KK and I came up with this challenge for each other. I photographed a watercolour which has been hanging on my bedroom wall from ever since. (I enhanced the blues for the purposes of this post, just easier on my eyes.)
KK felt that somebody was maybe coming home in that sailboat, so we agreed on a general theme of homecoming.
Lastly, we agreed on a word limit of 390 words (arbitrary, from a number generator). As it happened, that didn’t work for either of us – I went way over (1,900, way beyond flash!) and I think KK said she was going with a poem, which I guess will be way less than 390. I’ll link to her post here, when she goes live.
Because of the length, I was hesitant to publish, but I don’t currently publish anywhere else, so posting gives me a sense that I actually accomplished something. Besides, some of you have said you like my stories, so more fool you for encouraging me!
This one, Firefox estimates at 11-14 minutes, so if you don’t fancy that, now is the time to bale.
If any of you fancy the challenge, please, go for it. Use the same constraints as we did, or vary them. Up to you. What can you come up with? This isn’t a formal challenge, so if you write something, just pingback to this post so I can read your response.
“Alright, Morag, thanks. If you pass that on, and I’ll come and say hello once I’m back.” Malcolm gently replaced the receiver. He could not believe that he was at last going home. Finally given the all-clear by the doctors, his war was done. With no telephone at home, he had contacted the Post Lady instead. Morag would make sure that Heather was told.
He would start tomorrow’s journey on foot. He wanted a final taste of London, capture a couple more memories. He just hoped that his legs would hold up. Since being shot up eighteen months earlier, he had learned to walk again, and his legs could still let him down. But he had to make this journey, had to get home. Besides, the home environment would promote recovery, no? Travelling in uniform, he hoped to milk any available goodwill, and he walked through the door’s of the Queen Alexandra, on 25 March, 1946. It was a fine Monday morning, revealing early traces of spring. Even in the city. There was a tinge of sadness – he knew them all, after so long – but as he passed through the doors, Malcolm was at last returning to his old life.
London. Feeling strong, he floated along Millbank and reaching Parliament, admired its perennial beauty. Big Ben, that beacon of hope these last six years. He shuffled on, past commuters wearing sympathetic eyes, progressing slowly up Whitehall and crossing Downing Street. At Trafalgar Square, he stopped. The scene of all those celebrations last year, Malcolm had, at that time, been tethered to his bed and had had to enjoy them through the newspaper.
His leg was starting to ache now, but with no plans ever to return, he wanted to see as much as he was able. By Piccadilly Circus, however, he was beaten. Temporarily exhausted, he hailed one of the many taxi cabs. With people having recently returned home from the war, there was no shortage of taxi drivers. From the relative comfort of the taxi, he regarded the passers-by. So busy, something he had never understood, why on earth does anybody need to do anything in such a hurry? All too quickly, Malcolm’s journey was complete, as the taxi arrived at Euston. Malcolm took a final glance back, to a city to which he had never really warmed, nor it to him, before entering the station.
Scanning the newly reinstated departure board, his next train was in thirty minutes. Good, he did not have to hurry, for his kit-bag had become heavy and his legs still ached. However, the Uniform Effect kicked in, as a porter not only carried his luggage for him, but also escorted him to the platform, and Malcolm was nicely berthed by the time the train started to move. Although he had resolved not to sleep the gentle rocking of the carriage lulled him by the time they reached Watford. However the malevolent dream took hold. Malcolm was straight back to Germany, rescuing those four men over again, before feeling the bullet tear into his back. Jerking awake, Malcolm was relieved to be conscious once more and, ascertaining that the train was not due to arrive in Glasgow until this evening, he resolved to try to stay awake and to enjoy the ride as best he could. No problem – if the army had taught him anything, it was patience. All the same, he was ready to flex some life back into his legs as the train approached the outskirts of Glasgow. He found another porter. As he suspected, the next train out to Inveraray was not until tomorrow. And so as darkness fell over the grimy city, Malcolm claimed a bench and settled in for the night. For the first time in six years, his life was his own.
Nightmares again, but fortunately not *the* nightmare. Something had hold of his feet, would not let them go. However, as Malcolm surfaced, he groggily opened one eye to see both the greyness of the early morning, and last night’s porter kicking his feet. Slowly, the words came into focus. “thought I’d never wake you”, “fellow Highlander”, “mail train”, and Malcolm realised that he was being offered a ride. The man had recognised the uniform, and rather than waiting for the regular train, the mail train would be departing shortly up to Fort William, and would be stopping at Inveraray. Did he want to jump on board? Malcolm snapped himself awake and gratefully accepted.
Two hours later, Malcolm was standing on the platform at Inveraray. As the train wound its way north, his goal was westwards. Finding the restroom, empty at this hour, he tidied his hair, straightened his tie, reflecting on his good decision to wear the uniform. As he’d thought, people would be inclined to help a war veteran. But now, he was reliant on that good will more than ever, for the last leg of his odyssey was by road. Just outside the station, he could not resist. Seeing some heather growing in this semi-rural location, he deftly detached a sprig and wove it into his cap.
He need not have worried about transport. Although there was still very little traffic at this hour, just as he was deciding his next move, a coal lorry pulled up beside him.
“Where are you headed, soldier?”
“Malton”, Malcolm replied. “You wouldn’t be going that way, would you?” As it happened, he was, but he had some deliveries to make on the way. Better safe than sorry, thought Malcolm, as he gratefully accepted the lift. The driver even came around, and helped the struggling Malcolm into the lorry’s high cab.
Once on board, the driver became more talkative.
“I recognised your uniform. I was with the same lot”, he opened. “Caught a packet out in Libya in ’43. Got pensioned off.” He nodded at the cab. “I do this now, deliver coal.” A pause for breath. “How about you?” It was obvious that Malcolm had been injured, and the driver talked freely.
“Me?”, questioned Malcolm, a little surprised that someone would be interested. “Och, we were just about in Germany. Start of ’45. We’d just crossed the Rhine. A load of us were caught up in an ambush. Nothing more to say, really” he shrugged, omitting the crucial detail of the rescue. He still wasn’t comfortable talking about this. Seeing the satisfied look on the man’s face, he allowed his voice to trail off.
Changing the subject, the driver offered, “help yersel’ to one of ma sandwiches, if you like. I don’t mind sharing”, and again, nodded at the small packet on the dashboard. As Malcolm tucked into cheese and pickle, he realised how starving he was.
As Malton loomed closer, so Malcolm’s excitement grew, and the two made preoccupied conversation. Malcolm explained that he had spent a while in hospital recovering, and that he was looking forward, at last, to getting home to his family. By the time he dropped Malcolm, in the town square of Malton, the two were well on their way to becoming friends. It was early afternoon, Malcolm had been on the road for almost thirty hours, but at last, he had come home.
As the truck drove off. Malcolm stopped just to breathe the air. He might have been damaged, but he had made it back here. All this while, and he had never wanted to be anywhere else. From those dark days in the hospital, this had been his dream, and for a long while he stood, motionless, tearful, allowing himself to be absorbed by the ether. Finally recomposed, he began walking, slowly so as not to miss anything. Arcing a short loop, he saw that, as in London, the traces of the war were being swept away. People wanted to move on. Up here, in this tranquillity, perhaps the war had never really bitten anyway? Some shops had gone, McDougall’s tannery had given way to a new electrics shop, but that was just progress, wasn’t it? Rounding a corner back into the square, he saw Morag in her Post Office. He was tempted, but… no, his legs were already tired and besides, he had more important things to do today.
Down on the quay, many of the fishermen had returned today’s catch, and when they recognised the tired, broken figure who hobbled towards them, there were whoops of delight. The war hero had returned. “As I live and breathe, Malcolm Fraser”, exclaimed one, overjoyed to see his kinsman home at last. It was good to see his friends again, but right now, Malcolm required one of them to sail him out to Glenspey.
It was teatime, and Malcolm realised how hungry he was, still, as the smack rounded the headland, past the old kirk where they had been married. and he saw the familiar outline of the croft. The door was a new colour, but otherwise, exactly as he remembered. “Not a bad choice”, he thought, and as they came in closer, he couldn’t help but reflect that these were places he had never expected to see again.
Inside the croft, Heather and Jeannie had just finished their tea. Although Heather had been told to expect Malcolm soon, the lack of a precise time had prevented her from exciting her daughter. It might take days to get up from London, so she had remained silent. As she washed the dirty crockery, she saw the smack through the kitchen window. A strange time to be fishing. As she watched it come closer, though, it appeared to be tacking straight toward her. Curiosity won the day, and Heather stepped outside for a closer look. At two hundred yards, Heather recognised the, once-strong figure sitting forward. Overwhelmed, Heather ran into Loch Ledee to greet her returning husband.
Malcolm had visions of diving into the loch to greet her, too, but he kept a calm head, Unsure whether his legs could cope with the strain of jumping in, he held back until he could bear it no longer. At calf-deep, he splashed impatiently out of the boat, and the two were reunited, ankle-deep in the icy waters of the loch. After an embrace which lasted forever, and with Heather steadying him, they waded eventually back to the shore. A movement from the doorway caught Malcolm’s eye. Straight away, he guessed.
“Are ye no going to come and greet me, lassie?” No response. “Och, I’ll go and fetch her”, tutted Heather. “You won’t believe how much she’s grown.” It was true, it was three years since Malcolm had laid eyes upon his now-eight-year-old daughter.
He could hear his Heather inside. “Come on, you silly little thing. Will you not come out and welcome your father home? He’s come all this way, especially to see you.”
When Heather reappeared, Malcolm spied the girl, hiding nervously in the folds of her mother’s skirt. He could not, indeed, believe how grown-up she had become. “Come on, here, lassie, and let your old da’ hae a proper look”, he beckoned.
Malcolm was finally able to retreat from the reunion into his bedroom, to discard his uniform. Exactly as he had been taught, he folded it neatly, one piece at a time, placing each carefully in the portmanteau at the foot of the bed. From his pockets, he extracted five medals. Among them, the Victoria Cross, the country’s highest award, He barely gave them a glance before throwing them casually onto the bed. He wouldn’t be needing them, not here. The uniform safely tucked away, last of all he placed the medals on top. Then he took a padlock from a drawer and, satisfied, turned the key. He would not leave this place again.