– The Hero –

 

 

Cherry was a big man, yet he didn’t disturb Annie as he eased out of the bed.  Still half bent over, he slid his feet into his slippers.  Then, very slowly, he stood up straight, wincing silently as the pain hit him.  Moving softly past the bed, he grabbed his old dressing gown from the back of the door and looked back at Annie.  She hadn’t moved.  Compared with his bulk, she was tiny, laying there like a rag doll, breathing shallowly, hardly making a bump in the bed covers.  He would make her a cup of tea in a little while.

 

Cherry slipped out of the room as quietly as he could.  Once outside, he paused to put on the dressing gown.  He winced and cursed under his breath this time as he pulled the gown through thick, hairy, muscular arms, across square, broad shoulders and over an enormous chest.  The gown now covered his pyjama bottoms and the six-inch wide white Elastoplast bandage that had been wound innumerable times around his chest and ribs.  Extending from his armpits to his belly-button, the bandage looked like a shiny, adhesive straitjacket.

 

When he opened the kitchen door, Skippy greeted him with a single, happy yelp.  Cherry grunted to acknowledge the old Jack Russell before stepping through the sun-dappled room to unbolt and open the back door of the house, a pretty prefab on the edge of town.  As the dog scurried past him, he stood on the doorstep, gazing out at his little back garden and the corn field beyond.  He rolled a cigarette with large, but deft, hands.  Lighting the cigarette, he wheezed with the first inhalation and winced again.

 

He had been awake for some time, listening to the dawn chorus as it mounted gradually outside.  He had been unable to slumber, but he had lain still, not wanting to move lest he woke Annie.  It was perverse, he knew, but it wasn’t the pain that had kept him awake, nor the discomfort of the bandage.  Not that the bandage wasn’t discomfort enough: hot, sticky, itchy, constricting his breathing, clutching his body like a vice.  But having put up with it for nearly six weeks now, he had simply gotten used to it.  And the pain?  Yes, it was still constant, but it had eased considerably since the ‘accident’; it only really hurt now when he did anything strenuous.  ‘Like moving,’ he chuckled to himself, and winced once more.

 

Skippy flitted from one part of the garden to the next, stopping to sniff now and again, cocking its leg here and there.  Cherry continued to smoke, absent-mindedly watching the dog’s antics.  Pain and discomfort, he thought.  He had had his fair share of those in his lifetime, a lifetime that was just a few months short of half a century.  Christ, only a dozen years ago he had been trudging back and forward with the Eighth Army across the scorching deserts of North Africa.  A Desert Rat.  Boiling hot, starving and going crazy with thirst most of the time.  And afraid all of the time.  Afraid when the night skies were black and starless … when the desert was too quiet … when that same blackness and silence were shattered by a hundred blinding explosions overhead … when the order came to fix bayonets …

 

Cherry shuddered.  He was afraid again today, he remembered suddenly.  But he knew that a different kind of fear had kept him awake this morning.  Not the gnawing, ever-present fear of the War years; the daily and nightly fear of what might happen; the constant fear of ‘if’.  No, this was something much more certain.  It would take place today, in fact, in this house.  And there was no escape from it.  The terror, the agony, the excruciating pain; they were only a few hours away.

‘The sooner, the better,’ he muttered.  He finished his cigarette and whistled for the dog to come.  Returning to the kitchen, he lit the gas and put the kettle on – and winced yet again with the effort.

 

 

It was close to noon when Mary knocked gently three times on the front door.  Without waiting, she opened the door, but remained on the doorstep, calling out in her soft brogue: ‘Hello, mother.  Hello, father.  It’s only me.  Sorry I’m a bit late.’

 

Sunlight streamed into the dim, narrow hallway from the open front door as Skippy, barking in recognition, raced to greet Mary.  Annie’s voice could also be heard coming from the direction of the kitchen: ‘Is that you, hen?  Come away ben.’

 

Closing the door behind her, Mary acknowledged the dog’s attentions and wafted into the house.  The sunlight in the hallway vanished, but was replaced by the brightness and freshness of her appearance.  Small and slim, with long blue-black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, Mary exuded a Gypsy-like beauty that was accentuated by a sharp, slightly curved nose.  ‘Black Irish’ is how she would have been described back home.  But today she was dressed more like Audrey Hepburn than a Gypsy.  A white sleeveless frock with large blue polka dots, a matching wide-brimmed hat and a pair of white low-heeled shoes reflected exactly the airiness of the early summer’s day outside, and contrasted sharply with the gloom of the hallway.

 

Although still in her early thirties, Mary already had four children; the eldest was eight years old and the youngest would soon turn four.  Her face, lightly powdered and rouged, bore no signs yet of the worries – about children and health, but most of all about money – that would burden her in the years to come.  No, today, freshly bathed and with just a sprinkling of lavender water, she was radiance on a mission.  It being a Saturday, the children were at home with their father, her mission requiring the presence of neither children nor a husband.

‘Hello, mother,’ Mary repeated as she walked into the kitchen, where Annie had been busying herself, drying and putting away the dishes from breakfast.  Annie and Cherry weren’t her mother and father, but she called them that way out of a daughter-in-law’s respect.

‘How are you today?  And how’s our patient getting along?’  Mary’s second question was whispered deliberately to keep it out of Cherry’s earshot.

 

Before replying, Annie paused to replace the drying towel on its hook and to wipe her hands with the front of her ubiquitous pinny.  She was petite and matchstick thin.  Her pepper-and-salt hair was more ‘salt’ than ‘pepper’, and her small, bright eyes were set in a face that appeared perpetually concerned.  ‘You’re a wee bag of worry, Annie,’ Cherry often said to her.

 

When she spoke to Mary, she seemed more concerned – and more nervous – than ever.  ‘I’m fine, hen,’ she muttered, wringing her hands.  ‘But as for thone,’ she continued, nodding towards the room across the hallway from them, ‘he’s as crabbit and torn-faced as ever.  Thank Christ you’ve come to sort him out.’

 

Mary sat down at the scrubbed wooden kitchen table and proceeded to produce something from her handbag, a white leather one that she had chosen to match her outfit today.  ‘No problem, mother,’ she said, holding up a pair of long dressmaking scissors, which gleamed in the sunlit kitchen.  ‘I’ll do my best,’ she added and smiled almost wickedly.

 

 

Cherry sat in his old, worn armchair in the shade of the sitting room, his back to the closed door of the room.  A newspaper, open and folded at the racing section, lay on his lap.  A pair of rimless reading glasses perched on the edge of his nose.  The murmur of a racing commentator drifted from the radiogram at the side of the mantelpiece next to the armchair.  The commotion at the front door had interrupted his attempts to study today’s form in the paper, not that he had been able to concentrate much anyway.  Now he could make out the voices of Mary and Annie in the kitchen: Mary’s soft lilt, then Annie’s higher-pitched bleat in response.  They’ll be here any second, Cherry realised, his stomach fluttering slightly.

 

He took off his glasses and folded them carefully back into their case, which he placed along with the newspaper on the coffee table to his right.  Up until now, the day seemed to have dragged.  After waking Annie with a cup of tea, he had shaved, washed and dressed.  Then he had gone out with Skippy: the usual stroll round the little park directly across the road from the prefab, followed by a walk to the shop at the end of the road, there to pick up the daily newspaper and a copy of the ‘Journal & Gazette’, the local weekly newspaper.  The latter had also been placed on the coffee table; it, too, lay open and folded at the article which he and Annie had read (and reread many times) over breakfast.

           

Unable to prevent himself, Cherry looked yet again at the article.  ‘Local Hero Honoured’ ran the headline.  ‘Today, local hero Edward (Cherry) Quigley was granted the Freedom of the Burgh …’ the article began.

            ‘Cherry!’ he muttered, as if seeing his nickname in print for the very first time.  Cheery Cherry!  That’s what they called him when he was a boy; that’s the name that had stuck with him ever since.  Permanently rosy cheeks.  A happy-go-lucky grin to go with them.  Always a cheerful laugh, no matter how dire or grave the circumstances.  That’s cheery Cherry for you!  ‘Well, I’m not so bloody cheery today,’ he decided.  The ‘Freedom of the Burgh’?  Aye, fine.  But a hundred quid to go with it, maybe.  Or even another job.  That would’ve been better …

 

Without warning, the door behind him flew open, dispelling any further thoughts and causing his stomach to flutter again.

 

 

Mary was first to enter the room.  Annie came scuttling after her, with Skippy yelping and dancing at Annie’s heels.

            ‘Hello, father.  Time for your little operation.’  Mary was grinning and brandishing the dressmaking scissors.  ‘Up you get now.  It’ll be over in no time.’

            ‘Don’t you worry now, Cherry,’ Annie piped up from behind Mary.  ‘Mary kens what she’s doing.  She used to live on a farm, you know.’

            ‘Hello, hen,’ Cherry said to Mary as he pulled himself up from the armchair.  He smiled at her despite the pain.  He was so glad that she had agreed to do this favour for him.  He hadn’t asked anyone else, only Mary.  Annie wasn’t up to it, of course:  too frail and nervous.  And the other young ones – Derry, Mary’s husband and his stepson, and John and Cathy, his own children – they would all be too soft.  No, Mary was strong and fit and capable.  Most of all, though, she could be ruthless when the occasion arose.  And this was just such an occasion.

 

After helping him to unbutton and remove his shirt, Mary gently guided Cherry to the centre of the room, where there was plenty of space away from the furniture.  ‘Now, father,’ she said, ‘just stand here.  As straight as you can.’

 

Legs apart, feet planted, Cherry stood like a rock.  His reflection stared down at him from the lozenge-shaped mirror that hung at an angle above the mantelpiece.  The reflection seemed to accentuate the ruddiness and heaviness of his jowls, the thickness of his neck, the breadth of his bandaged torso.  He could see that tiny beads of perspiration had broken out across his forehead.  Behind him, both Mary and Annie appeared very small, like marionettes, dwarfed by his frame.  Through the window behind them, he could make out the prefab’s front garden and some children playing in the park across the road.  Between the huge conifers that fringed the park, he could catch glimpses of the estuary, its waters sparkling in the midday sun.

 

He shuddered momentarily, feeling a stab of coldness against his hot skin as Mary inserted the scissors in the space between the small of his back and the foot of the bandage.  ‘Stay still now, father,’ she said softly and began to cut upwards through the bandage.  Cherry smiled.  It’ll soon be over, he thought, thanks to Mary.  Mitchell, the local doctor, wanted him to go to the hospital to have the bandage removed by ‘a qualified nurse’.  Lazy, stuck-up, little bastard!  But the hospital wouldn’t give him an appointment for another three weeks.  Well, fuck them and fuck Mitchell!  He couldn’t wait that long.  He needed the bandage off now so that he could get back to work next week.  After six weeks living off the wages from Annie’s part-time cleaning job and the measly sick pay he got from the ferryboat company, they desperately needed the money.

 

The scissors seemed to slice through the Elastoplast like a knife through butter.  In seconds, the bandage had been split in two along the line of Cherry’s spine.  Without pausing, Mary handed the scissors to Annie and took hold of the left-hand edge of the bandage with both hands.  Screwing up her face, she pulled to the left with all her might.  There was a loud rip as the bandage came away from Cherry’s skin, stopping at the line below his armpit and taking with it every hair on that side of his back.  As he knew he would, Cherry roared in shock and pain.  He could hear Skippy howling in sympathy on one side of Mary, and he was conscious of Annie tutting and fretting on the other.

 

Still without pausing, Mary gripped the right-hand edge of the bandage, hauling to the right this time.  Another loud rip, almost like a whip crack, was followed by another roar from Cherry, then more howling from Skippy and more tutting and fretting from Annie.

‘It’ll be alright, Cherry, son,’ Annie wailed.  ‘Mary used to live on a farm, ye ken,’ she repeated nervously.

 

Cherry hissed through his teeth.  ‘I’m not a fucking horse, Annie,’ he growled into the mirror.  ‘Now, do me a favour and get that fucking yapping dog out of here.’

 

Grabbing Skippy by the collar, Annie scurried out of the room.  ‘I’ll make us some more tea,’ she said almost gaily, probably glad to get away, and closed the door behind her.

 

Mary placed her hands on Cherry’s shoulders and pushed gently so that he turned to face her.  He was breathing more quickly now and perspiring more heavily, and his cheeks were more flushed than ever.  The two flaps of the bandage torn from his back hung limply by his sides, like soiled and useless angels’ wings.

‘Just one more tug – across your front – should do it,’ Mary said, trying to sound reassuring.

‘Right, hen,’ Cherry answered.  He tried to smile, but he knew that this last tug would be the worst, the most agonising.  Jesus Christ Almighty!  All those fucking hairs!  I told that bastard doctor he should’ve shaved my chest before slapping the bandage on!

 

Bracing himself for the next onslaught, Cherry looked away from Mary.  His eyes were drawn back to the ‘Journal & Gazette’ on the coffee table, to the picture they had taken of him receiving the keys of the Burgh from the Lord Provost.  He looked quite handsome and imposing – well, at least Annie thought so – in his ferryboatman’s ‘uniform’: the dark-blue serge suit and matching peaked cap; the grey Aran sweater; and, of course, the Wellington boots, turned down at the top and worn over the trousers.  Yes, the Wellingtons that had caused him to almost drown …

 

 

There he was, on that cold, grey morning only a few weeks ago, standing on the eastern jetty of the Hawes Pier.  He was wearing the same gear, the same cap, the same boots.  There, tied up at the jetty, its great steel ramp still down, was the ‘Sir William Wallace’, the ferryboat he was working on that day.  And there, looming out over the boat from the misty greyness of the sky, was the giant steel and stone structure of the Forth Bridge.  Set alongside the immense granite pillars of the bridge, the boat seemed to bob on the murky waters like a fragile balsawood model.

 

Things were running according to timetable.  The vehicles were already on board and the last of the passengers had just boarded; it being early morning, there were few passengers and even fewer vehicles.  As the mooring ropes were being unhitched from the ferry, he took one last look up the jetty to check for stragglers.  Nothing.  Deserted.  He gave the ‘all clear’ signal to the skipper up on the bridge of the boat, then he stepped across the ramp.  Seconds later, the vessel’s huge electric paddles roared into action, churning the water around them, and the ramp commenced its slow, noisy ascent.  The ferry would be departing on schedule.

 

Although they occurred in the space of only a handful of minutes, the events that followed seemed to play out in slow motion, taking far, far longer to unfold.  He could see the skipper waving his arms wildly, staring down at the jetty, a look of panic on his face.  He was aware of others on deck, also panic-stricken, gesticulating at the ramp behind him.  He turned around.  A car – an olive-green Hillman Minx – had appeared from nowhere.  It was racing towards the ramp.  He could make out the driver, a bespectacled middle-aged man, face set, clutching the driving wheel with both hands, obviously intent on catching the ferry.  There was also a woman – much younger than the driver, perhaps his daughter – who seemed to huddle anxiously in the front passenger seat.

 

As he stood transfixed, mouth agape, the din of the paddles ceased abruptly.  The grinding of the ascending ramp also came to a sudden halt.  The skipper had shut down the engines, but his action was too late.  By that time, the car had driven halfway onto the ramp, the ramp had risen at least three feet above the level of the jetty and the ferry had moved some ten feet away from the jetty.  For a few moments, the car wobbled by its middle on the edge of the ramp, then simply dropped, rear first, into the grey water in the space between the boat and the jetty.  Half-submerged, it bobbed for another few moments before disappearing entirely below the waves.

 

Even now, six weeks later, he couldn’t explain why he did what he did next.  Perhaps he assumed that the calamity was his fault: shouldn’t he have been more vigilant, checked again before giving the skipper the go-ahead?  Or perhaps he felt that the matter was his responsibility: after all, wasn’t it his job to ensure that all vehicles and passengers were safely embarked and disembarked?  Or maybe it was just plain reflex: people were in danger, and he needed to help them.  Whatever the reason, he acted decisively, throwing his cap to the deck, shrugging off his jacket and climbing onto the side of the boat.  Then, feet together, he jumped into the water.  He made hardly a splash on the heaving surface as he, too, immediately disappeared under it.

 

Of all the sensations that assaulted him in the seconds after he jumped – the coldness, the darkness, the muffled silence – it was the coldness that affected him most, knocking the breath out of him, causing him almost to faint.  Sinking slowly, his eyes stinging, he recovered sufficiently to peer through the swirling gloom in search of the car and its occupants.  There, only a few feet across from him, he could make out the shape of the car, its nose pointing upwards, its boot and rear wheels partly embedded in mud and sand.  The door on the driver’s side of the car had been opened wide.  A figure was floating, head first, out of the door.

 

Cursing himself for the folly of having jumped into the water with his boots still on, he began to swim in awkward fits towards the figure.  Just as he reached it, the figure emerged fully from the car.  He recognised the driver.  With his right arm, he encircled the man under the armpits.  Then, using his left arm, he propelled himself towards the surface, kicking behind him with all his might.  It seemed at first that his heavy boots would drag him down, but eventually his strength won out.  After a final thrust, he and the driver burst into the daylight, the two men simultaneously gasping for air.  He remembered the silence being broken suddenly by cheers and shouts that came from people, their faces just blurs, who were lined along the side of the ferryboat.  Before letting go of the driver, he made sure that the man had slipped his head through one of the half-dozen lifebelts that had been tossed into the water from the ferry.  His whole body was numb from cold.  His lungs were on fire.  Shrugging off these discomforts, he took a huge gulp of air, then ducked down beneath the waves again.

 

It wasn’t long before he could make out the shape of the girl.  She had managed to squeeze through the open window on the side opposite him and to squirm free of the car.  Her slender arms and legs flailing, her dark Burberry raincoat flapping around her, she was now struggling to push herself upwards.  He swam round the car towards the girl.  He had almost reached her when the car began to topple over onto its roof.  He attempted to sidestep the falling bodywork, but he wasn’t quick enough: the bonnet caught him a glancing blow on the chest, sending him reeling backwards and forcing the air from his lungs.  He couldn’t remember much else.  He had vague memories of fighting through pain and nausea to get to the girl, of pushing her up through the water, of others now in the water ready to grab her.  Then there was blackness for a while.  When he came to, he was lying on a stretcher on the wet jetty.  Someone spoke to him.  He recalled grinning back.  ‘Cheery Cherry,’ he remembered thinking …

 

 

            ‘They never thanked me, you know,’ Cherry said suddenly.  ‘The driver.  And his niece.  Not a word.  Not even a fucking note …’

            ‘I know, father,’ Mary nodded.  ‘Annie told me.’  She looked up at him.  He seemed bemused, rather than angry.

 

Another stuck-up, arrogant bastard, he thought.  A doctor, apparently.  With a big house in Fife.  Posh.  Educated.  Just like that other doctor, Mitchell.  Just like Montgomery and all the other snotty, toffee-nosed officers during the War.

            ‘He’s claiming that the accident wasn’t his fault.  Implying that …’ he trailed off.  Implying.  Inferring.  Leaving things unsaid.  That was their style, wasn’t it?  He could have played safe like other members of the crew.  Thrown down a lifebelt.  Waited for someone else to be the hero.  But he took all this pain instead.  And now, after their initial praise, the people from the ferryboat company were coming over less than sympathetic.  ‘Inferring’ that there might not be a job waiting for him.  ‘Reviewing their manpower requirements,’ they said.  More like looking for a fucking scapegoat!

            ‘Ready now, father?’ Mary asked almost in a whisper.

            ‘As I’ll ever be, hen,’ he replied.  He tried to smile.  Cheery Cherry.  The Big Man.  The Desert Rat.  The Local Hero.  Large tears rolled down his cheeks as he felt the bandage begin to tear.

 

 

– o –

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