A head appeared through the open door: ’Who’s that?’
‘It’s me, Frank - I’m looking to get some knives sharpened…’
‘Sorry about that. I was having a wee kip. These fire-station beds - talk about lumpy…’
The Fire-Station at 188 High Street, Edinburgh served a number of functions. Not only was it the location where the volunteers would assemble every Wednesday to perform their drills, it would also serve as an informal guest-house for those providing services to the Brigade. Thus it was that Frank Stone and his portable contraption were often given bed and board in exchange for his speciality - the sharpening of scissors and knives.
Horse was carrying a canvas sack on his back. He swung it around and let it clatter onto the stone floor. Frank Stone rubbed his hands together as if keeping them warm: ‘What have you got for me there, buddy?’
Horse pulled open the top of the bag and pointed inside: ‘Scissors, razor blazes and knives, knives and more knives, me old mate.’
Stone whistled: ‘Goad-blissus, Horse -a’ they knives - are ye opening up a butcher’s shop?’ He began to take the knives out one by one and examine them. He placed them into two separate piles.
Horse looked around the deserted fire station: ‘And where’s that dog of yours then? He still going strong? I got a little present for him.’
Stone looked up from his sorting and whistled: ‘Scraps! Here boy! Come on, boy - Scrappy, wake up ye wee foozler!’
The sound of a dog’s nails scratching on the floor in the other room, then through the door, the emergence of a little fox terrier. Not young, but still nimble and inquisitive. ‘Scraps’ tapped into the room, head cocked, as if to say ‘Why did you wake me up?’, his paws resembling two furry snowballs.
Horse crouched down and started a rough tousling of the dog’s brown, folded-down ears: ‘WHO’s a good boy, then…’
Stone nodded over: ‘He’s crabbit wi’ most other folk, but he likes you, Horse, because you aye bring him something.’
Horse spoke to the dog, as if lecturing a young child: ‘And today, my furry friend, is no different. Yer old mate, the Horse, has brought you…’ with a flourish, he produced a piece of crumpled newspaper from his coat pocket: ‘…this!’ Inside the paper were various scraps of meat. The fox terrier tucked in. Horse laughed: ‘I knew I was coming here, so I put aside some bits and bobs for our little friend here.’
Frank Stone was still kneeling, examining the knives and putting them into separate piles: ‘You never thought of getting a dog, buddy? They like you.’
Horse shook his head: ‘Dog? Got enough on my plate looking after an Advocate.’
‘And how’s that going?’
The conversation turned to Horse’s life as a manservant. He made his friend laugh with some (almost true) tales. Stone stood up: ‘Right - I’ll get the machine going…’
With that, he reached over and took the dog by the collar and led it over to what looked like a large hollowed-out drum suspended off the ground and standing on its side. He lifted up the animal and placed it inside the drum and the dog began to walk slowly. The drum began to turn. Horse watched as a long pulley from the drum began to pull and turn the sharpening lathe.
‘Scraps - move it, boy!’ The dog, who at this point appeared to exhibit a good grasp of the English language, began to move faster. And as the dog moved faster, the drum moved faster. As the drum moved faster, the great wheel of the lathe began to spin around.
Frank Stone held one of the knives against the spinning lathe and sparks began to fly. He shouted down to the dog. ’Good boy!’ Stone picked up knife after knife and held it, sparking against the spinning wheel. And as he sharpened, he spoke: ‘So what’s your Advocate working on just now, Horse?’
Horse was now sat on a stool, smoking a long clay pipe: ‘Two things. First, there’s a bloke what says he killed George Kemp…’
‘What - Kemp the monument man?’
Horse nodded: ‘The same.’
‘Well, good luck with that. It was the drink that killed Kemp. Blind drunk and fell into the canal. Everybody knows that. What else?’
‘Well, there’s a bloke - he went out with the East India Company. So, he comes back and the wife says it weren’t him that come back at all, it’s another bloke pretending to be him, like.’
‘How long was he away for?’
‘Five years, I think it was.’
Silence for a time, while the knife-grinder examined his handiwork, holding up and scrutinising the newly-sharpened blades. Then he spoke: ‘It changes a man, though, Horse. You know that. I’ve been away - you’ve been away - and we’ve come back and - after everything you’ve seen over there - everything looks different.’ He wiped a rag across the blade: ‘Where was he posted?’
Stone laughed: ‘Haha - me an’ all. Seven years I was there.’ He nodded down to the lathe. ’That’s where I saved the money to buy this contraption.’
Horse thought for a moment, took a long draw from his clay pipe, then: ‘The lad what came back goes by the name of Joseph Blakemore…’
The knife-grinder began to laugh again: ‘I knew Joe Blakemore. Knew him well. I was there the day the munitions blew up in his face and him and the other boys got took to the surgeons. I used to bring him his letters in hospital. Oh, that was a hellish place.’
No words were spoken as the dog kept the drum moving and as the pulleys on the drum kept the lathe spinning. Frank Stone pressed the blade against the lathe, frowning in concentration as the orange sparks flew from the blades.
Horse considered this for a moment, then: ‘And if I was to take you to see this Joseph Blakemore, Frank, do you think you’d know him now?’
Tomorrow in The Scotsman: Good for the Soul