Christmas At Erskine
Short Christmas story of a QARANC nurse at Erskine nursing home in Edinburgh Scotland as a thank you to readers of CG Buswell for their support for my first novel. These events take place between The Grey Lady Ghost of the Cambridge Military Hospital and The Drummer Boy (released summer 2016).
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Scott closed the door to the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh, grateful for the accommodation just a short drive from Combat Stress where he had been undergoing therapy. As he made his way to his car he enjoyed the feel of the crunch of his shoes on the virginal snow as it crackled down and sunk slightly, relishing the experience of each footstep, feeling a little taller with each stride. He still had a long way to go before accepting and conquering his condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and much more therapy to overcome his anxiety, beating headaches and low morale. As he enjoyed looking up at the nearby trees and listening to the birds twitter their morning song he thought grimly back to his encounter with the Grey Lady and Naomi. He dared not tell his therapists and support worker about that ordeal, nor did he confide in Padre Caldwell, though he did enjoy his visits and the boxes of chocolates. Instead he had told them about how anxious he had become; how he had locked himself away in his flat and had taken too much codeine for the headaches which beat away, almost like someone pounding directly onto his temple with a heavy stick and penetrating deep into his psyche, changing his character.
Scott concentrated on enjoying the freshness of the Scottish air and looked up to see the sun glaring out around him. It was teasing him and the others getting out of their cars in the adjacent car park. Lovely and bright but deceptive for it was cold and he shivered, not just because of the low temperature but because of his remembering the encounters with the ghost and her legacy that she said left him with special insight. Had he been haunted or caught up in a freak fantasy to escape the horrible truth? He only wished he could have the ability to cure himself of negative thoughts, feeling guilty about surviving Afghanistan when others did not. But he must move on and put these hallucinations behind him and think more positively. He opened his car boot and lifted in his kitbag and quietly closed the boot: he still could not tolerate loud noises.
Over in the adjacent car park, mere metres away, were three elderly ladies, smartly dressed in slacks and thick woollen coats. Each wore a shiny scarlet and silver badge that glinted in the winter sun and caught Scott's eye. He smiled. He recognised the badges as large sized emblems of the QA Association with its large crown above the cross of the Order of Dannebrog chosen by Queen Alexandra to represent her native Denmark. She also chose the motto Sub Cruce Candida as the motto for her beloved QAs which meant under the white cross. The Association rather than having the motto on their emblem chose Friendship instead. Scott knew he needed more friends to help him after his bereavement and these were former members of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, his fellow nurses, long retired, but still active within the Association. Scott had been ordered, by Colonel Kirsty Duncan, his matron of 22 Field Hospital, to attend the coffee morning at the opposite building, Erskine Nursing Home. This was one order he gladly accepted, indeed it wasn't as much an order as a suggestion.
'You'll love it Scott, you're a war hero, three tours of active conflict, a chest full of medals and a recent deployment to Sierra Leone, they'll be all over you with their cakes and coffee, just don't have breakfast! If you don't eat a slice of each lovingly baked cake you'll offend at least one former QA and I don't want to hear from an old matron or ward sister that you refused their shortbread!' she laughingly told him. 'Besides, you need fattening up. Take plenty of change so that you can buy raffle tickets and if you win wine bring it back for me! Oh and take something for their bring and buy sale, books usually sell well, and make sure you buy something.'
'But I've never been to a QA coffee morning before, can't I just drive straight home to Aberdeen for my Christmas leave Ma'am?' asked a hopeful Scott.
'Ha ha no way boyo,' she boomed, 'this is one duty I insist on. The QA Association isn't just for retired nurses and health care assistants or admin staff, it's also for serving members. Above all it is about friendship and helping those in their time of need and frankly Scott you need both. So when you leave the PRC do a left turn and enjoy the coffee morning. It's at Erskine Care Home, just next door, which only accepts patients who have had military service or their spouses. I've heard good things about the care they receive and hope to see it for myself one day. In the meantime when I visit you at Tidworth in February I expect to hear all about it - and see that you are on the mend and eager to re-join us. In the meantime please continue with your therapy sessions and enjoy being home in Scotland.' With that she had briskly turned and left.
Scott was grateful that she and the Second in Command had arranged for his rehab and PTSD treatments.
Scott walked carefully across the snow to follow the ladies into the nursing home and what a pleasant building it looked with its modern curving architecture over two levels. He'd read that it had opened in 2002 with a further extension to cope with the demand in 2009. Yet from outside both buildings seamlessly fitted as if built in the same initial construction. Though it was the depths of winter the gardens had been immaculately weeded and were awaiting the colour that spring brings. The evergreen plants cheered the area up and seemed to be a haven for eager birds pecking away for worms and other grubs. As he entered the Reception area he smiled at the sight of the tall Christmas tree which was adorned with plentiful decorations and tinsel. A white dove in flight carrying a festively wrapped Christmas box in its beak caught his eye and his grin broadened as he thought of his father and his beloved doos, the pigeons and doves that Naomi had so loved. How would his father feel about his breakdown and should he tell him? As he paused to read the brass sign that announced that HRH Princess Royal opened the building on the 14 November 2009 his thoughts were interrupted:
'Ah ma bonnie loon, you must be Scott?' enquired a cheerful woman dressed in matching skirt and jacket with a dark and light blue, scarlet and white silk scarf tied neatly over the top of her blouse. She was effortlessly carrying a wide box and was speaking his Doric dialect so Scott knew she must have travelled down from his Granite City for the occasion.
'Aye,' replied Scott hesitantly. 'I'm here for the QA coffee morning.'
'Well make yourself useful and carry in my cupcakes, but be gentle mind, I was up early this morning icing them. And watch you don't step on Figaro.' She cheerfully handed the white box over to Scott, 'I'm Fiona, Kirsty told me to expect you. I'm under orders to look after you. I thought my days of orders from Matrons were long over. Still, it makes me feel useful. The room is along this way. We're in the Robertson Trust Room, lovely and warm. We used to hold them in the Garrison Church, but one year we weren't able to book their rooms and our Colonel found this place. A great find, isn't it special? Perhaps I should book a room.'
'Och no Ma'am you look lively and young enough,' replied Scott as he struggled to keep up with her quick pace, wondering who, or what Figaro was.
'Ha, ha, I was told you were charming to the ladies. None of the Ma'am stuff with me ma loon, I only reached the dizzy heights of Sergeant. In fact we're all really friendly here, all first names and no mention of rank, you'll have fun.'
Scott didn't look too convinced but obediently followed and couldn't help but grin at the sign that said to watch out for Figaro the dog wandering around. He felt he was being led much like a faithful animal. As he entered the room he gave it a quick scan and saw other ladies busy at tables, unpacking an assortment of tasty looking cakes, piles of DVDs and books and handmade crafts such as a fun looking reindeer face made from card which had a red lollipop inserted to look like a nose. He must get one for his dad he cheekily thought.
'Hello Scott, I'm Morag the branch secretary, it's a pleasure to meet you. I've heard so much about you,' lowering her voice she added, 'what you and our boys and girls did in Sierra Leone was incredible, we're all very proud of you.' Sensing Scott's embarrassment she quickly added, 'Maybe one day you'll tell us all about it, in the meantime would you like a cup of tea or coffee?' Picking up a saucer and cup she quickly added a millionaire shortbread, 'I baked these myself, I'd love to ken what you think of them,' she enquired.
'They look delicious, lovely and thick chocolate, just how I like them, coffee please Morag.'
Morag beamed at his compliment as she poured out his coffee and handed him the saucer and cup, 'milk and sugar are on the side there, then come and join us girls for a gossip,' she nodded to the table by the bring and buy stall which had several empty chairs scattered around a small group. 'But don't feed any to Figaro, apparently he's had his ration of cake this week from the ladies at Erskine.'
Scott bit into his millionaire's shortbread. As he chewed he enjoyed the crunch of the set chocolate and then the mingling of the toffee that formed a sweetly gooey mess that stuck to his teeth. He munched down onto the shortbread and marvelled at this excellent Scottish recipe that combined several of his favourite ingredients to form one of his favourite treats. 'Mmm, affa tasty Morag, I ken a Padre who would love these,' said Scott as he beamed at her.
Morag blushed but this was hidden as Fiona, not to be outdone, stretched across with a plate of cranberry flapjacks and buttered drop scones, 'Do try these dear, just like granny made!'
'They sure do look nice, thank you,' replied Scott, helping himself to one of each, grateful for being pre-warned by the Colonel not to have breakfast. He discretely counted the ladies around the room and worked out that he had at least sixteen more cakes and biscuits to munch through. He quickly tried to work out unique compliments to say for each one. He also noted that he wasn't the only male; there was an elderly gentleman, dressed in tartan trousers and smart light green jacket with a silk tie with striped colours of green, gold, navy and black. He was sat by a chair at the other door petting a young red dachshund.
'Do you remember Major Maugham from BMH Iserlohn?' asked Fiona to Morag.
'Do I!' laughed Morag. 'She was a right ogre, gave me restrictions of privileges for three nights in a row because my frilly hat wasn't starchy enough. She said it was as floppy as a wet dishcloth. She ran that medical ward like she was a Sergeant Major.'
'Well I met her at the Cenotaph last week, and she still thinks she's an RSM! Had us all lined up and practicing our marching before the parade. Mind you it paid off, we were all in step.' She was interrupted by several barks from Figaro, who was jumping up between barks. 'What's he up to now, jumping up for no reason, daft dog! But isn't it lovely to see such a bonnie dog in a care home, I bet he'll make a wonderful therapy dog when he's finished being a playful puppy. He belongs to Jenny, charming girl, she works here in the recreation department.' Morag gave a little laugh, 'He keeps pinching the bowls when the residents play boccia bowls! They usually find it amusing, but not when they were practicing for the recent Erskine Commonwealth Games. All four care homes in Scotland took part, great fun.'
Scott looked across to the dog as the conversation moved on to talk about the friends both women had in common. He now recognised her from the BBC coverage of the Cenotaph parade that he had watched at the PRC on his ipad. He had so wanted to go to church to pay his respects but his anxiety had proved too much. He had felt so guilty at what he thought had been disrespect but had stood for the minute silence and had proudly watched the Festival of Remembrance the night before. He was so proud to have seen his colleague from Sierra Leone and shed many tears as she talked about her ordeal of developing Ebola and how she thought she may die. They had all secretly thought that. It had brought back painful memories for Scott. But he had been so proud of her delivering the Book of Remembrance across the Albert Hall. Like her, he knew he would heal one day and get on with his army career. As he looked around him he was grateful for the friendship of so many QAs. His eyes were drawn once more to the man playing with the dog. He looked too old to have served with the QAs, since men were only admitted to the Corps in 1992. Scott excused himself from the group and walked over to him. He bent down to stroke the dog and introduced himself to the man. 'Hello, I'm Scott, I recognise the colours on your tie, it's the Gordon Highlanders isn't it?'
'Aye laddie, I served many a year with the Gordons, and proudly so.'
'So you're an Aberdeen loon then?' enquired Scott eagerly.
'Nae quite loon, up a bittie at Fraserburgh.'
'Aye I ken it fine, the Broch ma faither calls it.'
'Aye, after the auld Scots word for Burgh. So fit brings you here the day?'
'My Matron asked me to come along and make new friends from the QA Association. But I'm guessing you've never been in the QAs yersel, are you a husband of one of the wifies here?' asked Scott switching easily back into his Doric dialect of Aberdeenshire.
'Naw lad, I often come along here to listen tae the quines blethering awa. I wanted to see this daftie here,' he bent down to pet Figaro once again. 'He's a bonnie loon is this laddie, I love dogs, such sensitive creatures. He's so gentle with us residents, but a bit of a feartie.' He chuckled as he continued, 'he'll catch his own reflection in the piano during singalongs and growl away.'
Scott extended his arm and proffered his hand, 'I'm Scott by the way.'
'Pleased to meet you Scott, I'm Jim.' said the man, taking Scott's hand in both of his. 'Please excuse my cold hands.'
'Nae bother, so what brought you to Erskine if you don't mind me asking, you look fine and healthy.'
'Aye richt enough, but I wisnae always. Fine bunch of nurses and carers here. Nothing is too much trouble. When I left my home to stay here I didn't expect to have so much fun. Especially after my Peggy died. Oh she was a lovely lass. Grief and loss is so hard to bear isn't it?'
'Aye, it is that,' replied Scott with a sigh. 'I recently lost someone who I loved deeply; it's so hard to move on.'
'It is that laddie, it is that. Sorry to hear that; and you so young tae.' At that moment Figaro barked and wagged his tail, nose pointing to the door. 'Here, let me show you around the home and you'll get the chance to watch Figaro run up and doon the corridor. Could you open the door for us please?'
Scott obliged them both and Figaro bolted for the opened door, made a sharp right turn by the kitchens and was off. Jim followed him and Scott went through the door, catching a glance at the group of QAs watching him with concerned looks. 'Maybe just a quick look round Jim, I'm supposed to be mooching around at the coffee morning.' Passing the kitchen Scott remarked, 'Lunch smells good.'
'Aye, you always eat well here.' Jim noticed Scott frowning at some old black and white framed photos on the walls of nurses with patients. Most looked fit and well, though there were some sat on old-fashioned wheelchairs and were missing legs. They all looked smart in the matching pyjamas and even the amputees had their trouser legs smartly pinned back. The nurses looked spotless in the white starched aprons and white veils. They reminded Scott of the Grey Lady and he again involuntary shivered, though the home was warm. 'You've had quite the ordeal recently haven't you Scott? An old veteran soldier can always tell, some call it the thousand yard stare.'
Scott was momentarily taken aback, almost thinking that Jim knew about the Grey Lady. 'I know what you mean Jim. I've recently come back from Africa and before that Afghanistan. I saw some awful things, but also some great things, the miracle of modern medicine and nursing I guess.'
'Ah ha laddie, much like these chaps in the photo. They are patients of Craiglockhart Hospital which was here in Edinburgh. They cared for the psychologically damaged, what the War Office called neurasthenia. I guess you'd called it battle-shock or PTSD. The building is now used as part of the Napier University Campus. Here at Erskine we were asked to suggest names for the wards and Sassoon and Owen were so popular that they were chosen.'
'After the war poets?'
'That's richt son. More sensitive souls. They could convey the horrors of war in such beautiful poems.'
'I've read some by Robert Graves, wasn't he a patient too?'
'Nae lad,' corrected Jim, 'people often say that but they are mistaken. He only visited his friend Siegfried Sassoon and in fact escorted him here to be admitted.'
'Oh.' Scott chastised himself. 'I should have kent that, military history is a hobby of mine.'
'Ah well you'll love these pictures further up the corridor then Scott,' said Jim leading the way past murals of flowering poppies in fields. 'These are of passing out parades of some of the Scottish regiments, including my old regiment The 1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders.'
Scott walked further along the corridor whilst Figaro dashed up and down, his back legs barely able to keep up with the pace of his front legs. Scott chuckled away at his antics as he passed each watercolour. He was so impressed with the artists' detail, you could practically reach out and touch the lifelike scenery, almost expect the soldiers to start marching off. The next picture was a collage of many photographs and reading the caption above Scott could see they were of Royal family visits.
'Do you see Prince Charles in amongst them?' enquired Jim.
Scott looked more closely and spotted him, kilted and wearing a Gordon Highlanders tie. He peered closer at the man Prince Charles was talking with and then Scott looked at Jim.
'Aye laddie, that's me. One of the proudest days of my life. He was our last Colonel-in-Chief. He chatted away with me like we were auld friends. Wonderful man, loved us Highlanders.'
'Fantastic,' said an impressed Scott, 'our Colonel-in-Chief is Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex. I'd love to meet her one day. She always wears a poppy with the QA badge engraved on it at Remembrance events.'
'Aye, a bonnie lassie, next door is my room, look Figaro is sitting outside it. May I show you?'
'Aye, please, but not if I'm intruding or taking up your time.'
'I've all the time in the world Scott, come on in. Could you get the door please and let Figaro in?'
Scott obliged and noted Jim had his full name on the door along with a lovely photograph of him smiling away, though he looked frailer in the image. He held the door open and Jim went in and popped himself onto his comfortable armchair.
Scott sat opposite him in the guest chair, just outside the en-suite bathroom. 'So did you see much action in the Gordon's Jim?'
'Aye, too bloody much! I was in Tampin in Malaya, what you'd now call Malaysia. It was never officially a war. The Governments called it an Emergency, but it lasted from 1948 through to 1960 and was just as brutal as any other armed conflict. I went out as a young nineteen year old, green as anything, along with my best mate Ally. You could say that we went out as boys and left men. Or at least I did. We were fighting the Communist Terrorists and they were unforgiving. Hard fighters they were and the sad thing is that they were trained by our troops during the Second World War so were taught to kill well. Being local they knew how to blend into the jungle and vanish. Such thick impenetrable jungle, it took us days to navigate through to our targets. Even when we were there in 1952 things were still basic. We fought for each other, but the politicians fought for the valuable rubber and palm oil and also timber and tin. We didn't care for any of that, we just wanted to survive and go home. There had always been Chinese in Malaya and they fought for the British Colony in this revolt and insurgency. There was heavy loss on both sides and me and my mates took lives, not an easy thing to do, but a duty we had trained for. I envy you Scott, saving lives instead of taking them.' Jim looked out of the window, doing his own thousand yards stare with tears in his eyes.
'It sounds like Ally never made it home?' enquired Scott gently.
'I knew when I first saw you Scott that you had great empathy. You have great understanding. She was right you know.'
Scott looked surprised and a chill ran through his body as he incredulously thought of what Jim meant, surely not he thought.
Jim continued, ignoring Scott, but taking the time to reach down and stroke Figaro behind his ear. 'There was no emergency helicopters or highly qualified nurses and doctors for us unfortunately. The Medical Emergency Response Team was decades away from being. We were deep in the jungle with our Iban trackers, trying to root out CT's, the Communist Terrorists, to burn down their bases and kill or capture them. Only this time we were vastly outnumbered. We were commanded to perform a tactical retreat and during this Ally got shot in the stomach whilst defending our platoon's retreat. We all knew he was a goner. Even if we could have got a chopper below the thick jungle canopy he would not survive. And the worst thing was that Ally knew it. We didn't have much time, he asked for some grenades off the boys. I couldn't bring myself to give him mine; I knew what he had in mind. I didn't even know what to say to him. Certainly none of this love you man or hugging that you youngsters do now. I could only bring myself to pat him on the shoulder and wish him luck. I knew what he was about to do when we got clear and the CTs were upon him.'
Scott listened in awe, his earlier confusion forgotten.
'You're a good listener Scott, no wonder you were chosen. You've quite a journey to go on and I wish you well. Yes, Ally took out the advancing CTs and bought us time to get away at the cost of his own life. And ever since I've never been able to forgive myself,' finished Jim as tears silently fell down his cheeks.
Scott understood now. He reached over to Jim's hands and as he took them he said, 'Ally understood Jim. Just like every soldier understands. He bravely and willingly did his duty. He does not blame you, he's proud to have saved so many of his friends and fellow Highlanders. He's been at peace all these years. Don't ask me how I know this, I just do. It's a special gift I've recently developed and I'm only just getting used to having it. My own guilt and loss were getting in the way, but I'm on the road to recovery.'
'That's good to hear Scott, and thank you,' said Jim through his tears. He looked out of his window and removing his right hand from Scott's he pointed to a round patio area with freshly planted shrubs and a beautifully ornate sandstone bird table as a centre piece. I've always loved that view. The patio area was donated to Erskine from the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show, all the way from London. It's our contemplation garden, I shall miss it. Thank you Scott. You ken his drumming is only going to get louder.'
Scott felt Jim's other hand slip from his own. When he looked away from the window to Jim's chair he was not at all surprised to see it was now empty. He felt no fear, only a huge sense of peace as he turned to Jim's bed where he was laid out in his smart dark green with yellow stripe Gordon Highlanders kilt and jacket. His hands were clasped over his body where a thoughtful nurse had helped his cooling body to grasp once more his much loved Glengarry immaculate with its red and white diced pattern. His brown Tam o Shanter was proudly on display on his bedside cabinet with the Gordon's regimental cap badge with the motto By Dand jutting out from under the Stag's head from the tartan square background. The nurses and carers had done a touching job of making Jim look his best once more for his friends and family to see him before going to the undertakers. Scott noticed a wet line running down Jim's cheek, like a rogue tear from a long held memory being released. He pulled out the handkerchief from his suit pocket, just above the QARANC blazer badge and dabbed Jim's cheek dry. 'Go in peace mate.'
After a moment of prayer and thought Scott looked down to Figaro who was sat squarely at the foot of Jim's bed and said, 'C'mon boy.' They both left the room quietly, Scott closing the door behind him. He walked back down the corridor, Figaro trotting happily by his side, tail gently wagging in rhythm to his movement. 'Clever boy Figaro, you dogs have the gift too, don't you?' As if in reply Figaro gave a small, but happy bark and ran to the Robertson Trust Room whose door was just opening.
'Ah, there you are Scott, we were beginning to wonder if us girls had frightened you off. Come along with us as we browse round the Erskine Christmas Fayre, you can help carry the goodies we buy.'
Scott obediently fell in line with his new friends. He knew that this Christmas and many more would not be as lonely as he thought.
Scott's adventures continue soon in The Drummer Boy. Read the first chapter of my first novel The Grey Lady Ghost of the Cambridge Military Hospital: Part 1 of the Grey and Scarlett series for free at www.cgbuswell.com where there are links to buy it in Paperback or on Kindle.
It would help this fledgling author's career if you would please leave a review at Amazon or Good Reads or tell your friends about it using the social media links below or on the right if you loved this story.
If you have enjoyed this Christmas short story then please consider a donation to the veterans' charity Erskine who care for veterans and their spouses since 1916 at www.erskine.org.uk
To learn more about the QARANC Association please visit www.qarancassociation.org.uk and for the history of the Corps please visit www.qaranc.co.uk and if you need to look up the Doric words used then try the A-Z at www.doricphrases.com
A big thank you to Stewart Pebbles for showing me around Erskine and giving me so many nuggets of information. Thank you to Judith Haw, External Communications Officer at Erskine for kindly allowing me to use Erskine as a setting and for arranging a tour of their wonderful Home at Edinburgh. I'm grateful to Jenny of their Recreation Department for allowing me to share Figaro with readers.
I'd also like to say a BIG THANK YOU to readers as I embark on a full-time writing career and for your kind words of encouragement on Facebook, Twitter and through your reviews and for following and believing in Scott and his adventures.
I love that my gifted daughter, Abigail, and my wife, Karla, created the covers for this Christmas short story. Both are such talented artists. Abigail's is at the top and on Kindle whilst Karla's is to the left. Which do you prefer?
The lettering and website is from the talented Richard at Rogue who with a few words brief always produces such creative work.
I'm indebted to Padre Katherine and Ray Hyman of Cruden Bay IT Services for their continuing support and proof reading. Merry Christmas guys and see you at the Kirk at midnight.