An extract from a much larger work, set around the Great War
‘Its not fair Brodie. You boys can’t make all the sacrifices.’ She shrugged away his arms.
‘Maggie, please.’ He reached to touch her shoulder and she spun to face him.
‘I won’t wait. I won’t wait while you pluck up the courage to ask me to marry you. And I won’t wait for you,’ she shouted. ‘Do ye hear me? I’ll not be like Anne, waiting on a man who doesn’t love her. And I won’t wait to hear of your death from yer Mum.’
‘Bloody hell, Maggie.’
‘You love me Brodie Smith. If you’re going to die oot there, I want to be the one to get the telegram.’ Her voice choked into silence.
‘Oh Lass, lass. I love ye tae yer bones.’ He lifted the weeping girl’s chin. ‘Marry me then. Get everything ready for my next leave. I’ll make ye my next o’kin, and you’ll have yer wish should I die oot thair.’
‘Wheesht,wheesht,Brodie.’ Maggie placed a finger to his lips. ‘You’ll come back tae me. I cannae promise you’ll no’ be hurtin’, but you will come back.’ He stared in awe at this bit of a girl, but somehow he knew she spoke truth. Later, as they walked up the hill from the harbour, Maggie broke the companionable silence.
‘Brodie, I’m a really terrible woman.’ She turned to face him.
‘Really?’ Brodie laughed. ‘What is it noo? What could be sae terrible?’
‘You know Billy Anderson? He fishes on my Dad’s boat. He said I could use his cottage whilst they’re at sea.’ Brodie could see she was between laughter and tears. He held his tongue, giving her a mute nod. ‘I have the keys. I lit the fire just before you came tae meet me. My Mum thinks I’m staying at Liz’s.’ She stood with arms by her side, face a silent appeal. The import came slowly. He wasn’t slow, anything but. Yet it took time to register with the big man.
‘You mean… we… you and me…?’
‘Yes ya big lummox. You and me. We could… you know?’ She looked at her man, exasperation plain to see. ‘Don’t your want to make love to me, Brodie?’ A whisper, defeated by his seeming indifference.
What a silly question, thought Brodie, hours later. He sat in his vest, the loops of his braces hanging at his waist. Maggie lay neath the blankets. He watched the gentle rise and fall of her sleeping breaths, and marvelled at his feeling of wellbeing. When they’d first made love he had felt uncomfortable, the odour of damp earth clung to him; seeped through his pores; the smell of home. He smiled. Now I am home, he thought, and all I can smell is my Maggie. He felt clumsy, brutish even. In his haste and impatience he had been unkind. His remorse was tempered by the awe he felt for her patience, for her gentle humour, for her silent endurance. Later on they had made love together. They held each other in the warm afterglow, and spoke hesitantly, reluctantly of a life after the war.
The lightness and space, open and unencumbered; the absence of howling noise, all given way to clinging silence, was too much for him. He leaned across and turned off the gas lamp. He sat with his back to the cold stone wall, on the floor under the ledge of the window. He lit a cigarette, watching it glow in the dark. No one else was smoking. Not even when he sucked heavily on the fag. Normally that would enable him to see the faces of his mates. He was alone, and separated from his pals. His head dropped into his ready, opened hands.
‘Brodie? Brodie are you alright?’ He raised his head to see Maggie relighting the lamp. He nodded, wordless. ‘Are you sorry we did this Brodie?’ she said, sitting at the table, her head resting against her open palm.
‘No. How could I be Maggie? After all we’ve just shared.’
‘Am I a bad woman then Brodie? A hoor’ she said in a matter of fact manner. ‘Or was I no as good as aw the other girls?’
‘Ach Maggie, do ye really think I could do it wae anyone else?’ he said, pushing up from the floor. He studied Maggie from across the room, her face against her hand. Then in the waxing light from the window he gazed at his hand. _We might have stayed like that forever,_ Brodie mused, much later that day._ Frozen in place and unable to cross the divide._
‘Brodie, what is it? Please, tell me.’ She crossed the small space. ‘Brodie, what have I done?’
‘We can’t ever do this again Maggie.’ His voice sounded dead to the girl; distant and detached. ‘I won’t sleep with you until you’re my wife. And I won’t marry you till the war’s over.
‘But what have I done? You do think I’m a loose woman. Admit it, you do.’
‘Maggie, I love you for this gift of love, here and now.’ he said gesturing, in aimless fashion around the room. ‘But I hit my wee sister for the same gift tae Rab Watson, just yesterday. I split her lip and bruised her cheek; and now I just want tae cut off my right hand.’ He held the hand in front of his body, staring again at his open palm. ‘I’ve made ye both feel like hoors, the two women I love most in this god awful world. What sort of man does that eh?’
Maggie sat at the table as the silence in the room drew on. Brodie stood frozen by his torment, a futile grip on his offending fist.
‘Tell me what happened yesterday Brodie,’ she whispered. Still the silence persisted. “Talk to me Brodie, my love.’
Brodie left the house in the dark hours before dawn. Despite the girl’s protestations, he remained firm in his resolve that he would ask her to marry only after the war ended. Now dressed, the girl again sat at the table, making her own plans for them.
Anne returned home in the broad daylight of mid-morning. Brodie watched his little sister. He saw her purposeful walk, head high, wearing the marks of his anger. Mary Smith also watched from the doorway. She pushed the big Corporal aside and hugged her daughter, smiling and crying as only a mother can.
‘Oh Anne, who did this tae ye? Your poor face, who would do this to ye?’
‘It was me Ma. I did…’ The open-handed slap shook Brodie to his toes. Mary hit him again and again. He didn’t try to defend himself and, as she tired, Anne stepped between them.
‘Leave him Mum. Please.’ She held both of her mother’s hands. ‘Brodie’s had enough to put up with, he doesn’t deserve this.’
‘Oh yes I do Anne. I can’t forgive myself for taking my hand to ye. What I did to Maggie last night was worse though she has no marks. She freely gave to me what you gave to Rab, and I made her feel like a…, like a prostitute,’he shouted. ‘Now I can’t marry her. She deserves better, and I don’t have the time or the right to make it better.’
Mary watched her children. She smiled then turned to go inside,nodding in mute acknowledgement that she wasn’t needed. Two days later Brodie and Maggie stood together in Mary Smith’s kitchen. In the seldom-used parlour, Mary and her daughter sat unspeaking. Mary had both arms around Anne. She crooned softly, a mother’s song, a lullaby older than the cottage. Anne sat tense and rigid, her startlingly white face blank of expression; lifeless in her absence. The telegram lay on the sofa next to Anne. The staccato message told of the loss of the corvette HMS Flodden, with all hands, off the coast of Cape Wrath. The message was not addressed to her, but to Rab Watson’s mother.
‘You can’t be all things to all people Brodie. And you can’t take the blame for this.’ Maggie slid her arm through Brodie’s. ‘None of us thought Rab was good enough for her; but nobody wished him dead.’
‘D’ye think she loved him after all?
‘No, I don’t. But she did have feelings for him. And he certainty did love your sister.’
‘I’m glad you’re here was me,’then much softer, ‘Thank you Maggie,’ he said.
‘I love you. Where else would I be?’ She didn’t press him closer. When she left the forlorn cottage later, she smiled to herself in recognition of the decision she had made. The next day, Anne saw her brother off at the station. Maggie’s absence hurt them both.