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Authors: William McIlvanney

Walking Wounded

BOOK: Walking Wounded
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Also by William McIlvanney


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Non Fiction

Shades of Grey – Glasgow 1956–1987, with Oscar Marzaroli

Surviving the Shipwreck



First published in 1989 by Hodder and Stoughton

This digital edition first published in 2014 by Canongate Books, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

Copyright © William McIlvanney 1989

The moral right of the author has been asserted

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on
request from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 78211 194 8


‘Come, come. Did we not all start out with more important matters on our minds?'

A man I think I overheard in a bar.

And so adrift in unknown selves we lie

Abandoned to dark plucks of circumstance,

Not knowing what will come or what we'll do

Or where the tides of sleep will wash us and

Shy from the sculling shapes that feed on mind,

Feel every certainty drift out of reach

And sigh and hold each other, tryst with touch

To share what is not shareable, and know

The jerking terror of time's undertow

And madly try to dream ourselves a beach.



ert Watson had had a busy day. The consignment of pullovers with the lion rampant on them was behind schedule. Manufacture of the turtle-neck sweaters was having to be put back. Sitting in his office, he heard the looms run down and they seemed to him like his ambition giving out.

He looked at the litter on his desk and wondered how he had come to be manacled to these invoices, how many years he had spent transferring days from the in-tray to the out-tray. It would be some time yet before he could go home, but the thought was merely a reflex, no longer carried any deep regret. Marie would be waiting there with a detailed report of how much hoovering she had done today and what the Brussels sprouts cost. Jennifer would be doing her usual impersonation of a foundling princess who can't understand how she has come to be unloaded on such a crass family and Robert, fruit of his loins and heir to his ulcers, would be playing songs in which the lyrics only surfaced intermittently and incomprehensibly.

His mind dwelt on the still sheen of silence from the factory, played with it briefly, chased it with fancies. The men and women would be packing up, raucous and ribald. There would be jocular assignations, male threats of dire sexual damage to be done and female mockery of the capacity to carry out the threats. There would be visits to the
pub by some before they went home. There would be noisy family meals, clean clothes donned, nights out. There would be unexpected things to happen. For him there were more invoices, roast beef since it was Friday, and News at Ten.

Sally Galbraith knocked at the door and looked in. She waited until his attention returned from contemplation of his own headstone. Her breasts were neatly framed in the doorway, an idyllic scene observed from an express train.

‘It's Duncan MacFarlane again,' she said.

‘Just now, Sally?'

‘Third time today, Mr Watson.' Her expression was a plea on behalf of Duncan. Bert Watson could understand it. He liked Duncan too. Most people did. ‘And it's the fourth day this week he's asked to see you.'

‘You know what it's about?'

‘Personal. But it must be important.'

‘I give in,' Bert Watson said and nodded.

He was working on a form when Duncan came in. It was a few moments before he glanced up and saw Duncan standing there, awkwardly. Duncan must have been about twenty but he wore his years lightly. Bert Watson knew that Duncan's father was dead and that he lived with his mother. He wondered if that early bereavement was what had given Duncan his aura of unselfconscious vulnerability, made women want to mother him and men want to give him fatherly advice.

‘Have a seat, Duncan. With you in a minute.'

The invoice couldn't be right. How did two dozen dresses, which were the most expensive item they had, cost less than two dozen women's sweaters?

‘Yes, Duncan. What can I do for ye?'

‘What it is, Mr Watson,' Duncan said. ‘Ah'd like a loan of five hundred pounds and three months' leave of absence.'

Perhaps it was the number of items that was wrong. It depended which one of those two entries was right, if either.

‘Yes, Duncan. You were saying?'

‘Ah'd like a loan of five hundred pounds and three months' leave of absence.'

The cost of the sweaters was correct. Bert Watson looked up. Duncan's blue eyes were staring at him steadily. Their quiet patience defied Bert Watson to hear what he had heard. He glanced at his watch, not sure whether he was checking the hour or the date or the fact that time still functioned.

‘I can't have heard what I thought I heard, Duncan,' he said. ‘Come again.'

‘I was just wondering,' Duncan said. He paused and chewed his lip. ‘If I could have a loan of four hundred pounds and three months' leave of absence.'

Bert Watson looked at the Pirelli calendar on his wall. Samantha, her see-through blouse wet from the sea, appeared to be pouting more outrageously than ever. She couldn't believe Duncan either. It occurred irrelevantly to Bert Watson that she was dressed very inappropriately for March.

hundred pounds?' Bert Watson said, as if by interviewing the incredible you could get it to make sense. ‘I thought you said five hundred pounds at first.'

‘Well, yes. Ah did.'

‘What made you change your mind, then?'

‘Well, it's maybe a bit much,' Duncan said.

‘That's certainly one way of looking at it,' Bert Watson said.

‘Mind you,' Duncan said with the air of a man anxious that the scale of his needs shouldn't be underestimated. ‘That's really what Ah need. Five hundred pounds is just the bare minimum. But Ah would settle for four hundred. Ah mean, Ah can understand your situation as well.'

‘Thanks, Duncan.'

Both sat letting the generosity of Duncan's self-denial sink in. Bert Watson's eyes strayed towards Samantha again, as they often did.

‘So,' he said, looking back at Duncan and finding him
not much less exotic than Samantha. ‘Let's see. You want four hundred pounds. Right? You're sure that's the final figure?' Duncan hesitated briefly before nodding. ‘Four hundred then. And you also want three months' leave of absence. There's nothing you'd like to add to that? Like a magnum of champagne?'

Duncan smiled at the preposterousness of Bert Watson's suggestion.

‘Duncan,' Bert Watson said. ‘I hope you won't think me nosey or carping. But who's supposed to give you this money? I mean, you're asking
to give you four hundred pounds?'

‘Well, Ah was thinkin' of the firm, really. Through you, like. You're the head man. Ah mean, Ah've worked here since Ah left the school.'

‘What age are you now, Duncan?'


‘Uh-huh. It's a wee bit early for a golden handshake, is it not?'

Duncan was mildly outraged.

‘Oh no,' he said. ‘Nothin' like that. Ah said “a loan”.'

‘So you did, right enough.'

‘Ah would pay it back, obviously.'


‘Off ma wages, like. When Ah come back to work.'

‘Duncan. That's a bit of money. You would just about make it before your pension's due.'

‘Ah've worked it out,' Duncan said. ‘Say, a tenner a week. Do it inside a year.'

‘Uh-huh. As long as the malnutrition doesn't keep you off your work.'


‘Duncan, are you in trouble?'

Duncan was mystified.


‘Why do you need this money and the leave of absence?'

‘You mean you don't know?'

‘Duncan. I'm asking you.'

Duncan smiled in wonder at Bert Watson's innocence.

‘Argentina,' he said.

Bert Watson checked with Samantha again and it was as if her upraised arm was pointing to the year above her head: 1978. He understood. Duncan came into more or less normal focus again. He wasn't mad. At least he wasn't mad in the eccentric way that Bert Watson had been beginning to imagine. He was mad with a natural madness. Bert Watson looked at Duncan and smiled. Duncan smiled back. Bert Watson shook his head and looked at his desk and smiled again.

It was interesting to have in his office the first case he had known personally of the lunacy that was sweeping the country. For weeks he had been aware of the terrible grip the disease had been taking on Scotland, like a mental Bubonic. Everybody wanted to go to Argentina. Men were apparently standing up suddenly in perfectly peaceful houses and announcing to their families, as if seized by strange messages from the air, ‘I want to go to Argentina'. More than that, some of them were trying to fulfil the urge. Every other day, in newspapers or on television, new stories came of wild plans being hatched about how to get there. Rowing boats had been mentioned. Two men from Tarbert, Loch Fyne, were rumoured to be cycling. A bookmaker from the east was said to be hiring a submarine. Since the Scottish football team had qualified for the World Cup Finals to be held in Argentina, a one-directional wanderlust had become the national insanity. Bert Watson smiled again.

‘You want to go to Argentina?'

‘Don't you?'

Duncan's astonishment struck home. Bert Watson did, or at least he had thought about how good it would be to go. He had caught an early, if mild, form of the fever. He had daydreamed of taking his holidays early, of joining in
the triumphant entry of the Scots into Buenos Aires for the final stages of the competition. But Marie's hatred of football had been a swiftly effective antidote. She wouldn't have considered it and he could never have matched the chauvinist brutality of a friend of his who, having dreamed for twelve years of the only holiday he had ever really wanted to take, came in one day and announced to his wife, ‘I've fixed the holidays'.

‘I've always wanted you to surprise me like that,' she said. ‘Where are we going?'

‘You're going to Pontin's Holiday Camp with the kids,' he had said. ‘And I'm going to East Africa on safari.'

Bert Watson had cured himself without ever mentioning it to Marie. His only active concession to the mania around him had been the line they were doing in lion rampant pullovers. Everybody else was cashing in, with flags and scarves and wall-posters. Why shouldn't he? The pullovers were doing well. That was something. You have to be sensible, he thought, as he looked at Duncan.

‘How would you be going to get there, Duncan?' he asked.

‘Through America,' Duncan replied crisply.

‘Through America? How do you mean?'

‘Go to New York first. Then right through America.'

Duncan referred to it like a main street.

‘But America doesn't border Argentina, Duncan. That still leaves you with a certain distance to go.'

‘What? You mean Central America and that? Oh yes.'

‘And South America. Argentina's quite well down the map.'

‘That's right.'

‘You're talking about 7,000 miles.' Abandoned dreams have their uses.

‘As much as that?'

Duncan pursed his lips and nodded. He looked as if he might be wondering whether to take another five pounds with him.

‘7,000 miles. You ever been out of the country?'

‘Blackpool,' Duncan said. Then he added significantly, ‘Twice.'

‘Blackpool in England?'

‘Is there another, like?'

‘I don't know, Duncan. I just wondered. But that's all?'

‘Well, with my mother and that, I don't get about much.'

‘Sounds as if you'd like to make up for it. You would go overland then?'

‘That's it. America, Central America. The lot.'

‘You heard of the Darien Gap?'

‘The what?'

‘It's jungle. In Panama. There's no means of transport there.'

‘Bound to be something.

‘Uh-huh. Who would you be going with?'

‘Well, Danny Wright would like to go. If he can get away.'

‘Who's Danny Wright?'

‘He's a mate of mine. Well, not a mate really. But Ah know him. He's keen to go.'

‘He from Graithnock, too?'

‘Originally. But he works in Coventry now. We've been on the phone a lot. We would meet up in London. Heathrow Airport.'

‘And what about Danny Wright?'

‘What about him?'

‘Has he been abroad much?'

‘He's been on holiday to Spain. But he's not absolutely sure yet.'

‘You mean you might go yourself?'

‘See how it turns out.'

Samantha's shock was growing. Her eyes, among other things, were popping. Bert Watson thought of Duncan's dead father. He had a vague image of a grave in turmoil. He remembered a Latin phrase from school:
in loco parentis.

‘Duncan,' he said. ‘This is a hosiery, not the Clydesdale Bank. Be fair. How can I do this? I'm just the manager here. Mary Simmons is talking about wanting a fur coat. Jackie Stevens was telling me he fancies a different car. Am I supposed to advance them the money as well?'

‘But this is a special case,' Duncan said.

‘Special case? Every man and boy and most of the women in Scotland would like to go.' Except Marie, he thought. ‘Be fair, Duncan, it can't be done.'

‘Ah mean it's not every year we're in the Finals of the World Cup.'

‘I'm beginning to think it's a good thing. It can't be done, Duncan. It's a daft idea. Anyway, we can't spare you from the factory for three months. We've got our summer lines to get out.'

Duncan thought about it.

‘That's it?'

‘That's it, Duncan.'

Bert Watson felt sorry for Duncan and glad at the same time. He was saving him from himself. Somewhere the subsoil settled in a peaceful grave.

‘Well, thanks for talkin' about it anyway.'

Duncan stood up.

‘No problem, Duncan. You can see it all on the telly, anyway. Probably get a better view.'

The price on the sweaters was right. That meant the error was in calculating the cost of two dozen woollen dresses.

‘Ah'll let ye know when Ah'm givin' in ma week's notice.' When Bert Watson looked up, Duncan was on his way to the door.

‘Duncan! What did you say?'

‘Ah'm not sure exactly when Ah'll be packin' up. See, Ah've got to try an' make as much money as possible. An' Ah've got to give maself time to get there. Could take six or seven weeks, they reckon.'

‘You pack up your job, that's it.'

‘Ach, well.'

‘Duncan! Don't do this.'

He came out from behind his desk.

‘Ah've got to.'

‘Duncan. Listen. Take another few weeks to think about it.'

‘Ah've thought about it for months.'

‘What about money?'

‘Ah've been savin' up for four year.'

BOOK: Walking Wounded
7.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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