It's sixty years since Alec was in the desert but now, sitting in the garden on the white chair right underneath a glaring sun and with the boy's tortoises flattening their slow paths amongst the long, dry, ladybird-ridden grass, he wonders for a moment if he isn't still there. He wonders painfully, as though the six decades since the War have only been an epic mirage thrown up by his terrified brain in the tension of the German bi-plane being exactly over their heads as they stood in their sweat-stiffened khaki and stared up against the stabbing light. They saw the metal capsule surface of the bomb slice down through the sky, glittering and sparkling, with a low whistle before its heaviness met the sand. It didn't explode so they watched it, only a few feet away, until they came back to themselves, back into their breathing bodies again, and some of them took off running clumsily across the sand. But Alec had remained, quite a few had, and just gazed at the metal capsule. So that after the war he could never shoot a rabbit again, although his family had always been great for snaring and shooting. Because the rabbit always knew and had the look, as you took aim, of having gone out of itself.
Alec did a laugh out loud on the white chair in the garden. Daft bugger, he thought, I probably never did come back to myself. Probably left myself up in the air there. In North Africa. Probably still there now, if I had the sense to realise.
He notices that the big tortoise, Tommy the boy has called it, and the wee one, Toby, have both left wide tracks in the grass. One the size of a car tyre, the other closer to a motorbike. Letting his eyes wander up from Tommy's shell, Alec finds himself looking in the window of his brother Ian's room. He can see the clock on the wall that has Made in New York written on the back and a date from the last century. Ian's had the room underneath the boy's since his second wife died and he moved back to the farm from Drumnadrochit. He stays in it all day, even in the fine weather, only coming out to shave or chop sticks for his fire. If Alec ever walks past and has a quick look in the window all he sees is Ian in the big chair, reading one of the Westerns with the yellow covers. Every Thursday the boy's mother goes shopping to Nairn and brings back four new Westerns from the library for Ian.
In '14 Ian had seemed the one most suited to the War. He was the oldest and had so many medals for shooting the Rifle Club had sent him down to Bisley in England for a competition. And he wasn't just in the Terriers like his younger brothers. No, he was a Lovat Scout with his own horse and a Lee Enfield breech-loading rifle that had come out of the Boer War. But when he was only six he had lost the tips of all the fingers on his right hand, as far down as the first knuckle of his index finger and in a line straight across the others. His father had been turning the handle of the turnip-cutting machine and Ian had been feeding in the turnips. It had never stopped him doing anything, though, and the night the Lovat Scouts assembled for inspection in Croy Hall Ian was with them. Until the new officer saw his hand when they were doing the drill and shook his head. So Ian was downgraded and it was his three younger brothers that went away in uniforms.
Aye, thought Alec, it was a strange business about the fingers. Just a couple of years after the accident Ian had been turning the handle and his father was the one feeding in the turnips. Then there was the loud swearing and blood as his father's whole finger was taken into the machine. And the next day at Croy school Ian took the still intact finger out of a hanky to show all the boys. But one of the girls went to the Headmaster, who came and when he saw he took his stick and pushed it into the ground to make a hole for burying the finger.
So it had been Alec and Dave and Ken that went off to the Great War. Not Ian and not Charlie, the youngest of the five brothers. Alec himself was only sixteen when he went up to Croy Hall with the others at the end of a hot day in the field at Cairnwood, with his sleeves rolled up above strong arms and still carrying the heaviest scythe that some of the older men couldn't do a full day with. When he was asked his age he said seventeen and there were no more questions. So he got to see Egypt with its tortoises the size of collie pups and sometimes they were allowed to take off the rough khaki shirts and swim back and forth for hours in the Suez Canal.
Ken and Dave went off to the trenches to be snipers and Dave came back with a German's rifle he'd gotten hold of at Ypres. Ken came back with two white scars on each leg. He'd been making his way along the trench to where the rum ration was being poured out. Then he came across a section that was so deep with water and mud that, instead of wading through and maybe being too late and his rum going to someone else, he climbed up the side on an impulse and with a leap was running bent over along the top edge. The sniper in the opposite trench must have been surprised to see the silhouette moving jerkily across a starry sky but he took his time and squeezed away a shot that had about it something of the miraculous. His bullet struck the side of one knee at that impossible instant when it was exactly in alignment with the other knee. The first knee had eclipsed the second as perfectly as the moon had ever done the sun and the burning comet of German lead tore through flesh and cartilage, leaving four gaping holes to pump blood onto the ripped fabric of Ken's trousers. He howled and thrashed his face against the mud until men he knew well broke off from their places in the rum-line and came to find him. They waded through the water-logged section he'd tried to dodge, then reached up for him blindly. Groping, grabbing and pulling, they jerked him down from the top edge so that he fell heavily among them, still lashing out.
Ken came back with the white scars but no other sign of it. He could walk fine and do all the work on the farm. When he married an English girl he went down to Birmingham and lived there for sixty years, working as gaffer to a gang of men that dug drains until he was retired and widowed. This hot summer he'd been up to visit the farm and stayed in the boy's room. The boy had seen him just in his night-shirt and had asked about the white scars that were the shape of stars. And they'd all gone walks across the fields, the boy running off in front. Alec had felt it in his knees but Ken said he'd never had a twinge, not even the aches you'd expect anyone to have at eighty.
From the white chair Alec watches the boy's father loading up the bogey with hay bales and setting off in the direction of the Hall field to feed the beasts. Then he looks at the tortoises until the boy comes into the garden holding a big red balloon in both arms. He wants Alec to catch it when he throws and Alec stands up, grinning, his arms ready. The boy heaves it in a high arc but Alec manages to get it and pull it tight to the chest. He'd known by the way it flew that it was full of water, not air. But it hadn't burst on him like the boy had meant. So Alec laughs and looks at the boy who is squirming with giggles and wanting to run from being soaked. But he stands and lets Alec launch it back. Then he catches it the way you have to, the arms rounded and welcoming. So back and forth they pass it in the sun and you hear the water slooshing around inside the rubber. Alec is thinking it sounds like the noise a horse makes drinking when it's thirsty on a hot day and sucks up the water and swallows in the same go. Then he sees the boy throw the balloon, not to be caught but as a missile, and it just bursts against his chest, soaking his jumper and trousers and underwear. The boy laughs but Alec can see he's half-frightened at his own badness. Alec looks down at himself and shakes his head. He tuts and says to the boy,
That's a dirty thing to do, mun! What did you do that for? I'll have to change my clothes.
He walks past the boy, still shaking his head and tutting. He goes into the house and through the living room to his own wee room. When he has the dry clothes on he takes the wet ones back out and walks around the side of the house to hang them up on the line. As he does it he looks down the hill to Scattergrain, the neighbouring farm, then up from it to focus on Fort George in the distance which shimmers rhythmically in the heat.
When he himself was a boy, before tractors, there'd been summers like this and days when Bracken and Thistle, the two horses that pulled loaded bogeys and ploughs behind them, up and down the roads and across the fields, would be let off work. And once, Alec is remembering, he and Ken walked the two horses through to Nairn, their great flanks sweltering dangerously and the rebellious white of a rolled eye reminding the boys to stop now and then along the seven miles, to edge down gently off the rough road and take time for a drink from the fresh stream. To put their own heads deep under, neck and shoulders too, so that the cold, weird current swirled like thunder in the ears until they could take no more and, in an explosion, they had to rip their heads out and up into the world again with eyes closed and a sound, Aaaah, coming from the mouth. As Bracken and Thistle gulped and sucked, the boys hurled arcs of water against the broad sides and bent necks out of their cupped palms.
At Nairn the boys and the horses had stopped at the edge of the beach and hesitated. Alec feels the thrill again as he stands at the washing-line. He can still picture Ken's face, too, looking back at him over Bracken's neck. The horses had never seen the sea before. Now they were smelling it and beginning to pace and shuffle as their hooves went into the dry sand. Thistle had thrown up his head, nostrils flaring and teeth bared. Then the boys were running, out towards the edge of the breaking waves, away from the cluster of people further along the white strip. They pelted against the cool salt-surface, rupturing down through the slowing buoyancy, tearing up again from the soft-sand bottom. Then the deep plunge, the searching moment of doubt before commitment and acceptance of the new realm, the ancient element.
They surfaced and looked for each other's laughing heads in the spray. Then they turned towards the shore. Bracken and Thistle stood side by side where the beach ended, looking along the surface of the water at the boy's floating heads.
Bracken! Come on, mun! called Alec but the horse didn't move.
Thistle raised a hoof and snorted loudly, shaking his head until Alec looked over for Ken. He was gone.
But when he got himself turned round a bit he saw Ken's face appear and disappear as he swam out and away from the beach. Alec looked back at the horses, then followed his brother in the water. When Ken stopped they both turned and swam in place, looking back at the beach. Both the horses were agitated now.
Come on, said Alec, we'd better go back to them.
Ken shook his head and spat out water.
No, a wee bit more.
They swam further out and when they turned again Bracken could be seen walking back and forth at the sea's edge. Thistle was raising up both hooves now and boxing at the air.
We'd better go in, said Alec.
No, once more, a wee bit further.
Alec wasn't sure but he swam alongside until he heard a high screaming whine from behind that was like a shock in his body and he dragged himself around in the water, swallowing and choking. His head was under and there was panic in him. But he got up again and looked at the sun until his breath steadied. He looked for Ken's head and saw grinning eyes sparkle back.
Look behind you.
Alec turned and, up to their chests in the water, right beside each other, he saw the horses. There was the sound of Ken roaring out,
Thistle! Thistle! Come on!
throwing himself up out of the water like a whale in a book and crashing back against the surface.
Bracken! cried Alec. Bracken!
and he threw his arm down into the water, splashing, until Thistle was rearing up, whining and flaring, raising his weight and plunging forward against a wave, his head held up as he started to move towards the boys. Bracken was moving forward gently, then the water started up his nose and he whinnied.
Come on, Bracken! shouted Ken and the horse bucked in the water, lashed out and lost his footing in the loose sand. The head disappeared right under, the boys waited, and a terror came on them as they swam in place. Thistle's head was nearly beside them, the eyes quite calm now and the whining noise coming out quiet like a wee tune.
Bracken! called the boys, over and over.
Then Alec had seen Bracken's head come up not far from Ken's, the long face and wise eyes seeming to look right into him before vanishing beneath the surface again.
Ken, did you see him?
He came up out of the water.
Then Bracken's face was there again, over Ken's shoulder.
There mun! Behind you!
Ken turned and saw. The eyes gazed calmly out of the fine head and this time it stayed up, moved along on the water gracefully. There they all were, close now, the boys and the horses. Going back towards the beach they tried holding the great necks and being pulled along. Once, Ken was up on Thistle's back and got a ride along like some Sea-Lord with his hands held high and wide and his face turned up to the sun until Thistle twisted and tossed him to one side in a spray of sea-salt as Alec laughed. And once Bracken's head vanished again and the boys waited until Alec went under and swam down through the sea, breath held and eyes open so that he found the shadow that was Bracken, swimming strongly for the beach. Alec had pulled himself down to the horse's side, laid a hand on the warm, velvet neck, so that when the head turned he could see clearly the eyes, the nostrils, and feel through his wet hand the sweet, electric power as Bracken drove down with his surging hooves and carried them both up towards the warmer water near the sun.
At the washing-line Alec is standing and remembering the fine feeling of the air and the rush of sound in the ears like a roaring as Bracken brought him back out of the sea again and the faces of Thistle and Ken staring back, frightened. It makes him shake his head and laugh silently with that good feeling in the belly. And he's thinking that, later on, he'll tell the boy about it.