Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Days of Raging (2) By Bobby Stevenson

Robert McAnders, Lord Inverstarck of Annshal, was to report to Dublin Castle by the 1st of April, 1916 and so the Ball was arranged for the previous Saturday. 

It was a dark early afternoon and there were still several weeks to go before the clocks were changed. This was the first time it had been tried and it kept the British in step with the Germans who were both in a bid to save daylight. 

It was one of the few things that would be saved that year. 

Everyone on Annshal was invited to the Laird’s farewell and all were expected to attend, that included men without legs and their sons. The Farewell Ball was Fiona’s first real challenge in the House and there was much to prove to herself and to the others. Proof that she was worthy of being at the Laird’s side (and not just in his bed), that she was more than just a grooms’ wife with ambitions and that she would make a worthy spouse to Robert – if that chance ever arose.  

These were strange times, very strange indeed, and the old ways were crumbling in the hands of the islanders. In the past Fiona would never have been allowed such an important task as to arrange a party. She would have only been a badly kept secret but things had changed and who really knew what the world would become when the war was finally over.

The Staff, under the charge of Fiona, had done their jobs well. Inverstarck House had never looked more beautiful than it did that night with its face scrubbed and brightened by the snow.The paths were marked by large torches which could be seen from a mile away. Those who had the means arrived by coach and the rest on foot. Men from the mainland, who were not at war, were also invited and most of them made the effort to see the Laird off to Ireland. Robert McAnders was an influential man and one to be respected. It did them no harm, if they ended up in Ireland, to have the ear of the one of the governors of Dublin Castle. 

Whether overlooked or by intention, no one had sent a pony and trap to the Galbraith’s cottage. Sammy saw this as a sign that they should stay away but Johnny was determined that they make an appearance. This had been the way of things before the war and in his mind, it still was - nothing had changed.

Sammy pushed his father’s wheelchair in silence as the snow built up in front of the wheels. This made the effort to move his father very strenuous. The chair would grind to a halt, Sammy would shove and then everything, including them, would shudder forwards. His father ignored his son’s discomfort. His boy had legs and as such, he should make use of them. 

There was a time when Johnny Galbraith had been popular and it had suited him to be that way. A sociable and thick-skinned man was the only way to deal with the landed gentry that was how they played the game.

When Johnny had been brought home, the House had sent some horse tack over to be cleaned, probably at the request of Fiona, but he had taken this as a patronising gesture. His depression started in France, as it may have done for many men, but Johnny had found that the act of just opening his eyes after sleep took every sinew in his body. The sharp stab of realisation which followed dreams was one of the most painful parts of his life. Johnny wondered how many condemned men found a temporary solace in sleep and then a pain in awakening that burned at their very souls.  

 Some men were born for war and took it with an ease and perhaps such men were stupid or brave – Johnny was neither of those. He looked into the eyes of the men who were still to go to war and he noted their pity. It was obvious they couldn’t comprehend his pain. To them, all he had done was make a wrong turning into the forest of darkness but if he would only swing around and chose a different path, it would lead him to back to the light. For those who know depression it is not about taking the wrong road, it is about the ground swallowing you up whole. 
On the train journey home he would constantly stare down, always at the floor, never wanting to catch sight of someone smiling or even worse laughing, for in that lay contamination. He had to protect his anger. His anger helped him survive.

The drive in front of the House was not built to accommodate a wheelchair so Sammy pushed his father around to the back. It was here that the party was centred. The pipers stood in the snow playing a merry tune and would continue for several hours before they were allowed time in front of a large fire and a dram of whisky.  There was a blast of heat and the smell of drink as some of the Highland dancers reeled their way on to the snowy courtyard and back through the large door.

Inside the House Inverstarck held court, yet always circling within reach was Fiona who would not be presumptive enough to stand next to him. 

In one corner of the ballroom were the Reverend Winters and his beautiful daughter, Isla. It had been the intention of the Reverend to keep her at home that evening but, as his wife had stated, if Isla was not exposed  to the more gentile society of Annshal then she would continue to make contact with the lower classes. The Reverend agreed but with one proviso, Isla was to move no more than two feet from his side. 

What the Reverend Winters failed to observe was how much Sammy and Isla were in love. They had known each other almost all of their lives and instinctively knew what the other was thinking. She had seen other boys and he had kissed most of the other girls on the island, but in the end they always found each other, like magnets in a fog.  

All Isla had to do was look towards a door and Sammy knew what she meant. She whispered something into her father’s ear and he reluctantly waved her away.
“Are you all right here father?” asked Sammy, never taking his eyes from Isla.
“Be quick Sammy, whatever it is, I don’t think my presence is much appreciated and keep away from that old goat Winters.”
Sammy found a large heating stone by one of the fires and placed it under his father’s chair, to hold it fast.
“I won’t be long.”
“See that you aren’t.” His father was decidedly agitated. 

Isla and Sammy found sanctuary in a small cupboard in the upper floor and closed the door on all their problems.

There was much about that evening to keep Johnny looking at the well polished floor: people were dancing, smiling and laughing, everything that he had once enjoyed but had buried in France. Still, he had to be here even if it was only to see Fiona. When they say that war is expensive they rarely mean the ammunition. 

Inverstarck was called upon to make a speech about how the estate was in safe hands, Johnny wondered if this meant Fiona.And then it happened, Robert McAnders called Fiona to his side. Whether it was his imminent departure or a foolish action fuelled by drink the result was the same. He was letting the world know that this was his woman and in front of her own husband. Even the Reverend’s jaw dropped. 

What was going through Johnny’s mind could only be guessed at, but there he was sitting in his chair and pointing the gun at Inverstarck. 

For a few moments no one moved then two things happened simultaneously. Fiona stood in front of Inverstarck whispering ‘he won’t shoot me’ and the other thing was a servant made a leap towards Johnny’s gun causing it to fire. 

The blood gushed from Fiona’s chest as she fell. 

In the cupboard on the upper floor, Sammy and Isla were so caught up in the act of making love that they were oblivious to the noise of the first gunshot.
They did not make that same mistake with the second one. 

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