Out of Step

A blog by Tom Gale 20 Jun 2022

On a bitterly cold February morning in the late 70s my mother huddled amongst a covey of other parents and close family members. To assemble at the edge of the parade ground. To witness with hearts bursting with pride their “young man’s” passing out parade. That moment where the boy soldier, wet behind the ears. Rough and undisciplined raw recruits. Through a year or more have now been moulded into someone marching with pride amongst their “mates” in their No 2 Regimental Uniforms of different tartans and mix of kilt and trews. Buckles and boots bulled to gleaming perfection. Ironed to a crease that if not properly handled could cause someone injury. No longer boys but men. Men of HM Armed Forces Scottish Battalion nonetheless. 

“Here wait til ah tell ye.” said my mother after the parade as we stood in the Sergeants Mess nursing a hot mug of tea. Trying to stimulate feeling back into our hands. 

“What?” I asked. She looked behind her. First left and then right. As if she was in a farce and was about to launch into a monologue. 

“See that wuman?” She said. 

“What wuman mum there’s loads.” I said. 

“Her with the hat and the nose?” She said. 

I scanned the room and by the far wall was a stout woman with sensible shoes and the largest broad brimmed hat I had ever seen. It all but covered her face except for the tip of her nose. I almost choked on my tea stifling a laugh.

“Uh huh.” I managed with closed lips.

“Ye ken when yous were all marching past and you did that salute altogether.”

“Yes.” 

“Very impressive by the way.”

“Go on.”

“She was standing beside me. Almost knocked me o’or when she turned sae quick with the bloody hat pointing and saying ‘Would ye look at that hen. That wee one at the front. He’s the only one of them marching in time. Ah’m that chuffed.”

“I thought that salute was bloody marvellous.” Mum said. “The only one marching in time.” She made a ffft noise and rolled her eyes. Then leaned in conspiratorially “I didn’t have the heart to spoil her day.”

“Despite the hat. That’s your good deed for the day then?”

“Oh hear ah never even thought that.”

“Aye right. I’m sure.” She looked at me with a side glance. Saw I was smiling and we both started giggling. 

“How’s your fingers now?” 

“I think another mug’s needed Tommy Son. Dae ye mind?”

“It’s your funeral. Mind you I expect they made a Bromide Free batch for this occasion.”

Before she could come up with a reply I turned calling “Won’t be a jiffy. Anything for you mum. Anything.”

That was another expert lesson from a wonderful and gifted teacher on how sometimes it is appropriate to be economical with the truth. What would be that situation?  One where the unadulterated truth wouldn’t do anything to help. She had the wisdom and the gift of empathy to understand a mother’s pride towards her son is far more important than having a pedantic moment born of an overestimation of one’s education to snatch that moment away from her. 

She did choke on her tea when I returned with a silver salva, a fresh pristine white mug in the middle and a crisp white cotton tea towel around one of my forearms. As I proffered the mug asking “Would modum like one lump or two.” clamping a pair of polished sugar tongs around a cube. 

“Ah’ll modum ye ya bugger.” she spluttered while trying to smooth away the tea on the front of her blouse. 

“A’hd swing fir ye if ah hud enough feelin’ in ma fingers.” Once again we dissolved into a fit of the giggles. Something that I reflect on now as being a particular gift given to us to get us through the awful place we were in. At least until I found a hidden well of untapped strength that brought it to a shameful violent but brief end when I stood up to “the other father” we had been living with. 

I refer to him as “the other father” because it is the best way I can think of to describe the feeling I had that he had a demon inside of him that changed him when he drank. He became violent and took it out on me and my mother. But one day after a particularly nasty attack on my Mother something in me snapped and I turned the tables on him. I won’t spoil it for you as you can read all about it in my upcoming memoir that I hope will be published in the not too distant future. 

Years later when the subject came up in a conversation with my mum when she visited me in my flat in Salford. She said that witnessing the strength and courage to finally stand up to the man was what gave her the strength to do the same a few months later. She finally left him. 

She ended up as a live-in housekeeper in a small hotel in Kent for a couple of years until stricken with shingles she was unable to work and the owner had no option but to reluctantly let her go. She was then forced into calling her Mother to send money for a train ticket to return to Edinburgh. Shortly after that she divorced my father. She remarried and they were together for thirty five years together. That was almost twice as long as she had been with my father. So the best part of sixty years in two relationships. 

I told her that all the things that she did for me that helped me to find a hidden well of strength at the moment that I needed it. Who gave strength and courage to whom isn’t really that important. The fact that we finally got away from that house with “the other father” wreaked havoc. 

We are survivors. We saved one another or at least played a large role in that happening.  Which has shaped the man that I am today.  Because as Mother was fond of telling me “It isn’t what happens to you that matters. What matters is how you respond to what happens to you. That will determine your character.” So no matter how many times you get knocked down. Which for us was every other day for a period of four years. What matters is that each time you get yourself back up again. She was my mum. I loved and trusted her completely so believed it with all my heart as it was a value that went to the core of me. 

The ability to see humour in every situation and the wisdom to not share the complete unexpurgated truth with everyone but rather a truth that was diluted to the point it was bearable for the receiver of the truth. 

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