These Demented Lands (Alan Warner)

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  Bended double like the clans at Culloden stepping into the end, I traversed bensides ever upwards. I climbed straight through steady blackout -- the sodden Levi's going stiff on both thighs with the perishingness -- knowing always, hung up in some place of aboveness like a cyan-coloured censer swinging in the wind, snugged up in the clam of a screeclagged corrie, was the campfire: the campfire with its angle of floor that had let me see it when I swam out in the Sound but hid from view deep down at the sole bulb of Ferry Slipway below.

When I came on them it was sudden. The campfire lifted up out of the darknesses as I heave-heaved up a bank. I ducked down though I knew from the fire area, against nightsky, I'd be invisible.

Two guys -- old, kind-of-harmless-looking-slack-jowelled-brotherly-baldiness made you trust them, as if one could never do anything bad in the always-look of his brother. But it was beyond them, it was lying within the light of the fair-old-bleeze. I squinted, made sure I was seeing what I was but I was so cold I stepped into their light and both men swung and looked at the coffin sitting beside them on the fold-down trestles before they bothered turn and began to study me.

'Aye-aye,' coughs one of the brothers.

'Come away hence and form a square circle, girl'

'Aye, let the dogs see the rabbit,' says the First Spoken.

'Where the hell've you been? Specting you for hours,' says the Most Baldy, pretend-annoyedly; he nicked a peek at First Spoken who let out a honky hugh.

'Busy the night.' (Gasped, glancing round.)

'Rush hour...'
'Off our feet...'

'Visitors are such a strain.'

I lowered myself beside the flames and looked into them, smiling; I announced 'I cross the Interior to the Drome.'

'We go the other way. To open ocean. The three of us,' First Spoken spat into the fire. 'Guess what we've buried under that hearth? A fat clucky hen snaffled from old Gibbon's Acres wrapped in silver foil. Ready in ...' Jus watch clicked down as he flicked a wrist)...'just a jiffy.'

'Know how to catch a chicken?' asked Most Baldy.

I goes, 'Nut.'

'You catch em at night,' cackled First Spoken.

'They cannae see in the dark!'


'Would you like a wee bite chicken?'

I goes, 'Oh yess I would. Yum-yommy.'

'Alexander. I hope you've polished the silver.'

'It was bloody parrot last night and never again.'

'Can I ask?' I looked across at the dark oak coffn on trestles.

'Scrawny creature. A parrot steak.'

'Dad,' nodded the First Spoken.

I nodded back.

'We promised him he'd be buried at sea. . .'

'And when he went from us a week on Tuesday we go and find you have to book years in advance for a burial at sea with the navy.'

'And him on the convoys all those years, is that not right, Alexander?'

'And of course all kinds of rules and red tape about doing your own bloody burial at sea...'

'Money makes no difference.'

'"Nae pockets on a shroud, boys."'

'That's what he always told us, "Nae pockets on a shroud," so we're burying him at sea ourselves, on the other side ofthe island; we have to cross to The Inaccessible Point, and cause it's inaccessible we have to take him in on foot.'

'And we'll need a boat to take him right out to sea when we get there...'

'Cast him off on the last voyage; right far out so the wood coffin doesnt coat him back in...'

I says, 'Have you heard of a man called the Argonaut?'

'Him in the kayak? We couldn't trust Father to a one like yon.'

Just then a sound came from the coffin, I swung round towards it. It was coming from the insides of the coffin, it was the purrr, purrr, purrr of a cellnet phone.

'It's Dad's.'

'He asked to be buried with it...'

'He was very attached to it...never out of his right hand...'

'It's still in it...' the First Spoken muttered.

Most Baldy turned away from me to the First Spoken and went, 'That'll be old McKercher after his fee,' he looked at me and says, 'Our accountant.'

The phone stopped ringing and after a silence the First Spoken produced a packet of Chesterfields that he offered round. I shook head and goes, 'I've recently quit, thanks.' Most Baldy took and they lit up offof the fire. Some spits of rain started to come down.

'Contrary to speculation, these are what James Bond smoked,' goes the First Spoken.

The Second Spoken Most Baldy, says, 'I am not James Bond nor was meant to be,' he stood and crossed over towards the coffin where a large sheet of polythene was folded; he picked it up and shook it out so's it made a big crackling noise. We were all looking over at the coffin on its varnished side, bolted on, was a white metal plate with the black letters reflecting in the campfire's unsteady light:

DAD 007

'What's that number thing fixed to the side?' I goes.

'It's the personalised number plate from his Jaguar, there's the other on the opposite side.'

The Most Baldy draped the polythene over the coffin to protect it from the rain.

'Right, lets dig this chicken up!' goes the First Spoken. He took a stick and began shoving the red-hot cinders aside to get at the little oven he'd made in the soil under. Sudden, both men turned and looked out, towards the darkness of the Sound, then I heard it too, turned and saw the new light and the dashing red one too, moving a cone of light pointing down and sweeping a sparkly circle over the waters.

'Nam the Dam, what's he doing?' the First Spoken moaned.

'The little ferry got sunk by the car ferry; there's a man missing.

'It sunk? What again!' went the Most Baldy.

'That Nam the Dam shouldn't be out there, this is official.'

'He's an old yank from Vietnam with his own Westland Wessex. He lifts a lot of posts and wire when they're fencing high on the mountainsides. He does mountain and sea rescue in his spare time, it's bloody disgrace; you're a damn sight safer stuck on a rock face or floating at sea than you are in his old rust-bucket.'

I goes, 'Why's he got yon name?'

'Mind out now, lass, the Piston of Achnacloich's coming out. Come on now, son, out you come now, son'; the First Spoken whipped out his knob and started doing just a massive number one on the flames of the campfire that hissed all wild; I jumped back from the balloons of steam and the old dangling doosey there as the smelly clouds lit up a bit then a last wet shadow flipped before all was pitch blackness.

The Most Baldy's voice went, 'Well. Guess we won't be eating that chicken.'

'They call him Nam the Dam cause he was a Huey pilot in Vietnam who spent twenty-five years recovering in Amsterdam before he came here.'

'If the lunatic sees us he'll come in and try to land, then he'll be all for lifting Pather, flying him out to sea and dropping him from the helicopter.'

I says, 'Wouldn't that be more simple?'

'Lassie, lassie, you'll no understand how a Navy man won't let an airforce man into his business if he can help it.'

The voice of the Most Baldy went, 'Specially no some yankee with a long beard who's never seen shirt nor tie nor soap and water.'

We watched the searchlight from the helicopter patrol the Sound waters. It started to rain more, all the heavier.

Into the dark I says, 'Do either of yous know that guy, John Brotherhood, who has The Drome Hotel?' I could hear the raindrops patting on their plastic jackets. One coughed but I couldn't tell which. When one spoke it was the Most Baldy.

'We read Joseph Conrad; there's a bit where a girl is asked if she really believes in The Devil.'

The voice of the First Spoken says, 'She answers that there are plenty of men worse than devils to make a hell of this earth.'

I slept under the coffin, the polythene flappered and the mobile phone inside the coffin got a couple of calls through the hours of darkness. I couldn't get to sleep as the slate-gray dawn of mists began. I crawled out letting the rain wash my face; I tiptoed past the tent and away round the sheep-paths and down into the first of the glens. Around midday I saw the bright yachting jackets high on the ridge above, moving towards the wide base of the telly aerial. In the distance, the multiple aerials of the old Tracking Station and Observatory: the upper structures of rusted satellite dishes lost in the mist or cloud.

Read more by Alan Warner, in the April 1997 issue of Bold Type.

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Excerpted from These Demented Lands by Alan Warner. Copyright © 1997 by Alan Warner. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.