The Write Stuff: Where Dark Clouds Pass by JA Frances

JA Frances
JA Frances
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WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Where Dark Clouds Pass

by JA Frances

Spit against the Wind

Broomburn, Lanarkshire

November 1904

The Inspector of Police sat motionless astride his bay gelding on the rim of a grassy hummock overlooking the village. Only the occasional twitch of his lip betrayed any emotion at the prospect of the day’s work. He was a tall, spare figure in his early fifties, his face tanned and grooved by long years of service in the mounted branch of the Glasgow Constabulary. It was not for him to judge the rights or wrongs of any dispute; his reputation spoke for itself. Whenever civil disorder threatened, Inspector Chisholm could be relied upon to carry out his duty with ruthless efficiency.

At last his patience was rewarded. Almost imperceptibly, the inky black sky began to lighten, giving birth to a grey November dawn. Straining his eyes in the uncertain light, he could make out the gaunt black skeleton of the winding wheel silhouetted against the skyline. As the daylight grew stronger, other features appeared: engine house, colliery offices, the looming mass of the coal bings. To his right lay the gridiron streets and monotonous rows of miners’ cottages; beyond them a ribbon of road twisted its way into the distance. The leaden clouds reflected a scene of brooding silence, broken only by the faint but steady gurgle from the river, the Avon Water, as it cleft and wound its way towards its tryst with the Clyde.

Chisholm reached down to pull the field glasses from his saddlebag, and slowly swept the ground in a wide arc. He had no interest in how industrialisation had spread its tentacles to gouge and despoil a once beautiful countryside; the lie of the land was merely another factor to be taken into account in laying his plans. His assistance had been requested to uphold the law in a neighbouring district, and that was all there was to it. Replacing his binoculars, he wheeled his horse and began to trot back the mile or so across country to rejoin his command.

The crossroads where the rutted track leading to the mining community of Broomburn met the Glasgow highway was normally fairly quiet. But not that morning. A swelling din assailed his ears long before the inspector came within sight of the assembly point to confront a picture of utter confusion. The road was jammed by a seething mass of bodies – men pushing and jostling, shouting and cursing, some even coming to blows. The grass verges were littered with scattered piles of equipment, wherever they had been thrown down from passing supply carts. Here and there black helmets could be seen bobbing up and down amid this tide of humanity, as burly constables in oilskin capes, their cheeks puffed and scarlet from their exertions, strove to impose some semblance of order.

“What a herd of bloody sheep,” muttered Chisholm to himself as he slowed his horse to a walk. “Christ save us from Polacks and bog Irish.” But he felt no real malice. He was far more contemptuous of the Lanarkshire constabulary who had been foisted upon him and made up the bulk of his force. Thank God he had at least insisted on bringing his own team of mounted police. They may have numbered only a score, but they were a tightly knit, highly disciplined group, handpicked for their self-reliance and horsemanship. Well did they deserve the nickname of Chisholm’s Horse. And there they were, partly hidden among a clump of trees some distance from the melee, no doubt deriving great amusement from the performance of their country cousins.

A slight movement in the lee of a ruined farm steading caught Chisholm’s eye. This must be the third component of his motley band, fifteen or twenty estate workers sworn in as special constables for the occasion. These were the unknown quantity. Could they be trusted? Chisholm had his doubts. He did not want them; he had been even more vehement in his opposition to the use of civilians, but once again had been overruled. At least they had had the sense to keep away from the mayhem on the road.

The last of the open wagons were just rolling up to disgorge their loads. This human cargo had spent the night in squalid billets, before being roused, cold and hungry, to face a jolting, lurching journey to an unknown destination. Unloading the carts was proving a tricky business. It took all a driver’s skill to hold his horses steady; their hooves clattered and slipped as they strove to keep a firm purchase on the wet cobbles. The carters, too, were nervous, keen to be rid of their charges and away from the scene as quickly as possible. Each was only too well aware of the reprisals that would follow if his participation in the affair ever became known in the district.

“Sir, Mr Chisholm, sir!” The high-pitched, agitated voice was barely audible above the tumult. The inspector looked over to see a fresh-faced youth struggling to extricate himself from the crowd. Once free, he came up at the run, panting deeply, his well-tailored uniform now sadly awry. Chisholm permitted himself a fleeting smile of sour satisfaction. It was his second-in-command, Sub-Inspector Dunlop.

This young man represented all that Chisholm detested in his chosen career. It was gall and wormwood to know that despite all the accolades, he stood no chance of further advancement, while this dandified sprig was destined for a smooth passage to the top. That might be the way of the world, but at least he could vent his feelings by taking the wind out of Dunlop’s sails. He had quite deliberately left him to organise the arrival of men and equipment while he had gone off to reconnoitre, knowing full well his subordinate would never cope with the inevitable chaos. Judging by the bedraggled, almost tearful officer before him, he had succeeded admirably.

“It’s just impossible. No one could be expected to manage this madhouse,” sobbed Dunlop. “These cretins don’t take any notice, no matter what you do. Most of them don’t seem to understand English at all. The Poles are bad enough, but the Irish are beyond belief.” His speech quickened, the words tumbling out as he regained his breath. “I should never have been faced with this. You didn’t give me enough men. They had no training in riot control. Why did your horsemen and those estate workers just stand round and gape? Aren’t they supposed to lend a hand?”

Chisholm listened to these excuses with growing impatience. It was all very well for Dunlop to fail to set up the march properly, he had expected no better; but for his junior to whine and try to pass the blame merely went to confirm his impression of the sub-inspector’s lack of fibre. He cut short the tirade, and rounded on the hapless youth.

“Dunlop. Mister Dunlop. Do ye consider it appropriate for a police officer, an officer of rank, to chase around like a one-legged cripple in a bawdy house? Is that how they taught you to conduct yourself at yon fine college in England?” Chisholm spoke quietly, even softly, but the icy contempt in his voice cut through the younger man like a knife. “Look at you. Like a refugee from Culloden, or a tinker down on his luck. Cap not straight, two tunic buttons missing, boots filthy.” He warmed to his task. “Ye dare to come up here and bellyache. What will your men think when they see their leader running to hide behind his mama’s skirts? Ye’ve made yourself a laughing stock. You knew what had to be done. Ye were just too damned incompetent to direct the men properly.”

Dunlop reeled before the onslaught. Chisholm’s steely gaze betrayed not the slightest vestige of pity. But as his wrath subsided, he realised that perhaps he had gone too far. He still had need of this wretched youth, indeed his willing cooperation, if the enterprise was to be crowned with success. If the boy were to be of use, he would have to be stiffened. Destroying his confidence was not the way to achieve that.

“See here, lad,” he continued gruffly. “Yon was a right farce ye made there, and no mistake. It’s always the same, wet behind the ears. You thought you knew it all. Well, it’s a hard knock to take, but perhaps we can still make something of you if you’re prepared to try. Here’s my advice. Get your men away from that mess down there. Order them to line up on both sides of the road, a couple of yards between each man. Tell them to pick up a handful of tools each, ready to give out when the time comes. Understood?”

Dunlop nodded, too choked with shame and humiliation to look up. He dare not disobey or give less than his best efforts; the full blast of Chisholm’s rage would be too terrible to contemplate. All he could do was to grit his teeth and find consolation in thoughts of revenge. Surely something could be contrived. After all, his father had the ear of the chief constable.

“Good,” said Chisholm. He could not resist a final jibe. “Just you concentrate on your part of the job. Leave the real professional to do the difficult bit.”

The younger man stiffened, but wisely made no comment. He turned to walk back down the slope. Suddenly he stopped, as if something had occurred to him, hesitated, and then retraced his steps. “Just remembered, sir.” He bit off the last word. “Mr Semple wants a word with you.” He indicated with a vague sweep of his arm. “He’s over yonder in the four-wheeler. Seemed quite put out when he asked me where you were.”

“Put out, is he?” Chisholm’s eyes glinted at the implied criticism. “Well, his neb will have to stay out of joint awhile longer. I’ve more important affairs to attend to.”

With a sudden flick of the wrist he brought his riding crop down on the animal’s rump. The horse sprang forward, taking Dunlop unawares and almost knocking him to the ground. Struggling to maintain his balance, the fledgling sub-inspector swore angrily. Sullen and resentful, he watched from a distance as Chisholm dismounted and gathered his squad round him. Then, with a final glare, he reluctantly set off to try to carry out his instructions.

Half an hour later the inspector could have been forgiven for basking in the glow of self-congratulation. The main body was now firmly caged, swept by his horsemen into the channel between the two lines of police, with the estate workers sealing the far end. As he had anticipated, the men soon quietened down. After much prodding, they began to sort themselves out into ranks, shouldering the tools passed out by the county constabulary.

Not until he was satisfied with the formation did he deign to take personal direction of the proceedings. Ramrod straight in the saddle, he slowly, even majestically, approached the column and circled round. If this was the best material the coal owners could find to break the strike, then they really must be down to the bottom of the barrel. Some, a few, had tried to seek refuge in anonymity by smearing mud on their faces. These must be local men from neighbouring pits, driven back to work by hunger and despair. Heaven help them if their identities were ever discovered; they must know they could expect no mercy from their fellow miners. Ah well, it was not his problem. His responsibility was to see them safely inside the colliery gates. Once delivered, how they fared was none of his concern.

An irate call broke in upon his train of thought. He looked up sharply towards the source of the disturbance. On the peak of the knoll a carriage was drawn up on a small sidetrack. A face appeared at the window, followed by an arm gesticulating violently. He had completely overlooked the existence of the mine owner. This was a tart reminder.

Inspector Chisholm knitted his brow, but otherwise gave no outward sign of annoyance. With great forbearance, as if indulging the wishes of a slightly wayward child, he made his way unhurriedly towards the waiting vehicle.

“Mr Semple, I believe. Good day to ye, sir.”

“Good day be damned,” came the testy response. “What the devil do you think you’ve been playing at? I’ve been left to kick my heels here for over an hour. And I’m not accustomed to be kept waiting, I can tell you that. Were you not informed I wanted to see you?”

The inspector gave Semple a hard look. The latter, puffed out with self-importance, hardly noticed it.

“As for your organisation,” he continued, “I’ve never seen such a shambles in my life. These ninnies down there haven’t a clue. And I was told you were good. I’m beginning to doubt it.”

Chisholm had to struggle to bite back his anger. “We have had a few problems,” he replied evenly, “but as you can see, we’re ready to move off now.”

“Long overdue.” Semple refused to be placated. “Why could you not have started earlier, instead of wasting half the morning like this? Do you think we can afford to pay good wages for men to stand around doing nothing? And, forbye, why do they have to walk? Why not take the wagons right up to the pithead?”

This was too much for Chisholm. “I am in charge here,” he said stiffly, “with full powers to act as I see fit.” He paused, and then made an effort to answer more reasonably. After all, the fellow had a lot at stake. “If we set off before daybreak, too many things could go wrong. Your chaps are jumpy already. They’d be likely to imagine desperadoes behind every bush and turn in the road. And if we were attacked under cover of darkness, it would be well-nigh impossible to prevent the ruffians from getting in amongst us. I don’t have to tell you what the result of that might be. No, it’s too much of a risk.”

“That’s all very well,” grumbled Semple. “But my company has had to lay out a pretty penny to recruit that lot, not to mention the cost of transport and lodgings for the night. I have to answer to a board of directors. Are you aware this dispute has been dragging on for over five months?”

“Perhaps if I had been called in earlier –”

“Listen.” There was a new note of urgency in his voice. Or was it desperation? “If it doesn’t end soon, I’ll be bankrupt, finished. This pit is the key. If we can get production started here again, the others will soon come to heel. Either we crush the strike here and now, or we go under ourselves.”

Chisholm could appreciate the situation. A word or two of reassurance would not go amiss. “Better an hour’s delay and a safe arrival than a bungled effort. I’ll get your coolies to work, never fear.”

He nodded briefly to the coalmaster, touched the peak of his cap in salute and cantered back to his position at the head of the line. A final glance round, then he raised his arm and barked a word of command. The column began to shuffle forward uncertainly, as though fearful of stepping into the unknown.

• As a teacher, John Frances was fascinated by the Great War as a watershed in history. After retiring he wrote When Dark Clouds Pass, a novel based on the period, available now on Troubador, £9.99.