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The Real Mackay: When dad set out to conquer the cold and dark


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The Mackays at their newsagents in Wick.
The Mackays at their newsagents in Wick.

Dad liked the winter. But for all the wrong reasons. Loving winter and being a newsagent wasn’t exactly compatible.

If the newspapers arrived late or even the next day then no one wanted to buy old news.

Newspapers, he would remind us, are perishable commodities.

It wasn’t that he liked to build snowmen in the garden – that I can never remember happening.

And he wasn’t one for snowball fights either…

But back in the days we had proper winters when the town would be blanketed with deep snow drifts for days on end. Nothing moved.

Now the reason dad liked winter, I’m convinced, is because it allowed the natural boffin in him to carry out radical experiments.

And I mean radical!

He was determined to defy the freezing cold ravages of power cuts by installing prototype devices which, we were assured, no one else in the town had thought of.

I can certainly vouch for that…

Once, then, he acquired a small diesel generator, from one of his loyal customers – a rather shifty farmer-type – who, with the deal done and dusted, vanished from the face of the earth.

Dad tinkered with his new acquisition until he had refined its tick-over to a suitable tempo and managed to reduce the poisonous nitrous gases it emitted to what he considered acceptable levels.

After that all he had to do was wait. And then some more.

But the odds, back in those days, were always on his side and sooner or later – as sure as sure – the dreaded power cut would strike.

And then Donnie, let’s give him his name, as agile as a gazelle on the Serengeti plains, would spring into action.

The aforementioned diesel generator had, for some weeks, assumed a position of readiness on the kitchen table.

A heavy-duty cable had been hung in loops across the ceiling awaiting connection and now – without any electric supply – dad’s moment of glory was about to be enacted.

As the grey old town of Wick, at the end of the road to nowhere, lay deep in snow and dreamless sleep, Donnie Mackay triggered his countdown routine, the envy of any Polaris submariner.

The heavy cable was duly wired to the electric mains supply box that powered our blissful abode where mortals slept below the silent stars.

Well, it was night time and we were thinking of going to bed.

Then the starting sequence for the generator was implemented and an old length of ragged farm bailer twine tugged and we watched gobsmacked as the generator, which had been leaking oil for weeks on the kitchen floor, spluttered into life. Immediately a shaky light bulb began to flicker and then a few more here and there. It was amazing!

As Wick lay in the depths of darkness we, at 37 Willowbank, could boast of momentary light and heat!

But then, shock horror, the town’s mains electricity supply was fixed within just a couple of hours – not the usual two days… In any case we were by then crawling about on the floor to avoid asphyxiation from deadly fumes…

Bang! The overloaded supply box exploded off the kitchen wall and we were plunged into an unscheduled ice age.

Mum’s words were less than appreciative.


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