Royalty for the Day

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I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

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A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

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A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

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Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

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I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough

Writing Family History and Life Stories as Literary Non-Fiction

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Rain batters the window as the white fluffy cumulus clouds, gathering and growing all day, decide to join together and release their load. A thunderclap booms and rumbles and a spectacular flash of lightning paints a jagged design across the sky. Nine-year-old Mary Jane huddles closer. ‘I’m not scared Mum, but that was loud, wasn’t it?’ She relaxes into my arms as I murmur, ’you’re safe here, darling,’ and I rest my chin lightly on her auburn head and close my eyes. An image appears of Dad lying comatose in his bed at Maroondah Hospital, Croydon.

False teeth awkwardly protrude from slack-jawed mouth; frail body shrunken and vulnerable. Only with concentration can I detect the almost imperceptible movement of his chest, and as trembling hands scrabble at the cotton bed sheet, I stop holding my breath; release an audible sigh of relief. My nose twitches at the sickly sweet smell from his dry lips and open mouth — it’s the residue of medication, not the smell of death – yet.

Several tears seep from the corners of my eyes, to lie hot and wet on winter-pale cheeks. I shake off the memory of our visit today and stare at the cluster of family photographs atop the maple entertainment unit. Maroondah Hospital, an hour’s drive, but also a world away from my comfortable reality. John’s culinary efforts fill the house with aromatic herbs and spices and in-between the rhythmic chop of vegetables, I hear the breathless tinkle of Anne’s voice, embellishing Year 7 tales.

More thunder rolls, this time far into the distance, but lightning flares again and a barrage of tiny hailstones drum a tattoo on the windowpane. A large shudder reminds me of Mary Jane’s need for reassurance and as I rub her back gently, subliminal flashes of her colicky babyhood make me smile; the nights pacing the floor to ease her pain. A surge of tenderness tightens my hold and I whisper, ‘I love you.’ My eyes ache with unshed tears as outside Mother Nature wails and weeps, reminiscent of a tempestuous night in another country… another time… a world away from Mordialloc.

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It’s Saturday evening at 35 Davaar Road, in 1961 Scotland. The film How Green Was My Valley broadcast on television for family viewing. The youngest siblings, Alistair (5) and Rita (2) are already in bed, but at eight-years-old, along with George (9), Iain (10) and Catriona (12), I’m allowed to stay up later than the usual 7.30pm ‘lights out’ rule of the school week.

Saturday night is ‘treat’ night. Dad has been paid on Friday and the budget allows a choice of favourite chocolate from the ‘Tali’ van coasting the neighbourhood playing Greensleeves. The mobile shop called the ‘Tali’ van and the driver referred to as ‘Tony’ regardless of his real name.

Ice-cream first introduced to Scotland by waves of Italian migrants in the early twentieth century. Most of the cafes, fish and chip shops, ice cream vans and restaurants established or owned by Italian families: Drivandi, Nardini, Capaldi, Spiteri. However, pizza and pasta have still not replaced the popular ‘fish supper’ in most Scottish homes. Italian families have lived in Greenock and surrounding districts for generations and speak with broad Scottish accents, but retain much of their Italian culture, especially Roman Catholicism.

Lyons_Maid_Ice_Cream_Van    six of us

Allowed to stay up late to watch the Saturday Night Movie on television, we munch on chocolate (Cadbury’s Flake my choice of delicacy) and sprawl on the dark green and faded gold sofa; its tired cloth worn thin from thirty years of service. Wide sofa arms make great horse rides to watch The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid after school and the hard horsehair stuffed cushions become formidable weapons in sibling squabbles.

This lounge suite inherited from Dad’s family home takes up most of the spacious living room, just as it did in 2 George Square, the tenement where I was born. A Radio Rental television the only new item of furniture, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ in my Irish mother’s opinion, alongside other items from George Square: a 1900 rosewood china cabinet, a 1950s radiogram and 1930s walnut bed-cabinet, the drawers of which store spare bedclothes wrapped in tissue paper, and a home for Iain’s hamster when it makes one of its many escapes from his fireside cage.

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We ‘flitted’ to Davaar Road when I was three years old, a successful privately negotiated house swap with a couple who wanted to move into the centre of the town. Mum and Dad were thrilled at the move to the new estate of Corporation houses at Braeside, the result of a building boom filling the twenty-years of demand for houses, to replace the hundreds of homes lost during the Greenock Blitz. The new houses provide front and back gardens to cultivate flowers and vegetables, room for pets, a washing line with poles, and grassy playing space. Luxury!

Three large bedrooms upstairs provide room for an expanding family (ours increased by two); plus separate bathroom and toilet. Downstairs, a welcoming vestibule leads to a kitchen, dinette and living room, plus an inside coal bunker in the back lobby. A profound and welcome change from the two rooms, kitchen and bathroom shared in George Square with Dad’s father and unmarried sister, Mary. Even although we were better off than the majority of Scotland’s population living in tenement flats of either one room and kitchen houses or ‘single-ends’ (a single room with a communal toilet and bathroom at the end of the hall), the cramped conditions of George Square meant Mum and Dad couldn’t wait to move out.

The bed-cabinet, Aunt Mary’s bed for years in George Square and latterly shared with Catriona, now only used at New Year when the family came to stay to celebrate Hogmanay. The ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed, a unique Scottish adaptation to alleviate overcrowding, not missed either. Papa slept in this bed set in the wall cavity in the kitchen, which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. Research shows it caused shocking health problems, particularly respiratory disease. Poor housing, poverty, and ill health — the struggle for men to make ‘a living-wage’— a common story in a capitalist society and borne out by statistics. Most Clydeside families watching How Green Was My Valley empathising with the characters’ lives and struggles.

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Despite the limitations of black and white technology, which realistically depicts the bleakness of the lives of Welsh coal miners in the years between the first and second world wars, the film reveals the magnificent grandeur of the Welsh valleys. The story unfolds of a little boy growing up in a large caring family. His father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day down the coal mines. My father comes home covered in black dust after a physically demanding day shovelling coal and driving steam trains as a locomotive driver. he works hard to support our big family, which for a long time included his father and sister.

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The film on the BBC is free from the advertisements that irritate my parents, and for once, Mum is happy our eyes are ‘glued to the screen’. However, I’m devastated when the father dies in the film. Overcome with sadness, sitting on Dad’s lap, the privileged throne for the youngest in the room, I sob into his shoulder. Grateful for the large man’s handkerchief he extracts from his trouser pocket, I give ‘a big blow’ at his suggestion and snuggle into his strong arms trying to imagine what life would be like if he died. A memory stirs of our first year at Braeside. The sadness of Aunt Mary’s long illness and death; followed a few months later by my Papa’s stroke and death. I don’t want life to be like that and cling to Dad’s woollen pullover to anchor him to me forever.

The living room cosy from the embers of a glowing coal fire and the subdued light of a standard lamp, but a November gale rages outside, a fitting backdrop to the tragedy witnessed on the television and mirroring my mood. Mum leaves Dad to console me and heads to the kitchen to prepare a bedtime Bovril. Dad suggests a piggyback up the stairs to bed, in a ploy to stem the flow of tears. Attempts by the others to ‘jolly me up’ abandoned immediately to race ahead in noisy competition. Iain piggy-backs George with a giggling Catriona as helper-cum- boss.

Instead of taking me straight to bed, Dad pauses on the landing at the top of the stairs. He thinks I’m shuddering and scared of the thunder and pulls back the pink floral curtains from the window. ‘Look, love, don’t be frightened. You’re safe inside. The storm is moving back out to sea.’

My hazel eyes stare at the window watching our breath steam the glass. I can just see the dramatic dance being played out over the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses and across the heather clad hills. Shredded black capes of clouds flap across the sky driving icy rain to sparkle like crystals while bouncing off roof tiles and tree branches stripped bare of leaves.

Suddenly, as if by magic the wind runs out of puff; the rain eases. Supported by Dad’s strong arms, I caress the soft smoothness of his neck with my cheek; let eyelashes gently scrape his ears and feel his hair tickle my nose. Safe and consumed with a powerful love I breathe in the familiar fresh soaped skin, hair faintly Brylcreamed; a shirt collar impregnated with his perspiration. He smells so alive that the fear of losing him recedes.

His soft voice explains that lightning causes thunder. He talks about extreme heat, expansion, shock and sound waves, reminds me to read again the book What is Weather that I won for being first in my class at Ravenscraig Primary School. However, this is not school and staring into the darkness, I see thick, menacing, black clouds hiding the moon and stars. The foggy window’s tear-streaked glass shares my sorrow. I shiver, unsure whether the shadow hovering by the street lamp is a bat. I cling to Dad’s strong back and whisper, ‘I love you Dad. Don’t ever go away.’

With a surprise twirl, I’m swung around to sit on the windowsill, cold glass pressed against my back; transfixed by Dad’s dark brown eyes as he explains, ‘every living thing has a life cycle… I have to die one day darling.’ My horrified face crumples. He tries a joke. ‘If nobody died the world would be very crowded – eight in the bed everywhere, every day.’

He’s trying humour by recalling our special Sundays as a family. Sunday, the only day he doesn’t go to Ladyburn Depot to work for British Railways. The Sabbath important: we must rest, just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. For years, Dad has refused the lucrative double time he could earn by working on a Sunday. He swaps shifts with others so that he can honour his commitment to God, St Ninian’s Church, and family.

On Sunday mornings, we dive into Mum and Dad’s double bed for a rough and tumble, a tickle, and games such as I Spy and my Aunt Jane Went On Holiday. When it’s time to get up to prepare for church Dad sings, ‘There’s eight in the bed and the little one said,’ and baby Rita chants ‘roll over’. Then we all sing, ‘and we all roll over and one fell out,’ and of course the first one out is Mum as our raucous fun continues.

Down the stairs Mum pads, to light the coal fire, set the porridge on the gas stove, fold our underwear into the linen press to warm against the hot water pipes, set the Formica table for breakfast and buff our leather shoes lined up at the back door. The weekly ritual to be in our Sunday best, a triumph of organisation with only one bathroom and toilet to share, yet we make the nine o’clock family service at St. Ninian’s — and are never late – despite the local Church of Scotland where Dad is an Elder and Superintendent of the Sunday School, being a good half hour walk away. Our attendance records an amazing feat of achievement only rivalled by Mum’s similar success shepherding us out the door, on school days.

Mum’s nurturing taken for granted. It’s years before we reflect on how she was able to function on only a few hours sleep, rising with Dad’s soul-destroying shifts to ‘see him out’ and staying up ‘to see him safely home,’ while coping with the demands of motherhood, housekeeping routines and all the unexpected trials and tribulations of caring for in-laws as well as our big family.

In the kitchen, Mum clatters dishes, stirs pots and feeds the toaster with a loaf of bread, while the singing continues, until Dad and Rita are the last downstairs. A joyful family tradition, but the remembering only emphasises what a loss Dad’s death will be. I sniff and stifle a sob. Dad realises his mistake and tries another tack.  ‘I won’t be alone, Mairi. I’ll be with Jesus in Heaven and your Papa and Mamie will be there too.’

Shattered, the tears flood as if someone turned on a tap. I don’t want to be left lonely and sad like the boy in the movie. I don’t want to be reminded that people you love disappear. My chest heaves with wracking sobs. I’m conscious of moonlight reflecting off George’s glasses as he peeps from behind the bedroom door he has pushed ajar to see what’s going on.

The pain of my heart beating so fast it blocks my throat makes it hard to swallow. Red eyes ache as if full of grit; I rub my face into Dad’s shoulder transferring tears and snot, but he doesn’t mind. I want to bury myself beneath the blankets of the three-quarter bed I share with Catriona; forget the film, forget the storm, forget Dad’s attempts at making me feel better. Catriona doesn’t like me on her side of the bed, but perhaps tonight she’ll let me cuddle into her back…

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ Mary Jane places a tiny hand on my chest and pats it gently. Her other hand dabs at my tears with a tissue.  ‘Are you thinking of Papa?’ Her sympathy reflects an intuitive perception beyond her years.

These last few months have seen Dad deteriorate physically and mentally. At 76 years old, he’s a comparatively young man, in a society where we are being told seventy is the new sixty. However, an inexplicable, inexorable, inexpiable struggle with dementia is faced daily and I revisit the fear and pain of that long ago night each time a piece of music, a cooking smell, a photograph, a snatch of conversation conjures vivid images as if burnt into memory with a branding iron. Memories of a strong loving dad, not the shell of a man I visit in hospital or the nursing home where he resides and where I visit my future – perhaps. None of us has a crystal ball or knows how we’ll age!

The storm eases and the grandfather clock in the hall chimes seven o’clock. ‘Yes darling, I think about Papa all the time.’

The storm is over. Mary Jane eases from my grip. She kisses me again and notes my tear-stained face with concern. ‘I’m always thinking of Papa,’ I whisper.  She wraps her nine-year-old arms around my shoulders and buries her head into my neck, squeezing as tightly as she can.

‘I love you, Mum; I’m sorry about Papa. I wish he was safe with Jesus.’ My body wilts and I unashamedly sob just as I did all those decades ago.

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