Authors: Eric Linklater
When I Woke among the currant-bushes I saw her coming out of the cottage door with her fist round the gander's neck. I heard them too, for she was yelling and the gander was beating the doorposts and beating her thighs with his great creaking wings. Like a windmill in the distance, like the slap of a rising swan's black feet on the water, like clothes on the line thrashing in a breeze: the gander was making nearly as much noise as she was, and she was shouting her head off. There was no leaping tune in her voice that morning. It was just the air in her lungs being driven through the funnel of her throat like steam from a well-fired boiler; and some of the words she was using were no prettier than what goes on in any stoker's mind. But I wasn't listening so much as looking. I had heard those words before, but I had never seen a woman's body like hers, so firm and long of limb, like a young reed in firmness and round as an apple where it should be, and white as a pearl. Against the gander's wings, which were a cold white like snow, her pallor was warm and glowing. Not reflecting light, but glowing with it. She was naked as the sky, and the sky, at four o'clock in the morning, was bare of cloud except for a little twist of wool low down in the west.
Now she gripped the gander's neck with both her hands, and even her hands weren't red like any other country girl's, but small and white. They were strong though, and I could see the hardness of her forearms. She was throttling the bird, and its beak was wide open, a gaping stretch of yellow skin, the upper mandible at right-angles to the lower. Its eyes were hidden in the ruffling of its little head-feathers. She dragged it through the door, gave a great heave, and threw it with a noise of breaking stalks into some overgrown rhubarb. A splash of dew-drops rose from the leaves and caught the light. For a moment she stood looking at the bird, her arms a little bent and her hair dishevelled, her mouth open, and her breast rising and falling. Then, abruptly, she turned and went back into the cottage, slamming the door behind her. I listened, I remember, for the sound of a key turning or a bolt going home; but in this part of the country they never lock their doors. It was lack of custom, not lack of feeling,
that prevented her from giving this final emphasis to her act of expulsion.
The gander shook himself, hissing loudly, and broke more stalks of rhubarb as he made his way to a narrow path of little sea-shore pebbles. I had seen him before, half a dozen times with the girl, and always marvelled at the size of him, but now, from where I lay among the currant-bushes, he looked bigger than ever and his ruffled head-feathers stood out like a crown. His neck was as stiff as a broom-handle but twice as thick, and he turned his head this way and that with a twitch of the bill, an angry snap. His little black eyes were swollen and bright, and the broad webs of his feet fell on the path with the heavy tread of German infantry. He stopped when he saw me and stood for a little while, hissing like a burst tyre; but not in the way of an ordinary gander, with its neck low to the ground and its beak reaching forward. He stood upright, his head swaying back as if to look at me from a greater height, and when he had done with hissing he turned his back on me and went tramping through some rows of cabbage-plants to a gap in the low garden wall where the old turf-dyke on which it was built had collapsed and brought down the stone. It was a plain little garden with no colour in it except some yellow daisies under the cottage windows and a thin growth of honeysuckle beside the door. There was a fuchsia hedge on one side, not in flower yet, and gooseberries and black-currant bushes along the other walls, with a clump of grey-barked elder-trees in the corner. On one side of the dividing pebble-path rhubarb and spring onions, early potatoes and cabbage on the other: that was all. And the gander, marching like a Prussian, flattened the cabbages under his broad splayed feet as if there had been the weight of a man in him. Perhaps there was. He was no ordinary bird, that was certain.
I got up and followed him, cautiously, as he disappeared, and watched him swimming down the little stream that runs behind the cottage to the big loch a quarter of a mile away. I saw his head, still ruffled, still indignantly twitching, behind a bank of meadowsweet; and then he vanished.
I leant against the wall of a cartshed, thinking. The air was still, and the country looked as though no one had ever touched it. The day before had been wet and ugly, and I remembered with a kind of shame how unhappy I had been; and how clumsily I had behaved, getting drunk so that I could tell the truth. But now I felt uncommonly wellâand I had done my duty. There's nothing like sleeping in the open air to prevent a hangover, and I had, after long delay, disburdened my mind. The evening before I had gone to see John Norquoy to tell
him how his young brother had been killed on the shore of Lake Comacchio.
We had been together for a long time, Jim Norquoy and I, in the Seaforths to begin with and then in the Commando, and between Primo Sole in Sicily and that great cold lagoon of Comacchio, mud and water and a dancing mirage, we had had our fill of fighting. Jim was hit in shallow water, wading ashore after our boats had grounded on a mudbank just as the sun came up, and I carried him in. But he died on the edge of the land, and his last words were, âYou'll find it difficult to go back too, after all this.'
That was an understatement. I found it impossible to go back to the life I had known before, and when I came north to the islands, to tell his people about Jim and give him what immortality I could, by feeding their pride in him, I was looking for something for myself as well. No more school-teaching for me. I was never meant to be a teacher anyway, either by Providence or my parents. I had only wanted to liveâI mean to live in such a way that life came in through my eyes and I could feel it on my skinâbut never had I known how to go about it till the war came. And now, when the war was over, I was more at a loss than ever. I couldn't go back to an elementary school in Falkirk, and teach little boys the parts of speech and the more blatant pieces of history, for fear that one of them, some day, might ask me, âWhat's it all for? What are we going to say when we've learnt the parts of speech; and if we learn all the history in the world, what would it mean?'
I was no coward, not in the physical sense, and I had been a good soldierânot as good as Jim, though I earned my payâbut when I looked at those questions in the solitude of my mind I knew that I couldn't face them in public. Nor did I want to. I wanted to live, but not to set myself up as a preceptor of living. As a small boy I had gone about in a state of perpetual astonishment; a book or a feather, a mouse or a fish or the dining-room table had all seemed equally miraculous, and I lacked the ordinary confidence in my own reality. I never went to bed without wondering what new shape I might inhabit by the morning. Almost from the beginning I was a disappointment to my parents. They had a position to keep up, and were ambitious too. They took it very badly when I was expelled from the school where my elder brother had been Head of his House and Captain of Cricket.
Now, after six years in the Army, I felt that I had served my apprenticeship to war, but I was still a novice in peace. So I couldn't, in honesty, set up as a teacher, and I had been looking for something
else to do. I hadn't much to guide me except negatives. I didn't want to live in a town, for one thing, because I felt, at that time, the need to think; and peace to think, in my view of it, required the open sky.
I started badly, for after I had seen John Norquoy at a cattle market one day, I couldn't bring myself to go and tell him about Jim. I had wanted to make him, and all his friends, so proud of Jim that he would live for ever in their minds like a lighted lamp, to which their love would be as moths, gathering to his memory and beating its wings in the glow of him. Jim was my friend, and even the Seaforth Highlanders had never known a better man.
But when I first saw John Norquoy I realised that it wasn't going to be easy to talk about pride to him, for he knew enough already. That was evident, though it was quite an ordinary occasion. He was looking at a thin-faced cattle-dealer pulling the loose black skin on the rump of a two-year-old heifer. There was nothing of the braggart in him, nothing loud or boastful, but he had the same build as Jim, the same sort of head ten years older, the look of a man who knew what he was after and what it was worth. He was smiling, and there was the same irony in his smile, though he was only selling a beast, as I had seen in Jim's face, grey with the strain of battle, when we had to withdraw from the Primo Sole bridge because our ammunition was spent, and the infantry who should have relieved us hadn't been able to get forward in time. There was nothing I could tell John Norquoy about pride, and when I realised that I put off going to see him. I put it off for about three weeks.
I stayed with the village schoolmaster, a good man who had fought in the first war. I told him about my other difficulty, and he thought I could teach with safety in a country school. âThe children here,' he said, âwouldn't worry you with awkward questions. They don't grow up with doubts in their minds. Life for them means birth and marriage and death, and they're all natural things. It means hard work and hard weather, and what amusement they and their neighbours can make for themselves. It means dancing and making love when they're young, and breeding a good beast and gossiping when they're older. And if, from time to time, they're troubled about the deeper significance of life, they keep their trouble to themselves. They know that it's an old trouble, and it wouldn't occur to them that you could cure it.'
But I didn't want to teach, either in country or town, so I spent my three weeks in idleness, but kept my eyes open. I had an open mind too, and no accomplishments. I was ready for suggestions; but not for going to see John Norquoy. I met Lydia one day, and talked to her for a quarter of an hour till her mother came out and called her in. The next
time I saw her she had the gander with her, and she wasn't so friendly. I felt hurt and disappointed and a little angry, though I didn't realise then what she was really like. We pay too much attention to clothes, and hers were the sort you don't see in a town unless a strayed gipsy has come in. She had a small, beautifully shaped head, but her hair was tangled by the wind and greasy, and her features were so regular that I didn't notice, to begin with, how good they were. Her throat was lovely, long and as white as milk, but her neck was dirty, and when I saw her for the second time it was the same dirt, I'm fairly sure, that still darkened her skin. And yet I felt hurt when she wouldn't stay and talk to me.
I asked the schoolmaster about her, and he told me she was illegitimate, a state of being that's not extraordinary in country districts. Her mother was a grim old woman named Thomasina Manson, a crofter's only child, unpopular as a girl, who had lived a lonely and blameless life till she was about thirty-five, when she had gone to Edinburgh, and what she did there, except get herself into trouble, no one ever knew. It was generally supposed that she had been in domestic service, and when her baby was born, about three months after she came home, she told the doctor that its father came of the gentry. But that's all she told, and her father and mother, who had married late in life, never recovered from the shock. They were Plymouth Brethren, said the schoolmaster, sternly pious and pitiably dependent on their respectability. They died, one after the other, within a couple of years of Lydia's birth, and Thomasina was left alone to work the croft and bring up the child.