This short story won the Fiction Prize for the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2019 and was first published on the Scottish Geology website, which no longer seems to exist. I have added a few pictures for local colour! Recipe for Cinder Toffee available on request…
‘Well, he is not going to be happy with us, John.’ The speaker, a broad-faced, tweed-clad and generously-rumped male, did not for some reason sound altogether sorry.
The wall clock in the echoing stone hall outside the Edinburgh University office chimed the hour of their appointment. The friends sat awkwardly on a pair of wooden chairs rather too small for their bulk. Both had removed their deerstalker hats and were kneading them between their hardened and scarred palms, tattooed with grit from a lifetime’s work. Their draft report, all 800-odd pages of it, and the precious box of samples, took up a third spindly chair between them.
Although neither realised the other was imitating his own actions, each would reach out and lay a hand on the substantial mound of their findings, seeking reassurance as the moments to their ordeal ticked down.
Their mission had been quite plainly set before them several months before, in the very office of the British Geological Society (Edinburgh Branch) which they were about to re-enter. Professor Archibald Geikie, no less, had requested their presence. There he had sat, peering at them over gold-rimmed spectacles from behind his vast rosewood desk. He proceeded to fulminate at the upstarts who had dared to question the clear and the logical and indeed, to his mind, the natural order of things geological.
‘Geology is formed of layers, gentlemen!’ he had spat. ‘Immense layers which form over the course of aeons, but which must, logic dictates, follow the chronological settlement of all creation. What is geology save one sedimentary layer formed on top of another since the time of the Flood, as Murchison has pointed out so often.’
The younger of the two listeners unwisely cleared his throat to interject, ‘But… Lapworth?’
‘All his nonsense about those uppermost rocks in some dismal corner of the Highlands proving otherwise? Pah! Young Lapworth is merely spouting the heretical writings of his false idol Nicol. It is all bunkum, d’y hear me? Utter bunkum!’ John had found himself agreeing, more out of awkward politeness and the sheer force of The Great Man’s presence than assent.
His friend instead chose to hold his tongue.
‘You do not share The Great Man’s views then, Ben?’ John asked him, as they traipsed with relief down the staircase towards the damp, grey Edinburgh air.
Ben had smiled at John’s use of their ironic nickname for a crusty superior and shrugged. ‘Not that long ago, all Old Red’s theorising about fish growing paws and clawing their way out of the mud was portrayed as the ravings of a lunatic, remember? Now Darwin and everyone else seem to be in agreement.’
John nodded, thoughtfully. Hugh Miller – nicknamed Old Red for his beloved sandstone – had been a favourite of all their circle until his sad demise; a blend of gentle Highland rustic and touchingly devout self-taught academic. Ben shook out his black umbrella at the foot of the stairs, looking down and prodding the last step with the toe of his boot. ‘See, he would have liked that. Hugh’s sandstone used for the fine new university. He wondered whether we are becoming too greedy for the treasures of the earth. We take them without thought.’
John nodded again. ‘Greedy for knowledge too?’
‘Sometimes only insofar as it accords with one’s own views,’ Ben chuckled.
Once out on the Caithness flag pavement, he grinned at John from under his umbrella. ‘If I have learned one thing from my life in science thus far, it is that utter certainty of any scientific fact can be a dangerous thing,’ was all he chose to add.
John understood his friend perfectly. For upstairs, Professor Geikie, puce-faced with professional ire by the end of their interview, had been very clear in his instructions; all but ordering the two geologists to go and prove that he and his mentor Roderick Murchison were in the right.
Six months had passed since their last encounter with The Great Man. He had penned several increasingly terse letters enquiring as to their progress, which they had felt it best to ignore. Now here they were once more.
They sat in silence until the younger of the two snorted, ‘How I should prefer to be back up on the road to Ullapool instead, eh Ben?’ The other nodded. Neither was in his natural habitat, there in that cold and echoing vestibule. They belonged instead among the rough heather and steep hillsides of the North-Western Highlands with only each other, and an occasional golden eagle, for companionship.
‘D’ye recall that day?’ Ben continued. ‘We’d paused to catch our breath after that steep section. Eyeing our meat-paste sandwiches made by the landlady in Cròic a Chnocain.’
‘Ah yes. The damp little croft overlooking the burial ground.’
‘Very poor sandwiches,’ reflected his companion, shifting his considerable weight from one buttock to the other, making his chair groan. ‘The same every day, too. The only lodgings to be had that near to the Crag, though.’
‘Certainly closer than that rather grand hotel. And she was a kindly enough old thing.’
‘No English, only the Gaelic.’
‘Fìor fhìor! No packed lunch on the Sabbath, remember?’
‘Ah, but that extraordinary sweet confection she made…’
‘Wrapped in brown paper.’
‘Quite delicious, wasn’t it? Made up for everything else.’
Transported by their shared memory, the friends allowed themselves to recall that extraordinary day: again they felt the clean air and rain on their faces, again they heard the rattle of a ptarmigan from high on the slopes above the crag. They had been glad to pause for a while and rest, even if it meant consuming their forlorn meat-paste sandwiches. Lochan an Ais lay spread below them, its grey, rain-pitted surface broken only by a lone great northern diver, its plumage sleek and oily in the downpour. Cul Mor soared beyond, her face veiled in heavy mist.
‘A bitty dreich, as they say in these parts.’ John could feel the canvas bags which would contain their specimens for the day were growing heavy with rain already.
‘Indeed. But see how the wet brings out the fine pattern in the rocks, John.’ The younger man glanced at the speaker with considerable affection. How many times had he heard Ben bring out this phrase as mitigation for the most atrocious West Highland weather? He knew the debt he owed his old friend. He, John, had the technical skills: could sketch accurately, write plentiful notes and find a perfect turn of phrase to describe a specimen, but he was the first to acknowledge that it was Ben who had the eye. It showed in his paintings of the hills.
That morning the crag had shimmered in the bright light, every available rock surface wet. As he stared upwards, Ben’s head had inclined slightly to one side in a thoughtful manner which John had come both to anticipate and, occasionally, dread. ‘Up yonder today, I reckon, laddie. Perhaps we may reach the base of the cliff before we drown, eh?’ John was no longer a laddie by two decades or more; but Ben had been gently teasing him about his comparative youth for as long as he could recall.
They worked methodically as usual, measuring, pacing, at times with the whole drenched hillside between them; at others, hunched head-to-head over a specimen, magnifying glass in hand. They spoke only in geological labels at such times:
‘Pipe rock. Perfectly clear, look there, and more here. Durness limestone too.’
‘Fucoid beds, Salterella Grits. Only what one might expect. The correct sequence. And yet…’ John searched for words which would capture the nature of these oddly compressed sediments.
They had spent months now working slowly around several other crumbling cliffs in the area. In fair weather and foul, they were up and out just after dawn, providing a generous food source for midges and the occasional tick, nourished daily by hip flasks of whisky, dubious sandwiches, and sublime confectionery. In pencil, in dozens of notebooks, they meticulously recorded their still-inconclusive findings. What they had found was a curious mix. Perhaps it was due to glaciation, this odd jumble of layers, they had thought at first. Freezing and thawing can crack and shatter rock. And yet each of them knew in the depths of his soul that the answer did not lie in a glacial event of mere thousands of years ago.
They paused to eat their dismal ‘pieces’, rendered even less palatable than usual by the steady rainfall. ‘John, I must be getting old,’ said Ben, rising even as he chewed from an area of limestone where he had crouched and been prodding. ‘I am feeling the damp in my bones today.’ For a fleeting moment John wondered if his colleague were suggesting they call a halt and retreat, but no such thing. ‘Come, a little treat. Let us warm ourselves by ascending fast to the foot of the crag instead. We might find shelter from the rain in its lee, too.’ He was up and off like the proverbial mountain goat, leaving John to pack the morning’s specimens and plod up the zig-zagging cragside deer track in his wake.
Ben’s cry rent the still air asunder. ‘Here! John, hurry! This is it!’
John had no need to ask what it meant. It was their Holy Grail, the conclusive proof – or disproof – they had been instructed to seek.
John dropped the bags and began to scramble recklessly straight up, the flaky scree slipping beneath his feet. Ben was on his knees at the foot of the crag, as though at prayer. ‘At last, John. See? Clearly Pre-Cambrian, yes? Schists, great sparkling layers of them. And all so… so altered.’
John joined him in worship at the shrine, impervious to the wet now soaking through the tweed of his plus-fours. He touched the pale gold outcrop with disbelieving fingertips. ‘None of this should be visible! It is surely millions of years more ancient than the Cambrian layers we recorded below?’
‘Yes, as though something has thrust the very burning bowels of the earth upwards, to raise them to the surface. Ye Gods, what mighty force can have brought this about?’ demanded Ben. He was pale now, shaking. John was at once more concerned about his friend’s wellbeing than their momentous discovery. He rummaged in his pocket and drew out the small packet of brown paper. ‘Here you are, old fellow,’ he said. ‘It’s a shock. Eat some.’
Instead Ben held a piece of toffee up against the hot-yellow, cold-bubbled rock before them. ‘John,’ he said unsteadily. ‘How do you think she makes this stuff?’
Puzzled, John replied, ‘Well. Sugar, clearly. Then…’ Light dawned. ‘Then, she must superheat it. Mixes in something else to change its nature, as it boils?’
Ben nodded, still staring. ‘I watched her once. Bicarbonate of soda. The mixture surges upwards in the great iron pot as a scalding, foaming mass, quite altered. Then she pulls it from the fire and tips it out on to a buttered tin tray to cool.’
‘And when it is hard,’ said John softly, ‘She borrows one of our hammers.’
‘Yes! Bang! Bang! Bang! Elemental powers, John. Pressure, heat. We have been seeing the rocks as too fixed.’
‘Exactly. Given sufficient force they can be changed, turned topsy-turvy. This proves it. Wonderful!’ said John, already pulling out his notebook. Then he paused. ‘I say, Ben. The Great Man. Lapworth…’
‘Yes,’ said Ben. ‘Quite. But we tell no-one. Not yet.’
They then fell on the rain-sticky cinder toffee with the appetites of men half-starved.
At last they were summoned. John cradled the report to his chest as Ben hefted the box, its small yet irrefutable samples from Knockan Crag cushioned within.
Archibald Geikie’s voice boomed out of his office as they approached the door. ‘Ah, good-day to you both, gentlemen.’ There was no apology for having kept them waiting. ‘So, what have you brought me, eh?’
It was then that Ben Peach caught the widened eye of John Horne and, albeit fleetingly, winked.
Copyright Vee Walker 2019.
If you enjoyed this short story why not read Vee’s prizewinning epic novel Major Tom’s War, available as a paperback or e-reader edition from her publisher Kashi House 👇