It was customary in the highlands long before this war to raise an honorific statue for any man whose character proved most valuable in the parish, yet in the three hundred prosperous years since the harbour town of Gannochy was founded, its centre square of St Andrews Gate had been left untouched by any statue, statuette, bust, sculpture, figure, figurine or effigy, either commemorative or religious; for not even the Creator could live up to Gannochian expectations.
But then came this second war, a world war if one overlooked the more unsociable countries. And Victor Lewis, Jr., my elder brother, despite him being a year too young to enlist, saw fit to run away, lie about his age and do his bit, which he did so remarkably well, and with such sacrificial esprit, that the Gannochians threw their arms up and erected for him in St Andrews Gate the grandest statue of bronze I had ever seen. They shouted Victor’s name in praise and called him their own as they trumpeted down Hope Street with a renewed sense of cheerfulness, the same effect, incidentally, as a cup of strong coffee. Bearing witness to this, every young lad in Gannochy who had not yet received his call-up papers, some aged as young as five, downed an espresso and bolted for the soonest possible boat to Glasgow, each with the intention of running away, lying about his age and doing his bit—that is, every lad save for me.
“All that is good and weel,” answered Ewan Moffat, my neighbour atop Kilbeuk Brae, “but never mind those lads. Ye should raither cultivate the victory gairden with me. Need I remind ye how vital potato growin’ is? It’s verra!”
Moffat, an old warhorse too podgy to have wrinkles, sat opposite me inside Gannochy’s fish and chip shop with the green shutters, him draped over the table like a hippopotamus throw rug, his swollen, sausage fingers paddling a greasy chip through a puddle of brown sauce. When he spoke he would swing his arms about and clink the rim of a cold coffee that sat by his plate, underneath which lay a splashed and stained newspaper.
“Oh, excuse me,” I replied, forthright and unblinking, “Do I look like a woman to you?”
I raised my frail hands and fluttered my fingers, soft and slender.
“These hands are for the rifle and bayonet,” I said, “not the hoe and spade. And as far as I’m concerned, gardening is women’s work. If you think the trenches I dig will be for silly potatoes, you’re having a laugh.”
“Whoa-whoa-whoa… whoa,” Moffat objected, with a waft of sour breath. He mashed his tweedy flat cap in his leathery palm as his dog Bean, a Welsh terrier, lay sleeping at his feet, unbothered. “It’s what I do, mynd ye,” he defended, “and it’s of nae small value. There’s never a thing undignified aboot feeding Breetain when the inbringing’s scarce. Victory gairdens lower the want for black market goods, herring from Iceland for instance.”
He poked at the newspaper, its headline boasting Britain’s successful transfer of its custody of Iceland to the Americans.
“Eh well, I have little mind for your preposterous advice,” I muttered, though with tapering weight, as my attention had already been diverted past Moffat’s bulbous head by the piercing toll of the cast iron doorbell suspended from its iron ivy, clang, clang, clamouring against the entry to signal the arrival of Isla Brown Cornfoot, the last of the Cornfeet, and her two schoolmates from Gannochy’s Kailyard Academy of Sentimentality: Mary Tweedsmuir and Leila Fleischer-Pufendorf.
Drenched in tart perfume, and with flowery skirts rippling out, Mary and Leila mimicked Isla’s every scent and mannerism; scarcely could I handle such concentrated goodness. They clickety-clacked down the aisle, strutting past the front table where a nameless, clean-shaven young lad—likely from the neighbouring village of St Salvator’s—was struck at the sight of them, him caught mid-gnaw with a half a haddock in his teeth.
From earliest childhood I had despised Isla, especially her silky blonde hair, her facile legs, her lavender scented skin, and those glossy, drinkable lips, the rarest sort where the corners dip down and the upper lip angles erect to form a pink painted pouty palate of pleasing perfection that when she spoke, and especially when she spoke, the lip beckoned to be violently nibbled. There was no escaping it; I despised the girl.
“Leoloni Lewis!” she called out in a highfalutin chirrup, her stained-glass eyes clapping onto me, caught staring.
I hid myself with a magazine.
Yet over the edge of its fanned out pages I could not help but keek as the arpeggio of youth on a home-front warpath clackity-clicked past Moffat and arrived at the end of our table. Look sharp, Leoloni, look sharp.
“Well, that’s a fine how do you do,” remarked Isla, as if fully indulged in the English language, her Received Pronunciation now perfected. She, too, had bigger plans in life, and hence no distance was greater between her and west highland Scots, the language of Moffat and every other mawkish portrayal of working class Scotland.
Not to be outdone, I responded in the much rarer Bequeathed Pronunciation accent, in which the King only speaks to himself. “Pahr-don?” asked I. “My gosh, Isla, how laahh-v-ly to see you. For what does one owe the ple-a-sure?”
“Dinna even bother with him,” Mary, the fiery-headed and more Gaelic of the three girls, whispered to Isla. “You know whit he’s like.”
Bean shot up from her dreamy doggy torpor and, drumming her tail against the table, struck her sheeny muzzle between Isla’s welcoming hands and sniffed the girl’s belly. But it was Leila, a curly brunette with a sharp and nervous face, who recoiled from the dog.
“Git doun, Bean!” commanded Moffat.
The dog got doun.
“How’s your mother faring, Leo?” asked Isla with a certain queerness about her. “She vanished so suddenly from the unveiling this morning, I could hardly offer my condolences.”
Condolences? But Isla had never been more delighted; she spent the whole affair working herself through the crowd, reminding citizens and strangers alike that this ‘marvellous man’ they were all fawning over was her sweetheart, treating it more as a wedding than a wake.
“You should ask her how I’m doing,” I managed to reply, combing my fingers through a patch of hair above my ear to hide what was not there, what I had torn out.
“Oh, c’mon,” Moffat added himself to the conversation, “your mother’s a fine lady. Lord knows she’s had her trials, ay, but she’s as fain and lithesome as they come.”
Quite right, I agreed in secret, but I would have rather she outwardly hated me than for her to love me the way she did.
“But do give her my best, will you?” asked Isla. “She looked positively grim this morning—oh and Leo, darling, there’s something I wish to tell you about Victor later on, so don’t rush away just yet.”
“There’s no need,” I replied sharply. “I’ve already put him out of my mind.”
“But you mustn’t! Really, he was a broth of a boy, purely and simply, what all lads should strive to become.”
A not-so-subtle insinuation.
“Such a man,” added Leila.
“Sicha hero,” added Mary.
“And such a statue!” continued Isla. “I must say, you’re not a man till you have a little bronze or marble on your CV.”
“That’s quite enough, lassies,” said a frowning Moffat.
I clung to the table’s creaking edge and shot Isla a splintered stare, having had enough of this sentimental slop. Their rejection shrouded in the pretence of concern had approached the point of cruelty.
“Oh, go away!” I snapped. “Not one of you nitwits are worth a second of my time. If anyone belongs in the garden, it’s you lot.”
With her eyes stuck on the whimpering dog at her feet, Leila pressed Isla’s arm. “Come,” she said.
“Ay,” added Mary, “like I said, dinna bother with Leo. You know whit he’s like.”
As if the conversation had made her nauseous, Isla grimaced and turned her gaze; the tight blaeberry swing skirt that hugged her smooth, sylphlike body accentuated her ample and shapely stern as she sailed off with her gaggle of girls towards the checkout counter, where her smartly dressed father, Oliver Brown Cornfoot—the last but one of the Cornfeet, a mid-ranked Slavemason and a man who always fancied himself as something of an entrepreneur—was sweet-talking Effie Gilmour, the chip shop’s bloody-minded, tough as a mule owner. He was battling Effie into selling the place with the intention of converting it into a charity shop, which he argued could help those of Gannochy’s less unfortunate.