The trio were a distinguished, if understated group, and no one of them would have had the crassness to voice their own merits. They had been brought together - Macallister, Galbraith, Anderson - partly through their own choice, partly by chance, possibly via serendipity. They suited each other; they were the same generation, had the same accumulated wealth which now sat easily after respective lifetimes of struggle and ill at easy guilt. For sure they shared the same cultural background. They were Scottish, far exiles, and Scots did travel well, though seldom this far. Was there a compatriot, centuries ago now, who jokingly said, ‘We only use Scotland to be born in,’ when challenged about the overwhelming sentimentality of the exile.
It was true. These three, however, seldom spoke of their origins: town, country, planet. It was far behind, gone. They sat so easily in each others’ company it was taken as a given. There were others on the planet: humans who were, by and large, transitory. Also other sentient species who kept themselves to themselves.
‘Pleasant enough,’ Galbraith said grudgingly once, speaking about the aliens. ‘But they don’t drink whisky, do they?’
No, they didn’t. Anderson wondered after that if perhaps the aliens were grouped by fate or circumstance into sub-groups the same as they, albeit anatomically and psychologically different. Who cared. No-one would be bothered to find out. Any anthropologist who came to this world would be immediately shunned and would die of boredom.
‘Or be eaten by those bloody five legged buggers,’ Macallister said.
And the other two went, ‘Ha, ha, ha’, and forgot about it.
There were machines also on the planet, and half machines, and quarter machines, and all sorts what have you, and a lot of them hated to be classified as this and that. They had proposed laws to stop people (and others) putting labels on them. Good luck to them. Who cared. More whisky.
No others ‘of the blood’ ever came here among the transients. Only Anderson checked the lists which were published before the vessels arrived. He had something to hide, was careful not to detail his business career in full colour, made no use of the standard vocabulary of the freewheeling executive or industrial type. The other two put up with him, even liked him a bit, but they did not trust him.
The loch was his idea. You got a terraforming allowance when you first came, which the other two splurged immediately. Macallister was made keen on bloody roses. ‘Should have been an Englishman, you,’ Anderson said dismissively. But Macallister would not halt until he had two acres of all colours of that flower, plus many other wondrous, not native species.
‘Those things with the tendrils will come down here and eat the lot of your blooms,’ Anderson said. But they didn’t. To spite him, Macallister bought more terraforming and had wilder, deeper, more intoxicating roses circle his homestead. You were only allowed so much. But he was happy.
Galbraith, on the other hand, had a full on pine forest around his home. The intoxicating smell of the bark and seeping resin almost outdid the rose garden.
‘Something to hide,’ Anderson remarked, though he was one to talk. It was the only known forest on the planet. Aliens drove out (but not in droves) to stare at it.
‘You should charge them for the privilege of seeing it,’ Anderson also said.
‘Away and boil your head,’ Galbraith answered him.
Anderson chose to hide in plain sight. There was no ostentation around his house, just the natural vegetation of this planet, which was passably pitiful. Ten years later he had a brainstorm and ordered a full size loch. It was so large and outlandish, with hills on all sides, that the other two voiced the suspicion that he had far exceeded his allowance and must have bribed someone. But there it was, a fact: outrageously there overnight. By God it was beautiful.
They took to sitting by its shores late afternoons and into evenings, all the times, every season. It moved them because it was precisely like home. They dared not say this, in case it made them look misty eyed and sentimental. But it was true. The measure of its potent magic was that it made the other two actually like Anderson a good deal more.
The loch made them open up, cautiously and somehow painfully, about the home country and various aspects of life that had once existed there. They did not dare talk about themselves in any detail, not yet. It was a danger venture. Galbraith compared it mentally to the loch waters: how deep, how unknown, cold, dangerous. Macallister thought, to some extent, that the loch had the effect of making one slightly, ethereally drunk, which was a good and a bad thing. Anderson kept his thoughts secret, even from himself.
When there was a mist that rose from the disturbed surface of the water, sometimes it rose in silent majesty and wreathed the birch and elms on the further shore. The white tendrils tethered the trunks to the alien earth and prevented them from rising up like rockets and somehow returning to their spiritual home far away. Inspired by this, in contrast, the sight loosened something in each of the men, uneasily, and certainly their tongues.
‘This makes me think of that certain place on the west coast,’ Macallister muttered. ‘What was it called? It’s not there now.’ He clenched his tumbler of malt more tightly.
‘None of it is there now,’ Galbraith said edgily. ‘Was it called Balnableary? Or was it Dunroaming? What about Brigadoon.’
Macallister ignored him or didn’t hear; luckily for him.
A group - hardly a flock - of birds skittered across the jagged lock surface, profoundly disturbed by something unseen, possibly below the surface. You hardly ever saw birds here. They were heard in the gloaming, at the dawn; not a beautiful sound, and you were glad you hardly ever saw them. But these moving shadows were like non-natives, Earth birds.
Macallister stood up, almost excited. Anderson laughed behind his back.
‘What is that, a peewit? And the other? A dotterill, perhaps, eh?’
They were gone before identification could be pursued. The sound they made in their calls was eerie and continued, like a coronach, long after they had vanished into the screen of moving trees beyond the loch.
‘All this harking back makes me queasy,’ Anderson said, rising himself. ‘Can I take another drink?’
He was at the decanter before the question was asked. Macallister regarded him stonily.
‘Help yourself,’ he said.
A roll of cloud, a black underbelly of something astir in the atmosphere, positioned itself like a piece of heavenly gothic scenery overhead. The water, in response, became the colour of obsidian. Even the whisky in Anderson’s glass darkened hue as he sat down; a responsive echo in the peat at its heart. Or perhaps the holder’s nature, Galbraith thought.
‘You’re a pair of fools,’ Anderson set easily as he settled back into his seat. ‘What is it about there that can bring you any comfort here. Even if it wasn’t gone in reality, it should be gone inside here.’
He stabbed the side of his own skull rather viciously.
‘But, oh no,’ he continued, ‘the sky was always blue, there was never a bloody problem in Eden and, damn it, our people were better than everyone else on the planet. Is that the bottom line?’
‘No one’s saying that,’ Galbraith murmured, unwilling to give fuel to what might once have been called his dander. Hackles, he thought. That was another term. Like the proud badge of identity on the regimental headgear.
The forthcoming storm thickened the air. They were glad they couldn’t see Anderson clearly. It seemed as if there was sediment from the floor, the very bottom of the loch, in the muggy air.
Keep the heid, Macallister was thinking. Keep it together, man. For something was coming which would forestall the necessity of action from either of them. He went aside a little under the pretext of fixing another drink and huddled there for a few minutes with Galbraith. They conducted a low dialogue about what to do with the man if he became unreasonably violent, throwing him furtive looks every few second.
‘Would you look at the state of him,’ Macallister whispered.
Anderson was indeed far gone, whether it was with alcohol or something else. He was unaware of them and swayed, muttered and waved his arms, perhaps in the pretended presence of something else, an odious aspect of his imagination undoubtedly. Galbraith shook his head. There was a special contempt reserved for a man of Anderson’s age who could not hold his drink. Yet, looking at him again, he doubted the whisky was indeed to blame.
Then he felt Macallister hold him back, under the assumption that he was going to lunge and attack Anderson, who was now mouthing the most foul and fantastic diatribes not only against the homeland, home planet, and all humanity, but particularly to the two men standing in close proximity to him. But Galbraith was not going ton attack, he was going to bolt.
Something had struck him. What had Anderson, that great denigrator of his own culture and origins constructed this awe inspiring temple which was the aquatic embodiment to all that he professed to despise? He urgently hissed something to his friend, then tried to break free. But now it was Macallister holding him back for another reason.
‘Look,’ Macallister said and pointed with his free hand. ‘Look at the loch.’
‘What is it?’ Galbraith strained his eyes terribly. There was nothing there. Yes there was. Maybe.
The choppy surface stilled to sheet of dark, mourning silk. Then a silence disturbance in the centre and something arose.
Anderson suddenly snapped back to sobriety, agog at the fourth presence. He took at step back toward the other two, who instinctively took a reciprocal step away. Then Anderson swore and repeated Galbraith’s wondering question: what was it?And then his own:
‘What does it want?’
‘I would say,’ Macallister said slowly as they both watched the featureless head rise further and then an elongated extension which might have been a neck. ‘I would say - and I’m no expert, mind - that thon beastie out there kens you, Anderson.’
It was no joke, for its coal black and gleaming eyes opened and unmistakably, malignantly fixed upon Anderson. The glare was eternal and hellish and the power of it surely fixed Anderson to the spot, from which he would not be capable of removing himself.
Yet the other two were freed. Galbraith and Macallister drained their tumblers. One of them (it does not matter which) raised his crystal to the inhabitant of the waters which was coming ever closer at cruising speed. Then they turned their backs and departed, quite slowly.
What would you call a thing like that? Macallister wondered. Yon beastie seemed overly familiar and warm. The cratur was better, the old word for creature. That would do. There was a mighty noise behind as they walked away but neither of them looked back.