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Grandpa Miller, A Debut Novella by Annette Donaldson
My journey into writing has been an emotional roller coaster, and to be honest, when I look at my earlier hubs, my writing back then was terrible. I want to thank each and every one of you for all your support and I am pleased to announce that my debut novella was submitted for publication to lulu.com yesterday. Once the author copy has been approved, it will be ready to purchase.
This novella is rich in narrative history, and my next journey into perfecting my writing, will be to improve on introducing considerably more dialogue. Mentor wanted, any offers please!!!
© 2011 by Annette Donaldson
Grandpa Miller gazed out of the window, thoughtfully observing the movement of the clouds. Black clouds from the west often gave warning of bad weather, and his insight told him that the Lough would be stormy tonight. He struck a match and held it to the bowl of his pipe, drawing several puffs from the sticky black tobacco, before blowing out the match and leaving it on the window sill.
In the distance, he could hear the rumble of the waves crashing over the pebbled shore below, and closed the curtains as if to keep out the cold. Lying in front of the Aga, Jack, his border collie, raised its head in anticipation of a run in the old Land Rover to the Hoars Head Inn. He had a notion that Rosie, the proprietor, would be serving colcannon and steak tonight. With greying hair and ample bosoms, Rosie was still a striking looking woman, and Jack knew she would have saved him a morsel of meat.
“No, not tonight Jack”, Grandpa ruffled the old dogs coat, “It’s too cold, it’s high time to barricade the barn door and close in the sheep. Tonight there is going to be a storm.” Jack laid back his head and watched quietly as Grandpa tapped out his pipe, leaving the black smelly residue of tobacco on top of the Aga.
Grandpa put on his thick coat, and pulled up the collar to brave the weather. Jack showed no interest in following him, but continued to lay contented, more than happy to stay indoors in the comforting warmth from the stove.
The barn door was swinging fiercely on precarious hinges, which should have been replaced long ago. Grandpa Miller anxiously approached the barn just in time to see a black shadow run for the cover of the cove directly below the croft. He knew he didn’t recognize the figure, be it male or female, and had no chance to follow as the barn door collapsed ungainly from its hinges and fell to the floor, with a loud crack of splintering timber.
Inside the barn, huddled between the bales of sweet smelling hay, the goats cuddled together to seek shelter from the howling wind. Outside there was mayhem, as sheep ran in all directions terrified of the approaching storm. One ewe, in a state of panic, ran with her lambs to the cliff edge and could not be stopped from falling over, her little ones following her to their tragic death.
Grandpa Miller sniffed with disgust. “Stupid creatures these sheep”, he muttered to himself, “I sometimes wonder why I bother." But bother he did, because hidden in the depths of the back of the barn was his distillery. As such, it was a shambles of copper cylinders and copper pipes, hidden from view by cleverly stacked bales of hay and sheep pens. To the right of the barn, buried under soil as was the tradition in these parts, Grandpa Miller stored his crop of harvest potatoes; some of them for eating, actually, all for eating and for sale if he was asked. The remainder were saved for making Poteen; an extremely potent brew of whiskey. In daily speaking, potato whiskey.
Now, producing this moonshine did by no means make Grandpa Miller a rogue locally, because everybody knew that in areas as exposed as where he lived, a slug of Poteen could save a sheep’s life. Or at least leave it so comatose that it would stand in one place for long enough, before keeling over as stiff as a corpse once the yearly head count by the Department of Agriculture was done. Now £30 per head was the subsidy, and although meagre it went a long way to subsidising a modest living for the crofters. Far from all crofters agreed with such a sham, but it was common practice, and the good neighbours knew when to keep quiet.
Grandpa Miller could find no evidence of snooping, and dismissed the unknown figure as one of the youths living on the island taking shelter from the storm. He had possibly startled the trespasser, and put the thought to the very back of his mind. He would recall the event once the storm had passed.
By now the eye of the storm was approaching fast, the clouds swirling around like tumbleweed travelling across dry ground, Grandpa Miller observed, just like in the westerns that he watched on television. In the distance, he could hear the church bell ringing out its warning for the crofters, the shooting light from the nearby lighthouse causing a stark contrast from the shoreline below. The island didn’t have a lifeboat; seemingly there was no need as it was surrounded by uncharted waters that the inhabitants knew like the back of their hands. Squinting against the heavy pounding rain, Grandpa strained to see the little coracle fighting to come ashore. It took him quite a while to recognise the single mast in the centre and the two men anxiously fighting with the sail. He questioned, had these two men any sense at all to be out on a night such as this, let alone in a coracle?
Many of the young men in the village had been tempted to erect a sail in the centre of the corracles, but usually these small crafts, which were hard to manoeuvre with oars, would not have been built with a sail.
Everyone knew the stability of the coracles, which were used to a great extent for riding the current from one island to another, ferrying goods to other ports. But to be using such a small craft tonight was purely suicidal. In all seriousness, but also to his amusement, he watched as the men struggled to pull the craft ashore. Jonny O’Neill, the taller and stronger of the two men, was now wading chest deep across the shallows. The other man, Jamie Beattie, was busy trying to unravel the sail, which had surrounded him completely. Within seconds, Jamie found himself unceremoniously dumped into the water; a hysterical sight of white sail and flaying arms being pulled back out to sea.
Grandpa Miller knew these currents better than any other man. He had lived on this Island for 64 years, man and boy. But as he stood and watched the spectacle unfolding before him, he realised he would have to intervene. Rushing to the back of the barn, Grandpa Miller pulled on his waders, reaching for his grapple hook as he left the barn by the back entrance. He had already changed his coat for his oil clothes, and was taking the steps down to the shore two at a time. His head bent forward pushing into the wind.
Always in his mind’s eye was the sight of Jamie Beattie being taken out to sea on the current. He experienced a strange feeling of panic, uncontrollable emotions, and he knew Jamie didn’t have long to survive. The waves were gathering fast and furious now, heading into the cove like a huge juggernaut out of control, rolling and rolling, battering the sides of the rocks, and all the time Jamie’s now still and lifeless body was being carried further and further away.
The coracle which Jonny O’Neill had now successfully brought ashore was too small to brave the storm again. From under the tarpaulin, covered in sand and shingle, Grandpa Miller pushed the larger currach down the shore and into the Lough. He was grateful that the clement weather of the past few days had allowed him to cover the vessel with tar; something he did on a yearly basis to be ready for the winter of whelk picking. He allowed himself a quick second to think about the danger, and as he looked up to the cliff top, he swore he could see Rosie’s beautiful smile looking down on him, willing him to be safe and return unharmed. With renewed energy, he grabbed the oars and paddled the storm for all he was worth. His determination and concentration was now firmly fixed on the body of Jamie Beattie.
“Jamie lad, hold on I am coming. For God's sake hold on,” he shouted, but his voice was lost in the wind.
The water plunged and churned and the currach rode the waves, like a rodeo horse with his rider on board. Grandpa Miller spat as the taste of salt filled his mouth, covering his face and into his eyes. He was aware of the thunder roll, and for a split second he saw the flash of lightening and heard the tremendous crack, as the lightening hit the top of the church bell tower.
He was approaching Jamie now, and his heart was racing, beating so hard that he could not stand the pain in his temples. With one swift movement, he threw the grapple hook just in time for it to embed itself into what was left of the mast from the coracle; narrowly missing Jamie’s left leg. Grandpa Miller heaved his huge arms, all those times he had struggled with the sheep standing him in good stead. He pulled and pulled until he could reach the sail binding Jamie’s body to the mast. With sheer grit and determination and one swift movement, he had Jamie aboard the currach.
“Jamie,.... Jamie hold on I will soon have you ashore, Jamie....can you hear me?”
He could faintly hear the crofters on the shore heckling and shouting words of encouragement, but he felt like no hero. He struggled to row the currach ashore, all the time thinking how he could have been more supportive of Jamie during his young life. He had kept his distance in life, now surely it meant he would keep his distance in death. Grandpa recalled the tiny features of Mary Jane, Jamie's mother and, looking at Jamie’s lifeless body, he thought how much she and Jamie were alike. Something he had never considered before now. In fact, he had never considered Jamie or his younger siblings, Patrick and Michael, at all.
Using the power from his large broad shoulders, an area of rippling muscle like a finely tuned engine, he worked relentlessly until he had Jamie’s body on firm ground. Grandpa was totally exhausted, and thankful for the assistance of his fellow crofters, as some of the men from the village carried Jamie’s body to the cliff top.
“Are you alright Miller,” Hugh McGrady shouted.
“Aye, I am fine, just get the lad some help, I will be along shortly.” The strain now showing of Grandpa's face.
The dark green door of the Horse Head Inn was open. The storm had destroyed the power lines, but Rosie stood in the doorway holding her Tilley lamp, and her cream shawl tightened over her head and around her waist. The inside of the Inn was very quiet tonight; it was packed to the rafters with families huddled together, taking shelter from the storm. They were one community, one common soul, all now grieving for the death of Jamie Beattie.
Grandpa was greeted by silence when he entered the Inn. Slowly, everyone rose to their feet, one after the other, and gradually they started to clap, not very loud at first, but then raucously enough to crush a man’s ear drums. With a heavy heart and an even heavier coat full of water and shingle in the pockets, Grandpa Miller took a seat in front of the fire, pulled out his pipe, and tapped it on the fire hearth.
The villagers observed that the man looked like a shadow of his former self, hunched over his knees and trembling, his clothes steaming from the contrast between heat and cold. With a face that was ashen and etched with deep frown lines, he turned his face to gaze upon his neighbours.
“Applause doesn't bring a dead man back,” he said. “I did nothing worthwhile applauding. There is no hero here, just a tragic loss of life due to stupidity and ignorance!”
The front door burst open. Suddenly, Jonny O’Neill staggered inside, pale faced, dishevelled and in a state of shock.
Grandpa slowly, deliberately stood up and turned around. “What in the name of Jesus do you think you were doing taking the coracle out on a night like this, and one with a sail?” His eyes were open and wild with fury, as he stood firm and struck the table with his fist.
“We didn’t see the storm coming,” Jonny replied quickly. “We were just seeking for an adventure. I'd heard...”
“Adventure, you are calling this tragic loss of a life.... AN ADVENTURE?” Grandpa interrupted and shook his head in disbelief. “I'd call it fatal misjudgement and stupidity by two little boys who dare to call themselves men!”
While Jonny dropped his gaze downwards towards the floor just like a naughty boy being chastised by his mother, the villagers stood by idly, deeply embarrassed and afraid to make a sound. Nobody had ever witnessed Grandpa Miller so cross. Sensing the tension between the two men, they gradually moved backwards towards the bar.
“I heard a small hooker sailing off the coast of the Isle of Man had become foul of a previous storm and was drifting into the mouth of the Lough, and I was told that she was carrying a good sized cargo of Scottish whiskey and tobacco,” Jonny hurriedly explained, his voice muffled by the collar of his coat. “I thought the hooker would have been ripe for the picking, as the Port Authority's boats were too big to bring into the Lough. They would either get grounded in the shallows off the shore or have been ripped apart by the whirlpool near Gills Island.”
Money had become scarce in the village after the past two harsh winters, and everyone knew that many men were taking more risks than usual. Hence, this all made perfect sense to Jonny and anyone else standing near enough to decipher his speech through tears.
Grandpa Miller pushed the tobacco firmly into the bowl of his pipe, struck a match on the hearth, and blew it out. Slowly taking a draw from his pipe and looking deep into the amber flames of the log fire, he stood up again, quietly and with determination, turning to look again at Johnny O’Neil. The villagers gasped, as he appeared to grow so tall.
“Get out, GET OUT!” Grandpa Millers gaze from underneath heavy eyelids was firmly fixed on Jonny’s face. The young man stepped backwards in horror and disbelief, turned on his heel, and ran for the door.
Rosie cautiously approached with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a glass in the other. She methodically placed the bottle and glass in front of Grandpa, and poured him a large shot of whiskey. Her arm around Grandpa's shoulders, she whispered, “Don’t take on so Jim, you did your best, give thanks to God that we still have Jonny, stupid as he might be.”