After the War Was Over


1946

Things had changed so much since he had last entered these portals of his University. The world had changed – he had changed. The building looked so familiar, but was not, somehow, the same.

It was difficult for Coatbridge not to march into the formal interview at the University. Marching had become almost a part of life; but he tried to appear casual, and clutch the portfolio of his previous work less tightly. He held himself upright as he walked – highly aware now of the soldier within.

He wasn’t really nervous – he told himself. This was merely rubber-stamping. After all, he had completed four years of architectural studies already, acquitted himself very well, and he had the assurance of the Army that he would be able to enter Civvy Street where he had left off.

Thoughts of the Army filled his mind- it had been such a difficult decision. He had loved the life, and at long last found a “family”. He had been invited to stay on with promotion, but conscience dictated otherwise. He could still hear the Brigadier saying to him:

“You’ll be a sad loss, Major. Please think seriously about it.”

But the decision had not really been his to make. His parents had sacrificed so much for his education: they had scrimped and saved, they had done without so much, just to get him to University.  If he didn’t go back, he would break their hearts.

It was obvious that his own father, now 66, would have to get a part time job to realise the dream of his son being a University Graduate. His father was beginning to look frail – to look his age, and it was obvious that he could not work for very long. But it was only for one year, Coatbridge consoled himself. He only had one year to go…..

The interview panel thought differently. They told him in no uncertain terms that as it had been five years since he had submitted any work, or indeed lifted a pencil, there was no guarantee he could still draw. They would be willing to allow him to start in first year. He certainly could not just walk into 5th.

“First year!” said Coatbridge, aghast. “That is simply not an option. You’ve seen my work, and the fact that for years I was fighting a war not of my making was not my fault. You cannot penalise me like this!”

“Design has moved on since you were at University. You have been living a very active life. You may find that it is difficult to settle down to your studies again. I think it best that you go back to first year,” was the response from the Chairman of the panel.

This was no unsure youth anymore. This was a man who had seen his share of fighting. As an Infantry man, he had covered three thousand miles for his country, from El Alamein to Berlin. He had taken part in both the Sicily and the Normandy landings. He had fought in twenty separate actions and he had led men. He was not going to accept a “no” from the academics after all he had been through.

So he fought his corner, although it did not come easily. He was very mild mannered, but the thought of his father having to go out to work when he was still seventy to help him complete his studies, made him argue the point forcibly. (There was no old age pension for his father in 1946, and University was full time.)

Coatbridge powerfully argued his case – he cited his exam results, his previous work, which he had with him, his financial situation, and the difficulties his parents would face.
The academics were unmoved and refused to change their mind. Coatbridge was desperate. Eventually, he went as far as he was prepared to go.

Being sure of his ability, he threw down the gauntlet.

“If you will simply allow me to attend classes in my final year, so I can sit the examination, I will undertake and complete any project you care to mention, to prove my ability.”

The Interview Board said to leave it with them – he would be informed shortly.

For days he paced – wondering if he had done the right thing by leaving the Army after all. But it always came back to how much his parents had given; he would have been very distressed throwing that away.

At long last, the envelope arrived. It invited him to join final year, (thank goodness) and his project was:

“To measure and draw to scale, without access to plans, Glasgow Cathedral, in its entirety.”

So, they had thrown the gauntlet back at him.

It must be a joke surely?

He knew the building, although he had never been in it. It was huge.

When he entered it later in the week to view the complete extent of what he faced, he was quite overwhelmed. He sat down in one of the back rows and surveyed the size of his task in wonder. He could have wept. It was utterly incredible that this extra mile should be asked of him. After all his effort, all the hardship, all the lost friends, all the things that should never have happened to a youth – now this.

What a reward for the years that he had given for his country!

Where and how did he start?

How was he going to achieve this single-handed?

What would he need?

How would he manage to work out the proportions of the roof? It was a logistical nightmare.

Moreover, he was more than surprised.  He was hurt and stunned at the stance taken by the University. He had been a good student. His passes were always more than adequate – he was always in the top third of the class. None of it made sense – not one bit of it.

However, he had been ordered to do this – and orders were something that he understood. After five years training and fighting, he was destined to spend another one inside a Cathedral.  He may have challenged the academic thinking, but they were not going to beat him.

But it was very strange……

There could not have been a bigger contrast.

He went from the noise of gunfire, schu mines and bombardment by moaning Minnies; from the excitement and fear of battle, from the management of men – into the cathedral quiet.

Gone were the friends, the jokes, and the banter. He had lost his original peer group anyway – it didn’t look like he was going to have a chance to get to know the new ones. So he lugged his ladders about, in this solitary situation. Naves, apses, pillars, columns, steps and recesses all had to be put down accurately on paper – there was always something new to measure.

Then there was the roof. He couldn’t reach that – not even with the longest ladder. He had to use mathematical calculations of Cos and Sine to work out the exact dimensions. His labours bore fruit: he was First in his year.

…………………………….

“Can you imagine how hard it was?” he had asked her as a child. She had no real understanding then.

“Can you imagine…….?” he repeated when she was a teenager – but by then nothing really mattered except boyfriends.

“Can you imagine…?”  he put to her again as a young adult.

The concept was still very unreal. She supposed it must have been difficult. She wouldn’t have known where to start.

xxx

Much, much later, it proved to be a very pertinent experience.

The Church he attended burnt down, but this time fire had destroyed the all-important plans.

The Presbytery asked him to be the Architect in charge of the restoration of the church roof.  He was rather daunted, but he bit the bullet. He quickly realised that he knew how to replace the roof exactly as it had been.

He had done this before – as an exercise.

He could do it again.

It was finished in time for his daughter’s wedding.

© Linda Jane McLean

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