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Dum Spiro Spero

 


Dum Spiro Spero

Des Dillon (U.K.)

My Da was always looking at photographs of beautiful spots in Scotland and seeing peace there. In June he bought a half-price Highland Calendar out the Foodbank charity shop and December was these snowy peaks near Tyndrum.

¾That’s not that far away is it? he asked. I showed him on Google maps where it was and his eyes went all dreamy. I knew what was coming. He’d keep this photo by his side night and day, pile all his hopes and dreams into it, then he’d want to go to that actual landscape and search for the peace he’d invested in there. It was a slow but definite process and by winter I was fed up listening to him. He sat, dripping with whisky, in the dim blinking light of the Christmas tree, and pointing into the photo.

¾See that, he said, ¾See that there? In there? Can ye see it?

¾Aye.

He stared in my eyes and said, ¾Can ye fuck!

The veins in his neck stuck out.

¾Ye fuckin glanced at it. Ye never even looked. D’ye know how long it took me to see that? I’ve had this fuckin thing for six months. I had to stare. For days I had to stare, fuckin weeks, before I even began to see it, before I had an inkling even of what it was, so don’t tell me ye can see it after one fuckin blink!

I downed my whisky and searched the photo as he poured two more. His blue eyes watered and shimmered with the thing he saw. A snow bound path twisted away from the front edge of the photo, alongside a river, through a forest, then up into a valley between two white powdery mountains. There was a stag on the right puffing out a cloud of cold. This path, it drew you in and I could feel why he wanted to wind through that pine forest in the hope of finding something on the mountain. The whole thing reminded me of our family motto,  Dum Spiro Spero  -  While I Breath I Hope. My finger by now had traced the path to a shape in the snow on the mountainside.

¾Told ye there was something up that hill, he said and his manic smile flicked on.

It was a building only just discernable in the snow because of its geometric shape.

¾Can ye see it now?

I nodded.

¾It’s a cottage. I thought I seen smoke. Can ye see any smoke?

I couldn’t.

¾Imagine living there eh? Up there, away from everything. Nothing, no people, not even a footprint in the snow. Except for him, he said and when he touched the stag with his finger the side of the mountain warped. By now tears were running down his cheeks and my Mother came in and placed two coasters beside the chill of the photo.

¾Is he still battering on about that photo? she said, made a cuckoo sign and left when he was still speaking.

¾Just want to go there. Camp for a few days. Rough it. Maybe there’s nobody in that cottage. Get a big fire going, sit at the window. Soak all that peacefulness in, he said and swept his hand across mountain, cup and coffee table.

¾Oh hi yi Davy, I heard my Maw say.

¾It’s Davy, I said, pulling him out of his dwam.

Davy managed to change the subject from the cottage to the river and the gold panning beginners kit he got on eBay when his Universal Credit eventually came through.  When he said there was gold in Scottish rivers, my Da made his decision and ripped December out of the calendar.

When we got off the bus the mountains were wet with a wash of sleet, off-white and loathsome. It was palpable, my Da’s disappointment, as the bus churned through slush and left us stood like Wizard of Oz extras by the side of the road.

¾What’s this? He said. ¾This isn’t the photo. This is nothing like the photo.

Cars whizzed past filled with Christmas jumpers and bored but colourful kids caged behind steamed up windows.

¾Ever noticed how you don’t get old cars now? Davy said and we looked at him as we fastened our rucksacks.

¾Old cars! It’s just new shiny cars droove by people brought up on dinners us bus surfers can only dream about. The days of the banger are dead.

My Da unfolded the photo, compared it and shook his head.

¾Maybe it’ll snow, said Davy.

But my Da’s head was shaking and his lips went tight as a freshwater oyster as he folded the photo.

¾We’re as well going anyhow, I said.

¾Aye mon, said Davy but my Da never moved.

¾Paddy? Said Davy, ¾You coming?

He looked up, made a little twist with his mouth and a noise in his throat that meant aye.

We slung on the rucksacks and crossed the road where my Da kicked a tiny hill of slush turned black with diesel before we walked into the wilderness.

The path went through a tight spruce forest not included in the photo and in the trees the temperature rose and our boots clumped soft down on pine needles. Light shafted in like chapel and I even thought I heard a choir singing but it was water.

¾The river, Davy whispered.

We broke suddenly into the actual photograph. Caledonian pine spread out before us and they were so majestic, so present, so there, it was hard to tell if they were defining themselves or the space between them. For a moment I got this feeling I was in a Chinese painting.

It got instantly colder and I put my gloves on but Davy rolled up his sleeves, dumped his rucksack, and made his way down to the river. My Da bumped along beside him but you could see by the way he moved his heart wasn’t in it. Davy lay chest down on the damp heather, sunk the pan into the water and dug at the gravel. The tip of his nose touched the water and when he heaved the pan out his arms were red to the elbow then white. Unemployment had brought his bones to the surface so that an old man’s arms hung from a young man’s shoulders. We stared as he swirled the water round and round, getting rid of some gravel with every revolution.

When we were down to four bits of gravel that looked like gold but weren’t, my Da tilted his head back and breathed his hope out into the landscape. That reminded me of the stag and I looked expecting to see it but of course it wasn’t there.

Davy handed me the pan.

¾What?

¾Your turn.

¾So an I fuckin will! – It’s freezing.

¾My arms are like corn beef, look!

But my Da had his sleeves rolled up and grabbing the pan, he got down deeper, dragged harder and came up filled to the brim with gravel. If the cold affected him he didn’t let on.

We gathered round the pan again and hypnotised like Macbeth’s witches, stared into the whirlpool for the enchanted salvation of gold. The water slopped and slipped over the edge, promise diminishing with each swivel and we were about to give up when something flickered. A flake tumbled over and over, glittering in the water, then we watched it glide along the surface and stick itself to the side of the pan.

¾That’s gold, said Davy.

¾So an it is!

¾It’s fuckin gold! It sticks to the pan, it’s in the book, ye can’t lose it, he said.

And sure enough, when my Da got rid of the last particle of grit this flake was glued to the side of the pan. He got it onto the end of his finger and held it in dead centre of our triangle and we all went squint watching it.

¾Waw, said Davy.

My Da smeared it onto Davy’s finger and he said it was gold, definitely gold, then wiped it into my hand. It sure looked like gold to me. My Da picked it up on his nail and placed it in the wee plastic box he uses for his medication. It gave one last flicker before he clicked it shut.

When I immersed the pan I was sledgehammered. I got down so deep I was wet to the biceps, scraped out a hefty weight of gravel, dragged it out and swirled. This time we had two flakes.

¾That is gold. It’s definitely gold, said Davy, grabbing the pan and turning back to the river. But my Da stopped him with some neat logic.

¾Look, he said and we followed his eye out through the forest up the slope. Near the cottage was a white rush of water.  ¾If there’s flakes here they must be coming from somewhere, there’s no tributaries running into this, not a one, so the lode must be up there.

Lode was a good word to use. Lode! Chunky nuggets lit up in our heads. The future was golden.

As we done our best to mitigate our wet sleeves, Davy said this, ¾Know something Pat, if that is a waterfall, there’ll be a natural trough below it and if there’s a trough that’s where the gold’ll be.

For the first time that day my Da smiled.

¾The Job Centre can shove their zero hour contracts up their arse, said Davy. ¾We’re goanny be rich!

As we trudged up the mountain Davy told us how gold’s so heavy it’ll fall to the bottom of a trough and lie for centuries. Millennia even. The bigger the nugget, the longer it’ll lie there. In fact, mathematically speaking, it’ll only be the heaviest ones that are left.

I don’t know if it was thoughts of gold or the sleeves drying, or something else but it seemed to warm up or we warmed up. After another mile we were getting the measure of how far away this cottage was. And the path was getting steeper. We decided to rest before making our last burst for the waterfall. We found a flat rock the height of a table and had sandwiches and steaming tea from a flask and as I stared into my cup, a snowflake landed like an apparition then melted.

¾Snow! said Davy.

 

We stood, three men, our faces to the sky watching flakes tumble and spin and spiral down. These were serious flakes, the advance flakes before it came in big. The wind got up and snow came horizontal through the woods. We gathered behind the trunk of big tree, covered ourselves with the sleeping bags and sang Away In A Manger as we watched those woods fill up with snow. It was warm in the red glow of fleece and for a time we thought it wasn’t going to stop.

¾You used to sing a wean in a manger, my Da said, ¾When you were a wean yourself.

The whole place was white when the wind gave out a groan and disappeared somewhere else and when the sky turned blue we stood up, shook off crisp new snow and packed the bags away.

It was the whitest white we’d even seen and there’s nothing else to do in that kind of white but laugh, so we laughed and our echoes laughed back. My Da took December out. The mountain now looked like the photo.

¾Eh? he said, elbowing us and nodding at the mountain, ¾Eh?

Some snow from a branch scattered on the glossy paper.  He wiped it off and compared and he smiled this unusual smile and I believed that somehow, after all these years of searching, he’d finally found his point of peace. The look on his face was astonished contentment.

We grinned at each other and moved on and snow crunched like polystyrene as we got into a synchronised rhythm so that between footsteps and breath, the woods were saturated with silence.

But my Da’s radiance faded a bit when we realised it wasn’t a cottage, it was something bigger and by the time we were close enough to hear the waterfall it was an industrial building.

It was hard to talk in the roar of the waterfall. Davy knew for certain, for absolute certain, there was gold at the bottom of the foaming pool but it was dark and deep and a long branch sunk down touching nothing. My Da said we should find a bucket, dump some stones in it, tie a rope to the handle and lower it down, see what we could scrape up.

On the way to the building to search for a bucket we passed all these rectangular pools set in rows and steps so that water ran from one into the next and so on. It should have been beautiful but it wasn’t because the water was murky brown, the snow at the edges was rust coloured and the metallic smell reminded me of closed down steelworks.

¾What does that smell like, Da?

¾The closed down furnace, my Da said.

I busted the padlock with a lump of granite and in we went. It was like the Marie Celeste, there was old brown wooden furniture, a desk with leather inlay, wooden filing cabinets, a two year old newspaper spread out, a teapot, a cup of tea with the top iced over, bird’s nests, a pen and an open notepad where someone had doodled a beach with a hammock strung between two palm trees and a setting sun. It looked like they’d got up for colouring in pencils and never came back. A waterproof jacket fitted Davy and we forgot the bucket and started plundering. It was mostly useless stuff in the drawers like pens and a calculator that when you pressed it the numbers struggled to come in then faded out, a box of paperclips rusted into a Picasso and a few good pens with the balls rusted shut. It looked like Davy’s jacket was the only thing worth stealing when my Da found a bottle of unopened Glenlivet filed under W.

¾Look under D for dope, said Davy, but it was just all these old rotted files that fell apart in your hands.

The door into the main factory was locked and as Davy searched the desk for keys I booted it off the hinges and it slapped into its own echoes. We wouldn’t admit it but we hesitated before we went in. It was eerie. There was row after row of library type shelves. Only you’ve got to imagine these shelves as ten feet deep and thirty feet high. They ran the whole three hundred yards of the building and were stacked with so many long tubes that if you half-closed your eyes they looked like the corrugated steel sheets on the side of Roll Mill.

¾What is that? said Davy, ¾What the fuck is that?

 

My Da was first, he padded through the boxed-in silence and touched one.

¾It’s cores, he said.

¾What?

It was test bores from inside the mountain. You could see the strata change from marble to granite to a thin line of quartz and here and there deposits of iron had oozed out rust like bloodstains, creating that metallic smell. These cores were broken into short lengths and my Da picked a bit up. It had writing on it - a date and a depth. They all had writing on them. Twenty feet down. So many hundred feet. A thousand feet. And dates.

¾Wait a minute, said my Da as he prized his nail between strata of granite and quartz. He took it out in to the light and we followed him.

¾Shit, he said. ¾Shit!

¾What it is?

He handed the core to Davy.

¾In there, look! he said.

¾Fuck, said Davy, ¾Fuck!

Davy gave it to me and there, between the quartz and the granite, where my Da’s nail had been, was a thin disc of gold the size of a coaster.

 

¾It’s a fuckin goldmine, said Davy.  ¾This is a fuckin goldmine!

And it made so much sense we all felt like fools.

It was a flurry as we flung all the stuff from the rucksacks on the desk, sleeping bags, bivvi bags, the gold pan, stoves, tins of food, spare socks, everything and we went back into that cavernous space picking cores with the thickest seams of gold. We were like three Sanctioned men let loose in a closed supermarket. My rucksack was full in minutes but then I’d come across a core with an even wider stratum of gold and swap that for the least profitable one in my pack. I guessed Davy and my Da were the same because it was only when darkness purpled the sky that we gave up.

¾Mon Pat, it’s getting dark, Davy said and we had to promise to come back next week to get my Da out.

¾We can come back every week, Da!

¾What if somebody else finds it?

¾There’s been nobody here for years, said Davy. ¾Look, we’ll bring bikes next week, a barra even, get loads and our camping gear.

We stuffed all our own gear in a tool cupboard and my Da took some rusted tools and put the door back on as best he could, then we Marie Celested everything again and outside we hung the padlock back on. We set off, taking slugs of the Glenivet to keep us warm.

Going down was hard on the knees as we struggled and sweated through the snow. When we looked back up the hill, falling snow was obliterating our footprints so that, as far as the world was concerned, this goldmine had no visitors. Then Davy had an idea. He took off his new yellow waterproof, sat his bag on it, ripped wire from the deer fence, bent it round his waist, fastened the ends to the jacket and dragged his gold through the snow. We trailed an enigmatic pattern on the mountain, a fat bellied six legged stag, as we foot printed down towards Tyndrum.

In the morning we started breaking those cores in my Da’s garden. Thump thump and splinters shooting into skin. We were getting fingernails of gold for every hour’s work but flake by flake we half-filled three large beetroot jars.

Next day Davy had a Job Centre interrogation and I went with him. It was toasty warm inside and the whole place turned with beaming grins when Davy crashed out red faced, cursing at the interviewer.

¾Shove your sanctions up your arse. I don’t need your money anyway!

By now this women, with a face like a rusted hatchet and two pickled onions for eyes, was at the door but she had to wait for the applause to stop before she spoke.

¾That’s fine mister Johnston she said, ¾Duly noted.

They booed her as we left.

¾Don’t need her money anyhow, Davy said, pulled his beetroot jar out his donkey jacket and headed straight for Cash Generator. The woman’s eyebrows lifted with what I took to be delight when Davy bumped the jar on the counter.

¾Much is this worth?

She took the jar and Davy said, ¾Plenty more where that came from, hen.

I expected half a jar to be worth about five hundred quid but she smashed our hopes on two words. Iron Pyrites.

¾What?

¾Iron Pyrites, she said.

¾What’s that? Said Davy and I wished he’d never asked because I felt every alkie, junkie, shoplifter and desperate minimum wage worker’s eyes wobbling with laughter when she answered.

¾Fool’s gold I’m afraid, sorry guys, she said and she pushed her lips to one side and scratched behind her ear with one finger by way of compensation.

It was a long walk to the street. Davy flung his jar in the canal and it felt like watching a coffin being lowered into the hole as it faded into the dark water.

¾Who’s goanny tell my Da?

¾He’s your Da.

We could hear the hammering at the end of the street and when we got in my mother nodded to the back garden. First thing my Da done was show us this two wheeled Steam Punk rickshaw contraption he was making for our next trip. It even had suspension made from rusty sets of mountain bike forks.

¾Get ten times more with this baby, he said. ¾Straight in and out before we arouse any suspicion. And check this out…

He clipped aluminium runners shaped like skis onto the rickshaw and his old furnace shovel was fixed to the handle in such a way that it could be levered down as a brake.

 ¾Rain, hail, ice or snow, we’re goanny be rich, he said.

He was even working on a way to smash the rocks.

¾We can’t keep this up, he said, pointing to the sledgehammers.

His plan was to get a steel box welded up. Stainless. Put the cores inside, steal a small pneumatic drill from the demolition squad and fix a square plate on its nose.

¾Smash the cores to smithereens in seconds. Have that made for next week. Eh? Eh? he said, rubbed his hands and went back to smashing rocks.

He was fuckin ebullient.

¾Ye need to tell him, Davy said.

I said nothing.

¾What is it?

Davy pointed to my Da’s overflowing jar of gold.

¾It’s not gold, I blurted out.

¾Don’t be so fuckin stupid.

¾I had it tested.

¾Tested?

¾In Cash Converters

My Da stood with the sledgehammer hanging limp by his side. The muscles in his forearms like tangled rope.

¾It’s iron pyrites, Davy said.

And when I said fools gold the hammer slipped, dunk, onto the slabs.

¾It was a fuckin goldmine!

Davy shrugged and stepped back leaving it to Da and son.

¾That’s what the woman in Cash Converters said, Da.

¾Cash Converters? Fuck Cash Converters! No woman in no Cash Converters is going to tell me they drilled a million cores in a goldmine when the first one they drilled was fools gold. Who would do that eh? Only a lunatic would do that, keep drilling after they found fool’s gold?  A fuckin madman!

He smashed at a core muttering about the woman in Cash Converters and when I turned I could see a half-real Davy through the window telling it all to my Maw and when she appeared with rolls on bacon my Da was still hammering. He was still hammering when I left and he kept going till every ounce of gold was pummelled out of those rocks.