The Bonny Fechter

A short story by Dorothy Lawrenson

Billy sat, glaikit-faced, drummin his fingers on the desk an jeegin his leg against the leg o the widden form. His short troosers wis thin an his legs chittered, cauld February air chillin the bare skin atween his knees an his grey socks. He luikt roon the empty skuil-room, at the big heavy scroll o the world map, the blackboard still covert aw ower wi Miss Anderson’s braw copperplate, the colourfu posters. His eye cam tae rest, as it ayeweys did, on the yin that said save the wheat help the fleet: eat less bread. It ayeweys made him hungry, the day mair than iver. He stared doon at the paper whaur his blotchy dip pen hid written I must not use vulgar language, and I must not fight with other boys.

Miss Anderson hid said she couldnae credit it. She couldnae understand it. She soonded like his mither, when she wis black-affrontit at somethin the meenister’s wife hid said. Miss Anderson said ‘You’re normally very well-spoken, Billy, and you’re certainly not a fighter’. Oot in the playgrund he cuid see big reid-heeded Jamie an scrawny wee Alec, daffin an lauchin an runnin aroon tae keep warm. Ither boys wis playin at sodgers, formin platoons an mairchin up an doon, shooderin imaginary rifles, takin cover fae imaginary shells. An noo Miss Anderson hid left him alane in the empty classroom tae write his lines, but he couldnae – his thochts wis aw heeliegoleerie.

The stramash in the playgrund hid stairted because, fur the third day, he’d come tae skuil withoot his piece. The first time, he’d said he forgot it. The secont time, he’d said his mither hid forgotten it, even though folk said that wisnae like her at aw. The third time, he didnae hae ony excuse, juist shrugged his shooders, shilpit-like, then muttert somethin aboot coupons. But he saw Jamie whisperin in Alec’s ear. Alec gasped, an luikt at Billy wi a gey queer luik on his face, like he wanted tae go up tae him but he wanted tae run awa fae him at the same time.

Iver since Billy’s dad hid been killt, the teachers an the ither boys hid been awfu douce wi him. He didnae ken if he wanted thaim tae be sae couthie. It made him feel awkward or numb-like, like he hid tae be quait an weel-faured back tae thaim, insteid o screamin an shootin an breakin things. An he thocht that even noo Miss Anderson wis probably tryin tae be kind bi giein him lines insteid o the strap, when he’d faur raither hae taen the strap. He wrote:

I must not use vulgar language, and I must not fight with other boys.
I must not use vulgar language, and I must not fight with other boys.
I must not use vulgar language, and I must not fight with other boys.

He kent he wis supposed tae be scunnert bi the lines, the mair sae because when he wis duin, Miss Anderson would mak a gey performance o tearin the page intae strips in front o the haill class, an then lettin the strips flauchter like ribbons doon intae the bucket. Nae maitter hou guid his penmanship, it wid aw be fur naethin, an let that be a lesson tae him. Aw the same, when the page wis hauf-fu wi the marks o his scratchy nib, he stertit tae tak a kind o pleisure in the wey the wurds lined up in columns doon the page: vulgar vulgar vulgar, boys boys boys. He began tae write thaim this wey, a column o I then a column o must, tae mak the task o fillin the lines less wearisome. He didnae really ken whit vulgar meant in the first place, but soon language language language began tae lose its meanin tae; it became juist regimented raws o braw letters, aw lined up in a bonny column. But fight fight fight pit him in mind o the wey the boys in the playgrund hid crooded roond chantin, as he laid intae Jamie an Alec, baith at once.

An that wis better than awbody bein sae canny an douce, tip-taein aroon him aw the time. It wis better tae hae a reason tae fecht, even though it meant turnin pure crimson wi shame first, when wee Alec hid asked him, ‘Is it true? Is it true, Billy? Jamie says your mammie’s got plenty coupons, but nae war widow’s pension tae pey the shopkeeper. He says your mammie’s no really a war widow.’

‘You ken fine ma mammie’s a war widow!’ Billy hurlt back at him.

Alec, wha ayeweys luikt sae peelie-wallie, seemed sweir tae say mair. He luikt doon at his scuffed boots and kicked at a patch o ice, then he keeked sideweys at Jamie. ‘Jamie says… his mammie says… well, his mammie says she heard the meenister’s wife say… your daddy didnae fecht at Ypres. The Germans didnae kill him at aw.’

‘Course the Germans killt him. Ma daddy deed fechtin the hun!’

‘Jamie says, your daddy wouldnae fecht the hun. He says your daddy deed in the jail. Thay pit him there because he wis a… he wis a… a conchie!’

Alec forced the dirty wurd awmaist under his braith, as if he wis feart tae let it pass his lips. An wi that, Billy flew at Alec an at Jamie tae, hearin the crack o his knuckles but no feelin it, seein a burst o bluid an no kennin or carin if it wis his ain. No carin aboot onythin but pummelin thaim baith an rivin their hair an claes, gowlin an sabbin until the prefects ran tae pull thaim apairt. Thay dragged him awa tae the heidmaister’s office, still screamin through his tears ‘ye bluidy bastarts! Ye leein bluidy bastarts!’

His pen scritch-scratched awa at the foolscap:

must not fight
must not fight
must not fight

It didnae mak ony sense at aw. Hid his Uncle Tam no cried Billy’s faither ‘a bonny fechter’? Puir auld Uncle Tam, wha cam back limpin an wi ainly one airm, usin it tae hug Billy’s mammie ticht an sayin ‘dinnae you heed whit thay say, lass. It taks some guts tae dae whit he did. He wis a brave man; a faur bonnier fechter nor me.’

Aye, it wis guid tae hae a reason tae fecht, even though the fecht itsel would soon eneuch become juist a rammie, a clood o stoor wi nae aim an nae end in sicht. An noo that the fecht wis over, he didnae feel guid at aw; he thocht that it wis mebbe guid tae hae the reason, but bad tae hae the fecht. He’d niver focht before, but he didnae think that wis because o ony choice he’d made. Cuid you hae a reason no tae dae somethin – even when awbody else wis sure there wis guid reasons fur daein it? Billy’s faither hid hud his reasons; that wis what Tam hid said tae Billy’s mammie. ‘Even if we didnae aw agree wi thaim at the time’, Tam hid said, ‘he hud his principles, an he stuck tae thaim like glue’.

Billy hid reached the bottom o the paper, sae he turnt it over an stertit writin a bonny fechter a bonny fechter a bonny fechter an it felt guid, sae he thocht he’d keep at it a wee while. But aw the same there wis somethin shamefu aboot whit his daddie hid duin, or whit he hidnae duin. He kent this because later, when thay thocht he wis asleep, Uncle Tam hid said tae his mammie, ‘Still, better no tae let folk ken, thit disnae need tae ken. The bairn, an aw his skuil-friends, thay dinnae need tae ken the details. He can say his faither deed in Flanders, an that’s true eneuch.’

As if fae faur awa, Billy heard the bell ringin the end o big playtime. There wis a brattle o boots an a screichin o chairs, an then suddenly the room wis seelent except fur the clip-clop o Miss Anderson’s heeled shoes, an then he cuid feel that awbody in the room wis luikin at him. Miss Anderson cuid see he’d feenished the lines, an she wis haudin oot her haun fur thaim. He luikt at her an he couldnae tell if her face wis stern or kind, but onywey he didnae gie her the paper. He screiched his chair back an stuid up, an then he stuid on his chair an read alood:

Conchie isnae a dirty wurd, an ma faither wis a bonny fechter.

He luikt aroon at the boys’ dumfoonert faces, at Alec an Jamie still reid an pechin fae runnin, Alec wi his lower lip all swollen up. Billy said again:

Conchie isnae a dirty wurd –

he expectit tae be interruptit, but naebody made a soond, sae he went on

– an ma faither wis a bonny fechter.

Conchie isnae a dirty wurd, an ma faither wis a bonny fechter –

as if the mair he said it, the mair it wid be true. An he thocht that if he cuid juist keep on sayin it an no stop, an niver be stopt, it micht really become true.

He keepit on till he’d recitit ivry line, till he got tae the end o the page, an there wis juist the seelence o the room, the soond o the boys breathin, an the soond o his ain quait greetin. He steppit doon fae his chair, an walked slowly up tae Miss Anderson’s desk.

He tore the lines intae thin raggety shreds, then let thaim pirl awa an drap saftly intae the bucket.