Glasgow – mid-October, 1970: – Rushes of energy rippled through the girl’s body like it sometimes did at home when a storm was building. There, it was always safe under the house or in one of the rooms but it was a puzzle to feel this scared inside her grandmother’s flat. She tightened the grasp on her father’s hand and half-stepped sideways to brush against the comforting softness of her mother’s woollen coat.
The old lady was almost spitting, ‘No . . . No, I won’t go there. I’ve told you before.’
The girl cringed inside, but showed no expression, as the grandmother’s dark eyes bored into her. Was the reaction stronger today because this visit was her choice?
She wanted . . . needed, to see where her mother lived as a small child. Could it explain why Mama’s life had been swallowed by all those depressions? Mother’s memory was vague, and grandmother would only say, ‘Forget that place.’
The older brother and younger sister fidgeted, ready to leave. They didn’t mind if grandmother stayed home or went with them. Their sister let her breath out gently, and felt her father’s hand relax around hers as he ushered her towards the door. Mrs Brown, the housekeeper was holding it open for them.
Outside, life in the grey city hummed under a lowering sky. Happed up people huddled and hurried along streets and cobbled paths that were greased and dark with the smirr of morning rain. It could turn into an anything kind of day but hadn’t yet made up its mind.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, mother, father, brother, sister and the girl stood in a blink of sun outside a four-storey tenement row on Dixon Road. The mother moved forward and pointed, ‘That’s number 44 there.’
In a knot at the edge of the footpath, the others stared at the drab façade and the ground level vandalism of scratched paint and damaged window sashes. They drew into themselves, appalled by a collection of crumbling masonry at the close entrance. The ragged edges of the pile spilled into an awkward hazard almost as wide as the footpath. Patches of crushed white powder stained the worn cement slabs.
The girl recovered first and ran ahead into the entry but turned back after a few steps, holding her nose. ‘There is pooh up the wall. You can smell it, and there’s rubbish on the steps.’
‘Sshh. Keep your voice down,’ said the mother as a careworn woman approached.
The child’s hand flew across her lips.
The woman looked official in a navy Burberry and matching cap with its blue and white badge, her right shoulder drooping under the weight of a well-worn bag. She stepped around the father and the other children, to say, ‘You’re quite right lass. This place does look awful. But most folks are clean and careful and take pride in their homes. Some of them are like palaces inside.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said the mother, ‘I lived here for a few years during the war but I was too young to remember much. The children wanted to see what it was like. It’s very different from what they know in Australia.’
‘So that’s the wee girl’s accent. Your own hasn’t changed a lot. Which one were you in?
‘Third floor at this number, but I don’t know the exact flat.’
‘I’m going up there to see an old man who needs some help. His wife doesn’t get out much but she loves company. Maybe you’d like to drop in for a few minutes if it suits?’ She looked around. ‘Yourself and the wee girl? The others have wandered off anyway.’
The mother started to refuse, ‘We wouldn’t like to intrude . . . ,’ but the girl pulled on her sleeve.
‘Please . . . please. It would be so good.’
The woman intervened, ‘I’m Florrie, a community nurse, and I think it truly would give Mrs Dalziel a lift. I’ve been looking after the pair of them for a few years. She’s a friendly soul and would fair love to tell the neighbours she had visitors from overseas.’ Florrie set bag and on the footpath and rubbed her right palm. ‘Her place is immaculate. She’s done it up a treat. It’s one of the old two-room-and-kitchen places. The chandelier in the living area is her pride and joy. It’d give you a chance to see that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.’ She looked upwards for a moment. ‘If you stand on the edge of the pavement in a few minutes, I’ll signal out the window on the third floor if she’s agreeable for you to come up. It could even be the very place you lived in.’
The girl’s eyes pleaded.
’Let’s catch up with the others to see what they think.’
‘She would offer you a cup of tea for sure. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll tell her right away you don’t have time, so she won’t be offended. Then I’ll be able to finish Mr Dalziel’s treatment after you leave.’
* * *
Mrs Dalziel said, ‘Some things are different now of course.’
The girl strained to fathom the accent, much broader than her mother’s or father’s.
‘Sadly the close entry hasn’t changed but it’s just the one family spoils it. You would have seen that, coming up the stairwell. But most of us manage to look past the nasties when we venture out. We find peace inside our own walls.’
‘You’ve certainly made this place very comfortable and light.’
The conversation between Florrie and the old man filtered from the other room.
As the girl listened to the women chat about what it was like during the war, something felt very odd. The conversation shaded in and out; she was herself and not herself, in the now but not in the now, losing touch. Prickling with fear she tried to pull back as shadows closed around her.
The room was desolate, dull and dingy. The days were crossed off on the calendar hanging from a nail on the wall, right up to November 6, 1941. Alarm transformed to hesitant surrender; the girl grasped that somehow she’d been thrust into another life. Her grandmother’s life?
Red and yellow embers spurted as a solitary lump of coal collapsed to ash with a light crash. The lamp dipped as if in sympathy, but flared again. Looking anxiously at the level of oil in the storage bottle she breathed relief; enough for tonight and the morning’s dark start. Numb with cold, a deep ache gnawed in her bones.
No energy. Her stomach cramped with hunger. At least there was still a spoonful of dripping in the pantry and the end of a stale loaf for tonight.
The baby? She reached out and shook the brown paper packet of oatmeal. Mercifully enough for now along with the end of the honey her neighbour brought back from the farm where her children were billeted. But what about tomorrow? A week was too long a stretch for the money and the coupons.
Dampness seeped from the clothes on the pulley above the table. It was impossible to keep the little one well in this place. She recoiled as the infant’s racking cough and thin jerky wail grabbed at her soul. Despair weighted around her midriff as she railed aloud at her absent husband, ‘Dougal you had no right to go to war. You didn’t need to abandon us. You had a choice.’
Kneeling awkwardly she scrabbled in a box under the bed for the creamy handmade blouse of fine linen, a reminder of days of comparative comfort in the spartan big house in Kyle. A heat of loathing welled up. She’d left before her father could turn her out; before he excluded her from the family and the church; scorned and banished because she dared to question his Brethren beliefs. With effort she subdued those thoughts. Her breath caught. . . .
Too cold to take the baby out tonight. But before work tomorrow, the pawn shop would exchange the garment for enough cash for several days of food.
And then there was Friday night and Saturday with the pittance from the Jew family to carry them through their Sabbath without flouting Shabbat rules. She abhorred their beliefs, so different from her own; detested her need for the work to survive. It was hard to be grateful for infidel help to scrape by each week . . . and then the humiliation when she felt compelled to accept the gift of a woollen hand-me-down for the baby. Kindly meant, but . . . .
Amid the flurry of talk with the Dalziels and Florrie as they left, the mother didn’t notice the haze over the child’s eyes.
In the car on the way back to Royal Terrace the girl clasped her young sister into her side with a massive hug and fell in a deep sleep against her brother’s shoulder. When they arrived the father carried the child into the building and up the stairs to the grandmother’s unit to sleep on.
When it was difficult to rouse the child for the evening meal the mother whispered, ‘I hope she’s not sickening for something.’
At the table she said to the girl, ‘You’re very quiet little one. Didn’t you hear Mrs Brown ask what you’d like to eat? Scrambled eggs or haddock?’
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