I lay him on the grass and waited for the others to join me. We all four carried him to the van, sliding him irreverently into the back, closed the doors and drove directly to Tobermoray harbor. Sid and Harry remained in the van; father climbed out and went aboard the trawler, Nightshadow. Two minutes later the diesel engines smoked into life. We jumped out, opened up the rear doors. I remember we were immediately overcome by the smell of Jimmy’s old clay pipe, and something else, excrement and piss, and pulled him out.
“We’ll burn his pajamas later,” Sid said, piling belongings onto Jimmy’s chest, then grabbed him under his armpits, with me and Harry each holding a leg. We must have moved forward too quickly. Jimmy’s body folded, and what can only be described as one enormous fart came out. Sid stopped in his tracks, lowering Jimmy to the ground and knelt down at his head.
“Jimmy, if you’re still with us, I’ll bloody drown you myself!” He said, close to his ear, not fully understanding how the body empties air after death, and convinced Jimmy was still alive and having a last laugh.
Silhouetted against a wolf moon we lugged Jimmy up the slipway. It was then a stray dog came out from nowhere it seemed, and escorted us up the slipway. Harry flung a backward boot, the dog yelped, scampering back onto the quay.
“Hey lads,” my father just called from the wheelhouse, “Jimmy’s been feeding that mutt for over a year now, best let it on, eh?”
“Well, that just about sums Jimmy’s life up, right,” I recall saying. “The only congregation Jimmy’s going to have is a limping mutt!”
“He wasn’t limping till Harry kicked him,” Sid then chimed in. Which pissed Harry off no end.
“That’s, ridiculous, Sid,” Harry argued, and with good cause, “look at it;” he instructed, finger pointing, “it’s only got three legs to begin with, so of course it’s bloody limping!”
I looked back, it was true! The dog did indeed have only one hind leg. So typical of Jimmy, I remember thinking, keeping another desperate life close to his own.
The one thing about Uncle Jimmy most people on the island remember was how he almost killed Grandmother. She was ninety-two; Jimmy almost saw her off with a chili pepper! People have told the story so many times in the pubs, it has become folklore on the island.
The story is retold this way: The old girl was sat in the armchair, staring directly at the T.V. She had complained to Jimmy about being hungry. It so happened that in the last month the first Mexican take-away had come to the island. Jimmy thought it would be good for her to try something different. When he got back with the meal Grandma spied it curiously, pushing what she thought looked like meat around the plate before cautiously lifting up a green chili pepper on the fork, inspecting it for insects, and with mindless distraction stuffed the large chili into her mouth. Jimmy tells it that he jumped up in an attempt to stop her…but alas it was too late. The old girl sat in the chair, staring directly at him as she chewed on the green chili. A moment later her eyes went wild and piercing. He could sense the pain behind them as the ferocity of the chili pepper burned in her throat, sending violent thoughts to her withered brain. He watched in terrified awe as her weak hands gripped the armrests, teeth grinding, the floor shaking as she wobbled from side to side. By now she was whining slightly, her eyes rolled back in her head. Jimmy told that he was caught in two minds: whether to race for water or dive for the phone. He chose the latter, cursing his choice of Mexican food as he dialed the emergency services. The island only had one service, one vehicle, and one emergency telephone person, Mrs. Stokes. She was the island’s midwife, the island’s nurse, and the island’s foremost taxidermist.
“Ambulance please…what? No…ambulance…my grandmother, she’s eaten a chili pepper and now she’s choking to death…what…no it happened last week! You idiot, of course it just happened! Yes, Jimmy…yes the Jimmy that lives above the ‘In-A-Spin’ launderette…what do you mean twenty minutes, she’ll be dead in two! The best you can do…what does that mean, my grandmother is riding the lightning here! I understand…be quick…age?…I don’t know, anything between ninety and a hundred…she’s pretty damn old, just hurry, okay. Jimmy then slammed down the phone and turned to his grandmother, slumped in the armchair, her tongue licking out the side of her mouth.
“Oh my God, I’ve killed my grandmother with a chili pepper!” He blurted out, jumping over the coffee table to be at her side as she serenely slipped to the floor.
In the distance sirens could be heard approaching. Jimmy, after pacing up and down, gathered up grandmother into his arms, carrying her toward the door, unaware that a fork had dropped on the floor! He screamed, falling forward in agony, grandmother released somewhere between the coffee table and the T.V., just missing hitting her head on the corner of the stand. Emergency Ward 10 was just starting on the T.V. He grabbed her skeletal hand and tried feeling for a pulse. She lived, barely, only to die two weeks later of a heart attack! Jimmy was never held accountable.
Anyway, we finally put Jimmy down on the aft deck. I looked over the rail and called to the dog. It stood there, head lowered, eyes up.
“Anyone got a biscuit?” I ventured.
“Peanuts.” Replied Sid.
“Cough sweets,” said Harry
I grabbed one of Jimmy’s boots and went back down the gangway, first to await the order to cast off, and secondly to see if the smell of Jimmy’s boots would entice the dog to follow me back aboard.
“Cast off,” came the call from the wheelhouse.
The dog limped up the gangway.
The Perkins diesel droned us slowly out between the harbor walls, calm waters slapping against the bow.
We slipped Jimmy over the side. He was where he wanted to be. No fuss, no prayers, nobody but his pals knowing.
Early the next morning I remember we were raised from our beds by the sound of the door being beaten upon. It was Jack Rafferty. Fatter, graying, still with the policeman’s knack of allowing the rest of the world to see him as a ‘half-wit’. Near thirty-years later after my schoolboy scolding I finally understood the Dostoevskian character he was, hiding a bit of a saint. Jack enjoyed being the only policeman on the island, called upon to control pigeon fanciers, a poacher here and there, and kids scrumping apples from Docherty’s orchard. Jack relied more on instinct than police work.
‘Hello Jack,’ mum said, ‘this is an early hour to come knocking.’
‘Aye, There’s been a bit of a goings on, Peggy. I understand your lad is visiting. I’d like a bit of a word.’ He removed his helmet, being beckoned through the door, ducked and followed mother through to the kitchen.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Jack? I hope it’s not trouble.’
‘Aye, lass, that’d be grand. I’ve got a couple of questions for your boy. I understand he’s based over there in Oban. Nice having the lad close by, I’m sure…’
I entered as my mother ran the kettle under the tap.
‘Morning Jack, this is a fine time to visit!’ I said, still groggy from no sleep.
‘Aye, ‘tis that, lad, business I’m afraid.’
‘Jimmy McCloud has disappeared.’
‘Disappeared…?’ Mother gasped, setting his teacup down on the table.
‘How can that be, Jack. He was close to death at the hospice last night.’ I said.
‘Aye, ‘tis what we thought, but when the nurses went to tend to him this early morn’ they reported him gone, not dead you understand, gone out the window! I looked over the scene, seems he left via the second floor! This a grand cuppa, Peggy.’ He said, sipping at the hot brew.
‘A miracle!’ Mother declared, crossing her heart.
‘You’ve got to be kidding, Jack. Jimmy McCloud slipped his death bed?’
‘Ethel Stewart swears that when she left for the night there were four people at Jimmy’s bedside. That would be around 11.30. Harry Spokes, Sid Cullen, you and your father.
‘That’s right, Jack. We left soon after.’
‘The night shift nurse reported seeing you leave, lad. No one else.’
‘Possibly, Jack. I’d parked in the front car park. Sid had left his car out back, I’m pretty certain they left by the rear entrance.’
Jack Rafferty was no fool, though sometimes he liked to use that image of himself. There had been times down the years when he appeared to be in favor of some criminal act, weeding an admission out of the unsuspecting culprit, and then, bang, the charges were made. Another case closed. How he thought that Ferguson’s dogs were a menace and only a person serving the community would go out and shoot them, he told Findlay Robertson, who in his drunkenness confessed, asking Jack to keep his secret. Jack, of course, had him by the collar and in the town’s only cell within ten minutes.
‘Och, I’ll no be accusin’ anyone, lad, just trying to fathom Jimmy’s whereabouts. Truth is, when I heard Agnes Mortimer explaining how Social Services had removed him from his house, damp they said, and how they were going to move him to the mainland, into one of those care facilities, with no view, then whomever moved Jimmy was doing him a favor.’
‘You think Jimmy’s here, Jack?’ I said.
‘I know your father and his brother were real close. I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything so reckless as to move him. Though I’d understand it, you see what I’m saying?’
I knew exactly what Jack was implying, and what he’d do if I were to say anything remotely close to agreeing.
‘Now you know that’s absurd, Jack. The truth is, between them, there were years of bickering and argument, even the occasional fisty-cuffs. I think the only thing they all had in common was worshiping the same God. We were there paying our respects, Jack.’
‘Aye. All thee same, lad, if he were helped out of that place, I’ll be thinking it right.’
‘Sure you would, Jack. You were a good friend to Jimmy, save the time he hit Alec McKay over the head with a mooring buoy, and you put him in the cell overnight.’
‘Alec had it comin’ sure enough,’ replied Jack, ‘but Jimmy cannot be taking the law into his own hands, that’s for me to do.’
‘Right enough, Jack. It’s all to do with the law.’
‘Well, I’ll be getting along. Thanks for the tea, Peggy. Maybe Sid or Harry saw something when they left. You say they left via the back door?’
‘I said I left via the front, and assumed they left by the back, Jack.’
‘Aye, right enough, that is what you said, lad. Well, I’ll be saying good morning to you.’
Jack left, putting his helmet on as he reached the gate.
‘What do you make of that, son?’ Mother asked.
‘Not sure. Jimmy suddenly finding his feet. A miracle I’d say.’
‘So… you’ll be thinking he’ll show up?’ Mother said, her lips smiling.
‘Jimmy always shows up, Mother. If he doesn’t it’s because he found somewhere better to live out his days. Right enough, don’t you think?’
‘You think Jack will go see Harry and Sid?’
‘When they come back. I forgot to mention that father was short-handed, took them with him. They’ll be gone a week or so, for sure.’
‘Your father took Harry fishing? The man mends bicycles, son!’
‘Sure, mother, when he’s not fishing! You know that!’
Jack trawled the town for informative gossip over the next several days.
The local rag reported a kidnapping from the hospice. Biggest news in Tobermoray since Gwyneth Bryant, the vicars daughter, got pregnant by Dickie ‘the raven’ Grubb!
So you see, I grew up among sea folk where rules are made according to wants, and social workers don’t always know what’s best. The pub to this day still rings with rumor. Harry and Sid, and sadly my father have all since been laid to rest, their ashes spread on the waters off Malin Head, taking their truth with them. Jack, no longer the only policeman on the island, still gives me the odd wink, his old rheumy eyes seeing everything, but going to his grave someday with one unsolved mystery.