Chapter 19 here … Chapter 21 here
One day, all days being much like any other day, Emma wanted to speak of the baby. They’d referred to the baby every day in some form or other but now she wanted to look at the whole question.
‘Until now you've been my whole life.’
‘And now, as a mother, you cannot devote the time to me that you once used to.’
‘It’s not that I don’t wish but we both have things to do, I’ll be very tired and I’ll need a lot of support from you. It might even be some years before I can get back to the carefree time where we could make love in a field when we liked and go for walks when we liked.’
‘You think I’m not aware?’
‘To you it might seem that it's only our child who matters but that won’t be so. Will you be jealous?’
‘Of my own child? Not if you don’t forget all about me.’
‘I’d hardly do that. Tell me you understand this, Hugh.’
‘I understand. I’ve seen too many women wanting the old carefree life to go on – parties, drink and so on and I’ve seen the opposite – too many women who almost forget what a husband is actually there for.’
‘I understand that too. That won’t happen, I can promise you that now because this is my second time, remember and I’ve already made my decisions.’
‘How does it feel to have a person inside you?’
‘Different. With care, it will go smoothly. I have a different question. Why did you bring Janine with us?'
'If you were a man, you'd not ask that question.'
'Because you'd know a child needs his father as well as his mother.'
'You think I don't know that?'
'You know it but it’s not something close to your consciousness.'
She was mortified. ‘That’s so wrong – I told you that would not happen. Our child is very important for us both but we are also important to each other.’
‘I’m very happy to hear it.’
‘And you were thinking that?’
‘I’ve seen it too many times with couples. The couple who stay together is not the one where she must keep reminding him and he says oh yes, it’s the couple where she anticipates and takes care of her needs and she also anticipates and takes care of his.’
‘Yes, that’s us.’
But all the same, she made a mental note – he’d been a bit sensitive about that one, Hugh.
This was Sophie’s announcement and Sam sprang into action, the Druze women were summoned, all was in place.
Everyone was now on board, Hugh stood beside her and held her hand, Emma was propped in a chair in the corner to watch and encourage, Sara had been living there the past few days and now Gabriella appeared, causing no surprises whatsoever.
With Sophie such an able-bodied girl and with her preparation, they weren’t expecting complications but stranger things had happened before. She was comfortable enough in the birthing chair and so it began.
Now the contractions became faster, every seven minutes; Sam checked readings on her body and talked to her the whole time. She knew what to tell him from rehearsal as well.
There appeared to be no obstruction, the waters broke, the rest became intense but not difficult, Gabriella touched her lower abdomen, the midwife was ready, the head appeared and it had required no medical assistance to this point.
With Sophie shouting, out she came, little Emma, as they’d already decided to call her and the afterbirth followed.
Sophie smiled when Sam gave the thumbs up, everyone relaxed and applauded. Sam and the midwives remained, Emma was wheeled out and the others as well.
It was next morning that Hugh and Emma came in to see her propped up in bed, baby Emma at Sophie’s breast, an awkward, reddish but most precious child.
Hugh ventured a finger to touch the leg and then stood back and admired. He kissed Sophie.
‘So,’ he said, ‘one down …’
It was easier to wheel Emma these days so Hugh got her, took her over to the bed and left the two women to talk.
He found Sam with a grin across his face and congratulated him. ‘Sophie’s happy,’ said Sam and there was not much else to say on that matter. He now got on to the topic of Emma.
‘Hugh, we’re going to need all hands on deck and the apparatus ready. The Druze know the score. I’ll need you in there scrubbed up and I don’t like it one little bit having to flee straight afterwards. I know it’s an airlift but it’s no good at all for either baby or mother.
You’re going to have to do a power of praying and Sophie will too. She’s got a bit religious of late, has Sophie. We may have to do a Caesarian and you’ll need to come to terms with that now, in these last days. She may not need it, only some injections and a snip or two.
You’ll stay with her night and day now, won’t you?’
‘The slightest sign, the slightest …’
‘Yes. We’re ready. Everything’s done. It’s not as if we’ve had no time this side of the birth.’
‘Good, good. Then we’ll wait, hope and pray.’
Emma was propped up in her bed and Hugh was reading her a story from one of the baby books they were taking with them.
With her diminutive size, she looked quite rotund and he adored her all the more. He stopped reading and she asked, ‘Are you frightened?’
He said, ‘I'm nervous.’
‘I don’t need that. I understand it but I need you to do as we planned. I know you will anyway, that’s just my nervousness talking now.’
He held her hand. ‘We’ll take care of the pain and you take care of the shoving, love. Are you comfortable with everyone being in the room?’
‘I want them there. I want them to see Jean-Baptiste emerge. I want Sophie there and Gabriella’s hand on my body. Please tell her not to wait till the end but to keep her hand there. Sophie said she never felt a thing except for the relaxation inside. I want that.’
‘What do you want me to do? Hold your hand? Kiss your cheek? Wipe your brow?’
‘Just be right there and take my hand when I make this gesture.’ She showed him. ‘Sophie will take my other hand.’
‘We have to flee within two hours because we’re up against one who will know, from his loss of power, the moment it happens. His emissaries will be swift, the uqqal defences will only slow the assault.’
‘Our transport’s ready?’
‘The Oracle says so. The Shaykh will be here, of course.’
‘And Sara and Fawzi?’
‘All of them. I go over and over the plan every half day, checking, trying to foresee something we missed before. Sam helps.’
‘Then I’m happy.’
‘We need to pray too. Every half day and every hour when it gets close. The Druze are doing the same. So is Sophie.’
‘She’s been a surprise that way, hasn’t she?’
‘You’d expect me to say it but I think she’s wise.’
‘See if the baby’s all right.’ He was aware that her euphemism meant to kiss her abdomen and to take her upper half in his arms. She seemed to believe that that would help.
‘Doing fine,’ he reported two minutes later. She drowsed off while he lay on the bed and read the Cat in the Hat. It was all they’d been able to get in English.
'Do you think there are things we should never, ever tell, Hugh?'
'No, I asked you.'
'I don't know. No hard views on it. Why?'
She was on tenterhooks, so nervous. 'It was while I was in la Scandinavie, while I was recovering ... after -'
'Yes, Emma, no need to dwell.'
'I want it to be right for us, Hugh. So many times we nearly lost each other, so many times.'
He said nothing, just waited. Then she just said, 'Hold me.' He did. 'What if Nikki was alive?'
His heart almost stopped and all her worst fears were confirmed. 'Is she?'
'You frighten me, Hugh.'
'Tell me, Emma. Whatever it costs, tell me.'
'It was while I was in la Scandinavie. A message came to the people I was with ... from Allemagne. Helga felt she had to. It was Nikki, Hugh. She didn't die that morning.'
The silence in that cavern of a room was deafening. Her hard breathing was the only sound and in her eyes was sheer terror. He held her closely, stroking her hair.
'Hugh, the message was that she died later of her injuries but that she still hadn't quite passed on at the time the letter was written. Helga wrote that it was a matter of days. You see why I didn't tell you? You would have gone back there, no matter what and both you and she would die.'
'How did she die?'
'Helga wrote that she was thrown from the building, very badly injured and you know that side of the building was a long way down. The enemy searched the apartment but missed her down there. Children of some friends of Franz, boys and one girl - they found her, ran home and told their parents. The parents contacted Helga and she had the medics, as you know, the ones attached to every safehouse we were in.
They had to wait for dark and took her to one of their homes. They were surprised no one saw or reported what they'd done. They were sure the enemy had to know but still they risked their lives to save her. It wasn't enough. The injuries were too bad. They didn't give details in the message but it seems that she couldn't have lived - she wasn't ... well ... all there, Hugh. Helga then spent a lot of time, many words, in saying that everything was done right and you know it would have been.'
'Hold me close.' He did and then felt her freeze. 'That was until today.'
'Gabriella came to me. Hugh, I've never believed such things could happen. We've always lived in the real world - well, I have. These things I'm being asked to believe now - they must be illusions.'
'Emma - say it plainly - what did Gabriella want?'
'Gabriella allowed Nikki to appear.'
'How? No - answer that one later. Why?'
'She wanted me to have the choice, even as Helga gave me the choice in la Scandinavie. She gave me the choice to tell you.'
'I see.' Then the fog in his mind cleared a little. 'If you are sceptical of Gabriella then you still don't accept it was Nikki?'
'I spoke with her.'
'You spoke with her! May I ask -'
'It was about appearing to you. There's every chance you would just leave me, leave your child once you saw her.'
'You think I'd do that?'
'I feared it. You were crazy for her beyond all reason.'
'Yes I was. I'm not leaving you Emma - remember that. No matter what happens, even if Nikki appears now, I'm not leaving you. It would be like Sophie. I have to tell Nikki this.'
He got up, stumbled to the door, didn't know why but hurried down towards the pool - it seemed the logical place - dazed, knowing in his heart that Gabriella would be there. He came round the last bend in the path, looked towards the pool and what he saw made him fall to one knee against the rock.
He gazed and gazed at the woman seated at one end of the bench hewn into the rock. It was a very different person to the one he remembered but it was her all right. Oh, it was unmistakably her.
And she was a mess. Covered in cloth from head to foot, she was still a mess, from the awkward angle at which she sat near the pool on that rock, from the slow movement of her head, from his realization that there appeared to be only one foot under the robe, unless she had the other covered.
And her eyes were looking straight across at him, with the same sort of apprehension he'd seen in Emma's. He made to go to her but Gabriella drifted in front of him.
'Is she - real?'
'It depends what you mean. She is alive but barely alive in human terms, we keep the pain away. The organism is almost finished now.'
'I'm not sure I accept this.'
'You accept your Maker. You accept me.'
'Can she be held, is she ... solid?'
'She is alive, it is her but she is frail, almost no longer there. She still has her soul within her, yes. This is so that you can both find closure and then you will devote your attention to your wife and child.'
‘You would know I have already told Emma that.’
‘Yes, I know. Otherwise, this would not have happened. It would not have been allowed.’
‘But why now?’
‘I’ve only recently been sent to you all. This was always going to happen today.’
He was chaffing at the bit, Gabriella moved aside and he quickly moved to Nikki's bench. Kneeling in front of her, he reached out with one hand and she watched that hand touch her shoulder, a very real, very human shoulder, which he remembered the feel of full well ... he felt himself wanting to double up but straightened himself out, he wanted to look her in the eyes but tears blurred his vision and he could not see her.
He blinked and blinked and forced his eyes to clear, feeling that every second was vital and when he eventually did, her eyes were fixed on him, the apprehension gone and in its place was her old amusement at his inability to come to terms with her.
Gabriella touched his shoulder from behind. 'There is time, Albus. Do not hasten, remain in control of yourself.'
'I'm content now, Hugh. Now I've seen for myself. Now I know.'
'May I touch you?'
'You already have.' Yes, that was the Nikki he knew. 'Yes you may, Hugh but I'm not sure you'll like what you feel.'
He reached for that same shoulder, a good starting point and ran his hand down the arm but the arm was wasted away, with no firmness. He reached for her cheek and she allowed that, closing her eyes like a kitten as she felt the fingers spread over her cheek.
He asked, 'May I kiss you?'
'Please. If you still wish.'
He moved his face forward towards hers and she hardly moved. Her immobility was the most heart-wrenching part and he knew she was severely injured - just how much he couldn't know but he suspected the worst. His lips touched hers and her muscles tried to make the lips meet the kiss but only allowed them the briefest flicker. He kept his lips there and Gabriella assured him it was what she wanted.
'Take the hand,' she added.
He lifted the hem of the sleeve back and saw the hand, showing no reaction. He'd expected it to be bad and it was - basically just bone and sinew, with skin haphazardly over it. He placed his hand under hers, upwards and there was feeling there. Two fingers made as if to grasp his and he kept his lips on hers.
And yet she was able to say, 'This is what I've waited for, Hugh.'
'You feel so real.'
'I am real. I am in no pain here today, don't ask about it because I have no way to explain to you. I will see you again one day but not for some time and not in this world.'
'I don't understand.'
'That's why I said I have no way to explain. Helga was sure it was near the end when she wrote to Emma. Hugh, I never regretted - keep this clear in your mind. I never regretted.
For a start, I was in no condition to worry about you at that moment, that came later. I knew you had to get a pregnant woman and her child away - if you hadn't, I would have been very disappointed in you. I was not in the building, I was down below, hidden, you had no way to get to me. I always hoped to get better - enough to find you again and then I thought of your life with Emma. They wanted you both and if you’d known I was there, alive, you would have jumped and Emma would have stayed in that flat and both of you would have been taken.
I did not despair, I did not regret - you know me well enough. It had to be that way. I did not give up and die - I did really think I could become well enough to find you but I never thought you would come to me again. Understand this – I never once thought to myself, ‘What if ...?’ There was no what if. I asked Helga to write to Emma, to say it was time for her to look after you.'
He was close to hyperventilating. Gabriella touched his forehead, Nicolette continued. 'It hurts so much to see your pain. But allow me to continue.' He looked at her. 'It became clear I was not going to become better - in fact it became worse and the painkillers worked and then slowly stopped working. This was when this lady appeared and said I would see you again, not to despair.'
'And you accepted her just like that?'
'Well yes – she’s obviously a good person.'
'Nikki - always so direct, always so sure of things - and always so right.'
'Something always pulled us apart, Bebe, you and me and I'm a fatalist about life. I believe in heaven and that some things just happen. They just do. You are living, Emma is living, you have a life. It began the right way on the first island. That night you broke down was the hardest time I have ever had.'
'You were there?'
'Didn't you know I was?'
'I felt you were there. So you really had - passed over by then?'
'Yes and no. My soul could travel. I did tell you to return to Emma immediately, that you were leaving her alone in that hut. I was physically in Germany though.'
‘Why did they let you?’
‘They intended to take you if you came back, that's why they allowed me to stay there with Helga and Peter. It’s you they were after. And Emma.'
'Are you still capable of love?'
'Je t'aimerais toujours ... do you remember that?'
'Of course. Did you ever appear at other times?'
'I was present in spirit for the 40th day.. My soul left your island after that, content. The last thing I saw was you making love to Emma and you both adored each other. I was content.
I returned while you were on that boat and was not happy. You know why. I returned again when you were on the second island, the big one and was most unhappy with you and Emma both. I returned when you were on the last island and was dismayed. I've told Emma all this - she knows exactly what I think about it.’
He smiled, he could imagine.
‘The things you did to each other were so, so wrong. You saved this Sophie and then did things with her - you dirtied her, you made her pregnant, she had your child. You did such wrong things but the child is fine. I know most of what you were doing and what Emma was doing from time to time. I knew you had enemies on the last island and thought it was all over.'
She gathered herself, sorely distressed.
‘I'm most displeased with both of you. In the Druze village too - that husband and wife. You are so hard on each other. I want it to stop. It must stop, as you both have work to do.'
‘So I’ve been told.'
'Gabriella stepped forward and touched his forehead, he felt dazed and when he looked at Nicolette again, she was the Nikki of the wedding morning.
'There is limited time now, Bebe. Do as you have wanted to.' He tentatively reached out for her, she was whole and very real and she reacted as she always had to his touch.
A period of time now ensued they could never have dreamt would ever occur again.
'Je t'adore, je t’aimerais continuellement,' she whispered.
'Je t'adore aussi. Tu ... non ... vous ... êtes vraiment le femme le plus beau sur terre, je jure que ce n'est pas un mensonge ...'
'Ah, that one again.' Was it with a smile? 'I remember. You were making love to me and proposing marriage.'
'Emma has now come for you, Bebe, to take you back. I see her. The other girl wheeling her, Sophie - you love her too, don't you?'
'Then that is good. I spoke with her too.' She left one last kiss on his lips. 'Hugh, I must go, I’m sorry. Accept this today for what it was, I'll sometimes be present - though not,' she coughed her cough and smiled that smile, 'at delicate moments. You're with Emma now and your son. Keep all this in perspective and that is how you can keep me happy.
Only one thing can make me happier now – love Emma. All right, it’s time. I love you. Bye, Bebe.'
Emma was now with them, Nicolette smiled at Sophie, at Emma, at him, finally at Gabriella and faded.
Gabriella spoke. 'She is now at peace as long as you both keep your word.'
'I had a feeling that’s what it was about,’ he murmured. ‘Well done as usual, Gabriella. Thank you.'
It was dark in the cavern and they lay beside one another.
He broke the silence. 'I think you were right not to tell me about the letter in Scandinavia and I think you were right to actually tell me this time. Do you feel a weight is lifted, that we can now go ahead?'
He told her of Nikki's acute displeasure at them both and how he could only make Nikki happy by making Emma happy, never to look away, never to regret, that she would look in sometimes but not at delicate moments, that there was much work ahead to be done.
'I was hoping you would say that. I can’t begin to tell you the weight that’s been lifted off my heart, off my mind. Today had to happen and I have a feeling there’s more – obviously we have to clear everything between us now and become more as one. Do I annoy you so much?'
‘No. You did. I annoyed you too, really upset you. Not now. Those things are in the past. You and I keep being reinvented, don’t we?’
End of September, 2012
‘They’ve started. I’m scared.’
He checked the watch and wrote it down. 22:47. ‘Everyone’s in place, every change of plan prepared for. You concentrate on getting him through the passage and there are more than enough qualified people here to do the rest.'
She smiled and gripped his hand. He indicated with a nod to the girl who now appeared, as she did, for the ten minutes of her shift and soon there was the sound of people coming.
They wheeled her into the prepared room and got her set up in the chair. She wanted it to be the same chair as Sophie’s for good luck. Sophie herself now appeared and let a midwife take little Emma. Emma had made Sophie tell her for hours about every little move, every little nuance and pain of her own birth and now Sophie talked her through it, clasping her hand while Sam worked on the other side.
The contractions became closer and Sophie nodded. Sam took readings, the midwife prepared a syringe. Emma indicated pain and explained as exactly as she could. Sam nodded and knew she was in considerable pain, even agony. He gave her a shot but the dose had to be perfect so as not to reduce the contractions unduly.
Sophie continued to talk to her and she said she wanted Hugh. There was space on the other side for him and he quickly took her other hand, kissing her forehead.
‘I’m scared, Hugh.’
‘We’re here, we all are, we’ve rehearsed it, we know what to do. The pain is bad but it’s a known.’
She took her hands back and gripped the side of the chair.
They gave her another shot and this reduced the contractions for now but didn’t solve the problem. The question arose of the Caesarian but Sam felt - not as yet. It might turn out well.
Her own will for the baby and for life itself was scarcely enough as the agony continued. Hugh willed that some of that agony would pass to him but understood the obvious that the nature of birth does not allow the man to share the pain – it’s the lot of the woman.
Gabriella appeared and touched her abdomen, never ceasing and whispering to Emma – Emma registered every word in her brain. The Oracle was there, Fawzi, Sara, the Shaykh in the background. There was a low murmur of people speaking, maybe some form of litany.
The waters broke and in due course, the head appeared. Emma was screaming now but in her head and heart she was sure it was going to be all right, just a little bit longer. Waves of comfort flowed from Gabriella.
She wildly sought Sophie’s and Hugh’s hands now, Sam was in place and the senior midwife began the gentle process, Emma tried for all she was worth, her hands moist, squeezing Sophie’s and Hugh’s and the agony was near an end.
At 03:34, it was finally over, the baby boy was delivered, 3.07kg.
Once matters had been attended to, Jean-Baptiste was given to his mother to hold, something they’d both insisted on and there was a time period now of two hours for her to recover as best as she could, highly unsatisfactory but already the whole of the hill was under armed guard.
Hugh had everything ready to go, thanks and farewells had already been said, Emma was weak but not too bad overall, no surgery had been required, she was conscious and aware that they’d all been there with her.
All had done homage to the baby, Hugh had said goodbye to the Druze and Sara had kissed his cheek; now they waited.
The two hours was up.
She wasn’t in a desperate condition by any means but it was still tricky, the Shaykh gave hurried orders, she was wheeled to an area they hadn’t seen before, an open tray lift now took them up to a floor and then, further along, another lift took them even higher.
Now they could sense that they were near the outside world. It was going to take timing.
The door opened, the Shaykh hurried them with a hand gesture and shook Hugh’s hand in passing, the bed was rolled to the entrance, a line was drawn in and attached to the supporting cables, mother and child swung out and the cable went up, a second cable with seat came down, Sophie ran out with little Emma and she went up, Sam and Hugh both grabbed the third cable and wrapped it around themselves the way they’d rehearsed and up they went.
They saw the missile coming but it missed their cable, they were in the helicopter, which now dipped and went behind the hill as another missile slammed into it from the front.
Now planes appeared high in the sky – they could hear the drone even over the chopper noise, a stream of friendly missiles shot up into the sky, the copter hugged the land in the valley and headed out over the water, aeroplanes crashed, one missing the copter, which now swung savagely to the north and back over land.
They could feel every turn, every dip. Emma was all right and all three were in attendance on her. She saw that and tried to ignore the noise outside which had now abated somewhat.
The helicopter now set down, Emma was helped down by stretcher, everyone went as fast as possible to the next helicopter and it also hugged the contour of the land.
The night went on and they had to make three more changes. Sophie attended to both babies and Emma got some sleep.
The helicopter headed out over the ocean.
Finally, over a fishing smack in the North Atlantic, the cables lowered the six of them and they were hurried below. The copter swung sharply and disappeared and the next stage had begun.
The sea was not particularly high but it was still the North Atlantic and a breeze was up, causing the boat to roll and heave more than was comfortable. The skipper assured them they’d be out of the worst soon.
They came into British waters and with that came the danger. Also with it came tranquility as they were out of the big seas; they moved to another fishing spot, as they would have done ordinarily, another smack hailed them and they hooted back.
They spent two hours in this spot and then moved to another. The mate came down and told them they had to get Emma into a safe place.
Trouble was, the only safe place was in with the catch, an insufferable stench which would take some washing off afterwards.
There was a portion of the wall of the catch area which had been removed two days before and into this they now all fitted. As the boat had ribs and stringers, Hugh and Sam were able to lie in there in a shelf effect, once the two women and babies were in place.
Jean-Baptiste was quite docile so far and they felt that might get them through as long as he was fed; little Emma was also quite docile but there was a chance she might cry. The solution was right beneath them - the engine.
It was a matter of half a minute now for two of the crew to unbolt the floor hatch and skip down the ladder to the engine mounting. A minute later, the engine began clanking on each upstroke and the noise would have sent them batty if they hadn't been secure behind the metal panels, which the crew now screwed back in.
Little Emma was making noise and it could just be heard if you didn't let the engine overwhelm you. They unscrewed the panel again and Emma shouted that she needed something from her bag. She handed the mate Jean-Baptiste, got out, rummaged around and found the rubber duck, got back in, Jean-Baptiste was given back, bawling but that ceased about the time the panel was put back, the mate listened and felt it would probably do - it had to do.
They heard fish being hauled up against where they lay, there was a commotion off the boat and then they heard a thump of another boat alongside. Some minutes later, the inspection team came through and it was clear to the skipper that they were not just overseeing the catch and checking quotas.
They were looking for something.
The senior member started probing around the fish and it was clear he didn’t like the smell but he’d had his orders. Other members of the team were checking berths, panels and floorboards in the cabin.
The four could hear him close, separated by maybe a metre and a half of fish. They heard him complain about the engine, asking them to do something about it. They explained, as far as they could gather, that this would be taken care of the moment they were back in port.
He wanted the fish removed to one place. Fishermen came forward and started to remove them, the senior member saw a grappling hook on a pole, went over and took it, came back and started jabbing the point into the fish, at which the skipper, who'd now arrived, protested that this was their catch.
The senior member didn’t seem satisfied.
Behind his panel, Hugh was silent, Sam was silent, Sophie had her hand near little Emma’s mouth and Emma was doing all she could to gently rock Jean-Baptiste and play with the rubber duck and him.
The clanking of the engine was now almost beyond the pale, the senior member demanded something be done, they unscrewed the floor hatch and invited him, by hand gestures, down to observe.
He suddenly decided it was all too much and they went up topsides again.
Sam could have sworn he heard fish being handled again. Time was running quite short for the inspectors, whoever it was in the catch area knew that and then they heard footsteps rapidly retreating and the clang of boot on metal stair.
Twenty minutes later, they heard the inspection party's boat chug away and soon after, the fishermen started dragging the fish away - four minutes later, they were free of their tombs.
This was not what they needed and what was worse was that one of the inspectors might rejoin the boat near Loch Laxford, in the opinion of the skipper. That was going to necessitate being sealed up again.
The smack sailed in a south-easterly direction past Handa Island, it left Badcall, near Scurie, to port and made its way into Loch a Chairn Bhain; two hours later, they passed under the Kylescu Bridge and landed at a little wharf near the mouth of the tributary leading up to Loch an Leathaid Bhuain.
They hadn’t had the signal to be reboarded, though the four remained in with the fish, the now declanged engine was back to normal and eventually they knew that they were beside a jetty or landing.
The mate appeared and the trek had begun. The party was silent disembarking, the four following their guides in the sturdy footwear and rugged outer wear they'd been given - just who was paying for all this, they wondered - up, ever upwards they climbed, resting, slipping, climbing.
Finally above the loch itself, now came the traverse along the side of the hill, again step by step, watching their footing, babies snuggled up close to fathers.
They stopped and took sustenance, then moved off again - upwards.
The major obstacle was Loch More on the other side, not least because they were exposed to scrutiny and even though they were attired to blend into the area and their guides were of the area, nevertheless, it was a largish party moving across territory they had no business to be in at that time of year and at that hour of the clock.
It was an equally slow climb down to the loch and when they finally made it to the sixteen foot rowboats, Emma and Sophie had had it. The trip across was for recuperation and eating. Not many hours now and the dull glow of the first light would appear around the hills.
The other side of the water found them in thick forest undergrowth and they were assured that there wasn’t far to go. All guides except for two now returned whence they'd come and the party moved steadily, silently, upwards, taking increasingly more frequent breaks.
It was a compliment to the party that the guides had thought for a moment that they could physically handle the climb but they must have known the background to the four and how innately fit they were, despite the ladies having given birth.
Upwards they went again.
Suddenly they stopped.
One of the guides now slipped into a fissure in the rock, only visible side on and it was clear that they were meant to follow, which they did, in single file, having to turn side on to slip through.
Although the way itself veered left, the guide now climbed up to his right and disappeared through a gap. They followed suit and came to a dead end. Shock followed when a portion of rock now moved, as if on rollers and they found themselves inside a dimly lit cavern - that it was lit at all surprised them mightily.
Now inside the cavern, the half light revealed that it was a furnished room and at one end, two perpendicular partitions extended part of the way out.
They were asked to disrobe and leave things on the pegs and shelves, now donning easier footwear and the head guide told them they were now in the Main Room.
As they looked away from the rock door towards the end of the room, actually the north, a second cave ran off hard left, then on either side of the partition, eyes centre, were further caves, to the right of that was another fissure and a path, hard right was another cave, behind them was another partition which they saw housed a kitchen of sorts and once more looking at the centre of the Main Room, there was a large rug and around the rug were two settees and four armchairs.
The guides pointed to where water could be had, showed them their rooms, the two men thanked them, then took their women to their beds to lie down and recuperate as best they could with two babies.
Something to eat would be brought.
Hugh went for water while Sam went to the kitchen area and looked in the cupboards – much dried food in packets and some skimmed milk in a pot. OK, no fresh milk at this point but some might be brought on the morrow. Both mums were breastfeeding so that covered that contingency for now.
Pot noodles seemed the way to go, Sam knew how to do those and Hugh chopped some vegetables to embellish it with. It would do. There was a bottle of whisky – maybe later – and two bottles of wine, Bulgarian. Well, all right.
Crockery and cutlery were found, trays were found and the snack came together.
When the men returned to the bedroom with two trays, the women looked at each other and decided to say nothing untoward. Sam blew on Sophie’s pot noodle and put it on the table. Putting two bolsters behind her, he helped her sit up, took the bowl and began spoon feeding her. Hugh had put Emma in position too on the other side of the bed and now spoonfed her.
The two women were creased with laughter but decided to let it go on – it was too good to miss. Babies were on their breasts and the men were spoonfeeding the women. Once it was done, Hugh and Sam sat on the end of the bed and didn’t quite know what to do next.
‘Er, cup of coffee, Hugh?’ suggested Emma and he scurried out.
‘Kiss, Sam?’ suggested Sophie and he obliged.
‘Oh, I like this, Emma,’ she said. ‘Bet you don’t know where we are. I heard it from one of the guides.’
‘We’re under Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhugaill, not far from Aultanrynie or the A838. Mean anything to you?’
Emma smiled and fell asleep. Sophie watched the babies but then she too drowsed off. Hugh came back with the coffees but there was only Sam to join him.
The next few days were spent making the place comfortable, milk was brought in, the systems were in operation and they were at the start of a new life, a concept which worried Hugh no end, given previous experience.
Their hosts made it clear that they could only be visited at night and only every ten days to two weeks. It was too dangerous otherwise. Dried foods would be brought in. Washing of both clothes and themselves would have to be done cold so it was best they wore their roughest gear which would take harsh washes.
Lighting and cooking was by propane. If they kept one light on only at any one time, it would last until new propane was brought in. Ventilation was not a problem because it was a big cavern with many fissures. The down side was that they’d need to stay rugged up most of the time.
Ablution would have to be outside the main door and the barrel would be sealed every time the hosts visited and then rolled into the huge drop adjacent to the entrance. The smell would be minimal from down there but if the enemy got through the first barrier, well, they’d know humans were in here.
Once the guides had gone, the men made the women more than aware of the privations which were coming. They couldn’t build anything as they had on the island and they might have to consider their alternatives before a couple of years were up.
The lack of natural light was going to be the real killer and their eyes might weaken. To the down faces, Sam explained how lucky they were to even be alive, that their hosts were running an enormous risk as it was and that it was not an appalling situation. They’d make it more comfortable as they went along.
One month in and the babies were still fine, Sam had asked for and received medical supplies but it was a slow business as every request from a pharmacy had to be signed for and entered in the government register by someone. That someone had had to justify the medicine, especially if it was non-prescription.
Every move of any kind in interfacing with government was fraught, government knew that no one wished to deal with them and that suited their book. When someone did deal with them, however innocuously, it had to be investigated.
The four fugitives, said one of the hosts, did not understand the true climate of suspicion out there. People no longer spoke to one another as there were grasses everywhere and you only trusted your former best friends – to a point.
They understood and were enormously grateful.
Once the hosts had gone for another two weeks, Hugh wondered what they'd done to deserve such largesse. He had a feeling someone had done someone a favour. They all felt that.
With the babies finally down about the same time, it was time for them to grab what sleep they could and Sam wrapped an arm over Sophie from behind, hoping for a squeezed hand, which promptly came. The thing was - there was nothing really to discuss, they knew the lie of the land and she murmured her agreement when he said they'd need to find purpose again.
Next door, similar sentiments were being expressed. Most of it was being said through touch - Emma doing much of the reassuring that she was fine with things, such as they were. Strange situation altogether, strange being a family under these circumstances.
She chuckled and held his hand tighter, then her grip relaxed and she was in the land of nod.
He followed not long after.
Chapter 19 here … Chapter 21 here