Races

The sweat stung his eyes as he cycled up and out of Glen Croe. The sun hadn’t hit the bottom of the valley, which was why he usually picked this time of day to train.

By the time he reached the top of the Rest-&-Be-Thankful, he was ready for the bread and cheese his mother had packed for him that morning.

From up here, in the sunshine, he felt alive and ready to take on the whole world. This was a new era for folks, it was 1913 and Stan felt that it was going to be the best of times. There was talk of war but then Stan had never known a year when there wasn’t, and why would the Germans want to attack Great Britain when they were getting ready for the Olympic Games in Berlin?

Those Olympics were going to be Stanley’s victory in cycling. He could feel it in his bones.

———

Lars watched as the 10,000 pigeons took to the air. What a country his homeland was, especially on this hot, humid, June afternoon. He had cycled over 300 kilometres to be here, to see the glorious Deutsches Stadion being dedicated – the glory of Germany was here today and it was where Lars would claim the ultimate prize in cycling when he stood on the winner’s podium at the summer Olympics in 1916.

There was no one to rival him, well no one close except a Britisher by the name of Stanley Hooper. He had heard many stories about Hooper but the boy had one flaw, he wasn’t German, he wasn’t from the Fatherland, and for Lars that meant everything.

Still Lars had to be sure. He’d read of the London Echo Great Britain Cycle Challenge. This was going to be a straight race between John O’Groats (what a stupid Englander name, thought Lars) and Land’s End. The winner would take home a prize of 500 guineas. Lars knew it would help him to train without a steady job – all the way to the Games.

———

By the time that Stanley got back home, the letter had already arrived: Stanley Edward Hooper was accepted as an entrant in the Cycle Challenge. He’d had to work double the hours just to earn the entrance fee of two guineas and now he had to wonder how he could train and work until the start of the race in August. Stanley’s family was poor, and he and his three brothers had made sure that the money kept coming into the house after his father had died in an accident. His eldest brother, Ian had joined up with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the other two boys worked as ship riveters.

Stanley made his money running errands on his bicycle for local trades, but it involved long, long hours, after which the training had to be fitted in. On a typical day he would start work at 6am and wouldn’t get to his bed until well after midnight. Some nights he was so blooming tired he would just fall sleep in the garage beside ‘Lucy’ (his bicycle).

His town had never really had a famous anyone. Well, apart from Edward McLeish who’d won a medal fighting the Boers in Africa.

There was talk of erecting a statue to Edward but it annoyed Stanley a little, because he wanted to be the first with a statue raised to him. Still if he didn’t train – and hard – there would be no Olympics, statues or even races won. He fell asleep that night cuddling his Lucy and dreaming of gold medals.

Lars and his team arrived at John O’Groats a day early. They had caught a train to Hamburg and then travelled on to the northern tip of mainland Scotland aboard a ship that had been laid on by the Chancellor himself. Germany saw this race as a chance to show some superiority to the little Englanders, – and as Lars was frequently being told – there was a war coming and England (and its despicable Empire) would be made to come under the control of the Fatherland. This race would be the start of great things which would end with only Germans standing on the podium at Berlin for all things gold.

Stanley’s dad was his entire support team unlike Lars’ huge machine. The Germans had brought someone to look after Lars’ food, two men to look after his bicycles, an acrobat from the Berlin Circus to keep him fit and to massage his aches and pains; plus several other followers.

Stanley’s father had brought cheese and bread that his wife had packed, although to be honest, Stanley and his dad had eaten most of it on the way north.

The race was to start at sunrise of the following morning – although this far north, and at this time of year it never really got dark.

There was 32 entrants in all. The organisers felt that this was the most manageable figure that could be dealt with, given the state of the roads in many parts of the race. There were 16 spaces allocated to the British and Irish, 2 to each of the French, German, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss. The balance was made up of Americans and a Canadian.

The pack had been pretty close in finishing within ten minutes of each other on the torturous route to Lochinver. A couple had dropped out due to mishaps, but Stanley and his dad were making great time and had finished in second place at the end of each stage.

Stage four was from Loch Ness to Fort William (stopping an hour for lunch) and then on to Inveraray for the night. For all the efficiency of Lars and his team, they somehow took a wrong turning a few miles from Rannoch and had headed towards Tyndrum as they exited Rannoch Moor – this led to them being placed at the back of the group as they finished that evening.

The town of Inveraray is a small, beautiful place on the shores of Loch Fyne and it’s hard to avoid anyone, should you wish to. Stanley and his father, instead of going straight to bed, were sitting by the edge of the water.

Stanley’s father’s pipe was keeping the midges at bay, which could only be a good thing in this part of the world. Midges were small insects that had one good bite in them, but all together they could prove a misery for the unwary.

“You’ll never win if you smoke, Hooper,” came a voice from behind.

It was Lars.

“I recognize you from the magazine,” said Lars who was standing to attention for no other reason than to impress Stan.

“Look dad, it’s that German bloke you’ve been telling me about.”

Stan’s dad didn’t even bother turning his head.

“Oh aye. He’s the one who got lost coming out of Glen Coe,” said his dad with a smile.

Lars looked at both of them, clicked his heels and left.

The race was a close run thing. When they got to the Lake District, Lars was several minutes ahead, but that changed as the race headed down towards the West Country. They alternated with the lead, sometimes it was Stan (with his dad, supporting) in the lead, sometimes Lars and the whole German army behind him.

Just as they approached the final hill going into Land’s End a strange thing happened, Lars was in the lead and as he looked around he saw Stan a few metres behind him. Lars slowed, or at least, he seemed to struggle, and as Lars crossed the Finish line, so did Stan. It was a dead heat.

The War came as it was intended. The Olympics were cancelled and other thoughts filled the head of Stan in the year of 1916.

Instead of getting ready to cycle in the Berlin Games, Stan was preparing to go over the top on the first day of The Battle of The Somme.

There had been a team of them who had all come to France together – The Cycling Buddies they were called, now only two of them were left alive. Stan didn’t know where David was: David was the captain of the team and the bravest of them all. Stan had heard a rumour that David had been killed over a month ago.

Stan had kept his training up, even when he was sure that the Olympics weren’t going ahead, he still needed to get out there and train.

As the trench Captains blew their whistles, Stan found himself up and over the ladder within minutes. He saw some of those who had been earlier standing shivering beside him, taking their last falls.

Stan heard a bullet wiz past his ear, forcing him to hit the mud.

The plan for the Somme had been a good one, undermine the German trenches and blow them up.

That is what had happened – it was just that the Germans had gone deeper than any of the old fools back at headquarters could have imagined. When the British troops went over the top, they were gunned down in their thousands. The plan had been to march all the way to Berlin and Stan had liked the irony of that idea.

Stan crawled under some barbed wire which was supporting two dead bodies and then slid into one of the craters created by the British explosions. He was alone thank God but he had no idea what to do next. All this hadn’t been in the plans.

Stan must have closed his eyes for a time because the next thing he knew there was a German pistol pointing right between his eyes.

And yes, you’re right, it was Lars – otherwise what is the point of this story? Stranger things do happen.

“Stan, you old Englander, it is so good to see you.”

“Lars? Is that you?”

Lars and Stan hugged in what was the strangest of circumstances.

“Well it’s not the podium but it is very good to see you,” said Stan.

“I save you once again, Englander,” smiled Lars as he slid down into the mud. For a while the two of them lay there with the bullets and smoke passing overhead.

“What do we do now, Stan?” Asked Lars. Just then a stray shell exploded on the rim of crater. Stan used his body to shield Lars.

The part of the shell that penetrated Stan’s back wasn’t obvious at first. At least not until Stan started coughing blood.

“I’ve been hit old friend,” said Stan not quite believing it.

As Lars held Stan, he smiled at his pal;

“I think we are even, Englander.”

When Stan closed his eyes for the last time, Lars took a gold coin he had been carrying and placed it on Stan’s chest.

“You win, Stanley Hooper.”

 

bobby stevenson 2017

The Dog Who Loved To Drive

dog

It was New Year’s Day, 1913 and Andrew was bored. Everyone in the house was sleeping off the after-effects of the Ball which his parents insisted on holding every stupid year. This meant that no one would be driving the motor car that day and this made Andrew smile. All he needed was to rev the old beast up, find Buster and then the two of them could be off to the seaside.

Buster wasn’t just Andrew’s dog, he was his best pal and was probably much cleverer than the boy  – but then again, Buster wasn’t one to brag.

Andrew sat Buster in the driving seat as he pushed the car silently out of the stables and under the nose of Reynolds – the little man who looked after everything mechanical for the big house.

Andrew’s father promised his son his own motor car when it came to the time that he would go up to Oxford – until then he had to take every opportunity to teach himself the rudiments of driving. How hard could it be? I mean, Buster was steering the car along the drive and he was a dog.

Before they got to the big gates Andrew checked there was enough fuel to get them to the coast and back.

“Good man, Reynolds,” thought Andrew – Reynolds always kept the motor car in ship-shape and ready for the off. All Andrew had to do was turn the crank and that would be that. The motor car spluttered into life, shaking and banging before it settled down and began purr like a big cat.

Andrew hopped in and made Buster sit in the passenger seat (much to the dog’s annoyance). It was several minutes before the dog looked in Andrew’s direction again. Okay, so the dog was very clever and very friendly but it could get annoyed if it didn’t get its own way. Andrew knew how to bring Buster around by giving him a saucer of champagne – and not just any kind of champagne it had to be the 1893 and it had to be served at room temperature. Buster was a snob, as if I need to tell you.

It wasn’t long before they were on the road to the coast. Naturally being New Year’s Day, the road was empty of traffic without even a horse to be seen. The road was straight enough that Andrew felt confident to let Buster steer the car, Andrew worked all the other buttons and pedals.

Whether it was the effects of a  late night or all the dancing at the Ball, sleep crept up on Andrew and he fell into a deep dream. Buster hadn’t noticed and wasn’t caring since he was driving a human car and it felt great.  As they drove through the next town, a Mrs Styler of Heyham High Street looked out her window to see one of those new motor cars being driven by a dog and a man (who looked unconscious) in the other seat. She was going to mention it to her husband when she decided that he was already looking for an excuse to get her locked up and this would be the perfect gift for him, so she went back to bed and lay down in the darkened room.

Somewhere just outside of town the car ran out of fuel and Buster guided it to the side of the road. He then started to bark at Andrew.  Okay Andrew would have heard it as just barking but to Buster it sounded as if he was telling his lazy friend to fill up the car with more fuel. After what seemed a very long time (which in dog’s years was probably true) Buster decided to fill up the car with fuel himself; a farmer who was in field nearby saw this and decided that he had been working too hard and for the first time in his life went home early.

Once again Buster barked and barked but he couldn’t get Andrew to waken so being a very self-reliant dog, it decided to turn the crank handle itself. With Andrew’s hands and feet still on the buttons and such like, the motor car suddenly moved off on its own. It shot down the coast road with Buster running behind barking that someone should try to stop the human motor car.

The Reverend Dunlop was opening his church doors when he saw a motor car driving down the road with the driver asleep and a dog running behind barking. He smiled to himself and continued with his work.  Just as the motor car entered town, Buster managed to jump back on board and turn the car along the coast road. Buster knew he couldn’t stop the car – so his only options were to drive it into the sea, or let it run out of fuel, or try to turn the motor car around and head for home.

It was then that Buster noticed a large house with many dogs and bitches running around the garden. He turned the motor car into the drive and as the car laboured up the hill, he invited the other animals to jump aboard. As he drove the car out of the grounds there must have been nearly twenty dogs and bitches sitting in the motor car. Two of them were on top of the sleeping Andrew.

Buster continued driving along the coast and at the big pier, the car once again ran out of fuel. So leaving the sleeping Andrew in the car, Buster and his pals spent several hours running along the beach and stealing food when the humans weren’t looking. All too quickly the sun started to go down and so Buster filled the car with the last of the fuel, and got several of his pals to turn the crank.

After a very satisfying day, Buster drove back through the dogs’ home, dropping off his friends. It was dark when the car reached home and as Buster had no way of stopping it, he drove the car into the garage hoping the something would bring it to a halt. Actually the car burst through the back wall and continued across the lawn but by this time Buster had already jumped off.

Reynolds found a very confused Andrew several miles away in the forest where the motor car had eventually run out of fuel. Buster on the other hand was safely tucked up in his warm bed and dreaming of more adventures.

 

bobby stevenson 2017

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The 1916 Olympics

berlin

The sweat stung his eyes as he cycled up and out of Glen Croe. The sun hadn’t hit the bottom of the valley, which was why he usually picked this time of day to train.

By the time he reached the top of the Rest-&-Be-Thankful, he was ready for the bread and cheese his mother had packed for him that morning.

From up here, in the sunshine, he felt alive and ready to take on the whole world. This was a new era for folks, it was 1913 and Stan felt that it was going to be the best of times. There was talk of war but then Stan had never known a year when there wasn’t, and why would the Germans want to attack Great Britain when they were getting ready for the Olympic Games in Berlin?

Those Olympics were going to be Stanley’s victory in cycling. He could feel it in his bones.

———

Lars watched as the 10,000 pigeons took to the air. What a country his homeland was, especially on this hot, humid, June afternoon. He had cycled over 300 kilometres to be here, to see the glorious Deutsches Stadion being dedicated – the glory of Germany was here today and it was where Lars would claim the ultimate prize in cycling when he stood on the winner’s podium at the summer Olympics in 1916.

There was no one to rival him, well no one close except a Britisher by the name of Stanley Hooper. He had heard many stories about Hooper but the boy had one flaw, he wasn’t German, he wasn’t from the Fatherland, and for Lars that meant everything.

Still Lars had to be sure. He’d read of the London Echo Great Britain Cycle Challenge. This was going to be a straight race between John O’Groats (what a stupid Englander name, thought Lars) and Land’s End. The winner would take home a prize of 500 guineas. Lars knew it would help him to train without a steady job – all the way to the Games.

———

By the time that Stanley got back home, the letter had already arrived: Stanley Edward Hooper was accepted as an entrant in the Cycle Challenge. He’d had to work double the hours just to earn the entrance fee of two guineas and now he had to wonder how he could train and work until the start of the race in August. Stanley’s family was poor, and he and his three brothers had made sure that the money kept coming into the house after his father had died in an accident. His eldest brother, Ian had joined up with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the other two boys worked as ship riveters.

Stanley made his money running errands on his bicycle for local trades, but it involved long, long hours, after which the training had to be fitted in. On a typical day he would start work at 6am and wouldn’t get to his bed until well after midnight. Some nights he was so blooming tired he would just fall sleep in the garage beside ‘Lucy’ (his bicycle).

His town had never really had a famous anyone. Well, apart from Edward McLeish who’d won a medal fighting the Boers in Africa.

There was talk of erecting a statue to Edward but it annoyed Stanley a little, because he wanted to be the first with a statue raised to him. Still if he didn’t train – and hard – there would be no Olympics, statues or even races won. He fell asleep that night cuddling his Lucy and dreaming of gold medals.

Lars and his team arrived at John O’Groats a day early. They had caught a train to Hamburg and then travelled on to the northern tip of mainland Scotland aboard a ship that had been laid on by the Chancellor himself. Germany saw this race as a chance to show some superiority to the little Englanders, – and as Lars was frequently being told – there was a war coming and England (and its despicable Empire) would be made to come under the control of the Fatherland. This race would be the start of great things which would end with only Germans standing on the podium at Berlin for all things gold.

Stanley’s dad was his entire support team unlike Lars’ huge machine. The Germans had brought someone to look after Lars’ food, two men to look after his bicycles, an acrobat from the Berlin Circus to keep him fit and to massage his aches and pains; plus several other followers.

Stanley’s father had brought cheese and bread that his wife had packed, although to be honest, Stanley and his dad had eaten most of it on the way north.

The race was to start at sunrise of the following morning – although this far north, and at this time of year it never really got dark.

There was 32 entrants in all. The organisers felt that this was the most manageable figure that could be dealt with, given the state of the roads in many parts of the race. There were 16 spaces allocated to the British and Irish, 2 to each of the French, German, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss. The balance was made up of Americans and a Canadian.

The pack had been pretty close in finishing within ten minutes of each other on the torturous route to Lochinver. A couple had dropped out due to mishaps, but Stanley and his dad were making great time and had finished in second place at the end of each stage.

Stage four was from Loch Ness to Fort William (stopping an hour for lunch) and then on to Inveraray for the night. For all the efficiency of Lars and his team, they somehow took a wrong turning a few miles from Rannoch and had headed towards Tyndrum as they exited Rannoch Moor – this led to them being placed at the back of the group as they finished that evening.

The town of Inveraray is a small, beautiful place on the shores of Loch Fyne and it’s hard to avoid anyone, should you wish to. Stanley and his father, instead of going straight to bed, were sitting by the edge of the water.

Stanley’s father’s pipe was keeping the midges at bay, which could only be a good thing in this part of the world. Midges were small insects that had one good bite in them, but all together they could prove a misery for the unwary.

“You’ll never win if you smoke, Hooper,” came a voice from behind.

It was Lars.

“I recognize you from the magazine,” said Lars who was standing to attention for no other reason than to impress Stan.

“Look dad, it’s that German bloke you’ve been telling me about.”

Stan’s dad didn’t even bother turning his head.

“Oh aye. He’s the one who got lost coming out of Glen Coe,” said his dad with a smile.

Lars looked at both of them, clicked his heels and left.

The race was a close run thing. When they got to the Lake District, Lars was several minutes ahead, but that changed as the race headed down towards the West Country. They alternated with the lead, sometimes it was Stan (with his dad, supporting) in the lead, sometimes Lars and the whole German army behind him.

Just as they approached the final hill going into Land’s End a strange thing happened, Lars was in the lead and as he looked around he saw Stan a few metres behind him. Lars slowed, or at least, he seemed to struggle, and as Lars crossed the Finish line, so did Stan. It was a dead heat.

The War came as it was intended. The Olympics were cancelled and other thoughts filled the head of Stan in the year of 1916.

Instead of getting ready to cycle in the Berlin Games, Stan was preparing to go over the top on the first day of The Battle of The Somme.

There had been a team of them who had all come to France together – The Cycling Buddies they were called, now only two of them were left alive. Stan didn’t know where David was: David was the captain of the team and the bravest of them all. Stan had heard a rumour that David had been killed over a month ago.

Stan had kept his training up, even when he was sure that the Olympics weren’t going ahead, he still needed to get out there and train.

As the trench Captains blew their whistles, Stan found himself up and over the ladder within minutes. He saw some of those who had been earlier standing shivering beside him, taking their last falls.

Stan heard a bullet wiz past his ear, forcing him to hit the mud.

The plan for the Somme had been a good one, undermine the German trenches and blow them up.

That is what had happened – it was just that the Germans had gone deeper than any of the old fools back at headquarters could have imagined. When the British troops went over the top, they were gunned down in their thousands. The plan had been to march all the way to Berlin and Stan had liked the irony of that idea.

Stan crawled under some barbed wire which was supporting two dead bodies and then slid into one of the craters created by the British explosions. He was alone thank God but he had no idea what to do next. All this hadn’t been in the plans.

Stan must have closed his eyes for a time because the next thing he knew there was a German pistol pointing right between his eyes.

And yes, you’re right, it was Lars – otherwise what is the point of this story? Stranger things do happen.

“Stan, you old Englander, it is so good to see you.”

“Lars? Is that you?”

Lars and Stan hugged in what was the strangest of circumstances.

“Well it’s not the podium but it is very good to see you,” said Stan.

“I save you once again, Englander,” smiled Lars as he slid down into the mud. For a while the two of them lay there with the bullets and smoke passing overhead.

“What do we do now, Stan?” Asked Lars. Just then a stray shell exploded on the rim of crater. Stan used his body to shield Lars.

The part of the shell that penetrated Stan’s back wasn’t obvious at first. At least not until Stan started coughing blood.

“I’ve been hit old friend,” said Stan not quite believing it.

As Lars held Stan, he smiled at his pal;

“I think we are even, Englander.”

When Stan closed his eyes for the last time, Lars took a gold coin he had been carrying and placed it on Stan’s chest.

“You win, Stanley Hooper.”

 

bobby stevenson 2016

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The Sleeping Warrior

The story of a 16-year-old boy from a Scottish island who seeks revenge. A journey which takes him from the ’16 Uprising in Dublin to a heroism at the Somme.

arran

                               1

St.Pols near Arras France, November 7th 1920.

There was a darkness of sorts by the time the two men entered the chapel. The Brigadier looked towards the older man who closed his eyes.

“This one”

The officer nodded that he understood, as the General lifted his hand from the Union flag. There was a gentle sadness in both their actions as they lowered the body into the wooden box, it could so easily have been one of them; yet neither noticed the silver chain with the blue medallion drop from the coffin. Unseen, it found its way into a crack.

They wouldn’t leave him on his own, not tonight; this poor soul had slept too long alone.

_________________

Four summers earlier that same chain and medallion clung to the neck of a boy stuffed to the brim with life. His name was Sammy Galbraith and he was living up to all of his sixteen summers.

“When I catch you and don’t think I won’t Galbraith, I will crack that stupid head of yours open, I swear to God I will”

The Reverend Winters was fifty-three, apparently God’s ambassador on earth and a bit of a horseman. He took an exception to his daughter’s affections being dallied with by the local boys, especially that Godless brute Sammy Galbraith.

Being on foot allowed Sammy more manoeuvrability. He managed to slip behind Old Shaker’s Rock and wait for the reverend to go riding past. A piercing sliver of sunlight found Sammy’s face; he lifted his head skywards and smiled as an eagle patrolled the warm thermals above.

By the time his pursuer realised he had lost the boy he was already riding towards what he considered the source of the problem, Sammy’s father.

Johnny Galbraith, who had only been thirty-two years old when he left his legs in a field in France, had a son of sixteen whom he loved and a wife who no longer cared if he lived nor died.

Before the war Johnny had been in complete charge of Lord Inverstark’s stables, now he wasn’t even in control of his own body. He sat in a wheelchair on the porch of the tied cottage, angry at life and always looking toward the mountains that were once his to conquer.

Their island was named Annshal and it sat about a mile off the mainland of western Scotland. As the sun sank below the Annshal Mountains, the silhouette of their peaks would assume the outline of an ancient soldier at rest with his spear by his side; he was known to the locals as The Sleeping Warrior.

The reverend’s horse came to a halt in front of Johnny, just as the soldier was contemplating whether returning from France had been a good thing, or  whether he should have been  left there and buried along with his legs.

“Your son has been pestering my daughter once again Galbraith, I will ask you, as I have done several times before – will you not control your lad?”

“Perhaps your daughter likes to be pestered Winters have you ever considered that?”

“I realise that the war has served you with a great injustice Mister Galbraith but you should tread with the utmost care in what you say and not judge all women by the standards of your own wife. I look forward to you having a word with your son.”

Johnny reached for the pistol he kept by his chair and pointed it above the reverend’s head.

“You wouldn’t shoot a man of God? Behave yourself man.”

Johnny fired the pistol into a tree.

“You’ll regret this”. The reverend already having turned his horse was riding away. “Mark my words Mister Galbraith, you will rue the day. Rue the day.”

At the age of thirty Fiona was still pretty, and anyone with eyes could see why Lord Inverstarck found her attractive.

It had started off innocently with Fiona covering Johnny’s work while he was away at war but it soon became something more between Fiona and the Laird (as the locals would refer to them in hushed tones). To be really  truthful, Fiona had attempted to make things work between her and Johnny after he came home. She knew he had been injured but he had failed in his letters to mention the missing legs. Even they were not the problem; the real concern was the darkness that now ate at Johnny’s heart. The night she’d left for good, he had threatened to kill them both. She had only walked in the door and his ever-present gun was pointing straight at her.

“Why are you so angry?” She’d never dared ask him that before but with a gun pointing at her head, she didn’t feel she had that much to lose. He said nothing and put the gun back by the side of his chair. She went into the room, packed a small case and as she walked past him, he grabbed her wrist. “I love you” he said.

“I know”. He freed her and she walked out.

Fiona was exercising the horses when she felt a shadow cross her eye line. She didn’t have to look up for she knew who it would be, who it always was, her son Sammy. They no longer talked he would just sit on the hill  and stare at her, something he did every day. She loved him but it had been such a long time since she had told him.

_________________

They had kept their word; he had been watched over every step of the way. The coffin had been placed in an oak casket and banded with iron and a medieval crusader’s sword.

The inscription read ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.

He would rest tonight in Victoria Station and tomorrow, the 11th of November 1920, he would travel to Westminster Abbey to lie at peace for ever.

_________________

Lord Inverstarck had expected to go directly to France. The troops had been stationary at the Somme for a very long time but there was also word that the Irish were planning an uprising and they wanted him at Dublin Castle before Easter, 1916. It was Fiona’s suggestion of a Ball in honour of his departing.

“You are the Laird and the islanders will want to have their goodbyes”.

She was right of course and he thanked God for Fiona but Inverstarck didn’t particularly care for the islanders or the island. He had been having a jolly time of it in London, living at the family apartments in Kensington, his plan had been to continue with the army for a few more years then move into banking. It had all been decided by Father while the boys were still at Harrow. Harry would take over the Lairdship of Annshal on his father’s death and Robert would remain at liberty.

No one had expected Harry to die so young.

So by default Robert was Lord Inverstarck and all that encompassed, most of which he had no taste or time for. Hereditary was hereditary and not even God could set that apart; to make the best of a problem was  Robert’s philosophy. Still, there were compensations, the estate (if you included the properties in London) was relatively well off and Fiona was proving herself to be a beautiful distraction. If they could only rid themselves of that annoying husband of hers and the troublesome brat she had given birth to, things might take a turn for the better.
With any luck, Ireland would keep Robert occupied and there would be no reason to travel to France. He could be back in Annshal and in Fiona’s arms by autumn.

castle

                                                       2

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.

Cross

3

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:

“THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
HIS HOUSE”

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.

bobby stevenson 2017

Arran
Photo of Annshal island (Arran) taken by Tom Stevenson

Captain Oates’ Last Walk

polar

There wasn’t much he could see ahead of himself. It was cold and it was unclear and that was his future; he had never been more certain of anything in his life.

Before he’d set off, things had been good, probably better than good. They’d spent time, all of them, together on the west coast. A small Scottish town called Greenock, the birthplace of Birdie Bowers.

They’d got drunk, had punch ups with the locals, but most of all they had bonded. Perhaps that was why he was doing what he was doing, perhaps only God knew the answer to that question.

The beautiful River Clyde, had been spectacular on that last day. The sun had been setting behind Helensburgh and he could see the Arrochar Alps as the ship turned to head towards the Irish Sea.

What a life it had been; a life of laughter and a few tears but always full of adventure. Always on the edge, always completely alive. He felt the toes on his left leg grow cold.

It was hard to breathe but then nothing that was worthwhile was ever won easy. Life was hard but friends, companionship, and family took that particular sting away. That made it all worthwhile; love and adventure was everything.

I suppose, he thought, that he could have done things differently and not ended up here, not ended up in this predicament – but then, the ending should never over shadow the living of a life.

He’d never settled for what had been given to him. He could have lived comfortably and gone to his grave, relatively unmarked and unremarkable.

Yet, that was not what his heart was satisfied with. He’d had to climb the highest, run the fastest, jump the longest. That was the way he had been set to live in this universe and there had been no going back.

There was a price for everything – if his life had taught him anything, it had taught him that. He’d paid for his life of movement and achievement by never finding a place to belong. It did bother him, everyone should belong somewhere. He looked up at the little number of the stars he could see and wondered if one day a man would stand on the moon and look back at Earth and feel homesick. That was the best he could do – say that this planet was his home.

He was dying from the inside out and yet he felt more peaceful than he had ever done before. There would be something, he was sure of it, on the other side.

He started to smile, he had no idea why, but suddenly his life seemed simpler than it had ever been. What he was doing seemed natural, the right thing, perhaps it had all been leading up to this point.

He thought of the lies he had told all of them as he left. He hadn’t believed it and neither should they. But there were things that were better left unsaid, unspoken. Those things were shouting the loudest in the silence. He loved them all, that was the only reason he was walking in this direction.

He had written letters to those who mattered and one day they would find them. He wondered if he’d ever be found, ever be seen again, ever be held by a warm hand.

The coughing made him lose his breath and he bent down. Soon the pain would all go. Soon it would only be sleep. Soon it would all be over.

The wind was picking up and he pulled the woolen hat down over his ears. There was a whistling in the wind and he was sure he could hear choirs. Maybe there were angels after all, or maybe it was the cold and hunger.

Not long now, he could feel his time coming. He had to do this. There was no room in the tent for all of them to survive. So he’d crawled out, turned to the rest and said:

“I’m going outside and I may be some time.”

And this is where he was going to rest, and at least he’d got to stand on the South Pole.

He thought of his sister and he whispered, ‘goodbye’ and of his time in Putney.

He said ‘thank you’ on his frost-bitten lips and then his heart stopped.

 

bobby stevenson 2017

“Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates was an English cavalry officer with the 6th Dragoons, and later an Antarctic explorer, who died during the Terra Nova Expedition/ Lieutenant Henry Robertson “Birdie” Bowers  was one of the polar party on the ill-fated expedition. Bowers was born 29 July, 1883 in Greenock, Scotland.”

“On 16 January 1912, as Scott’s party neared the Pole, it was Bowers who first spotted a black flag left at a camp made by Roald Amundsen‘s polar party over a month previously. They knew then that they had been beaten in the race to be first to the South Pole. On 18 January, they arrived at the South Pole to find a tent left behind by Amundsen’s party at their Polheim camp; inside, a dated note informed them that Amundsen had reached the Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott’s party by 35 days.”

 

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The Titanic in New York City – Adel and Dirk

ship1

Wednesday April 17th, 1912 Pier 60. NY,NY.

That Wednesday morning, the sun shone, and a gentle breeze blew in from the sea. As far as Adel was concerned, she had everything in life she wanted. She lived in Brighton Beach at the bottom end of Brooklyn, and she had a job painting decorations on the rides at Coney Island.

She had been in New York City for almost a year. A year of struggling and making a life for herself in a new country. It had been lonely at the start, but the work had allowed her to paint and express herself. She had two friends, but as she worked most of the time, it really was difficult to meet people.

On that sunny morning, her cousin Dirk was arriving from Europe on the biggest ship in the world; the Titanic. Both their families came from Stuttgart, and as a girl Adel had been close to her older cousin. Now that she felt herself more American, she was pleased that another of her tribe would experience the exciting land that was the United States.

Dirk had qualified as a doctor, and in appreciation of this achievement, his family had saved money to send him second class on the Titanic.

She knew that the ship was due within the hour and that she could watch it pass from her little apartment on the Avenue, but instead she took an elevated transit from Coney Island into Manhattan. She had heard that there was going to be a large crowd to welcome the greatest ship to the greatest city in the world.

She took a trolley across to the west side, to Pier 60 on the Hudson. There were many people trying to get to the pier, and the crowd stretched all the way to the Battery. Adel wanted to welcome her cousin personally when he stepped from the ship.

She bought a hotdog and a lemonade as she waited, listening to the bands, some of which had come up from Coney Island. She had been granted the holiday by her boss, as long as she worked the following Saturday.

After what seemed a lifetime, she saw the funnels, and then the grandeur of what was the largest ship she had ever seen. It was beautiful, so beautiful that it took her breath away. She wiped back the tears and waved with the rest of the New Yorkers to greet the Titanic.

It was several hours before she was able to walk up and hug her cousin. He had to be processed through Ellis Island, as she had been, before he was allowed to set foot on Manhattan.

She cried again, it was wonderful to see one of her family again and to be able to talk in her mother tongue. Dirk hadn’t brought much with him and so they decided to walk up Fifth Avenue and enjoy the sights of the city.

They got back to her apartment, in Brighton Beach in the early evening. The sun was already sinking on this happy April day and she had baked treats that she would have made back home. She wanted make Dirk feel really welcome.

He was excited by his new country and full of hope, he told Adel. Perhaps he could be a great doctor in America, or perhaps even the President himself. Adel told him that he would have to have been born in the United States but she loved his dreams.

Then he told stories of the crossing of the Atlantic on the Titanic, how they had been troubled by icebergs but the captain had slowed the ship a little and all was well.

Tomorrow she had to go back to work at Coney Island but she would introduce Dirk to her boss, who might be able to help in getting him work. Dirk thanked his cousin and took his little bag into the kitchen where she had made him up a bed. Adel wished him goodnight and hoped that God would be kind to him in the new land.

As Dirk settled down, he took out the code book which he had been supplied, and went over once again the instructions he had been given. Not if, but when, there was a war in Europe and the mighty armies of the Fatherland moved into France and Britain, the Kaiser wanted assurance that the US would be in no position to join the war.

Dirk had one activity and one activity only, and that was to assassinate the President of the United States when the signal came from the Fatherland.Dirk slept well that first night in his new country and dreamed of the bright new world that was to come.

 

bobby stevenson 2016

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