Authors: Hammond; Innes
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The Land God Gave to Cain
This book is dedicated to the memory of my mother who died whilst I was in Canada
THE RADIO MESSAGE
“Your name Ian Ferguson?” The question was flung at me out of a cloud of dust and I straightened up from the theodolite to find one of the Company Land-Rovers had pulled in behind me. The engine was ticking over and the driver was leaning out so that his sun-reddened face was clear of the windscreen. “All right. Hop in, chum. You're wanted down at Company Office.”
“What's it about?”
“I dunno. Said it was urgent and sent me up to get you. Probably you got your levels wrong and the runway's on the skew.” He grinned. He was always trying to get a rise out of the younger engineers. I entered the figures in my notebook, shouted to my rodholder that I wouldn't be long and clambered in, and then we drove off across the rough ground, trailing a streamer of dust behind us.
The Company Office was just where the old runway finished and our new construction began. It was a large wooden hut with a corrugated iron roof, and as I went in the place was like an oven, for it was very hot in England that September. “Oh, there you are, Ferguson.” Mr. Meadows, the chief engineer, came to meet me. “Afraid I've some bad news for you.” The roar of an aircraft taking off shook the hut and through it I heard him say, “Telegram for you. Just came through on the phone.” He handed me a shee of paper.
I took it with a sudden feeling of foreboding. I knew it must be my father. The message was written in pencil.
Please come home at once. Dad taken very bad. Love. Mother
“When's the next train to Londonâdo you know, sir?”
He glanced at his watch. “In about half an hour. You might just make it.” His voice sounded undecided. “I find you had leave about three months ago on account of your father. You're quite certain it's serious? I meanâ”
“I'm sorry, sir. I'll have to go.” And then, because he remained silent, I felt I had to explain. “My father was badly shot up on a bombing mission during the war. He was a radio operator and he got a shell in the back of the neck. His legs are paralysed and he can't speak. The brain was damaged, too.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't know.” Mr. Meadows' pale eyes looked hurt. “Of course you must go. I'll have one of the Land-Rovers take you down.”
I just caught the train and three hours later I was in London. All the way up I had been thinking of my father and wishing I could remember him as he had been when I was a kid. But I couldn't. The broken, inarticulate wreck that I had grown up with overshadowed all my early memories and I was left with the general impression of a big, friendly man. I had only been six when he joined the R.A.F. and went away to the war.
When I was at home I'd go and sit with him sometimes in that upstairs room where he had the radio. But he lived in a world of his own, and though he would converse by passing notes to me, I always had the impression that I was intruding. The neighbours thought him a bit balmy, and so he was in a way, sitting up there day after day in his wheel-chair contacting other “ham” radio operators. It was mostly Canada he contacted and once, when I was curious and wanted to know why, he'd got excited; his shattered larynx had produced queer incoherent noises and his big, heavy face had reddened with the effort of trying to communicate something to me. I remember I had asked him to write down what he was trying to tell me, but the note he passed me simply said,
Too complicated. It's a long story
. His eyes had gone to the shelf where he kept his Labrador books and an oddly frustrated look came over his face. And after that I had always been conscious when I was up there of the books and the big map of Labrador that hung on the wall above the transmitter. It wasn't a printed map. He'd drawn it himself whilst in hospital.
I was thinking of this as I hurried down the familiar street, wondering whether there was any solid reason for his interest in Labrador or whether it was something to do with his mental state. A shell had ripped open his skull and the doctors had said the brain was permanently injured, though they'd done a good job of patching him up. The sun had set now and all our side of the street was black in shadow so that it was like a wall of brick. The uniformity of it all saddened me and unconsciously I slowed my pace, remembering that room and the morse key on the table and how he'd insisted on having the station's call sign painted on the door. Mother didn't really understand him. She hadn't his education and she couldn't see his desperate need of that radio room.
I think I knew I wasn't ever going to see him in that room again. Our house had its gate and door painted red, which was all that distinguished it from its neighbours, and as I approached I saw that the upstairs blinds were drawn.
My mother came to the door and greeted me quietly. “I'm glad you've come, Ian.” She wasn't crying. She just looked tired, that was all. “You saw the blinds, didn't you? I would have told you in the telegram, but I wasn't certain. I got Mrs. Wright from next door to send it. I had to wait for the doctor.” Her voice was lifeless and without emotion. She had come to the end of a long road.
At the foot of the stairs she said, “You'd like to see him, I expect.” She took me straight up to the darkened room and left me there. “Come down when you're ready. I'll make you a pot of tea. You must be tired after the journey.”
He was lying stretched out on the bed and the furrows of his face, that had been so deep-etched by years of pain, seemed to have been miraculously smoothed out. He looked at peace and in a way I felt glad for him. I stood there a long time, thinking of the fight he'd made of itâseeing him, I think, clearly for the first time as a brave and gallant man. Anger and bitterness stirred in me then at the rotten deal he'd had from life and the unfair way others get through a war scot-free. I was a little confused and in the end I knelt beside his bed and tried to pray. And then I kissed the cold, smooth forehead and tiptoed out and went down the stairs to join my mother in the parlour.
She was sitting with the tea table in front of her, staring at it without seeing it. She looked old and very frail. It had been a hard life for her. “It's almost a relief, Mother, isn't it?”
She looked at me then. “Yes, dear. I've been expecting it ever since he had that stroke three months ago. If he had been content to just lie in bed â¦ but he would get up every day and wheel himself along to that room. And he'd be there till all hours, particularly lately. The last week or so, he couldn't seem to leave the wireless alone.” She always called it the wireless.
And then, when she had poured my tea, she told me how it had happened. “It was very strange and I wouldn't dream of telling the doctor. He'd never believe me and he'd want to give me pills or something. Even now I'm not sure I didn't imagine it. I was sitting down here, sewing, when I suddenly heard your Dad call out to me. âMother!' he called. And then something else. I couldn't say what it was for he was up in that room and he had the door shut as usual. But I could have sworn he called out âMother,' and when I got up to the wireless room I found him standing up. He had forced himself up out of his chair and his face was all red and mottled with the effort he was making.”
“You mean he was standing up on his own?” It was incredible. My father hadn't stood in years.
“Yes. He was leaning on the table and reaching out with his right hand. To the wall, I think. For support,” she added quickly. And then she said, “He turned his head and saw me and tried to say something. And then his face became all twisted with pain. He gave a sort of strangled cry and all his body went suddenly limp and he fell down. I don't know when exactly he died. I laid him on the floor and made him as comfortable as possible.” She began to cry quietly.
I went over to her and she clung to me whilst I did my best to comfort her, and all the time the picture of my father's struggle to stand stayed in my mind. “What made him suddenly make such a desperate effort?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She looked up at me quickly with such a strange, protective look that I wondered.
“But it must have been something. And to find his voice like thatâsuddenly after all these years.”
“I can't be certain. I may have imagined it. I think I must have.”
“But just now you said you were positive he called out to you. Besides, you went up there. He must have called out. And to find him on his feet; there must have been some compelling reason.”
“Oh, I don't know. Your Dad was like that. He never would give up. The doctor thinksâ”
“Had he got his earphones on when you went in?”
“Yes. But â¦ Where are you going, Ian?” I didn't answer, for I was already through the door and running up the stairs. I was thinking of the map of Labrador. She had found my father standing at the table, reaching out to the wallâand that was where the map hung. Or perhaps he had been trying to reach the bookshelf. It was below the map and it contained nothing but the books on Labrador. He was fascinated by the country. It was an obsession with him.