15 September 2022

Still having a lovely time in Dumfries and Galloway. We visited (again) Broughton House. The home of ‘Glasgow Boy’ EA Hornel, it sits in a Japanese-inspired garden and hosts an impressive...

Turbines7. The Commander

After it became clear that this was probably the end of the world, the Major ordered the flooding of the fields behind the town. All the pumps were switched off and the sluices opened. In came the sea and inundated the fields and once again Goodfleet became, to all intents and purposes, an island, more or less, safe between the sea and the river and the marshes. Like olden days.

Classes had finished for the afternoon and the last few children lingered in the classroom area, playing a board game, chatting or just rolling on the cushions. Don sat with a mug of tea, looking at the children’s writing for that day while listening to Daisy, a frail, red haired six-year-old, as she read to him from a reading scheme book. The calm atmosphere ended abruptly with a disturbance, in the form of heavy footsteps and loud male voices, emanating from the main lobby.

Don stopped and looked over his spectacles, to identify the source of the commotion. Sharply peaked caps and polished black boots, white naval uniforms and serious male faces left no doubt about the identity of the visitors. Two ratings stepped ahead of the rest, their machine pistols held across their chests, the polished black barrels pointed downwards but held ready to be brought instantly to use. The guard of six reached Don’s desk and came noisily to attention. They parted evenly to leave a clear avenue for the seventh member of the party.

Between the rows sauntered the man Alice had seen on the first day, down at the dock, the one who had shot and killed a market trader. The one who, to make his closing point at the big meeting, had shown them the sad spectacle of the Major. The man who had authorised the murder of her mother. Commander Savage looked around him, then peeled off his black leather gloves and slapped them against the desk.

Calmly, Don closed the reading book, lifted the child off his lap and set her down on the floor. He pointed in the direction of the others. “Run along, Daisy,” he said softly. He moved his glasses to the top of his head and pushed himself to his feet. Then he brought his hands together in a peace gesture and gave a slight bow. He did not speak, but instead waited for the other.

The Commander had not expected this and looked slightly quizzical, discomfited even. “You are in charge of this…” He waved his hand in a semicircle.

“A place of learning is how I like to think of it.” Don spoke quietly, his voice friendly, encouraging even. “My name is… “

“I know what your name is. I am Commander Savage and I…” The Commander stopped and looked down. Jade, the five-year-old daughter of a girl who had a dressmaking stall in the market, had attached herself to the man’s leg. She gazed up at her captive and smiled sweetly, exposing a mouthful of small, uneven teeth. Don bent and gently prised her arms open. She yielded and allowed Alice to take her hand and lead her away. “Bye,” she said, and gave the Commander a small wave, which he did not return.

The Commander’s tone exposed his annoyance. “So, Mr Donaldson. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many books in one place. Sadly, most of our libraries were destroyed during the worst of the early years. What is that smell?”

“Smell?” Don looked puzzled. “Do you mean the soup? We, the children that is, had carrot and onion soup today.”

“No, not that. Something else. It smells like trees. I remember this smell from long ago. Yes, long ago.”

Don thought and then he understood. “Ah, I think you mean the floor polish. It’s perfumed with pine resin. When our supply ran out, we found out how to make it. And someone did, using pine resin from the forest. You can buy some in the market to take home.” Don spoke to the Commander as if he might be passing the time with a visiting tourist.

“But how could you find out something like that?”

Don looked round at the area to his left. At the tables, four people, two men and two women, sat hunched over books, reading and making notes. The Commander followed his gaze. So inconspicuous were they that only now did he see them. He looked back at Don, who said nothing and instead reprised the Commander’s sweeping hand gesture. Surely, what was displayed in front of them was self-explanatory, and answered the man’s question in full.

The Commander said nothing, retreating into his own thoughts. Then he held up an index finger and wagged it in Don’s direction, not aggressively but as if marking time with his pondering. “There is a place for you in our culture, I feel sure, Mr Donaldson. You and your books. Yes. When we leave, you will come with us. You will join us in our endeavour to rebuild our society. You will be welcomed, I assure you, and well rewarded.”

“That’s very kind, but no thanks,” Don returned mildly, as if declining the offer of a second biscuit with his tea. “Assuming you were making an offer and not giving an order. My place is here, Commander. These are my people.”

The Commander scowled and made as if to spit, but then changed his mind. “Your people, as you term them, are ignorant peasants with no interest in your books and ideas.” In an instant, the Commander’s voice had turned cold and distant. Clearly, people did not say no to this man. With a sour grimace, he kicked over a pile of books waiting to be re-shelved. “When we leave you will join us. You are right; you do not have a choice. When we are ready to leave I will send men to begin clearing the bookshelves and packing them away. They will be taken to the ship and you will follow them, in handcuffs if necessary. You can bring your girl too, of course,” he said, and nodded towards Alice, who had busied herself collecting up the scattered books and stacking them on a trolley.

“She’s not ‘my girl’. Her name is Alice. She goes to school here,” Don said quietly.

Glad to have been included in the conversation at last, Alice stood. She placed her hands on her hips, her eyes defiant, eager to speak up for Don and for herself.

“Come here, girl,” Savage ordered. She stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. Although he had probably shaved that morning, his face was already darkly shadowed. With its hollow cheeks and permanent tan, this was not an English face. This was a man whose ancestry lay somewhere to the east. His narrow lips, not red but some indefinable dark colour, terminated in downturned corners no doubt shaped by years of a general disappointment with things and the consequent sanctioning of much cruelty. Beneath his coffee-coloured eyes, narrowed as if constantly squinting against bright light, baggy zones, swagged with darkness, spoke of a chronic lack of rest. The face chimed resonantly with its owner’s name.

Alice plucked up her courage and then spoke. “My father is on your ship, I think,” she said. “Vic Seamarsh. Do you know him?”

He dismissed her question with a wave of his hand. “You’ll have to forgive me, child, but I’m afraid I haven’t yet learned the names of all my guests.” He smiled and looked to his men, who dutifully chuckled at the absurdity of the idea.

“He’s the cook. He’s quite fat now and he jokes a lot, and laughs a lot. If he was there you would know him,” Alice replied.

Savage began playacting the puzzled routine that Alice had seen before. “Well, let’s see. Yes, now you come to mention it, I do know your father. In fact, he served me breakfast just this morning, brought it personally to my cabin.” Savage smiled and fixed Alice with a penetrating look. “Would you like to see him?”

Alice thought she might faint. Her legs had turned to water beneath her and she gripped the trolley to steady herself. Not trusting her tongue not to reveal her thoughts, she simply nodded.

“Good. Then come and visit. I will arrange for you to meet with your father. Now we must go. Think carefully, Mr Donaldson, about my offer.”

Don said nothing and watched as the men turned and marched out of the Library, the Commander in the lead. He descended the front steps two at a time, his guards marching quickly behind in an attempt to keep up.

Don sat back in his chair and dragged his hands down his face. He looked across at Alice, as she finished stacking the last of the books scattered across the floor by the Commander’s boot. He could see the contents of her mind clearly written in her features but resisted the impulse to comfort her with words he did not mean. When she had finished, Alice kicked a beanbag across the floor and flopped down beside his chair. She pressed her lips together and attempted a smile but knew her eyes would betray her emotional turmoil. For anything to bother Don was unusual, but clearly, the Commander’s visit had left its mark. The last of the children had gone home, leaving just a few of the regulars sitting at the reading desks or shuffling around the bookcases in search of who knew what. The Library would be closing soon anyway.

Alice sat quietly hoping Don would be first to speak, but to judge from his distant gaze that prospect seemed unlikely. He noticed her looking up at him, but instead of speaking, he rested his hand on her head and smiled one of his many different smiles, smiles that over time Alice had come to recognise as a kind of shorthand intended only for her. The standard smile broadcast to others she knew indicated kind-heartedness, but nothing much else; his current smile also contained ‘don’t worry, it will be OK’. As she returned the smile, she felt instantly better.

“So, what will you do?” Immediately, she felt a slight tension rise in her shoulders as she prepared herself for the reply. The world she had known for most of her life now teetered on the brink of collapse, like a house of cards on a wonky table. However, a house of cards could be rebuilt, so long as none of the cards had been lost. Alice looked up and let her eyes travel around the room, and imagined that the solid walls surrounding her were listening to her thoughts. Their weightiness, their endurance through time, their unconquerable strength made her fears seem rather ridiculous and small. It simply wasn’t possible for all of this to be blown away by the whim of a single man, was it?

Don shifted in his chair but still did not reply. He also looked about him. The last of the readers slipped on his jacket and waved to Don as he pushed through the swing doors. Don returned the wave but did not smile this time. “I’ll miss that if I go. That man’s been coming in here for most of his life, far longer than I’ve been around. What do you think will happen to him when he can no longer come here?”

Alice had no answer. “And will you go?” She knew that whatever Don said in reply would be unwelcome; nevertheless, Alice had to voice the question and needed to hear his answer.

“I don’t seem to have much choice, do I? Men like Savage are used to taking whatever they want and, if for some reason they can’t have it, then to their way of thinking it’s better that nobody has it. If you were me what would you do?”

“Go, I suppose. At least that way the Library survives, and so do you.”

“That’s my first thought as well. Otherwise, I could quite imagine his parting gift to the town would include burning the place down, probably with me inside it.”

They both laughed at this. Alice knelt up on the beanbag, serious again. “Maybe I could go with you, like he said, to help you run the new library. He seemed to expect it anyway. He must think I’m your assistant or something.”

Don looked down at Alice. This time the smile simply indicated kindness. “Yes, something like that, I suppose. However, it’s out of the question. Your family need you here, sweetie. They’d take a very dim view of your departure, and rightly so. No; if I go, I go alone.”

Before Alice could think of a reply, Don had risen from his seat and crossed the floor to the staircase leading to the upper floor. He gripped the handrail and turned to face her. “All of a sudden I feel rather tired. I need some thinking time. Be an angel and turn all the lights off when you go out, will you? You can lock up and I’ll talk to you later in the week, perhaps.”

Alice watched as Don mounted the stairs, two at a time, and disappeared from view. She sat in his chair and looked around her. This building had been her second home for the past eight years. A Victorian legacy that had served the town for a hundred and thirty years. Today, it looked more fragile, less solid somehow, as if its walls might crack and crumble under the pressure of sound from without: the rumbling lorries, the whipcrack rifle shots, the male shouts, the hobnail crash of boots on cobbles. This could not be the end; it could not. Not without a fight, anyway.

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