Sorting out some of my mother’s papers reminded me of something I wrote a while back…
I was looking through some old family letters when suddenly on the radio came a beautiful Scottish folk song I hadn’t heard in ages – Hector the Hero. And since 2 and 2 sometimes make 5, the interplay of these two things led me to remember a story my granny told…
My great uncle, her baby brother, had fought in World War One, in the trenches. He ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined up. A child soldier. He was barely there long enough to unpack his kit bag before he was injured, carted off the battleground (quite literally – hauled on to a cart by his mates), and sent home to Glasgow. His wounds weren’t too bad and being young he recovered quickly. Just as well as his mother was keen to give him a good leathering for being so daft. But not before a moment my granny told me of that has lived on as an image in my mind ever since – an image of the squalor of war and the redeeming power and beauty of love.
Central Station in Glasgow is a large and imposing Victorian train station, from an era when women wore long skirts and men wore hats and children wore ‘the back of my hand’ if they weren’t careful. Gas light and steam train emissions conspired to keep the place in a permanent mist from which the giant sea monsters that were the steam trains of those days would emerge and into which they would disappear.
It was from one of these sea monsters that my uncle and hundreds of his fellow foolhardy, sweetly noble young men were disgorged that day. My granny and her mother had gone to the station to meet him. But, granny reported, there was no tearful clasping to breasts on the platform. No rushing into the arms of a mother or sister or wife for these men. Instead, they emerged from the train and the women folk would quietly drop to their knees in front of their returned, brutalised men. Kneeling there the women would light a candle and slowly, carefully, run the candle up and down every one of the (many, many) folds on the heavy woollen uniform kilts the soldiers wore. For these men were riddled with lice from the trenches, nowhere more so that in the warm, dark, lice friendly folds of their kilts. Quietly and without fuss they were brought back home, these men, and boys, by the gentle attention of mothers and sisters and wives. No tearful reunion, just simple attention to one of the basics; to be parasite free.
As my granny told me the story there was no grand emotion, just the recalling of her wonder at the sight of all those of women kneeling in front of their men on the platform of Glasgow Central Station. The candles cut through the mist in the station, illuminating the scenes of tender care all around her. The sound of thousands of lice clicking as they incinerated in all those flames was the only accompaniment to these acts of loving compassion.
It was a votive offering of quiet and simple love, the love that shows itself in the day to day attention to another human being’s needs. My family were not prone to outwards displays of affection. My great uncle was a quiet and gentle man, it never occurred to me growing up that he had seen war. My granny was a stoical woman, not someone one would naturally think of as much given to deep emotion. But he had, for he was part of it. And she was, for she was part of it. That day in Central Station the healing began not with wailing and weeping, but with unconditional and unspoken love in the form of simplest, most basic, care.
My great uncle had no great ballad written for him, is commemorated in no great poems. But he was loved. He lived into his 90s. He lived and died surrounded by his ever expanding family. They wept the day he died.