“It wusnae me Mammy! ‘Onest – I didnae dae it!”
Jack pleaded with his mum tugging at the back of her skirt. He was small for age five with stuck out ears that were too big for is head, hair that never stayed down, gaps in his teeth where the adult ones were due and permanently dirty knees from crawling through gaps in fences.
She stood in the middle of the kitchen; arms crossed, head bowed, her eyes fixed on the mess on the floor, broken glass and a few wilting flowers in a pool of brackish water. The vase was the only thing of any value in the house; her grandmother had given it to her before she died. Mary always kept a few wild flowers in it to brighten the otherwise dreary tenement flat. For her it was a reminder of happier and more innocent days.
On wet Saturdays, her Gran used to take her to the Peoples Palace and round the humid glasshouses of the Winter Gardens. She had loved that and on special occasions they would go across the city to the Botanics. Travelling by the underground, her Gran would hold her hand all the way, telling her stories to keep the subterranean bogey men at bay while the train rocked its way west beneath the city. She could still remember the unique smell and rattling of the old trains with the wooden seats.
Tears blurring her sight, she looked across the worn and split lino. Stretching away from her feet it seemed to sum up her life so far; broken and poorly patched, even the duck tape used in a vain attempt to hold it together was frayed and dirty. Nineteen sixties in the east end of Glasgow was no place for a single mother, certainly not a Catholic one whose man had disappeared the moment she told him she was pregnant. The whole sexual revolution seemed to have missed this part of the world.
“Whit dae ye expect fae a proddie” her mum had said. “Git rid o’it afore it’s too late. Ah dinnae want a prodestant bastard in ma hoose!” she was yelling now.
“That’s no very Catholic, is it? No’very forgiving!” she had screamed back, “Folk urnae born Catholic or prodestant ur they?”
“Git rid o’it, or fine somewhere else tae live. Ye’know yer Da can sort it, he knows the right folk. Just get on way it.” Her mother turned and walked away; her whole demeanour stiff with Catholic indignation.
“The bairn’s mine an’ am keepin’ it!” she yelled at her mother’s retreating back.
Her mother shook her head but didn’t look round.
Her man’s family were no better. She went to see them in the West End, her last few pennies spent on a bus ticket to Byres Road because it was cheaper than the underground. She walked the rest of the way in the rain to their flat in Maryhill but they wouldn’t let her past the door.
“Fenian whore!” they had called her before slamming the door shut, Glasgow’s sectarian divide clear for all to see and hear. She had played these scenes so often in her mind she was beginning to think they were unreal.
After Jack was born she heard from a neighbour that his dad had got married and gone to New Zealand but she had no way of confirming the story. The council had given her this one bedroom flat just off London Road, two flights up with the toilet on the landing. The building had been condemned for years; they just hadn’t got around to knocking it down. What furniture there was, second hand or gifted by one of the many charities in the east end, was old and worn. She was visited regularly by the “social” and had just about managed to survive without building up debt. She had just paid off the provi check for Jack’s first school uniform and had got a few hours work cash in hand during term time helping out in a cafe on the High Street. Things were looking up.
And now this, this small keepsake, storehouse of her happiest memories, lay shattered on the floor. The flowers she had picked from the wild edges around the graveyard where her granny was buried strewn across the wet floor, like so many forgotten hopes.
She lifted her hands to her face and sobbed. Five minutes that’s all she had left him for. If only that old bitch at the corner shop hadn’t kept her waiting for so long. She pointedly served all the other customers with a smile and a word of thanks before grudgingly accepting her money without a word for a pint of milk.
“Mammy! Mammy! – dinnae cry – I’ll git ye anither wan. A wull! Ah promise! A’ve got a few pennies saved fae ma dinner money. Souters doon the road’ll hae wan, just the same. A’ve seen it!.” Another lie.
Jack was frantic as he tugged at her skirt. He had lied and made his mum cry, he was desperate to make amends. He hated it when his mother cried and, despite his tender years, he realised she was crying more and more often these days. She didn’t play with him like she used to, she didn’t laugh as much either and she seemed tired all the time.
She turned and knelt down oblivious to the water seeping into her nylon stockings and creeping up the hem of her much washed skirt. She hugged her son to her pulling his head to her chest so he wouldn’t see the tears running down her face.
“It’s aw right son” she whispered between sniffs stroking his unruly hair. “It’s only an auld bit o’ glass, dinnae fash yersell.”
Jack wrapped his thin arms around her neck and squeezed as hard as he could as if he wanted to be part of her, to take some of the hurt away. He knew she wasn’t like the other mums around here. The other mums who turned their backs on her when she picked him up from school, noses in the air refusing even to acknowledge her existence. Only old Mrs McIver across the landing was nice to her, helping with occasional babysitting and buying him the odd sweetie. “Ya pour wee soul” she would say crossing herself before giving him a treat, maybe a treacle toffee or a few blackjacks, four for a penny at the corner shop.
At school, the older kids would taunt him in the play ground calling him “proddy bastard” and his mother a “hoor”. He didn’t understand the words but he knew they were meant to be hurtful. They were usually followed by a bout of pushing and shoving him around between the encircled older boys while they laughed and chanted, “Bastard” and “Your ma’s a hoor” until one of the nuns came out and stopped it; sometimes it seemed to Jack reluctantly. It wasn’t unusual for Jack to come home from school with bruises on his arms and face; Chinese burn marks around his wrists. Jack never complained he loved his mum unequivocally and would do anything to see her smile.
She stood up lifting him with her still holding on tight. She sniffed and wiped her face on her sleeve. She knew he had lied about the vase but couldn’t bring herself to chastise him he looked so forlorn. Leaving the mess on the kitchen floor she carried him into the small hallway.
“C’mon” she said, summoning up the courage from somewhere “let’s go oot. Get yer shoes own.” She watched as he struggled to tie his laces, she knelt down to help.
“No Ma! I wanna dae it ma’sell. I’m five now! Ah need tae be grown up.”
She ruffled his hair, “No’ too quick.” she thought.
Hand in hand they walked along London Road towards Argyle Street where the glittering shops stood in serried ranks. Mary couldn’t afford to shop here but she loved looking in the bright windows, Jack walked along beside her with eyes like saucers. They stopped outside John Lewis and watched the TV for a while, but without sound the novelty soon wore off and they continued west.
“Whaur ur we goin’ Mum?”
“It’s a secret!” she whispered and put her finger up to her lips, “Sshh! Dinnae tell onywan or they’ll want to come too.”
The St Enoch’s subway station looked like a little old church in the middle of the square. It was surrounded by parked cars and the old tram lines lay idle and rusting having been replaced by buses just a few years ago. The Victorian splendour of the St Enoch hotel now sadly scarred and tarnished by the years, unused and dilapidated added yet more poignancy to the vista. But Jack saw none of this; for him this was an awesome sight. The cars, the buses, the honking of horns and the smell of un-burnt diesel overwhelmed his senses.
Mary lead him into the subway station and bought one ticket, Jack being small could be mistaken for an under five. Down on the platform he stared up and down the track waiting for the train, Mary holding has hand to save him from falling onto the tracks. The rails sang, the first intimation of a train approaching before the maroon and gold coaches rumbled in and squealed to halt. Jack was astonished when the doors rattled open by themselves as if by magic; he had never seen anything like it. He dragged his mum into the coach drinking in the sights and sounds and smells.
“Ma Granny used tae bring me here, she would tell us stories aboot the ghosts in the subway, an’ how they wud chase folk through the tunnels if they were bad.”
But Jack wasn’t listening he was staring round at the other passengers.
“Mum! Mum!” he whispered clutching at her coat. “Whit’s wrang wi that man’s heed? It’s aw bandaged up! Look.” He pointed across the carriage.
The old Sikh sitting opposite smiled and winked at Mary. “It’s awright son” he said, “This is just ma hat ye no? Aye just a hat.” his dark brown eyes held as much of smile as Mary had ever seen. “An’ where are yous off tae then.”
“A dunno, ma mum says it’s a secret an a’ve no tae tell onywan.”
“Is that right? Well a’ve goat loads a’ secrets under ma hat and a wull tell ye wan if you’ll tell me yours.”
Jack looked up hopefully at his mum who was looking across at the old man. Mary leaned over the passageway and whispered, “We’re goin’ tae the Botanics, his name is Jack.”
The old Sikh smiled an even broader smile and leaned over to Jack. “Well wee man” he said, “That’s a great big secret Jack so it is!”
Jack gulped, “How d’you know ma name?”
“Well that’s just wan oh ma secrets!” he said patting his turban. “Noo here’s wan for you to keep unner yer hat.”
“But a’ dunnae have a hat!”
Jack was stricken perhaps he wouldn’t get to hear the old man’s secret. But the Sikh just tapped the side of his nose and winked. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and folded something into it and handed it to Jack.
“Now wee man” he said, “you open that when you git where yur goin’ an’ put it wi’all the rest like it an’ make a wish. It’s boun’ tae come true.”
“Thanks mister! Look mum – is that no summat speshul”
“Aye Jack it is.”
“This is ma stoap” said the old Sikh, “Mind how ye go.” and he limped off.
They got off at Kelvin Bridge and walked west along Great Western Road. Jack clutched the hanky in one hand and held his mother’s with the other. This was all new territory to Jack and he stared around drinking in as much as possible scared he might miss something. He didn’t know Mary was retracing the steps she took here all those years ago with her Gran. The area had changed since then but not so much that she would get lost. The big iron gates at the entrance to the park were still there flung open to welcome visitors.
Jack couldn’t believe his eyes, the glasshouses seemed so much bigger than the other ones he had seen at the Winter Gardens and going through the doors the heat and humidity enveloped him in a blanket of steamy warmth. He stared up at the huge trees in the middle the building his mouth gaping in astonishment. His mum led him to the centre of the big circular glasshouse where the fountain and pond held enormous goldfish and coy carp. He could see coins glittering in the pool, and then he remembered the present the old man had given him.
Carefully, he unfolded the hanky and there in the palm of his small hand lay a shiny penny, just like the ones in the pond. He looked up at his mother’s face asking permission to throw the penny into the pond. She smiled and nodded. The penny flashed and gleamed as it spun down to the bottom of the pond. She knelt down beside him watching the coin fall between the fish.
“Now make a wish Jack, but don’t tell anyone whit it is or it’ll ne’er come true.”
But it already had – Mary was smiling again.