In Edinburgh an American looked up at the castle, if it was the castle and not a housing project. He saw a crowd of citizens and tourists beginning to gather against the railings on the other side of Princes Street. He crossed the road and looked down into the park. Nothing exciting was happening.
After a time a tremor ran through the crowd and he followed their eyes up to the castle battlements. A row of figures appeared. They were standing on the very edge of the wall. There were ten of them. It was hard to make out details at such a distance, but their bodies were unnaturally bulky. He turned to the man standing on his left.
Is there going to be some kind of display? he asked. The man glared at him.
I supposed you think we all wear kilts? he said. Fucking Americans. Fucking tourists. I suppose you think we’re all really quaint? I suppose you think the fucking royal family’s really great?
I didn’t mean to be rude, said the American.
If there’s one thing worse than fucking Americans … hang on, I don’t mean that. Right. If there’s one thing worse than bloody Americans, it’s the bloody English. He raised his finger into the American’s face. I remember the Prince over the water. Charlie. Bloody English chopped his head off. After we beat them at Culloden. They made the Highlanders walk home. Without a pension too. What a way to treat the inventors of the postage stamp, eh? Makes you think. And the Americans. We give them their independence and what do they give us? Bloody missiles. And us the inventors of the television set. God, if John Knox was alive today, there’d be none of these pape’s missiles stirring up hatred and dissension. And John Maclean! What a man! Dead like the rest of them. And him the inventor of toothpaste. Oh flower of Scotland we’ll never see your like again, no, no, no. Och but the people need a leader. Man from the tenements. Up the close, out the yard, down from the hills. Like Robespierre. Or Lenin. He was Scottish. I was at school with him. I was. Aye! Aye.
I’m sorry, I can’t understand a word you’re saying, said the American. He turned away and lifted up his camera, which had a powerful zoom lens, and looked through it at the figures on the ramparts.
It was a line of men in camouflage uniforms. They were standing to attention, about ten feet apart, their faces hard and expressionless. They were big men. They wore khaki berets and each had a pair of green canvas wings strapped to his arms. As the American watched, the figure on the far right appeared to shout something. The ten opened their wings in unison, held them stretched, then lowered them again. The crowd got very excited.
Standing erect and aloof near the American, with his hands behind his back, was a tall, middle-aged man wearing a tweed jacket and a kilt. He had a silver moustache, a striped tie and a Rotary Club badge on his lapel. He turned and spoke to the American.
Should be a good display, he said.
Oh, it is a display, then.
Aerobatics! said the man.
I’ve just arrived, said the American. Who’s going to be flying?
It’s my old regiment, the Clackmannans. Battle honours go back to the first Afghan campaign.
You flew with them?
We don’t call it flying in the army, said the man. We say “winging it.”
Or “doing the grouse.”
Or “walking Johnny cloud.” Yes, I was an officer in the Fifties. Saw action in Suez.
My cousin was in the air force, said the American.
Aeroplanes have a place, I suppose, said the old officer. I never had much truck with the things myself.
Are these just ordinary soldiers?
This is our crack team! The Red Dragons. Not often you see a soldier’s arms in canvas these days. Things aren’t what they were. Clackmannans had fourteen battalions on the Somme. Like starlings.
So what do you reckon they’ll do in this display?
Well, said the old officer, gesturing with his hands, I should think they’ll start out with a couple of circuits of the castle in diamond formation, then probably a series of loops, and round it all off with a Lomond inversion. That’s quite a favorite with the public.
Sounds real exciting, said the American, setting the exposure on his camera. Why are they called the Red Dragons?
Before the old officer could explain there was a roar from the crowd. The soldiers on the ramparts were checking their equipment. Finishing the jerky sequence they spread their wings again. A hush fell. Traffic on Princes Street stopped. All eyes were on the castle walls.
The soldiers bent their knees and moved their wings slowly up and down. They looked at each other, a few words were exchanged, a strap was adjusted, and they were ready. They sprang into the air and flapped their wings fiercely, hung in the air for an instant, then, seconds later, hit the ground at the bottom of the cliff, one after the other. Through his zoom lens the American saw them break and crumple. In the end they lay strewn, dead or dying, on the grass, their uniforms spoiled with blood, red as red dragons.
The crowd cheered wildly and waved little flags. The old officer clapped, hard and slow, his eyes moist, then turned and walked away. The American looked round. The man he couldn’t understand had a look of exultation in his eyes.
Best fucking soldiers in the world, he muttered, gripping the railings. Best fucking soldiers in the world.