In the beginning was my father. I never had any trouble believing in God the father, because I always believed utterly in mine. Like a young gosling I was imprinted on him from birth, from the moment when early in the morning of the day I was born, he battered furiously on the door of the nursing home, only to be told by a disapproving, bolster-bosomed Matron that he was a very impatient young man and would have to wait until the proper visiting time that afternoon. She didn’t have the same faith in fathers that I was to have.
On the first of January it was out into the bone-white light of the new-born year, to visit my McGregor grandparents in their tenement opposite the Station Hotel in Auchmull. There were no buses so we hurried on foot down the long sweep of brae from the red-harled council estate, past the bare, crusty parks that in summer belonged to Sandy Cruickshank’s milkin’ coos. On that day they were safe in their byre with their sharny backsides turned to the thin winter wind.
My father ran with the milk when he was young and once sneaked Sandy’s collie into the house and hid him under the bed, he was that desperate for a dog of his own.
“Oh Alfie, ye canna keep him, we couldna afford tae feed him,” Grannie McGregor had shaken her head sorrowfully. She’d maybe spotted the tell-tale trail of breadcrumbs.
“So I hid tae tak him back. Onywey young Sandy would’ve missed him. They were rare pals.” But my dad still sounded sad. We had a budgie.
Everything looked wan and matter-crusted after the dark excitements of Hogmanay, but we would always meet mannies my dad knew, lurching along with a drunken sailor’s gait, the half bottle stuck at a dangerous angle in the pooch, full of the kind of jokes my mother frowned at and I didn’t understand.
“He’s got mair need tae be at hame wi’ his wife an’ loons,” she would say after he stotted off. “They’re a roch bunch.”
“Ah but Stanley’s aye got a good story,” smiled my father, starting on the one about Stanley and the Liverpool dockers. Stanley was a Mill lorry driver and dragon-slayer, who always had a penny for me.
On New Year’s Day we always went to my father’s parents, because it was aye Hogmanay they celebrated when he was young and because my tall, dark-haired father was just the right kind of First Foot for my superstitious grandmother. It would be lemonade for me — “Gie the bairn a suppie advocat. It winna hurt” — in the comfortable smoky fug of their living room sitting on the stool at my grandmother’s feet, dreaming warmly over the frothy yellow concoction, wondering if I would be allowed to play in her curtained recess bed, while my father and uncles argued about football and politics, politics and football and my bolder cousins took on my grandfather’s massive stone-mason hands in happy-new-year-hand-shaking contests.
“It’ll end in tears,” warned my mother, who was always right.
January whipped flurries of snow round Drumon Hill and out we went into the nose-nipping, cheek-polishing cold to the coal shed to find the wooden sledge made for me by the Mill carpenter, another mannie Dad went to school with.
“He wis ma best pal an’ eence, fin I wis half wey up ‘e stairs tae ask if he wis comin oot tae play fitba, the poor loon came crashin’ doon on tap o’ me. His sister, she lookit’ efter ‘im, ye see, kickit him oot the door. She hid a hard time a’ richt wi a’ that bairns efter the mother deid, but she wisna affa good til ‘im, a’ the same. He wis a fine loon.”
He’d tow me up to the top of the park and then down I’d fly, right into his arms. Snowmannies would grow like magic on the back green and sly sna’ba’s find the back of my neck.
“Nae sense o’ humour!” greeted my bairny howls.
Following in his footsteps to school one legendary stormy day with the drifts piled high above my head, I was the only pupil there. It had been his school too. He’d tried to go when he was only three, following his older brother and sister, sitting down quietly at the wee wooden desk, desperately wanting to read. Motty Maitland was kind, lifting him on to her billowy lap and reading a story before she led him to the door and shooed him home.
“You’ll come back soon,” she promised.
February 1st brought his birthday and my present of a paperback Western, bought in Barnett’s dusty corner shoppie with half-a-crown squeezed reluctantly out of my combination-locked bankie. At dinnertime we’d have his favourite mince, tatties and mealie jimmies, which he always mashed to a sloppy mess to suit his falsers. They’d taken all his teeth out in the army, he would moan, but all the McGregors had a sweet tooth and lost them by the time they reached twenty-one — his own nick-name hadn’t been ‘Syrupy’ for nothing. Then after supper we’d go to the pictures, queuing at the Argosy in Auchmull to see “Tin Star” with Anthony Hopkins or “Richard the Third” with Laurence Olivier. My Dad loved history. I had nightmares.
And all through the long winter evenings, we played, card games, Tiddley-Winks, Snakes and Ladders, Ludo. A slow, dreamy child, I never did figure out how he cheated. He constructed the only paper aeroplanes that could loop the loop and fabulous constructions grew from pieces of string, before we hunkered suspiciously over Battleships painstakingly drawn on a paper pad from the Mill. And always the game ended with my fleet sunk, pursued as remorselessly as the Royal Navy hunting the Graf Spee, and his round blue eyes aglow with triumph again.
For a treat if my mother had gone out, he’d let me sit on the arm of his chair and listen to our second-hand radio. “Journey into Space” intoned the announcer distantly over the wheezing static, but up we flew with Doc and Lemmy.
Once upon a time my bedtimes were thronged with the folk of his stories. From the comfortable ritual of, “Johnnie Norrie the paper mannie in his paper hoosie, with his paper doorie and paper windies.”
“An’ a paper quinie!” I would shriek.
To his Auchmull morality tale, “The Continuing Adventures of Jeannie, Charlie and Doughie Bunnie”, who every episode disobeyed their parents and sneaked into the woods. Alone. And had to be rescued from evil Mr Fox by PC Jumbo. Mr Fox’s punishment was a skelpit dock from PC Jumbo’s trunk.
“And he couldna sit doon for a wik.”
“For the love o’ tripe, dinna spik aboot that in front of Jeannie and Charlie, fan they come roon next wik,” yelled my exasperated mother.
Jeannie was her best friend and my godmother, Charlie her husband and a minister. He wore the kilt and family legend claimed I had once looked to see what he had on underneath. Green knickers. I never knew where Doughie came from, but I didn’t care. He was my favourite, a refugee, an underdog. My father was always on the side of the Indians.
Best of all would be his story, the story of his childhood — I had no difficulty believing that he had once been a bairn, as I certainly would have for the other adults in my world. He had been ill frequently as a child, but unlike his brothers and sisters, he was always good, he said. And I knew even then that he was Grannie McGregor’s favourite.
When he’d been good for three days, Grannie McGregor promised him that Akba would come and one morning his ear was tweaked, he opened his eyes and there on the pillow was a wee mannie, there to play with him, nobody else allowed. Akba was so small, when they played hide-and-seek, he could hide behind the sugar bowl on the kitchen table. Grannie McGregor helped make him a suit of clothes and a neat little bed out of a match-box. He didn’t leave till my father was well again. I yearned for Akba to come, but despite my entreaties he never once visited me.
“Ah but ye’re maybe nae being good enough,” smiled my father, always the winner. “I wint gets naething!” Another puzzle I couldn’t solve.
Years later I found Akba again. He was a king, a famous name in Indian history. During the War my father had served with the Forgotten Fourteenth in the Far East, escaping to India by the skin of his teeth, he said, when Burma fell to the advancing Japanese. But my father’s tales of his experiences in the war were always about him and his pal, jack-the-lads outwitting the slow-moving army establishment; never about the fear and misery of a seventeen-year-old TA recruit.
“Aul’ Colonel Davidson that owned the Mill, he hid a’ the young lads jine the TA. He kent fit he wis daein’ a’richt. They were the first awa.
So for me my father danced drunkenly through the pageantry of ancient Alexandria, dreaming of the Chief of Police’s daughter; stumbled forward for a steward’s duties and slept cool and safe on the deck of a stinking troopship sailing under the alien stars of the Red Sea; threw away his bren gun in the jungle beyond the Chindwin, but still had his precious fags.
March would come with its kite winds and there he’d be with strong brown paper from the Mill, garden canes and string. Never a practical man, he couldn’t chap in a nail straight, but for children he was a magician. Over the fence into the park we’d run, trailing other bairns like the Pied Piper, but however hard I ran, the kite wouldn’t rise as high for me. I never had the knack.
At Easter my mother boiled eggs with pink colouring ready for us to crayon funny faces and off we’d go to the Pleasure Park in Auchmull to roll them down the same hill he’d rolled his own eggs when he was a loon. Afterwards we’d sit and eat them with the twist of salt my mother never forgot, while the holy Easter wind made the chains of the maypole chime sadly and tugged at the line of straggly Scotch pines he and his classmates had planted long long ago before The War.
“It wis for the King’s Jubilee, back in 1936. An’ some o’ them gone a’ready.” Ack, do, teen, char.” Counting them out in Arabic.
But I sometimes thought I could see them still, playing amongst the trees, brown, creased and fading like the photographs my mother kept in a shoe-box. I kept away, in case they came back and wanted their places.
The War was a landmark then for the folk of Auchmull. They spoke of it constantly; it dominated their lives. It was as if they missed it. To me it was like a solid wall, dividing me from the past. On the other side aunts and uncles left school at thirteen and my father juggled three jobs when he was nine. On the other side when my father asked Granda McGregor for a meck, he could go right down through his pocket to his turn-ups without finding one. On the other side Christmas was six lead sodjers, a tangerine and a lump of coal for luck in the toe of your stocking.
“Aye, ran wi’ the milk, delivered rowies for the baker on Setterdays an’ did a paper roond in atween,” my father announced with pride.
Then one Saturday I’d come down to find him raking in the kitchen
cupboard for jam jars. Tadpoles. He always knew where to find them and we would bring them home triumphant, black and mysterious in their jelly.
“Ye’re nae bringing that intae the hoose! Fit happens fan they turn intae frogs?”
We knew when to retreat to the old chicken house that served as his shed. Going cheap one year from a farm out in the country near Grandpa Marr, my mother’s father, it still had wisps of straw and interesting streaks of dried chicken shit on its walls. Daily I would keep my vigil over the tadpoles as they grew legs in the mealy twilight of the shed, till one morning they would all be gone. It happened like that every year. I never made it to the frogs.
In July the whole of Auchmull went on holiday. The first two weeks were Trades Fortnight. The paper mill shut down and my father would come home singing the holiday song. Most folk round us in the Fifties didn’t go anywhere, but every year we would begin the long trek by bus to his sister in Liverpool. I was always sick, the bus drivers and my poor mother always grumpy. And once we nearly left my father behind. We stopped at a transport café in the middle of the night in Penrith. My father, whose stomach always bothered him, went for tea, but the queue was long and, still drowsy, my horrified ears heard, “Ah’m nae waitin’ ony langer. It’s jist their tough luck.” And the engine started. My mother told my aunt later that you could have heard the howl I let out in Liverpool. I went down the aisle skirling like a banshee and wearing only my vest and pants, because of course I’d been sick down my frock.
“Dad, Dad! Ye’re nae leavin’ My Dad here.”
They didn’t. Seeing the sign for Penrith on the motorway still makes me feel queasy. I might have left something behind.
One year, when I was a teenager, we went on a proper holiday. For my mother’s sake my father said and Granpa Marr agreed. It was the year my uncle, my mother’s brother died and we had all loved him. He’d been in the army with my father and that’s how my father met my mother. A gentle, balding bachelor, who worked as a printer in Aberdeen, he had plenty time and plenty of presents for my brother and I and he would always let us win at Ludo for a change.
“Jock’s a richt saft mark!” my father would jeer fondly.
Granma Marr faded with grief at the loss of her son, turned her face from the world and within a few short months was buried beside him in the kirkyard at Tommachlaggan.
We went to a seaside hotel, full board with a games room, my father’s choice, of course, and, although the photographs later told a different story, we felt that we had won my mother back.
Near the end of the holiday the hotel launched a series of games tournaments.
“Okay, ye kin pit me doon fur the table-tennis if it’ll keep ye happy! Fit’s the opposition like?”
Lurking beside the games room notice-board, my brother and I had heard “the opposition” commenting on the list of names.
“Who’s this A McGregor?” asked an Englishman with a big soft womanish backside and his trouser waistband hauled up high on his chest. His son was older than us, but hung around mimicking our Auchmull accents and hogging the games tables.
“We’ll easily beat that old man.”
But on the night my father smiled that maddening tactical smile of his and wiped the floor with them without even taking his jacket off. He could have done it sitting down, because my father had played table-tennis for years and was still the Mill’s star player, despite his silver hair.
For me my father marked out and made magical the festivals of life. Rituals were followed as religiously as he attended Auchmull Kirk. Every September on my birthday there was the Great Birthday Treasure Hunt. Rhyming clues appeared amongst the cornflakes, stuck under the toast and in the bottom of the budgie’s cage. One year I almost burst with excitement before I found one roller-skate in the bread bin and the other under the coal scuttle.
Halloween leered at me from a turnip lantern, smelling of singed neep and candles, tasting of cold watery apple and charred tatties roasted in the fire. Before the 31st of October the neep was wrenched with difficulty from the frost-hardened earth and we would sit at the living-room table covered by my mother with thick layers of the Auchmull Express, hollowing out the neep and carving its evil grin. Burnt matchsticks for teeth, marbles for eyes and my father damning and blasting and burning his fingers as he tried to fix a stub of candle in place. Guisin’ as he knew it — doing turns and earning money for fireworks — was on the wane and anyway my mother said no, but by the flickering demonic light of the lantern, the brimming basin was brought through and out came the false teeth. He said he had a better grip with his gums and he always snatched the first apple. I liked the fresh plastic smell of the basin mingled with the sweet bite of the apples, but sulked when the water went up my nose and I had to chase my apple round the bowl.
Last of all we would eat the tatties he’d layered in thick brown paper from the Mill and placed ceremoniously in the glowing embers of the fire. Hard and burnt black on the outside, we sliced off the tops and ate the melting buttery flesh. I can still taste the bitter smoky tang of the charred tattie skin and sniff the potent stink of burning neep from the lantern.
November the Fifth crackled and fizzed, nipping my nostrils with the acrid reek of bangers and drawing glowing patterns on my eyeballs. There was a big communal bonfire at the Pleasure Park, but most families in our council estate set off their own fireworks and maybe had a wee bonfire too.
My father would prop up rockets in milk bottles, stick Roman Candles and bangers in the earth and, with reckless disregard for life and limb, crouch down to set them off, with his cigarette lighter cupped in his hand to shelter the flame from the wind. If they didn’t go off — it was usually pouring rain and pitch black — back he would go, fumble about for the fuses and light them again. I waved Silver Fountains gaily around my head, stabbed pungent sparklers into the night and rockets would take off horizontally into next door’s back green. There’s no fun like that any more.
The Catherine Wheels never worked, probably because, as I said, he couldn’t chap in a nail and they would rot dismally on the fence-post till next year. The year he couldn’t get back from work on time, I stayed awake till he did come home, sobbing and contrite, because we had set off the fireworks without him. I knew he would be devastated.
Probably because he’d just spent an evening outside in cold, damp weather, my father was always ill with bronchitis in November. He would catch a cold, usually from me, and my mother would start to fret.
In a few days he would announce, trying to reassure her, “It’s aricht, Jean, it’s gaun awa.”
But it was only biding its time and it would resurface without fail in his chest. I would come home from school and find him in bed grey-faced, shaking uncontrollably, sent home by the Mill Nurse. The doctor would give his orders and my mother would run faithfully up and down stairs with Friars Balsam, steaming bowls and towels, hot drinks laced with her own blackcurrant jam, made specially from Granpa Marr’s Tommachlaggan blackcurrants. Then one Saturday my mother and I would come back from shopping and find my father in his old dressing-gown watching Grandstand in a gentle fug of cigarette smoke.
“Oh, Alfie,” said my mother miserably.
He would wink guiltily at me.
The year descended into the rich dark cave of December. I would have to write my letter to Santy. From my father’s hand, the letter would fly up the lum, straight and true. The days flew by as if fluttering off the calendar in a sentimental Thirties movie. A week before Christmas my mother would buy the tree from the Mill stick lorry and out came the old faithful decorations, each, according to my mother, with their own particular place on the tree. The blue bird with the shimmery tail just down from the top, the pink paper lanterns and cotton-wool snow-mannies, made by my brother and I at school, hiding the trunk at the bottom and, crowning the tree, the fairy with the yellow frock, whose eyes refused to stay open. Dad would teeter on a chair stringing paper chains across the living-room. Later we would catch him fingering the presents that lay round the tree.
And every Christmas he took us to the Mill Party. It was held in the Club at the bottom of Goodhope Brae, which dropped down steeply from the railway bridge, winding you closer to the hazy lair of the paper mill, with the dim growl of machines and the warm, toasted smell of new-made paper, comforting in the Christmas-cold night.
In a blink I am three again, proud in my first party dress, all the way from my great-auntie in India, fine stuff to rub between my fingers, holding out the skirt to be admired, with its hem of embroidered yellow chicks. Now tight with excitement, prickling with goose-pimples, I stand safe behind my father, whilst the troops thunder up and down the bare boards of the hall, a barrage of balloons bursting overhead, cake trampled underfoot. And furious in the lead, Hector, large, bald and sweating, paper hat slipping over one mad eye, galluses straining, a mill worker who lived for that one dervish day, when he conducted the bairns like a rogue brass band.
I stayed behind my father at that first Party, didn’t eat the food or join in the games, but stunned with pleasure, I told my mother that I loved The Party.
Later, a veteran of many Christmas parties, I abandoned my father and went with my friends, dressed in pink nylon party dresses, fluffy boleros and Little Miss pearls, with brand-new silver party shoes in brown Coopie bags. Shivering with excitement, we changed in the chill of the Ladies, which smelled dankly of stale fags and cheap perfume. We relished the clean click of our heels on the bare cement floor, before we faced the sudden blast of heat and sound that was the Mill Party. Hector, on the band-stand at the other end of the hall, roared for us to come up and sing, as we slid past superciliously, testing our shoes again. And there was always the coarse-voiced girl with the raw, country face, mouth square as she belted out, “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands!” I was wary of her and stood with my friends, exchanging glances. We never joined her on the stage.
On Christmas Day, like most workers in Fifties Scotland, my father went to work as usual. We had to wait till he got home at 4 o’clock — a wee bitty early, a grudging concession to the day, which was seen as a foreign celebration and dismissed as only for bairns — before we had our Christmas dinner with our Marr grandparents, who came to stay, bringing one of their clucking, stubby tailed hens to roast. Then it was my turn to distribute the presents from the foot of the tree and my father at last could rip the paper off his new zip-up slippers, Christmas cigar and box of liquorice allsorts.
Christmas, the rustle of a bulging stocking at the foot of the bed, a faint silver jingle in my dreams, my father and I rapt in the starry fire of a midwinter feast.
“April is the cruellest month.” T S Eliot knew. My father died in April and somewhere in time I am forever walking from the hospital into a gentle April night, soft rain in the wind. Behind me my mother whispers, “Oh Alfie, fit’ll I dae withoot ye.”