I Said I’d Never Steal Again…but

Snowy McCleod died June 17, 1982


Jimmy (Snowy) McCleod, so nick-named because his hair turned white at age fourteen, was more than half way through his life when he purchased a 1955 clinker built yacht, twin mast, and half sunk. He paid five hundred pounds for her and was the laughing stock on the island.

Four years later, Snowy, then in his seventieth year, had restored her to be the finest vessel in Tobermory’s harbour.

Heartbreakingly, however, Seaspray II, as he named her, was pushed aground in a storm that had grown bigger and more bullish than the morning’s mischief implied she’d be. The grinding undertow sucked her onto the submerged granite at the base of the mountain, a hundred yards offshore. Penniless and heartbroken, Snowy left the island.

Sometimes a man has to be alone, that grief can cut sharp as a razor and healing is better done on one’s terms, my father said.

A year later Snowy came home, never another word about it.

Twelve years later, I got word that Snowy was sick, dying in fact. When I got to the hospice he was almost dead, gasping for breath beneath an oxygen tent. It was hard to hear him; so soft, so lifeless was his voice. Three pals were at his bedside; Sid, Fletcher, and Frank my dad. The talk was mostly about old times, giving the old lad some joy.

Looking into Snowy’s eyes, I could feel he was building up the strength to speak. Then, with a cobwebbed spiny finger, he beckoned us closer to him. I felt uneasy, afraid of his weakness.

‘Ave yer the love to take care o‘me, boys? he spluttered, his chest hardly drawing breath, as though it might rise just one more time.

Snowy was wearing an old woolen vest and wheezing. His hands, all veins, loose skin, lying perfectly still at his side. Dad responded that we indeed had that love for him.

Put me right…that’s all I ask…he finished in a whisper…put me right…and again he coughed, choking up bile that hung from his lip.

The only nurse living on the island, Mrs. Stokes, wondered what the whispering was about and used Snowy’s coughing bout as reason to come and stand close.

I should be taking that vest off you, Snowy…she said. Snowy never did have much mind for Mrs. Stokes, believing her the island’s gossip. He managed to muster half a lung of breath, and with it spoke his two last words before his image, his breathing, his body, and the light of his day faded.

The expression on Mrs. Stoke’s face will never leave me. Snowy had managed to couch his anger with merciless efficiency in just two words. Flushed of face, she turned away, muttering under her breath, unaware that the French language was to be the last language Snowy ever spoke. It was 11.20 P.M.

Mrs. Stokes bathed him and made him ready. There’s no more we can do for the lad, she said. I’ve called the mortuary, they’ll come for him first thing in the morning.

Dad looked at me and winked. Whenever dad winked, something was afoot.

Less than one hour later, I drove the old Dormobile van around the back of the hospice building, then signalled the all clear with a flash of headlights before leaping out and opening the rear doors. On the second floor of the hospice, a window grudgingly faltered open. Sid leaned out. I gave the all clear again. Dad, Fletch, and Sid lowered the sheet with Snowy’s wasted body in the hammock, his lifeless body secreted blood from his lungs; blossoming on the sheet like a rose in the moonlight. I lay him on the grass and waited for them all to join me.

We carried him to the van, sliding him irreverently into the back and closed the doors before driving directly to Tobermory Harbour. Sid and Fletch remained with me in the van; dad climbed out and went aboard Nightshadow. Two minutes later the diesel engines smoked into life. We jumped out, opened up the rear doors, immediately hit by the smell of Snowy’s old clay pipe, and something else, excrement and piss. Together, we pulled him out.

We’ll burn these later, Sid said, piling belongings onto Snowy’s chest. I grabbed hold of Snowy under the armpits, while Fletch and Sid each held a leg. We must have moved forward too quickly, Snowy’s body bent at the middle, like a diver’s pike! One enormous fart came out of his body. Sid stopped in his tracks, lowered Snowy to the ground and knelt down at Snowy’s head.

Snowy, if you’re still with us, I’ll bloody drown you myself, he said, close to his ear. It is natural for bodily functions to occur after death, a rush of air, but Sid thought Snowy was trying to pull one over on him, kind of having the last laugh.

Silhouetted against a wolf moon, we lugged Snowy up the slipway and lay him on the aft deck. I went back down the gangway, to await dad’s order to cast off. The Perkins diesel droned our boat out between the harbour walls, the calm waters slapping against the bow.

Early the next morning, I was raised from my bed by the sound of the front door to our home being beaten upon. It was Jack Rafferty, the island’s only policeman, with the policeman’s knack of allowing the rest of the world to see him as a ‘half-wit’.

These long years later, I finally understood the Dostoevskian character Jack was, hiding a bit of a saint in him. Jack enjoyed being a police officer, called upon to control pigeon fanciers, a poacher here or there, and kids, of whom I was one, who scrumped apples from Docherty’s orchard. Jack relied more on instinct than police work.

Hello Jack, mum said, this’ll be an early hour to come knocking.

Aye, there’s been a bit of goings on, Peggy. I went by the harbour hoping to talk to Frank, but Nightshadow wasn’t there, presumably he’s at sea with his crew, he paused, then said, I understand your lad is home on leave. I’d like a bit of a word if I may.

Beckoned through the door, Jack removed his helmet, ducked down, and followed mum through to the kitchen. Would you like a cup of tea, Jack? I hope it’s not trouble, she said.

Aye, lass, that’d be grand. I’ve got a couple of questions. Nice having Harry home, I’m sure

I entered the kitchen before Jack had finished the sentence. Mum was running the kettle under the tap. I tried to look as if coming from a deep sleep, and not someone who had trekked four miles after being put ashore at the top of the island.

Morning Jack, I said, yawning. This is a fine time to visit.

Aye, ’tis that, lad. There’s been a bit of a business, I’m afraid.

Really? I said, desperately avoiding the need to smirk.

Snowy McCleod has disappeared.

Disappeared…? Mum gasped, setting Jack’s tea on the table. How can that be? He was close to death in the hospice last night, she said.

Aye, ’tis what we thought, Peggy, but when Cyril Puddifoot came to remove him to the morgue, around eight this morning, he reported him gone. Out the window, can you believe?

Out of the window, Jack, a miracle! Mum declared, crossing her heart.

Not gone, as in he woke up and walked out, Peggy. But as a dead body removed.

Mercy, Mother of Jesus, tis’ indeed a miracle.

I took mum by the elbow and led her to a chair at the table…I don’t think Jack is here to report a miracle, Mum.

What else do you know, Jack? I asked.

Jack took a wafer biscuit from the rose-pattern plate, sipping at his hot tea, he said, Mrs. Stokes swears that after she’d made Snowy ready for Cyril before leaving, there were four people at Snowy’s bedside. That would be around 11.00 pm. Fletcher Spokes, Sid Cullen, you, and Frank.

That’s right, Jack. After Mrs. Stokes had prepared Snowy’s body she explained there was nothing more she could do. She was going home, but that Agnes Mortimer would be down in the staffroom.

Jack Rafferty was no fool, though sometimes he liked to use that image of himself. There had been times down the years when he appeared to be in favour of some criminal act, weeding an admission from an unsuspecting culprit, and then, bang, the cuffs were on. Another case closed.

Och, I’ll no be accusin’ anyone, lad. I’m just trying to fathom Snowy’s whereabouts. Truth is, when I heard Agnes Mortimer explaining how Social Services had decided on a cremation for him, and how they were going to move him to the mainland after his death to bury him on the yonder side of Oban. When I heard that, Jack said, then whoever moved Snowy was probably doing him a justice.

You think? I said. I wasn’t going to fall for that old charm.

I know your father and him were real close, Harry. Sid went to school with him, and Fletcher Spokes was his drinking partner for forty years. Even so, I’m sure they wouldn’t do anything so reckless as to move a terminally ill person, though I’d understand it, you see what I’m saying?

I knew what Jack was implying.

Now you know that’s absurd, Jack. The truth is, between them, there were years of bickering and argument, even the occasional fisty-cuffs. I think the only thing they all had in common was worshipping the same God. We were there paying our respects, Jack.

Aye, all thee same, lad, if he was helped out of that place, I’ll be thinking it right.

Sure you would, Jack. You were a good friend to Snowy, save the time he hit Alec McKay over the head with a mooring buoy, and you put him in the cell overnight.

Alec had it comin’, sure enough, replied Jack, but Snowy cannot be taking the law into his own hands, that’s for me to do.

Right enough, Jack. It’s all to do with the law.

Well, I’ll be getting along. Thanks for the tea, Peggy. Maybe Sid or Fletch saw something when they left. You say they left via the back door? Jack said.

I left out the front and assumed they must have left through the back.

Aye, right enough. That is what ye said, lad. Well, I’ll be saying good morning to you.

Jack left, not putting his helmet on till he reached the gate.

What do ye make of that, son? Mum asked.

I put my arms around her and kissed her head.

The thing is, I grew up among sea folk where rules are made according to wants, and social workers don’t always know what’s best. The pubs, to this day, still ring with rumour. Fletch and Sid, and sadly, dad, have all been given back to the waters off Malin Head, taking their truth with them. Jack, no longer the only police officer on the island, still offers me the odd wink, and a smile, his rheumy old eyes seeing everything, but going to his grave with one unsolved mystery.