Oblivious crowds of people milled around the concourse of Euston Station. The tannoy echoed around platforms and shops, announcing the imminent departure of services to destinations near and far. "Platform fourteen, for the 21.35 Scotrail Sleeper Service to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William", the woman said in that particular cadence, unique to station announcers. I went to the left luggage department and collected my belongings. On the stroke of 9 o'clock, I had settled into my compartment. I had booked up the two beds, in order to have the cabin all to myself. A long journey lay ahead, and not just in terms of the hundreds of miles of distance.
Beyond the station canopy, the signal changed to green. The lights from the platform reflected dully on the wet surface of the platform as the conductor's whistle sounded shrilly. The locomotive roared into life and, with a jolt, began its long journey north. The steward knocked on the door of my compartment to take my order for breakfast the next morning. I followed him out to take a cup of tea in the restaurant car, but had to steady myself as the train ran over a number of points. It then accelerated gradually while I ensconced myself behind the table with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Raindrops ran down the window at an angle, refracting the light from the streets around the railway track. People were engrossed in their mobile phones and computer tablets, but I was content to sit and stare out at the wet night. Suburban halts flashed by at regular intervals. "Your tickets please", came the voice of the conductor. He looked at my reservations and travel tickets, briefly nodding to me as he found everything to be in order. Presently, the suburban sprawl of northwest London faded around me, and rural darkness became the norm. I seemed to have nodded off, because the noise of a train travelling in the opposite direction woke me. Or did it.
The rails screeched as the train negotiated some very tight turns. The sea loomed up to the right, and mountains rose up in the middle distance. A steam whistle sounded up ahead as the locomotive plunged into a tunnel. The brakes came on, and when daylight returned, houses appeared near the track. With a jolt, the train came to a halt by a station platform, with a sign saying "Kyle of Lochalsh". The guard walked quickly past the train, shouting "This is Kyle, all change please, all change". A mass of men in Navy uniforms disgorged from the carriages, talking excitedly amongst themselves. I found it impossible to follow their conversations, as it was in a foreign language. I was absorbed into the mass of sailors that thronged down the platform. A small steamship lay moored there and let off a shrill steam whistle.
I awoke with a jolt as the train whistled upon leaving a tunnel. Trying not to look like I had awoken suddenly, I finished my cup of tea, now nearly gone cold. The restaurant car was still full of the people that had gone there after the train had left Euston. I glanced at my watch, and decided that half past ten was as good a time as any to retire for the night.
It was a dream, but at the same time it was not a dream. Overhead gantries and pylons, signals, line side signs flashed by, illuminated by the unnatural yellow of nearby streetlights. Platforms of increasingly deserted stations whooshed by, the clattering of the train's wheels momentarily amplified. The sounds of passengers shuffling up and down the corridors slowly receded, until all had retired for the night. I had long put out the lights in my compartment, but the unfamiliar sounds and movements prevented me from properly dropping off to sleep for a long time. Slowly, the rhythmical noises of the train morphed...
"I can't, I can't!" Roddy screeched. The thundering noise of the guns went on unabated around them, as the bombardment of the enemy lines reached a crescendo. "Come on, Macdonald, stop buggering about!" the sergeant bellowed. The rest of the platoon stood by, glancing at their comrade who would be in no state to go over the top, as they were. When a shell hit the parapet, Roddy dashed off down the trench, elbowing his way past the men who were in readiness for the assault. Roddy's flight was finally stopped by a captain in the next trench who tackled him to the ground. "You bloody idiot", the officer shouted. But Roddy had completely lost control, and it took several men to contain him. A group of men had followed him from his own section, now standing in the background with something of mute embarrassment. "What was that about, Macdonald", the sergeant began, but Roddy Macdonald was no longer capable of coherent speech. The captain took charge and ordered him to be taken behind the lines. Half a dozen of his comrades marched Roddy to HQ. The frenzied activity there, related to the imminent assault, meant that the case of private Roderick Macdonald was dealt with summarily, for malingering. A few hours later, the sound of a single shot at dawn signalled the end. It was drowned out completely by the roar of the assault on the German lines.
I was wakened momentarily when the train jolted through a set of points, with lights flashing by rapidly as we raced through another station. Darkness followed moments later, and the regular clatter of the wheels resumed, to once more lull me to sleep.
The assault was over, the objective not achieved. The enemy remained entrenched a few hundred yards away. Those that had survived the attack were noted in the roll call that afternoon. The fate of their comrade who had died, but not through an enemy bullet, was discussed among the men. Any attempt to do so in front of NCO or officer would quickly be put down as being bad for morale. Roddy had come from the Hebrides, and in fact, two men from his home village were in the same platoon. “If I come out of this ghastly business alive”, Ewen promised, “I’ll go and see his folks. I mean, they only live two doors away.” The other man made the same promise, but not knowing then that he would not be able to keep it. His name was to end up in the Roll of Honour, with a star. A star meant that he did not survive. “What will we say?” Ewen straightened his back. “We can never say he was shot at dawn for malingering”, he started. His comrades bridled. “He wasn’t malingering, Ewen, for god’s sake”, they retorted. Ewen cut them short. “We all know that he wasn’t malingering, don’t we?” he said sharply. “He just lost it. And those idiots” (he dropped his voice right down at this point) “at HQ lost it as well.” A couple of expletives later, he swallowed heavily and cleared his throat. “I’ll say he was shot after we all went over the top. He was killed in action”. Ewen roughly wiped a tear from his eye. “And he goddamn well was.”
I awoke to silence. The train had stopped, and when I looked under the curtain, it became clear that we had reached Carlisle. The last stop before the Scottish border. A door slammed a bit further down the platform before the conductor signalled to the driver that he was ready for the off. The signal was at green and the train moved off. I pulled down the curtain and resumed my berth. When I put my head down again, a feather was blown upwards and gently spiralled down beside my face. The pillows had obviously seen better days. The sleeper accelerated and the increasingly rapid flashing of passing lights soon ceased as we plunged into the darkness of the Dumfriesshire countryside.
The nurse offered me a glass of water. She had told me I had been there for three weeks. I did not remember anything of those three weeks. I suppose it was a miracle I was still alive, after the torpedoing of the Kenmare in the Irish Sea. Captain Blacklock was lost, as were nearly three dozen of his crew. The U-boat had crept up on us after nightfall, and the torpedo had sunk the boat in pretty short order. I had always felt the Kenmare to be a lucky boat, after she had successfully outrun a U-boat a few months before. But when that torpedo hit, nobody had spotted the bubbles and the explosion had sent a length of metal like a javelin past and through me. When the docs came to see me yesterday, they said I could go back on service after I had fully recuperated. The nurse helped me sit upright. She was a pretty young thing, but obviously used to the wreckage of male humanity and their reactions to her femininity. “Listen, cheeky. There’ll be visitors this afternoon, and I want you on your best behaviour, right?” I managed a smile and she giggled. When the plates for lunch were cleared away, two gentlemen in top hats and a lady in a fur stole walked onto the ward. They stopped at every bed, and if its occupant was capable of conversation, they spoke for a few minutes. The gentlemen and the lady shook hands with every man before they moved on. I was the last one. “So, you were torpedoed? In the Mercantile Marine?” Something wasn’t right in the demeanour of the gent who spoke to me. As if being torpedoed in the Merchant Navy was somehow below his standard. The other man had a sneering aspect to his face. I was glad when they finally took their leave and shook me by the hand. After the lady shook my hand, she turned away with a derisory smile on her face. I opened my hand – and found myself looking at the mark of cowardice. A white feather.
Another stop, this time rather lengthy. Occasional jolts, lots of clanging noises, the carriage being shunted back and forth. Another glance out of the window now showed that the train had arrived at Edinburgh Waverley. The station tannoy rang out, but it was impossible to make out the message. Finally, we went on our way, passing through Haymarket station and through the western suburbs of Edinburgh. It was still pitch dark. I could now clearly hear the roar of the diesel engine; at Waverley, the Sleeper train had been split up into its constituent portions, for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. I sank back into slumbers, now more or less accustomed to the train’s motions as it rattled down the track.
“Father, I never agreed with this war.” But the old man shook his head, vehemently. “Look here. If the King says that we go to war, we go to war! You tried to sign off as a conscientious objector, but that didn’t work.” Aye, at least my father had supported me in that. He had been the one to get me to sign up for the merchant service, so I wouldn’t be in the fighting. That was the idea. Until that torpedo sank the poor old Kenmare. “Go back to sea, son”, he urged me. “You did well, coming back from Patagonia. Look, there is more to be done. I don’t want...” I sighed. There was no arguing with the old man. A week later, I was on another tub, manning the guns to fight the U-boats. Not for long though, as it turned out.
Grey clouds hung over the mountain tops as the train headed north through the Highlands. Occasional drips of drizzle stuck to the window panes, and the wind could be seen bending the grasses along the tracks. The watercourses were full after recent rain. I could feel the chill in the air. An orange glow over the mountains to the east showed that the sun had risen, but the winter’s day would be but short.
“Come with me”, the carter said. “You don’t want to go around in your uniform like that. You’ll stand out like a sore thumb”. Finlay was amazed that the man spoke English, but the riddle was soon resolved when it turned out that he had been sailor, but an injury sustained aboard ship meant he could no longer go to sea. “Here is a tarpaulin, cover yourself until we’re at my house”. The tarp smelled horrible, as if it had recently covered a carcass of some description. Fortunately, the journey did not take long, and Finlay soon found himself in a farmhouse. A meal of bread, cheese and warm milk was put in front of him. “You have to excuse the sparseness of our meal”, the carter apologised. “But shortages are terrible in this war, and we’re not even fighting it. So, you came out of that camp in Groningen?” Finlay nodded. “I was given an evening pass to go to the pictures,” he explained, “and I decided not to go back. I hid somewhere through the night, and well, here I am. Can you get me to Flushing”. The carter threw his head back and laughed. “You know how far Flushing is? It’s right the other end of the country.” The man stopped laughing. “Sorry, didn’t mean to ridicule you. I’ll pull a few strings, and we’ll get you out, safe and sound”.
Inverness was grey, wet and busy. After the emptiness of the Highlands, the bustle of its streets came as a culture shock. Cars, people, traffic lights, shops, cafes – I really had to take a double take. In a way, it was as well I only needed to spend a couple of hours there before my onward journey. Mind you, it was nothing in comparison to the metropolitan swirls of people that I had left behind in London. I put my bags into the left luggage department at the bus station, then dashed across the road to spend a couple of hours in the library.
It almost felt like a wasted effort. Going through all that bother to sneak out of Holland, only to be told on arrival at Harwich that an armistice had been called. It had been a laugh, though, dressed up as a farmer, ostensibly a deaf and dumb one – I didn’t speak a word of Dutch, and anyone speaking English at a time of war where England was involved would naturally be suspicious. Celebrations were taking off wherever I looked, but I did feel rather a fraud. The camp in Groningen had not been a picnic, but all the other chaps had actually seen action. Yes, I’d been at Antwerp in October 1914, which was a nasty piece of work. Whenever I spoke to anyone, they had a tale of one of their relatives who had been lost in the trenches, in the desert or through the U-boats. I could see the guys in the streets, missing limbs, or blind through gassing. And here I was. I had done nothing. Been through nothing. Absolutely nothing. Shameful. I made a decision, there and then. I would never speak of my involvement in the war again.
The ferry rode the waves as it headed west northwest through the pitch blackness of the December night. Every now and again, it slammed down through the waves, accompanied by the sound of more crockery breaking in the galley. Glancing out of the windows, I could just espy the double blink of the Tiumpan Head lighthouse on the starboard side. There were not many passengers heading for the island that night. The curtains were drawn in the forward observation lounge, so I went up on deck to monitor progress. The lights of the houses in Point slowly moved by as the ferry approached Stornoway. The swell abated a little as land drew nearer. On the port side of the vessel, the lighthouse at Arnish showed its red sector.
The shock was almost palpable. How many were on the Iolaire? How many on the Sheila? Who had been on the Iolaire, and who on the Sheila? Rumours buzzed around in electrified atmosphere of uncertainty, dread and grief. I had been on the quayside when the Sheila docked, with my friends speaking of a shipwreck on the Beasts of Holm. But now, in the light of the New Year’s morning, a scene of horror revealed itself. From the Battery eastward, along Sandwick Bay, Lower Sandwick, Holm and east to Aignish, the dead of the Iolaire were strewn on the shoreline. The quiet of the morning was a mockery of the gale of the night before. As I went along to my folks’ place, I could see them all at work, retrieving the bodies of those lost from the grasp of the sea.
It was a beautiful morning, although the first footing of the night before had left me slightly dazed. Not a breath of wind, and the sun was beating down. A large group of people had gathered at the Iolaire Memorial, close to the place where the Iolaire had foundered in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919. At the gate leading from the small carpark, I was pleased to note that one special person was there. Her absence would have taken some of the shine off the occasion. More people streamed out of a coach that had taken them from town and followed us down the path. “My great grandfather went on the Sheila”, she commented. “Initially, he had gone on the Iolaire when she docked, but he changed his mind. Lucky decision.” I nodded. “One of my great uncles was lost. A conscientious objector, he had joined the merchant service. He was torpedoed in the Irish Sea, but he was given the white feather in hospital.” Her face dropped. “That was so unfair!” she exclaimed. “It was a dreadful thing to do, particularly to a man injured in the line of duty.” I could only agree. “Mind you, my mother’s grandfather never spoke of his experiences in the internment camp in the Netherlands. He came back on the Sheila after being released from Holland, and felt undescribably guilty that he had survived where all his contemporaries had not”. The graver crunched under our feet as we proceeded down the hill, momentarily silent. “The worst story was that of my dad’s great uncle”, I presently resumed. “Shot at dawn for cowardice – whereas he was just plain petrified and scared out of his wits.” We had reached the small memorial and the cairn of stones to its side.
Half an hour later, the service of commemoration had come to a conclusion. Wreaths were cast in the water and a moment’s silence observed. I was one of the last to leave the memorial. As the other people walked away, back up the hill to their vehicles, I stood hand in hand with my beloved. Presently, we turned away from the sight of the spike on the Beasts of Holm. I looked her straight in the eye, took her hands in mine and asked: Will you marry me. Yes, she said.