|The Sound of the Rainbow
Chapter 1: Going Home
I began it as an investigation, talking to the men who worked with him, drank with him, even those who, for one reason or another, disliked him; making notes, hoping to get a fix on the way it happened.
The phone call had come in the earliest hour of Friday morning. The gravel tones of the caller unmistakable.
“Frank's gone...” is all I remember ‘Snowy' McCloud saying.
I jumped out of bed, dressed, packed a travel bag, and drove through the night to the seaport of Oban; a thriving fishing community on the west coast of Scotland. Daybreak was brimming over the hills as I pulled into the car park at the ferry terminal. I checked my watch, rolled down the window and felt the bitter icy chill blow in off the rough waters. The pungency of decaying fish was overwhelming and I still had two hours to wait before the first departure to Craignure. Reaching over the seat for my black overcoat, I stepped out of the car and headed toward the booking office. The cold air bit even harder and I yanked the collar of my overcoat up around my ears and over my mouth, each breath evaporating in a white mist. The terminal building looked the same as I long since recalled. Nothing had changed. It required restoration work years back, now it needs demolishing. A sign hanging on the inside of the door read ‘Closed', but the hours of opening, printed in black lettering and hanging on the protected glass window, clearly stated the opening hours to be from five a.m. I checked my watch, five-twenty. The lights were on so I pushed on the door. It jarred open, adding more scrapes to the already damaged floor. Two of the three wooden benches, all of them carved with abusive graffiti, were broken. The sturdiest of them covered with greasy fish and chip wrappers and several old newspapers. The floor, too, was no better, littered with cigarette stubs, crushed beer cans, and a used condom. There was a smell of piss in the air.
The sudden release of a metallic window shutter crashing upwards, clattering to a rolled halt, made me jump. A fat woman, paying me no mind, walked to the back of the glass partitioned office carrying a slab of buttered toast, spreading her ample butt onto a stool before licking her fingers and flicking through the pages of a magazine. There was no offer of welcome, or better still, service. She remained totally involved in thumbing the pages. I waited, patiently. I waited longer. Butter was drooling down her chin. I coughed, politely. She looked up and stared at me. It was the questionable stare a prison guard might give, finding a file in a birthday cake. Her ‘just-got-out-of-bed' hairdo, perhaps once fashionable, and heavy, dark rimmed glasses gave her a very stern and unfriendly look. Her dark blue navy jumper carried the insignia of the company, Caledonian Macbrayne, is salted with dandruff, one sleeve cuff smeared with melted butter. Deep furrows on her forehead gave me pause to think, but I smiled anyway. It was wasted. She managed to complete the entire transaction without saying a word. I took the ticket, thrown my way under the glass partition, said thank you, and looked round for a vending machine. It stood where it had always stood, next to an overflowing garbage can, bent and buckled. I walked over, searching my pocket for change. I only had two pound coins in change, but observed a tiny notice saying ‘change given'. I inserted the two coins and pushed the appropriate button. A plastic cup slipped into place and filled. I waited longer, hoping my fifty-pence change would drop out. It didn't. I hit the ‘return coin' button. Nothing happened. I slapped the side of the vending machine. Still nothing. I slapped it again, only to hear the tapping of a pencil on the window partition behind me. The fat woman was pointing to a sign above the machine referring to the abuse of vending machines. Reluctantly, and fearing for my life, I stepped back to the window to inform her about my problem. She was indignant.
“There's a phone number on the side of the machine. Call them. That machine is not our property. It is for the customer's convenience,” she said, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke in my direction.
Walking back to the car, with the nip-frost biting my ears, I heard a huge metallic bang, sounding like a thump of fist on a thin metal.
‘Bitch,' I thought.
I'd been friends with Frank since our early school days together. He was a big sod, even then, and didn't seem to stop growing. Social skills were never his forte; he was undeniably illiterate, smelled like a dried lobster, and was my hero. I opened the car door and sank back into its warmth, sipped bitter coffee, and rested my head backward.
Frank became reclusive after losing most of his right arm to the screaming insanity of a Russian whale woman. The mad cow came at him with a flensing knife, severing his right arm in a single swipe. Frank stood rigid for what seemed like an eternity, staring down at his arm lying on the deck, blood spouting from just above his elbow. Then in a sudden fit of rage, he grabbed the woman by her hair and dragged her screaming and kicking to the side of the ‘factory' ship where, with one gasp of super human effort, he flung her over the side. She may have lived a minute or two in the frozen waters of the Bering Sea, no more. The effort and the enormous loss of blood finally downed him. Christian, a six-foot-seven inch Norwegian, picked up Frank, hoisting him over his shoulder, while ‘Blackie', appropriately nicknamed, looped a safety line around them both, then waved the helicopter away, screaming to get them ‘the hell off the ship.' Almost immediately the two men were dragged sideways and upward into the fierce night sky.
I remember looking toward the upper decks, hearing twenty or thirty more women screaming obscenities. I had the presence of mind to collect Frank's arm, which I tucked into the belt of my immersion suit before the second helicopter, hovering aft of the factory vessel, swept in and hoisted me off the deck to the jubilant jeers of the Russian crew. Frank survived. His right arm did not.
Roused by a ‘tap...tap...' of knuckles on the car window. “Ticket, please.” I must have been remembering while half asleep. All I could see were the black buttons of a ‘donkey' jacket covering an ample beer filled stomach, over-which he wore a reflective orange bib. I fumbled stupidly in my pocket for the ticket. “Beautiful morning,” I said, finally remembering I'd put the ticket in the glove box.
“Aye, t'is that,” he replied, cheerily.
I handed him the ticket. He tore off a section and moved smartly away. I must have dozed heavily, not hearing the ferry dock or any sound of the fifteen or twenty cars that had lined up behind me. I thanked God it wasn't an August morning. I could have been sitting in a line of sixty or seventy vehicles, most of them towing caravans.
Another man, rotund, a little untidy, signaled me forward in the manner of a London ‘bobby' at a busy road junction. I started the car, crunched first gear, and rolled toward him. He pointed both index fingers directly at his feet, leaving me in no doubt where I was to stop, then offered up the flats of his hands and walked away. The clattering of metal grates startled several gulls into flight. Vehicles were already disembarking under the bow of the ferry. How quickly four years have passed, I reminisced. Waiting for the ferry master to signal me aboard I had the feeling it was just last week.
A smarter, more professional looking chap held up an oversized ‘table tennis bat' with the word ‘slow' written on it. His left arm, bent at the elbow, beckoned me forward. I inched closer. With a curious, almost ‘action man' like swing of his arm he directed me to the right, across the iron grated-bridge where I entered into the bowels of the ferry. Thoughts of childhood adventures immediately returned, being Jonah, swallowed into the belly of a whale. Three more men, also wearing orange bibs, beckoned me deeper. The sounds I thought forgotten came hurtling back: the yells of the men calling out, the piston powered doors, the dragging chains, and the pungent smell of exhaust fumes spoke to me like old friends.
Waiting at the stern, a primly dressed young woman wearing a black jacket, a black ‘pencil' skirt, a crisp white blouse and a company crested tie directed me as though marshaling a jet fighter across the deck of an aircraft carrier. I made a left ‘U' turn to come down the starboard side, back toward the bow section. A woman, older, inched me forward before she, too, faced up the flats of her palms. Cars were still filing aboard down the port side as I halted at the appointed place.
“Turn off your engine, please,” she said, “take anything you might need, this deck is off limits during the crossing.”
I grabbed my tired-looking, threadbare coat, and hopped smartly out, making hastily for the closest exit to climb the stairs to the upper decks. I pushed through the rubber doors and found a place to lean against the ships rails, staring out toward Mull and wondering what could have happened to Frank. Twenty minutes later the ferry slipped silently from the harbour and ploughed across the Firth of Lorn.
Half an hour later the port of Craignure, with Duart Castle off to the left, thirteenth century home of the Chief of the ‘Maclean' family, stirred up the old feelings of ‘coming home'. It's a magical entrance to secret places, ‘for here, if legends be told, is where giants walk, witches fall, faery-folk and ancient battles fill the landscape.' That's what Frank always told me.
The skipper, well-practiced, stood outside the wheel-deck over-lording the nudging of the steel leviathan alongside the pier, which he achieved with immaculate precision.
I was already heading down to the car deck. Being first to disembark the ferry is like gaining ‘pole position' on grand prix race day. The one road south around the island isa single lane. Meaning one is obligated to pull over every couple of hundred yards, especially during the summer months, allowing oncoming traffic to pass; those of us with more pressing commitments, such as pub opening hours.
‘Bless me, Lord, for I am grateful', I muttered, as the deck foreman appointed me to lead off, holding his left arm out halting another lane of cars. I certainly wasn't going to hold anyone up. I gave him an appreciative nod and drove across the massive iron grids, onto the pier itself, then, on reaching the road, observing neither the pub nor the Post Office had changed in appearance, turned north and headed up the ‘Sound of Mull'. Way to my right, at the far end of Loch Linnhe, stood the old man, ‘Ben Nevis', majestic in the clearing, sharp winter light.
Frank would say, coming off a three week fishing trip, ‘...every time I see a rainbow over these Hebridian waters, I feel like she's come home.'
Looking across the waters of the ‘Sound' I saw no rainbow.