Friday, 3 February 2012

Days of Raging (3) By Bobby Stevenson

It was a crisp, cold November day and the crowd pulled in their coats tightly around them. A general silence descended as the coffin rolled by drawn by six horses on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery. As the cortege turned at Hyde Park Corner shoulders moved up and down and some sobbing escaped, a young voice cried out, ‘Goodbye Dad’. 

When he arrived at Whitehall and after King George 5th unveiled the Cenotaph, there was a two minute silence. Then he drifted homeward  to Westminster Abbey where he was carried to his final resting place guarded by one hundred holders of the Victoria Cross. Earth from several battlefields was placed in the grave including several barrel loads from Ypres; it would let him feel at home and in the Abbey, he need never be alone again.

For seven days his grave lay covered by a silk funeral pall. One week later, a temporary stone sealed his grave and on it was written:
"A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This."
Only a handful turned up at the funeral, Isla was there of course and her father, who led the service, but most of the islanders stayed away. Not because they disliked Johnny but they felt it would displease Lord Inverstarck who had since left the island for Dublin. He had sent word to the hospital in Glasgow that Fiona should receive the best of care and that he would pay all her bills, and that was the end of that as far as Inverstarck was concerned.

Sammy was sad that he never got to say goodbye to his father. By the time both he and Isla had heard the gunshot and appeared in the ballroom, his mother’s wounds were being tended to and his father body was lying slumped over the chair bloodied and alone. No one was taking care of him. The ballroom had been cleared of everyone apart from Inverstarck and a few servants. It was obvious now that his father must have assumed he’d accidentally killed Fiona and then turned the gun on himself. 

Sammy had an emptiness that gnawed at his stomach and finished in his heart. He felt alone and dizzy and he was just about to topple into the grave when Isla gripped his hand hard and pulled him back from the edge of  several dark things. One of those dark things was the thought he was having about killing Inverstarck.  

Isla guided Sammy away from the Churchyard, holding his hand for the very first time in public. She looked at her father daring him to object but instead Winters cleared snow from Johnny Galbraith’s grave and let a tear fall from his eye. The minister was as only as strong as the enemies he had.

Sammy and Isla went back to his house and lay by the fire holding each other until the sun came up yet, peaceful as this was, nothing could erase the cancerous thought that was eating at his brain. He must kill the Laird, this, the man who had stolen his mother and caused his father’s death and who had fled to Ireland without visiting her in hospital in Glasgow. The Laird would be better off dead.
“Are you feeling happier my wee lamb?” asked Isla while stroking her boy's hair.
“I am now.”
Isla smiled, completely misunderstanding the comment.

On the first day alone 40,000 people had come to visit him when the Abbey doors finally closed at 11pm. By the following year there had been millions. On November the 11th, 1921 a slab of black Belgium marble was used to finally seal the tomb. Engraved on the marble, in brass made from melted ammunition, was a further inscription which ended with the lines:
Sleep well my friend, sleep well.
Isla had so much to tell Sammy yet his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He was agitated and continued to talk about leaving. She felt if the war continued as it had done he would be leaving soon enough.

A week after his father’s funeral, he did leave. There was a ferry that went from Glasgow to Dublin and called in at several islands on the way. It only stopped at Annshal once every three weeks and today was that day. Sammy packed his bag and wrote a letter to Isla. She would find it propped up beside the fireplace when she called looking for him. He took a Bible and a silver chain to which was attached a blue medallion. Sammy’s father had been given it by his mother to pass on to his sweetheart. His father, Johnny, had given it to Fiona who had left it at the cottage on the night she packed her bags.

He also wrote a letter to his mother, one he been composing most of the night. This too was to be left on the fireplace but when the time came, he ripped the letter in half and threw it onto the fire.

He lifted a shirt that belonged to his father, took in the smell of the man who was no more, then walked out of the cottage.He may have been too long looking around for as he arrived at the pier the ferry was already leaving.

If he didn’t go now, he knew that holding on to that much hate for several more weeks would destroy him. He swung his bag over his shoulder and ran as fast as he could. Sammy flew down the pier and when that ran out,  he jumped the ten or so feet to the edge of the paddle steamer. He just made it, and as the ferry was leaving the harbour, Sammy found himself holding on to the side of the boat for dear life.

“Give me your hand boy and I’ll help you up”.

Sammy couldn’t make the face out at first as the low winter sun was blinding his eyes.
“Come on now.”
Sammy reached out and caught the man’s hand. It was strong and it pulled him up the side of the ferry without a struggle.
“The name’s Shamus.” He said. 
 If only Sammy had listened to his instincts and not grabbed that hand.

photo of Annshal island taken by Tom Stevenson

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