No Reception

This story was inspired by a real life incident which I covered soon after starting a job as a reporter at The Oban Times in 2012. I think it captures some of the hardy, stubborn, self-sufficient quality of folk who work the land in remote places, and tend to define themselves against the cities where power is centred. Obviously, all characters are entirely my own inventions.


She must have been talking for at least thirty seconds before she realised no one was listening. That was just the way of it here. You moved in and out of pockets of no reception. Or rather, they moved over you, like shadows. Call back? No, it was his turn – and anyway, if she was honest she was saying the same things over and over, just to make him feel guilty – as he should be feeling.

She yanked the cord and the powersaw screeched back into life. She’d been half way along cutting up the tree that had fallen in the storm a few weeks ago when she’d taken a break to phone him. Now back to work. She was nearly at the bit where it had crushed the fence, jerking a couple of the posts out of the ground. What she would do now was finish sawing up the trunk, then put the logs in the trailer and drive it back. Maybe later she would make a start on restaking the posts. See how things played out at the hospital, if she had time while there was still light.

Her mind replayed the night of the accident again. What was it now – two weeks? It was his dog appearing at the back door that had alerted her. She’d gone out on the quad, up the track from the farm towards his cottage, rain coming down in sheets. Through the deluge she’d heard some noise not part of nature and cut the engine. It had come again: a thin cry. Then scrambling down the slope, trying to keep the beam of the torch on the belly-up car, following the sounds that betrayed the pain. She’d crouched in the boggy ground in the dark and shone the torch in through the broken window. He was upside down, his head resting sideways on the steering wheel, facing out at her. Blinking first when he was blinded by the torchlight. Then taking in her presence, trying to smile. Croaking: ‘I’m alright, Ali’. ‘You’re not alright, Da. Don’t move. I’m going to get help.’

There’d been no reception there either, not even ‘emergency only’. She’d flown on the quad to the nearest neighbours, Linda and Bobby; used their phone to call home and let Brin know what had happened. She’d told Brin where to find her Da, then called Donnie at the ferry but he wasn’t picking up. She called his mobile and still nothing. Then she called 999. They’d send the Sea King out as soon as it could take off. The weather was too wild just now – ‘but it should be ok if you give us half an hour’. She’d said fine, thinking fuck them, and ran out again, jumped back on the quad and sped up the track. She’d sent Linda back to theirs to be with the wee one. She caught Bobby running up and then found Brin out the car and shining his torch down the slope, but in the wrong place. ‘Not there, I told you he’s further along.’

She smiled at the memory of how rough she’d been with Brin. The urgency had made him both less, and more, than her husband – something more abstract: just her Man, with a capital M, who because he was there had a duty to perform. And he’d performed it. He’d confirmed his position. That’s why she was smiling, she thought, as she straddled the wire and set to work on the bottom half of the trunk. She couldn’t imagine her brother coping in a situation like that. ‘We have to just wait for the helicopter to come,’ would have been him. Saying all the things he’d heard other people say about how you should never move someone when they might have a spinal injury, you could permanently paralyse them. Well what did he think the paramedics would do? Wave a magic wand and spirit Da into the back of the helicopter?

The buckled door was jammed but Brin had reached in through the broken glass and got it open from the inside. She ordered him to move aside and crouched down beside Dad, taking his wrist and feeling for a pulse. There seemed to be nothing, then she found it – a weak fluttering that made her wish she hadn’t. He’d closed his eyes and she told him to open them. ‘Where does it hurt?’ The question seemed to amuse him as he uttered the word ‘chest’ on a shallow out-breath.

Bobby had reception on his phone and they finally raised Donnie the ferry. He’d been across the water in the town at a meeting about the state of the road on the island – she’d appreciated the irony after – but was already on his way back in the boat. Donnie had said get Da in a vehicle and drive him down to the slip – five minutes across and he’d have the ambulance waiting on the other side. But be quick or the tide’ll drop and there’ll be no getting a vehicle on the boat.

It was either that or wait for a helicopter that might never come. She phoned 999 again and told them don’t bother.

‘We’ve got to get him up there,’ She looked towards the top of the slope, forty metres up, hellish steep and slippy from the rain. Coming down had been bad enough, what would it be like going up? Brin nodded. ‘Got to get him out first.’

She sent Bobby up to the car to clear the back seat. Brin was the only one who could do anything now. All she could do was hang back and shout encouragement. Her man went in feet first, ignoring the shards of glass on the roof of the car. When he was under Da he turned himself round to face the roof, then twisted and unclipped the seat belt. Da was on top of him and he held him there with one arm twisted round his back and used the other to lever himself out. Da cried out and Brin said: ‘Sorry, David.’ It was a shock to hear his name spoken aloud in that moment. It turned him from a figure who had never really aged for her into a man who had been born and given a name like anyone else.

She switched off the saw to put the logs she’d just cut into the trailer. As she threw them in her phone started going. God’s sake she’d have to change that ringtone. She saw it was her brother ringing back and decided not to answer – she’d speak to him later. She was thinking how typical of him to wait two hours before trying to call back, then when he rung off she saw the ‘3 missed calls’ on the screen. She texted back: ‘Sorry powersaw screaming in my ear speak later’ and sent the wee message spiralling its way through the heavens, not realising she’d just lost reception again and it would bounce straight back.

She didn’t expect him to stay here, of course not. She was well aware this place wasn’t for everyone, even though she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. No, what frustrated her was his lack of understanding. He was a journalist, not just any journalist – he was on TV. He was held up here as an example to the kids of what they could achieve. But she couldn’t help feeling he was a man who skated over the surface of life. And yes he’d gone to be at Da’s side with her in the hospital. Yes she’d had his flat to stay at in the city. But when she’d wanted to really talk he’d given her nothing, had just gone on about how Da had been lucky she and Brin were there. Then he’d wondered out loud if it was realistic for him to carry on living on the island. ‘Isn’t this a wake-up call?’ he’d said, as if their lives hadn’t really started yet – as if they had just been sleeping through the years with an alarm by their bedside instead of working like blue-arsed flies to maintain the farm. ‘You really think he would move off the island?’ she’d asked.

‘I think he might have to.’
‘Don’t talk shite.’
They were sitting at the table in the kitchen of the house they’d grown up in. He’d come for the day when Da had stabilised enough to be transferred back up to the hospital in the town.
‘Why shite?’
‘He was born here.’
But that was an argument her brother didn’t understand.

Brin moved up the slope with Da on his shoulders and her behind him in case he slipped. Not that it would have done much good, probably only taken all three of them to the bottom again. Da was silent and she kept talking to him. ‘Not far now Da. We’ll get you in the car. Donnie’s waiting with the ferry.’

Lucky it wasn’t a three door. Brin climbed in the back seat, still keeping Da on top of him as if he was a stretcher and they were bolted together. Bobby sat shotgun and she drove, as smoothly as she could. Every jolt on a rock or bounce into a pothole she thought she might have paralysed him. But she knew there was nothing she could do – this was what passed for a road on the island.

Donnie had the boom down ready for them to drive straight on. They were hardly on board than he’d whisked it up and set the motor going. She twisted round in the driver’s seat. Da’s eyes were still open, thank Christ, but his breath was coming in gasps. Brin kept up the conversation from underneath him, telling him he was heavier than he looked. She saw Da try to smile, wince and then close his eyes. ‘Don’t make him laugh.’ That was the one time Brin snapped at her: You’d rather he went to sleep?’ But that too was fine, she’d needed the mini-argument it provoked. It made the crossing pass quicker.

The tree was nearly done. Plenty of logs just an axe-blow away from good kindling. She cut off the last one just before the point where the trunk had split near its base. Opposing shards still interlocked with each other where the gale had torn the fibre of the wood apart. She left that as it was, pushed the last of the logs under the wire of the fence, and piled them into the trailer.

Before getting on the quad she allowed herself a moment looking down the sound. The mountains on the island to the north looked magnificent with their top halves covered in snow. She took out her camera from the zip pocket of her jacket and tried a few angles before she got one she was happy with. There. Her brother wouldn’t be seeing that today, not stuck in traffic on the M8.

As she sent the fat wheels of the quad spinning through the puddles she said to herself no. No, no, a thousand times no. As soon as Da got out of hospital – as soon as he could walk again – he was coming back here. The idea of putting him in some nursing home like that place on the edge of the town made her sick. Him dying in a strange house smelling of piss looked after by strangers, separated from the land he’d farmed all his life. Ha! Over her dead body that would happen.

In her pocket, drowned out by the engine, the phone bleated yet again.

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