Scrap Metal

Nichol Seacliff is facing his darkest hour. He’s sole remaining heir to a failing sheep farm on the Isle of Arran, and about as lonely as any young man could be. His only companions are his grumpy grandfather Harry, and three sheepdogs who won’t answer to his whistle.

He’s thinking about throwing the whole business in when, one bitter, stormy night, a stranger breaks into his barn. Nichol, at the end of his rope, is inclined to deal with new trouble with a shotgun, but soon realises this intruder means no harm. He’s a lost lad by the name of Cameron, on the run from a dodgy and dangerous Glasgow past.

 

As the island winter melts into glorious summer, Cameron finds a place not only on the farm but in Nichol’s heart. Even Harry can’t hold out against his charm. But Cam can’t escape his shadows, and the dreadful secret he’s concealing has the power of a hungry tide, ready to wash all his newfound happiness with Nichol away.

Excerpt

It was almost dark by the time I got done. Harry hadn’t returned from his mysterious jaunt, and now the lambing was over I’d had to send Shona’s lads back home. I hadn’t realised quite how much work Cam had been taking off me in his quiet way. Wearily pulling off my coat and boots in the porch, I resolved to talk to Harry about finding some way to pay him, Kenzie or no Kenzie—he was definitely worth more than just his bed and board.

 

I went through into the kitchen. There was no sign that he’d fixed himself any supper in my absence. Lamplight was shining from the half-open parlour door.

“Cam?” I said, pushing it wide. “I’m back. You okay?”

 

He was sitting at the polished table, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbow. All around him were neat stacks of paperwork, and in front of him several sheets of calculations and the open A4 book, which I could see from here now contained column after nicely ruled column of figures. He looked utterly exhausted, but when he saw me he seemed to light up from the inside, and I felt as if I did too.

 

“You smell like a cool summer night.”

 

I came and straddled a chair next to him. “Is that a good thing?”

 

“It’s very good.”

 

“You’ve been pretty busy.”

 

“I wish I had better news from it all for you. Still, I can—”

 

“Ah, Cam,” I interrupted him. I was tired and sore, and all the muscle-wrenching labour in the world wouldn’t serve to banish my desire for him, or my conviction that I’d never be good enough—for him or for anything else. I couldn’t even keep my granda’s farm. “You can’t make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear I’ve made of things here. I’ve run the place into the ground.”

 

He laced his fingers together for a moment. Then he reached for the book and flipped back through a few pages. “Nic, I know you loved your brother.”

 

“What has that to do with—?”

 

“I’m sure he did his best with all of this, okay? But it’s not you who’s been running it down.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Going through this stuff, I’d say Alistair was great at shifting debts around. But he was just staving off disaster. He took out loans with some real sharks then borrowed off bigger ones to try and pay them off. I reckon…best will in the world, the farm would’ve crashed in a year or so anyway.”

 

I sat back. I felt very strange. Weights were lifting from me, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to let them go. Al did practical things well and I did them badly. That was enshrined in Seacliff family legend. The failure of our business here had been my fault for so long that the guilt had become a kind of scaffold to me, a prop. “I don’t understand. He was always so sure of himself.”

 

“It might have been bravado. He was in trouble.”

 

“God almighty. Can I do anything to put it right?”

 

“You don’t want to sell the place up, do you?”

 

“I couldn’t. Harry was born here.”

 

“But what do you want? You were born here too.”

We sat looking at one another. He kept wrong-footing me by putting me first. I’d grown up in a family with a patriarch and a domineering older brother. Even my ma, loving though she’d been, had eclipsed me. I hadn’t minded—I’d never known different, and they were good people, a wolf pack tolerant of its omega when they noticed it was there. What do you want? A question in violet eyes now fixed on mine.

“Me? I don’t know.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“All winter all I could think about was selling it. I was on the brink of trying to tell Harry the night you arrived. Now I’m not so sure.”

“What about your studies? You gave up everything to come back here.”

“I’d love to finish. I’d love to…” I paused, long-neglected dreams reaching surface, “…to pack up the Toyota, get on the ferry—not the Calmac, the Brittany one—and drive down through France. I’d like to rent a medieval tower in the Southern Pyrenees in some sizzling-hot valley where it never rains, stay there all summer and figure out the origins of Basque.”

“See? You did know.”

 

I began to laugh. That had been pretty specific. “Looks like. What can I do, though? The farm’s Harry’s, not mine. I couldn’t sell it even if I wanted, and these guys from the Midlothian will come and break our kneecaps if we don’t pay up.”

“No, they won’t. I phoned them this afternoon. I hope you don’t mind.”

 

“You… Wow.” For me that was the equivalent of walking into the dragon’s cave and calmly requesting a chat. “No, I don’t mind. But…didn’t they ask you security questions and stuff?”

 

“The ones your brother wrote in red Biro on the back of their first letter?” He picked the paper up and showed me. “Sometimes it’s easier to call and say you can’t do it—put the ball in their court, see how they’ll react.”

 

“Don’t they just call the bailiffs? Foreclose?”

“Expensive exercise for them. And if you go bankrupt, chances are they’ll get next to nothing from your assets. I suggested a year’s extension, twelve instalment payments.”

“Won’t they kill us with the interest?”

“I told them to freeze it where it stands, or we wouldn’t be able to do anything for them at all.”

“They never accepted that.”

“The agreement’s in the post. It’s tough times—everyone’s just trying to grab what they can.”

 

I drew a deep breath. I seemed to have extra space in my lungs for it now. “Bloody hell. Look at the big pair of Wall Street balls on you!”

 

“That’s all right with you, then?”

 

“Christ, yes. Thank you. Even with that sorted, though—can we make it? What about the tax return?”

 

“Well, now that I’ve made you some books, I reckon I can fix them up.”

 

“What—cook them, like for your criminal taskmasters?”

 

“No, you idiot. But there’s things you can claim—allowances, grants, low-income supplements—that you haven’t been doing. Legally. And these loans your brother took out, I can consolidate those. The reputable Scottish banks don’t want to see farms like this shut down. They go for a song then get turned into caravan parks. I bet I could find you a good deal. And, looking at all this lot…” He pushed the papers around thoughtfully. “I’m not sure you’ve even earned enough this year to go over the threshold. You might not need to make a return at all.”

 

I got up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. He looked so lovely sitting there, weary in the lamplight. He wasn’t ill, I decided—he’d been shaken so badly by his encounter with Archie that it had made him sick, and the marks of his fright were still on him. I vowed I’d never let him be so scared again, whatever had happened in Glasgow. I didn’t care what he’d done.

 

I put out a hand to him. “Come here.”

 

“Don’t get too excited, Nic.” He let himself be drawn to his feet. “I’ll do the research, fill in the forms if you’ll let me, but it might not work.”

 

“I don’t care. I mean, I do, but it’s the fact that you’ve spent all day even trying to sort this stuff out for me. Beannachd do t’anam is buaidh.”

“What’s that mean?”

 

“Blessings on your soul and your future. It sounds horrible in English.”

 

His hand tightened on mine. “No, it doesn’t. Please don’t take it back. You’ve no idea how much I need a blessing.”

 

“And you’ve worn yourself out. Come here with me and sit down.”

The fire I’d lit for him earlier had settled to a glow, a little sunset to match the vast one casting its last lights into the room. I led him by the hand to the sofa that faced the hearth. It wasn’t a large one, and when we sat down, our shoulders touched. Thighs too, and there were our joined hands. I wasn’t much given to admiring myself, but I loved how my arm looked curved over his. Like Harry, I had year-round weather tan. His skin was paler, ivory in the firelight. His upcoming musculature matched mine. I turned my head and found him already looking at me, lips parted, eyes fathomless.

 

“Nichol…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“If this place is Harry’s, why doesn’t he help you out with the finances?”

 

“Harry? Um…” I grabbed a cushion and flipped it as casually as I could across my lap. “Harry doesn’t do money. Not since it was beads and barter, anyway.”

 

“Well—I adore your granda, but I think he should at least try and get his head round it, to make life a bit easier for you.”

 

“Oh, right. Will you be telling him that, then?”

“I might have a go.”

 

“Cam, love—do you really want to talk about Harry just now?”

 

“No. And you can move that cushion.”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”