Donald S Murray (2021) In a Veil of Mist.

I had a quick read through Donald S Murray’s novel In a Veil of Mist. The Veil of Mist he refers to was inspired by something that happened. A marketing tool, the hook of this is inspired by true events (or factual as we like to call it). My favourite storytellers aren’t fictional writers but factual writers. You can slip a fag paper between the truth and lie.  

The story is set in 1952, the Ben Lomond operated and staffed by British sailors and scientists were testing biological weapons of mass destruction off the Isle of Lewis, Operation Cauldron. They failed to notice a fishing boat, Carella, in the waters nearby and sprayed the vessel with bubonic plague. Oops. It was hushed up, of course. The consequences could have been like the myth of a virus escaping from a lab in Wuhan.

The structure is in three acts: Beum (beat), Fonn (melody) and Sèist (chorus). And it follows the lives of island residents Jessie and Duncan, but begins with an insider account of what the scientists are doing provided by lab technician John who works on the Ben Lomond.

John was a believer in the myth that if we didn’t do it to them, they’d do it us, scenario, in which Soviet Russia and Communist China were stockpiling biological weapons. Britain was in competition and it was one we had to win.

It was the nature of the work that was getting to them all: the shifting of boxes filled with guinea pigs and monkeys from the ‘clean’ to dirty’ rooms; hauling cages to the pontoon that was fixed a short distance away from the sea below Cellar Head on the island…The guinea pigs chirruping fighting off the grip of gloved hands…The monkey agitated and angry, as if they were people complaining about their lot…The monkeys bit them in other ways their presence down below forcing men to ask questions of themselves, like why in the hell were they tormenting these poor creatures with gases and sprays.     

John’s faith in his work has taken a hit, but he’s still clinging on to his job. His head is filled with images of his wife, Lillian. He’s sure she’s cheating on him, but the man’s features are always blurred and he doesn’t know who it is. Lillian hates what John does. She wants him to stop and come home to her.  

Jessie first notices something wrong. She is what was referred to as a spinster of the parish, and is in her fifties and a beachcomber. She is used to locals drowning unwanted kittens, cats and dogs, but these washed-up creatures she doesn’t recognise. She wraps one of the poor creatures up in a hanky and takes it away. She shows it to local bus driver, Duncan.

When they come back to the beach there’s a clean-up operation going on. Men in masks and protective white suits. Some of the locals are a bit iffy about their discovery. Saying it didn’t happen, or they’d been mistaken.

The second act puts flesh on the bone. Duncan is ex-army, demobbed. He was stationed in Gibraltar, and driving a bus on Lewis suits him. He’s trying to work out what to do with his life and still stays with his mother, even though he’s in his thirties. The trauma of war bears down on him, but also the thought of a future, and bringing a wife to live with his mum, at home is something he keeps putting off. But he’s got his eye on a local girl, Ina. She’s got an eye on him too. Will he won’t s/he, takes us into act three.

Jessie faces a similar dilemma. She’s been faithful to her first love, George, who was that bit older than her, more Duncan’s age, when he went away. Most of the young men on the island did. It was the only way to make a life, to make a living. But he’d promised her, when he’d worked hard and put by the money he’d made in Canada, he’d send for her. Jessie heard different stories of how George had married a local woman, been injured, or killed. But she stayed true to him. But then another local man that is widowed, Neil, writes from Vancouver and tells her he’s coming home. Asks if they can meet. We know where this is going.

The denouement brings Duncan and Ina, Jessie and Neil, and John and Lillian to a crescendo. Much as expected. Nothing to write home about.  

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