Read Shadow on the Land Online

Authors: Anne Doughty

Shadow on the Land

BOOK: Shadow on the Land
3.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Shadow on the Land



Des Kenny of Galway
who finds me books I never knew existed
and sends my novels to Irish exiles


April 1942
Millbrook, County Down

Alex Hamilton closed the door of his office firmly behind him, strode along the short corridor to the main entrance of the tall building where he had spent most of the working day and stepped out into the freshness of the early evening. For a moment he paused, took a deep breath of the cool, rain-washed air, then ran his sharp, dark eyes around the wide expanse of tarmac stretched out between the brick cliff of the mill rising behind him and the curving access road that swept up the steep valley side to the main road beyond.

Even at this relatively late hour, there were two vehicles still loading. Bales and boxes stood piled high, as men in dungarees streaked with engine oil and lubricant lent a hand to the drivers and their helpers as they manhandled the bulky products. The spinning floors were running double shifts, working through the night, the only pause in the constant roar of their rotating spindles twelve hours on a
Sunday to allow for essential maintenance.

Before he’d picked out Robert Anderson among the moving brown figures, Robert himself, the foreman of the evening shift, caught sight of him, raised a hand and moved briskly over to the elderly Austin which Alex was still permitted to use by virtue of the war work being carried out at all four mills.

‘We’re all set, Boss, if the worst happens,’ he said soberly as he came up to him.

‘Good man, Robert. I’ll come straight over if I hear anything, but if you get the signal ring anyway, just to be sure. Emily will tell you if I’m already on my way.’

Robert nodded, turned towards the half-loaded vehicle behind him, thought better of it and added, with a small awkward smile, ‘I hope ah
see you till the morra.’

Alex nodded, his heavy and sombre-looking face transformed as he responded warmly to the brave attempt at humour.

‘We live in hope, Robert, as they say in these parts,’ he replied, the softness of his speech reminding his long-time colleague that although Alex Hamilton had come from Canada long years ago, he had never lost his accent, nor his pleasure in the particular phrases and expressions of the place he had always called home.

The Austin was elderly, but had responded to
Alex’s gift with machinery and his love of driving. It sailed up the slope with the greatest of ease. He whistled softly as he always did when he was quite alone, turned right on the empty road leading to Banbridge and passed briskly through the almost deserted streets. On the outskirts of the town, he took the road heading east in the direction of Katesbridge and Castlewellan, the Austin the only vehicle moving under a clearing sky patched with great expanses of blue between piled up towers of dazzling white cloud.

The days had lengthened and with the clocks now moved back to create Daylight Saving Time, the sun was still high. Here and there, it cast fingers of brilliant light into fields and hedgerows fresh with new growth, illuminating the palest of greens and turning them into an even softer shade of gold.

With long hours of work and little enough time to spend with his family, his drives were the one chance he had to look around him and observe the changes in the countryside he knew so well. They also gave him time to turn over in his mind the strange thoughts that had come out of nowhere, thoughts that now returned to him at any quiet moment of the day and haunted his dreams at night.

At fifty-three years old, or thereabouts, a long-married man with even the youngest of his four children soon to be eighteen, a responsible job as Technical Director of Bann Valley Mills, he never
ceased to be amazed, that after all these years, he should suddenly begin to puzzle himself about his background. Why should he be at all concerned about his unknown parents and the circumstances which had left him, a child of five or six, an orphan on a ship bound for America.

Why now, he would ask himself. Why was it suddenly important that around fifty years ago his only possessions were the clothes he had been given and a label, a creased parcel label, attached with string to his coat collar, just where it rubbed and scratched his ear however much he tried to push it away.

‘Alex Hamilton,’ it said. That and nothing else. It was his entry ticket to an upbringing in institutions in Canada and the USA. It had led to his being placed, first, as a child worker and then as a farm labourer. Had it not been for broad shoulders and a robust constitution he would not have survived either the rigours of the orphanage regime or the beatings handed out by some of the men with whom he’d been sent to work. But he
survived. Long enough for a chance meeting with a Trade Union worker in an out-of-the-way place called German Township.

That whole episode was ridiculous when you came to think of it. The man’s name was McGinley, a friendly sort, well-educated, but not stand-offish. He had a shock of red hair, a soft Irish accent and
his boots looked as if he’d recently been tramping across a piece of wet bottom land. After his address to the meeting on agricultural wages and conditions, he’d gone up to him to ask about membership of the union. When he’d given McGinley his name, he’d replied with a grin: ‘That’s a good Ulster name. I have a sister, Rose, married to a man called Hamilton. They live at a place called Annacramp, in County Armagh.’

Suddenly, he forgot the question he was going to put to him. It was as if he could think of nothing but this place in Ireland where there were Hamiltons. So he asked instead exactly whereabouts in County Armagh Annacramp was to be found. From that moment on, he had but one idea in his mind and that was how and when he was going to get there.

It was on a rough piece of road a short distance before he was due to turn up the steep slope of Rathdrum Hill that his eye caught sight of the waving needle on his dashboard. He stopped whistling abruptly, cursed quietly, and remembered the words of his old friend John Hamilton, the man who had once welcomed him as a member of his family purely on the set of his shoulders and his resemblance to his own father, Tom, who’d been a blacksmith.

‘I’ve changed and modified and improved every working part of hundreds of motors, but I’m damned if I’ve ever been able to make a fuel gauge more
reliable,’ he’d declared. ‘The only safe way with fuel gauges, was to keep your tank topped up so that you never had to rely on the needle, unreliable even on the smoothest piece of road.’

Knowing John for the wise man he was, he’d always followed his advice, but things were very different now from how they were after the last war. Whatever petrol John needed for his continuous movement between the four mills, he’d simply to sign a chit at Bann Valley’s own pumps, which he might well pass several times a day. Nothing was that simple now with petrol so strictly rationed. Even when he had the necessary coupons from his entitlement, their authorised supplier in Banbridge might have nothing in his tanks to give him.

There was nothing to be done about his fuel supply between here and home beyond slowing down even further and avoiding having to stop on the hill. There should be a gallon can for such emergencies up against the stone wall at the furthest end of the workshop, kept well away from a chance spark from the metal cutter or the acetylene welder.

But he was still annoyed with himself as he scanned the road ahead. There was so much to think about these days, so many extra problems with the machinery running at full stretch, but when it came to the bit, that was no excuse. First things had to come first. What would he do tonight if he was needed and he had no car to collect the three extra
men from Ballievy and get them over to Millbrook to join the others?

He slowed down rapidly as he picked up a distant roar of engines and pulled in as far as he could to his own side of the road, grateful there was a rough, grassy verge when it might just as well have been a water-filled ditch. Moments later, a convoy of Army lorries accelerated towards him. It was a regular hazard these days to meet these large and powerful vehicles on the narrow country roads. Often driven by inexperienced drivers, they roared past without reducing speed. Tonight, they were so close he could have touched their dark canvas covers without stretching out the hand that rested lightly on his open window.

He waved to the young men in camouflage as they passed, helmeted and carrying rifles. Smiles began to crease pale faces as they returned his greeting. English boys mostly.
Yorks and Lancs
was the name of this particular regiment, but according to his own son, Johnny, the rank and file were from all over the north of England, mostly the old industrial cities. No wonder they looked so uneasy when he saw them swing on ropes across the swollen waters of the Bann or found them in the field behind Rathdrum trying to navigate cross country with a pocket compass and a badly copied map.

Judging by the hour, it looked as if they might be heading north to Slieve Croob for a night
manoeuvre. Often enough on his way to work he’d seen a convoy return in the morning, faces blackened, eyes listless with fatigue. But, of course, this lot might just be moving on. Troops came and went without any preliminaries. They arrived as strangers and were made welcome. Dances and socials were organised for them. They became friends. Then they went away. Sometimes one heard where they had gone and how the regiment had fared, but, whether things went well or badly for them, they seldom came back.

He sounded his horn and waved at wee Daisy Cook, who sat on the wall of Jackson’s farm, her arm round a sheepdog puppy. It had been Cook’s farm for years now, but for him it would always be Jackson’s, the farm at the foot of the hill where he’d boarded when he’d first arrived back from Canada, visited John and Rose Hamilton at Ballydown and been taken on by John as his assistant at the four mills. It was at Jackson’s farm he’d met Emily, an orphan like himself, living with her aunt and uncle.

Tonight as he tooted and waved to Daisy, he thought of the April night he’d driven his good friend Sarah Sinton and her children back home from Dublin after the Easter Rising. He and Sam Hamilton, Sarah’s brother, had gone down together in two motors when they’d heard the railway lines had been dug up north of Dublin and Sarah would have no means of returning. Emily had been so
anxious about his going. She said she’d be waiting up till she heard the motor going past on the way up to Ballydown, no matter how late it was.

He pressed gently on the accelerator and built up his speed. With any luck, he could take a smooth line up the steepest part of the hill without meeting one of the heavy lorries from the newly-opened quarry beyond Rathdrum. They weren’t supposed to come down this way because of the steepness of the road, but following the new quarry road north to the main road did make their journey longer if the crushed rock was hardcore for one of the many new airstrips being built in the south of the county.

The only sign of life on the long, steep hill was a bicycle parked against the garden wall of the farmhouse at Ballydown where Emily and Alex had made their first home after Rose and John moved up to Rathdrum House itself. Danny Ferguson, the new mill manager at Ballievy, would be down the hill in minutes if the signal went up.

He caught a glimpse of pink blossom as he moved steadily past. He wondered if it was Rose’s camellia, the one she and John had cherished for all the years they had lived there, planting a garden from scraps and cuttings Rose had brought from her very first garden, back in Annacramp in County Armagh.

As he crested the hill and prepared to swing under the trees into the avenue leading to Rathdrum House, Alex was amazed to catch sight of a lorry
parked closely against the hedge on the down slope some way beyond his own entrance, the tarpaulins that had covered its load neatly folded and roped down.

Even before he caught sight of the tailboard and read the familiar name, his face lit up. As he expected, it read: Fruitfield Jams and Preserves. He knew only one man who could park a lorry that close and that straight.

‘Sam Hamilton. You’re a stranger. How are you, man? It’s great to see you,’ he said, beaming, as he stopped the Austin in the cobbled yard at the back of his house and shook hands with the tall, broad-shouldered figure who’d hurried out into the yard to meet him when he’d caught the first throb of the vehicle on the road up the hill.

‘Great to see you too, Alex,’ replied Sam, grasping his hand firmly. ‘Emily’s been givin’ me all your news, but she was afraid ye might not get back before I hafta to go.’

‘Ach Sam, can ye not stay a while?’ Alex asked, his face clouding.

‘I can stay a wee bit longer,’ Sam replied, reassuringly, ‘but I hafta get back in daylight. This blackout is a desperit thing. No matter how careful ye wou’d be, ye can see so little with these masked headlamps. An’ sure a lorry like mine cou’d kill half a dozen soldiers if they’re on manoeuvres and had no white markers.’

Alex nodded sadly.

‘You’re right there,’ he agreed. ‘We’ve had so many accidents round here lately. And not just the blackout. With all these Army vehicles we’ve had some bad ones in daylight as well. There were four roadmen having their tea thrown into the hedge this time last year. None killed, thank goodness, but two of them left in a bad way for quite a while. People are just not used to this sort of fast traffic at all hours of the day and night. Their reactions are too slow.’

They moved together towards the back door where Emily stood watching them.

‘Alex dear, there’s some dinner in the oven, but I must go down to Cook’s now you’re home. Johnny was in for his tea earlier and we’ve no milk for the morning,’ she explained with a wry laugh. ‘I’ve just made you a pot of tea and left you some cake,’ she added, as she picked up her shopping bag and set off.

‘Has Emily given you your supper, Sam?’ Alex asked, as he picked up the tray she’d left and led the way to the sitting-room where a bright fire burnt on the hearth.

‘No. Your good Emily offered me my supper the minute I set foot in the house, as Emily always does,’ he replied warmly, ‘but I was given a meal at Chinauley House when I delivered to them. Guest of the
King’s Own Rifles
,’ he added smiling. ‘An’ very good it was too. They said on their wee menu
that it was chicken, but if I know anything it was rabbit. Aye and none the worse for that,’ he added vigorously, as Alex handed him a mug of tea.

BOOK: Shadow on the Land
3.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Scandal's Daughter by Carola Dunn
Time for Eternity by Susan Squires
Ghosts of Christmas Past by Corrina Lawson
Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
Carnal by Jenika Snow
The Monkey's Raincoat by Robert Crais
Foreign Devils by Jacobs, John Hornor
Belonging by Umi Sinha
The Larnachs by Owen Marshall