The Longest Night: extract.
‘That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organization were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organization, while those who suffer from it – and they are ten times as numerous – think and say quite contrary.”
- Leo Tolstoy.
The Longest Night, Part One
Garvald, East Lothian, 23rd April 1891.
“Wake up, Pete! Wake up!” whispered Jim, “It’s a glow rious morning and I’m so excited, I cannae sleep!”
Glorious yellow light was indeed shining straight through torn curtains of the smallest bedroom of a labourers’ cottage, one of three pretty red, stone and slate buildings belonging to Lord Arthur Balfour’s Whittingame estate, which were occupied by the family of his grieve, Angus Macdonald. It began shining directly onto four year old Jim’s face at five forty am, when it rose and despite regular cautions from Peter that, ‘Ma needs lots of rest for the bairn in her tummy’ and that, ‘If ye wake Phemie, there’ll be hell to pay!’ he could no longer contain himself.
“Come on man! It’s yer birthday and I’ve got a present for ye!” hissed Jim’s moist breath in Peter’s left ear. Jim just knew Peter was awake. How could he not be, on this day of all days? It was part of their routine to play this game in any event.
Peter always came to bed late and would read silently at the door, by candle light oozing from the bedroom occupied by his three elder brothers. Then he would sleep in, long after the others had risen. It was Jim’s most pleasurable duty to wake Peter in the morning. Peter was brilliant. He was funny and in . . . in . . . ‘inpe-dend-ant.’ Jim imagined he could trace the lines of a smile on Peter’s face.
“I have a p r e s e n t for you!” he whispered again, right on the auricle of his brother’s left ear.” No response.
Jim poked his pinkie into Peter’s left ear, to make sure it was not blocked with a dried pea. Pee shooters were all the rage and even when Ma took them away at bedtime, their favourite game was cowboys and Indians from across the room, using fingers for pistols, pillows and blankets for ducking under cover.
“Tae be sure, tae be sure, tae be sure whether he’s sleepin’ or no’ – I’ll open his eye,” whispered Jim purposefully, now carefully peeling back Peter’s left eyelid with his forefinger.
Sounds of a rhythmic creaking of bedsprings from his parent’s bedroom suggested to Jim that his father was about to set off on his rounds - of the twenty five farms he managed for the absentee Chief Secretary for Ireland.
Sounds of restrained laughter from John’s bedroom, shared with Angus and Willie, told Jim that the bright morning was calling the rest of the family onto the floor.
“Oh well, maybe that eye is no’ workin’,” whispered Jim, business-like as he released Peter’s left eyelid, “so I’ll try the other.”
Peter feigned rigor mortis, which Jim knew only too well could lead to a zombie attack and hasty retreat back to his own side of the room. For now he reached across to Peter’s right eye, “Tae be sure, tae be sure, tae be sure whether he’s sleepin’ or no’ . . . I’ll open his eyes.”
“Gaaarh!” yelled the zombie, opening both eyes as arms of stone became rigid under the coarse woollen blanket. Curiously, Peter’s cry of reinvigoration seemed to anticipate and be echoed by one emanating from their Pa in the adjacent bedroom.
For now, Peter was still deep in hypnotic trance and hell bent on strangulation, “Me-di-ta-tion,” he intoned, picking up a hardback edition of Last of the Mohicans and stiking himself over the forehead with it, “Me-di-ta-tion . . . Me-di-ta-tion . . . Me-di-ta-tion . . .”
Jim sqeaked in mock terror with an innocent’s excitement and beat it back, off his brother’s bed to head across the room toward safety behind the rocks of his arroyo.
On the way, he stepped on the lip of a cracked and rimed chamber pot, which Peter had not pushed fully under his bed after last use, tipping most of its reeking contents onto the rug. Distracted but still in a hurry, Jim caught the little toe of his left foot on the castored leg of their dressing table. Hopping up and down in agony as he laughed hysterically, Jim piqued as Peter rose like an Egyptian mummy emerging from his sarcophagus. Feigning senselessness, Peter lifted his arms, plodding towards the wardrobe that stood between the ends of their beds.
Seizing the advantage of a couple of seconds that Peter always allowed him, Jim dived onto his own bed and plunged fully under the covers, laughing fit to bust, as the mummy probed for him where the bumps were.
Chapter One ‘. . . for Flanders?’
Portobello, Edinburgh, October 1914.
Jeannie Corse glanced at the watch her fiancé, Jim had given her on her twenty-first birthday as her fingers tingled with excitement.
Five to ten. I will die of a heart attack if this doesn’t go to plan. Especially if Sheila spots my puffy eyes and the bulge. She has the second sight!
Reaching up to the cupboard for Jamaican coffee, ground at the end of last week’s meeting she ladled four large measures into a copper, Stella Brevatta percolator and deftly lit the wick. Glancing over her shoulder to confirm that the boss, Mr Walford was still poring over his mail – specifically, the letter from Johannesburg which had put Jeannie in such a sweat – she scattered caramel wafer biscuits onto a plate and grabbing her handbag, headed for the smallest room.
Trembling profusely and praying for forgiveness for morbid thoughts that had plagued her solitude over recent weeks, Jeannie poked out her tongue. It was thick and white from too much peppermint anti-emetic.
Shit . . . I look awful! If I can’t smile and act natural, they will both know that I read the letter! And guess why I am so miserable.
Holding her breath and vigorously slapping her cheeks to generate colour under a peaches and cream complexion that most women would envy and any man admire, she studied the mirror in perplexity.
This sodding war has already put me down to working three days a week! When they find out I’m carrying Jim’s child, they will write us both off.
Jeannie ran the cold tap for a few seconds, to make sure the water had not been warmed indirectly by central heating in the offices. Pinning back her hair she took another deep breath and plunged her face into the full basin, groaning in exasperation as she did so.
Hearing Mrs Walford’s honeyed and humourous tone as she bantered with junior architects in the conference room, she dried herself briskly, brushed her flaxen hair and liberally plastered lavender water under her arms.
Back in the converted ground floor drawing room that served as an integrated and showy rest-room for the burgeoning team of civil and ecclesiastical architects, Jeannie quickly found her voice, “Coffee or tea, Sheila?”
“Oh, you know me, Jeannie . . . if there’s something exotic that men have risked life and limb to import, I’ll ask for a second cup.”
“So, tea or coffee, Sheila?” demanded Murdo Finlayson, glancing over his early edition of the London Times, “Or did you imagine that either tea or coffee might actually be grown here in the United Kingdom?”
Laughter from the Norwegian trainee, Josephine Kalland and a sidelong scowl from Walford’s trouble-shooter, John Bell showed that they were both awake, just. Bending and snapping fingers that a concert pianist might have envied, James Walford was still studying his letter from South Africa and ignored or was oblivious to the banter.
“Oh! You are right, Murdo. I take my Indian Prince Breakfast tea from the Co-op for granted.”
“But not the sailors who ply the southern oceans, running the gauntlet home to Liverpool or Leith?”
“Sorry, dear. I should give more attention to this awful war. If I wasn’t so tied up phoning bishops and town councillors to pay their two year old bills, I would read the bloody Times every day from cover to cover. Like you do Murdo.”
“Don’t worry, Sheila I never have time to finish the crossword.”
“You lack the imagination, Murdo . . . not the time.”
“I can mix it,” offered Jeannie disingenuously, pausing just long enough for Mr Bell to bullishly snort out in laughter at her cheek, “Or make you a cup of each?” Bright laughter ran around the interior of the stone-mullion shadowed, sunshine filled room. Even Mr Walford lifted his face, to part lips and let out a puff of amusement.
Welcoming goodness and harmony in every situation, young Josephine glowed with the combined assurance of a five pointed and humanistic faith, which advocated every imaginable kind of inclusion -short of academic recognition for women.
“Jo?” asked Jeannie, intentionally subverting the social order by asking the junior associate before the boys.
“Oh, ja . . . that would be so good. Can I help?”
“Sure, you can all help!” said Jeannie, mockingly raising her voice, “By washing your favourite cups and mugs when you’ve finished – and not just leaving them in the sink for the Fairy Godmother.”
Murdo bounced his enormous pin-striped leg over a bony left knee, as if he’d been struck by an emergency doctor checking for pendular reflexes, “Hmm,” he grumbled, “That’s never going to happen. Not in my life time,” he added, snapping the newspaper back into attention with a flick of his accomplished right hand.
“Shouldn’t be that long then, Jo,” said Jeannie, sotto voce and the girl offered a conspiratorial smile.
“Mr Bell?” piped Jeannie, with token respect and a warm smile for the other subversive party on the team, “Tea or coffee?”
“Oh, coffee I think, dear - given that it’s cold enough out there to freeze the balls off a brass monkey,” mumurred the fieldman, winking at Jeannie as he pulled the top inch or so of his silver hip-flask out of the inside pocket of his Harris tweed jacket.
“Okay, shall we assemble around the table?” asked Sheila, not inviting reservation. She glanced at Murdo as if to say, ‘And put that bloody English, Tory rag away.’
“Get through the outstanding agenda quickly please. Five minutes, no more on each item and questions at the end. James has something we all need to discuss, which concerns the viability and future of our firm. We have a problem, the answer to which may be extremely unusual -given our current state of war.”
Murdo, six four and gangly with a fine grey beard, at first glance possibly a twin of James Walford, was in fact much more intense. In character as congenial as a summer Sunday afternoon, the natural look of sky-blue eyes under sharp brows of his large, rapt face was as deceptive as that of a bedouin’s favourite falcon. The disparaging look on Murdo’s face struck Jeannie as extremely comical, as he muttered contemptuously at the enormous figure of watery-eyed Sheila, towering over the polished elm conference table six feet away, “So, the rumours are true then,” ventured the senior partner, with terse irony, “The Board of Agriculture have thrown their weight behind a Women’s Land Army. You are leaving us at last, Sheila - to convert Duddingston Golf Club into Dunnymuck Farm?” Again, John Bell hooted with laughter as he rose to clamber around James’s outstretched legs to the far corner of the room.
“I hope to do precisely that, Murdo Finlayson. It has always been a strong ambition of mine and may well be the only good thing to come out of this war – but that particular plan will not be up for discussion here at Walford’s. Now, or in the future. Take a tip and sell your gear while you still can.”
“I can get three sets of golf clubs in the boot of my Humber,” stated Bell, leaving the girls to do the arithmetic.
This time the owner and senior practitioner, Walford, the other half of the optical illusion, with his Buddha smile hiding a will of iron - joined in the fun, “I have an estimate to do, for timber work at St John’s on Litton Place. We could combine our petrol allowance and take in a round of eighteen holes on the way back. If Sheila is correct, it might be our last chance.” Now Sheila laughed along with them.
“Aye, it looks like it will warm up nicely this afternoon,” observed John.
“And you can sleep in the stable with Jennifer’s roan foal. She’s too young for the sharp weather and gets fresh straw every day. I’m sure you will appreciate such luxury after your exertions.”
“My Papa regularly sleeps with the horses,” offered Josephine, drawing a bemused guffaw from Walford, “Usually when he comes home from the market in Bergen, after selling his smoked salmon.”
“Smoked salmon . . .” crooned John with narrowed eyes, “Ooh, I love it! They have wonderful smoked salmon at the golf club. Come with us, Jo.”
“Yes, you come with us too, Sheila,” Walford suggested with childish appeal, to more relaxed laughter, “Then we can all sleep with the horses.”
Jeannie came with the tray and deftly distributed the drinks and biscuits. Rubbing a chocolate smeared finger on the tight contour of her dainty rump, she grabbed her note pad and sat at the kitchen end of the room. Sheila studied her secretary and general factotum over mannish, horn-rimmed half spectacles. Noticing, not for the first time, the ovoid curve of Jeannie’s soft abdomen she made a mental note to ask when the baby was due and if she could help in any way. Sighing intemperately for the uncivilised turn of events that had made the world so desperately busy recently, she called the meeting to attention.
“I would welcome your brief comments in respect to work in progress please, and in particular,” she demanded, slowing for emphasis and peering over varifocals permanently attached to her voluminous neck with a finely crafted Italian gold chain, “Any outstanding invoices. If you are unsure how many hours to charge our virtuous patrons - come to me for a discreet perspective on how much wine the gourd can carry without bursting.”
“Not sure if that figure of speech works entirely, Sheila - but it’s far too early in the day to explain why not,” objected Murdo.
“Works for me, old boy,” John remarked, emblematically raising his heavily laced Irish coffee with a smirk that needed no explanation.
“Well, put another way,” interjected Walford, “If you want to get paid at the end of the month, don’t over charge our righteous patrons.”
“Because there will be no regular business otherwise,” added Sheila pointedly, “Unless the Zeppelins find us.”
“But do overcharge the secular and ungodly,” stated Murdo, glancing across at Josephine to offer a paternal smile.
“Unfortunately, for the time being at least, elected representatives of the secular and ungodly are actually awaiting that first Zeppelin raid, Josephine,” explained John with a permitted glance that took in more than just the young lady’s pretty face.
Sheila noticed - and the penny dropped as to why the surveyor had taken to showing visitors around the converted greenhouse that served as a workshop for the manufacture of stained glass. She giggled wantonly at Bell’s forlorn eagerness but none of them had any idea what she was laughing at. Sheila was always laughing. The greenhouse was where Miss Kalland spent most of her time, constructing unconventional, numinous scenes timidly accepted by their radicalised clientele . . . that or craftsman quality furniture made from ash or birch, which in Sheila’s estimation would not have been out of place in the ape-house at Edinburgh Zoo.
Walford sat in silence, long fingers spread wide across his leathered, handsome face as each of the hard working designers gave account of their activities.
Josephine spoke brightly of abstruse, universal themes for input into Sheila’s burgeoning stained glass window studio – the place where clergy and masonic wardens unused to either change or rapid movement were falling over themselves to make suggestions and add their names to the prestige client-list.
Sheila soaked it up with relish, knowing that this religious high art supplemented the touchstone of her husband’s reputation and success. Craftsmanship, coupled with originality, would most likely ensure work nationally when the war ended and petrol rationing was lifted. Thanks to Josephine, Walford’s wouldn’t simply have a head start on the opposition – they’d be the only game in town.
“I invited George to give a talk,” she began, but paused with embarrassment, flushing self-consciously at her lack of urbane English. Although Josephine was half his age, this signal of vulnerability was almost too much for Bell, who had not been in a relationship for six months.
Sheila took over, with warm humour in her matronly voice, “If I may,” she crooned, tilting her forehead benignly at Miss Kalland, “Josephine has asked Bishop Walpole to attend an evening practicum, to which I have invited all the local clergy.”
“Episcopalian?” prompted Finlayson.
“Episcopalian, Murdo. Church of Scotland. Roman Catholic. Baptist. Methodist,” Smiles lit every face as Sheila looked sideways along the table to Jeannie, for confirmation of the mailing list.
“Thank you. Reformed Presbyterian.”
“Free Presbyterian. United Free.”
“And their Jewish and Muslim friends?” asked Murdo, momentarily lowering brows twisted into owl points above his flashing, sky-blue eyes with all the understated charm of an end of term quiz-master.
Laughter, restrained until now out of respect to Sheila, hit the well maintained rafters. Relieved that attention had not dwelt on her too long, Jeannie joined in. Religion, for centuries the cause of hatred and division in Scotland, had under the gentle tutelage of George Henry Somerset Walpole become the accommodating source of collective parody.
Eager to move on, Walford braced his rocking belly with a lage white hand and smilingly took over from Sheila, “John?”
“Same stuff, James, different day. As you know we have a work gang at the new prison site on Stenhouse Road. ‘Nothing fancy like Calton Gaol,’ was the brief, but they secretly mean, ‘Do us proud, Mr Bell. Our extraordinary criminal elite deserve appreciation. Like everything else in this fine capital city.” More laughter followed, indelicate but restrained, as the elders knew that John was hard to stop when he was on a roll.
“Looking further afield, the Royal Navy at Rosyth appears to have unlimited funds. As touched on already, they think the zeppelins are due a visit - but unlike the city fathers, can’t afford to sit back and let them do their worst. That said, the tight sods imagine that reinforced concrete comes at fourpence a ton.”
“Anything else?” asked Walford with consternation, as it appeared Bell was holding back. He was their key man on the ground. Not the cultured aesthete perhaps but a popular taskmaster who got the work done and dusted. As such, John was Walford’s live wire. The conduit for gossip and potent signal strength for estimates that made the gifted opposition – with their fancy offices in the City – irrelevant.
“The munitions factory at Craigleith is spreading” he growled dispiritedly, “But they are digging down rather than building up. They plan to use the old quarry,” he added by way of explanation.
“Thus requiring advice on drainage and the likely spread of fire? Intumescent materials and so forth?” asked James, hopefully.
“Well, yes I suppose so, but we will be lucky to get scraps from Lothian Chemical.”
“And the nearby station?”
“Caledonian-Leith Railway want an underground section for ambulance trains to arrive at Craigleith Hospital without shocking the general public - but the lighting is unsuitable, James. Frankly, it’s a waste of money.”
Walford sighed heavily, “Not your concern, young man. Tell them whatever they want to hear. Murdo?”
Sheila sat back in her chair with a sigh of resignation as tension built in her estimable companion. To outsiders it was imperceptibly nuanced in the tightening of his voice and the fading of his smile, but to Sheila it was the tap of the glass and a rapidly falling barometer.
For his part, Finlayson gave the impression that he ought not to be called to account and rolled his leonine head impetuously, as if this was a game that was no longer fun.
“Oh, renovations of the old Boroughmuir School are finished. The bill has been sent to Gillespie’s.”
“Is that it? Nothing at the Academy or the Women’s College?”
Murdo sat unmoving, like an elder statesman posing until the magnesium strip had flared.
“What about all the school conversions for the Army?” demanded Sheila, “Surely, accommodating a hundred thousand men is not the same as meeting the needs of the city’s schoolchildren?”
“No, you are right . . . it means the queue for the lavatory is longer,” said Finlayson disparagingly.
Gazing at his old university room mate in dismay, Walford pinched dry skin on his forehead and wished, not for the first time that there was some glimmer of hope other than the letter on the table in front of him. Murdo smiled manically as he lifted both enormous hands - fingers spread in a strained gesture, which The Scotsman would have turned into a two thousand word chronicle divining economic doom.
“Anything else?” Sheila asked optimistically.
“Yes, there’s going to be a shortage of German toys in the shops this Christmas,” Murdo threw in cryptically, “But Jenners have luxury furs, from just under twenty quid.”
“Good to know the black market is thriving, Murdo,” John remarked with a smirk, “You’ll look menacing in a bear skin - though I’d caution against site visits in a badly cured fur. The stray dogs will follow you home.”
“Okay, well if there’s nothing else,” Walford interjected tersely, “I would like to move on. Needless to say, we thrive on our reputation – and that means being organised. We have unpaid bills from as far back as nineteen-eleven. Jeannie is working through the list - but if she comes to ask for your help, make the effort to hand deliver a copy.”
“And at the same time do an impromptu evaluation of what’s falling around the minister’s ears!” put in Murdo, still itching under the collar from Bell’s affront concerning the fur coat but keen to sound breezy.
“Hmm - but not before accepting the cup of tea offered,” stressed Walford, “and rigorously inspecting any work done previously. Such procedure is an integral part of our professional approach. We get to know our clients, so they never think of going to someone else.” Josephine laughed airily and everyone gazed at her.
“You Scots are so like Norwegians . . .” She shook her head mildly, with open mouth, “Mennesker, people at home!” she explained, “That’s a compliment – but like us, you take yourselves much too seriously!”
“My point entirely, Josephine,” said Walford, “Which is why patting the dog and eating a biscuit with the cup of tea is so important. Speaking of which – do the honours would you, Jeannie?”
Bursting with nervous excitement, so much as to rattle Mr Walford’s empty cup on its saucer as she shimmied like a ragtime dancer, Jeannie headed for the percolator.
“Sorry! Who else?” she asked, colouring with embarrassment that made her look like a naughty child.
“She’s practicing the cake walk . . .” said Bell, who was finding it hard to sleep at night for evocative fantasies, divided equally between Jeannie and Josephine.
“Yes, please,” he added quickly but really wanted to say, ‘. . . because she’s hoping I’ll take her dancing at the Coliseum on Saturday!’ But the refined instinct of a man who had suffered more than one hurtful rejection told him she was not quite over her former fiancé and, not that Jeannie would have been anything other than mildly flattered, he managed to keep his mouth shut.
No-one laughed at his sharp wit but Bell imagined it gave him the entitlement to track Jeannie’s movement across the room - with bull-calf eyes that made Sheila wince.
Approaching with a refill and chunk of iced coffee cake that she knew he hated, Jeannie felt that Bell’s narrow-eyed, lecherous expression left nothing to the imagination - other than how quickly his ardour might soften if she spilt the boiling hot drink in his lap. Momentarily delighting in the image, she shook her head but managed a forgiving smile.
Sliding forward and cranking his large frame upwards on his left elbow, Walford raised his genial voice for emphasis, “We are essentially a family business,” looking around all the faces in turn for understanding if not assent, “And by that I mean, we look after our clients and sub-contactors as considerately as we do our colleagues. So list them and make a point of sending them a Christmas card – regardless of your Low Church prejudice or anti-German sentiments, Murdo.”
“What? I love Christmas,” perked up Murdo like a schoolboy smacked on the arse for dozing off in assembly, but James had already moved on, “Work the connections. Builders – even those flouting the very same regulations they would quote chapter and verse, if we offered them work. They look up to us - so foster mutual respect. Priests and ministers who agonise about beautiful buildings that their church commissioners see as a money pit.” Walford paused for effect – “They are our best advocates, for Christ’s sake. Every time you offer them a hard won discount, they whisper in the Bishop’s ear. Take each of them a bottle of Port and tell them honestly you will do the job for as little as you can. Back up their invoices in their dozens if you have to. I don’t fickin’ care when they pay . . . as long as they pay. Work we did three years ago is income right now, for the survival of this firm!”
“Which otherwise would go under. Right now,” added Sheila, with great dramatic effect. John Bell applauded, “Wonderful. No, I mean it! Bloody marvellous. Sorry, ladies. James, you are an unsung hero of this city and I applaud your vision. I will work from darkness through light, to darkness again for the privilege and dispensation of putting my hands to Walford’s wheel.”
“Hear! Hear!” cried Finlayson, eager to show he was as vigorous as any of them, despite having no major financial commitments and owning a considerable private fortune, “But I’m so glad this damned war will be over by Christmas.” This time only Sheila laughed – in a high pitched, generous timbre redolent of genuine love for her esteemed associate.
“Come on then, James,” demanded Murdo, “What are you having kittens about?” Walford flicked his finely trimmed brows with an open hand and rolled normally smiling, intelligent eyes as if to say, ‘The indeterminable. I don’t bloody know, so you can tell me.’ Murdo made the connection because he was in Sheila’s confidence.
“The letter. You had a reply from SAFT?”
John Bell looked on in amusement, uncertain what could be so momentous but he caught a glimpse of Jeannie’s intense expression and knew in an instant.
Josephine swivelled her chair and crossed athletic legs with a broad, questioning smile on her lips.
Jeannie leant forward on the flip-top work surface that gave entrance to the scullery partition, working back and forth a pretty sapphire engagement ring, which had suddenly re-appeared on her finger. Her face was rapt, with a peculiar and desperate kind of attention that could have seen the rest of the world go to hell in a hand basket.
Walford read the letter aloud twice before it sank in fully for all. Sheila seemed to need to go back home to bed and get up again. For all her gracious humanity and a lifetime of hard work, she seemed unable to comprehend such a gateway into a higher realm. She smiled and appeared attractive as always but had lost her savoir faire. Her mouth hung open in amazement and her lower lip - fulsome and attractive no doubt in youth - conveyed the indelicacy of a girl outside an ice cream parlour where the sun had melted her poke. Incapable of coherent speech she whimpered repeatedly, like a small dog eager for a run in the park.
Jeannie was aware of the legalistic jargon but had never heard so much of it in one neatly condensed framework and was a little confused as to the nuances – of, ‘recitals, articles, particulars, attestations and schedules for work being under hand.’
Murdo marvelled at James’s revelation with a grin on his face wider than the Forth Bridge.
John kept murmuring, “South Africa, James? South Africa? Good Lord, South Africa!” as if he had never heard of the place.
“Storatet! Splendid! Wonderful, Mr Walford. You inspire us all,” offered Josephine, most innocent and magnanimous of all, “Words of wisdom to keep us all following the fish, while you have landed a whale.”
Walford sniggered and shook his head, “Aaah . . . if only. If only,” he mumbled.
“We built St Philips,” stated Murdo with fierce pride, as if that avowal explained all of life’s compromises and resolutions in one vapid assertion.
Walford glanced at him, sidelong - and the sympathetic smile faded as he met his old friend’s questioning look.
“Post Offices, right? Regional sorting offices with customer counters? How many?”
James ran his finger down the list and slowly read out the contract schedule for work starting in the New Year, “Eight of them. Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley, Pietermaritzburg . . . and . . .” looking at Murdo as if the chief of the City planning committee was demanding another round after the landlord at the Sheep Heid had just locked up.
“And, to begin with - another fifty-five, on a smaller scale.”
“Jesus!” intoned the formerly irreligious Bell, “Drop everything and dust off your passport, Murdo!”
“Really?” demanded James, with all the sincerity he could muster under pressure, “You are volunteering too? Are you, John?”
“I certainly would be, if I had negotiated this contract. It sounds enormous. The commitment, I mean. One hell of a lot of time spent travelling back and forth to make sure the buggers are doing what they’re told. You will need a team like you’ve got here – only bigger and dare I say it, more involved in pulling levers and pushing buttons.”
“So, in answer to James’s question . . ?” demanded Murdo, with a flourish of his right hand, identical to a fencer parrying and stabbing an opponent through his heart.
Impulsively itchy, John poked a forefinger into the helix of his large left ear and with a self-conscious glance at Josephine, ran it vigourously around and under the pina but managed to resist the temptation to examine dried soap covering his finger end.
“Like I said,” Bell’s hard and potent response came as he levelled with Murdo, “I did not negotiate this contract.” He wanted to add, ‘It’s your boat, James. You can sail it yourself,’ but managed to resist that temptation as well.
“Hmm, yes, well,” murmured Walford, “that is true. It’s a huge responsibility.”
“You were given the opportunity,” Sheila stated brusquely, knowing full well that there had never been any likelihood of John travelling to South Africa with Macdonald, the affordable trainee back in the winter of 1912 – ’13. Bell glowered at her, beginning to wish for the first time that he could be bound for the Cape Colony, if only to escape her ugly mug.
“But, to be fair, I know we never formally asked you, John, what with your family commitments and all. At the time it was expedient to send young Jim and, although you helped him prepare the ground with excellent advice – it was he who spoke on behalf of Walford’s expertise and . . .”
“What are you all griping about!? We should be celebrating,” Josephine exclaimed, “Make arrangements, Mr Walford . . . like you do anything! St Philips had more complexitet. Like magnificent cathedral you built.My windows have. Who knows anywhere how to make them? Beautiful stained glass figures. And half a ton of lead. Send somebody for SAFT and use the telegraph to keep in touch."
There was a momentary pause before Walford began to laugh - and his laughter mounted and fed upon itself. Breathing out heavily, Sheila observed her husband with dismay, thinking the pressure of responsibility was finally making him crack.
At last Walford’s face softened and he smiled at Josephine with patriarchal warmth, “You are assuming I’m saft, Jo but I’m actually just daft, my dear. South Africa Field Telegraph and Postal Service is what I’d prefer. SAFT - to be precise. Their establishment is already fine in principle, you understand but essentially deficient when it comes to the desire of three hundred thousand soldiers to write home daily – and their ever loving mothers to send parcels of powdered eggs, woollen socks and chocolate to Flanders by return.”
“Good Lord! Are those the numbers?” demanded Murdo.
“We are already up to well over a million letters and parcels a day - to and from the various fronts - from addresses here in the UK, Murdo.” Walford rubbed his left hand over the upper part of his neatly contoured belly and sighed deeply, “Nice work if you can get it.”
“I’ll say. And I thought you were just a pretty face.” The two old friends contemplated one another in silence and Josephine, inculcated with legends of sudden death and desperation, held her breath in awe.
“So . . . what the hell are we going to do? Needless to say, assured profits from what will be a carefully attested venture, have potential to secure not only my and Sheila’s future well into retirement, but that of every ambitious designer and engineer likely to step into my light in the latter part of what has been, so far, a fairly precious career.”
“Hear, hear!” offered Murdo, clapping his hand briskly but softly, just two or three times but with obvious sincerity as he sat forward to unfold his imposing legs.
“And I for one am glad to be part of it,” averred John Bell, “despite all accounts to the contrary and notwithstanding my ill temper and habitual profanity.” He opened his mouth again to add something about his reason for wishing to remain in the UK for the duration but immediately thought better of it. The Walfords knew about his mother having moved up from Newcastle to be near him, after his father had died a couple of years previously.
There was a sister, Alana who owned a fine lace workshop in Ennis. Martin O’ Brian, her husband was Headteacher of the town’s elementary school. With ‘one of each’ of their own, they had their hands full. Young ladies, rich and poor alike beat a path to her door to order custom made wedding dresses, usually months before the most memorable day of their lives. Typically, winter months were busy and the early summer mad. Alana had written to her mum recently about business taking a dip - but soldiers on leave think about only one thing - when they sober up - and routines were already back to normal, within four months of the outbreak of hostilities. It was not John but Alana who was married to their job.
More to the point, John knew in his water that volunteering to fill the gap left by Jim Macdonald meant he would never see his ma again.
As Walford rambled on, John Bell suddenly burned with self-conscious Catholic shame, as he felt Jeannie’s sultry, irresistible eyes boring into him from the end of the conference table.
Am I being altruistic or just selfish? I would give anything to have a woman like that.
Fighting temptation and embarrassed for her evident sorrow, John looked away into the middle distance, where he studied a red squirrel urgently digging up the back lawn to bury a nut.
“If I’m honest, I could see this coming. Sending young Jim to Johannesburg benefitted him immensely, John. It helped him cut his teeth on a major project and allowed me to sign off on his training, at a time when income flow and grand projects were sparse. He came back with his tail up - and a letter of commendation from McKinley’s, who had provided him with office space. One of their senior partners is an old friend and of course there will be a decent percentage in it for them, as the requirement for bookable hours extends into the need for another associate.”
“Another?” demanded Murdo, “You mean another half dozen.”
Walford allowed silence to answer, though his enervated expression granted a concession that there was still a lot of hard work to be done.
“I know,” he agreed finally, “But it won’t be the first time that a young architect has to work through the night to make a name for himself, Murdo,” he confided knowingly over his reading glasses, “Hard work never killed anyone.”
“I tell myself that every time I fall on my arse in river of mud,” said John bitingly, as if to remind them all that there was more to project management than the odd game of golf and some pretty scale drawings. Only Josephine dared to laugh.
“So, the question is,” Walford reminded them all tersely, “what are we going to do?”
Silence answered for the team, all except Josephine who had already given unequivocal advice and now plunged black woollen clad forearms overlapping, underneath her perfect bosom, “Eeugh!” she cried in contempt for Walford’s indecision, visibly shaking her head and scowling at a spider’s web above the French doors that had been missed by the cleaning lady.
“What are the options, Mr Walford?” asked Jeannie, tuned sympathetically to the principal’s meticulous style but keenly aware of the fact that he could be imperious and uncompromising when it came to application of rules and regulations.
“Well, I’d want your considered opinion, Jeannie. This is my firm and I am used to having the last word. After all, it is I who will pay the piper if it comes off the rails. Taking Murdo’s point – I have worked hard all my life. So, I have the right to take stock of every view. Yours, I feel, may be the most valuable of all.”
Josephine’s eyes grew visibly in her head as she turned back from the spider, without sarcasm - rounder and seemingly blessed with the innocence of genuine surprise.
“Thank you, Mr Walford,” came the choked reply. Jeannie continued holding her pen at the ready and sat up, alert and professional in disposition. A blank notepad lay square on the table, just an inch from her unbreathing bosom, where a perfect teardrop spashed vertically onto it, blurring lines of conformity and leaving an initial impression that prudent recording would eventually reduce.
“I truly appreciate you, and all you have done for us,” she whispered, fighting distress that she knew would not meet with Sheila’s approval.
“Okay, Jeannie,” said Sheila, looking at her askance and secretly boiling with fury at her husband’s condescension, “You first. Tell us your view. Will Jim return from Flanders?”
Murdo gasped audibly at Sheila’s indelicate use of English.
Rising to the bait, Jeannie slapped the fountain pen down onto the blotter and sat bolt upright in her chair, “How would I know that, Sheila? Did I tell you that I have the gift of foresight? Or, or . . . that I consult a crystal ball?”
“Don’t be so sensitive dear! If you ask him, I mean . . . on behalf of Walfords and SAFT.”
Jeannie’s fingers were tingling again and she felt as if she had swallowed a cobble that was beginning to sink through her abdomen. Glad that she had not eaten breakfast and certain that otherwise she would be sick at that very moment, Jeannie mustered dignity and fought back.
“I can no longer speak for Mr Macdonald. I made no secret of the fact that I disapprove of the war and his volunteering for it. We were engaged to be married. I broke it off.” Despite her inner turmoil, Jeannie looked and sounded laconic and controlled.
“Not wishing to be disloyal or appear selfish, I think the less said by me at this stage the better,” she added with firmness.
“Hmm. There are hard choices facing us all, Jeannie,” Sheila replied curtly, looking directly at her now and shifting her hefty bulk with three small, rapid movements of her backside. The team members watched Jeannie sympathetically, while Walford studied his wife with mounting incredulity.
“I don’t need a crystal ball to know that you need my help almost as much as I need yours. Simply put, the future of this firm depends on your Jim changing his mind. Not wishing to put too fine a point on it, if you haven’t been in touch with him . . . then it’s high time you were. None of us have the luxury of smugness or complaceny. If you were my daughter, I’d give him an ear-wigging he’d not forget.”
“But it was his decision, not mine! He couldn’t even bring himself to discuss it with me, other than to say he felt under some kind of obligation, Sheila,” pleaded Jeannie, “He couldn’t even have done it without Dutch courage.”
“Dutch courage?” petitioned Josephine. Jeannie lowered her head in embarrassment, “Jim and his brother got steamin’ drunk with a gang of their pals. They waited outside the recruitment office up in the castle, for it to open in the morning.” ‘Stupid bastards,’ Jeannie wanted add but something in Sheila’s tone held her back.
“Let’s be fair . . . direct speech tends to frighten me,” stated Murdo, “And I have heard enough of it this morning, aimed primarily at our lovely Jeannie to see me through until the end of the week.”
Still wide-eyed from witnessing Sheila’s audacity and glad that such a crucial meeting had not already broken up with harsh words and slammed doors, Walford was visibly relieved. Murdo was after all his most trusted ally, and never ceased to surprise with his public school finesse.
“As delightful as Jim is, in many ways, not least the ability to cast himself unhesitatingly into any new venture and learn from it – evidenced by the degree to which we all miss him - the fact is that the man had the right to volunteer for this . . . this debacle in France or wherever the hell it has moved to lately.” Murdo placed his palms on the low arms of the adjustable captain’s chair and levered himself upwards slowly, as if to avoid intimidating his audience. “Sorry, now it is I who am speaking directly, but granting that Jim’s motives were most honourable,” Murdo turned to Jeannie and she forced a thin smile, “in the light of the contribution he could make, the benefits of which all of us will forego if he fails to return,” he threw his large white hands up, seemingly at a loss for words, “. . . well, ‘it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world,’ Jeannie – but, for Flanders? I would say Jim’s sacrifice is already far greater than the intended offering.”
“I agree, Murdo,” chimed Sheila like a long suffering headmistress, this time without humour in her voice, “you ought to apologise for being too direct. And I was unaware that Jim had actually given his soul.”
“No, that was a flawed analogy but you take my point?” There was silence in the room and, flushed with anger and embarrassment, Jeannie seemed to be fighting back tears.
“What are the options?” demanded John at last, looking directly at his boss. Walford self-consciously pulled at his ear as he slid down in his leather conference chair, hearing again the exhortations of Dan Thompson his one-time abusive PE teacher, stamped forever in his memory to, ‘sit up to attention, lad and keep your back straight at all times!’
“We might advertise for a replacement. Someone prepared to undertake a long term assignment in South Africa.”
“Nonsense!” Sheila interjected, loudly. John continued to look directly at Mr Walford, who also ignored his wife.
“Pardon my assumption, James but wouldn’t that cost a bomb?”
“Of course it would,” Sheila answered for him, with the impetus of forethought and frustration in knowing that there was in reality no such option.
“Assuming of course that you found the right prospective candidate. A man with young Jim’s aptitude and determination?” stated Murdo.
“Someone not only grounded in this kind of large scale project but acceptable to Jim’s established contacts within SAFT and McKinleys,” added John, who had taken Macdonald under his wing as an aspiring architectural engineer, straight from North British Railway back in ’09.
“Yes, and you would be lucky to find someone at double the amount you were paying the lad before he joined up!” growled Sheila. Walford’s left eyebrow flickered upwards imperceptibly and his lips parted slightly in contempt but instead of defending himself he shrank lower in his chair.
“What about a trainee?” asked Bell, gesturing toward Josephine, “You have struck gold before, with Jim and Jo!”
“Oh, you are too kind!” chimed Josephine, with the acuity of refined social grace that could translate into any language.
Sheila rolled her eyes towards the ceiling and her lips trembled, with the particular kind of contempt that only those used to a comfortable life that they have worked extremely hard for, hold for those with less imagination, “This contract has to go to our solicitors, who will charge an enormous fee for even deigning to look at it under the microscope. And it has to be countersigned with contractual warranties underwriting the promisory fulfilment of our obligations, assured profits notwithstanding - before the end of next month. You know the score better than any of us when it comes to competitive tendering, John. Ideally, it has to be lodged with the commissioners at SAFT, before the end of next month.” Sheila shook her head with disdain as she hammered home the point, “By all means waste money on national and local advertising,” she challenged them, with a mocking sweep of her right hand while looking in turn from John, to Murdo to her husband, “But do not expect to get any work done while you sift through the candidates in short order - and don’t talk nonsense about training someone. There is no time for that! . . . Jim is our trainee.”
“Given the circumstances, they might wait,” ventured Murdo bravely, as Sheila set her jaw on a large but immaculately soft fist and glowered at him for his refined credulity.
“They might,” agreed Walford, offering a thoughtful smile but his eyes quickly glazed over as he internalised the implications. Sheila tilted her head at Bell, whom she knew could resolve their quandary in an instant by stepping into the junior man’s shoes. For now his viewpoint as a project manager was all she demanded.
“If the regiment agreed to let you buy him out, SAFT might delay the start. They certainly will not delay the finish. Not without penalties,” he offered, knowing full well that this was the undeclared hope sticking in James’s throat, “And I hate to say it, but if conscription comes in, as most of us anticipate in the New Year, you may as well book a passage to Jo’burg yourself.”
“And as soon as you ask for an extension on the start, SAFT will consider other contingencies,” said Sheila lightly, trying her best not to sound surly, “Including the secondment of McKinley’s next candidate for seniority.”
“Hmm, who will be safely in his mid-forties,” said Bell, dropping the contract that Walford had given him to peruse onto the table, “and beyond the reach of Botha’s recruitment drive.” He sat forward in his chair and cleared his throat behind a fist before speaking again.
“James, this is an assured profit contract that is already specified well into seven figures. In terms of the overall requirement - excepting the scrollwork and gilt - it makes Usher Hall seem like Meccano for beginners. If that’s not incentive enough for Macdonald to let you buy him out, then bloody sod him.” Leaning towards Murdo he murmured, “I’ll shoot the bugger myself if he doesn’t. Pardon my French but you wanted me to speak my mind, Sheila.” Bell shot a fervent look at Jeannie meaning, ‘He’s a fool. You would be incentive enough for me’. She coloured with rage as the changeless anger of a woman’s solitude abruptly returned.
“Well good luck with that!” Jeannie commended ironically, throwing the pen into her handbag and rising from her seat, “The bank will be open and I have cheques that you will want transferred as soon as possible.” Jeannie Corse kept her eyes ahead as she walked briskly to the door.
Walford reached across the conference table for Bell to pass him the unsigned contract from SAFT. Sitting back in his executive chair with shoulders square, he composed his ideas before he spoke.
“When times were less fraught, I played golf regularly with Lieutenant-Colonel Grant. The Camerons are up to a dozen battalions these days and need to recruit more,” he explained, shaking his head with amiable disquiet, “As a consequence, Sinclair is often at home in Edinburgh. I will write formally on behalf of the firm but also seek him out at St Marks, where he attends regulary. It’s up to Jeannie what she does - but this approach will have no reflection on the lad either way. If I know Sinclair at all, he will give Jim no choice but to pack his gear and hop on the first train back home.”
Brooding silence from pensive faces looking back at Walford seemed altogether more portentous and eloquent than his unconvincing attempt to turn prospect into mint.