The Singing Sands, by Josephine Tey

2

THE peace induced by Tommy’s matter-of-fact acceptance of him deepened as they drove into the hills. These two accepted him; standing around in a detached benevolence, watching him come in a familiar quiet. It was a grey morning, and still. The landscape was tidy and bare. Tidy grey walls round bare fields, bare fences along the tidy ditches. Nothing had begun to grow yet in this waiting countryside. Only a willow here and there by a culvert side showed live and green in the half-shades.

It was going to be all right. This is what he had needed; this wide silence, this space, this serenity. He had forgotten how benevolent the place was; how satisfying. The near hills were round and green and kind; beyond them were farther ones, stained blue by the distance. And behind all stood the long rampart of the Highland line, white and remote against the calm sky.

‘The river is very low, isn’t it?’ he said, as they came down into the valley of the Turlie. And was invaded by panic.

That was the way it always happened. One moment a sane, free, self-possessed human being, and the next a helpless creature in the grip of unreason. He pressed his hands together to keep himself from flinging the door open and tried to listen to what Tommy was saying. No rain for weeks. They had had no rain for weeks. Let him think about the lack of rain. It was important, the lack of rain. It spoiled the fishing. It was to fish he had come to Clune. If they didn’t have rain there would be no run of fish. No water for them. Oh God, help me not to make Tommy stop! No water. Think intelligently about fishing. If they had had no rain for weeks then rain must be due, mustn’t it? Why could you ask a friend to stop the car and let you be sick and yet not ask him to stop the car so that you could get out of its small shut-inness? Look at the river. Look at it. Remember things about it. That was where you caught your best fish last year. That was where Pat slipped down when he was sitting on the rock and was left hanging by the seat of his pants.

‘As nice a clean-run fish as ever you saw,’ Tommy was saying.

The hazels by the river made a bright mauve smudge in the grey-green of the moor. Presently, when it was summer-time, the cold clattering of their leaves would make an obbligato to the river’s song, but just now they stood in a pink silent huddle along the bank.

Tommy, looking at the state of the water, also noticed the bare hazel twigs, but being a parent he was not moved to think of summer afternoons. ‘Pat has discovered that he is a diviner,’ he said.

That was better. Think about Pat. Talk about Pat.

‘The house is strewn with twigs of all shapes and sizes.’

‘Has he discovered anything?’ If he could keep his mind on Pat it might be all right.

‘He has discovered gold under the sitting-room hearth, a body under the whatyoumaycallem in the downstairs bathroom, and two wells.’

‘Where are the wells?’ It couldn’t be so very long now. Five miles to the head of the glen and Clune.

‘One under the dining-room floor and one under the kitchen passage.’

‘I take it that you haven’t dug up the sitting-room hearth.’ The window was wide open. What was there to worry about? It wasn’t really a closed space, not a closed space at all.

‘We have not. He is very peeved about that. Said I was a once-born.’

‘Once-born?’

‘Yes. It’s his latest word. It ranks just one degree below a stinker, I understand.’

‘Where did he get the word?’ He would hang on till they got to that birch wood at the corner. Then he would ask Tommy to stop.

‘Don’t know. From some Theosophist woman who talked to the W.R.I, last autumn, I should think.’

Why should he mind Tommy’s knowing? There was nothing shameful about it. If he were a paralysed syphilitic he would accept Tommy’s help and sympathy. Why should he want to keep from Tommy’s knowledge the fact that he was sweating with terror because of something that didn’t exist? Perhaps he could cheat? Perhaps he could just ask Tommy to stop for a little while he admired the view?

Here was the birch wood. At least he had lasted that far.

He would make it the bit of road level with the bend of the river. He would make the excuse of having a look at the water. Much more plausible than looking at the view. Tommy would look with alacrity at a river and only with passive protest at a view.

About fifty seconds more. One, two, three, four. . . .

Now.

‘We lost two sheep in that pool this winter,’ Tommy said, sweeping past the bend.

Too late.

What other excuse could he make? He was too near Clune now for excuses to be easy to find.

He could not even light a cigarette in case his hands were shaking too much.

Perhaps if he did something, however trivial. . . .

He took the bundle of papers from the seat by his side, rearranging them, shuffling them busily and without point. He noticed that the Signal was not among them. He had meant to take it with him because of the odd little tentative verse in the Stop Press, but he must have left it in the hotel dining-room. Oh, well. It didn’t matter. It had served its turn in giving interest to his breakfast. And the owner certainly would not want it again. He had achieved his Paradise, his oblivion; if that is what he had wanted. Not for him the privilege of uncontrolled hands and sweating skin. The privilege of wrestling with demons. Not for him the clean morning, the kind earth, the loveliness of the Highland line against the sky.

For the first time it occurred to him to wonder what had brought the young man to the North.

He had not, presumably, engaged a first-class sleeping compartment just to drink himself insensible in. He had had an intended destination. He had had business and desire. A purpose.

Why had he come to the North at this bleak unfashionable season? To fish? To climb? The compartment as he remembered it had given an impression of bareness, but the heavy luggage might have been under the bunk. Or, indeed, in the van. Apart from sport what was there?

Official business?

Not with that face; no.

An actor? An artist? Just possibly.

A sailor going to join his ship? Going to some naval base beyond Inverness? That was possible. The face would look very well on the bridge of a ship. A small ship; very fast; and hellish in any kind of a sea.

What else was there? What would bring a dark, thin young man with reckless eyebrows and a passion for alcohol to the Highlands at the beginning of March? Unless in these days of whisky shortage he had had thoughts of starting an illicit still?

It was a pleasant idea, at that. How easy would it be? Not as easy as in Ireland, because the will to lawlessness was lacking; but once you had achieved it the whisky would be a great deal better. He almost wished that he could have put the idea to the young man. Could have sat opposite him at dinner last night, perhaps, and watched the gleam come into his eye at the thought of such delicious flouting of the Law. He wished that he could have talked to him anyway; exchanged ideas with him; found out about him. If someone had talked with him last night he might now be part of this living morning, of this fine gracious world with its gifts and its promise, instead of ——

‘And gaffed him in the pool below the footbridge,’ said Tommy, finishing a story.

Grant looked down at his hands, and found that they were still.

The dead young man, who could not save himself, had saved him.

He looked up and saw in front of him the white house of Clune. It lay in the green cup of the hill, alone except for its attendant slab of sheltering fir-wood stuck like some dark green wool-work on the bare landscape. A blue curl of smoke rose up from the chimney into the still air. It was the fine essence of peace.

As they drove up the sandy track from the road he saw Laura come out of the door and stand waiting for them. She waved to them, and as her arm came down from its wave she tucked in the strand of hair that fell on to her forehead. The familiar gesture warmed his chilled being. Just so she used to be waiting on the little Badenoch platform for him when she was a child; with just that wave and that tucking-in of a strand of hair. The same strand of hair.

‘Damn,’ said Tommy, ‘I forgot to post her letters. Don’t mention it unless she asks.’

Laura kissed him on both cheeks, took one look at him, and said:

‘I have a lovely bird for your lunch, but you look as if a good long sleep would do you more good. So go straight up and have it and forget about food until you waken. We have weeks to gossip in, so we don’t have to start right now.’

Only Laura, he thought, would have streamlined her hostess rôle to a guest’s need so neatly. No subtle touting of the beautifully planned luncheon; no concealed blackmail. She did not even ply one with unwanted cups of tea, nor pointedly recommend her fine hot bath-water. She did not even demand the small-chat of arrival, the polite hanging around. She supplied without question and without hesitation the thing that he needed. A pillow.

He wondered whether it was that he looked a wreck or whether it was just that Laura knew him so well. It occurred to him that he would not mind Laura’s knowing about his bondage of fear. It was odd that where he had shrunk from exhibiting his weakness to Tommy he should not care that Laura might learn about it. It should have been the other way about.

‘I have put you in the other bedroom this time,’ she said preceding him up the stairs, ‘because the west one has been done up and it still stinks a bit.’

She was in truth putting on weight a little, he noticed; but her ankles were as good as ever. And then, with that native detachment that never quite deserted him, he realised that his lack of any desire to conceal from Laura his childish fits of panic was proof that no small remote part of him was still in love with her. The need of the male to look well in the eyes of the beloved one was no part of his relation with Laura.

‘People always say about east bedrooms that they get the morning sun,’ she said, standing in the middle of the east bedroom and looking at it as if she had never seen it before. ‘As if it were a recommendation. I think myself it’s much nicer to be able to look out on a sunny landscape. Which you can’t do with the sun in your eyes.’ She stuck her thumbs in her waistband and eased the belt that was growing too tight. ‘But the west room will be habitable in a day or two, so you can change over then if you want to. How is my dear Sergeant Williams?’

‘Pink and clean.’

He had an instant picture of Williams, sitting solid and shy at the tea-table in the lounge of the Westmorland. He had been on his way out after a session with the manager and had come across Laura and Grant having tea, and had been persuaded to join them. He had made a great success with Laura.

‘You know, whenever this country is in one of its periodic messes, I think of Sergeant Williams and am quite sure on the instant that everything is going to be all right.’

‘I suppose I don’t reassure you at all,’ Grant said, busy unstrapping luggage.

‘Not noticeably. Not that way, anyway. You’d only be a comfort if everything wasn’t going to be all right.’ With which cryptic statement she left him. ‘Don’t come down until you want to. Don’t come down at all, if it comes to that. Just ring when you waken.’

Her footsteps went away down the passage, and the silence flooded in behind her.

He stripped off his clothes and without bothering to pull a curtain over the light he fell into bed. Presently he thought: I’d better draw those curtains or the light may waken me too soon. He opened his eyes reluctantly, to gauge the degree of light, and found that the light was no longer coming in at the window at all. It was lying on the out-of-doors instead. He lifted his head from the pillow to consider this oddity, and realised that it was late afternoon.

Relaxed and amused, he turned on to his back and lay listening to the quiet. The immemorial quiet. He savoured it, and luxuriated in his long reprieve. Not an enclosed space between this and the Pentland Firth. Between this and the North Pole, if it came to that. Through the wide-open window he could see the evening sky, still grey but faintly luminous and streaked with level cloud. No rain in that sky; only an echo of the peace that held the world in this contented quiet. Oh, well, if he could not fish he could walk. If the worst came to the worst he could shoot rabbits.

He watched the level clouds darken against their background and wondered whom Laura would have got for him to marry this time. It was an extraordinary thing how all married women were banded together against the state of singleness in man. If the women were happily married, like Laura, they considered marriage the only satisfactory state for an adult not suffering from any marked incapacity or relevant hindrance. If they were unhappily yoked, then they were filled with resentment of anyone who had escaped such punishment. Each time that he came to Clune, Laura was in the habit of producing some carefully vetted female for his consideration. Nothing was ever said about their desirable qualities, of course; they were just trotted up and down in front of him so that he might view their paces. Nor, when he showed no particular interest in a candidate, was there any overt regret in the atmosphere; any suggestion of reproof. All that happened was that next time Laura had a new idea.

Somewhere, far away, was a sound that was either the lazy clucking of a hen or the clash of teacups being assembled. He listened for a little, hoping that it was a hen, but decided with regret that it was tea in preparation. He must get up. Pat would be home from school, and Bridget awake from her afternoon nap. It was quite typically Laura that she should not even have demanded from him a due admiration of her daughter; that he had not been asked to exclaim over her growth in the last year, her intelligence, her looks. Bridget had not been mentioned at all. She was merely a young creature somewhere out of sight, like the rest of the farm animals.

He got up and went to have a bath. And twenty minutes later he went downstairs conscious that he was hungry for the first time for months.

The family picture upon which the sitting-room door opened was pure Zoffany, he thought. The sitting-room at Clune occupied almost the whole of what had been the original farmhouse and was now a small wing to the main building. Because it had once been several rooms instead of one it had more windows than are usual in its kind; because it had thick walls it was warm and safe-feeling; and because it had a south-west outlook it was brighter than most. So all the traffic of the house was concentrated there, as in the hall of some medieval manor. Only at luncheon and supper was any other room used by the family. A large round table by the fire ensured the comforts of ‘dining-room’ meals at tea and breakfast, and the rest of the room was a fine free mixture of office, drawing-room, music-room, schoolroom and greenhouse. Johan, Grant thought, would not have had to alter one detail. It was all there already, even to the cadging terrier at the table and Bridget splay-legged on the hearthrug.

Bridget was a blonde, silent child of three who spent her days endlessly rearranging the same few objects into new patterns. ‘I can’t make up my mind whether she is mentally deficient or a genius,’ Laura said. But Grant thought that the two-second glance with which Bridget favoured him on introduction entirely justified the cheerfulness of Laura’s tone; there was nothing wrong with the intelligence of The Child, as Patrick called her. This epithet as used by Pat had no sense of opprobrium; nor even any marked condescension; it merely emphasised his own inclusion in the adult group, to which his six years seniority in his own estimation entitled him.

Pat had red hair, and a bleak and intimidating grey eye. He was wearing a tattered green tartan kilt, smoke-blue stockings, and a much-darned grey jersey. His greeting to Grant was off-hand but reassuringly uncouth. Pat spoke from choice what his mother called ‘clotted Perthshire’, his bosom friend at the village school being the shepherd’s son, who hailed from Killin. He could, of course, when he had a mind, speak faultless English, but it was always a bad sign. When Pat was ‘not speaking’ to you he was always not speaking in the best English.

Over tea, Grant asked him if he had yet made up his mind what he was going to be; Pat’s invariable answer to the question from the age of four having been: ‘A’m taking it into avizandum.’ A phrase borrowed from his J.P. father.

‘Ay,’ said Pat, spreading jam with a liberal hand. ‘A’ve made up muh mind.’

‘You have? That’s fine. What are you going to be?’

‘A revolutionary.’

‘I hope I never have to arrest you.’

‘Yu couldna,’ said Pat simply.

‘Why not?’

‘A’ll be good, man,’ said Pat, dipping the spoon again.

‘I’m sure that’s the sense Queen Victoria used the word in,’ Laura said, removing the jam from her son’s possession.

It was for that sort of thing that he had loved her. The odd glinting detachment that shot the texture of her maternalism.

‘I have a fish for you,’ Pat said, scraping the jam to one side of the slice of bread, so that it would, over at least half the surface, achieve the required depth. (What he actually said was: ‘Ah hiv a fush forrya,’ but Pat’s phonetics are no pleasanter to the eye than they are on the ear, and may be left to the imagination.) ‘Under the ledge in the Cuddy Pool. You can have a len’ of my fly, if you like.’

Since Pat possessed a large tin box full of assorted invitations to slaughter, ‘my fly’ in the singular could only mean ‘the fly I have invented’.

‘What is Pat’s lure like?’ he asked when Pat had taken himself off.

‘Actionable, I should say,’ said his mother. ‘A fearsome object.’

‘Does he catch anything with it?’

‘Oddly enough, yes,’ Tommy said. ‘I suppose there are suckers in the fish world just the same as in any other.’

‘The poor things just gape with astonishment at sight of it,’ Laura said, ‘and before they have time to shut their mouths the current has swept it in. Tomorrow’s Saturday, so you can see it in operation. But I don’t think that anything, even Pat’s unholy creation, will lure that six-pounder in the Cuddy Pool to the surface with the water the way it is just now.’

And of course Laura was right. Saturday morning was bright and rainless and the six-pounder in the Cuddy Pool was far too dismayed by his imprisonment, far too obsessed with his desire to go higher up the river, to be interested in surface distractions. So it was suggested that Grant should go trout fishing in the loch, with Pat as gillie. The loch was two miles away in the hills, a flat pool on a bleak bit of moor. When it was windy on Lochan Dhu the gale took your line out of the water at right angles and held it stiff as a telephone wire. When it was calm the midges made a meal of you while the trout came to the surface and openly laughed. But if trout fishing was not Grant’s idea of the perfect occupation, being gillie was obviously Patrick’s idea of heaven. There was nothing, from riding the black bull down at Dalmore to demanding threepence-worth of sweets from Mrs Mair at the post-office with the aid of a ha’penny and menaces, that Pat was not capable of. But the joy of messing about in a boat was still something that he could not provide for himself. The boat at the loch was padlocked.

So Grant set off up the sandy path through the dry heather, with Pat at his side and one pace in the rear like a gun dog on its best behaviour. And as he went he was conscious of his own reluctance and wondered at it.

Why should there be any qualification in his pleasure this morning, in his delight in going fishing? Brown trout might not be his idea of a sporting contest, but he was glad enough to be spending the day with a rod in his hand even if he caught nothing whatever. He was supremely glad to be out in the open, alive and at leisure, with the familiar spring of peaty turf under his feet, and the hills before him. Why the small unwillingness at the back of his mind? Why, instead of taking a boat out for the day on Lochan Dhu, did he want to hang round the farm?

They had walked for a mile before he had flushed the reason from the cover of his subconscious. He had wanted to stay at Clune today so that he could see the daily paper when it arrived.

He had wanted to find out about B Seven.

His conscious mind had dropped B Seven behind, with the tribulations of the journey and the memory of his humiliation. He had not consciously remembered him from the moment when he fell into bed on arrival until now, nearly twenty-four hours later. But B Seven was still with him, it would seem.

‘When does the daily paper arrive at Clune these days?’ he asked Pat, still silent and on his best behaviour one pace in the rear.

‘If it’s Johnny it comes at twelve, but if it’s Kenny it’s often near one before it comes.’ And Pat added, as if glad to have conversation introduced into the expeditionary routine, ‘Kenny stops to have a cup at Dalmore, east the road. He’s gone on the MacFadyean’s Kirsty.’

A world where the news of the nations’ clamour waited while Kenny had a cup from the MacFadyean’s Kirsty was a very pleasant one, Grant thought. In the days before radio it must have bordered on Paradise.

That guard the way to Paradise.

The singing sands.

The beasts that talk,

The streams that stand,

The stones that walk,

The singing sand . . .

What had it stood for? Was it just a country of the mind?

Out here in the open, in this elemental land, it had an appropriateness that somehow lessened its strangeness. It was quite possible to believe this morning that there were places on this earth where stones might walk. Were there not places, known places, even in the Highlands where a man alone in the bright sunlight of a summer day could be invaded by the knowledge of unseen watchers, so that he was filled with a great fear and ran panic-stricken from the place? Yes, and without any previous interviews in Wimpole Street, either. In the ‘old’ places anything was possible. Even beasts that talked.

Where had B Seven got his idea of strangeness?

They launched the light boat from its wooden runway, and Grant pulled out into the loch and made for the windward end. It was much too bright, but there was a breath of air that might lift to a breeze strong enough to put a ripple on the surface. He watched Pat put his rod together and bend a fly on the line, and thought that if he could not have the felicity of possessing a son then a small red-headed cousin made a very good substitute.

‘Did you ever present a bouquet, Alan?’ asked Pat, busy with the fly. He called it ‘a bookey’.

‘Not that I can remember,’ Grant said carefully. ‘Why?’

‘They’re at me to present a bookey to a Viscountess that’s coming to open the Dalmore hall.’

‘Hall?’

‘That shed place at the cross-roads,’ Pat said bitterly. He was silent a moment, evidently mulling it over. ‘It’s an awful jessie-like thing to present a bookey.’

Grant, bound in duty to the absent Laura, searched his mind. ‘It’s a great honour,’ he said.

‘Then let The Child have the honour.’

‘She is a little young yet for such responsibility.’

‘Well, if she’s too young for such responsibility I’m too old for such capers. So they’ll have to get some other family to do it. It’s all havers anyway. The hall’s been open for months.’

To this disillusioned contempt for adult pretence Grant had no answer.

They fished turn-about, in a fine male amity; Grant flicking his line with a lazy indifference, Pat with the incurable optimism of his kind. By noon they had drifted back to a point level with the little jetty, and they turned inshore to make tea on the primus in the little bothy. As Grant was paddling the last few yards he saw Pat’s eye fixed on something along the shore, and turned to see what occasioned such marked distaste. Having looked at the advancing figure with its shoggly body and inappropriate magnificence, he asked who that might be.

‘That’s Wee Archie,’ said Pat.

Wee Archie was wielding a shepherd’s crook that, as Tommy remarked later, no shepherd would be found dead with, and he was wearing a kilt that no Highlander would dream of being found alive in. The crook stood nearly two feet above his head; and the kilt hung down at the back from his non-existent hips like a draggled petticoat. But it was obvious that the wearer was conscious of no lack. The tartan of his sad little skirt screamed like a peacock, raucous and alien against the moor. His small dark eel’s head was crowned by a pale blue Balmoral with a diced band, the bonnet being pulled down sideways at such a dashing angle that the slack covered his right ear. On the upper side a large piece of vegetation sprouted from the crest on the band. The socks on the hairpin legs were a brilliant blue, and so hairy in texture that they gave the effect of some unfortunate growth. Round the meagre ankles the thongs of the brogues were cross-gartered with a verve that even Malvolio had never achieved.

‘What is he doing round here?’ Grant asked, fascinated.

‘He lives at the inn at Moymore.’

‘Oh. What does he do?’

‘He’s a revolutionary.’

‘Really? Is that the same revolution as yours?’

‘Nah!’ said Pat in great scorn. ‘Oh, I’m not saying maybe he didn’t put the idea in my head. But no one would take heed of the likes of him. He writes pomes.’

‘I take it that he is a once-born.’

‘Him! He’s not born at all, man. He’s a — a — a egg.’

Grant concluded that the word Pat had sought was amoeba, but that knowledge had not reached so far. The lowest form of life he knew of was the egg.

The ‘egg’ came blithely towards them along the stony beach, swinging the tail of his deplorable petticoat with a fine swagger that went ill with his hirpling movement over the stones. Grant was suddenly convinced that he had corns. Corns on thin pink feet that sweated easily. The kind of feet people were always writing to medical columns in the Press about. (Wash every evening without fail and dry thoroughly, especially between the toes. Dust well with talcum powder and put on fresh socks each morning.)

Cia mar tha si?’ he called as he came within hailing distance.

Was it just chance, Grant wondered, that all cranky people had that thin bodyless voice? Or was it that thin bodyless voices belonged to the failures and the frustrated and that frustration and failure bred the desire to repudiate the herd?

He had not heard that Gaelic phrase since he was a child, and the affectation of it cooled his welcome. He bade the man good-morning.

‘Patrick should have told you that it was too bright to fish today,’ he said, swinging up to them. Grant did not know which displeased him more: the vile Glasgow speech or the unwarranted patronage.

The freckles on Pat’s fair skin were lost in a red tide. Speech trembled on his lips.

‘I expect he didn’t want to do me out of my pleasure,’ Grant said smoothly; and watched the tide recede and a slow appreciation dawn. Pat had discovered that there were more effective ways of dealing with folly than direct attack. It was a quite new idea and he was trying the taste of it, rolling it on his tongue.

‘You’ve come ashore for your elevenses, I take it,’ Wee Archie said brightly. ‘I’ll be glad to join you if you’ve no objection.’

So they made tea for Wee Archie, glum and polite. He produced his own sandwiches, and while they ate he lectured them on the glory of Scotland; its mighty past and dazzling future. He had not asked Grant’s name and was betrayed by his speech into taking him for an Englishman. Surprised, Grant heard of England’s iniquities to a captive and helpless Scotland. (Anything less captive or less helpless than the Scotland he had known would be difficult to imagine.) England, it seemed, was a blood-sucker, a vampire, draining the good blood of Scotland and leaving her limp and white. Scotland had groaned under the foreign yoke, she had come staggering behind the conqueror’s chariot, she had paid tribute and prostituted her talents to the tyrant’s needs. But she was about to throw off the yoke, to unloose the bands; the fiery cross was about to be sent out once more, and soon the heather would be alight. There was no cliché that Wee Archie spared them.

Grant watched him with the interest one accords to a new exhibit in a collection. He decided that the man was older than he had thought. Forty-five at least; probably nearer fifty. Too old to be curable. Whatever success he had coveted had passed him by; there would never be anything for him but his pitiable fancy-dress and his clichés.

He looked across to see what effect this perversion of patriotism was having on Young Scotland, and rejoiced in his heart. Young Scotland was sitting facing the loch, as if even the sight of Wee Archie was too much for him. He was chewing in a dogged detachment, and his eye reminded Grant of Flurry Knox: ‘an eye like a stone wall with broken glass on top’. The revolutionaries would want heavier guns than Archie to make any impression on their countrymen.

Grant wondered what the creature lived on. ‘Pomes’ did not provide a living. Nor did free-lance journalism; or, rather, the kind of journalism that Archie was likely to write. Perhaps he scraped a living from ‘criticism’. It was from the ranks of the ineffective that the minor critics were recruited. There was always the chance, of course, that he was subsidised; if not by some native malcontent with a thirst for power, then by some foreign agency with an interest in trouble-making. He was of a type very familiar to the Special Branch: the failure, sick of a curdled vanity.

Grant, still hankering after that midday newspaper that Johnny or Kenny was due to deliver at Clune, had had thoughts of suggesting to Pat that they call it a day, and give up enticing fish that had no intention of biting. But if they went now they would have to walk back in Wee Archie’s company, and that was something to be avoided. So he prepared to resume his idle flicking of the loch water.

But Archie, it seemed, was anxious to make one of the fishing party. If there was room in the boat for a third passenger, he said, he would be glad to accompany them.

Again speech trembled on Pat’s lips.

‘Yes,’ said Grant, ‘do come. You can help to bale.’

‘Bale?’ said the saviour of Scotland, blenching.

‘Yes. Her seams are not too good. She makes a lot of water.’

On second thoughts Archie decided that perhaps after all it was time that he was wending his way (Archie never went anywhere, he always wended his way) towards Moymore. The post would be in, and there would be his mail to deal with. And then, lest it might cross their minds that he was unused to boats, he told them how good he was in a boat. It was thanks only to his skill in a boat that he and four others had reached a Hebridean beach alive last summer. He told the tale with a growing verve that gave rise to a base suspicion that he was making it up as he went along, and having finished he switched hastily from the subject, as if afraid of questions, and asked if Grant knew the islands.

Grant, locking up the bothy and pocketing the key, said that he did not. Whereupon Archie made him free of them with a proprietor’s generosity. The herring fleets of Lewis, the cliffs of Mingulay, the songs of Barra, the hills of Harris, the wild flowers of Benbecula, and the sands, the endless wonderful white sand, of Berneray.

‘The sands don’t sing, I suppose,’ Grant said, putting bounds to the boasting. He stepped into the boat, and pushed off.

‘No,’ said Wee Archie, ‘no. They’re in Cladda.’

‘What are?’ asked Grant, startled.

‘The singing sands. Well, good fishing to you, but it’s not a day for fishing, you know. Much too bright.’

And with this kindly pat on the head he reerected his shepherd’s crook, and swung away along the shore towards Moymore and his letters. Grant stood motionless in the boat, watching him go. When he was nearly beyond earshot he called to him suddenly:

‘Are there any walking stones on Cladda?’

‘What?’ said Archie’s inadequate pipe.

‘Are there any walking stones on Cladda?’

‘No. They’re in Lewis.’

And the dragonfly creature with its mosquito voice went away into the brown distance.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tey/josephine/singing-sands/chapter2.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04