Rainy Days and Sundays

bird of paradise 8:5:2016

A Dreich Day but Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining.
Mairi Neil

 

The air has changed, and the light too
Yesterday’s intense heat relieved
By the expected overnight showers.
I draw back the curtains. Greet the day.
Outside, the dust of summer vanished,
Trees and plants drip their pleasure.
Staying alive in mercurial Melbourne
This El Niño year, hard and thirsty work.

window view 8:5:2016

The Bottlebrush, a pale sage green, towers
Above my ancient Bird of Paradise,
Its cocky, orange blooms already hibernating,
Not waiting for the onset of winter chill.
The broad, flat leaves shining fluoro planks
Sheltering a bed of tropical ferns and
Fleshy, succulent rosettes crouching together
To survive and flourish against the odds.

succulent plants 8:5:2016

The hardy, newly-planted Geraniums
Have dropped their pale pink petals,
Or perhaps the neighbour’s cat
Has prowled in the night again.
Caroline’s memorial Wattle no longer stands
And warming sunlight feeds the Grevillea,
Orange flowers waiting for the wattlebirds
To feast while fending off the Indian Mynas.

bird of paradise leaves 8:5:2016

The Blue Moon and Bridal Pink rose bushes
Hide buds and cling to their autumn leaves,
While the Vareigata explodes and thrives
From the broken wheelbarrow plot
Like a stoner’s wild seventies hairdo.
And beyond this picture-book greenery
The splash and shudder of car tyres
Wayward on streets, the colour of wild doves.

rose bush and wheelbarrow 8:5:2016

 

A cluster of red and white geraniums bob
Towards the mailbox peeking from the Rosemary,
Refusing to be absorbed by gathering grey clouds
Warning of endless dusk. And as the earthy smell
Of rejuvenated soil seeps inside, I remember the joy
Of a pair of sparrows bathing in a puddle,
The happiness of a gumboot splashing childhood –
There is something glorious about a rainy day.

 

And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.

Gilbert K. Chesterton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creatively Writing Life Experiences

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You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

Maya  Angelou  1928-2014

The advantages of attending a writing class, or group, or having a writing buddy, are the support and encouragement received, plus the motivation and discipline to write.

You may be a writer who never suffers from writer’s block, but many writers procrastinate and find excuses to do anything, but write. (I’m enjoying the fourth cuppa of the day and have completed a heap of tasks, which could have been ignored, just to avoid putting pen to paper for this post!)

Mind you I have been writing all weekend – compiling and editing a class anthology, including my own contributions; also preparing the final lesson for the eight week course coming to an end. However, I have other partly finished poems and stories needing attention, which have  fallen victim to my writer’s avoidance syndrome!

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The part I love about lesson planning for my diverse classes is coming up with new triggers and prompts, researching ideas to be innovative, and then hearing the different interpretations writers share, after splurging or writing stream of consciousness for 10-15 minutes, or in some classes half an hour.

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Words, ideas, concepts, sounds, smells, experiences, memories, music, books, films, songs, people, places, sights, anniversaries… so many simple and complex triggers to produce meaningful, entertaining, memorable and often astounding poems and prose.

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Today, my oldest daughter turned 29. Childbirth and first time motherhood life-changing for me and I didn’t need much prompting to write about the experience, events, or my feelings.

However, as always with writing about motherhood,parenting, or similar experiences, there can be widely different connotations, interpretations and perspectives. Writers can always find a new angle, or reflect on an old piece  of writing and wonder how it can be improved, or even rewritten. (Most of us are perfectionists and I for one find it difficult to ‘let go’ and declare a piece finished!)

Here is a poem I wrote while I was struggling as a new mother, a reflective piece written recently and some creative non-fiction from years ago that won the Wellspring Women Writers’ Award:

Fruits of Labour
Mairi Neil

The seed was planted
in love, warmth and joy.
And grew.
A strawberry, an orange
a watermelon…
I ached to hold the fruit –
to have the fruit taste me.

Suckling at the breast,
being nurtured,
vulnerable.
Then almost too quickly,
the helplessness…
became a powerful force –
the controller of me.
Peeling me each day,

strip by strip,
by strip.
Sometimes I am a strawberry,
scraped lightly…
then an orange torn apart –
in big thick slices.

My juice is squeezed,
drop by drop,
by drop.
The growing seed must
be nourished…
Peeling, squeezing, nibbling –
unaware of the bruises.

Anne Courtney Neil – newborn 24/5/1986anne's birth 3

Crossing Borders
Mairi Neil

The most definitive life-changing event I’ve experienced was becoming a mother. The miracle of birth, a cliche often written about in poems, romanticised or demonised in novels, and in memoir or personal essays, upheld as a must for every woman, or an experience to be avoided or fraught with peril!

My sister-in-law Cheryl, came to visit me in Jessie Mac’s a few hours after Anne was born on May 24th 1986. Cheryl produced, two boys, the first grandchildren for my parents, and whispered to me, ‘welcome to the club.’ I knew what she meant. I felt different.

The exhaustion of labour and the pain of the unexpected episiotomy overshadowed by the elation of holding a delightful, warm bundle of humanity in my arms. A gorgeous baby girl, with blonde fluff as hair and the same brilliant Paul Newman blue eyes as her proud father.

Awestruck, I wondered, how had I managed this? My amazement and shock heightened by Anne arriving three weeks early. Her premature birth meant I had only a vest and one nightie for her. My Mother’s Irish superstition insisted it was bad luck to have too many ‘baby things’ before the actual birth, and I had only finished working full-time a couple of weeks before and refurbishing secondhand nursery furniture took precedence over shopping!

Thank goodness friends and family arrived with baby bundles, many handmade, especially by my talented older sister, Cate who made nightdresses and knitted bootees, hats and jackets, plus a lovely white crocheted baby shawl.
Perhaps it was the shock of the premature birth, or my unpreparedness, but when I brought Anne home to Mordialloc, it was almost a month before I could say, ‘Mummy’s here,’ in response to her cries. Instead I said, ‘Mairi’s here’, ‘Mairi will change your nappy’, ‘Mairi will feed you now’. Life as a mother seemed surreal, the responsibility scary.

Only husband John, knew how uncertain I felt, the fear that I’d wake from this dream to find the wonderful miracle a mirage. Only John understood my lack of confidence – could I measure up to the expectations of my parents and others?

Married before, John had grown-up children. I appreciated his calmness and confidence. As an older dad with years of experience, he was more relaxed than me, despite so much of Anne’s birth and babyhood being a first time experience for him too. He hadn’t been at the birth of his other three children, but had been with me for Anne’s. He didn’t share much of his first wife’s pregnancies either because of being in the Royal Navy. Attitudinal change wrought by Women’s Liberation and feminism hadn’t filtered through either when he and Valerie were together.
My two sisters had spent their lives cooing over babies, wanting motherhood, assuming it was a natural progression once married. I never did. To me, motherhood was a choice not an inevitability or necessity. However, Anne was very much planned and loved. I even went on a special diet, to clean all toxins from my system, in an effort to ensure the best outcome possible for conception, pregnancy and childbirth.

I’m sure, the irony of me producing the first grandchild – and a female one at that – before either of my sisters was not lost on those who knew me. The sojourn into the nuclear family stakes at 33 years old made me a late starter – not for the McInneses though because my parents married in their late twenties (Dad, 27 and Mum, 28). The popularity of the contraceptive pill, meant women had reproductive choices they never had before and I wasn’t alone in delaying motherhood.

Sadly, my older sister, Cate would never experience childbirth as the day I found out I was pregnant she was told she’d need a hysterectomy after IVF had failed and her painful and intrusive endometriosis had spread.

Learning of her physical and emotional pain and the crushing of her motherhood dream, made me hesitate to share my joy. How could I be excited and chatter about the future to her? I’ll always be grateful for the magnanimous way she not only accepted my news, but was genuinely thrilled and happy for me.

Cate was one of the first to visit me in hospital and cuddle Anne, her future goddaughter and was as excited about my second daughter, Mary Jane, three years later. My sister married a widower with two young children, fulfilling her wish to be a mother and is now a doting grandmother – a border I’ve still to cross!

anne's birth

Cradle Thoughts
Mairi Neil

The rain splatters against the lounge-room window; soon a steady beat. Tears seep from the corners of my eyes to become a relentless flow. Powerless, I’m trapped by a tiny being, barely a month old.

My milk is faltering and daughter, Anne protests — a squeal of anger and frustration. Advice rattles in my head… relax, let the milk flow. The more I try, the less I succeed. Anne’s pale skin turns scarlet. She increases her efforts to suck. The pain in my nipple excruciating; I remember a stupid joke from high school, about crippled nipples. Tears almost give way to a giggle. Mum used to struggle between laughter and tears at times of crises – perhaps hysteria is genetic.

The rain eases to a gentle pitter-patter; I picture the nappies suspended from the clothes hoist, waterlogged. A resigned sigh escapes and my milk gushes. Anne’s sucking gentle; rhythmic. Dried tears lie hot on my taut cheeks, below eyes that feel puffy and gritty. I reach for a tissue to remove the huge teardrop suspended on the tip of my nose.

I was a supervisor at the office, BC (before children), coping with calamities, thriving under pressure, meeting deadlines. Now washing soaked by a sudden downpour of rain reduces me to tears. I hope that somewhere in the cupboard there is a packet of politically incorrect disposables put aside for a rainy day!

The telephone’s shrill interruption makes Anne jump — and me curse. It always seems to ring the minute I sit down to feed. Again I’ve forgotten to bring the contraption nearby yet I bought the extension lead to ensure minimum disruption to breastfeeding routine. ‘Mind like a sieve’ must have been coined for new mothers. With Anne attached to my left breast like a leech, I shuffle towards the telephone fastened to the kitchen wall.

‘Hello … We’re fine, Mum. I’m feeding at the moment. Can I ring you back? … You sound upset… If it’s important tell me now … Oh, God! Is there someone else? … Why has Cheryl left? … How’s Iain taking it? … What about the boys?’

Anne presses on my arm. I feel like I’m holding a house brick. She whimpers as I struggle to manipulate the telephone and hold her one-handed. The distraction interrupts the milk supply; tiny nails knead, hard gums bite.

‘Yes, please ring back later … no wait… I’ll ring you back, because I don’t know how long I’ll be…. Of course, I’m upset, but I need to know… We’re a family, we care for each other. … I love you too… ’

I sink into the armchair, stunned, disoriented. My loud curse not just because I’d forgotten to bring the telephone within reach again. Battleship grey clouds loom large floating past the window, darkening the room, matching my mood.

Anne suckles, content, winding down; her sea blue eyes now tightly closed. I stare at the fine golden fluff on her head, her soft creamy skin. From above the nose with eyes shut, her high forehead makes her look so like Iain’s eldest son. It wasn’t so long ago when I held him the day he was born. The tragic news takes on a deeper significance; inexplicable fear gnaws at my stomach.

Cheryl’s whispered, ‘Welcome to the club,’ at the hospital after Anne was born, still a vivid memory. Her acknowledgement that I’d entered the exclusive ‘Motherhood’ made me feel special and proud. I’d matured as a woman – belonged to the world my mother and others, trail-blazed. They could pass on accumulated knowledge and expertise. We looked at each other through new eyes, relating in a different way.

My sister-in-law produced the first grandchildren – two boys. She became my confidante; a reassuring voice during pregnancy, her experience more recent than Mum’s; saved me money by passing on baby paraphernalia and advice.

Where is she now? I relive the bewilderment in Mum’s voice, ‘Cheryl has left Iain and the boys. She said that she should never have got married; the children were a big mistake. She feels trapped, depressed; needs time to find herself.’

I think about my feelings, as unbidden, tears trail down my face.

How will Iain cope returning home to Mum and Dad with a toddler and soon to be preppie in tow? And what of Mum? At sixty-three years of age, Nana is going to be a full-time mother again. Papa will sacrifice his retirement chauffeuring children to kindergarten and school.

The rain drizzles; tears dribble down my face. This time, I cry for my nephews, for my brother, Iain, for my sister-in-law, Cheryl, and for my parents, especially Mum.

In a deep sleep, Anne’s mouth gapes. Her cherubic face presses lightly against my emptied breast; soft baby breath drying the moist nipple freed from tugging gums.

My eyes scan the room. I could walk away from this house. Renovated, with love and hard work, it represents unremitting toil now. Floors to vacuum and wash, benches to scrub, layers of dust to clean, relentless tasks, only noticed when not done.

I stare at my wedding photograph atop the display cabinet. I could even walk away from John, although he is understanding and loving, the only man I ever saw a future with and my best friend. Tears squeeze from my hazel eyes as I realise passion and deep companionship has been replaced by a daily struggle to keep on top of essential chores, and to get through the night with minimum disruption. Anne rarely sleeps, breast feeding on demand exhausting, life one traumatic day after another.

When John rings each evening from work to say, ‘the cavalry is on its way’ in a jocular voice, the words are appropriate. Oh, how I look forward, to handing Anne over – to be amused and bathed by her Dad, before she demands feeding. No one told me how to cope with a baby that slept in twenty-minute snatches during the day, lengthened to two-hourly dozes at night.

‘What did we do with our time before you arrived?’ John often asks Anne, while cuddling her lovingly. ‘Important weekend chores were cleaning the car and my shoes, ready for work on Monday – and ironing clothes,’ he confides to her wide-eyed smile. Adding, ‘tasks that don’t always get done now.’ Anne gurgles or giggles in reply. I flinch with guilt.

The struggle of changing nappies and trying to stay awake to nurse during the night lonely and exhausting. I often worry that Anne will fall out of bed if I fall into a deep sleep, or perhaps she’ll get hurt snuggled between us. John loves waking up nestled close to Anne’s tiny warm body, unaware that the sleeping arrangement is unplanned. The effort of returning Anne to her bassinette pointless when she wakes so frequently.

John sleeps soundly, blissfully ignorant of the battles in the middle of the night — and, like a martyr, I let him sleep while resenting his ability to sleep untroubled. His demanding job not a regular nine-to-five office routine. The two hours driving to and from work dangerous if he lacks sleep and I’d never forgive myself if he had an accident.

Last night, Anne screamed with colic pain, a depressingly regular occurrence. The breast failed to comfort and I fought an urge to hurl her through the window, or throw her to the ground. I craved silence, and sleep.

I stared at John comfortably snoring in bed and wanted to punch him hard. To make him share my suffering, to punish him the way Anne was punishing me. I shook him awake more roughly than usual, yet he jumped out of bed and took Anne without protest. Fleeing the bedroom, I sat at the kitchen table with head in hands weeping deep uncontrollable sobs. I cried from utter exhaustion. I cried because I couldn’t prevent Anne’s pain. I cried for lost patience, for having feelings of resentment and violence, for being inadequate, for lost sexual feelings. I cried because no-one had told me this was motherhood.

Anne’s screaming stopped. John came through to the kitchen with his tousled hair and boxer shorts, looking like a teenager woken late for school. Accepting my outburst as normal, he said, ‘Come on love, she’s sound asleep – come back to bed.’ He gently massaged my neck and shoulders. ‘Remember the infant welfare sister and all those books we read say that you must sleep when the baby sleeps.’

The words sounded so rational, yet sleep was impossible. I sat sniffling at the table. Without further discussion, John made me a cup of tea and returned to bed. When I finally collapsed beside him, fatigue overwhelming, I knew that in a few minutes the alarm would announce another day and I was filled with dread.

* * * * *

From the window, I see sparrows dancing and splashing in a puddle, their carefree flapping the antithesis of the exhaustion and worry taking hold of me. Oh, how I understand why torturers favour sleep deprivation.

‘What stops my soul being destroyed is your vulnerability and times like this,’ I whisper to Anne, placing a kiss gently on her soft down-covered head. ‘You are so beautiful asleep, so innocent, so cuddly, – I don’t ever want to leave you.’

I think of how she murmurs with delight at the sound of my voice, and John’s. Tiny hands playing with my face, searching for my breast, grasping proffered fingers. A fragile defenceless human being, who will selfishly suck my life-blood because of her in-built survival mechanism, yet my body explodes with emotion when she’s near. She triggers an all-encompassing feeling like no other; is part of me in a way that John can never be. She grew from me, and is forever attached, our future intertwined. The controller of me.

I stare unseeing, wondering why Cheryl has rejected the boys now. How long has she been struggling with her feelings? Will she, as Mum believes, change her mind? I shiver. What about me? I think of Mum’s workload – constantly nurturing, answering the relentless demands of six children. Was she daunted, did she want to run away? ‘I’ve never met anyone that rivalled your mother in caring for children.’ My father’s boast implies that somehow everyone else falls short in the parenting stakes. Did Cheryl feel that pressure?

How do you explain that parenting has changed without offending your own parents? Anne is the centre of attention for everyone in our circle of friends and extended family. John regularly telephones to say he loves me, but now begins with, ‘How’s my little princess?’ Is it normal to feel neglected and sometimes resent your own child?

Strangers offer advice; friends and family visit more often to see the baby. Did Cheryl feel resentful, or smothered? I place Anne in her pram before rescuing the washing. I’ll ring Mum later after talking with John. It’s important he knows the thoughts this news has triggered.

An image from childhood surfaces — Mum muttering while baking scones. Six-year-old me interrupts thinking she’s making conversation. I’m ignored and realise that at that moment I have become invisible. Mum is talking to herself.

During my childhood, mum often muttered to herself while doing some mundane task. It was her way of coping with stress. Perhaps, she too felt overwhelmed, found the drudgery; relentless work and incessant demands of children too challenging. Did she have other techniques for coping? What adjustments did she make to her dreams and desires? Did she feel her identity disappeared? I want answers to these questions rather than what type of formula she fed me, or when I was toilet trained.

Am I normal and will the person who is me survive motherhood?

I want to talk with Cheryl in case my journey follows a similar path. Perhaps we can help each other to enjoy mothering. I want parenting to be a positive experience for John and me and for Cheryl and Iain.

I stop in the hallway and glance sideways at the mirror. Are my lips moving?

anne's birth 2

Your Mother Is Always With You

Your mother is always with you…

She’s the whisper of the leaves
as you walk down the street.

She’s the smell of bleach in
your freshly laundered socks.

She’s the cool hand on your
brow when you’re not well.

Your mother lives inside
your laughter. She’s crystallized
in every tear drop…

She’s the place you came from,
your first home.. She’s the map you
follow with every step that you take.

She’s your first love and your first heart
break….and nothing on earth can separate you.

Not time, Not space…
Not even death….
will ever separate you
from your mother….

You carry her inside of you….

Sherry Martin

Thank You, Mum – Gratitude Every Day Not just Mother’s Day!

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

Og Mandino

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Today I honour my mother, Annie Courtney McInnes (15.4.1921 – 23.10. 2009). She brought seven children into the world and six of us survived to adulthood. At one stage there were four under five years – mothering must have been relentless and exhausting.

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Thank you, Mum, for helping me when I became a mother – the most definitive life-changing event in my life! For guiding and supporting me and not looking through rose-coloured glasses. For acknowledging parenting is a tough gig, whether you have two children or six. Thank you too, for not lecturing me and telling me how ‘it’ should be done.

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Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary, wonderful woman!

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Dear Mum
Mairi Neil

When twilight shadows trees
And evening hush descends
The busyness of the day departs
I still my mind; let silence mend.

Thoughts of living abound
You were a safe harbour for me
I sailed chartered and unchartered waters
You calmed an oft stormy sea.

You launched my dreams
And supported me with love
When I set sail to meet life’s challenges
You were always a guiding dove.

Although I was one of a fleet
Time a commodity in short supply
I never felt unloved or neglected
Your largesse constant as the sky.

You taught me how to cope
When buffeted by gales
Never to abandon ship
Just strengthen ropes and sails.

I carried cargo, travelled far
But always navigated home
You taught me to love and be loved
And the sea of life is there to roam.

I’ve shed barnacles, refurbished decks
Still nurture a manifest to complete
But miss those loving arms and words
Ache to drop anchor at your feet.

Each day before lights out
‘neath twinkling stars and velvet sky
I reflect on a mother’s love
Feel blessed. Legacies do not die.

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Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum)
Mairi Neil

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respected
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity needed when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

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Shelter from the storm
Mairi Neil



Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
a thunderplump is on its way.

Nearing sixty, I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.

Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart working overtime
Pit pat pit pat pit pat

Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom ba boom ba boom.

I relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.

The House Where I Was Born

Mairi Neil

I sing of a river I’m happy beside
The song that I sing is a song of the Clyde
Of all Scottish rivers it’s dearest to me
It flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea

It borders the orchards of Lanark so fair
Meanders through meadows with sheep grazing there
But from Glasgow to Greenock, in towns on each side
The hammers ding-dong is the song of the Clyde

Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde
The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride
And I’m satisfied whate’er may betide
The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde

from the top of Lyle Hill memorial to Free French
You can just see the River Clyde from the bedroom window of Number Two George Square, Greenock and in 1953, the year I was born, the clamouring of the riveters’ pistols in the shipyards competed with the noisy steam trains leaving nearby Greenock West Station.
1:1 2 george square
Like most of the buildings in the Square, Number 2 dated back to the 1800s. The three storey, plus attic and basement ashlar building stained with the grime of industry from several shipbuilding yards and sugarhouses, rope works, and a network of engineering businesses.
George Square Baptist church
The George Square Baptist Church nestled alongside Number 2. This simple Renaissance building of squared rubble with Ionic pilasters, erected in 1888, one of several churches adorning the Square and the only one that does not have bells.
However, the bell ringers of the four other churches ensure the Sabbath is not a restful day for the residents of George Square and shift workers like my father often cursed when the various churches announced the different starting times of their services with clanging bells. Clappers chimed an invasive cacophony as they bounced off hundredweights of metal.
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The close stairs, Catriona and Iain
The entrance to Number 2 called a ‘close’. Six stone steps lead to a narrow passageway that stretches to the back of the building where more steps allow access to the flats on the upper floors. At the far end of the close, stairs go down to the pocket-handkerchief back garden, referred to as the ‘drying green’ or ‘back green’. The shared laundry with a copper stove is here, and the rubbish bins.
The coal cellars for the ground floor flats – Number I and Number 2 – are beside the laundry. My father being a keen amateur photographer converted part of the coal cellar into a dark room-cum-workshop.
1950s coalman
Number 2 is the cream of the flats, having a basement kitchen and its own back door. Upstairs on street level, there are two large rooms: the parlour and a bedroom. The entrance has a patch of dull red floral linoleum, scuffed by many feet and in need of replacing in 1953. The bathroom next to the bedroom has a bath, hand basin, and toilet. The indoor toilet a luxury not shared by many of Greenock’s population, who still live in overcrowded housing stock not yet repaired, or rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of World War 2.
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The bathroom’s black and white tiled patterned floor a linoleum, but they have replaced this hardy floor covering in the bedroom and parlour with painted wooden floorboards and floral carpet squares.
Although the apartment is large by the standards of the day, it is cramped living for my McInnes family – especially on the night of August 12th when Mum goes into labour with me.
The household comprises my parents, Annie (32) and George (31), their children: Catriona (4), Iain (2 and 7months), George (13 months), and Papa (Dad’s father, John 78) and Dad’s unmarried sister, Mary (40).
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There are two set-in beds, a peculiarly Scottish invention to provide extra sleeping quarters in rooms other than bedrooms. Built into the wall and hidden by dark red crushed velveteen curtains, a set-in bed in the parlour hides above the stairs leading down to the kitchen.
Mary sleeps in this bed when she is off duty from the William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland where she is Matron of the Epileptic Colony.
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
The hole in the wall bed, Papa, Catriona and Iain
Downstairs in the kitchen is another set-in bed where Papa sleeps. These set-in beds are unhealthy and cold and are blamed for the spread of contagious diseases like scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and other ailments prolific in days gone by, but less of a problem since the discovery of penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria in 1939.
In the bedroom, my parents’ double bed hugs a wall opposite a green settee that folds out to a double bed for Catriona and Iain to share. Beside a large cot where George sleeps, a Pedigree coach-built pram sits ready for my arrival.
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Two enormous wardrobes and a chest of drawers line one wall in the bedroom to accommodate everyone’s clothes. Space at a premium but the parlour always kept tidy to entertain visitors, especially since passersby can easily peek in through the large bay window at street level. The net curtains don’t block out curious eyes and even on cool days the open window lets in fresh air, one of my mother’s obsessions, probably from her days growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, or perhaps her years as a nurse trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
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Most houses of this era have poor ventilation, the narrow, claustrophobic close dismal and designed to capture smells. Few rooms have windows to the outside. Cooking smells linger, along with the smoke from the coal fires in every room.
The winters are long and cold in Scotland. Greenock has the highest rainfall of any town in Great Britain and comedians joke those born in Greenock have webbed feet. Most days washing dried inside, or at least ‘aired’ before being folded away.
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The air inside damp as washing hangs from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling or dangles scattered on the backs of chairs, even – tempting fate – draped over the fireguards. Clothes suspended from the ceiling invariably smell of the meals cooked and eaten. Families learn to avoid washing on Fridays if their religion demands eating fish!
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The kitchen is the heart of Number 2. A large black cooking range providing warmth, and a pot of permanently hot tea. Mum is Irish and in Scottish colloquialism, a ‘tea Jennie’, someone who drinks tea by the barrel. A gas stovetop sits in the scullery, the small open room near the back door containing a sink, workbench and serviceable walk-in pantry. They prepare meals in the scullery.
Two comfy armchairs sit either side of the cooking range, close enough for stretched legs and feet to rest on the range and be nicely toasted on a chilly day or night. The square wooden table host at mealtimes with Mum’s limited repertoire because rationing still exists in 1953.
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Food on the menu, some more frequently than others, includes: porridge, vegetable broth, lentil soup, mince and tatties, slice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lamb cutlets, Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions), parsnip and carrot mash, turnips, bacon and fried eggs, black pudding and fried bread, rice pudding and tinned mandarins, semolina and prunes, and bread and butter pudding.
Ration book 1953
However, when Dad collects his pay on Friday night, ice-cream a purchased treat, from the Tally van, that prowls the streets playing ‘Greensleeves’. Italian immigrants introduced ice-cream to the British as a street food and created the thriving takeaway culture that still survives in cities such as Greenock.
Brought to Britain as cheap labour and sent north to Scotland with a barrow they sold their ice-cream by crying, ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ which probably led to ice-cream vendors being called ‘hokey pokey men’ and the ice cream referred to as ‘hokey pokey’.
Regardless of their name or nationality, every vendor called Tony – short I expect for Antonio, and when you asked for an ice cream cone, it was a ‘poke’.
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My family is fortunate because Papa and Dad work an allotment on railway land and grow vegetables, plus raise prize-winning bantam hens that provide eggs to share with childless Steve and Rita Armour, neighbours and valued friends, living at Number 1.
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Dad, a locomotive engine driver stationed at Ladyburn Depot, works shifts two miles away near the James Watt Dock. Most days and nights he walks back and forwards to work because his shifts rarely coincide with public transport timetables. He exchanged hours with a workmate so he can be at home to look after Papa and the children while the midwife and Aunt Mary attend to Mum.
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It is a Wednesday evening, the day unusually warm, reflecting the Indian summer Scotland is experiencing in 1953. However, the evening air chills, fires must be lit and Catriona and Iain have an altercation over the empty coal scuttle. At that moment, fifteen minutes to nine o’clock Mum switches off the vacuum cleaner, leans on the mantelpiece and declares ‘it’s time’.
The labour pains had niggled all day, making Mum restless, hence the vacuuming despite Dad’s pleas for her to rest.
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The spurt of activity has hurried me along, but she barely gets upstairs to the bedroom before I enter the world at 9.05pm, child number four and the second daughter. Arriving without fanfare, I almost deliver myself, according to Mum.
Just as well, because Catriona throws the coal scuttle and it clips Iain on the cheek splitting his skin. Dealing with the drama of Iain’s bleeding face nurse Mary misses the birth. She is further delayed to massage Catriona’s hurt feelings after the bad-tempered attack drew a scolding from Papa – a rare event for Catriona, his ‘princess’, and the only granddaughter (until my arrival) in the rapidly increasing McInnes Clan.
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The cry, ‘it’s a girl’ restores joy to the household. Dad and Mum have produced another female offspring, the only couple to do so in their respective families. Mary takes a photograph of me being cuddled by Dad as he sits beside the flickering fire in the parlour.
Wrapped in the well-worn christening shawl, a McInnes family heirloom, I’m oblivious to the tap of high heels and leather boots filtering in from the street as couples rush to catch the late movie at the BBC Cinema, two streets away.
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Within the house, Gaelic music wafts up the stairs from the radiogram in the kitchen as Papa celebrates with a wee dram of the finest malt whisky, saved for such an occasion. He sings in his native tongue as Dad’s older brother Alex arrives to check I have the right number of fingers and toes before settling by the fire to smoke one of the cigars he has brought for Dad. He joins his father and brother in ‘a wee dram to wet the baby’s head’.
Exhausted, Mum lies back in bed on pillows bolstered by cushions, aware that any rest period she can claim now will be of necessity very short!
Dad sings The Green Oak Tree to me:

Chorus:

I’ll sing about a wee toon that stands doon by the Clyde,
It’s the toon whaur I was born and it fills my heart with pride
My mother often telt me as she crooned me on her knee,
That Greenock took its name from the Green Oak Tree.
So here’s tae the Green Oak that stood upon the square,
And here’s tae its roots that are still slumbering there,
And here’s tae its townsfolk wherever they may be,
For I’m proud that I’m a branch of the Green Oak Tree.
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May Greenock, like the Green Oak Tree,
still flourish ‘neath the sun.
Her trade and commerce still increase
for a thousand years to come
And may each son o’ Greenock,
as he battles through life’s storm
Be honest, true and ne’er disgrace
the town where I was born.
Now Greenock’s no’ a bonny place,
I’ve heard some folks complain,
That when you go to Greenock
you’ll get nothing there but rain
But let them say whate’er they may,
with them I’ll no agree,
For aye the name o’ Greenock toon
will aye be dear tae me.