Debbie was the first reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.

Her appearance was on Sat 13th August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent. Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
 

Debbie Cannon is a writer and actor who moved to Edinburgh in 2005.

Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, and her poems published in Northwords Now and on the Clear Poetry and Open Mouse websites.

She can be heard as the announcing voice on Edinburgh’s trams and buses, and found on Twitter as @Debsca.
 

 

Billy’s War
a short story by Debbie Cannon

Billy couldn’t remember exactly when the sadness had started. It had slid up behind him, like a great-coat someone strange had slung over his shoulders, its pockets weighted with stones. He had seen a doctor at demob, but the man had looked so wretched himself, his eyes like blue pebbles sinking into rings of wrinkles – Billy hadn’t liked to impose. Besides, at that point he hadn’t really recognised how downhearted he was. More than anything, he was concerned by an uncertainty about what he would find when he arrived back home to his mum and dad in Dundee.

And returning home had been an odd experience. On one hand it was warm and clean, and he sank gratefully into the grooves indented in the upholstery of the old armchair, and into the dip in the centre of his mattress, as if he was fitting back into a mould he’d stepped from six years earlier. His dad couldn’t stop looking at him, eyes twinkling through the blue haze from his pipe, and his mum was so excited to have him home. Every time she reached out to touch him or pass him a cup of tea even (and there was an ocean of tea), her hands started trembling, as if his return had caused some kind of vibration which she could sense with her fingertips.

‘So what’s the news?’ he had demanded, on the afternoon he arrived home, once he’d shrugged off his bags and settled his aching feet onto the foot-stool (threadbare in patches now, he noticed).

‘Och,’ Mum had sat watchful as a hen on the edge of her chair, glancing back and forwards between him and his dad, ‘och, nothing really.’ And when he pressed her, she managed, ‘It’s just wonderful to have my two men back home, ay.’

This was part of the problem. They’d adapted themselves to summarising news into what could be compressed onto ink and paper or into a few days of intense reunion. Now there was all the time in the world, such as that was, and they couldn’t think of anything much to say to each other. Mum and Dad exhausted the family and neighbourhood gossip pretty quickly, and although Billy fed them titbits about his army experiences – mainly pranks in the barracks, or glimpses of the strange foreign landscapes he’d seen, stuff that was light and safe – he didn’t want to talk about what war had been like. After all, where did you start, to tell someone that? It wasn’t so much a story he could recount, or even a series of pictures he could paint; it was a feeling, a thing that had absorbed into his own being. And how did you explain to anyone what you were? It was the kind of thing you could barely understand even if you spent a lifetime considering it.

The world felt small, now – the tall tenement walls that loomed along the lanes in town; the half-closed curve of the close which he walked along every day, head down, past the shrieking kids in the dingy old school playground; the steep staircase to his bedroom which narrowed into a deep darkness at the landing. Mum had packed away the model aeroplanes he’d had strung up from the landing skylight – he guessed because of what had happened to Fraser Docherty, his pal from school, and of course to so many others whom she’d never met. That was the other thing. Mum didn’t like to talk to him about the faces that had disappeared from their world forever, as if her committed silence was some kind of charm which kept him safe.

But it was worse than that – where home had been everything that was soft and comfortable, now it had a jaggedness to it, as if in the heart of it was a pit they were all scrambling not to fall into. It wasn’t just home, either – Billy could see it in the hollows below the eyes and cheek-bones of the people he passed on the way to his new job as clerk at the solicitor’s office, and in the holes frayed into the cuffs and collars of their clothes. Fear had taken a bite out of their lives, their confidence, their hearts. What’s more, it was gnawing at them still. Living in anticipation of disaster had become a habit, like his sadness.

By now, it was becoming unbearable: when he sat with files at work the figures and letters they presented seemed meaningless; when he walked home at the end of every day he thought the birds fell silent as he passed, like mourners.

‘I was thinking I’d go away for a bit,’ he said to Mum and Dad at tea-time. ‘I’ve got those savings from before I went into the army.’

Mum’s bone-bright hands dropped to the table.

‘Where?’ she asked, like a diver coming gasping up for air.

Billy sat up straight. He didn’t care for upsetting her, but the thought of this new plan made him thrill from tip to toe.

‘The States,’ he said.

Dad’s blue eyes sparkled. ‘The Wild West, it’ll be then?’ he asked. Occasionally, he would pause on the landing outside Billy’s room, and share a moment chewing over the posters of Western movie stars that adorned his walls. Hard-faced men, and tough women with chests that spilled and lips like scarlet slashes. ‘Stagecoach, starring John Wayne! Thrills! Thrills! Thrills! Fight to the Death On the Last Frontier of Wickedness!’

‘That’s the one,’ said Billy, his eyes shining back.

‘Cowboys!’ said Dad. ‘Very good!’ And he started cheerfully to spread jam over his piece of bread.

Mum shivered. She looked as alone as a tiny, cold bird. ‘Oh well then,’ she said, ‘I’m going to get something out for our pudding to celebrate.’ Then she hurried into the kitchen to be by herself for a moment while she sawed off slabs of fruit cake.

Which was how Billy now found himself standing in the arid red landscape of Tombstone, Arizona. There was a heat that felt like a shove in the chest – none of the salt breeze and seagulls he was used to from home, although a hawk was keening overhead disconcertingly. But there was also space – aside from the flock of flat-roofed wooden buildings behind him, there was an endless vista of unpeopled land in every direction he turned. He let his eyes stray, picking across the horizon. It was strange – not like any of the places he’d been mobilised to during the war; this could be another world, a new world. He tested the flavour of this thought for a moment, waiting to see if it brought happiness with it. The long boat trip from Southampton, and the days of travelling in Greyhound buses, had given him a respite from the familiar melancholy of home, but there was no mistaking the fact that the people he’d met along the way, while friendly, were as tarnished and shaken as the ones in Dundee. Even those who were obviously affluent, plumply well-fed – he felt that he could see somehow that their souls were ragged, desperate. This was the gift his service had left him.

Perhaps here, though …. He’d always wanted to visit Tombstone– had a scrap-book full of cuttings about it back home, and had devoured any film representations of it which had come the way of the Dundee cinemas. He felt a swollen-hearted admiration for the men in those movies, the Gary Coopers and Henry Fondas – they stayed honest and uncompromising in the wake of native ambushes and lawless citizens. They were violent when they needed to be – their anger had a purpose, and a justification. It had a right.

He bought a guide-book from a kiosk, and wandered through the dusty streets, pausing to take photographs along with other tourists who murmured past like tumbleweed. At the office of the Chief of Police, he was presented with a card making him honorary Chief for one hour, and had his photo taken holding up the policeman at gunpoint. Sweat made the metal of the grip stick to his palm.

The air rattled in his throat as he stepped over the rocky ground leading into Boot Hill Graveyard. Each grave was heaped with a mound of ragged rocks, the length and width of a human body. It was an unruly space, unlike the neat white rows of crosses he’d seen in the cemeteries from the Great War, where death was patted down to sleep under rippling lawn. The markers were whitewashed wood – crosses or long, single strips like lollypop sticks, jutting out like an old man’s teeth.

He put a hand over his eyes to block out the blaze of sunlight, and read out loud, ‘Here lies Lester Moore – Four Slugs from a 44 – No Les – No More’.

He had stood back to savour this strange poetry of death, when the mid-day sun suddenly coalesced into a brutal flash. For a second he thought he saw rusty mud and a shattered ribcage. He staggered, and took a heady suck of breath to reassure himself he still could.

‘Howdee!’

Billy jumped. Behind him, by the entrance to the graveyard, stood a man in full cowboy costume: gun-belt and chaps, dark moustache clinging thinly round the sides of his mouth.

The stranger touched the brim of his dusty hat. ‘Frank MacLaury at your service. My grave is over there.’

It took Billy a few seconds to remember that the town was crawling with actors pretending to be erstwhile citizens of Tombstone. He let his breath go in a whistle.

Frank MacLaury raised an eyebrow, and grinned, metal flashing in the hard sun. ‘Stranger in town?’

‘Fresh off the stagecoach,’ said Billy, attempting a John Wayne accent, then thinking he probably shouldn’t have.

‘Then you may not know that our graveyard here was begun in 1878, and was named ‘Boot Hill’ because most of our clients died with their boots on. Like myself, shot by the cowardly Earp brothers and Doc Holliday himself in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Care to see?’

They stumbled across to a larger mound – Billy judged it must be a grave for three or more men.

Bending respectfully, he read, ‘McLaury, Robert Findley (Frank), died 26 Oct 1881. Killed in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral’. He chewed over this for a moment, then a line from the guide book crept into his head. ‘Death came frequently and with violence,’ he said.

Frank MacLaury nodded solemnly. They stood silent for a moment or two, while voices from the museum behind them rose like a soft smoke.

Frank MacLaury said, ‘Makes you think, don’t it?’

‘Yup.’

Frank MacLaury squinted at him, fingering his moustache. It was peeling from his skin in the heat. ‘Seen the original Boot Hill hearse and the poker table from the longest game ever played?’ he asked.

‘Yes, thanks.’

Frank fell silent and surly. Billy sucked on his bottom lip: his stomach growled and twisted with hunger. He imagined his mother spreading a cloth over the old wooden table they’d inherited from his grandfather, placing china and cutlery carefully in a magic circle around its surface, wiping her hands on her pinny and smiling as she stood back and looked at the three settings – one for Dad, one for herself, and one for him, for when he came home.

‘I think I’d like to go home,’ he said to Frank MacLaury.

Frank made a slight, snorting noise. ‘Wish I could!’ he muttered, smoothing his rebellious whiskers. ‘Wish we all could,’ he said more smoothly, smiling at Billy.

Billy smiled back, and, handing over some dollars, nodded his appreciation. Then he turned, and with a lazy lope of a cowboy who has ridden hard, he made his way back to Tombstone, his ear tuning into the distant pulsing of a train and the whistle of a dove taking flight.

 

(c) Debbie Cannon, 2016

 

 

 


 

Debbie Cannon reads Billy’s War on 13 August 2016 at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.