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Lindsay Craik
Airchie

 

“Here we are now,” says the sultry, greasy skinned driver as he pulls up at the cottage opposite the gates to the big house. He puts on the handbrake and switches off the engine of the furniture van.

“Well, thank god for that,” Mrs Fraser exhales, gingerly stepping down out of the Shore Porters van, where she and her brood had sat through the long bumpy road from Rhynie via Banchory and the Slug. Her stubborn, but well loved, husband had prescribed the route to avoid traffic. The rest well knew that Aberdeen was a better route.

“Traffic? It’s no exactly the North Circular,” the driver had mumbled to himself when they had set out.

Mr Fraser was there to meet them having gone on before in old Jimmy’s van. Mother Earth had declined that offer for, if nothing else, the furniture van had a good soft bench seat and no pipe smoke. The children had also been well pleased, and had sat transfixed making engine noises as the van traversed up and down through its gears. The malevolent odour from the driver was all part of the experience.

“There you are!” shouts Fraser smiling between his red rosy cheeks, polished by the scudding winds that feed the foothills of the Grampians. “I’d given you up. Come away in. This is your home now.”

And so it is that in this early spring day the Frasers, now in their working clothes, settle into the cottage. And it doesn’t take long for the brood to get to know the rich land where the Bervie runs and the small hills behind. Here, long ago, the painted men looked south towards Finavon Hill, where they fought the Romans. But now, the children roam about all over the place, even as far as Drumlithie and the sweetie shop.

The next morning is sunny as the eldest Fraser son, in his kaki shorts and red Ladybird jumper, saunters up to the farm with an empty milk can and knocks at the rustic door.

“Who are you then?” the wrinkled old women quizzes as she opens the door in her black woven shawl.

“Archibald,” he offers sheepishly. “We’ve just moved into Lodge Cottage and I’ve been sent for the milk.”

“Oh you are, are you. Just stand there,” she says grabbing the can and in the same movement shutting the door in his face. He is left standing like a fool, sparking away at the cobbles with his tackety boots. In about five minutes she is back and thrusts the now heavy can back into his hands.

“And where did ye come from?” the farmers wife says, staring at him with her dark brown eyes and clearing her nose onto the shawl.

“Rhynie. Up north.”

“Rhynie is it! More bloody foreigners!” She slams the door in his face.

Airchie turns away and faces the reeking, steaming herd peering out over the wall of the byre. “And what are you all looking at?” he shouts over to them.

Struggling with the can he sets off down the track and back towards the cottage and his mum.

Despite the coming summer rays lightening the hue of the red clay as the parks dry out, the school at Drumlithie is not any warmer. The dominie is a real sourpuss. Miss Bain, a product of the bretheren fishing folk of Crovie, is never ever described as a bundle of laughs. Straight-laced, plain, with a bun at the back of her head and a face like a flitting, she dims even the brightest light around. And so it was for Archibald: the dreamer.

Miss Bain kept telling the class to use their imagination, but she often caught him staring out the window and forming in his mind: the tractor zooming round a park like a Ferrari at Monte Carlo; the corn stacks marching in rows together towards the battle to come. She then took great pleasure in extracting the leather belt from inside the shoulder of her colourless twin set and belting him across the hand as hard and as often as she could.

‘She can be really coorse for a church goer,’ he thought.

Thwack, twack.

“Archibald Fraser, you will always be a disappointment. You mark my words,” she ranted.

Thwack.

After a time it didn’t matter. His window on the world held more for him than Miss Bain’s uninspiring recant of prescribed dogma ever would.

His balls drop and it is on to Stonehaven, the Mackie Academy and more of the same. The windows at the Academy are brilliant, the large sixties construction gives unframed views of the sea, the land and hosts of clouds gathering over the Howe, like gods in their chariots racing each other.

Mr Souter tries to teach him maths but it is a no hoper. He goes on and on at him, gives him lots of homework, but Airchie’s dad could make nothing of it. And for a time Souter persists. But as most of the class are much the same, he gives up trying and regales them with stories of his travels across Europe, in previous summers. Archibald likes the one about Italy and how Mr Souter got his last supper in Milan. And that about sums up his education: no sums at all.

Nevertheless, his dad has great plans for him: no farm for his good looking, black haired first born son. So he sends him to Aberdeen for a job on the buses. Airchie arrives for the exam: the prerequisite to a career of travel round the city streets, with glittering mansions and not so shiny council estates.

“If you’re mother gets on the bus at Holburn Junction and wants to go to Summerhill what would you charge her?” asks the balding, overweight desk clerk three storeys above the Castlegate.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean, nothing?”

“My mum doesn’t stay in Summerhill and always walks when in town.”

“God! Well, what’s the charge for five six-penny tickets then?”

“Five and six?”

And so it goes on and he is out on his arse in Marishal Street. On the road home in the Bluebird, the light strikes him: he will start working on his own. In the following week, he ferrets around and gets a wood pile together behind the cottage. He borrows Jimmy’s old and nearly knackered van and sets out around Stonehaven selling firewood door to door. It takes a while but the housewives take to the six foot handsome hawker and sales take off. Soon he has his own pick-up truck and is selling coal as well.

Archibald Fraser is always looking for the new opportunity and spies another at the harbour. He buys another vehicle: a smart white van. His wee brother Fred, with his round happy glow, is now Freddie the Fishman as he develops their round all over Kincardine, even to Banchory. More chances are taken, he branches out, at Tullos, into constructing modules for the rigs and after twenty good years Archibald is a rich man. At the peak of his success, he is invited to speak at the Rotary in Aberdeen.

He pulls up outside the Caledonian Hotel in his Merc and as Tony his driver opens the door for him he spies Miss Bain limping along the pavement. He approaches her and she looks up into his still rugged good looks.

“Miss Bain do you remember me?” he asks. Miss Bain, now grey haired but still with a bun, takes a long look at him and the car. Her face is older but it doesn’t crack.

“Yes, I know you. You were the dunce at Drumlithie,” she says taking in the peak capped driver getting back into the Merc. “I suppose that you think your Airchie.”

“Yes, I am,” he smiles. “Airchie Fraser.” He turns and walks up the grey granite steps to the revolving doors of Aberdeen’s premier hotel. Miss Bain takes the No 9 bus to Walker Road and her flat beside the prison.

The Rotary lunch is in the dining room, just off the American Bar. The whisky is welcome as he prepares his notes. The lunch is fine too. And his speech goes down a treat. He feels at home. An older but familiar figure approaches him.

“Airchie Fraser. Remember me?” says the refugee from Stonehaven.

“Aye fine. You used to be Mr Souter at the Academy.”

“I’m still Souter, but now I’m retired. That was some speech you gave. I couldn’t help wondering what you would have done had you stuck in at the sums.”

“That’s easy,” says Airchie. “I’d have been a conductor on the buses.”

 

 

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