Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The American Friend by Bobby Stevenson

She loved him. 

That much of the story is true. I know that because it’s written in green ink in her diary. Why else would I be taking her ashes half way across the world?

She, Sarah my mother, met him, Donald the American, early in 1965. In those days the national anthem 'God Save the Queen' was played at the end of a movie. Apart from the odd soldier or war veteran, most people used the opportunity to run for the last bus home or to get to the head of the fish and chip queue at Greasy Annie’s next door to the cinema.

The Regal, the local flea pit, was the only cinema in the little town in the West Highlands. It closed early on a Saturday night to allow the projectionist and the ice cream lady to get home in order to prepare for Church the next day. 

Sarah didn’t stand up for the anthem, she didn’t believe in it, but she wasn’t in a hurry to leave either. It was then she saw him standing with his hand over his heart, she had never seen that before. Sarah watched with wonder as the man attempted to mouth the words of 'God Save the Queen' when most people couldn’t navigate their way past the first verse.

She had enjoyed ‘My Fair Lady’ and she imagined she would sing a couple of the songs as she walked home on that wet Saturday night. If she liked the movie she always replayed it in her head, that way the road back was never as lonely. 

“Did you enjoy the movie Miss?” 
For a second Sarah felt as if a movie star had spoken to her, surely the rich deep American voice couldn’t be coming from that man?
“The name’s Donald, Don mostly. And you are?”
“Sarah. You’re American?”
“Sure am, Pennsylvania born and bred Mam, prettier than New Jersey and bigger than Ohio. The State Mam, not me.”
“I’ve never been.”
“To Pennsylvania or to the States?”
“That’s a pity Miss that truly is a pity. It is God’s own country although yours does come close.”

That is how they met and that is why Sarah, my mother, records in her usual green ink that they shared fish and chips on the walk home.

He was Donald McInnis and his family had been thrown out of Scotland with the Highland Clearances. Those were the days when the landlords found sheep more profitable than people. His ancestors had settled in Pittsburgh and that was, as they say, that.
“So why come back?”
“My wife died in ’63 and as we had no kids, and I had no other family to speak of, it seemed only right to return to my own home”.
“I’m sorry”
“No need Sarah. No need whatsoever”

For the record, my mother Sarah was twenty years of age and still a virgin according to her diary. So let’s just say for the sake of argument that she was telling the truth (which she was) and that Don was the man who showed her the ways of the world. Whatever occurred, she fell in love so hard that it must have been recorded on a Richter scale somewhere. She didn’t just need him; this was life support on a grand design.
The green ink betrayed it all: Don said this; Don said that, Don took my photo with a Polaroid camera...Don...Don...Don. 

If you read the diaries carefully, as I have done countless times since my mother’s death, there is one thing that you will notice – nowhere up to this point, apart from what I have told you above, does it mention anything about who Don really is, or was. Don’s life appears to have been invisible. 

I asked Don about his parents last night, he got very cross, told me to change the tune and he went for a walk. 

If what I learned later is true, then Don had a very good reason to be secretive about where he came from and who he was.

My mother never actually moved in with The American Friend, that would have brought her shame in 1965, instead she kept house for him and went home to her family in the evenings. 

Don was reluctant to go to the shops or even show his face in the village, this was all due to suffering from depression following his wife’s death (apparently). It was on one of those shopping trips, while my mother was standing in a queue at the butchers that she noticed, through the window, a little man watching people as they went about their business. He was leaning against the drapery store window while smoking a cigarette. He had a hat pulled down over his face. 

She thought nothing more about it at the time. The following day when she was in the library getting the latest Ian Fleming for Don,  he was there again. This time he wasn’t watching anyone in particular, rather he was taking an unusual amount of interest in the local newspaper and was curiously using a magnifying glass. Two swallows really don’t make a summer and so the incidents went to the back of Sarah’s mind. 

About a week or so later, Sarah was walking her cousin Pauline’s dog on the beach. It was something she did to get out of the house, especially when Don was going through one of his darker periods – periods which were becoming more frequent. At the far end of the beach she sat watching a small yacht fight with the elements, she could hear what she thought was probably a father and son arguing on board.

“I love sailing” said a voice behind her.

She shivered slightly as she couldn’t recall anyone being that close to her on the beach. She turned to see the little man from the butcher’s and the library standing behind her.
“Sorry?” said Sarah.
“Just commenting on my love of sailing that’s all and may I say what a lovely, lovely dog you have.”
It was hard for Sarah to pin down exactly where his accent came from but it did sound faintly European, English even. The way he said ‘lovely’ gave Sarah goose bumps - there was a cold strangeness to him. 

“My name is Reinhardt, young lady, although I don’t suppose you get to meet too many foreigners around this way, yes?”
“I suppose” said Sarah.
“You do or you don’t?”
“No, we don’t.” 
For a tourist, he seemed a bit pushy, thought Sarah.
“Would the lovely people....” there was that word again “..know if there was a stranger in their midst?”
“You mean like you? Listen I don’t want to be rude but what is it....”
Sarah turned her head just in time to see the funny little man hurriedly walk away and disappear behind a sand dune. 

All the way home she had an uncomfortable, creepy, claustrophobic feeling. She wanted to tell Don all about it but when she got back the place was dead, Don was taking one of his afternoon naps. This, at least, would allow Sarah time to get the evening meal ready. 

Don came down at six and the meal was on the table ten minutes later. 
“Thank you darling” said Don, placing the longest kiss on Sarah’s lips. 

“You’re always energetic after a nap, I’ll give you that.”
“And hungry, what have we got love?”
They sat down to potatoes, carrots and minced beef – some might say a delicacy from this part of Scotland. 

She waited until they had finished before she mentioned the man. 
“Can you remember what he looked like?”
“Just a funny little man, nothing special” said Sarah, noticing how agitated Don was becoming.  
“I’m just saying he must have been special for you to mention it.”
“He gave me the creeps that’s all”. By now Sarah wished she hadn’t mentioned any of it.
“What did he say?” Now Don was starting look worried and that worried Sarah. 

I think it was at that point I realised that whatever this little nervous man meant to Don, it was something serious. Perhaps he owed him money. Now as I write this, I wish that is all it had been. 

The house was getting swallowed by the dusk, so Sarah decided to light one of the oil lamps.Don knocked the lamp from Sarah’s hand, letting it smash on to the floor. 
“No lights. He’s probably watching the place.”
“Who?” Sarah started to feel as if this was somehow all a little unreal.
“The man..the man...the one you were talking to.” 

She didn’t like Don behaving this way and at this moment he was far from being the man who made her feel safe. This Don was angry and scared and that made her feel the same way. What had she gotten herself into?
He whispered, “Sit here with me on the sofa. Just do it.”

So Sarah felt her way in the blackness of the room and sat beside her man.
“Don’t make a sound. Do as I do and sit still.”
“Or else?” Sarah wasn’t looking forward to the answer.
“Or else, he’ll kill you.” 

That brought the conversation to a stop. Actually it brought everything to a stop. She had a million questions to ask her American friend and yet at this point she couldn’t think of one. 

The two of them must have fallen asleep because she heard the old clock by the fire chime three. That was three A.M. and she needed to go to the bathroom. She wriggled around and freed herself from the weight of Don’s arm, placing it on the back of the sofa, then ever so gently she felt her way towards what she guessed was the hall. 

She had only unbuttoned her dress and sat on the toilet when she saw him standing above her. Sarah didn’t have time to scream before his gloved hand was over her mouth and the creepy little man had her trapped.
She couldn’t breathe and the last thing she thought of was that Don would take care of this little man and then she passed out. 

When she came to, she was lying on her side with her hands at her back and tied to a wooden pole. She might be able to get up and run but she certainly couldn’t go anywhere, not without the pole hitting a door or a window frame. When she looked across at Don, he was coming to and there was blood running through his hair and eyebrows, and dripping off the corner of his chin. 

“You know I would find you” said the strange little man. ”It was only a matter of time. Now had you tried Antarctica, well you might have stood a chance. But Europe?  Very naughty Mister Trench, very naughty indeed.” 

“Who’s Mister Trench?” came slipping out of Sarah’s mouth.
The creepy little man turns and faces Sarah. He picks up Don’s bloodied head by the hairs and talks straight into his face.
“This, young lady, is Steven Trench, he has probably told you he is someone else and you have believed him. You may have even thought you were going to marry him but you see, he had a job to do and he failed me. Luckily someone else also took the job on and succeeded, although he himself is now how you say – dead.”

Sarah asks the little man who he is but he feels that Sarah doesn’t qualify to know, not just yet. She should just be satisfied that he didn’t kill her when he had the chance.
“Little men” says Sarah under her breath. 

“Are what?” asks the man as he becomes more agitated. He drags Don, who also has his hands tied, on to the floor, rolls him on his back then sticks a boot in Don’s chest. 

“Are in charge” says the man proudly. 

The little man forces his heel further into Don’s ribs.
“I have to admit, it’s taken me some time to track you down Trench. I never thought of Scotland. Nice move but not good enough. You are a very stupid man - all you had to do was fire the gun, drop it and run. We would have taken care of the rest.” 
“Like you did with the other guy?” asks Don.

The man puts further pressure on Don’s chest.
“I didn’t ask you to speak. Did I ask him to speak young lady?”
Sarah shakes her head. 

“Has he told you who he is? Sorry I didn’t catch your name?”
“Sarah, my name’s Sarah”
“Well Sarah this is the man who ran, it’s as simple as that; we had Oswald on the sixth floor and your boyfriend here as insurance. He was to stand on the grassy knoll and ensure that Kennedy died. But he ran. Ain’t that right Trench? You ran, you’re a coward and now I’m here to clean things up. Loose ends and all that jazz, that’s what you are Sarah, a loose end - sorry”

I don’t remember where the bird came from, my mother wrote in her diary, but I’m almost sure it flew out of the chimney. They did that some times and the bird flew straight into the face of the funny little man. He bent over screaming and Don kicked the man’s legs away from under him. Without missing a beat, Don untied me and we were both out of that door and running down the valley with no looking back. 

My mother and Don moved as far and as fast from the West of Scotland as they could. They settled in the South Island of New Zealand and that was where I was born. My parents always had one eye on the door just in case they came again, but they never did.

My mother never returned for the funerals of her parents.

I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking what a crock the story is, but I swear to you it’s true. Least, according to my mother and I never knew her to tell a lie. The name of Steve Trench was never mentioned  but once, when we went as a family to watch the movie “J.F.K.”, my dad said a strange thing, he said ‘I didn’t see me up there’. That was all he said and it stuck with me, I had no idea what he meant back then.

My dad died a few years ago and now I’m taking both their ashes back to the west coast of Scotland where they met and I’ll scatter them near the top of a hill called Corlic where my mother used to sit as a kid. 

The other thing about going to the cinema in New Zealand with my mother and father was the habit my father had of standing at the end of the movie and humming ‘God Save the Queen’ while my mother would watch. 

It always made me smile.


  1. I've become a huge fan of your blog via Twitter . . . .

  2. Thanks Erica, I wasn't too sure about this story - I thought it might be a bit heavy given the world at the moment.

  3. Gripping tale, had me all the way. (Erica sent me.)

  4. Cheers Stephen, thanks for stopping by and reading it (sounded a bit American there myself). Take care pal.