It's as near as I'll ever get to 50 Shades of Gray…
'It's not home.' Billy smiled as he said it. 'Home is back there. God help us; the arsehole of the Empire.' They both laughed. It prolonged the holiday mood in the old coastal bus. Jimmy Hughes wore his new civvie suit. Two days old and as jagged as a thistle. Shirt, shoes, collars and studs; all new. The gift of a grateful sovereign said the barracks sergeant. And with all due credit to the King, he had a great many de-mob gifts to buy. Which explained the cheapness of the cut. He saw Billy clean the window with his elbow. The action caught his attention. 'Is it my stump, Jimmy? you must have seen plenty of these back at Kirkliston.'
'I'm sorry Billy… it's just… well, how does it feel? I mean… 0h Christ, I don't know what I mean… if you know what I mean?' Jimmy's appeal had them laughing again. Until the racking cough brought it all to an embarrassed end. 'Where will you stay, Billy? Jennifer and I could put ye up..'
'Ta for the offer pal, but I'm sure you two need the space to be together again.' Jimmy looked at the wide expanse of the river Forth and Billy gave him time to consider. 'Up here,' Billy tapped his head. 'Here my hand still exists. I feel it. God, I see it..' The smile was forced. 'Ye know that everybody we know will notice the wounds. They don't live with the damages like we do. We have to give them time to come to terms with us. We're the ones who've changed, Jimmy.'
'Jennifer visited twice. She was afraid to hold me. You mustn't do that Jimmy. Please Jimmy, think of your condition.' His head was on his chest. Billy leaned close to catch the rest. 'After eighteen months apart I thought we would… well you know? She wanted none of it. Sex, Billy. My… wife wouldn't. And it was something we enjoyed before. Before this.' The roiling cough gave emphasis to the whispered confession.
'Give her time, man. She hasn't changed. Maybe she just feels guilty she didn't try hard enough to keep you at home? But now the two of you have the rest of your lives. One o' the lucky ones, eh?'
'The medics don't share your confidence. One lung, Private Hughes. One lung, and that not the best.' The imitation was accurate; a theatrical caricature meant to lighten the mood. It failed. 'I think it's a punishment.' A low, agonised whisper. 'For Ewan Campbell. Helping tae kill a brither.'
'Leave it now, Jimmy. That cannae be laid at your door. You have to stop it now; before you get hame tae Jennifer.' All talk ceased, as both men digested the cold reality of life hereafter. Billy got out at Pittenweem.. He rose from his seat and pushed something into Jimmy's top pocket. 'Smile Jimmy. Big smiles when you meet the wife. Mind now. Safe hame.' Jimmy Hughes held the Five Pound note in both hands. He stared long and hard at the bounty until his tears blurred the vision.
It was what they called “A braw drying day” The wind barrelled in from the sea; cloud chasing, quick cooling. Billy had been crushed in Mrs Black's embrace. Her old lodger, the returning hero, 0f course she had a room for him. He felt the quickening, surprised at the strength of his excitement. May sunlight raced across the fields. Film shuttering from the cinema that Billy could almost hear. And Anstruther slumbered in the crease of the bay.
'Aye lad. It's a grand day, is it no?' The two old fishermen knew him only as a fighting Scot. It was enough for a casual greeting. Billy hesitated. The Haven; he hadn't been here since January 1915. Still it was an easier option than facing Anne. He would face her after a pint or two of Sandy Guthrie's magic ale. The big, bluff landlord had seen all the returning youngsters. He was well placed to observe and compare. It had made him a very successful businessman. He knew his customers.
'Is there a story, Billy?' Sandy gestured toward the stump. 'Or will we leave it there for the moment?'
'Muriel Gardner got a letter from her boy saying you had been killed. Can you imagine what that news did tae Our Anne?' Mary Smith poured more tea for him. 'She's strong, son. There's steel in her spine; like Brodie she is.' Billy nodded in acknowledgement. 'But it damn near killed her. She kindae curled up in a ball. Stopped eating; wouldnae speak tae anybody.' Silence was uncomfortable for both of them. Mary watched him fiddle with the teacup. He studied the clouds rolling across the firth. 'She wants you something fierce, Billy.' The pause had the intended effect. 'If you cannae give her any cause tae hope, then leave now. Wae my blessing Billy, but now. Go now.'
'Mrs Smith… I came home with Jimmy Hughes. He's a wreck of a man. Changed, flawed; not the young man who enlisted with all his pals.' It was Billy's turn to pause. 'We've left Davy Gourlay, Martin Robertson, your brother-in-law Colin Aird, English John, all these Neukers and countless others. Young men changed by death. And their deaths have changed us. This unspeakable war has taken our youth from us. Now the best part of me is here. And now, poor specimen that I am, I need to discover if there's enough of me left to offer your daughter a future.' Mary noted the stumped arm that lay across her table. She reached out and caressed the wooden facing which served as the end of his arm.
'Aye well ye deserve that at least, eh? But go gently with ma bairn. Leave her her pride and don't break her heart.' She stood. 'Now you better go fetch her hame, it's nearly her finish time.'
She smiled. It was sunrise over the May Island, he thought. Her eyes, widening, drawing in all the light. A moribund heart leapt, and then the slow subsidence of disbelief. The small voice that spoke of unworthiness, that whispered his infidelity.
'Billy? Billy Thank God you're safe.' She reached as if to touch his face, then faltered. He read a depth of sorrow in her eyes.
Oh but you're all woman now Anne, he thought. They walked along the front, away from home. It met their need for neutral ground.
'And what of Lady Marjorie? Are you still together, Billy?' They walked shoulder grazing shoulder. It raised awareness in both of them. 'I'm sorry… I shouldn't pry so much.' He knew in that moment what it was that had turned her into such a remarkable woman. It was the sorrow. She had consumed it, transformed it, turned inherent dignity into beauty.
'We're not together. She humiliated me; drove me away.' He stopped and drew her round to face him. 'She wanted to make it easier for me. She knew we would need to part eventually. And she loved me enough to spare me the trauma of ending it.'
'And would you have? Ended it I mean.' She waited, standing eye to eye. 'If it takes this long to consider, then I already have the answer, Billy.' They spoke of other, more trivial things as they retraced their steps. In the evening they sat on the rocks out beyond the harbour. They remained shoulder to shoulder. Natural, and so unremarked and unremarkable for both.
'I'm not like Maggie. I can't follow my man to France, even if I had such a man.' She turned to study the effect of her words. 'It would be a mistake to think I haven't got passion. If I were yours then my love would scald you; would flay the skin from the bones of you. For someone so intelligent, so perceptive, you can be incredibly blind, Billy.' She prepared to let it penetrate as they watched the soft spray of an incoming tide break against the rocks below.
'What will they do With this, Billy?' She lifted his mutilated hand into her lap.
'They noticed I liked to pick my nose – so they're giving me a long, thin finger.' Their laughter lightened the gloom. 'Before I go back they'll fit me a wooden hand. I'll be able to hold things, move stuff around.' She drew a pocket-book from her coat. Billy saw it was a book of Burns' Poetry. 'You like Burns too?'
'I've always loved poetry; great poetry. Do you remember this?' She lifted a folded sheet from the centre of the book. Billy read it through as if for the first time.
'You kept it then? Lonely Tomorrows. I'm no longer the man who wrote this.' The smile couldn't hide his sorrow. ' I so much want to be, Anne. For both our sakes.' She leaned across. The kiss was gentle on his cheek, yet challenging in its way.
'Meet me tomorrow Billy. After work. Please?'
She lay in the crook of his arm. Billy drew heavily on a cigarette, the world contracted into their small intimate space.
'Was I any good, Billy?'
'Now c'mon lass: what sort of question is that?' He pulled at her ear lobe.
'How do I compare?' She turned within his arms. Her gaze was direct and challenging. 'How far short do I fall from Lady Anstruther?'
'Don't go on Anne. It's not like you.'
'Of course it's like me.' Her voice rose, her colour too. Billy winced at the anger. 'I'm a woman. No more, no less than any noblewoman. I'm flesh and blood, running hot like the rest.' She threw her thigh across his, pressing flesh to flesh. His grin might have kindled her anger. It had quite another effect. She answered with a grin of her own.
'God but you look truly wicked. A hussy.' She felt his arousal as he stirred against her thigh.
Later, in early evening dusk they walked by the beaching surf. They were comfortable in their silence. It had all been said. That was Billy's impression.
'I can't follow you like Maggie has with our Brodie. Ye see, I'm needed here. I have the library, yes and it's important work but it doesn't define me.' Billy smiled to himself. He marvelled at the changes wrought in this slip of a girl. He laughed now at that once held definition. 'I'm a member of the Suffragette movement, Billy. Women should have the vote in this day and age. It's my other passion. Did you know that women in New Zealand have had the vote for the past twenty five years? Western Australia too. Don't laugh, Billy. Please.'
“I'm laughing at me, Anne. My definition of you was so patronising. You're no slip of a girl after all. You're a bloody tiger.'
Discovery now followed discovery. Intimacy fuelled their curiosity and Anne blossomed in such warm air. Time raced.
'I want no promises, Billy. Rather… I want only this one' Her face was stern. 'Promise me that you'll only return if it's to be with me. If you don't want me, don't come back to Pittenweem. Promise me, Billy.' He nodded, wordless. She didn't press for verbal declaration. The coastal bus battled on through heavy wind and rain. It seemed ominous, portents of what awaited him across the channel.