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Open Features: Thussi

A German girlfriend sends a letter to Coatbridge, who is faced with a crucial decision.

Linda McLean continues the absorbing story of her father’s life.

1946 - The Letter

On that Tuesday morning, Coatbridge had made his preparations for the day ahead. It was becoming routine, the measuring and committing to paper the various aspects of Glasgow Cathedral. His head was already full, thinking of the difficult bit above the entrance. With the usual farewells said to his parents, he lifted his briefcase, ready to open the door.

It was at this point that the letter had plopped onto the floor - a letter from Germany.

This caused him to pause for a moment. He knew who the sender was. He could recognise her handwriting.

He picked it up carefully, cautiously. Time was pressing. He would put it in his pocket and read it on the train.

All the way to High Street he read and reread her words with shocked disbelief. She was coming to Scotland for further education.

He walked pensively up the street to the Cathedral, there to begin the established routine of measuring and drawing. He had not realised how much he would welcome this sanctuary from the world. The feeling of being daunted had passed with the realisation that he simply had to tackle one bit at a time.

It occurred to him that he would never have chosen to spend a multitude of hours by himself in such a setting, but he had to admit that it was therapeutic, given that he had a purpose. Memories seemed much clearer here, with no distractions. Thinking a problem through was simple.

So Coatbridge turned his attention to his first memory of the sender of the letter. Her name was Thussi. They had met in the picturesque village of Cuxhaven, after the war, when “fraternisation” with Germans was allowed. Both her parents had been killed in the bombing of Berlin, and she had fled, a refugee in her own country, with only the clothes she was wearing. A well-educated teacher of English, she had been an only child. They found much in common.

She was witty, amusing, and attractive: everything you would wish to find after a long time deprived of female company. Together they enjoyed themselves immensely. Coatbridge told her of his childhood and his adventures, and she shared her life story. A relationship was born.

Everywhere they were seen together and became quite an item in the run up to his going home. However meeting this lovely girl and the prospect of going home seemed too much to cope with after years of being responsible for men in battle. He remembered his previous disappointment. Despite the general euphoria prevalent throughout Europe, he was unable to share the mood and trust his feelings. The world had been mad for years. His only wish now was for a gentle return to sanity.

“Will you write to me?” she asked, when it was time for him to go.

“I think it is better that we leave things as they are,’’ he replied. “Our feelings are running high because of the ending of the war and it is easy to get confused. We have had a smashing time, and we will always remember that. Please know that I will always think about you in a special way.”

“Smashing? What is this smashing?” she responded, wrong-footing him, always interested in a word she had not heard before.

“It means really good, super,’’ he replied. “I mean what I say. It is better to stop this now. We do not know what the future holds.”

Coatbridge was also mindful that he had studies to complete, whereas she was already qualified.

She was inconsolable.

“Please, let’s leave it,” he insisted. “I sail tomorrow. I am really pleased and privileged to have met you, and you know we had a smashing time. Let’s not ask for too much. Let’s merely keep the memories safe.”

“Can I have your address?” she asked.

He hesitated. He knew hers, of course. What real harm would it do?

“You can have my address as long as you promise not to write. What we have shared has been very important to me. Please allow me to keep it.”

She had, very reluctantly, agreed.

And now this letter, telling him that she would be arriving in Glasgow Central a week on Tuesday. She asked if he would meet her. He was being pulled unwillingly back into the past.
It was a problem. She had been “filed’’ away with that part of his life which now seemed unreal. He vividly remembered her though. He remembered her blue shining eyes and blond hair, the way she threw back her head when she laughed, the cobbled street where they had kissed…

This wouldn’t do at all. He wanted some time to recover his senses after the madness of war. He wanted to make sensible decisions about the rest of his life. So what was he to do about this wretched letter?

He realised that if he met her he would be lost. He had to concentrate on his studies, especially with the cathedral project taking all his free time.

Could he stand her up?

Now that “home’’ was a reality, he had so many responsibilities. Passing exams, assisting his parents, getting to know people again in ordinary circumstances. He needed time to recover from the years of war.

Fitting back into Civvy Street was difficult. Often he regretted not taking the easier option of staying in the army. He thought of that conversation with the Brigadier.

“Please give it your earnest consideration, Major. The Army would be very pleased to have you, and you will be much better paid than you would be by going back to university. I can assure you of promotion within the year because of your experience. You will not get a higher salary in civilian life.’’

He knew this was true. But he also knew of the sweat and toil put in by his father, simply in the hope of saying “My son is a university graduate.’’

His father had done as much as could be done with very little. Coatbridge could not let him down now. It was heartbreaking to leave the army though. With army pay he would be able to ensure that his parents had a more comfortable old age.

He also knew that army life was not their dream of his future. That was why he was in the cathedral, measuring columns, marking out a future that would not be spent in uniform.

A meeting with Thussi would re-open wounds. He couldn’t do that, so he didn’t go to meet her. He had no idea where she was, or what she was doing.

He didn’t send a reply to her letter. His family were in the process of moving house. He had an excuse, if the need arose. The mail was still in a state of disarray after the war. Her letter had arrived too late for him to meet her on the specified date.

That story would pass muster.

1971 - The Aftermath

Being asked by the Presbytery to reinstate the roof of his Church after the fire concentrated his mind.

“I just don’t know,” he had mused to his daughter. "I don’t think it is a good idea for me to do it.”

“Why on earth not?” she responded, amazed that he could think in such a way.

“Well, you see, dear, this is my church, and the people here know me. Now it is very difficult to please everybody. Don’t ever try to please everybody because it can’t be done. If the majority of people don’t like what I do, they may leave the church. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.”

“Don’t be silly!” she had responded, with all the confidence of youth. “How could anyone not like what you do?”

He had in time accepted the challenge, but with serious reservations. He had to delve deep to remember all he needed to know.

He was engrossed in recalling what had been learnt measuring Glasgow Cathedral all those years ago.

And now there was the rain. He really didn’t need it. Why was it always so wet when he had something important to do?

Coatbridge was very emphatic that the roof of the church should be watertight. He knew the contractors thought that he was bad-tempered. He also knew how important this was. It was taking up a considerable amount of his free time, supervising what was happening on site. He was emotionally involved with this building, perhaps too much so. The difficulties of the day were still niggling at his mind, always in the background. He was deep in thought…

It was just after tea that the doorbell rang, and his daughter told him there was a woman to see him. Puzzled, he got up from his chair, ready to be polite to someone he presumed would be a neighbour.

Thussi stood on the doorstep.

Time stopped.

Coatbridge looked at her in utter disbelief.

“How did you find me?” he asked, knowing he had moved three times since giving her his address.

“I looked you up in the phone book,” she replied.

“You couldn’t possibly look me up in the phone book. There are thousands of people with my surname living in the Glasgow area,’’ he said.

“You are the only one with the initials H.S.” she said, simply.

Disbelieving her, he checked. It was true.

“This time I decided not to tell you I was coming. I had to see you again,” she said.

He understood. No decision had to be made. It was done.

After that he answered her letters.

A lasting friendship was born out of sheer persistence.


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