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Chapter Nine

Chief Constable William Merrilees, OBE

Uncle Willie

Up until that day in 1960, Uncle Willie had been to James merely a fabled figure, the subject of family talk. He’d never met him... but now James would see him up close for the first time. When he walked into the Melroses’ apartment, James’s first impression was of a vigorous, alert man in late middle age wearing police uniform and the flat, diced cap of the Scottish police covered in silver braid. He was slightly shorter than James. He had a generous head of greying hair and a square, craggy face with a pugnacious expression but kind eyes. Although he spoke with a soft, cultured accent, it was unmistakably Scots. He was already smiling and looking around the room as he threw his cap on the settee and hugged Granny Melrose.

“Ah was just passing and thought Ah’d drop in and see how you were!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, Willie, this is mah grandson, Janet’s laddie,” said Granny Melrose. “He’s...” She paused. “How auld are ye again, son?”

“Thirteen-an’-a-half, Granny.”

James was already standing respectfully. Uncle Willie turned and held out his right hand. In the split second before he did so, James couldn’t help himself glancing down. Yes, there was Uncle Willie’s famous left hand, a mere stump.

“What’s yer name, son?” asked Uncle Willie, as he took James’s juvenile hand firmly in his intact, gnarled paw.

“James Swanston, Sir!”

“Ye’re a fine-lookin’ laddie, a Melrose all right.” He gave James a grin. “Almost as good-lookin’ as me!”

Alexander and his cousin sat down in the two available armchairs and started chatting while Granny Melrose bustled about in the kitchen making tea and sandwiches. James helped, carrying things back and forward, mentally on tiptoe, for he’d never before been in the presence of someone who exuded such power, albeit a member of his own extended family. Nor could he take his eyes off the fabulous black Jaguar, with the police markings and the driver sitting motionless inside. Uncle Willie interrupted his thoughts.

“James, would ye do me a wee favour, son? Would ye take a cup of tea and a sandwich out to mah driver?”

“D’ye no want tae bring ’im in, Willie?” asked Alexander.

“No, no, he’s got to stay by the radio, Ah’m afraid!”

James made fresh tea while his granny put together another couple of sandwiches for the driver. As she held the door open, he stepped into the entry holding the tray, willing himself not to trip on the steps. He walked out into the street and around the Jaguar to the driver’s side, watched by a small crowd of curious local bairns. The driver had already seen him and smartly stepped out. James was confronted by an enormous policeman in his late thirties. He must have been about six feet five and looked even taller in his diced cap. He had a tough, handsome, intelligent face, a prominent nose, a funny left eye and three stripes on the arm of his tunic.

“Uncle Willie asked me tae bring ye a cup o’ tea an’ a sandwich,” announced James, proffering the tray and squinting up at him. He felt weird. He’d never before walked out into the street with a tray, a pot of tea and a plate of sandwiches.

“Well, thank ye kindly, young man,” said the sergeant, taking the tray and balancing it carefully on the bonnet of the Jag while he helped himself. “And who might you be?”

“James Swanston, Sir. Alexander Melrose’s mah granddad.”

“Ah’m Sergeant Seatoun, the Chief’s driver an’ bodyguard.”

A real, live bodyguard? Never had James imagined that he’d be talking to one, especially here in lowly Warburton Crescent, of all places.

“But,” said Sergeant Seatoun, in between munching Granny’s ham and mustard sandwiches, and gulping down the hot, sweet tea, “you can call me Sandy.”

James stood there like an idiot, wondering if that bulge under the Sergeant’s tunic could possibly be a revolver.

“What school are ye at?”

“The Academy, Sir, in Leith.”

“Oh, a good school. Ah kennt a teacher there, Mr Laidlaw. ’Is wife’s only got one arm. D’ye ken ’im?”

“Aye, Ah do, Sir. ’E’s mah physics teacher!”

“Well, well, well, it’s a sma’ world, isn’t it? Mrs Laidlaw’s from Penicuik, where Ah live.” Then he added, “By the way, James, ye neednae call me Sir. Sandy will do. Or just Sergeant, if ye like!”

James was beginning to like this man. Sergeant Seatoun drained the teacup, finished his snack and handed the tray back with a smile.

“Thank yer granny for me and maybe we’ll see each other again some time!”

He got back into the driver’s seat and started fiddling with his radio. Little did either of them realise that they’d be seeing a lot more of each other than they’d ever have imagined.

Image © William Merrilees