By Ryan Fleming
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 27th contest was Escape.
The building looked the same as it always had, the street looked the same too. As soon as Derek rounded the corner he had to stop and contemplate the street and its buildings, just because of how much they were the same when he had last seen them. That had been eleven months prior – a long time for a man to have not seen his home and family. It felt even longer, the first month spent waging a war and then the next eight captured and imprisoned. Yet Glebe Street looked the same as it ever did, you would not have known the difference between the day Derek had last left his family and the day of his return. Derek wondered if the people here were as unchanged as the street.
He had not written to Fay to let him know when he would arrive, he was still very much a prisoner until he disembarked at Leith. He had not tried to get a message through even once he was able to though, he had no idea what he would say. He still had no idea how he felt about coming home; home to a country that had surrendered and stabbed its friends in the back while he rotted in a German prison or worked in their factories.
All he could do was keep reminding himself his wife was not the one that made the decision. That thought was what steeled him, but it did not stop him taking his time getting from Edinburgh over to Airdrie. He had walked most of it across a day and a night, kipping in a field when he needed to sleep. He could have taken the train, the people waiting for the released prisoners were most generous. First there were the men in morning dress, but they did not give Derek a second glance when they saw no brass on his shoulders. Then came the men in green shirts and tartan trousers. They gave him rail fare and a pamphlet extolling what the Scottish Defence Force could do for a newly freed soldier.
He had pocketed the coins; the paper came in useful the next morning.
The truth of it was Derek had wanted some jumped up Fascist to find him out walking in his uniform. He wanted to be asked what he was doing and smack the little bastard in his face, seeing on it the face of every German guard he had met since Le Havre. He did not even care if he wound up dead in a ditch, but he had been called Jock Traitor enough times to prove it wrong even if he died doing it and none of those doubters would ever know.
Half-baked thoughts came to try it at soon as he stepped off the boat, the only thing that kept him from it was the idea of his wife and son awaiting his return. It was not their decision, he reminded himself one last time before he opened the building door. He held his breath as he surveyed the close, it too was the same as it had ever been.
It was still early, the milk still stood outside Mrs. MacCormack’s door across the way. There was no milk outside their flat. Fay must have already been up. That thought was all that it took for his feelings to lift for the first time since he had lain down his rifle. He crossed the close and paused briefly outside their door to take a deep breath. He gave a smile at the small brass plate with Kennedy embossed on it, an attempt at a touch of glass gifted by her mother and opened the door.
Fay was stirring a cup of tea when she looked up to see who had just come through her door this early in the morning. If she had been raising the mug to her lips, she might have dropped it from the way leapt from her seat. She stood, one hand resting on the table keeping her upright as she surveyed Derek to make sure he was not a phantom.
Neither of them said anything, she seemed to be as confused as he was.
One of them would have had to break the silence.
“Hae we ony bacon?” Derek asked, the first thing that came to mind.
Fay broke out in a smile, whether because the sound of his voice proved his existence or his lack of tact in inquiring after cured meat upon being reunited with his wife reminded her why she put up with him.
She swiftly covered the six feet from the kitchen table to the door in the sitting room. Derek softly closed the door behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up which told him Mrs. MacCormack was probably peeping through the letter box to see who was visiting Fay Kennedy at this time of the morning.
Still without saying a word she wrapped her arms around Derek. He dropped the small sack in which he carried the few personal effects taken with him on the round trip. The strength went from his legs, the last time he had felt like this was she had hugged him goodbye nearly a year prior. It took a moment, but he reciprocated wrapping his arms around her.
“A’ve misst ye.” She finally said.
“Aye, me tae.”
She loosened and stepped back, they regarded each other again lost for words.
“A heap haes happent.” Fay said.
She was not asking him to recount his own experiences, nor offering to relay her own, or even trying to trigger a discussion. It was just something they both had to get out of the way.
“Aye.” Derek replied.
With that done, Fay set about making him a cup of tea. Neither of them could really talk until they were both sat down with one each. Whilst she did that Derek sought out his only other reason for coming home. At the front of the flat, past the couch and chair and was their bed and chest of drawers. In one of those drawers, still asleep, was their son Baby John.
Derek picked up his sack and set it on the table, he then crossed the length of the flat and regarded their sleeping wee boy. He was hardly a baby anymore at seventeen months, Derek could scarcely believe how much he had grown during his incarceration. That brought the realisation of the length of time he was away crashing back down on him, as well as the reasons it ended.
He quickly averted his eyes, not wanting to think of such things whilst looking at his son. Fay was just setting down a mug for him; it was time for him to join her and for them to talk things out.
“A lot been on.” Derek said as he took a seat, reiterating what Fay had summarised earlier.
“Aye.” She replied.
They both sat drinking tea, neither wanted to make the first move in conversation.
“A’m gled ye’re back, Derek.”
He looked up and into her eyes, he had no reason to believe she would not be glad, but to hear it said put him at ease.
He nodded but could not bring himself to say he was glad to be back.
“Hou’v ye been getting’ on?” he asked her. Seemed the most innocuous way to begin.
“As best A can,” she began. “Thare a freeze on bluidy awthing. Can get milk but onything else is aither on raition or thare’s nane tae be haed. Been a wee bit better sin A stairtit wirkin at the chipper.”
“Whit?” Derek exclaimed. “Ye’re wirkin in the chipper as weel nou?”
“Aye.” She said, folding her arms. Would this be the first argument? “Nae money comin in wi ye in Germany.”
“The War Office…” he began, before realising the situation would have precluded his wage packet being sent to Fay. Did the War Office even still exist?
“Aye.” Fay said simply.
“The ane in the hie street.”
“It’s Shug MacBride that’s gat it nou.”
“Whit happened tae Lemetti?”
Here Fay paused before answering. “The faimily went back tae Italy.”
“It wis Mussolini’s idea. Italians in Italy. It’s na juist thaim tho. The Doyles frae doun the street are awa tae Ireland and aw.”
“Thay’re baith born here A thocht?”
“Aye, thay war.”
She let that sink in, Derek thought of pressing further but his wife is likely as much in the dark with what those traitors in Edinburgh were doing as he.
“Hou are ye?” she asked, turning the conversation from what had been going on at home to what he had been through over there.
Derek wrapped both hands around his mug, he did not know the best way to answer or even what was his honest answer.
“A… daena ken.” He said simply.
Fay looked taken aback, she must have expected him to be glad he was home.
“Naw A’m happy tae see ye and the wean.” He quickly clarified. “Wi aw ither thing tho…”
He looked down at his mug, the tea hardly drunk, as Fay continued to regard him warily.
“Why dae ye nae try tae get some sleep?”
Derek was just glad of an opportunity to end the conversation, he nodded and walked over to the bed, where he finally kicked his boots off. Whatever else, he was home again.
Fay knew Derek was not sleeping, yet he lay on the bed facing away from her. Any chance of him getting a nap that morning was dashed when young John rose and began crying at the sight of this strange man in his mother’s bed. Derek just stared as Fay lifted the child and comforted him. She thought Derek looked utterly crestfallen.
Maybe that was why he now lay in bed pretending to be asleep. What little elation he had home, or at least with his family, gone that his own son apparently saw him as a stranger. John was calm now; he was sat on the rug playing with his picture blocks. He would get used to Derek soon enough, he may have not recognised him but after all John was not even six months old when Derek had last gone away. He had not said it, but she would have bet John looked even more unrecognisable than Derek.
He was lucky he had come back at all; she knew there were plenty of men that had not. Aside from those that were killed she knew they were still trying to negotiate the release of privates from the Germans, and they were lucky to get any non-commissioned officers out. She had never been gladder for that lance corporal stripe on his sleeve.
Hopefully Derek would find work soon enough, the British Army had kept them fed and clothed while half the town was unemployed. Now so many men were gone, either prisoners or killed either side of the English Channel. She would say to Shug tonight when she saw him if he knew of anything open, with Irish and Italian men as well now supposedly moving away hopefully that might mean more. It was a ghoulish thought, but she had to think about her own wee family; it was not as though the likes of the Doyles or Lemetti’s were being sent to a hostile foreign power, they were being sent to governments that wanted them.
It was not the same as what was happening to the Jews, if the rumours she had heard coming out of both Glasgow and Edinburgh were true.
It was nearly time for the noon news. Fay wondered if she should listen to it as she would normally. It might disturb Derek from his fake slumber or worse trigger him to lose his temper if he listened to the official version of events vetted by Holyroodhouse.
Her decision was made for her in a way when the door was opened for the second time that morning.
“Good morning.” Called Mrs. MacCormack as she made her way in.
“Guid mornin, Evelyn.” Fay replied, stubbing out her cigarette.
“Fay, I’m heading down the shops was wondering if you wanted to join me?”
“Na, A’m awricht thanks.”
“Oh, very well. How are you, anyway?”
Fay could tell right away she was fishing for some gossip, perhaps she had heard someone come into the building this morning and had spotted Derek when she no doubt began peeping through the letterbox.
Maybe she was wondering who a married woman could be entertaining from that early for most of the morning. Well, Fay was happy to tell her it was her husband.
She did not get the chance, he let his presence be known himself.
“Mornin, Mrs. MacCormack.” Derek called, now sitting on the bed.
Whoever Mrs. MacCormack was expecting to see on Mrs. Kennedy’s bed it was clearly not Mr. Kennedy. The colour faded from her face and the usually loquacious tenement gossip was at a loss for words. Fay was sure she had told her Derek was amongst those being released.
“Derek, why…” Mrs. MacCormack began. “Such a surprise, glad you’re home!”
She had began opening the door already, trying to make a quick exit for some reason.
“We’ll speak soon, Fay. Usual time tonight for the wee man I suppose.”
Fay tried to speak, it had completely left her mind that she would not be needing Evelyn to watch John not that Derek was back, but before she could say the same their neighbour was out the door.
“First time A’v iver kent her tae want oot o a claiver quicker than me.” Derek said, grinning for the first time since he had come home.
“That’s a gey queer thing.” Fay said, more contemplative than Derek.
“A’m no compleenin.”
Derek had risen and crossed the room to Fay as he spoke. John watched the tall figure moved across the room with interest, but he did not cry out again. Derek took a pack of cigarettes from his sack and lit one, throwing the rest of the packet on the table.
“Wunner why she wis so scunnert at seein me.”
“Her ain boy is still ower there.” Fay offered. “Less she believes whit fowk are sayin.”
Derek paused midway through exhaling.
“Whit are fowk sayin?”
Fay realised too late her mistake, Derek would not like the rumours going around.
“Nocht, it’s hee-haw.” She tried to cover.
“Naw, whit are fowk sayin?”
Fay took a deep breath.
“Fowk are sayin that sin the toffs gat aw the officers oot cause thay’re aw faimily ony ither body comin back haes gree’d tae collaborate.”
Derek stood up from the table, his face was turning an ugly red already.
“Yon fuckers oot thare say that aboot me!” he roared.
John had begun crying again at the sound of the raised voice.
“No ye, just bletherers.” Fay tried to calm him as she went to pick up John.
“Aw them oot thare are the fuckin collaborators! Bungin awthing awa tae clim in wi the fuckin Nazis!”
“Dae ye think onybody here haed ony say?” She fired back at him. “A thocht ye were deid for months! BEF dicht oot at Dunkirk the government said…”
“A was at Le Havre…”
“That’s no the point! Syne they laundit in England. Ryal faimily deid! Government flewn wi maist o the airmy! Lunnon a butch-hoose!”
Derek stared at her.
“Syne ane day yon Duke o Hamilton tells us it’s aw ower. Scotland and Germany are at Peace. A dinna need tae wirry aboot the Hun killin John and deforcin me!”
Derek sat down and took another draw on his cigarette. He then stubbed it out and began rubbing his hands over his face and through his hair. The thought of what would have happened to them if they had kept at the War was enough to calm him down.
There was a lot of time to think now that Fay had gone to work. They had barely said anything as they ate a little bit of bread and cheese together. She had told him he would have to get a ration book first thing in the morning because what she had was barely enough for her and the baby. She also promised something from the chipper for a late tea when she got back from work. If Derek were honest fish and chips would be the highlight of the 1940s so far for him.
Baby John seemed accustomed to him now too, though he wondered how much of that was realising who he was and how much of it was he had been in the flat all day so to the toddler he was now a fixture of the place.
He would need to find work soon too, the last thing he wanted was to wind up in whatever army this illegal state was setting up. Or worse yet in those green-shirted idiots that had greeted him off the boat.
At six o’clock he had done the thing he was most worried about that evening. He turned on the wireless to listen to the news.
The sound of bagpipes had heralded the voice of one Norman Baillie-Stewart who informed Scots of the approved version of recent events. Prime Minister Ramsay and his Grace the Duke of Hamilton were on hand to greet Stellvertreter des Führers Hess in his visit to Scotland. People were assured the remaining resistance in the north of England and Wales was ready to crumble and peace returned to the whole of the British Isles. And Scots should be ready to welcome their cousins across the North Channel as the population exchanges between Scotland and Ireland were ready to begin in earnest.
Derek had to turn it off. A lot of things were the same – the street, the close, the flat – but this was not the country he had left behind. Literally, he had left Scotland behind a free, democratic country part of a United Kingdom. He had returned to just another puppet state of Nazi Germany, hoping if it behaves really, really well the crocodile might eat them last.
Did it really come down to two choices? His family or his country? Protect one and dishonour the other. Defend the other and put the one at risk.
How could he even defend it? He was just one man. Any organised resistance could not exactly recruit with a piece of card in the post office window. He would keep his ear to the ground, find work and protect his family, but always be ready. All things must come to pass, and when it was the turn of Fascism and collaboration in Scotland to pass he would be ready.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP