MALCOLM ARCHIBALD has worked as a lecturer and in historical research in addition to a variety of other jobs. He writes historical fiction and non-fiction with the occasional venture into folklore, and believes that history should be accessible to everyone.
This is an extract from his new novel Last Train to Waverley Station, which is published by Fledgling Press.
A winner of the Dundee Book Prize, 2005, he has published several novels. Among the most notable are Whales for the Wizard, Powerstone, Mother Law, The Darkest Walk and A Burden Shared. His non-fiction titles include A Sink of Atrocity: Crime of 19th Century Dundee and Glasgow: The Real Mean City: True Crime and Punishment in the Second City of Empire. Malcolm lives in Moray with his wife, Cathy.
DESPITE the early morning sunshine that threw long shadows from the Lebanese cedar, dew still lingered on the stalks of the grass. A gardener worked diligently with his hoe, barely looking up as the man and his woman eased past. Her arm was hooked into his, but whether out of affection or to support him, the gardener could not tell. The man wore the uniform of an army officer with the three pips of a captain, but as they passed beyond the shadows, the sun gleamed briefly from the three gold wound stripes on his sleeve.
The gardener paused to lean on the haft of his hoe as his interest was briefly roused. The officer was tall and he limped heavily and stopped frequently as if in constant pain. His face was drawn and his eyes haunted, as if the war had not yet left him; although he was physically among the peace of the Botanical Garden, mentally he was still trapped in Flanders mud.
The gardener sighed and returned to his work; Edinburgh was full of injured men recently returned from the War; it was not his concern. This week’s crop of weeds was more important to him. He ducked his head and sliced the hoe through the dark soil.
The couple walked past. They did not notice the gardener at all. Gillian pulled the silk scarf tighter over her throat and took hold of Ramsay’s arm.
“It’s cold this morning,” she shivered and huddled closer, her eyes lifting to his. Ramsay squeezed her hand in the crook of his elbow. “You may have been better advised to wear a longer skirt,” he said.
“You like it?” Gillian looked down at her sky blue dress. She straightened her left leg so the serrated hem rose even higher up her shin. “Shorter skirts are the height of fashion this season, Douglas.”
“Of course they are,” Ramsay agreed. He tried to lengthen his stride slightly but that damned wound caught him again and he winced and returned to his now- familiar but still frustrating hobble.
Gillian had automatically hesitated when he faltered and now she looked enquiringly at him. “Are you all right?”
Ramsay nodded but said nothing. God! He hated this weakness of his body. He looked up suddenly and ducked his head as something exploded from the shrubbery on his left. It was a magpie: only a magpie. He grinned to hide the embarrassment he felt at having betrayed his ragged nerves.
Gillian patted the stripes on his cuff. “It will get better, Douglas. You will get better in time.”
He watched the bird flutter toward the domed glass of the Palm House, black and white against the green leaves. He saw its reflection in the polished panes and then it was gone, disappeared behind the glittering roof as if it had never been. Here one minute, gone the next; it no longer mattered. The only things that mattered were those that were before you at that second: the here and now. All the rest was unimportant. The past had happened and could not be altered and the future may never happen. Only the present mattered, and that was Gillian. He inhaled deeply, very aware of her perfume mingling with the soft scent of earth and new-cut grass.
“Douglas?” Gillian pulled lightly on his sleeve. “Are you with me?”
I think so Gillian but hold onto me or I may drift away back to the trenches The sun had risen in the short time they had been walking. It emerged from the fringe of the shrubbery and eased its light on to the Palm House, caressing each pane of glass as the Earth continued its inexorable orbit around that mysterious yellow globe. Ramsay thought of how the sun had looked on other mornings, in another country, in another world far removed from this place of false tranquillity.
Maybe he had left a part of himself there; maybe the memories and the guilt would follow him forever.
“Douglas?” Gillian was leaning into him, trying to catch his eyes. She asked again: “Are you with me?”
“Of course I am with you.” Ramsay forced a smile. He watched as the sun caught the penultimate pane on its gradual spread over the Palm House. There was no sign of the magpie now; nor was there a lark singing. But there should be a lark; there was always a lark. He looked down at Gillian; her eyes were bright, but the concern was also there.
“I think you are getting tired now,” when Gillian spoke in that kind tone, her voice washed over him like warm soapy water, loosening the visible hurt but unable to penetrate to the depths beneath.
She tightened her grip on his arm. “Come along, Douglas; time we were getting back home I think.” She held out her left hand and allowed the sunlight to glint on the central and largest diamond of her engagement ring. “We have a wedding to arrange.”
RAMSAY nodded. “We have indeed, Gillian.” He lengthened his stride to match hers, rode the pain and tried once more to concentrate on this strange life of peace, where a sudden noise was more likely to be somebody dropping a cup rather than a dreaded coalscuttle bomb exploding, and men wore dark suits or flat caps rather than mud-coated uniforms stinking of lyddite and sweat.
He heard the whistling before he saw the source, but automatically his mouth formed the words of the song and he joined in, softly.
“Après la guerre finie Soldat Ecosse parti Mademoiselle in the family way Après la guerre finie” Gillian saw the movement and smiled: “You looked happy there for a moment, Douglas. Please sing louder for me.” Ramsay shook his head as he realised what he was doing. “It’s a trench song, Gillian. It’s hardly suitable for your ears.”
“I’m not made of glass you know!” Despite Gillian’s smile, the words retained enough of a sting for Ramsay to recognise her hurt.
He saw the residual anger in her eyes and shook his head. “I know that,” he said softly. “I know you have seen plenty and heard plenty, but I still think of you as that young girl I fell in love with a lifetime and four years ago.”
“I am still me, silly,” the hurt faded from Gillian’s eyes. “And you are still you, under that uniform, Douglas. The war was only an episode.”
Ramsay nodded. “Yes,” he said. “It was only an episode.”
The whistling continued to the tune Sous les Ponts de Paris, jaunty and sharp but with an undertone of bitterness. Ramsay stopped and waited for the whistlers. They came around the corner of the Palm House, three men in blue hospital suits and scarlet neckerchiefs. One pushed a wheelchair in which the second sat; the third hobbled behind on a pair of crutches; his single remaining leg heavily bandaged. The badges on their caps advertised membership of three different regiments.
They stopped when they saw Ramsay and two of them saluted. The man in crutches tried to balance long enough to lift his arm but staggered so the wheelchair pusher had to hold him upright.
Ramsay returned the salute. “Stand easy, men.” The words came automatically, as did the instinctive relaxation of the three men. They had stopped whistling and stood as if waiting for orders that Ramsay was not inclined to give. He nodded to the man in the wheelchair. “Where did you get that?”
The man glanced down, where his legs should have been. “Ypres, sir; gas gangrene.”
“And you?” Ramsay nodded to the man on crutches.
“Hindenburg Line, sir.” The accent was East End Glasgow, the cap badge HLI.
“And you?” Ramsay nodded to the wheelchair pusher. “Amiens, sir.” The man bore himself with some authority and Ramsay guessed he had been a corporal, perhaps even a sergeant. Blue eyes met Ramsay’s in a gaze that was neither obsequious nor challenging.
“Well done, men,” Ramsay said. “Carry on.” He watched them pass, noting they still had their shoulders squared and their heads up; they were soldiers, but more than that, they were men. They started to sing, the words soft but distinguishable as they continued with their defiant, tragic song.
Après la guerre finie Soldat Ecosse parti Mademoiselle can go to hell Après la guerre finie “Well,” Gillian watched them disappear behind the bushes. The song returned to whistling, which gradually faded away. “The guerre is après now, but there is not much partying from these Scottish soldiers.” Her voice lowered. “Not without legs.”
She sighed and rubbed her hand up and down his sleeve.
“I am very glad you came back intact.” She touched the ribbons sewn on his breast, “and decorated. You are a hero, you know.”
“I am no hero,” Ramsay denied. “And I am not sure if I am intact. The true heroes were the men who did not come back.”
MEN such as Edwards, Niven, Aitken, Mackay… the list is endless.
“What nonsense!” Gillian said. She touched his ribbons again. “These prove your heroism and that’s all there is to be said . . . no!” She held up her hand, palm toward him. “I won’t hear another word, Douglas; not another word. You are intact, just a wee bit hurt and I can cure all of that, I promise you.”
She slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow and they continued to walk, slower now, toward the western entrance gate. A trick of the breeze brought the sound of whistling back toward them and then there was silence, save for the rustle of leaves and the sad refrain of blackbirds.
Ramsay stopped abruptly, and Gillian staggered slightly. The woman stood just inside the gate with a child at her side and hope shorn from her face. The high polish could not disguise the battered state of her shoes and her clothes that had gone out of fashion at least four years before. The child stared at Ramsay, pointed and whispered something briefly to his mother. The woman shook her head.
“Do you know that woman?” Gillian asked.
Ramsay spared her a cursory glance and looked away quickly. “No.” He hesitated for a moment, swore softly and tapped his right hand on his leg. “Excuse me, please, Gillian.” He disengaged his arm and walked over to the woman. She watched him approach, her face disinterested.
“That is a fine boy you have there,” Ramsay tried to smile.
“He’s not bad.” The woman pulled her son back and held him close.
“His father must be very proud of him.”
“His father is dead,” the woman said bluntly. She looked at the medal ribbons on Ramsay’s breast and pursed her lips.
“In the War?” Ramsay asked. He put out a hand but the woman pulled the boy out of his reach.
“Where else?” The woman sounded too tired to be bitter. There were dark rings around her eyes and deep lines between the edges of her mouth and her poverty- sharp nose.
Ramsay nodded. “That must be hard for you.”
“It’s hard for everybody,” the woman barely shrugged. “Why should it be any different for me?”
“Of course.” Ramsay looked closely into the eyes of the boy. They were brown and wide. “How old is he?”
The woman pulled him closer. “He’s four come August.”
“Oh.” Ramsay pulled out his wallet. As the woman watched, he extracted a pound note and held it out. “To help,” he said. “Take it, please.”
“I don’t take charity.” There was a surge of pride in the woman’s voice, despite the desperation in her eyes.
Ramsay shook his head. “It’s not charity,” he said, “your husband might have served with me. Please,” he repeated, and lowered his voice, “please. For the boy’s sake if not for your own.”
The woman glanced down at her son and then slowly took the money. She held it as if it was red hot. “Thank you,” she said. She stuffed it away inside some recess of her coat, turned and walked, round shouldered, out of the gate. “Come on, William.”