The scream was like nothing Margaret had ever heard before and seemed to go on forever. She dropped her book and clasped her hands over her ears. Almost worse was the awful silence that descended a few moments later.
Her heart hammering, she ran to the window and looked outside. Although her father’s office was on the third floor, only a fraction of the shipyard was visible; the rest, sprawling alongside the Clyde, was hidden from view. Beneath her a crowd was gathering, converging on something she couldn’t quite see through the grimy window.
She used the sleeve of her dress to clear a patch, but all she managed to do was smudge it more. As urgent shouts filled the silence of moments before, she sped downstairs, emerging into the soot-filled air, her breath coming in painful gasps. She hesitated, suddenly reluctant to discover what horror had precipitated the blood-curdling screams.
‘Where are you going, Miss Bannatyne?’ a man asked, grabbing her by the elbow.
‘What’s happened? Is it my father?’
His lip curled. ‘No, it’s not your father. What would he be doing down here? It’s an accident. Nothing unusual, but not summat a young lass like you should see. Better go back indoors.’
She shook his arm away. ‘Let me go!’ she couldn’t just go back inside – she had to see for herself.
Eyes fixed on the huddle of men obscuring her view, she threaded her way through the grim-stained figures, their stale sweat mingling with the smell of burning coal, welded steel and other odours too foreign to identify, until she was standing inside the circle of onlookers. One of the workers, his face deathly pale, lay on the ground, pinned down by several steel girders. Blood seeped from beneath him, staining the dust red and, just visible through his torn trousers, white bone glistened through a ragged gash in his lower leg Margaret clamped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out. Part of her wanted to turn away, to slip back through the mass of bodies and return to the safety of her father’s office, but another, stronger part couldn’t tear her eyes away from the scene unfolding in front of her.
The injured man groaned, sweat trickling down his face and pooling in the hollow of his neck. He looked up at his colleagues with frightened, pain-filled eyes. ‘Help me. For God’s sake.’
His please galvanised the group into action. Several men jostled past her, almost pushing her to the ground. One of them crouched by his side and grabbed the end of the girder. He turned back to the watching men. ‘We need to get the weight off him. Come on, men, put your backs into it.’
The shout, loud enough to be heard over the clanging metal, stopped the men in their tracks. Way above her head, so high up she had to crane her neck to see, a shipyard worker was standing on the scaffolding surrounding the ship currently under construction.
Ignoring the ladders connecting the different levels, he ran across a narrow plank, grabbed hold of a steel pole and swung down to the levels below. As he descended at breakneck speed, Margaret held her breath. If he wasn’t careful, he could easily plunge to his death.
But within moments he was on the ground and the crowd parted to let him through.
‘Jimmy,’ he said, addressing the man who had ordered the others to move the girders, ‘we’ll not be able to lift those off him without a crane. Get one over here. Toni, fetch the stretcher. And a cart too.’
The new arrival couldn’t be much older than her, yet to her surprise the men did his bidding without argument. He shoved dark hair out of his eyes and knelt by the injured man’s side. ‘How are you holding up, Hamish?’
‘I’ve been better, Alasdair. I’ve a feeling I’ll no’ be home for my tea.’
A brief smile crossed the younger man’s face as he ran his hands across Hamish’s body. ‘Aye, well. I’ll get someone to let the wife know. In the meantime, let me have a look see.’
Why didn’t they lift the girders off Hamish? He needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. Why were the workers listening to this man? Where was her father? He should be here, telling them what to do.
‘Alasdair, lad, we have to get him out from under that weight,’ one of the men said. It appeared she wasn’t the only one wondering about the delay.
The dark-haired man shook his head. ‘He’s punctured an artery at the top of his leg. The pressure of the girders is stopping him from bleeding like a pig. If we take them off without putting on a tourniquet first, he’ll not last more than a few minutes.’ He yanked off his belt and wrapped it around the top of the injured man’s thigh. ‘Hold on, Hamish. We’re going to move you in a bit. I just need to do something first.’
He glanced up, his eyes narrowing as he caught sight of her. ‘You. Do you have anything I can use as a bandage?’
Margaret stiffened. He’d spoken to her as if she were a nobody. Anyway, she didn’t have a handkerchief and her dress was stained with soot from the yard. ‘No. I’m sorry.’
‘You’re wearing a petticoat, aren’t you? Tear a strip off and pass it to me.’
As several pairs of eyes swivelled in her direction, she blushed. ‘I can’t do that. Not in front of everyone.’
‘You’re going to have to. There’s nothing else. I need something to staunch the bleeding that’s not covered in muck.’
‘That’s Bannatyne’s lass,’ one of the men said. ‘Best leave her out of it.’
‘I don’t care if she’s the Queen of Sheba. She shouldn’t be here but since she is, she can help.’
Her face burning, Margaret lifted the hem of her dress. She tried to rip a piece off her petticoat but couldn’t make even the tiniest tear. ‘I can’t.’
Alasdair gave an exasperated shake of his head. ‘Someone help her.’ When no one made a move, he rose to his feet. ‘Is the crane here?’
‘Aye, son. And the stretcher.’
‘Right then, secure the poles.’ While the men started tying ropes around the girders, Alasdair stepped towards her. Before she could stop him, he lifted her dress and tore a strip from her petticoat with his teeth.
He looked up at her and a smile flitted across his face. ‘Sorry, Miss Bannatyne.’ He was so close she could see the freckles scattered across his face. Thick, long lashes framed eyes the colour of the sky in winter.
As soon as the ropes were tied, Alasdair knelt once more on the ground beside the injured man. ‘Hamish, I know it hurts like buggery now, but it’s going to hurt even more when we lift the girders. You can yell as loud as you like. No one here will mind.’ He squeezed Hamish’s shoulder. ‘Right, lads. As slowly and as carefully as you can.’
The ropes tightened, then inch by inch, the lengths of steel began to lift. Hamish screamed, his arms thrashing about in agony. Margaret watched in horror as blood spurted over Alasdair’s hands.
‘Hold still, Hamish. For the love of God, just hold still.’
If Hamish could hear Alasdair he was in too much pain to pay heed. He continued to flail his arms, trying to push Alasdair away.
‘Someone hold him down, for God’s sake!’ Alasdair shouted, his bloodied fingers slipping on the straps of his makeshift tourniquet.
One of the men pressed down on Hamish’s shoulders and Alasdair tightened the belt until the blood slowed to a trickle. Satisfied, he moved on to the gash in Hamish’s lower leg, wrapping the strips of Margaret’s torn petticoat tightly over the wound. Within moments his temporary bandage had turned red.
‘Pass me some planks,’ he ordered.
Eager hands thrust several at him. He discarded a few before selecting four of equal length. He placed one on either side of each of Hamish’s legs and tied them quickly with more belts.
‘Let’s get him onto the stretcher, lads,’ he said. ‘Go carefully. His legs are likely broken. The planks will help – but only a little.’
As they moved him, Hamish screamed again, then mercifully fell silent. They laid his unconscious body on the stretcher and set it on the back of the cart.
‘Take him to the Infirmary. As quickly as you can. Avoid the potholes. I’ll let the boss know what’s happened, once I find out what went wrong.’
‘Is he going to be all right?’ Margaret asked, grabbing Alasdair’s arm.
‘You need to leave, Miss,’ he replied curtly. His expression softened. ‘There’s no more any of us can do here. It’s up to the doctors at the hospital now.’ He turned back towards the men. ‘Right. Those who have nothing to say about what happened, back to work.’
As the cart rolled away she looked up. Her father was standing at his office window, staring down. Doing nothing. Just looking.