Ten minutes to go

A short story by Colin Gee

Alasdair Cameron wiped the dirt from the watch and checked the time.

‘Ten minutes to go, then I’m off.’

The thought brought a feeling of calm.

He lay on his back and shut his eyes, the hot sun on his face. Alasdair listened to the sound of the boys around him, playing, and laughing, the silences of those in more thoughtful engagement unheard above the banter.

A distant whistling caught his wandering mind and focussed it.

Too far to understand what type.

‘Damn my ears.’

He waggled his finger in each, one after the other, trying to get back some of the hearing he seemed to have lost.

Alasdair and his father had often gone shooting and he had developed the skill of recognising each bird by its distinctive song.

Since he was knee high to a grasshopper, Alasdair had loved birds.

A burst of laughter startled him.

“Brother John?”

He looked hard, hoping to see his sibling’s friendly face, but it was only a group of lads from the village, enjoying a quick game of cards.

Alasdair looked again but John still was not there.

He nodded at McFadden, the blacksmith’s boy, labouring past with a bucket of water.

“Don’t spill any now.”

He received a respectful nod from the hurrying boy, as befitted a man of his status.

Alasdair’s hand dropped to his pocket yet again, seeking the familiar feel of the cool metal.

The timepiece, once carried at Omdurman by his father, felt comforting in his hand.

‘Ten minutes to go.'

He shook his head in surprise.

‘Dash it. Time goes so slowly when you’re enjoying yourself.’

He examined the watch’s detailing more closely, as he had done a hundred times before.

A & J Smith the Jewellers, Aberdeen.

‘To Papa from John, Jamie, Robin, and Alasdair. Congratulations, Sir.’

Made in 1897, the 18-carat gold watch had quickly descended the line until it lay with him; the youngest of the late General’s four sons.

‘Ten minutes to go.’

Alasdair felt tired, but he had to go and be with the lads; there was no choice. There never was, these days.

He had always preferred books to the more physical games expected of a growing boy. Whether it was cricket, or football, or rugby, or a simple run like today, Alasdair was usually found at the back, hoping to avoid selection.

Today, he would be at the front regardless.

He slipped the pocket watch back into his jacket and tapped the pocket.

It was more than his life was worth to lose it.

‘Perhaps I should leave it behind?’

His own mind resolved the dilemma.

‘Don’t be stupid. You bloody need it!’

His fingers sought the smooth and reassuring round metal case, and extracted it from his pocket again.

‘Ten minutes to go.’

He shook his head; his whole being incredulous that time could go so terribly slowly.

The card game broke up; the laughter had turned to whispers as the boys got themselves ready for the day’s exertions.

Alasdair nodded at each as they made eye contact, his gentle words to each in turn giving them a boost, and his strength, by return, refreshed by the steadfastness of their gaze and the set of each boy’s jaw.

They were on his team, so all augured well for the day ahead.

“Keep up with me, lads.”

They laughed again, safe in the knowledge that Alasdair’s shorter legs would not gain him too many yards on those that followed him.

‘Ten minutes to go.’

His trousers were so dirty that he imagined his mother turning in her grave at the sight.

His footwear was similarly afflicted.

How Alasdair wished for some decent shoes in which to run, but the leather that clung to his feet was all he had for now.

‘Maybe when this run is over, I shall treat myself.’

His friend, Percy, strode confidently by.

“See you at the finish line, old chap.”

“Rather, Percy. Take care now.”

“You too, and do try and keep up this time. You and your lot are such awful slow coaches!”

Percy disappeared in the direction of his own lads, with whom there was a friendly rivalry.

‘Scotland.. Bonnie Scotland.... how I wish I was home.’

Alasdair thought of his brothers.

Jamie and Robin, the twins, were both gone, but not forgotten. They died young and in their prime, and in the way of those days, the fickle finger of fate had selected them before the blacksmith’s boy or one of the estate hands, although the miller’s son had journeyed with them.

‘What was his name?’

Their dear mother, so recently widowed, had been sent to an early grave with the grief of it all.

John...

‘Where are you, Brother John?’

No one knew for sure. He had tried to run away, but the Provost had come, found him, and taken him off to God knows where.

‘Why did you run away, you silly billy. You did all that you could... and more. It wasn’t your fault.’

Alisdair found his eyes moistening.

‘John, it’s their fault. It was a stupid idea and you only hit the man once.’

None the less, it had been enough for him to be taken away.

Which left him and the Aberdeen gold watch, which he had taken from John’s belongings before they had been spirited away, leaving no trace that he was ever there.

‘Ten minutes to go’.

He flicked the back shut, covering up the description that brought him so much relief and grief in equal measure.

His team was readying itself, getting into the blocks, as they called it. He thought they were very keen, with still ten minutes before the starting gun went.

The rumble of thunder that had been a backdrop to all his thoughts subsided, the sound falling away to a near-nothing that still promised some indistinct whistling sounds that he couldn’t quite recognise.

‘Not a decent blade of grass to run on either.’

And there wasn’t, not a one. It had been a hot summer in many ways.

Alasdair stretched his legs and stood.

“Ready for the off, Sir?”

William Macpherson always called him sir, and had done since the two found their legs and enjoyed the run of the huge Cameron estate.

“Just once, Mac, will you not call me Sir?”

The look said it all.

“Are the lads ready?”

“Aye Sir, as ready as they’ll ever be. Young Percy Cound’s mob is champing at the bit, so they are.”

The watch taunted him.

‘Ten minutes to go.’

“Best I check the damn thing.”

He pulled out the pistol and the lads around him began gathering at the kick-off point, already anticipating the starter’s gun.

“Good luck to ye, Sir.”

“And to you, William.”

His right-hand man moved amongst the waiting lads, checking things here and there, calming a troubled mind or two with a kind word.

Alasdair look at the watch.

‘Ten minutes to go’.

He put it to his ear.

Nothing.

‘What the...’

The silence was broken by the sound of whistles calling the runners into action.

‘Blast it!’

Alasdair slipped the stopped watch into his pocket and, shouting at his team, climbed out of the hole.

Private Ian McFadden, Sergeant William Macpherson MM, First Lieutenant Percy Cound, and Captain Alasdair Cameron MC, all of 2nd Battalion, the Gordon Highlanders, 20th Brigade, 7th Division, fell on the first day of the Somme Offensive, 1st July 1916.

 

Second Lieutenant John Cameron MC, found guilty of disobedience, striking a superior officer, and casting away his arms, was shot at dawn a day later.

© Copyright 2019 Colin Gee.