The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


The harbour, Harriestown, Clachantyre
Friday 7 February 1997, 4:00 pm

Miss Prism watches Tom Doonie saunter away. "The same everywhere..." she murmurs enigmatically, with a shake of her head.

"Well, thank you much, Murdo," Sampson says, absentmindedly tipping him 10 dollars. "You pick up those cameras, and then please direct us to the hotel."

"Yeah, thanks for the help, Murdo," John agrees, and adds: "I guess Tom's a bit disappointed that the new 'Soldier of Fortune' hasn't arrived yet." He turns to the rest of the party. "Why don't we get to the inn and have a drink and decide what to do?"

"Let me take your bags," Brian says to Miss Prism. He starts to gather together the video equipment and other luggage.

"Why, thank you young man," Miss Prism replies. "And thank you too, Mr Murdo, for such a nice trip. I wonder, can I treat you to a glass of sherry later?"

The old captain doffs his cap and smooths back his hair. "Aye, that would be most appreciated, ma'am."

Putting away her knitting, Miss Prism rises creakily to her feet. "Well, well everyone," she says brightly. "Let's go and find our rooms, and a nice cup of tea I hope!"

"May I help you, ma'am?" Sampson says, offering her his arm. She accepts graciously.

Jake wraps his scarf tighter around himself, picks up his bag and some equipment and follows them. "Yes – let's get to the Hotel or we'll freeze!" He shivers to demonstrate just how cold he is.

John follows behind.

Meanwhile, Vul hangs back in the boat, ignoring Brian's attempts to hand him some luggage to carry. Giving Vul a piercing glare of disapproval, Brian follows the others towards the Old Man's Arms.

"Hey, pal," Vul says to Murdo, "damn nice boat, smooth riding." He lights up another cigarette and offers one to the old man. "How's the fishing? If you got a spare reel, I wouldn't mind hiring you and the rig for a couple hours' sport."

Murdo puts down the cameras and accepts the cigarette with another doff of his cap. "I'd be honoured to take you fishing, sir – diving too, if you're interested. When were you thinking of?"

"Give me one-half hour while I drop my stuff off at the inn!"

"This afternoon, you're saying?" Murdo says slowly. He scratches his chin. "Now that could be difficult. You see, I'm expecting a telephone call, and it is really quite important. It's not that I do not want to help you, but..."

"Don't worry, Cap'n," Vul says. "We can go fishing some other time. Come with me to the pub for a couple of drinks – maybe you can fill me in on what's goin' on around here. Or if you're mum, that's fine, I ain't gonna pry, I'd rather talk about this boat and fish instead. Come on, you can use a couple and I'm payin'."

The Old Man's Arms lies a short walk from the harbour. It is an ancient, rambling, three-storey building. The paintwork is new, however, and the sign, though old in design (it depicts a dolmen, standing on a cliff and glowing like a beacon in the sunlight) is also fairly recent.

The interior is well-kept but spartan. A fire burns in the grate and a few obligatory brass bed-warmers and old horseshoes hang on the walls, but otherwise the only decorations are a series of framed photographs behind the bar. A stocky, balding man of about 45 years of age appears from a back room as the party enters.

"I'm Sid Bridgewater, licensee," he booms in a Midlands accent, "and you must be Acorn Productions. No, I'm not a mind-reader, just a man with a sharp eye." He nods at the video equipment. "I wouldn't be here otherwise. Sign here please."

He produces a register, and studies the party appraisingly. "When I heard there were six of you coming," he says, "I had three twin rooms prepared. Wasn't expecting – " he clears his throat " – that there would be ladies present. Still, I suppose you film people need help with make-up and costumes and such; this is the 1990s, after all!"

Miss Prism gives him a charming smile. "Actually Mr Bridgewater, my involvement with this production is purely financial. I'm here to make sure our investment is well spent. We have a contract with the Americans, you understand, and it could be lucrative. But, let's not talk about money..."

"Americans?" Sid muses, peering at Brian, John and Sampson with interest. "So, you fellas are from Hollywood, eh? You must know Sylvester Stallone – Sly to you, I s'pose, and Arnie and all the rest. Though I'm a star of the silver screen myself, you know." He throws back his shoulders. "Well, Central TV, anyway. 'Time Gentlemen Please' with Jimmy Tarbuck. You must know it, being in the business, like"

Miss Prism dredges her memory. "Do you mean the game show? The one in which first prize is a country pub?"

"That's right." Sid points proudly at the photographs on the wall. They all depict scenes from the show, Jimmy Tarbuck featuring prominently.

"It sounds fascinating," Miss Prism says. "Maybe you can tell me all about it later over a nice cup of tea."

"But first," Jake says, "perhaps we can have something to eat?"

"Well, it's a bit late for dinner and a bit early for tea," says Sid. "But I'll see what I can do."

"Do you serve American food here?" Sampson asks.

"Of course I do!" Sid replies. "I can rustle up a hamburger and chips in no time!"

Meanwhile, Vul and Murdo enjoy a drink in the bar. Murdo seems distracted and ill at ease, and rather unwilling to talk to Vul, though he does seem pleased at the offer of a major role in the documentary.

"Well, that's most kind of you, sir. I'd be honoured."

On the subject of Tom Doonie, he is a little more forthcoming. "Aye, he's a high-spirited lad, keen to protect his home from outsiders – as I was myself, once." He stares into the distance for a moment, as though remembering something long forgotten. "But there's no badness in him – his words are those of his great grandmother, old Florence Doonie, and not his own, of that I'm sure. I don't wish to speak ill of the afflicted, but that old woman has caused a peck of trouble, with her ranting and railings against oil men and foreigners and the like. Rabble-rousing, you might call it. In the main, the islanders are pleased to welcome strangers." He lowers his voice. "To tell the truth, we need all the outside help we can get. Every year Clachantyre loses more young people to the mainland. You could say the island is dying from the inside out!"

Vul gets to his feet. "This local brew is pretty strong," he says. "I got to use the john."

Once in the toilet, though, he crawls out through the window, hops over the garden wall and runs back to the Lady Flora. Luckily, Tom Doonie's parcel is still lying under the seat where Murdo left it. Vul grabs the parcel and runs.

When a safe distance from the harbour, Vul examines the parcel. It has a London postmark dated ten days ago, and contains a selection of poorly-produced literature of an extreme green and borderline ecoterrorist nature, mainly detailing the destructive activities of various Government bodies; in particular, something called the Highlands and Islands Development Agency. There is also a handwritten note reading:

'Tom, You may be interested in this. Do you have them yet? Will be in touch soon. C.'

Vul puts the parcel into his pocket and returns to Murdo in the pub.

After the meal, Jake suggests that the party gather in one of their rooms and exchange a little background, work out their cover properly and decide what to do during the next couple of days. They have been allocated four rooms (two twin and two single) on the first floor. The twin rooms look out over the back of the inn. A flat roof over an extension lies beneath, and beyond that is a large, unkempt walled garden and a number of outhouses. The single rooms at the front of the building have a rather more attractive view, across the harbour and out to sea.

"I'm an anthropologist specializing in the Caribbean," Jake announces to get things started. "Is it cold in here?" he adds, putting his jacket back on. "I lecture at a London college and often Hyde Park – which amuses the ducks more than the Dean! I have some background in technical gadgetry, so I'm willing to play technician."

While Jake is speaking, Brian checks the Acorn Productions equipment. SITU do not seem to have arranged any surprises; it is all fairly standard, including a video camera, sound recording equipment (including a powerful-looking microphone), cameras with a selection of lenses, editing equipment and a supply of tapes and so on.

"Photography and film are a hobby of mine," he says quietly, looking around the room and the huge old fireplace and the collection of amateurish watercolours on the walls, but avoiding the eyes of the rest of the party. "Before SITU approached me, I was making a documentary on the native people of Northern Canada. I can give instructions to anyone who wants them on how to operate the gear."

"Miss Prism, would you agree to being the presenter?" Jake asks. "And as for the rest of us, may I suggest Sampson for producer and Vul as an exec?"

"I'm a trained investigator," John says, by way of introduction. "I think we should visit all of the sites covered in our briefing, to get a better feel for what happened there. Other than that, I'm open at this point."

"Then I suggest tomorrow we scout the island to find out where everything is," Jake continues. "And we should definitely look at the Dolmen."

Brian pulls a Marine Corps K-Bar knife from the sheath on his belt, and a sharpening stone and oil rag from a pocket kit. The knife is obviously well used, but well cared for. He notices Miss Prism staring at him, her eyes rather wide. "I used to be in the Navy," he explains. "This is a relic from those days."

"What did you do in the Navy?" Jake asks.

For once, Brian looks directly at him. His eyes are for a moment intense, then take on a faraway look. "I flew," he says.

That is clearly the end of the matter. Sampson returns to the matter in hand. "The Sunday Service should be a good opportunity to meet people. Miss Prism, why don't you try to make arrangements for us to tape it?"

"Perhaps the new Reverend will have some information about his predecessor," Jake suggests. "If nothing else, he might have heard some rumours."

"And I plan on taking a look at the sight where that boat went down in 1824 – there could be something valuable there," Brian says. "I'm going to ask around about renting some scuba equipment."

By now it is already dark outside, and raining heavily. Miss Prism ventures into the bar to see if Murdo has arrived yet to join her for sherry. The only patrons, however, are two elderly men playing dominoes by the fire. She greets Sid at the bar.

"It's quiet here tonight," she comments.

"Things have been what you might call subdued ever since the Rev topped himself," Sid says, quietly for once. "Still, trade'll pick up after the funeral on Monday. We'll soon be back to normal."

"What a terrible business," Miss Prism commiserates. "Did you know the Reverend well?"

"Can't say I did, I'm afraid. He wasn't a drinking man and I'm not a religious man."

"Do you know where I might find the new Reverend? I'd like to ask his permission to film a service."

"Ah, no – you'd have a problem there. They haven't sent a replacement yet," Sid explains. "Some sort of temporary Rev comes over from Flannen Island on Sunday – but you'll be able to see him then. You know," he adds, "I haven't been to church since the day we buried my Mary – fifteen years ago, almost to the day." He sighs sadly. "Thirty years old she was, and our Lucy just a toddler. I found her lying dead on the bathroom floor, electrocuted by a pair of hair tongs. If only she'd let me change the plug. I always changed the plugs..." Tears fill his eyes. "That was the beginning of the bad times. It was soon after that I lost my job at the Rover works. What a struggle it was raising Lucy on my own! I thought things would never go our way again – until I entered 'Time Gentlemen, Please'." He manages a smile. "Our luck changed that day two years ago. The old life in Coventry is all water under the bridge now." He pauses, expectantly. "Water under the bridge." He has the audacity to nudge Miss Prism's elbow. "Water under the bridge... Bridgewater... Get it? I used that line in the quarter-final. Raised the roof, it did. And it was all my own work – not scripted, like most of 'em."

"Did you have any problems with the locals when you first arrived?" Miss Prism asks, moving her elbow away. "This seems a very insular community, very wary of strangers. We met a rather... high-spirited young man at the harbour – Tom Doonie was the name, I believe."

Sid's eyes narrow, and for a moment his genial manner is replaced by something quite ferocious. "A bit rude, eh? That's no surprise. Those Doonie brothers are a bad lot, Miss Prism. They're not welcome here, and I don't mind who hears me say it. They caused a lot of trouble for us when we first arrived – broken windows, graffiti and the like. Of course, MacDuff never proved they were behind it, but I know. You'd think they'd have been glad when the Old Man opened again – there'd been no pub on the island for twenty years! But they didn't want foreigners on Clachantyre, and especially not English ones."

"Do they still cause trouble?"

"They wouldn't dare." Sid growls menacingly. "But they lost interest, too, and found new targets. You should watch yourselves, but don't let them scare you. They're just ignorant hooligans. Show them who's boss and you'll soon send them packing with their tails between their legs."

Sid no longer seems in the mood for idle conversation, so Miss Prism introduces herself to the elderly men by the fire.

"May I join you?" she asks.

The men exchange glances. They are very alike – Miss Prism wonders if they are brothers.

"Pull up a chair," says one. "I'm Jock Drummond and this is my boy Fergus. And you'll be one o' the television people."

"That's right."

"Then you'll be knowing Archie Stewart?"

"No, Jock," hisses Fergus, "she's from the English television. How many times do I have to tell you?" He grins at Miss Prism and, unexpectedly, asks: "If you don't mind me asking, Missus, what was that surname of yours, again?"

Perplexed, Miss Prism obliges. Fergus rubs his hands together with glee.

"And – pardon me again – what might be your given names?"

Miss Prism frowns. "May I ask why you wish to know?"

Fergus's face falls. Jock cackles with laughter.

"Last month Fergus found a car number plate that washed up on the rocks," he explains, "and he's been trying to sell it ever since. The idiot reckons he could get good money from someone with the initials GTP – if he ever finds him – or her."

"I did find someone," Fergus protests. "That fellow from the Agency was interested, I swear."

"What Agency is this?" Miss Prism asks.

"The Highlands and Islands Development Agency," Fergus replies. "They've been here looking for oil, and they're not short of a penny or two."

"Aye, but he didn't keep his appointment, did he?" Jock laughs again. "Toss that plate back in the sea, Fergus. Maybe you'll find a fish foolish enough to part with his money."

Fergus purses his lips petulantly. Then his eyes light up again. "I suppose," he says, "you'll be looking for locations to shoot your film, Mrs Prism?"

"That's right. And it's Miss Prism. Can you suggest any good ones?"

Fergus produces a stubby pencil and scrawls a rough map on the back of a beer mat. "Five Acre Farm – best views on the island, I guarantee. Why don't you drop by tomorrow? If you're lucky," he adds, "our sheep Daisy will oblige with a spot of chick-balancing."

Miss Prism's mind boggles. "Chick-balancing?" she asks, very slowly, wondering if she heard him correctly.

Fergus grins, as though chick-balancing is the most natural thing in the world. "That's right. Chick-balancing. She's a world champion."

Next morning, after Brian has given some basic information on how to use the Acorn Productions equipment convincingly, the party go their separate ways.

"I'm going to visit Cameron Frazer at the Heritage Centre," Jake announces. "Would you accompany me, Miss Prism?"

"I'd be delighted to."

"I'll seek out the local lawman," Sampson says. "I suggest we meet back at the inn, say around five, to discuss what we've learned."

Brian and John join Jake and Miss Prism. A quick look around the village on the way confirms the party's first impressions: Harriestown is a tiny settlement, comprising just a few houses, some public buildings, and roads leading north and south along the coast. A complete tour would take about fifteen minutes.

The door to the Heritage Centre, which doubles as the local Council office is closed, but the tapping of a typewriter can be heard within. John knocks.

"Come in!" A tired-looking middle-aged woman sits at a reception desk in the foyer. While her manner is not openly unfriendly, she does not seem pleased to see the party. "You're the film crew from England, I presume?" She nods over her shoulder. "You'll find Mr Frazer in his office upstairs."

While the others go up, John takes a look around the foyer. The receptionist for the most part ignores him – except whenever he coughs or moves, and then she looks up sharply as though expecting him to be up to no good.

On the left-hand side of the foyer is a closed door with a sign reading CLACHANTYRE HERITAGE CENTRE – OPENING TIMES: 10 am-1 pm, MON-FRI. Next to the door stands a rack of information leaflets. John studies them with interest. There are half a dozen or so different titles, each one photocopied on cheap coloured paper, including THE CLACHANTYRE BURIAL, ST AORADH THE HERMIT OF CLACHANYTRE, OLD RUINS OF CLACAHNTYRE, and INTERESTING ROCKPOOL ANIMALS. This last leaflet seems to have been written by Reverend Andrew McMillan.

Taking leave of the others, Sampson walks across the road to the Police Station, intending to introduce himself to PC MacDuff. But to his surprise, a sign reading BACK SOON hangs from the bell-pull. Undeterred, he opens the door and takes a quick look inside. The room beyond is largely unremarkable; fading posters warning of sheep diseases and other public health hazards decorate the walls, and an ancient manual typewriter and a big brass bell stand on the desk. Two doors lead to a storeroom at the back of the building and to the cells (Sampson wonders how often they are used...). And on the wall behind the desk is a poster showing a grainy photograph of what can only be the Old Man's Fingers; the headline reads: REWARD: 10,000 POUNDS.

Upstairs at the Council office, Brian, Jake and Miss Prism find Cameron Frazer apparently about to leave – he is pulling on his overcoat as they open the door.

"Good morning Mr Frazer!" Jake exclaims. "I'm Jake Carter with the Acorn filmcrew. We're interested in getting some background on the island from one of the people who live on it, and as an antiquarian and councillor you'd be the ideal man to help us. Would you care for a jelly baby?"

"Umm, no thank you..." For a moment Cameron seems somewhat overwhelmed, then he pulls himself together. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr Carter." His handshake is firm and enthusiastic. He is a tall, lean man; though he is maybe fifty years of age, his thick dark hair has only a touch of grey and he seems fitter than many men twenty or thirty years his junior. "I was told you were arriving yesterday. You had a good crossing, I hope?"

"If you can spare the time," Jake continues, "we'd appreciate a tour of the Heritage Centre – I understand you're the curator? We want to get a feel for the history of the island so that we can properly convey in our film the events which shaped Clachantyre."

"Unless you have other urgent business," Miss Prism interrupts, sympathetically. "In which case don't let us detain you."

Cameron smiles. "I am in a hurry, as you can see – " He glances at his watch, as though to emphasize the point. "But maybe you could drop by tomorrow morning after church? Eleven o'clock?" He frowns suddenly. "Ah, no... Say eleven thirty?"

"Thank you, Mr Frazer," Miss Prism says with a charming smile. "That would be very kind."

"It's no trouble at all," Cameron says. "No trouble at all. I'll be delighted to help you in any way I can."

Leaving the Police Station, Sampson takes a wander round Harriestown. The morning is cold and a thin mist lingers in the air. The streets are deserted.

On the outskirts of the village, a church looms out of the mist. Sampson hears someone speaking, but cannot discern the words. In the barren graveyard, an elderly man is digging, and muttering to himself, swathed in a steamy cloud of his own breath. As Sampson watches, he takes something from his pocket – it looks like a flat cake or loaf of bread – breaks it into many pieces, and sprinkles it into the grave.

Then a sudden movement catches Sampson's eye. He turns, and sees a young man he recognizes as Tom Doonie coming up the road. He seems about to take the path to the left, which leads behind the church, presumably towards the vicarage, but when he notices Sampson he stops and calls: "Come to gawp, have you?" He nods at the gravedigger. "You think we're just a sideshow, don't you? You think you can come to our island and point a camera at us, and we'll perform for you like Jock Drummond's sheep – and all so you can take your film back to England and laugh at us behind our backs."

"We're making a film to show others how you live here on Clachantyre," Sampson protests.

Tom snorts. "I've heard that one, too. You'll be telling me next that you want to 'preserve our unique way of life'." His voice is heavy with sarcasm. "If that's true, why don't you go down to the beach and make your film there? That's how we'll live on Clachantyre in the future – if we get to live here at all."

And as before, he turns around and stomps away.

On the way out of the Council office, John draws the others' attention to the rack of leaflets.

"'A Walk Round Clachantyre'!" Jake exclaims. "Just what we need..." He takes a look at the leaflet. "Apparently a walk taking in places of interest like St Margaret's, St. Aoradh's, the Heritage Centre and the Old Man should take four hours or less, at a brisk pace."

He takes a copy of the 'Walk Round Clachantyre' leaflet, and a couple of the others.

"That will be fivepence each," the woman on the reception desk barks. "There's a collection box by the door... No – fivepence each leaflet, not per person."

Jake feeds a handful of loose change into the box.

Miss Prism tries to be friendly. "How fascinating," she says, glancing at the leaflets. "Rockpool animals... ah, I see this was written by the vicar..." She shakes her head. "What a terrible tragedy that was. Unexpected deaths must hit a closeknit community like this very hard."

The woman stares at her coldly. "Yes," she says, stiffly, "Very hard." It is obvious that, as far as she is concerned, that is the end of the conversation. She watches the party closely as they leave the building.

The sky has clouded over when they step outside. Looking back at the Council building, John thinks he sees a shadow at an upstairs window, but cannot be sure. Further along the street, a door opens and a little girl runs out. A woman starts to follow, then spots the party. An expression of fright and suspicion flashes across her face, and she grabs the child and hustles her back indoors. A curtain twitches at the window of the house next door.

"Welcoming people, aren't they!" Jake comments.

They walk along the street in the gathering gloom. The only sounds to be heard are the hiss of the sea and the mournful cries of seagulls. Then the peace is broken briefly by the roar of an engine, and Cameron Frazer drives past in a Range Rover. He waves at the party, and takes the road north. John takes out his pad and makes some notes.

Sampson returns to the Old Man's Arms, and finds Vul where he left him – in the bar.

"I just met Tom Doonie," he comments.

"Action Jackson?" Vul says. "He's a real antisocial punk."

The door suddenly bursts open and a blast of cold air fills the room. A girl enters. She is about 17 years old, with bleached hair and an impressive number of ear-piercings, and is dressed in what might have been considered the latest fashions, 6 months ago. Ignoring Vul and Sampson, she strides up to the bar.

"I'll have a cider and black, Donnie" she says, leaning forwards conspiratorially.

"Let me get that for you," Sampson says, quickly. Vul scowls.

The young barman Donnie blushes. "You know I can't serve you, Lucy," he mutters.

"But you won't be serving her, you'll be serving me," Sampson says pleasantly.

"No, you don't understand!" Donnie turns back to the girl. "Your daddy says – "

"I know what Daddy says." Lucy snaps. "I'll have a lemonade then!"

She gives a petulant frown. "Roll on July – my eighteenth," she says to Vul and Sampson.

"I'll drink to that," says Vul.

"Cheers," Lucy replies glumly, but does not take a drink. "Who are you, anyway?" Interest flickers briefly across her face. "You're not from round here."

Sampson speaks before Vul can reply: "I'm just a poor Southerner stranded on this island with a film crew, and it would make this trip a lot more pleasant if we could have some pleasant conversation."

"Really?" Lucy looks genuinely impressed. "You know, I've never met a star before. Well, apart from..." She grimaces and nods at the photographs of Jimmy Tarbuck on the wall. "Why don't you tell me all about it...?"

As Jake, John, Brian and Miss Prism set out on the 'Walk Round Clachantyre', Miss Prism studies the leaflets in more detail. 'Interesting Rockpool Animals' comprises a detailed account of a year in the life of the fauna on the western coast of the island; reading it, she judges that Reverend McMillan must have spent a lot of time and effort gathering the information.

"Do you know," she says, turning to another leaflet, "that on religious holidays the oldest man and woman of Harriestown throw bread from the roof of the church for the rest of the islanders to catch? The tradition is over two hundred years old, and some of the earliest loaves are still kept by the families of those who caught them."

After a cold trek to the coast, they finally reach the Old Man, which is the first stop of note on the 'Walk'. The wind is picking up, and the clifftop is cold and barren; the only features of note are a network of low stone walls and trenches (presumably the remains of St Aoradh's) and the Old Man itself – a dark, forbidding form perched on the very edge of the cliff like a sentinel. The dolmen is about ten feet tall and sixteen inches thick – to the party's eyes, it seems impossible that it could have stood there for so long, exposed to the elements yet largely undamaged. One side of the stone is cleaner than the rest, as though it has been recently scrubbed. John makes more notes.

While the rest of the party study the Old Man, Brian sets up the camera on the cliff edge, wondering if he can get any interesting shots from here. A hundred-foot drop looms beneath him; there are rockpools, but he cannot see what interesting animals might lurk within them. He walks a little further, southwards along the headland, and takes another look. Below him now there is a shingle beach; no rockpools, but more signs of life – a helicopter sits on the sand, and two figures in diving gear are coming out of the sea...

The Old Man, West Coast, Clachantyre
Saturday 8 February 1997, 12:05 pm

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