The McTavish Inheritance


It was 1666, the Devil’s year in the Second Millennium, and London was ablaze. On the narrow wooden platform at the City end of his charge, the Bridge Master paced restlessly, his graven face furrowed, eyes sore and skin scorched by the burning heat that raged before him. It was an all-too-familiar scene that he looked upon, a terrifying reprise of nature’s means to destroy and a sight he had vehemently wished never to see again.

At the foot of his bridge, a place of worship that had stood centuries before the laying of London Bridge’s first stone, battled against the elements. It was a battle the church of St Magnus the Martyr was soon to lose. Flames flickered then ripped through the slate-covered roof, as inside brave but foolish church attendants fought to retrieve priceless, hand-scribed registers from the fire’s singeing, scolding force. St Magnus was beyond help, beyond saving, no longer a refuge to the lost souls living beside or over the river.

The Bridge Master moved aside to allow a rag-clothed beggar to hobble past, his dependence upon a bent, wooden crutch thwarting the speed of any meaningful retreat. A middle-aged man followed, his wife and two daughters in close pursuit, each clutching what few possessions they could gather in the seconds before fleeing. Two boys ran swiftly by, determined to pursue a rapid crossing to the fire-free buildings of Southwark on the southern shore of the Thames. They weaved between the daughters and around the father, showing abject disregard for any bump or nudge inflicted. A lame old beggar, unable to move from their path, stood little chance of staying upright, the glance of a seam-ripped shoe sending a body that was little more than jagged bones, tumbling to the hard, unforgiving stone platform.

The fire had started a few yards to the east in the bakery of Pudding Lane, where unguarded embers were routinely put aside to aid the lighting of an early morning fire. One solitary church had sounded the alarm, its bells instigating the gradual awakening of a sleeping city. Soon all church towers echoed the same warning, rousing a confused populous to a sky painted in the living, orange hue of an uncontrollable blaze.

From the platform, the Master watched a growing force that had barely begun its vile and relentless path through London. Above, sparks blown from the church flew overhead and landed on shops and dwellings at the north end of the bridge. He was helpless to prevent the fire’s passage, stifle its energy or diminish its impending devastation.

Two of his workers stood with him, helping as many as they could onto and across the bridge: the Tide Carpenter, a burly, no-nonsense character who maintained the nineteen supporting piers, and the stonemason, an equally hard, granite-like figure who cared for the arches and platform. Beneath them, the filthy, murky Thames water fought to squeeze through the confined spaces of the narrow locks, a man-made weir that partially dammed the river.

The Master leant over the upstream balustrade, peering down towards the wheel that supplied water to the city. Like everything else made of wood, it was in the throes of capitulation. He waved his hand – it was time to retreat.

The three men took to their heels, scurrying through the burning, narrow, twelve-foot passage, ducking as low as possible in the suffocating grey-black smoke. The Master’s hand stretched out to grab the crawling outline of a coughing, choking child. The Tide Carpenter seized another child, a seemingly pointless act for a still, lifeless infant but, if there was a chance of saving a life, it had to be taken. They passed a small, squealing pig floundering upon its belly, unable to run, its back broken by the iron-shod wheel of a drayman’s cart.

On they staggered, flames and smoke above and about them, clothes smouldering, skin burning, until, and not a moment too soon, the bridge yielded its first opening. Gasping for air, they emerged onto a wider platform, twenty foot across and stretching six arches into the river. The houses that should have stood there had been destroyed in the fire of 1633 and, unlike those just passed, had yet to be rebuilt.

Breathing deeply, they headed towards a large building standing upon the biggest, strongest pier of London Bridge. It was halfway across the river and once the Chapel of St Thomas à Becket, but, thanks to the sixteenth-century monastic purges, had for a hundred years been nothing more than a mere dwelling. Here they stopped and turned. The gap was a big enough firebreak to prevent the flames from enveloping the remainder of the bridge. On this occasion, the cruel act of one fire had saved it from the ravages of another. The city end of the bridge was alight, the buildings on the northern bank of the Thames ablaze, the fire’s course set to the west, fanned by a wind that would keep it alive and burning for several more days.

‘St Paul’s,’ said the stonemason pointing towards the tallest spire on the largest building in London. The sharp lines of its solid edifice were distorted through the intervening haze. The building had dominated the skyline for three centuries, and survived all previous fires, but it now stood in the path of its greatest ever threat.

‘It will take a miracle to save her this time,’ said the tide carpenter.

‘A miracle that will not happen,’ said the Bridge Master. He looked to the cinder-filled sky, then to the river teaming with boats ferrying their fares, and finally along the platform in either direction. ‘But we will survive, burnt, disfigured, in need of many years of repair, but we will survive. Come Satan’s damnation, we will defend this bridge and its community from whatever assaults he throws at us. That is our duty and that is the legacy we must leave behind.’

‘Amen to that,’ said the Tide Carpenter as he shifted his gaze from the bonfire of all bonfires to the face of the small girl he held in his arms. Her eyes were closed, the colour in her cheeks belonged to the fire and nothing else. Her chest was still, the blood in her veins flowed no more. Another child was destined for the graveyard of St Magnus the Martyr, where all that departed on or beneath the bridge were laid to rest.

‘The Bridge House,’ the Master directed, turning his back to the blazing skyline and resuming his journey through the enclosed passageway. A lantern outside each shop lit their way first to the Drawbridge and then to the Great Stone Gateway. On they strode down Borough High Street into Southwark, and then east along Barms Street until they reached the Bridge House, the focal point of all operations to maintain a structure nearly five hundred years old.

Behind them, gathered upon the south bank, onlookers from Southwark and those that had fled, watched in silence. For some it was the second time they had experienced the misery of losing their homes and communities, but like the Bridge Master, even in despair and ruin, they were determined to survive and rebuild from the ashes.

Chapter 1


(pron. Jewel-ff)


A young woman appeared at the foot of Central Arch, eyes alert, head in constant motion as she contented herself that all was in order. A group of strangers approached requiring help. It was readily and dutifully given. The group wandered up the central arch and the young woman noticed two figures on its brow, each inclined against the western balustrade. She raised a hand. Her wave was acknowledged in kind by a redheaded female, not much older than herself.

‘There’s Kate, down by the chapel shop,’ said Annie.

Paul caught a fleeting glimpse of the slim, blonde woman as she disappeared the way she had come. ‘Seems busy.’

‘When is she not? I’ll catch up with her later, have a word.’

Paul nodded and turned his gaze back to the west where a number of traffic-laden stone bridges and the iron-grilled railway bridge of Cannon Street now spanned the river. Annie faced in the opposite direction. Tower Bridge and the Tower of London were in her sights, along with the sharp bend of an extensive loop that saw the river pass the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs to the north and the quays, docks and wharves of Rotherhithe and Deptford to the south. The view, from what was now called Old London Bridge, had changed greatly in three-and-a-half centuries as had the bridge itself.

Extensive maintenance during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had sought to counter the harmful tendencies of both river and climate. As the costly modifications mounted, the voice of its many enemies had grown louder – they could see no value in prolonging the life of an aging workhorse. Fortunately, a small group of staunch supporters had seen beyond short-term gain. Their strength and determination to shoulder the burden of its reconstruction was the only reason a semblance of the original London Bridge still graced the river and not some plain highway. Sadly, their memory now lingered in the minds of only a few and those that happened to chance upon the blackened, riverside busts that commemorated their lives.

Old London Bridge was a pedestrian bridge that was higher than its predecessor and where there had once been twenty locks, just seven remained. Central Lock was by far the largest and built to accommodate the passage of all boats that, by trade or inclination, travelled both east and west. Two prominent features of the old bridge stood as resurrected landmarks at either end of Central Lock – Nonesuch House and the east-facing Chapel of St Thomas à Becket. Nonesuch House (originally built in the Tudor reign of Elizabeth І) served as a renowned museum for a distant era, whilst St Thomas à Becket continued its role as a working chapel, attending to the needs of all those who journeyed to the bridge.

Although a much smaller bridge, the historic appearance remained dominant with the Great Stone Gateway in Southwark leading to the first of two hipped, terraced blocks. Next came an opening called the Drawbridge – a reminder of days long past when a drawbridge opened to allow vessels to pass up- and downstream. After Nonesuch House, Central Arch and the Chapel of St Thomas à Becket, which sat opposite a facing shop, another small opening called the Square was followed by the second identical block of terraced houses. Finally, a new structure called Princes’ Gate led into the City.

Kate,  one  of  four  Hawks  who  patrolled  the  bridge,  walked  through the stone arch of Princes’ Gate having completed another half-circuit of the Bridge.  She  turned  and,  with  a  hand  raised  to  shade  her  eyes,  inspected the  stonework  for  any  signs  of  damage.  It  was  a  deliberate  act  seen  daily by the many visitors, a gentle warning of watchful eyes. She lowered her gaze and turned to observe the road beyond the bridge. Two youths, previously seen loitering in Fish Street Hill, were no longer there. That did not mean they had gone and to the young eyes that searched the hill they were certainly not forgotten. An imperceptible click, and Kate glanced a few yards east to the clock tower of St Magnus the Martyr that stretched above her head. Standing beneath the raised bridge, and still caring for the needs of all resident upon it, the oft fire-damaged and rebuilt church occupied the same ground as when first erected, a fellow traveller on a continuing journey.

To the south of the river, more companions and old friends found themselves buried amongst altered surroundings. To the southwest, with only its main spire visible above the intervening buildings, stood Southwark Cathedral and, to the southeast, brought forward to the river walkway, the Bridge House. Finally, in Borough High Street (the road leading up to the bridge) sat the oldest public house in London, a much-frequented tavern called the Bear.

Kate smiled at some visitors as they passed by, then gave directions to a couple seeking a particular interest. She did not dwell, one last cautious look and she was off, heading back through the gate and into the passageway of the first impressive block of shops and residential quarters. Rising four floors on either wing and linked intermittently by overhead gangways, the buildings gave way to a pitched roof that housed dormers and chimneys. Its timber appearance discreetly concealed a frame strengthened by modern materials, a deception not unlike that of Tower Bridge whose Gothic façade covered a structure of iron. The houses overhung the platform on either side and were visibly supported by sturdy wooden struts. A wider platform enhanced their stability and served to free up the passageway for pedestrians.

Kate stopped outside Pickering’s, the booksellers. With ears alert she listened attentively. A light draft of air and there it was again, the merest of squeaks, its source a wooden signboard. Such irritations were not allowed. The shop door opened to the ring of a small bell and the tubby, balding figure of a middle-aged man, well known to all on the bridge, appeared.

‘On your rounds, Father Michael?’ Kate enquired.

‘Ah, the very person,’ said the incumbent priest from St Magnus.

‘Let me guess, another wedding?’ Father Michael smiled, such ceremonies were a frequent event. ‘And you’ll require assistance to stop visitors from wandering into your service?’

‘As ever, it would be deeply appreciated.’

Kate nodded. She loved weddings and the processions that followed over the bridge. ‘Give me a moment, Father, then I’ll follow you back.’

The priest departed for his church and the young guardian stepped inside the offending shop for an urgent word with the bookseller.

Pickering’s was one of only a few traditional stores that remained on the bridge, stationers, tanners and chandlers having also survived. New trades occupied the other buildings, contrasting the old with the new and giving the bridge the purpose that made it a working bridge of the present day as well as an attraction of the past. Galleries, several in number, displayed the new works of living artists, a homage to the many artists who had painted London Bridge during its changing guises. A coffee lounge and teahouse at either end of the bridge and a highly popular establishment called the Tavern filled the limited space that remained.

To all, Old London Bridge was now perceived as a permanent, historical landmark. Its time as the only crossing point of the Thames had long passed, but its mere presence was a physical link and reminder of eight hundred years in the life of the nation’s capital. The bridge had survived the efforts of nature and man to erase it from the river and now stood not only with an outer countenance of distant times, but also with a bustling, vibrant inner core full of contemporary ideas. Its structure was solid, its buildings uniform, secure and built to a style first displayed after the devastating fire of 1633. Old London Bridge had been adapted to serve a modern city, but its character remained as a monument to those who built, lived on and crossed the bridge during many centuries of turbulent history.

Chapter 2

Annie and Paul were back in London having enjoyed a long break in the Scottish Highlands. At a wedding ceremony held in Annie’s local church, Paul had been welcomed into the McTavish family in the presence of the whole community. It had been a lively and seemingly endless affair, but ranked no higher than second amongst their reasons for celebration that summer. Alison, a now three-month-old daughter and redhead in keeping with all Annie’s clan, had entered their lives. She was vivacious, noisy and rarely slept and, after an extended introduction to her Celtic family, was currently getting to grips with the gentler, quieter company of retired and adoring southerners. In an attempt to pacify the demands of Paul’s parents, Edward and Sapphire, Annie had obliged them with sole possession of their first and, so far, rarely seen grandchild.

The bridge, amongst many things, was a popular gathering place for those connected with the arts, be they eking out a humble living, training as students or possessing nothing more than an avid interest. Annie was soon to start her third and final year at college knowing that, at its conclusion, she had to make an important decision – whether to return to her home in Jualth for good and inherit Matilda’s, the family inn (and the responsibilities that went with it), or earn a living elsewhere, applying the knowledge acquired in a field where few succeeded.

Paul was already attempting this. He was in his early thirties and despite considerable dedication had yet to experience the success he sought. Much of his work found itself consigned for dismantling and recycling, or as an undercoat for a new painting in some alternative venture of creativity, actions that did little to encourage his self-belief or pay the day-to-day expenses. Edward and Sapphire, lovers of art and their son, were necessary providers of both.

Beneath them, a glass-hooded tourist boat emerged moving upstream, an informative voice echoing salient points from within. Its status as the most common vessel seen on the Thames was in stark contrast to the merchant shipping and boatmen that had worked its waters in a forgotten age.

‘How are you feeling?’ Paul asked, a question in light of previous experience he felt obliged to ask.

‘Fine. Any reason why I shouldn’t?’

‘Hopefully not, but as you were sick the morning after our return last year…’

Annie smiled, remembering the first sign of impending motherhood, an occurrence that did not happen without careful planning on her part. ‘I think we’ll be all right this year, but in another … who knows?’

‘I have a feeling you do.’ The sentiment was delivered with discernible frustration. ‘However slight, it would be nice to know that my opinion in such matters merits some consideration.’

Annie groaned. She did not wish to start a family tiff so soon after their return, but as the need had arisen … ‘Paul, my family will be eternally young when we have our children and that’s all you need to know. Besides, if decisions were left to men, and you in particular, we’d be forever dithering and I do not like dithering. When I make up my mind to do something, I get on with it, whereas you … well, need I say more?’

Paul grunted, a reminder of his faults was never far from the fore when his wife wished to make a point. ‘Too much time spent on introspective re-examination in my, so far, fruitless attempts to gain recognition,’ he reluctantly conceded. ‘I suppose it limits the time necessary to concentrate on important day-to-day issues.’

‘In a nutshell, dearest,’ Annie agreed. She thought false expectations unfair, especially when the decision was so obviously better left to her. Her husband could then deliberate solely on his work and the project that lay ahead. ‘Any ideas?’ she asked. ‘Have your creative energies been revived and inspired by our trip over the border?’

‘Not to the extent they were last year. I think you’ll agree it was all comparatively quiet on this occasion, no unforeseen incidents or disturbing revelations. Even your mad, annual swim across the loch to catch those monster-sized fish was uneventful.’

‘Apart from Janie treating it like an Olympic sprint. If there had been a previously documented record time, I’m sure this year’s effort would have halved it.’

‘Do you think she was trying to make a point?’

‘Yes, I rather think she was, but the inn belongs to me till I decide otherwise.’

‘Or your mother does.’

It was a gentle prompt that limitless time did not rest on Annie’s side. She swept her hair back from her face in irritation. ‘Mothers, they’re so demanding.’

‘She wasn’t best pleased when we turned up this summer with no answer.’

‘Thanks for that, Paul. I needed my memory jogged.’

‘I was only saying—’

‘None of us have been blessed with patience, and what Ma has will soon be exhausted. Impending events will see to that.’

‘They will indeed.’ Paul felt a mixture of great sympathy and even greater respect for what he perceived to be a very brave man. ‘Good old Alistair. I knew he’d get round to asking for your mother’s hand sooner or later.’

‘Don’t be silly, Paul, Ma told him they were getting married. Like I said, leave decisions to men and you’ll be forever dithering. It’s what they both wanted and Alistair, although not an overwhelming spark of life, will make a good husband. He has a strong grasp of what will happen to him if he strays far from the prescribed path.’

Paul needed no reminder of Annie’s forceful ways and the violent, simmering anger that ran through the whole of her family. Although he was tall and dark-eyed, with prematurely greying, brown hair, there was something in the genes of Annie that tipped the balance in her favour. For generations, petite, fiery and redheaded females had dominated the McTavish clan.

‘When do you think they’ll get married?’

‘We’ll know when it happens. There’s no likelihood of a big fuss, Ma wouldn’t want that again. We won’t be making any special trip home for the ceremony.’

Paul was inclined to welcome this news, but felt unsure of Annie’s true feelings. She had yet to open up, but he could sense something brewing within.

‘Where will they live when your mother hands over the inn?’

‘I don’t know. It’s been Ma’s home all her life. She’ll find it difficult to move out, but with a husband who has responsibilities in a neighbouring loch… well, it’s hard to say. She’ll want to keep working at the inn with Aunt Jenny and Grandma, but whether that means living there without being the one who runs it …?’

‘Janet still lives there. She didn’t move out when she handed over to your mother.’

‘I know, but it was her home. It’s different with Alistair. Ma will have to take his feelings into account when she decides. If I become landlady, I’d still want her there, though how my husband would take to such an arrangement…?’

Annie tilted her head to catch her husband’s reaction. He quickly looked away. His mother-in-law possessed a highly persuasive and volatile personality, exhibiting few inhibitions when offering her opinions or dispatching orders. Sally was only a few years his senior, but it was a similarity that stretched no further. She had already raised a family and, for almost two decades, been responsible for the upkeep of an inn and a loch. It left no time for distractions and certainly none for his chosen profession. Paul did not think she even viewed it as such, merely an indulgence that had gone on for far too long.

Despite his reservations, Paul had grown fond of Sally, a feeling he held for all Annie’s family and their many friends. Jualth was a beautiful community with a whisky the likes of which he had never tasted before, but it was remote, rarely visited by outsiders and a far cry from the bustling, busy, vibrant city where he had lived since birth. Living in the Highlands would be no hardship, but it would be different and not the best place to realise his hopes of becoming a successful artist. He would also be leaving his family, his friends, all those who shared the same passion as him. Both were important considerations as was a third, condemning his children to the strange and unique dangers that existed if they moved to Scotland, where tradition was followed without apparent thought for the risks it presented. It was not a dilemma he could openly express, but it was there, hidden, and would remain hidden behind any reason he gave to stay in London, if such an option he chose to make.

‘You didn’t answer my question,’ said Annie. ‘It’s a new year for us both and a very important one. What we do in the coming months will affect our entire lives at the end of it. So … work? Do you have any plans?’

Her husband shrugged, hesitant to commit.


‘No, not really.’ Paul pushed against the balustrade and turned to face across the bridge, his lack of a theme troublesome, but not the first time he had experienced such a failing. Ideas were often elusive, hiding from the consciousness of the willing recipient, but they always came. It was just a question of time and patience.

A familiar figure appeared through the chapel door of St Thomas à Becket, courteously attending to a small group of overseas visitors. It was Wil, the Bridge Master, thought by many to be as old as the bridge itself, and recognised by all to be the most important part of it. Although guided tours were not a function of his office, he liked to be on hand, available and approachable, to assist those wishing to derive greater knowledge. His tales benefited from the perfect setting to bring life and vitality to his words. Wil remained active – his health, vigour and alert mind undiminished by age – and as dedicated to his responsibilities and the daily life on the bridge now as in his youth. When the group approached the couple, he broke away.

‘I was beginning to think you had permanently relocated,’ he said.

Annie stepped forward to give him a formal kiss on each cheek. ‘We were always coming back this year, as you well know. Next year is the one you have to worry about.’

‘And worry I will.’

Paul took his turn to greet the Bridge Master, shaking the firm hand of a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark, deep-set eyes and a thin covering of grey hair. There was a touch of severity in an otherwise friendly face, the sign of unmistakeable authority. ‘And how are you, Paul? Glad to be back or beginning to feel the draw of another place?’

‘On the whole, glad to be back,’ Paul confessed, glancing at Annie. The admission came as no great surprise.

‘The length of your absence has been noted, not least by the young Hawks amongst my staff.’

‘We saw Kate earlier on,’ said Annie.

‘I know, she mentioned it when we passed and reminded me of several jobs that could do with a measure of creative input.’

Annie remained silent; she knew the jobs were not intended for her.

‘I’ll pop into the Bridge House tomorrow,’ said Paul. The bridge held a special fascination for him, as it did with so many. He willingly lent a hand whenever requested. ‘How has your summer been?’ he asked.

‘Apart from a small fire started by someone old enough to know better, nothing out of the ordinary. It seems five minutes without a cigarette is beyond the limits of self-control to some. Perhaps I should have tobacco confiscated at the gates and do away with the no-smoking signs.’

‘The Tavern?’ Paul speculated, the one place where it was grudgingly permitted.

‘No, one of the galleries. A very colourful paper display of avian rainforest mammals went up in smoke, a misfortune that held great symbolism for the artist.’ 

‘Did it do much damage?’ Annie asked, showing unmistakeable concern.

‘No. Kate dealt with it before the flames had a chance to spread.’

Kate was the youngest of the four Hawks who were all aged between seventeen and twenty. As with their master, they were always available to help visitors when needed and to sound the alarm the moment trouble appeared.

‘Wil, I think you’re needed,’ said Annie pointing to the patient group he had temporarily abandoned. With Tower Bridge in the background and cameras at the ready, a collective huddle gestured for their star attraction to return.

‘So it appears. See you tomorrow, Paul.’ He waved a departing hand and moved to the opposite side of the arch to happily take up his place amongst the waiting visitors.

‘I can’t imagine this place without Wil,’ said Paul about a man he deeply respected.

‘Well imagine it, the day will come,’ said Annie ruthlessly. ‘No one goes on for ever.’

They watched the group wander off towards Nonesuch House, where it stopped for more photographs and an engaging history lesson with added anecdotes. Paul put his arm around Annie and kissed her on the head.

‘What’s that for? Are you getting romantic now we’re back on the bridge?’

‘Very, but that’s for giving Wil a kiss and for even saying a few words. Were you just being civil or are you at last attempting to thaw relations?’

Annie pushed his arm away, rejecting the inference. ‘I’m always civil to Wilfred.’

‘And for some unknown reason, that’s as far as it goes. The question is why?’

Annie shrugged, not wishing to comment.

‘What is it?’

‘I can’t say what, just something about him.’


‘Not bad, just something that lies beneath, concealed, hidden. How can you trust someone when they don’t properly reveal themselves?’

A silence that seemed to envelop the whole of the bridge descended. One glance at Paul’s astounded expression was enough to explain this apparent phenomenon.

‘All right, I’m a fine one to talk, but I have different rules for myself which is a woman’s prerogative, and everything I conceal is for the greater good.’

‘The greater good of the McTavish clan.’

‘And all our friends.’

Paul nodded sceptically, well used to the duplicitous nature of Annie’s reasoning. ‘“I can’t say what”,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Does that mean you don’t know what or you just won’t say?’

Annie remained silent, a sign that generated its own worrying conclusions.

‘Why do I get the impression you’re also hiding something?’

‘Because you know me too well, dearest.’

‘Then you and Wil are very similar, so I cannot see why you dislike him.’

‘I never said that. I’ve never said I disliked him.’

‘You just make it appear that way.’

Annie shrugged away the remark – it was none of her husband’s business.

‘How long have you been concealing this thing? Since you’ve been in London?’

‘Aye, that’s right, so there’s no point in trying to get it out of me now.’ Annie turned her head on her side, trying to extract his agreement. ‘Come on, you know you like it this way. Nothing I keep from you will change your high regard for me or my family.’



‘But one day you’ll tell me?’

Annie laughed; she enjoyed playing with her husband’s doubts. Uncertainty added edge to their relationship.

Under the archway of Nonesuch House, Wil parted company with the tourists. Annie and Paul watched him head off before deciding to move on themselves. Leaving the Central Arch with its view along the Thames, they walked past the chapel and over the Square until they reached a crooked timber door on the left. It was the entrance to the Tavern, a gathering place where, if they were lucky, they would find one or two old friends. It was time to catch up with what had been going on in their absence.