Author's note: This story, written for the TIWF Halloween challenge, was based on a discussion I had with Kaeera many months ago, so thank you, my friend. Thanks also to Granada as the copyright holders of the Thunderbirds characters and to Gerry Anderson and his team for creating them.
Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, is the Christianised version of the Celtic Samhain, or Day of the Dead. 31st October was the last day of the year in the Celtic calendar and, by tradition, the night that spirits of the dead could wander free.
Liskay Point is my own creation, but the scenery and wildlife of the isle of Mull are true to life, and need a better writer than myself to do them justice.
John sat back and watched the scenery flash by as the train sped through the countryside. He still wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing.
He thought back to how all this had started, just over six months ago. It had been the last day of October and he was feeling fed up. He was coming to the end of his tour of duty on Thunderbird Five. It had been a relatively quiet month, which had meant the time seemed to drag by and he was looking forward to going home the next day. The evening before he had been talking to his grandmother, who had promised to cook all his favourite things for his homecoming supper. She had even baked a ginger cake, his favourite, as a belated birthday cake for him. Then that morning, his father had called with the news that Alan had developed a fever overnight. The boys had been on a rescue in the Congo only a few days earlier. Though they were all up-to-date with regular inoculations against most of the nastier tropical diseases, there was always a chance that this might be something more than just a dose of the 'flu, and Brains wanted to keep an eye on him.
"Will you be OK up there for another week, son?" his father had asked. "If it's any longer we can do a supply run up for you, but we're going to be short-handed until Virgil gets back from his business trip to Chicago on Wednesday."
John had assured his father that he would be fine, though he couldn't help a pang of disappointment. Damn, he could nearly taste that ginger cake!
Giving Alan his best wishes, John signed off, then wandered over to the bank of speakers that received all the incoming radio signals. Sometimes he felt like an eavesdropper, but the hum of voices in a multitude of languages was the reason he was here, and helped stave off the isolation he sometimes felt.
"Hallo, can anybody hear me?" a voice, young and female, cut through the hubbub. "Is there anybody there? Please talk to me. I'm so lonely."
John knew it was against regulations, but what the hell. He was lonely too, and feeling just a bit rebellious. He picked up the microphone and thumbed the switch. "Hallo, yes, I can hear you. Are you receiving me?"
"Yes, I can hear you!" the voice sounded triumphant.
"Your signal is quite weak. Please keep talking while I try to make it clearer."
"OK, I'll start by introducing myself. My name is Ellie McAllister, I'm 22 years old and I live on the island of Mull. I'm using my Grandad's old radio set. I don't think it's working very well. I've been trying for ages but couldn't get anyone to hear me. Is it any better now?" While she had been talking, John's fingers were flying over the controls, making delicate adjustments. The signal was coming from the repeater on the Tracy Industries' Atlantic satellite (a section of the unmanned satellite that no-one in the company knew about) and he worked to strengthen the signal and reduce the crackles and background hiss.
Finally he was satisfied. "How does that sound?" he asked.
"Oh, that's much clearer. You sound quite close now. Where are you, anyway?"
Uh oh. Now they were on dangerous ground. "Er, would you mind if I didn't tell you that? I'm on duty, on a ….er… listening post. We're not really supposed to talk to people."
Her laugh was a lovely, liquid sound. How long was it since he had heard anybody laugh? "Oh, so you're playing hooky, are you? OK, I won't tell."
"Thanks," he found himself smiling, even though she couldn't see him. "And if I suddenly have to break off…"
"OK, if duty calls, I will understand. Are you some sort of military post then?"
"Something like that."
"Are you allowed to tell me your name?"
"Not officially, but it's John, anyway."
"Well, hallo there, John. I hope I don't get you into any trouble."
"We should be OK as long as no-one finds out. Where did you say you were – Mall?" He couldn't quite place her accent.
She laughed again. "No, M-U-L-L. It's an island off the north-west coast of Scotland. And let me guess – you're American?"
"That's right." Well, that was hardly a secret anyway.
"So I'm talking to a soldier, or a spy, on some military base in America? How exciting! I'd love to go to America and see all the places I've seen in the movies."
"You've never been to the States?"
"I've never been further than Glasgow, and I only went there twice. I hardly ever get chance to get off the island. I grew up as an only child, but when I was twelve years old, my mother had twin boys. She died six years later and I've been looking after them ever since. My father is a fisherman on the North Atlantic run, and he is often away for several days at a time, so I'm the one that looks after them. I love them dearly, but they can be a real handful, They're always playing tricks."
John couldn't help but smile. That sounded like another couple of younger brothers that he knew.
"What would you want to do if you weren't at home?" he asked.
"I want to go to University. Dad says in a few years time when the boys are old enough, I'll be able to leave. I'd like to study electronics and communications systems. I rebuilt this old radio myself." There was a hint of pride in her voice.
"You did? That was quite an achievement." John knew how temperamental some of these old sets could be from his own experience.
"Yes, it's my main contact with the outside world. Some nights I've been able to get good connections and have conversations with people as far away as Norway, but something seems to have gone wrong lately and I can't work out why. You're the first person I've been able to talk to for ages."
"There's a lot of sunspot activity this year, it peaks every eleven years. That might be causing interference."
"Oh, is that the reason? I know that is what causes the Northern Lights. We get some lovely displays here sometimes. Our cottage is on Liskay Point, on the north-west corner of the island. Dad always teases me that there's nothing between here and America. Sometimes I like to stand on the edge of the cliff. The wind whips around me and blows my hair about. I raise my arms and dream that I could fly like the birds, fly free. I'd love to travel and see all these places I've heard about and read about, meet people. Even when Dad is here, there's not much for young people to do on the island. I'd like to…" she paused, then came back. "Oh dear, sounds like one of the boys wants something. I'd better go. Can I call you again?"
"Yes, please do." John had enjoyed his conversation "But please appreciate that I may not be able to answer."
"OK, if you're busy, I'll understand. Goodbye, John."
As the sound levels on the space station returned to their normal background murmur, John could not help but sympathise with this young girl. Her situation was similar to his own, but at least he had had chance to experience something of life, and had volunteered for this position, rather than being forced into it by circumstances. He hoped he would get another chance to speak to her.
Over the next few months she had called him several times, and their friendship grew. A tentative "John, are you there? Can you talk to me tonight?" always gladdened his heart. She was like a breath of fresh air to him, imprisoned in his metal cage, high above the Earth. He was always careful to tell her when he would be away from the station. He had come to regard Ellie as his special friend and did not like the idea of her being chatted up by Alan.
They seemed to find plenty to talk about. Once he had mentioned that photography was a hobby of his.
"You'd love it here, then," she had enthused. "We get a lot of photographers. They like our long summer evenings. Apparently the light is just right for them. We do get some lovely effects. Once I was walking up the edge of one of the sea lochs – it's a long thin inlet that stretches inland for about a mile. It was evening and the sun was low in the sky behind me. The breeze was causing waves to run across the width of the loch that the light was turning into a series of gold bars."
John closed his eyes as he pictured the scene. It sounded beautiful.
"Then at the head of the loch I saw this otter surface for a moment and then disappear, leaving this ring of bright water behind him."
"Oh, like the title of the film about otters?" John liked to watch old movies when he was up on the station.
"Yes, the author lived round these parts and must have seen the same thing. Have you ever seen otters?"
"Only in a zoo. I've got a brother who I bet would like to see them. He likes all sorts of sea-creatures."
"Well, he'd certainly like it up here then. We get the Gulf Stream running past these islands so we have a very rich sea-life – whales, dolphins, basking sharks, seals. And birds too. This is a bird-watchers' paradise. Mull has no land-predators, so that place in the food chain is taken by birds of prey. We have hawks, kestrels, even eagles. There's a pair of sea-eagles nesting not far from my cottage. They look wonderful as they fly over with their eight-foot wingspan."
John always enjoyed Ellie's calls. He felt she was a kindred spirit, trapped by her own circumstances just as he was, though without the respite he got every other month. He wished there was something he could do for her, but she reassured him that being there for her to talk to was enough.
On one occasion she called in great excitement. "John! There's this wonderful display of the Northern Lights going on. The sky is full of the most magnificent colours – green, red, purple, yellow. It's like shimmering curtains right across the sky!"
From his position above the Equator John could see the lights dancing round the poles in both north and south hemispheres. It looked spectacular enough from up here – it must have looked even better from the ground.
A month after that call John found himself in Glasgow. He had been negotiating with an electronics company over the production of some new equipment that he and Brains had designed. The company was based in Inverness, but their R&D department was in Glasgow. They were flattered to be dealing with the mighty Tracy Industries. John couldn't help but think they would have been even more impressed if they knew their new product would be installed in the machines of International Rescue. As he was finishing on the last day, John was struck by a thought. "Does it take long to get to Mull from here?" he asked his colleague.
"No, not at all. You get the train to Oban which links up with the ferry across to the island. I often go there myself for the weekend. Lovely place."
John had thanked his companion. His father had said he could take a few days shore-leave once his business was concluded and as he was so close it had seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
Now however as his destination drew near, he was starting to get apprehensive. He wished he had had chance to talk with Ellie about it beforehand. How would she feel about him turning up out of the blue on her doorstep? If her father was home, how would he feel about this total stranger asking to see his daughter? On the other hand, if things went well, he might find himself making this journey on a regular basis. He glanced down at the flowers he had bought at the station. Not too ostentatious, but enough to be a token of his friendship.
His apprehension returned on the ferry crossing as the island loomed larger, clouds hiding the tops of the hills. But he had come this far and was not going to give up now. "Never give up" he muttered to himself as he left the ferry. Looking around, he saw a waiting taxi. "Can you take me to Liskay Point?"
Too wrapped up in his own concerns, he did not notice the odd glance that the taxi driver gave him as he climbed in. He spent most of the journey wrapped in his own thoughts, until the car pulled up where a track led off from the road. "Follow that track, the point is at the end," said the driver.
John climbed out and made his way up the slope. He thought he could see the chimney of a building on the skyline ahead. A cry caused him to look up and he caught sight of a huge bird gliding overhead. 'Must be one of the sea eagles Ellie told me about. She said their nest was nearby'. He rounded the corner then stopped abruptly. Something was wrong, very wrong. Instead of the cottage he expected to see, there were only two walls standing at right angles to each other, with a few blackened spars where once there had been a roof. He looked past the ruin to the end of the cliff but could see no other dwelling. The scrunch of footsteps behind made him turn to see the taxi-driver approaching.
"I wondered why you wanted to come here," the man said. "No-one's lived here for nearly twenty years, not since the old McAllister place burned down." He shook his head. "It was a great tragedy. The whole family was killed, father, grown-up daughter and the two little boys. Nobody knew anything about it until the children didn't turn up for school the next day." He glanced at John, noting the young man's ashen features, then continued. "I remember young Ellie. Lovely girl. She was two years older than me. I think I had a crush on her when we were at school. She was so full of life, always talking about what she wanted to do once she left school. I remember she used to have this old radio set and would chat to people in all parts of the country with it."
Still in a state of shock, John walked towards the ruined cottage. He bent down and placed the bunch of flowers in the empty doorway. "These are for you, Ellie," he whispered. "I hope you like them." He then turned and made his way back to where the taxi-driver was standing.
The man put his arm on John's shoulder, "Come on lad, I'll take you back to town. You look like you need a couple of stiff whiskies. We can find a pub and you can tell me all about it."
As he climbed back into the car, one thought kept running through John's head. Would Ellie call again? And if she did, could he bring himself to answer?