macCLOUD FALLS, page 1
By the same author:
Soor Hearts, Paul Harris Publishing, 1984
Thin Wealth: A Novel from an Oil Decade, Polygon, 1986
Shoormal, Polygon, 1986
A Day at the Office, Polygon, 1991
Ansin T’Sjaetlin: Some Responses to the Language Question, Samisdat, 2005
Nort Atlantik Drift: Poyims Ati’ Shaetlin, Luath Press, 2007
Da Happie Laand, Luath Press, 2010
First published 2017
The author’s right to be identified as author of this book under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 has been asserted.
The paper used in this book is recyclable. It is made from low chlorine pulps produced in a low energy, low emission manner from renewable forests.
Printed and bound by TJ International, Padstow.
Typeset in 10 point Sabon by Lapiz
© Robert Alan Jamieson 2017
The historical core of this novel is based on the life of James Alexander Teit (1864-1922). The remainder is fiction.
This book is dedicated to the memory of three dear friends who passed away during its writing: Gavin Wallace, my old co-editor on the Edinburgh Review, whose encouragement and enthusiasm for the idea was invaluable at the outset; Richard McNeil Browne of Main Point Books, a friend of almost thirty years, whose kindness, wit and wisdom I greatly miss; and finally, Isaac, the King of Shelties, finest of canine companions, the true ‘Hero’ of this tale.
Thanks are due to Creative Scotland for a major bursary that allowed me to make nine visits to British Columbia during the writing of this book; to the University of Edinburgh for its continued indulgence and support; to my friends at Luath Press, Jennie Renton and Gavin MacDougall, for continuing to make publishing both pleasurable and easy; to staff at the BC Archives, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Public Library, Nicola Valley Museum and Archives, and Kamloops Museum and Archives for their assistance; to Karen Dawson for making it possible to spend two memorable months writing in Italy, and Patrick Jamieson for his companionship then; to my neighbour Barry Smith for the Ryga book; to the many friends in Canada who contributed good times, knowledge and sometimes accommodation, especially Adam Pearson, Byron and Sheila Anderson, Michael Elcock and Marilyn Bowering.
Most of all, thanks are due to the Vancouver poet, Miranda Pearson, who appeared as if by magic in the skies over Scotland in 2010 and helped to seed the idea, who has remained magical ever since.
1 – Oldest Inn in ‘New Caledonia’ (Boston Two-Step)
2 – The Walking Scotchman (Slow Waltz)
3 – Country & Western Capital of Canada (Square Dance)
4 – The Road to Happy Ever After (Quadrille)
5 – The Best of Seven (Finale)
* * *
Oldest Inn in ‘New Caledonia’
* * *
SHE THREADED HER fingers through the worn metal handle, put her thumb on the old-fashioned latch and a little bell rang above her head as the door rattled open. ‘Come on lad,’ she said to her dog. After the dazzling sunshine she’d left outside, her eyes took a moment to adjust. It was certainly quaint inside, like something out of a movie, maybe some old spaghetti western. Gil had said it was built in the Mexican style. The arch that welcomed them into the foyer had a low adobe curve, and the whole place seemed made of terracotta.
‘Are you the innkeeper?’ she asked of the only person visible, a figure crouched at the desk across the hall who sat up as if he’d been dozing. The question hung in the hazy violet light that framed the speaker, the tall brunette woman in a deep purple dress who had entered with a dog at her heel. It was one of the Lassie breed.
‘Can’t say I’ve ever been called that before,’ he answered in a voice from the east. In a second, it seemed she crossed the foyer in long strides and stood above him. He looked up, was caught by her intense brown-eyed gaze, still half-asleep.
‘But this is the inn, isn’t it?’ Her tone was impatient, dismissive, her accent foreign somehow.
‘Sure. The oldest inn in the province, though I guess it’s more of a motel these days. Back then, they had no mo, y’know.’ He smiled, as if the line was well-rehearsed, awaiting a response.
She stared down at where he sat, gently oozing sweat despite his being dressed in thin grey t-shirt and khaki shorts, and the fan spinning with a periodic squeak above his head. ‘I don’t understand?’
‘No motors. No autos. Back when they named it the inn.’ If it was intended as a joke, she wasn’t amused. The dog circled her heels and sat down, facing up at him, its expression as blankly insistent as the woman’s.
‘You have a Scotsman staying with you?’ she asked.
He stood up from his stool behind the desk, a small slight fella, hardly as tall as her shoulder. He hesitated as if weighing her enquiry, then nodded. ‘Sure. Mr. Johnson.’
Her tone remained urgent. ‘Can I see him?’
The innkeeper shook head. ‘He’s out right now.’
‘Is he okay?’
‘I think so, yes. Why?’
At that, she gave out a deep sigh. ‘Thank God,’ she said softly, and bent to pet the eager dog. ‘We’ve been so worried about him, haven’t we, lad?’
‘Why?’ the voice asked again.
She stood up and gave him the once-over, before adding. ‘I think he may be planning to kill himself.’ She spoke quite matter-of-factly and the innkeeper didn’t appear too shocked at first, but as the meaning of her words struck him, he gave a little gasp.
‘And what makes you say that?’ he asked slowly, as if trying to gauge her sanity.
The tall dark woman gazed around her, seeking for some inspiration as to how to turn her feelings into words. ‘Well, it’s hard to explain. He sent me a postcard the day he got here, a picture of the river. It said ‘Sometimes I take a great notion.’ And he was reading a book about a Scotsman who travelled into the north of Canada to die.’
The innkeeper scratched his head behind his ear. ‘I don’t really get what you’re saying.’
She stared down at him. ‘In Vancouver. Or rather, when I met him on the plane. About ten days ago.’
The innkeeper smiled again, shook his head. ‘Nah, you’re gonna have to explain. Sometimes I take a great notion to what?’
‘We were walking down at Jericho Beach, you know in Vancouver. We passed a bench, and you know how they have these little plaques? Well this one said ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’ and Gil, your Mr Johnson, sang ‘Goodnight Irene.’ I asked what it was and he said it was a song his mother loved. And he sang that line to me. Sometimes I take a great notion, to jump in the river and die.’
‘Goodnight Irene,’ the innkeeper said. ‘Sure. I know it. But it’s just a song. Doesn’t really mean he wants to jump in the river, does it?’
Not dissuaded, she carried on. ‘But the book he was reading, Sick Heart River – he told me, that’s exactly what the Scotsman in that book wants – to die. It’s why he comes to Canada.’
‘Sick Heart River?’
‘That’s what the book’s called.’ For a second the two stared at each other, as the dog looked from one to the other, unsure what was passing between them.
‘Okay,’ the innkeeper said. ‘Maybe could you go back to the beginning, please? I’m kinda confused.’
‘The beginning? Well, I met him on a plane from Calgary… last week. I mean, I got on at Calgary, but he was travelling from Scotland. We got talking and when he was in Vancouver – before he came up here – we hung out a bit.’
He stood a whil
‘I couldn’t get in touch with him, I sent messages, texts, but...’
He laughed at that, and came out from behind the desk, his arms splayed and his palms upraised. ‘We’re off-radar, is all. None of that works here in the canyon. So he won’t have got your messages, is all.’
‘But I tried to phone here and it just rang and rang and nobody answered.’
‘Ah,’ the innkeeper said. ‘Well, you know, I’m on my own here right now. Since my wife left. And sometimes I have to go out.’
She stared at him for a few seconds, as his words took meaningful shape in her mind. When she spoke, it was only to say with some incredulity, ‘We drove up. Six hours.’
She indicated the dog.
‘Must be good to have a dog to split the driving with,’ he said, but again she wouldn’t laugh. ‘Listen, you look like you could use a strong drink, and maybe your dog would like some cold water? It’s pretty hot up here right now. Come out onto the terrace and into the shade, and tell me why you’ve driven six hours to get here, why you think our Mr Johnson may be planning on killing himself. Cause the reasons you’ve given me so far don’t seem like good ones.’
She studied his face for a moment. ‘Well maybe a cup of mint tea would be welcome.’
‘How about ordinary tea?’
He led her through the empty dining room, out onto a terrace overlooking the river. She sat in the shade at an ironwork table, with the lassie dog at her feet, while he boiled a kettle behind the little bar. ‘And that is quite a river, like Gil said,’ she breathed, patting the dog while gazing over the bank that led down to the vast urgent flow of flinty grey water racing down through the canyon. The high rocky face opposite was mostly in shadow, but the very top of the crags caught the last of the setting sun.
‘Sick Heart River,’ he said, when he returned. ‘You know, I think my wife may have read that. Title seems familiar.’
‘I don’t know much about it,’ she answered. ‘Just what Gil... Mr Johnson told me. It’s by some Scotsman who was an early Governor General.’
He put a tray with a small blue teapot and cup on the table, then sat down opposite her. ‘So tell me, why do you think he would he want to kill himself? I thought he was a writer, here to research a story.’
‘He’s not a writer,’ she said. ‘He’s an antiquarian bookseller. He told me he’d always wanted to write, but never had.’
Again, the innkeeper looked non-plussed. ‘So he sent you a postcard, so he’s a reading a book about someone dying, you couldn’t get a reply to your messages, you panicked a bit. I can understand all that. But that’s no reason to drive up here, surely?’
She sipped her tea. ‘No, there’s more. His mother just died. And there’s the cancer.’
‘Didn’t I say?’
‘He’s got cancer. He told me on the plane, how he wants to make one big journey before he dies.’
The innkeeper’s expression had changed at the dread word. ‘Here?’
She nodded. ‘I guess so.’
‘Hmmm.’ He took a sip of his tea and stared out across the river towards the little town on the other side. ‘So, you met a guy on a plane a couple of weeks ago who told you he had cancer, who was talking about death, suicide. Then he sends you postcard with a cryptic note on it about jumping in the river and dying. You can’t get a reply to the messages you send?’
‘It’s more than that. I had this really strong feeling. Like a premonition or something, you know?’
The innkeeper sat silently studying her for a while. Then he said quietly, ‘Sounds a little crazy,’ as much to himself as to her.
The word made her flinch. ‘You think so?’ she asked, an edge of annoyance in her voice. ‘It happens, you know.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, no, I don’t know. But I’m a little worried too now.’
‘It’s such a strong sense that something’s wrong.’ She looked at her watch. ‘It’s getting late. Where could he be, do you think? Isn’t there someone you could call?’
‘Just hang on. Let me think a moment.’ They sat in silence for a while, the dog panting at her feet. The innkeeper, as she’d called him, stared out across the river. His gaze was focused, as if checking all the houses and buildings he could see, eliminating one by one the places where the Scotsman couldn’t be. Then he went inside to phone while she stayed on the shady terrace, sheltered from the baking sun. She could hear his voice in the distance asking questions of whoever was on the other end of the line.
She stood up and leant against the wall of the veranda, so she could see the little town in the canyon properly. It was desert alright, like Gil had said it was - the end of that arid belt that stretches north from Mexico through the US into western Canada. She ran her eyes over the town across the great river and counted maybe fifty houses at most. Surely he couldn’t be too lost in such a small place? But no, she had a bad feeling she couldn’t explain away.
‘Sorry,’ the innkeeper said as he reappeared in the doorway, his flip-flops slapping the tiles. ‘I called around the likely places. Nobody’s seen him today.’
Call it intuition, whatever, she wasn’t surprised. ‘Something’s happened. I know it has. We should call the police.’
‘Mounties to the rescue?’ he smiled. ‘No, there could be any number of explanations. Besides, why would he want to harm himself when he’s so busy with this research? He’s been meeting a lot of people since he got here, he could easily be in someone’s house. You know, interviewing somebody.’
She sighed deeply and the dog looked up, as if recognising the sound and what it indicated. The innkeeper watched as she sat upright, brown hair falling around her face. She was very striking, and somehow familiar, so much so he seemed to know her face from somewhere. Was she an actress or something?
‘I don’t know. Can I see his room?’ she said suddenly, quite firmly. ‘He may have left a note.’
The innkeeper was so captivated by her resemblance to someone he couldn’t quite recall, he was about to consent, but then he hesitated. ‘Now, I don’t think I can do that. It wouldn’t be right. I can see you’re worried, but really…’
She interrupted. ‘You have a pass key?’
‘You enter his room each day to fix it?’
‘Sure, at least the maid does.’
‘I only want to look around.’
‘Well, I don’t know, I mean you just turn up here, you could be anybody. I don’t know you, though I feel as if I should.’ He hesitated again. ‘Are you someone famous, on TV or something?’
‘I’m here because I care. That’s all you need to know.’
So, perhaps just to pacify her, he relented and led her up the narrow winding staircase to a door marked with a 14. The dog was at her heel all the way, panting with the heat but always no more than a step behind her.
‘This is it,’ he said, and opened the door with his pass key. Inside, a video camera on a tripod pointed out the window across the river towards the houses on the far bank, and a long desk under the window was stacked with books, some open at a particular spot. It looked like a scholar’s den, even though he’d only been there a few days.
‘I don’t understand. Where did he get all these?’ she asked.
‘Ah. Now that I can explain. He went through my wife’s library the other day. She hasn’t taken her things away yet so I told him he was welcome to borrow whatever was useful.’
She and the dog moved forward as one, and she began to read the titles on the spines. Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America, The Thompson Indians of British Columbia, Our Tellings, Skookum Wawa, and another twenty or so piled high.
‘Mostly he’s interested in the history of the province,’ the innkeeper
‘Yes. James Lyle.’
Hidden behind the stack of books, they saw his laptop, lid down and switched off. It would be passworded, no doubt.
‘Well, no suicide note that I can see,’ the innkeeper said with a smile. She didn’t answer, but moved elegantly forward with slow steps, her brown eyes searching the room. The bed was neatly made, his clothes all hung up, with the exception of a couple of shirts and a pair of shorts lying across an armchair. She went to the bedside cabinet and pulled the drawer open. Nothing but tourist brochures.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t…’ the innkeeper began, but she silenced him with a glance. ‘What’s that?’
She flicked, eyes seeking content, through a few pages of a notebook on the desk. ‘His writing, it seems.’ As she stood scanning the pages, the innkeeper moved nervously around her, while the dog stood still, watching him with its dark eyes.
‘What if he comes back and finds us here?’ he said.
‘I’ll take responsibility,’ she said imperiously, and took a pair of expensive-looking pink-rimmed glasses from her purse. ‘It seems to be a diary,’ she added.
From outside, the sound of a fire-door opening echoed up the stairs. ‘Put it back,’ he said anxiously, but then relaxed when he heard voices. ‘Ah it’s only the tree-planters coming in. I could ask them if they’ve seen him.’
‘They’re working up north, stayin here. Mr Johnson is quite friendly with them.’
She didn’t answer, but turned another page in the large notebook. The innkeeper’s reservations seemed to have evaporated. ‘Look at the end,’ he suggested. ‘The last thing he wrote.’
She thought for moment and then, as if deciding that was good advice, she flicked forward through the handwritten pages, until she came to an unfinished one.
‘It says “Today, the sacred valley”,’ she said. ‘Where’s the sacred valley?’