Monday, 24 August 2015
Agnes could smell the winter fires as she stepped across Princes Street for the umpteenth time that day. Somewhere high above the whispering smoke the sky was an azure blue. Agnes knew that for a fact even although she might not always see it; just like she knew that things were about to change and no one had bothered to tell her.
She had been christened Agnes Lily on the first day of the War. She didn’t meet her father until she was nearly a year old as he had suffered some sort of breakdown in the early days of the fighting. To be honest, her father never really recovered and even as he was approaching his fortieth birthday his left hand would still shake and shake until Agnes was certain that it would fall off. When he thought no one was looking he would grab the wild arm with his right hand and hold on it until it surrendered and shook no more. When her father did return to the bank in the spring of 1918, he walked past his old desk and sat in the chair of the former manager, Mister Stephen Andrews, who now lay undisturbed in a field in Northern France.
In the year of 1927, The Edinburgh Linen Bank was struggling. Not that it was the fault of Agnes’ father , this poor soul worked every hour that God allowed him, even roping in Agnes to deliver pamphlets to the good folks of the city as they strolled along admiring the castle. Agnes would stop off at Nancy’s Sweet shop for a quarter of pineapple chunks bought with the money she’d earned. It was on one of those days while walking home and enjoying the chunks that she realised she’d never seen her father smile.
The War had stolen her father’s sleep along with his happiness which meant most nights watching the daylight bleed in from the Firth. God knows he tried, but being a complete man was just beyond his ability these days; he could no longer carry his head high nor look after the business and his family, he was just too tired. So on the day that he walked out of the Edinburgh Linen building it was to be for the last time and as he strolled through the Saltmarket, Peter, father of Agnes Lily, broke down and wept.
To Agnes, home had been a strange landscape for weeks; doors were always being closed leaving her on the wrong side. It was weeks of whisperings and of quickly swallowed conversations as she walked into a room - then the day came when her father stopped going to the bank altogether.
“Maybe he’ll try next week, we’ll just have to see how things are sweet pea” her mother would say but next week would come and go and her father would be sitting so still as to be almost invisible. Agnes had her own worries; no father at the bank meant, no pamphlets, which meant no income earned meaning no visits to Nancy’s.
Then one night just after Easter, her mother came to Agnes’ room to tell her that the family were moving.
“Time for a change sweet pea, indeed it is, time for a change” and by June the family had moved lock, stock and barrel to a strange little village by the name of Coldharbour, nestling in the West Highlands.
As they arrived on the charabanc, Agnes considered the village to be ‘fabulous’, everything in Agnes’ life was fabulous these days, ever since she’d heard a rather absurdly dressed woman use it when she was handed one of the bank’s pamphlets.
Now as luck would have it, the little school that Agnes was to attend had stopped for the summer holidays and would not restart until August; a whole blooming summer to herself, blooming fabulous.
Coldharbour had two shops, a church and a small hall which doubled as a library. Monday to Saturday were the working days and in this village everyone had at least two jobs. Sunday on the other hand was a day of rest which allowed the villagers a time to let their belts out and breathe a quiet sigh.
Alexandra McMillan was petite and bright and lonely. Known as Alex to most of the village, at 51, she had no family to speak of, least not since her brother Ian had passed away a couple of years back. Alex ran the library every second Tuesday and every Saturday in the village hall when it was not needed by the council for something or other. She may have been small but she could fight her corner especially when the library’s needs were being overlooked by the council. It wasn’t a permanent feature, meaning that each time the library had to be set up and dismantled; an arrangement which suited Alex as she loved being busy. It wasn’t so much that the devil finds work for idle hands so much as Alex had far too many thoughts blowing through her mind and possibly too many secrets.
On the morning that the new family arrived in Coldharbour, Alex had been searching out of the window for a sign to lift her spirits when she noticed the strange little girl with whom Alex assumed were her parents. The mother had a healthy ruddy complexion where as the father was ghostly pale with that same demeanour her brother had brought home from the Front. The woman and the strange little girl were doing all the carrying of cases as the man seemed to have enough of a problem shifting himself and every few steps would let out the most heart breaking sigh.
The family moved into the old dairyman’s house. It had sat empty for over a year, ever since Stuart Mills had moved to Canada. It would be nice to see a light in the window again - Alex could look across the hill and imagine Stuart was still there. She missed him; the way they always ended up together at the dances, the way they were always discussed in the same breath as if they were destined to spend what was left of their lives together - but it wasn’t to be. Stuart had met the young Canadian girl on one of his trips to Inverness and that was that. Never make plans, thought Alex.
She didn’t think any more of the new family until the young girl came to the library on the following Tuesday. Alex saw that strangeness again – the little girl was blessed with a beautiful face topped off with wild blond hair, but the eyes - they belonged to another - someone whom God had put on the earth without giving them instructions on the rules of life.
Agnes loved books and the library was her kind of place. When she went missing in Edinburgh her family always knew to look in the nearest book shop; to Agnes they weren’t just books, they were people sitting on shelves waiting to tell you about their lives, their loves, the universe and everything in it. How could you possibly not love books? Agnes took her large selection to the old lady who stood behind the counter.
“I’m sorry dear but you’re only allowed two books at a time, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough to go around”. Agnes felt this couldn’t possibly be true but nonetheless returned four of the books.
“My name is Miss McMillan. What is yours?”
“Well Agnes, why don’t you come with your family to tea on Saturday at my house? I live in that little yellow one across from you. I have shelves of books there I’m sure you would appreciate.” Agnes carefully lifted her two books and ran off. Alex smiled.
On the next Saturday, Agnes’ mother dropped her daughter off at the librarian’s house. Agnes’ father was still too sick to visit or entertain anyone or be left alone and since they only lived across the way, her mother didn’t see what harm it would cause for Agnes to visit Miss McMillan on her own. That is how Agnes and Alex became the best of friends.
All summer long, Agnes would either be carrying books to or from the little yellow house across the street.
To Alex, Agnes was a light in an otherwise dull life but to Agnes, Alex was a mystery. She knew little except that Alex McMillan had taught English in France prior to the War.
Looking back over those years from the distance of her retirement home in Hastings, Agnes, the great grandmother, finds it difficult to remember when she first set eyes on Isaiah. She is almost sure it was as he stepped off the bus from Inveraray but even her, as an Edinburgh girl in 1927, had seen very few black people but now there was one standing in Coldharbour and all eyes were upon him. Some stared unashamed, others held conversations but never fully listened as their attention was spent looking over their companions’ shoulders probably feeling this was polite. One little boy ran up to him and kicked him. This was the day that Isaiah, twenty three years on this planet and as black as coal, turned up on the steps of Miss Alexandra McMillan.
Mrs Edith Huckerby told anyone who would listen that Mac - for that is how she referred to Alex - had taken a lover, and a black one at that, and he was inferior in years and therefore Mac would most certainly burn in hell. Agnes thought she detected a hint of jealousy in Edith’s scrupulous face as she was casting Miss McMillan into the fire and brimstone.
The following Saturday the library was closed as Alex was preparing a tea party. Many of the villagers had tried to ingratiate themselves in order to partake of a scone and a wee cup of tea but Alex was having none of it and only Agnes and Isaiah were guests.
Agnes marvelled at the light that reflected from such a black skin. Isaiah glowed, she could think of no better way to put it and the glowing made him seem constantly happy. He laughed a lot, mostly at things he has said himself. Agnes wasn’t sure if this annoyed her but she was willing to put up with it to find out the story. Was Agnes nosey or just full of a healthy curiosity? To be honest she didn’t care as this was all far too interesting to let it slip through her fingers.
“There is something I should tell you Agnes. Isaiah is my son.”
“I met his father in France. He was such a kind and brave man who marched into my life. I had never seen such an exotic sight, I was swept away. He was the only man I ever loved, apart from my beautiful boy Isaiah - who has indeed his father’s eyes. I saw those eyes in so many people through the years. I can never seem to forget them.”
“I discovered I was carrying Isaiah on a wild Christmas day in 1905, but the baby was taken away from me shortly after he was born and given to his father’s family. I could never bring a child, much less a black one, back to Coldharbour.”
“Why did you not stay in France?”
“His family did not want me there and I was no longer allowed to teach.”
“Where is he now?” inquired Agnes.
“He died in France two days before the war ended” said a sorrowful Isaiah. “He joined the Buffalo Soldiers, as they called themselves, all American and all black. I only discovered my mother was alive after my father died. When I found out that fact I arranged that we meet in Glasgow, that is, if she was willing....”
“and I was.”
“...but no one had told me my mother was white. It was a shock but she is beautiful, is she not?”
“Isaiah is to be married in the autumn in London and I am to be the guest of honour” said a very proud Alex. There was a warm wind blowing through her hair as Agnes headed back home with her head spinning.
Now all these years later in her retirement home, Agnes’ thoughts drift back to remembering how Alex went to Isaiah's wedding and never returned to the village; Agnes kept the village library going in hope and she remembers how her own father never really existed properly in that room again and on one lonely Tuesday he died of a broken heart.
Agnes closes her eyes knowing that war can change lives forever.
bobby stevenson 2015