Act Of Kindness

20 Jul

At my boarding school we had a Cadet Corps. Each Wednesday afternoon was devoted to military activities, be it firing World War I vintage Lee Enfield .303 rifles at targets or marching about on parade ground manoeuvres. There was one further obligation. At some point you had to give up a week of school vacation to go off and take part in martial exercizes staged in a larger arena than the school grounds.

In my case I was bid report during the Easter holidays to Bridge of Orchy in Scotland in order to march about the tawny hills with a 30 pound pack on my back. I was fifteen. The rail tickets were bought. I was given some money for emergencies and went off happily to spend some days at a schoolfriend’s house before the due date. We went to the movies and browsed in record shops. I recall that we saw a double bill that impressed us mightily. THE SERVANT and (even more) BILLY LIAR. Who would not run off with Julie Christie?

I spent money without calculation. Came the day when I was put on the train north and realized quicky that I had less than ten shillings to my name. By the time I reached Glasgow, the amount was nearer five shillings. It was April and there was snow in the streets. Glasgow had two main train stations in those days and I had to walk from one to the other to get a train on to Bridge of Orchy. It turned out that the last train had gone. And the next one would not leave till five thirty in the morning. I thought of the YMCA but decided to buy a cup of hot tomato soup first. That meant I had less than five shillings in my pocket. I walked to the YMCA to discover the price of shelter for a night was five shillings. If only I had foresworn that cup of soup.

I was at a loss now. I walked back to the train station. My duffle bag was starting to feel heavy. It was cold and the damp of the snow was working its way into my shoes. It was about seven o’clock. Glasgow seemed a bleak harsh place and I had to find some shelter for the next ten hours. I was feeling sorry for myself.

Back at the train station I used the latrines. In those days it was common to have a latrine keeper who had his own little snug room at the end which commanded a view of the facilities. I was merely killing time. I went out onto the platform and browsed the racks at the magazine stand. I wandered around the station, exploring. Time was hanging heavy. I went back into the latrines again.

This time the attendant, sensing something, beckoned me. In a strong Gorbals accent he said, “What’s up with ye, laddie?”

I explained shamefacedly. I wasn’t looking for anything. I was just embarrassed at how stupid I had been.

His eyes narrowed. He brought me into his snug little room with a couple of chairs, a tea kettle and a heater. He found a sheet of paper and scribbled on it. He showed it to me.

“See,” he said. “This is to my wife. Just tell her Jock sent ye. She’ll put ye to bed and wake ye with a cooked breakfast and send ye back here in plenty of time to catch the 5.30 to Bridge of Orchy.”

I was momentarily speechless, overwhelmed. I lost my voice at his generosity but I found it again as he was starting to give me directions to his house.

“I couldn’t,” I said. “I just couldn’t put you and her to that trouble.”

We argued it. He was a determined man. But he could see I wasn’t going to accept the offer. So long as I knew the offer was absolutely genuine, he was satisfied.

“Well,  you’re welcome to a chair and a cup of tea and spend the night here,” he said. And we drank tea and talked through the night. He had been on a ship sunk in the Java Sea by the Japanese. And my grandfather had been captured on Java at around the same time. It was the easiest night’s conversation I had ever been a part of. We talked of cabbages and kings, punctuated by fresh cups of tea. “It’s nae ower sweet for ye, laddie?”, he asked me, ever solicitous. We ate biscuits.

The time came. He pointed me towards the right platform. We shook hands. I got on the train. I have never forgotten him or that night of shelter and talk. Somewhere I still have the scrap of paper he wrote out for me to show his wife. His name was Jock McGuigan.

%d bloggers like this: