Ken McClure


The Island of Barasay,

The Western Isles of Scotland.

19 January, 1992.

Lawrence Gill’s lungs demanded more and more oxygen until, unable to comply, he was forced to his knees on the wet shingle. He knelt there, weakly supporting himself, until the deficit had been reduced. As soon as his laboured breathing subsided he struggled painfully to his feet and continued trying to run on a surface that seemed hell-bent on denying him grip. The wind howled in from the Atlantic and whipped up the rain until it felt like icy rivets being driven into his face. It seemed that nature was attempting to render him as featureless as the barren beach that so begrudged him every inch of progress.

Gill’s hands were bleeding by the time he had clawed his way to the top of the cliff and started out for the old stone cottage where he planned to seek refuge. It had lain abandoned for more than two years, ever since Shona’s father had given up the unequal struggle against the elements and returned to the mainland. Gill was hoping that there would be enough there to sustain him in the way of shelter until the hunt had tapered off. The rucksack on his back held enough tinned food and supplies to see him through two weeks if necessary.

Through the rain Gill could see the outline of the cottage on the corner of the headland. It still had a roof and that was something of a bonus considering its location. He had once asked Shona what had possessed her father to build a cottage on such an exposed site. Shona had said that he had felt closer to God there than anywhere else.

It was true that, when the sea was calm and the sky dear, you could see for thirty miles from the top of the cliff and watch the sun sink into the western horizon like a huge ball of orange file; but the sea was almost never calm, and the sky was seldom dear. More often than not westerly gales whipped up the Atlantic into a frenzy and sent huge breakers crashing against the rocks below sending fingers of spray high into the air to clutch at the cottage as if to tear it from its perch.

Gill moved into the lee of the back wall and rested for a moment with his shoulder against the rough stone. The rain had sought out the vulnerable points in his clothing and he could feel the water trickle down his back as he once more gasped for breath. There was a back door to the cottage. He moved along to try it rather than expose himself to the wind again by going round the front. The handle was rusty and stiff but it did turn and Gill put his shoulder against the door to overcome the reluctance of the hinges.

The room he was in had been the kitchen but broken windows had allowed access to the elements and the sea birds and it was in a mess. With a heavy heart Gill wondered if the other rooms had fared any better. He opened the door leading to what had been the living-room and stopped suddenly in the doorway. Two men were standing there. They were clad in oilskins and they looked at Gill as if they had been expecting him. Neither said anything; the guns in their hands were supposed to say all that needed to be said.

Gill felt a strange, sad sense of resignation come over him. It seemed ironic but it was almost a feeling of relief. He had been on the run for four days and that’s all it had taken to ruin his life completely upside down and make him the running victim in a living nightmare. Four days to undo everything he had worked for, career, marriage, prospects, the imagined solid foundations for success and future happiness, had been swept away with an ease that now seemed obscene. It all seemed so unfair.

One of the men ransacked his belongings while the other held a gun on him. When the man kneeling on the floor looked up and shook his head the man pointing the gun said, ‘Where are they?’

‘You’re too late,’ said Gill. ‘They’re already in the post.’

The two men looked at each other without saying anything. The man with the gun motioned that Gill should back out the door.

Gill was no longer mindful of the wind and the rain; his head was full of images of the things he would never see again. God! he wasn’t ready to die! He was suddenly overwhelmed by panic. He veered off to the right and ran into the wind, hoping that his captors would have difficulty aiming with the driving rain in their faces.

In his mind’s eye, Gill imagined a path leading down from the far end of the cliff to the shore where he would run along the sand with the wind behind him and get into the boat to make good his escape. But when he got to the edge he saw that there was nothing but a sheer drop. He sank to the ground and lay full length looking over the edge at the rocks far below. He felt all hope drain from him; he was left with a desperately empty void inside. He relaxed his grip on the tufts of grass and turned slowly over on to his back to wait for his pursuers.

One of the men signalled that he should get to his feet and he did, leaning back against the wind to keep his balance. The two men put away their guns and each took an arm. For a moment Gill wondered why when there was no place for him to run to, then he understood. Almost before he could cry out the men lifted him bodily off his feet and swung him back over the edge of the cliff. For a moment his arms flailed against the dark sky then he plunged headlong to his death on the jagged rocks below, his last scream of protest carried off by the wind.

The Medical Research Council,

Park Crescent,


‘I apologise for the inconvenience caused by the calling of this meeting at such short notice gentlemen, but I have been asked by the Prime Minister to brief him and the cabinet on our findings with regard to our survey on brain disease in this country.’ The secretary of the MRC, Sir John Rowers, paused and looked over his glasses at the men sitting round the table.

The studies are nowhere near complete, you know that,’ said a middle-aged man with the trace of a Scots accent.

Flowers shook his head and said, ‘Won’t do Hector. We as scientists know we have to evaluate properly all the data but the government see it as sitting on the fence. They would like assurance that there are no major problems brewing in this area.’

‘What they really want us to tell them is that human beings can’t get brain disease from sick animals!’ said another man whose ample girth was barely restrained by a waistcoat of maroon silk material which almost matched the colour of his nose.

Flowers gave a slight nod.

‘Why the sudden rush?’ asked Hector Munro, Director of the MRC Neurobiology Unit in Edinburgh.

‘Ever since Mad cow disease hit the headlines a year or so ago, the opposition have been waiting for the right moment to cause embarrassment to the government. The sale of British meat and meat products to the continent has still not recovered from the bad publicity generated at the time. In fact, they fell again sharply last month and the agricultural lobby is up in arms. They are going to demand to know what the government is doing about the problem. They want positive assurances that British meat products are safe. We for our part have been monitoring the incidence of brain disease in the country and following the experimental work of the Agricultural Research Council,’ exclaimed Flowers.

‘There has been a rise in figures,’ said a thin man with the pointed features of a bird and the appropriate name of John Lark.

‘Has the link been established for sure?’ asked Lark.

Flowers nodded. The ARC labs have shown that cows got BSE from eating sheep meat infected with Scrapie.’

‘So why didn’t they get it before?’ asked Lark. ‘Scrapie has been round for long enough in sheep.’

The renderers changed their method of treating sheep carcasses. The old way killed the infective agent off. The new way didn’t. As simple as that.’

‘So there wasn’t a species barrier at all?’

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