Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, May 21st 1941

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, October 7th, 2017)

Mary MacLeod was busy restocking the shelves of the shop in the NCOs’ canteen. She liked the job well enough, though the walk to work through mean streets was hard to bear on a May day that put her in mind of happier times back home in Skye. Stacking the cigarettes, she was interrupted by a Very Important Person, Sergeant-Major Andrew Marshall:

‘Mary, lassie, drop wit you’re doin’ an’ come along wi’ me tae Major Drummond’s office.’ He quickly continued, ‘You’ve done nothin’ wrang, lassie. But we’re needin’ a translator to help wi’ a new recruit frae Skye. He makes oot that he only speaks Gaelic and, if so, he’s nae damn use in the Army. But the major an’ me, we think maybe he’s a damn liar.’

The Sergeant-Major, very properly, held Major Drummond’s door open for Mary, and – small and dark, neat and timid – she tripped into the office. Very properly, Major Drummond rose from his desk to greet her. Nothing so far was setting Mary at her ease. The major indicated the private standing to attention on the other side of the desk:

‘This is Private MacKinnon, Mary. We need you to help with some questions we have for Private MacKinnon.’

And so the interrogation proceeded. Yes indeed, he told Mary, he had been taught English at school. But the school had been a long way from the croft in the winter time. And his mother had often needed his help in the croft in the summer time. Forbye, truth to tell, he wasn’t a great scholar. The private answered all her questions with a gentle smile. Mary felt a rush of homesickness and she warmed to the boy, an emissary from her own people.

The question-and-answer session took a while, and was periodically interrupted by the sergeant exclaiming, ‘My God! Wit’s that oot the windae?’and ‘Good Grief! Wit’s that thing crawling up your sleeve?’ To all of these interjections, Private MacKinnon would react with just a puzzled frown.

At length, the major leaned back in his seat: ‘What do you think, Sergeant-Major?’

‘Sir, a man that cannae follow orders is nae more use than a chocolate teapot in the Army.’

‘My view exactly. We’ll discharge him.’

The major shuffled some papers. The Sergeant-Major led Private MacKinnon away. In the doorway, the private turned back to Mary. He gave her a slow wink and walked away.

(In Memoriam, Johan MacLean 1914 – 2012)

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