At The Games

They all went over to the Crurie Games, though not all for the same reason. Archie McQuern went because he thought he ought to, and Susan went because Archie thought she ought to. The three Miniver children and the four younger McQuerns went because of the Fun Fair in the next field. Alison, the eldest, went because the Ardbennie party were sure to be there, and she knew that jock Murray was home on leave. Miss Bates, the English holiday governess, who had never been in Scotland before, went because her great-grandmother's name had been Gillespie, and the sound of pipe-music always made her feel pleasantly queer. Clem went because he would generally rather do things than not, and Mrs. Miniver went because for some obscure reason she liked watching Highland Games.

"I can't understand it, " said her sister-in-law. "I shouldn't have thought it was your line at all. Just look how you go on about cricket. "

But the whole point was, Mrs. Miniver tried to explain, that the Games weren't cricket. In fact, they weren't games at all, but athletics. There was no team spirit about, and no holiness and winning of Waterloo, but only a lot of ordinary men, each one out for himself, trying to run faster or vault higher or throw a weight farther than any of the others for the sake of thirty or forty shillings in prize-money and a mention in the Crurie Herald. It might not be very heroic, but it was agreeably straightforward.

And beautiful, too, she thought with a lift of pleasure as one of the vaulters soared smoothly upwards at the end of his banded pole, cleared an improbable height, and dropped to the ground as lightly as though he were falling through water. (For some reason, pole-vaulting always gave the impression that it was being performed in slow-motion.) He was a lean lantern-jawed man in a darned sweater and faded blue shorts. He straightened himself up, strolled back to the starting-point, and pulled on his trousers. The next-but-one competitor was just taking his

off. They were all completely unconcerned. Miss Bates looked as though she wasn't quite sure of her ground.

"It must be dreadfully cold for them, poor things, " she said at last, taking the broader view.

It certainly was cold for the middle of August. The occasional gleams of sun were as unconvincing as a forced smile, and most of the time a bitter little wind enfiladed the grandstand, sending coat-collars up and hands into pockets. There was a burst of applause. An announcement boomed out from the four loud-speakers which clustered back to back like the florets of moschatel. Mrs. Miniver turned to her brother-in-law.

"What was that? I missed it. "

"Heavy hammer, " said Archie. "Willie Muir is going to try and break the ground record. He's the local blacksmith. "

Mrs. Miniver touched Miss Bates on the arm and pointed to the farther side of the field. Muir was a huge man. Its chest muscles stood out through his thin singlet and his kilt was the size of a barrel. He stepped forward, rubbed his hands, stamped his toes into the ground to get a firm stance, and gripped the haft of the hammer.

"Good gracious! " said Miss Bates, appalled, as he began to whirl the hammer round his head and shoulders, slowly at first but with increasing speed. "Look, there are some people sitting quite close to him -- supposing he let go at the wrong moment? "

Mrs. Miniver had often supposed this, with horrified fascination; but it never seemed to happen. The hammer was whirling now at a great speed, and at last Muir swung right round with a kind of grunting groan, and twenty-two pounds of brute metal flew through the air, landing with a thump a few feet from the judges. Mrs. Miniver relaxed. There was a storm of applause. Two men measured the distance with a tape. It was announced as ninety-four feet -- three inches longer than the ground record. The applause redoubled.

"Well, " said Miss Bates, "I suppose that's what they call tossing the caber. Or is it cabber? "

"Caber, " said Mrs. Miniver. "No, that wasn't it, but you'll see it in a minute, I expect. "

Meanwhile several other things were going on in the picture which was framed by the heather-trimmed pillars of the grand-stand (stuck here and there, incongruously enough, with dahlias). The competitors were just assembling for the 600 yards handicap, looking, as runners so often do before a race, like the criminal line-up in a gangster film -- to be transformed by the starter's pistol into Greek gods. In another corner of the field a pair of wrestlers were interlocked in one of the more intimate holds of the catch-as-catch-can style. Miss Bates looked away rather

quickly. The quadruple loud-speaker was announcing that the lantern-jawed man had won the pole-vaulting with a height of ten feet nine inches. In the far distance the steam organ of the roundabout was playing, sweetly and puffily, "My Lily of Laguna. " And on the wooden platform in front of the grand-stand two men in full Highland dress were poised for a sword-dance. One of them was small and spare, with light eyes, like Alan Breck. He wore the striking black-and-yellow of the MacLeods; there was a sprig of juniper in his bonnet. The second was younger and taller. He was wearing a dark greenish tartan, and his lips were parted all the time in an almost imperceptible smile.

The pipes struck up their sharp thrusting rhythm, drowning the faint noises of the fairground. The two men danced neatly and vigorously, with a passionate precision. Their pointed soft-shod feet twinkled unerringly between the crossed blades and scabbards, in and out and over and round, going through the old intricate ritual with which their forebears had woven themselves a cloak of security on the eve of battle. But now, if toe touched steel, it would mean only the forfeiting of prize-money, not a chill in the heart at the certainty of impending death.

The younger man, as nimble as a cat for all his height, was still smiling a little as he danced. The Alan Breck one was flashing like a wasp in his black-and-yellow. The music began to quicken intolerably for the final steps: and Mrs. Miniver saw the rest of it through a mist. For I defy anyone, she thought in self-defence, to watch a sword-dance through to the end without developing a great-grandmother called Gillespie.

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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther