North Sea Requiem
For once, Hector Bain, the Highland Gazette’s photographer, was first in the office for the obligatory Monday morning news meeting. He needed to match the names of the players to the shots from an unusually high-scoring shinty match the previous Saturday.
The team list, written in Hector’s tiny wee script that even he had trouble deciphering, was in the cheapest notebook available, a school jotter, which Hector bought by the dozen. The prints and the contact sheet were in the plain brown envelope preferred by the legal profession, with a red ribbon wound around a circle of cardboard the size of a half-crown piece.
“Right,” he was muttering, “this is definitely Willie Fraser, the captain.” The captain looked like a thug. But then again, so did most of the shinty team when on the field.
Hec scratched his head, hoping his carrot-colored hair would cause whatever Celtic goddess was the patron of memory to look favorably on him and give him a clue to who the other players were.
Last Saturday’s game had been fast and furious—games in the Highland League were legendary for their competitiveness. By halftime, Mrs. Urquhart, a nurse as well as the coach’s wife, had been busy, her first aid kit almost empty.
Shinty is the game of warriors—so many players believed. An ancient game, predating the Celts, it gave birth to ice hockey; it reawoke the fiercesome rivalries that had all but died out with
the dispersal of the clan system. Team rivalries were intense; the games fought as fiercely as ancient clan battles but with a small concrete-hard ball and double-sided hockey-style sticks instead of claymores.
The phone rang. Hector ignored it. Fiona the receptionist called up the half-spiral stone staircase, “Hector, pick up the phone, it’s for you.”
Even though there was no one else in the reporters’ room, and no need to feel embarrassed, Fiona’s voice made him blush.
“Hello, Hector? It’s me, Frankie Urquhart.”
“That was a great game on Saturday,” Hector said. Frankie was a friend as well as a neighbor.
“Aye, well, it was. But we lost, so ma dad’s no’ in the best of moods. Listen, I’m phoning you from work so I can’t be long. I just wanted to tell you that Sergeant Patience wants to know why you took a picture o’ the leg my mother found in the shinty boot.”
“Sergeant Patience?” Hector was not happy to be involved with Sergeant Patience again; their truce was fragile. “Do you still have the leg?”
“Naw, the police took it away. Took the whole hamper and we don’t know when we’ll get it back. Dad is livid ’cos we don’t have spare shirts and we’re away to Kingussie next Saturday.”
“Aye. Dad wants you to write about what happened in the newspaper, ask if anyone . . .”
“Has lost a leg?” Hec was laughing at his own joke when Joanne Ross and Rob McLean, reporters on the Gazette, walked in. “I’ll get Rob to talk to your dad,” said Hec and hung up.
“No favors,” Rob said, “I am not writing up some stupid story so your pals can have their names in the paper.”
Rob and Hector and Frankie had known one another since primary school, and although Rob regarded Hec as nineteen and
sixpence in the pound, they were all good friends in the known-each-other-since-in-their-prams kind of way.
“Suit yourself.” Hector turned to Joanne, who was sitting next to him, wondering if it had warmed up enough to take off her scarf and Fair Isle beret.
“Mrs. Ross . . .” His ginger-cat-colored eyes fixed on her. “My friend Frankie Urquhart, his mum found a boot in the shinty team’s dirty washing and there was half a leg in it wearing their team sock, and I took some pictures.” He shook some prints out of a large brown envelope onto the table.
“Horrible!” Joanne shuddered, not wanting to examine the picture of the severed limb too closely.
“Brilliant!” Rob was staring at the pictures, seeing a good story and even better headlines of the “legless” variety. Somehow Hector had managed to capture the end of the stump in vivid Technicolor—even though the film was black-and-white.
McAllister, the weekly newspaper’s editor, and Don McLeod, the deputy and chief sub editor, walked in. The town bells struck nine o’clock, and McAllister started the news meeting.
“Right, what have we got for this week?” McAllister wanted the meeting over with because he had a bad case of chilblains and his feet were horribly itchy. Serves me right for buying those newfangled nylon socks—they don’t even keep your feet warm.
“I’ve got these.” Hec pushed the shots across the table to the two editors. A miniature cloud of cigarette smoke hovered above them, the tall, narrow room being too cold for smoke to rise.
Don McLeod, a short stubby man who, after many weeks in gaol for a crime he did not commit, looked all of his sixty-six years. Chain-smoking did not help his health, and his skin had taken on a distinct tobacco tinge. “What team is thon sock from?”
“Our local,” Hec said.
“Great.” Being a man of Skye, any team other than his island
team was Don’s dire enemy when it came to shinty. “So, Hector Bain, in less than thirty words”—he poked a particularly lurid close-up with his wee red editing pencil—“how did you come by these pictures?” He said this knowing it was impossible for Hec to tell the simplest story in less than ten minutes.
When he had finished, McAllister was glad Hector Bain was the staff photographer, not a reporter; for Hec, putting events into sequence was impossible.
“So the coach, Mr. Urquhart, where does he live?” the editor asked.
“Two doors down from me in Dochfour Drive.” Hector registered McAllister’s impatience rising to nine on a scale of one to ten. “The team was playing at home on Saturday. Mrs. Urquhart does the washing for the team . . .” It was the only way the coach could ensure every one of his part-time players turned up in full team strip. “And when she found the leg she screamed and ma granny went round to see what was wrong, but it was her husband Frank Urquhart who was bleeding, ’cos he’d hit his head, and this leg, it was lying on the floor, so . . .”
“Since you take your camera everywhere,” said Don, eager to get on with the news meeting.
“Probably sleep with it,” Rob quipped, and was rewarded with the sight of Hec going as red as his hair.
“I took a few shots, but Frankie, that’s my pal, had to call the doctor for his dad Frank ’cos his head needed stitches, then police came . . .”
Hector didn’t say, but when he recognized his nemesis, Sergeant Patience, climbing out of a police car two sizes too small for his ample body, he jumped the fences between the back gardens, ran home, and hid in his studio cum shed cum washhouse, putting up the red No Admittance sign before developing the film of the leg in the shinty sock and boot.
“This is my story,” Joanne announced. “Rob isn’t interested.”
“I am so,” Rob protested. “Plus I played shinty at school, so I know the rules.”
“This is front page plus page three, so both of you are on it.” McAllister scribbled a note on his running sheet. “Rob, do a lead story and a background filler on the Shinty—interteam rivalries, who would want to sabotage the team, and all that. Joanne, you interview Mrs. Urquhart.”
“I can get some great headlines on this.” Don was pleased. He started to scribble.
“Next?” McAllister asked.
“I have something that might be interesting . . .” Joanne began, when Mal Forbes, the new advertising manager, walked in.
“Sorry I’m late, chasing up an account,” Mal said before taking a chair at the far end of the table. He was too new in the job for friendship, but all agreed he was efficient and hardworking, and after only two months had the advertising rolling in. He was polite to the others, but secretly considered Rob McLean frivolous, Don McLeod too old, and Joanne to be a grace-and-favor appointment on the Gazette, her being the “very good friend” of McAllister. Hector he totally ignored except when he needed him to take a picture to help sweet-talk a customer into taking a bigger advertisement.
Joanne thought Mr. Malcolm Forbes resembled a weasel; his shiny black slicked-back hair oozing Brylcreem, his shiny three-piece suit bought from a national chain of cut-price tailors, and his ridiculous briefcase, more suited to a high court judge than an advertising manager, irritated her. But it was his condescending manner to all things female that vexed her. She could say nothing; condescending males were ten a penny and Mal was no worse than most.
Stop being so unreasonable, she told herself. Most men think women should stay in the kitchen.
“I’ve a double page booked for this week,” Mal announced, “and what with all the rest of the ads, we’ll need four more pages.”
“No . . .” McAllister groaned, “I mean—good for you, Mal. But what we’ll fill the pages with heaven only knows.” He turned to Joanne. Since McAllister and Joanne started courting, he was careful to not show favoritism in the office. To her this came across as distant; to Mal Forbes, she was still McAllister’s fancy woman. The others hadn’t noticed much change in their relationship.
“It’s this notice in our classified section . . .” She hesitated, no longer confident it was interesting.
“I’ve a good-size ad for flour booked to run for four weeks opposite the Women’s Page,” Mal interrupted, looking straight at her. “Maybe Mrs. Ross could do some recipes. The advertisers really like your page. My wife does, too.” He saw the flush spread across her cheekbones and assumed she was pleased at the compliment. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve clients to call on.” He was off his chair and out the door and running down the stone staircase without waiting for an answer, leaving Joanne struggling, wishing she could come up with a witty retort.
Recipes! she thought. And the worst is, none of the others see anything wrong with his suggestion. She well knew very few, women included, would see anything wrong in a woman being told to pursue recipes rather than a severed leg in a shinty sock.
“Sorry, Joanne,” McAllister apologized, “but we need something to fill those pages.”
“I’ll ask my mother-in-law for her recipe for plum duff, shall I?”
This was meant sarcastically, but Don said, “You make one to test the recipe, then I can have a piece. I love a good plum duff.” He nudged her with his elbow. She laughed. Good humor was restored all round.
“Right,” McAllister said, “let’s find out all we can about this leg. It’s looks like a story that could . . .”
“Run.” Don, old sub editor that he was, couldn’t resist.
• • •
Rob decided it was best to speak to Sergeant Patience in person. “He’s upstairs wi’ Detective Inspector Dunne,” the constable on the desk said.
“I’ll wait.” Rob settled down with a copy of yesterday’s Sunday Post, but didn’t have time to finish the comic section, as the galumphing steps of the police sergeant could be heard coming down the stairs from the detectives’ room.
The desk constable gestured with his head towards Rob, and the sergeant looked at the reporter. He too gestured with his head and mouthed, outside.
“DI Dunne will go too far one day,” the sergeant complained. “He’s banned smoking in the office.”
Rob, being a nonsmoker and knowing how small the detectives’ offices were, sympathized with the detective inspector.
“We have pictures of the leg in the team sock and boot.” Rob knew there was no point in denying Hector’s intrusion into the crime scene.
“One day, I’ll get that little twerp Hector Bain.”
“Aye . . .” Rob was about to say “the bane of your life,” but he needed the sergeant’s good grace.
“The leg was at least three days dead before it was cut off,” Sergeant Patience said. “DI Dunne is going to call McAllister and ask for your help ’cos so far, none o’ the hospitals has lost a leg.”
“You want us to publish an appeal asking if anyone has lost a leg?”
“Aye.” The sergeant smiled, for once seeing the humor in the situation. “Mind, it’s probably some eejit’s idea o’ a joke.”
“Or a threat.”
The sergeant looked at Rob. “Do you know something I should know?”
“No. That was a guess. I mean, it is shinty. You know how seriously the teams take the Camanachd Cup. But the Highlands isn’t Glasgow, it’s not Celtic versus Rangers.”
Rob and the sergeant were amused by the story: they knew shinty rivalries. They knew the players—in the main, young men from scattered communities of the Highlands and Islands; they knew the games were a chance to blow off steam, to travel, to have an after-game drink or seven, but sabotage, threats, and physical damage were always confined to the field. So this leg business was most unusual.
“Are the police going to make a statement?”
Sergeant Patience considered this. “Naw. It’s no’ as though it was a fresh leg. As I said, it’s probably just some o’ the lads up to mischief an’ taking the joke too far.”
“Not much of a laugh if it was your leg. I mean, you’d be very attached to your leg . . . if you were alive when you lost it.”
“Aye, there is that.” They grinned; the case had to be investigated, but both appreciated the joke.
Over the next days the gossip about the foot in the boot ran around the town, the glens, the islands. In the telling and retelling the story became so garbled, everyone was avid to read the full account in that week’s Gazette. The edition sold out by midday. And although the newspaper account added to the mirth and speculation and puns and bad jokes, no one came forwards to claim the leg.
For Joanne, the most mortifying part of that week’s edition came the day after publication.
McAllister congratulated the team, telling them the paper had sold out. “And there’s a real controversy brewing in the letters to the editor.” He winked at Joanne as he said this.
Normally she would pretend she didn’t notice, whilst loving the attention he paid her. This time she was wary; something in his grin, she thought.
“Aye,” he continued, “there’s been some irate letters complaining that the ingredients in the plum duff recipe are no’ the ‘real’ plum duff.”
Joanne was furious. “It’s my mother-in-law’s recipe. You can’t get more authentic than that.”
“First a potential war between shinty teams, now the battle of the bakers, I’m loving this.” Don McLeod was chortling.
“Aye, and my mother-in-law will be up in arms if you dare publish even one criticism of her recipe.” But Joanne had the grace to laugh. And the sense to know that Don McLeod and John McAllister’s policy was “publish and be damned,” then sit back and enjoy the controversy.