Where I Came From
WHAT A DIRTY, smelly, insanitary place the Gorbals must have been when I was a child, and yet, knowing nothing else, we accepted it.
The old tenement building had three families each floor and shared a toilet.
The family next door had thirteen members. So, it appeared at times it was their toilet with the constant queue. Of course, everybody had a pot in the house for emergencies. There were some very old shops beside us. All dirty, dusty and musty. I remember being a bit frightened in some of them, as the ancient shop-keepers seemed a part of the shop with their dusty appearance. One, I remember, was a very small stair lady. She constantly sniffed and her nose was all brown from taking snuff. She kept her pot behind the counter. She shuffled along, wheezing and sniffing and I waged a battle with myself, telling myself I wasn’t afraid of her.
Dirty Maggie’s on the other side of the road was nearly as bad, but at least she didn’t wheeze and sniff. She had bad eyes and white straight hair. A better witch I’ve never seen. She dealt in comics and books, so it didn’t matter how filthy her shop was (and it was), at least you didn’t have to eat her products. My brothers were comics mad and I usually made quite a few trips a day changing their comics for them.
We played in the back court sometimes. Digging in the dirt and, if it rained, we made mud pies and had great fun in the puddles. We played at shops and used stones and broken glass for money. We walked along and climbed the dykes round all the backs, often a good height, and I often felt a bit dizzy, but no one was allowed to be afraid in the Gorbals.
In the streets the games were numerous. Skipping ropes, ball games, whip and peerie, even old tin cans on strings and you walked about on them. Now and again a roller skate would appear and we would all have a shot, strapped to your foot with a string or an old tie. I never dreamt that skates came in pairs.
The running games were great fun. Tig, and ‘kick door run fast’, but someone always got caught and you were told on and landed in trouble.
We never saw much grass or flowers and it was a novelty to roll on grass and pick flowers and, visiting even Gran who had a garden, was a real treat. Gran had a four-apartment house and a bathroom and I personally thought they were toffs that lived in that mansion.
At school, well, that was a serious business, and you sat up straight, arms folded
learnt your tables and always had a long, sharp pencil ‘or else’. The teacher did an inspection every day, so it was best to have clean hands and face. Clean teeth and shoes and your hair combed to be safe.
My two brothers and my sister and I shared a room. The boys had an inset bed and we had a bed settee. They would tell us ghost stories at night and then frighten us by creeping about in the dark and touching our hands or face. Dad and mum and my baby brother slept in the kitchen in an inset bed. A small hall, and that was our home.
How the lot next door managed is a mystery. We had an old black grate with the fire at the front, but it wasn’t used for cooking as we had a gas cooker. Sunday was bath night and it took all night, by the time the large zinc bath was dragged out and relieved of the weekly washing it held. Then dad and mum proceeded to fill it up with hot water heated in pots and kettles. It was youngest first and I was glad I didn’t have to get washed after my dirty big brothers. Most of the washing was done at the laundry, but some could hang on a string at the mantlepiece and be dried by the fire. There was a pole with string threaded through and it could hold the baby’s nappies to be dried outside the window. The weekend was a good laugh and we would all hang out the window watching all the men coming out of the pubs. One on each corner of the street. There would be squabbles that would be more funny than serious. We could spot our dad a mile away, as his hands would be everywhere describing everything he was speaking about. Mum would laugh and say without his hands he would be dumb.
We didn’t lead a typical Gorbals life, as our father was a hard worker and always got good jobs in the chemical factory he worked in, and carried coal when he was laid off work. So, we were always well fed and clothed. We were the first to have a T.V. in our area and our house was full for months, till all the neighbours got to see the telly.
I was eleven when I was told we were moving to Castlemilk. Some far off place I’d never heard of. So we moved lock stock and barrel. All the family except mum and I had the flu’ and the baby had pneumonia. It was December 13th – wonder why I remember! All our things got soaked and had to be dried and it was some time before we got our beds organised. It was freezing cold, although our fire blazed up the chimney. It was very draughty, all those doors and windows, but it was so exciting, all this space, even if for a moment we were all huddled in the living room where it was warmest. The bathroom was a delight and no queue either, there was even hot running water. Oh, this was heaven. Looking out the windows onto the beautiful white wilderness was wonderful. It was so clean, the air so fresh, there were even trees and we were facing a golf course. My sister and I got to sleep on our bed settee in the living room to keep us warm that winter, but later on we shared a room and it was great. We had a small electric fire and a record player and dad bought us a small bedroom suite and fitted carpet. Oh, weren’t we toffs. Life was entirely different. It was a distance to the shops and we had to travel to school and dad had to get a bike as there was no buses for his early shift. That first summer was glorious and all the children knew each other by then, we were all in the same boat and had left our old pals behind. We all seemed to cling together, boys and girls, and went about in a big gang exploring all the woods and fields. There was even a river and we had a great time building fires to keep us warm after playing in the water and singing songs round it. We often overstayed our bed times and our mums would be there to meet us with a skelp for being late. Our lifestyle had changed but it seemed mums hadn’t changed at all.
Sunday mass was like a real trek and it was more like mountain-climbing than walking. It was a distance away and we sometimes got lost. It was held in a wooden hut and it was very small and the children sat on the floor. That was very strange. My best friend moved back to the Gorbals and I used to visit her and stay sometimes and it was great fun. Us being older then, I saw it differently. It had much more life than Castlemilk. All the best-looking boys stayed in the Gorbals and we would meet them out for walks and have a chat. The town and the barrows were within walking distance from the Gorbals, but I would only have to step off the ‘bus going home and breathe in the beautiful clean air and be glad I was home. In latter years I loved to bring my child up in such healthy surroundings. The lovely parks we have where children can play in safety and just to see the healthy glow. Well none of us Gorbals lot looked like that!
The healthy glow is still in the children of Castlemilk, but now the promised land is rather tarnished. Dampness problems are widespread causing misery. Solvent and drug abuse spreading daily. Neglect showing everywhere, unemployment is just another daily topic. The hopelessness is everywhere, people are giving in and, just when we needed it most, a shiny new pub at the shopping centre. No doubt so we can all drown our sorrows in drink and blur the vision we come home to.
Maybe there will be another Castlemilk someday, but I hope it lives up more to its promises than this one did.
SHE HAD JUST about had it. Soaked to the skin. Julie and David clinging to each side of the buggy, Susan wailing inside. All soaked and freezing for nothing. Approaching their close Julie took David’s hand to run on. It took him so long climbing the three flights of stairs to their home.
Home, she thought. A freezing damp hole. Last year the round of officials had been soul-destroying. Doctor’s letters proving their children’s health was at risk to no avail. With “points points points” ringing in her ears she had given up. Sick of getting messed about waiting in queues, only to be left in floods of tears at the injustice of it all. They had slipped beneath the world’s notice now. Dirty and shabby – no-one listened.
Today at the social security had been more of the same: no clothing allowance. Only once a year was allowed. Stuttering to deaf ears that the summer clothing was washed out and inadequate as she could see from the blue shivering children. No heating allowance: they had £1.10 already. No linen or blankets; she’d had them too. The stuttering voice explained about bed-wetting, broken washing machine.
The cold house.
As the young girl glanced at her watch Margaret got to her feet. The girl didn’t understand, like herself maybe at that age. No time for dirty beggars. Like always she cried. For the young girl gone. Was she really only 25. Memories of her handsome husband flooding her mind and eyes. He’d got them in this mess and then walked out. No-one told her she wasn’t liable for his debts and she’d struggled – leaving them short to pay his bills for clothes and furniture he’d insisted they needed. Leaving had spared him seeing it all re-possessed. Scarring her forever with shame.
Exhausted on reaching the top landing, glad to set the buggy down. She wasn’t too well these days. Julie and David had shed their anoraks. She laughed at them sitting in front of the fire and plugged it in, two bars for a while to heat the house a little. They needed a hot drink. She put the kettle on before she attended to Susan. Too tired to wail – now just whimpering. She put some tea in her bottle, not enough milk yet again.
Julie helped David into his pyjamas as their mother stripped the baby and changed her nappy. A lump rose in her throat at little Julie not yet five playing mother for real. Susan was asleep half way through her bottle. The good thing about the bed in the living-room – now she didn’t wake on impact with the cold covers like in the bedroom. They kept each other warm all huddled in one bed.
Night was worse for her with the children asleep her mind clawed over the last three torturous years – no wonder she didn’t sleep much. Trying to tell the doctor she couldn’t take sleeping tablets with three young children was useless. The bathroom held umpteen bottles – tried and abandoned. She’d seen the look on the health visitor’s face and the attendance officer as she slurred her confused words at them. She didn’t open the door to them now. That was all the visitors they ever had. Julie had been sent home to change her canvas shoes she had got soaked. She had no others. So shame had kept her home for two weeks. She’d hardly been at school since her enrolement a few months before. Plagued by colds and coughs.
John, her brother, said he might pop in this week. She knew he wouldn’t. She had seen him last week almost cross the road to avoid them, then changed his mind. Always handsome – like her twin she had been told. Not now though. Beautifully dressed like always he patted Julie’s head like she had scabies. They all had the cold and runny red noses. A sign he wouldn’t be used to. He should have walked by. It made her feel worse. He had done it before only she never let on she had seen him either.
Depression was taking a real hold on her now. Making the children cosy and comfortable had given her some satisfaction. Now she was so short of money she couldn’t even make them decent meals or dress them warmly – no wonder Tony had gone off – she was useless. Christmas was only a few weeks away. No toys this year. At least there was no constant reminder since the TV was reclaimed.
Sitting up just used electricity. So she lay down in the dark beside her children staring into space. It seemed she had just shut her eyes when the post fell to the floor. Dragging herself up, hoping for some good news from someone. Maybe Tony coming back. She smiled at the thought; he would hardly recognise her now. The electricity bill. She couldn’t believe it – £ 125! An official letter. Tony had applied for a divorce. Swaying up the hall; a cup of coffee she thought. No milk – oh shit! She fell into a chair and sobbed her heart out.
Dry-eyed now, she washed her face and fetched a carrier bag and her purse. It held £3. The corner shop would be opened now. Back home with her purchases; six pints of milk, a loaf, a tin of hot chocolates and three small bars of chocolate. They would think it was Christmas. She made a plate of jam sandwiches and put a large pot of milk on the heat for chocolate. The living room was heating up nicely – two bars and the convector on too. Never had so much electricity flowed through the fire before. Giggling that she wouldn’t be paying for it. Checking the strongest sleeping tablets she shook them into the milk, seeing them dissolve then pouring more in. Stirring almost half a tin of chocolate into the mixture then tasting it. Umm, lovely, she thought.
Time the children were up for their party. They needed the radio on as well. The neighbours next door banged the wall almost immediately. She turned the radio louder. The only time she saw her was for complaints. Her turn of the stairs. The children were noisy. Margaret had been silly enough to ask her for some milk a few weeks ago when Susan was ill and couldn’t settle. She had refused and Margaret had seen her shopping bag with four pints that morning. It really hurt. She never borrowed and would have given it back. She was like a lot of people upset at poverty on TV and ignored it under their nose.
The noise awoke the children. Bewildered until they spied the sandwiches and chocolate. They all tucked in like it was cream cakes. The hot chocolate delighted them too. Margaret topped the mugs with cold milk as it was too warm for them. Susan had a bottle full and loved it. They danced and played games. This was the old Mummy Julie knew and she was so happy. Maybe Daddy would come back too. The mugs of chocolate were refilled as soon as they finished. Their tummys were bursting but they loved the warm sweet drink.
One by one Margaret tucked them up in bed lovingly kissing and cuddling them
She sat with the last mug of chocolate and turned the fire down. Laughing hysterically that it was too warm. She crawled into the bed beside the children.
That was the scene when they broke the door down. John had called a few times with bags of messages, not got in and got worried when the health visitor said she didn’t let her in now either. The young policeman wept unashamedly. John stood like a zombie with his shopping bags. The older policeman went through the mail that lay behind the door. Nothing important – only bills and a social security letter
stating a visitor was calling.
The young girl had patched up the fight with her boyfriend. She’d been fed up the day the woman came in to the office. Later that night she felt guilty at how poor and frozen they had looked and next morning decided to check if she was entitled to anything and found that she was.
She would be pleased to receive her letter – poor soul.
Workers City “The Real Glasgow Stands Up”
Edited By Farquar McLay Clydeside Press