Fiona regularly heard the deep roar of jet engines as a recently landed plane decelerated before coming to a halt on the tarmac close to where she was sitting. A surge of movement then followed, and the babble of female and children’s’ voices rose, as they tried to elbow their way forward. Each time, a mood of despair descended as they realised that this was not the plane for which they were waiting. Rumours started, and quickly spread, gaining in imaginative detail as they did. Their men would be on a flight due to land at 15.00 hours. There were groans when someone heard that it had been delayed. A harassed official voice, besieged by anxious enquiries, pleaded “ Ladies, please be patient … ”, the remainder drowned in sarcastic muttering. A woman near Fiona commented wryly “ It’s easy for him : he’s not been away like my man. ”
Robbie and she had only been going together for eighteen months. They met at a coffee bar run by the local Church she attended. Fiona smiled to herself as she recalled the first time she heard his voice, a soft Scottish brogue, asking whether he could sit at her table. He had introduced himself as “ Robert James McTavish “, and had giggled at her name – Fiona Smylie. “ I hope you do ” he commented “ smile, I mean. ” That seemed to seal an immediate bond between them, and soon they were spending every spare moment together. Robbie came from a Highland farm, too small to support both his elder brother and himself. He had come to the city in hope of finding work. In the event, there seemed little need for the kind of skills he had developed helping to run a small farm. Fiona remembered the day he – the most gentle of men - told her he felt he had no option, but to follow in his father’s footsteps, and join the army. At least there he would be able to earn decent money. He had once told her how his father’s eyes would light up when he described the camaraderie he had enjoyed while serving with the Black Watch. It seemed that he, born and raised on a small, isolated farm, had packed a lifetime’s experiences into a tour of duty quelling unrest in Aden. Robbie was convinced that the excitement of being in a strange land, and having to confront the danger posed by hostile insurgents had coloured everything his father subsequently did. It was as if, in addition to companionship lacking on his isolated croft, Sergeant William McTavish had found new self-worth in the army. Robbie commented, ruefully “ Feeling himself obliged to leave the army earlier than he had planned, my father bitterly resented having to return to take over an unprofitable small-holding from his ailing father. ” Robbie, however, had never had the slightest desire to do anything adventurous. Fiona sensed the anguish in his voice : “ I’m a home bird. I love this wee country. ” he groaned.
“ Why then ? ” Fiona asked. “ I really must support my family. The croft’s not doing well. They need me to provide additional income. ” While he was on basic training, they spoke by ‘phone every evening. She grinned as she recollected the resultant dauntingly large telephone bills. Fiona reckoned every penny, lovingly spend, was worth it. And their joy when he was posted to barracks in the next town ! She was relieved that he had not changed : unlike some of his new mates, he made no attempt to project a “ macho ” image.
Robbie tremulously took her to meet his parents. She loved the sweet turf smell pervading their small cottage. Aware that she was under scrutiny and determined to make a good impression, Fiona tried to disguise the fact that she found it almost impossible not to stumble on its floors’ uneven stone surfaces. She begged Robbie not to tell his parents that she, a city-bred girl, was finding it to hard coming to terms with this unfamiliar environment’s layout. Despite her best endeavours, however, his parents did not take to her. She was disappointed to encounter, in them, the unthinking prejudice with which she often had to contend, and sad that Mr McTavish’s foreign travels had not broadened his mind. “ Don’t worry. ” Trying to re-assure her, Robbie said, tenderly “ They’ll soon come round. It’s just that they’ve never met anyone like you. ” She felt a surge of relief when, holding her close, he added “ I love you as you are. ” In contrast, Fiona’s parents’ reaction to Robbie had been entirely positive. After a meal where conversation was both lively and non-stop, Fiona joined her mother in the kitchen – “ to give the men a chance to become better acquainted. ” “ He’s really good looking ” her mother commented, not quite managing to hide her surprise “ with gorgeous brown eyes. ”
Two weeks later, the bombshell. Throughout their evening together, Fiona could sense that something was bothering Robbie, but was too frightened to question him. It crossed her mind that, perhaps, his parents’ negative attitude towards her had, after all, influenced him. “ What ” she wondered, hardly daring to give words to the thought “ if Robbie has gone off me, and wants to stop seeing me, but doesn’t know how to go about it ? ” An icy hand clutched her heart at the idea. Eventually, the tension proved too much for her. “ What’s the matter ? ” she burst out, unable to restrain herself. The ensuing silence seemed to last for hours. “ We’re being sent to Iraq … to some place called Basra ” Robbie muttered glumly. The joy which flooded over her, that her fear of losing him was unfounded, was quickly replaced by dread. Dread at the separation, at the lethal danger to which he would be exposed. Wordlessly, they clung to each other.
And now, finally, Robbie was on his way back home. While he was away, communication had not been easy. All she received were a couple of artificially cheerful assurances that he was all right, and missing her. Enveloped in her thoughts, at first Fiona paid no attention to a metallic announcement, informing those awaiting its arrival that flight BA 875 had touched down. Its passengers would be disembarking in ten minutes. Her heart’s urgent beating echoed the flurry of thoughts scurrying round her head. Would Robbie have been changed by his army experiences, as his father was ? Would he still love her ? An anguish of impatience to be with him gripped her. A turbulence of female animation erupted all over the Arrival Lounge, as the plane noisily approached. Then, an explosion of joyful greetings as their men started to arrive. Fiona felt lost, stumbling hesitantly through a noisy maelstrom. In the commotion, she barely heard a gruff male voice “ That’s her, laddie, right in front of you. ” She was startled when a hand brushed her face, and she heard his familiar voice. ” Is that really you ? ” Immediately, everything else in the room ceased to exist. She was with her man, delighted to be hearing again the long-awaited sound of his much-loved voice. Fiona did not, initially, register that something was different. While attempting to work out what this could be, she reached out to touch his face. Tentatively, alert for any sign of a rebuff. Felt an unshaved cheek, and was surprised. Robbie was always meticulous about being well groomed. “ I’ve not been able …. ” his voice was coated with embarrassment. Her fingers, moving gently upwards, encountered an unfamiliar obstacle. Without giving herself time to think, she blurted out “ What’s that ? ” There was a moment’s hesitation. “ It’s a bandage. ” Fiona felt her heart contract with shock. “ What’s wrong ? Have you been injured ? ” The questions tumbled out, unbidden. “ My squad was out on patrol. Our Land Rover went over a land-mine. The driver mustn’t have spotted it – they are hard to see. I was the only one to survive. ” “ But … the bandage ? ” she asked. “ It’s … it’s … ” Robbie’s voice faltered, then dashed on, as if he wanted to get the words out before he thought about them “ Both my eyes were destroyed by shrapnel from the explosion. Now I’m blind – just like you ! ”