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DEER HEART

By CLARE PALMIER

"Dear Heart..."

In 1914, my grandfather Ernest Sawyer was accosted by an angry woman waving a white feather. The following week, although he was only seventeen, he lied about his age and enlisted in the army. Owing to the fact he was six foot four and clever, the army welcomed him and didn’t worry about the omission of a birth certificate.

In the trenches he quickly discarded youth and his eager heart. Having been shot in the thigh by a German sniper he managed to drag a wounded officer to safety and was then honourably discharged.

After the war he married Elisabeth Fisher and took up dentistry. His marriage was delicate and Elisabeth sensed that to search for feelings in such a tall man would be a fruitless task. Ernest busied himself with establishing his practice and built up a considerable sum in the bank and any number of daily rituals with which both he and Elisabeth could obligate themselves. He gave her practically no money for housekeeping and every night she rearranged the buckets to catch the rain falling in from the holes in the roof and quietly took the loose change from his trousers.

On a summer trip to London, ostensibly to hear a lecture on anaesthetics but in reality to escape from Elisabeth’s burgeoning belly, containing their first child, Ernest found himself delayed at Liverpool Street Station. A cultivated Scots accent greeted him from the crowd and he realised he was again in the company of the officer he had rescued in the war. James Ross insisted that Ernest abandon all plans and that together they travel to Scotland where James could then have the pleasure in offering Ernest any amount of hospitality.

Although seemingly such a step would be completely out of character, Ernest found himself agreeing to the journey. In the train the two men chatted agreeably about their war time memories, the English countryside slipped away, and Ernest experienced a vague comfort in allowing his present concerns to fade with it.

At the Castle, near Loch Rannoch in Perthshire, the Ross household did their utmost to please their guests. The best bedrooms were warmed with roaring fires, the finest linen put to use and the prize fowls had their necks wrung. Dressed in clothes borrowed from James, Ernest looked every bit the Laird.

Ernest was not the only guest. Elke, a German friend of the Ross family, was visiting in order to gain comfort and fresh air during her mourning period. Elke insisted that Ernest dance with her in the evenings as no-one else would - because of her nationality. She sensed that he would be kind enough not to shun her and leave her embarrassed. On what would be his last night in Scotland, Ernest and Elke danced three dances, drank some good whiskey and walked round the extensive gardens. When it would have been proper to have bid each other goodnight it suddenly seemed impossible and Ernest followed Elke into her bedroom where they pulled off each others clothes and had sex with such urgency that it seemed they would injure each other. The next morning when Elke woke up Ernest had already gone hunting with James.

On the hillside he could not calm himself and in a rage he shot a stag. When he and James examined the dying beast Ernest burst into tears on seeing its great pain and James swiftly killed it with a bullet to the head. But Ernest’s sorrow came gushing out and James being a true man held his friend close while the sobs shook them both. By the time they left the hill reality had come flooding back to Ernest. He insisted on travelling straight back to London without returning to the castle. James insisted that Ernest should keep the stag’s antlers in respect for the beast itself and Ernest made James pledge that he would present the deer’s heart to Elke. Though James found this request strange he did as he had promised and Elke kept the deer’s heart in a jar for the rest of her life.

When Ernest returned home he found Elisabeth still in bed holding their newly born daughter. Ernest was dumbfounded by both his wife and this strange tiny creature that was his own flesh. He presented them with the antlers and bent over the bed to kiss his wife and child each on the forehead. His mouth opened and a few quiet words tumbled out.

In later years it might seem to her impossible that he had ever said such a thing and he himself in moments of fear might come to deny it. But at the time they both heard it and the words hung there for them both to embrace and it seemed like there could never be a more perfect moment for the rest of their lives.

"Dear Heart..."

Clare Palmier 2006

 
Copyright Jane Wildgoose and The Wildgoose Memorial Library