last view I got of Count Vladimir Perczynski in his pilot officer’s
uniform was on a squinty-eyed Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1943.
At the time, he was marching up and down Stirling Street at the head
of his men, beating his right leg with a stick and twirling his big
bushy moustache with his left hand.
I was standing on the
pavement outside St Ninian’s church holding my Aunty Nelly Kelly’s hand,
trying to remember my daddy, who was away fighting the Germans in the
Sahara Desert, but I couldn’t see his face, even though I’d just lit
a votive candle and said a wee prayer. I could hardly even remember
my mammy, who was always up the Myott Hill watching for him to come
back. Nelly said she was taking care of me because my mammy was off
her head with worry.
I was saying, before all that Sahara sand got in the way, there was
this Count Percy. We used to call him Percy, because nobody knew until
after the war how to say Perczynski. Whenever he came down the road
at the head of his wee air force, me and my pals used to shout out,
‘Here comes Porky Percy and his flyboys,’ and fall about and hold our
bellies to stop them from hurting. We were wee at the time and stupid
Nelly used to skelp me
on the back of my head when she heard it. ‘That’s an awfy rude thing
to say about a darling man,’ she’d say. But she couldn’t help laughing
at the same time she was battering me to a pulp. I’m exaggerating, you
As a matter of fact,
the skelp didn’t hurt much at all, but it gave me the excuse to roll
around on the warm pavement and scream blue murder, kidding the women
queuing outside Ferraro’s chip shop into thinking I’d kicked my last
tanner ball. The best bit was when they said, ‘Ah, the shame. She’s
awfy hard on the poor wee laddie’. It was a great performance, better
even than Mickey Rooney at the pictures.
The amazing thing about
Count Percy that day was the glass sticking to his left eye just below
the peak of his cap with the wings on. ‘What’s that?’ I said to Nelly,
who was supposed to be taking me to the Co-op at the time.
‘It’s called a monocle,’
she said. ‘The Count wears it because he’s awfy noble. At least, he
was before the Nazi tyrants seized his lands near Cracow.’ She said
it crack-ow. ‘But he’s going to bomb Berlin and get them back.’
‘A min-ockle,’ I said,
not hearing it right. ‘What’s it for?’
‘You want to know everything,
don’t you?’ Nelly said.
‘Aye,’ I said.
‘Aye, right enough,’
she said. ‘It’s for looking inside wicked wee laddies to see what mischief
they’ve been up to.’
‘Is that right?’ I said
feeling slightly worried. Then I asked, ‘What’s a cracked cow?’ thinking
the ones munching grass up on the golf course didn’t have any cracks
in them that I’d ever seen.
‘Crack-ow,’ Nelly repeated.
‘It’s a place in Poland. Now just you wheesht and look at the braw pilots.’
I watched the men marching
up and down for five minutes, then I said, just for devilment, ‘I think
you and Porky Percy are luvvy duvvies.’ Whereupon Nelly went red in
the face and I got a thick ear for my cheek, so I knew I was right.
In they days, me and
Nelly used to go down the Co-op by the draper’s every Saturday afternoon
just before closing time. It was my job to sneak behind the counter
and thieve a lump of bacon, while Flatfeet Freddy gawped at Nelly’s
three top buttons, which she’d specially opened up outside the door
before she came in with me hiding behind her skirts.
Freddy, who was supposed to be counting the food coupons at the time,
never seemed to notice me. But every other week he gave Nelly two free
oranges, saying one was for her and one was for her “invisible” nephew.
I always knew he wanted to ask Nelly to go for a walk up Carron Dam
but he was too feared to ask. She’d have gone with him too, because
bacon and oranges were hard get in the summer of ’43.
As I was saying before
all they food coupons got in the way. The Count drew level with us for
the fourth time and he stuck up his hand most imperiously. Then he shouted,
‘Halt’! Except he didn’t say ‘halt’ or ‘stop’ or anything like that,
he said something funny in Polish.
The airmen stopped with
a clatter of boots and stared ahead, trying their best not to give the
eye to the lassies lined up on the pavement, who where putting on the
agony, laughing and giggling, like the mindless idiots my Aunty Nelly
said they were.
Sunday mornings, when the lassies were all dressed up and flirting with
the Poles, especially her Percy, Nelly was not filled with Christian
Charity, far from it – no matter what Father Pat said. ‘All fur coat
and no breeks,’ she’d say disdainfully. She had a way with words, my
Aunty Nelly Kelly.
I was saying, before the fur coat got in the way. The Count came and
stood directly in front of me and Nelly. He took off his cap, letting
his long black hair tumble down to his shoulders. It had a dead straight
parting in the middle and looked as if he’d sleeked it down with dripping.
He stared into her face
for a long time, ignoring me, even when I kicked his left shin and stamped
on his right foot.
Then he made a great
swishing bow that nearly knocked me sideways and said, ‘Hullo, my wee
He must have learned
his English from Nelly, because he sounded just like her. ‘Me and my
men are away to bomb the Gerries the morrow’s morning and, like as no,
we’ll no be coming back.’ He spoke softly and kept looking into her
I stood on tippy toe
and jumped up to look as well. Sure as cows are no cracked, I could
see tears in there. I didn’t want her to start blubbering, because that
made her an awful sight. I tugged at the sleeve of her jacket, but she
just ignored me.
‘If you’ll come up Carron
Dam with me the night,’ the Count said, placing his hand on his medals,
‘I’ll speak your name when I’m diving into Berlin with my cockpit on
fire, my tail shot off, and a Jerry tracer bullet in my heart.’
must have been the word ‘heart’ that got to Nelly, because she started
blubbering out loud and told him she’d meet him at six o’clock outside
the post office, not caring who heard her.
After that, it was like
somebody had opened the floodgates at Carron Dam. All the other lassies
started howling as well. It was like they could all see into the future,
because none of they airmen ever came back from the war. Except one.
I expect they went to
meet their Maker feeling happy, because I heard they all managed to
get a lassie to go up the Carron with them. Some even had two, because
there was plenty to go round in 1943. Everybody except me seemed to
know what lads and lassies did up the Carron. And that must have included
Nelly, because she was so excited, she forgot to take me to the Co-op
and I had to put up with just fried bread and powdered eggs on Sunday
That same Sunday, for
the first time ever, Nelly and half the women of the parish missed taking
Holy Communion, which made the old biddies in the front pews turn around
and nudge each other with their elbows and say, ‘Will you just look
at all they mortal sinners! They’ll all roast in hell, so they will.’
After that the tutting got so loud that Father Pat turned round from
changing water into wine – a neat trick that – and frowned at them until
they blessed themselves, prayed to the good Lord for forgiveness for
being jealous and talking through their hats. Then they shut up, thank
The very next Sunday,
Father Pat started ranting and raving something terrible up on his pulpit
about the wages of sin being death. I think he was talking about the
Polish airmen who never came back. Then he went purple in the face and
shouted out ‘fornication’, whatever that was, and used big words like
‘moral turpentine’. He went hoarse after that so I couldn’t make out
any of the other big words. I heard he kept it up for three masses in
a row, which impressed everybody in the parish. Somebody in the post
office said the reason Father Pat was so upset was because all the lassies
had been giggling in the confessional on the Saturday night, and that
he didn’t really mean it when he talked about expected ‘Gifts from God’
and ‘Souls for Christ’.
Aunty Nelly Kelly didn’t hear any of this, because the Wednesday before,
she’d got a lift on a lorry to London to see the bombs.
Nelly came back after the war with a wee laddie in a blue
velvet suit called Percival Perczynski, who she said was my cousin.
She also had a wedding ring on her finger and a bloke on a leash she
said was my Uncle Vlado. It was a long time before I could place him,
because he’d lost his monocle and his moustache along with his uniform
with the wings.
Nelly’s uncle, who was
a JP on the Clown Council, got Count Percy, alias Uncle Vlado, a job
as night watchman on the new housing development where the golf course
used to be. Sometimes, he let me warm my hands at the brazier on the
site and told me stories about the time he had lands near Cracow – he
said it crack-off. Nelly got a job in the Co-op with Flatfeet Freddy
so she could be near the bacon and oranges.
forgot to mention that, just before my Aunty Nelly Kelly went away to
London, my mammy came down from the Myott Hill and took care of me until
my daddy came back from the Sahara with a suntan and one leg, which
he did just before Christmas.