Uncle John and Jimmy.
Da didn’t believe in noise. He’d be sitting at the grill with the wireless on the window making toast and listening to Radio Athlone. Even from the back rooms, we got to know the weather in that lilting Irish voice and the price of pigs.
‘I’m no daeing any harm,’ was his cry, when my big sister, Jo, asked him to turn it down and stormed off in a door-banging frenzy. Weekend lie-ins were hard work.
I remember my da telling Jimmy Mac, ‘No, you’ll need to dae something about that Jimmy. We cannae have that.’
Jimmy’s son was a man, a grown man in his late twenties. As if it was just a matter of stripping away glitter from his son’s clothes and telling him not to dance like a Jessie, audition for the part of the principle boy in the school play, or talk funny with a lisping sound. Which was suggestive of something, but I’m not sure what. We didn’t know any poofs.
I’m not sure what my da thought of my Uncle John, who was my godfather and favourite Uncle. They went back a long way to Our Holy Redeemer school and playing football in the blaze parks beside it. Kicking about the same streets. But Uncle John never married.
No shame in that. But there were elaborate explanations going on above his head. A bit like the reasons why my da didn’t smoke and everybody else did. Dessy was a fitness fanatic. He walked everywhere. He didn’t smoke because that meant he wouldn’t have the price of a drink. And he was a bit queer that way. Not queer in the other way, of course. Such people only existed on the telly and usually they played the piano and wore glittery suits. They made nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes about women and getting caught. And their hair was always immaculate.
Uncle John dyed his hair with boot polish and kept himself to himself. He wore a furry Russian hat, with extendable earmuffs, and sensible shoes. There was never any danger he was going to slip the hand, when slow-dancing with Mum. He could only go slow, with his arthritis, fast was beyond him. But you had to watch Jimmy McNamara.
Uncle John made the same kind of jokes. But he was just being old fashioned. Women were trouble, big trouble. Always after your money and wanting to know your business. He didn’t mean my mum, of course. She wasn’t any trouble. A God fearing woman and being married to Dessy was enough trouble for both of them. She was up there with the Virgin Mary, and five kids didn’t take away her shine. It added to it. That proved she loved Dessy and was a good Catholic mother.
Uncle John told me a story, about loading up a car, and travelling abroad to watch Celtic. It might have been the European Cup final. Bundled up in long coats, four of five of them with sandwiches in their pockets as if they were going to their work, and a carry-oot in the boot. They’d a tent for sleeping in. Hail, Hail, the Celts were almost there.
They get to somewhere warm and they’ve got bottles of wine and bread. And they’re happy enough. Uncle John loved his grub. And if trying to wangle a bargain was legendary, drinking kept it all afloat. But there’s a café nearby. And women were in the café. Half drunk and half-dressed men and foreign women. Of course, they went into the café.
‘Did you go into the café?’
He raised his dyed eyebrows and clucked his tongue. He left them to it and went for a bit of shuteye in the tent. Good Catholic boys, good Celtic men. He was a conscientious objector.
Da and Uncle John had a code that spelled out ‘Nose’. Uncle John would tap the side of his nostrils and the bridge of his nose. ‘Didn’t you know, Dessy?’ that meant he’s a bluenose. Some of them were obvious orange bastards, but it wasn’t a given. Some of them hid it so well you’d never know. They could even seem like one of us. Dessy’s sister, Mary had married one of them, and had to emigrate to Canada. Uncle John was one of those that thought that wasn’t far enough.
It wouldn’t have surprised him when Neil Armstrong touched down on the moon, he’d spotted a camp filled with orange bastards singing The Sash behind the only sittable rock, and up to their knees in Fenian blood. Uncle John and Da was hard-core that way.
Sure, wasn’t the Orange Hall built facing the gate at John Brown’s for that purpose? Catholics kept in their place. Not intelligent enough to work machinery. Their brains too small to work out anything more than how to push a brush or wield a shovel, and carry stuff for their betters. The Orange Hall was a thumb in the eye of Uncle John and my da and the people that lived in the districts known as the Bisley. In line with Orange Lodge protocols, the worst kind of housing for the worst kind of people. It was only temporary, anyway, until they went back to Ireland, back to their proper pig-sty place.
Noses were everywhere. If they weren’t marching through the middle of Clydebank and breaking chapel windows they were loitering up Dalmuir Park, an army and its followers at rest, after manoeuvres. They had their Orange Halls and they had their Masonic Halls.
The Masonics with their hand twisting gymnastics were the generals, the big nobs in society who controlled the police and the law. You had to be the right kind of nose to be in the Masons.
The problem Uncle John and my da had here was Jimmy Mac was in the Masons. He quite liked it. But that was explained away, because Jimmy was always up to a bit of dodgy dealing. A different kind of dodgy dealing than my Uncle John who had no license to drive, was registered blind, but drove anyway—a green car. I think it was a Hillman, but the make didn’t really matter, the colour did—and used a beer mat that wouldn’t fool anyone but himself close-up as a car tax disc. Even though he couldn’t walk the length of himself, because of his arthritis, he also worked, on the side as a gardener in Bearsden. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, cash in hand. Jimmy Mac was on a level above that. He needed to be in the Masons to cover his arse, and find new ways of getting by.
Asked direct questions, about whether he was in the army, for example, Uncle John dodged them. Da and Jimmy Mac had been in the same regiment. Both of them boxers. Jimmy said he was better. And my da laughed. He said my da was a lazy bastard that never worked a day in his life. My da didn’t laught. But that was Jimmy. They fought up the mountain spine of Italy called the Gothic line. Watched their friends die. My da had frostbite in his toes, but was saved by the help of some mysterious Italian woman. Maybe that’s why he walked everywhere, that great escape close escape galvanised him to remember how important his feet were. But I think it was more about giving himself head room, with five kids at home. Uncle John walked nowhere, fast.
‘I was called up,’ he paused to see if you were listening. ‘But when we went on parade I nicked into the toilet. And when they came to get me, I’d a pole out and line into the toilet pan.
Sssh, I’d say, when I heard them coming. ‘I think I’ve caught something’.
The army, the British army, wasn’t for him. Wasn’t for my Da, or Jimmy Mac. They weren’t loyalist, through and through. They went because there was no way of avoiding it. Drafted and then they really were all in it together. Richer or poorer, death do they part. There’s another story of my da refusing an order to shoot unarmed civilians. That’s courage, not under fire. The stories we don’t usually hear.
Uncle John tells another story of getting a ferry across to The Isle of Man, or one of the Channel Islands and asking in a café if there was any work. The guy looked at me, Uncle John said, and asked if I’d any experience.
I’d worked in kitchens before he said. Uncle John, I guess, was in the catering corps. That would have suited him right down to the ground.
He never married and even in the sheltered-housing complex beside Singers Park, he was still adamant the wee Irish woman next door was after him. Women did like him. He’d a full head of black hair when he died. He was funny, sometimes generous. But he didn’t like women back. When his mind wandered a bit, it was always a woman he accused of stealing from him. Never a man, even when there was evidence a man was stealing from him.
He spent a lot of time in the church muttering prayers and if there was a bus run to Lourdes or Madjugore, or any other place the Virgin was meant to have appeared, then he was first dibs. He loved Malta, because it was a Catholic country, and because of the heat. That helped his bones. My da went with him. Cheap drink, sunshine, no noses in Malta, it was indeed paradise. My sister paid my da’s fare, it gave her peace for the five or six weeks they were away annoying somebody else. No Radio Athlone, thank God.