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Goodbye to the Austrian Corporal by Elizabeth Schofield

The first time we met Davie blew into the pub, a tornado trailing all lesser mortals in his wake. The room brightened. In a booming crescendo, he hailed a couple of my friends.

Everyone turned to look but he noticed me.

There was a moment, such a cliché were neither of us averted our gaze. The look was just too long, too fixed.

Minutes later, we were sharing confidences. He told me about his latest crush. Davie had not then extended his appetite for beautiful men beyond wistful longing. I was in one of my ‘no men’ phases, having just exited an engagement to a man who wanted to choose my clothes for me. We were both emotionally ripe for plucking. Our friendship was sealed that night with the sudden, comic realisation that we both fell fast and hard for the same kind of men. Davie said “Always Heathcliff.”

“Never Lynton,” my reply and a three-decade superhero and sidekick relationship began.

Charles Stuart Gordon-Davie, third son of a Scottish earl, became my closest friend. We had a passionate love affair, which if he were not gay, we would have consummated that first night.

He moved into a room in my student house. Davie and I were a kind of couple, but flew so low under the radar that no one noticed. He brought me tea in my bed in the morning. Lifting the corner of the duvet, he levered his long limbs in and put his freezing feet next to me. Nobody else would ever get away with that.

“Where did you end up?” I asked.

“Oh, I went into town, followed the call, you know.”

“I don’t know. How much?”

“Oh, who cares, it’s not important. Maybe three or four hundred.” He said, before changing the subject.

Davie registered for a journalism degree, but I do not think he ever went to class. He did have an endless source of funds from his father, topped up by regular trips to the bookies and to the Playboy Club in town. My only trip to a casino was in his company. His Lordship and I walked straight in, past the waiting line. A whole week’s allowance in the seventies for food, transport, books, the inevitable beer, was seven pounds. Davie gave me fifty pounds to gamble. I lost it all in twenty minutes. It was an everyday experience for him, but I could never quite reconcile the ease and the thrill with which I lost that money.

We could have ruled the world from that house. One of the five girls belonged to a family that owned a famous brewery. On the first Friday of every month, a horse and dray arrived at our front door with that month’s barrel of bitter. That early part of each month was one long party, until the barrel ran out.

After the barrel, Davie turned the bathtub in our shed into a brewery. For a seasoned drinker like Davie, seven or eight pints of beer every night was the norm. He had a couple of narrow escapes, nearly poisoning himself with the contents of the tub before I dismantled his microbrewery.

He had passed out again, lying with his kilt around his ears, head down on the upper stairs. I told him that the sight of his lordly manhood attracted the wrong kind of attention. He didn’t care. We once left him on the stairs for a whole Saturday. Even my mother stepped over his huge, snoring frame, but still he drank. I had no idea that he was already an alcoholic. Only old, whiskery men with shaking hands and skin too big for their necks, or women with over ripe noses and a permanent sniffle were ‘alkies’. Davie wasn’t an alcoholic, he couldn’t be.

When the microbrewery was no longer an option, Davie came up with a new plan. At one communal Friday dinner he stood up,

“Ladies and the rest of you, I have invented a new game. Who’s Your Favourite Nazi? was born. Choose a Nazi and play. I selected Josef Goebbels. It really didn’t matter who you picked, none of them had any redeeming features. Davie naturally chose the Fuehrer, the Austrian Corporal, Adolf Hitler.

Any one of us, in the presence of a witness, could ask anyone else a question about his or her Nazi. Failure to give the correct answer meant that you bought the first round of drinks for eleven, on a Friday night. After one or two weeks of chaos, we were in our element. Davie discovered that all the drinking that he intended to fund with this game played havoc with his memory. He slowed down his drinking.

I spent hours reading about Goebbels. Last November, when playing in Brussels, we all agreed that the game was the only reason that anyone might need to invent the internet. One friend was ruthless in his quest for information about Herman Goering. His wife confided in me that they have spent a disproportionate number of family holidays over the years in Germany, in order for him to visit obscure collections of Nazi papers.

Last year, I saw Davie wearing a kilt, dancing along the bar at the five-star hotel downtown. When drunk it was his proudest possession. When sober, you couldn’t tell from his accent that he is Scots, so deep the camouflage of his journalist London cockney. He was singing a dirty song,

“And the cheeks of her arse went clap, clap, clap.”

I always dreaded his recklessness and then swam in his adoration. He treated me as if I were made of glass.

“Be careful crossing the road.”

“I’m only going to the library.”

“Well, be careful; call me when you get there.”

“You’ll be asleep.”

“Call me any way.”

A simple request now, but in the seventies it involved finding a payphone, and the forlorn hope that Davie could hear the phone three floors down from his room. Then he had to be sober enough to get out of bed, go down and answer it. I only ignored his request once. Davie, panicked and half-dressed caught a cab to the university library. “Where are you?” his voice cannoned around the rotary stacks.

I whispered “Here…shoosh.”

“Why didn’t you call, I’ve been worried sick.”

There was no negotiation; I went home with him. By the time we had finished arguing, as to which of us was cavalier and which overprotective, both were too upset to concentrate, on work or sleep.

He was still telling that story the last time that all my friends were together, the circumstances, naturally, embellished. The road became a freeway, I so inept that I was unable to catch a bus without getting into trouble. Davie strode through the library, Mr Darcy to my Miss Bennett, saving me without regard for my own wishes.

As he told this tale, I laughed so much that I fell off my chair.

Davie picked me up, again.

Davie was more capable drunk than sober. Sober, he had extreme difficulty focussing. He wandered in and out of a room, started sentences, and then disappeared in the middle of a conversation. He paced, increasingly dishevelled, cursing at an empty milk jug or yelling furiously down the phone at the person who answered his misdialled call.  His problems became obvious when he needed two or three drinks to get going every day, and as he got older three or four, and then Scotch for breakfast.

A few years ago, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Davie abandoned his work to be with me. He came in every day for three months bringing tasty treats, flowers, CD’s. The staff were at first horrified, then captivated by this giant of a man who breezed into the unit bringing with him the crisp, fall air and the warm smell of single malt. He learned their names, alternately charming or terrorising them with his amazing stories.

Davie wheedled, cajoled and bullied me into eating, dressing, and going out for walks. He fed me with fruit and marzipan, chocolate and ice cream. He armed himself with every newspaper that he could find, making me talk about international politics, art and music at a time when I had trouble remembering the names of my children. He talked, hugged and kissed me back to some sort of health.

Then he took me to Catalina Island.

We stayed in a charming hotel for a week. It was February, and regular morning mists kept others away from Catalina’s lovely beaches. We walked for miles. I slept on a soft rug in front of a roaring fireplace in the afternoons while he entered copy to the many publications that bought his work. Early dinners and bedtimes were what we both needed; I think Davie was almost sober when we parted. He saved me, lifting me out of my deep misery, talking to me like a grown up.

I have seen a lot of my best friend in the last few years. As a freelance journalist working in the entertainment industry, he travels widely. On a recent visit, I am about to leave the house to meet him. My cell phone rings, it’s the hotel manager,

“Excuse me ma’am, but Mr Gordon-Davie gave us this number. He has had rather too much to drink, and is causing a bit of a disturbance.” It’s not the first call of this kind over the years. They usually warn of a fine, bail or the need to collect him from jail.

The lobby is an open plan space containing the bar. People cluster around the polished granite promontory. Davie, in full regalia, sporran flying, kilt swirling, is singing the Arse Cheeks song. He sees me. “Here she is, here she is, my friend, the expert on the work of Josef Goebbels.”

The assembled party around the bar turn to face me. Davie is entertaining the large wedding party of one of the city’s most prominent Jewish families.

I apologise. We leave the hotel. I have never dared to go back.

Three months after that most recent of Davie incidents, after one of the major journalism awards in the UK, he is dead of acute liver failure.

I howl viscerally for days, and bite my fingernails to the quick. I can only sleep when drunk, and then it is not really sleep, merely blunted thoughts and jumbled dreams.

How do I feel?

I still do not really know.

The prospect of the journey to the Highlands is bleak and the reality bone achingly hard. I meet two friends in Toronto. We travel together; it is a gift to have each other to hold in our grief. The others wander to Scotland from all over the world. It is a sort of pilgrimage, very different from our usual raucous gatherings, the first time that we are not all together.

Davie is laid to rest in the family churchyard in Scotland to the sound of the pipes, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads. After his funeral supper, the ten of us play the very last game of Who’s Your Favourite Nazi?

We decide never to play it again. It will not be the same without the Fuehrer.

Elizabeth Houlton Schofield’s stories have appeared in the Globe and Mail, and been published in Drunk Monkeys and in Hearing Voices, the Bareback Anthology, 2014. Her stories have placed in The Royal City Literary Arts Society 2014 Write On! competition. She won the Honorable Mention at The Surrey International Writer’s Festival, 2013, was published in the Conference Anthology and shortlisted for Literary Writes 2013 (Federation of BC Writers), and Room magazine’s Reader’s Choice Awards 2012.