Alex watched out of the kitchen window, old daft Rab was flinging the toilet door shut, out the back of the tenement block, not even bothering to lock it, and had launched himself out of the front door with the big brass lavvy key just in case the wind banged it shut. Defeated he trekked back up the stairs, quietly shutting the front door behind him, ripped squares of last week’s newspaper headlines leaching ink onto his hands.
Mrs Russell on the ground floor, hadn’t even looked up the tenement stairs at the sound of stampeding feet. She nipped out of her front door, angling her elbows out front, so that no one could pass her, on the inside, or the outside, and into the vacant toilet. She’d two chamber pots in her hands. The smell from them would have killed a donkey, but the way she carried them it was as if she was carrying pots of roses for the Queen Mother. She obviously thought because her man was a welder in John Brown’s his shite didn’t smell. It must have been all that free milk they got to drink. By the time she’d used the toilet, flushed the toilet, waited for the water to gurgle up the pipes, flushed the toilet, emptied the chamber pot, flushed the toilet, cleaned the chamber pot, and flushed the toilet, it would be Tuesday or Wednesday and Alex would have missed out on what was left of the weekend altogether.
Alex’s next attempt was also cut short. The McGonagle girls were hee-hawing and laughing outside the back of their close, nearest to their toilet door.
‘Hi Alex,’ they smaned, in unison, googley-eyed, one to the other, as he passed.
Alex would have liked to have said something smart, or even something stupid, but his mouth clammed shut as the lid on a jar of Robinson’s strawberry jam, and his face went the same stupid colour. He tried to sneak past them, hogging the space between the tenement wall and the splash of white wash on the stairs, like a shadow, and wished he’d worn his long Sunday trousers, and not the shorts he normally wore to school.
Lorraine stepped out in front of him. She was showing her sister how to dance from toe to toe and skip properly; the rope was in her head, held in the air by her skipping incantation:
‘Not last night, but the night before.
Twenty-four robbers came to my door,
They called out for the world to see,
And this is what they said to me:
Spanish dancer turn around,
Spanish dancer touch the ground,
Spanish dancer do the kicks,
Spanish dancer do the splits…’
Her straight hair was unnaturally curled in the best Shirley Temple mould. She flounced and skipped as if the tenement hallway were her stage and Alex and Sophie her sister were a select, hand picked, part of her world-wide audience. Her kicks were higher than the Can-Can and showed enough of her white camiknickers doing the splits that her mum would have skelped her bare arse raw if she seen such a thing.
There was no applause. Sophie’s smirked and giggled at her sister’s daring.
‘Cat got you tongue,’ said Lorraine to Alex, but it was her tongue that was slightly protruding, her face flushed.
‘No,’ Alex shouted, his reply echoing back down the stairs, when he was safely on the landing above them. He didn’t look back to see if their matching cat-green eyes were still watching him.
The McGonagle girls had a bit of chalk to mark out the bottom of the close for a game of peever and all of sunshine Saturday to stalk their elusive Alex prey.
Mr Mulligan rushed down the stairs, unbuttoning his trousers as he went, almost bowling the two girls out of the way.
‘There’s somebody in Mr Mulligan,’ said Sophie, looking at the ground.
Mr Mulligan cloth cap was pulled down low over his eyes, like a disguise, so that he had to squint, to see that it was just kids messing about. He took the catch of the toilet door in his callused hands and shook the whole toilet door as if no words had been spoken and his own needs were enough for the reordering of the toilet universe. ‘Jesus,’ he said, taking the Lord’s name in vain. It might have been a prayer: a calling down, of the miracles of the incontinence saint, for Mrs Mulligan never missed mass, went faithfully at 7.30am ever day to pray for such impossibilities, but Mr Mulligan didn’t wait about to find out. He stomped away through the close mouth and onto Dumbarton Road with beer still on his breath and a renewed spring in his step.
Mrs Russell’s pointed jaw came out of the lavvy first. Her upturned nose a close second. The two chamber pots clicked together like the spell of the rosary beads. ‘Some people,’ she said, to somebody, or the nobodies that were the McGonagle girls that lived at number 5; 16 to a room and were always dying, but not quickly enough for good people like her.
They stood primly up against the walls, heads down, two little tug boats, chalked out, dancing in attendance to the passage of Elizabeth Russell, the welder’s wife, with a son working in the draughtsman’s office. They knew better that to say anything, to sass her, for she was just as likely to hit them a slap, for their cheek, or lack of manners, or their poverty, with not a half penny between them and the gutter, which was too good for them anyway.
Alex came spinning down the stairs and into the cassy faster than Lucky Lindy in a tailspin, all pretence at civilisation, and good manners gone, rattling the hinges, the toilet door banging behind him as his bare bahooky hit the grey mottled pan, and unloaded with a whoosh from a unnatural standing start.
The swish of the piebald’s tail in Dumbarton Road seemed to attract the flies rather that scare them away. The tin bugle man trumpeted and sung out ‘any old iron, any old iron,’ but it was rags he was after, all for the price of a penny whistle, or a brightly coloured balloon. His eyes, glinting brass scales, that weighed up the McGonagle girls, with Alex walking beside them, as insignificant folk, worthless and not worth waiting for. They were poor picking even for a rag and bone man. He looked around them, and past them, to the scurry of little feet beating out their excitement as they congregated, snot nosed and out of breath around his wagon. ‘Mr. Mr,’ they tugged and screamed and threatened to be noticed: one born every minute. They could steal the gas mantle out of your close mouth, and that was just the kind of thing; that, and daddy’s poor clothes and mummy’s good dress, that was worth waiting for.
Alex dawdled beside Sophie and Lorraine, up past the Kindling Company in Langfauld Street and down by the Beatties The Biscuit Factory, up towards the Clyde, the Nile of the North that brought all the wealth and good things for them to share. He liked Sophie’s sly little smile and Lorraine’s back slapping laugh. He liked Lorraine’s hair and Sophie’s dimpled cheeks. Alex liked Sophie best, but when he turned around again, he liked Lorraine best. It was difficult to say. He knew he’d marry one of them, or both or them, or none of them, but he wasn’t sure when or when. He just hoped it would be soon. He would get a job in the yards and work hard and they could get a tenement house in the next block to his mum and live happily ever after. He was so choked up with the heat of all his careful plans that he hadn’t even noticed they had got to the place they were going.
The steel frames of giant cranes jolting to life, questing each other and the sky, brought him back to the cat alley life. Ships’ klaxons burst the air between them, ready to go, to strike out. Others signalled to stay, moored in the docks slipways, chantering out a bagpipe medley, day and night, a marching song in the Clyde wind. There was tons of the black stuff that tramp steamers and old lady liners ate; pennies and shillings, that were just waiting to be picked up, and used to heat the waiting pots and pans, on the coal black tenement ranges.
The ship owners had marked the landscape with their defences against the rats from the slums that nibbled the profits from their shipyard home. They employed a flat capped watchy, at 3d an hour, enough to buy a packet of Woodbine as a foot soldier, to smoke them out, with a coal-brazier and a hut to mark off his territory. He was speccy and a bit deaf from working in the yards, and a little lame, but they’d dug him in. Walls were topped up with broken glass parapets around him. Upended old railway sleepers still soaked in oil and knitted together, hung like black teeth in the ground, and topped with barbed wire hair and propaganda that it was borstal for anyone that was caught. They had cast iron fences topped with spikes. But mile after mile of the same things and they’d run out of ideas. Just a little gap was enough for young Robert, the wee brother of the McGonagle sisters to slip over with his sack and his willingness to prove that he could do it. He too could be a big boy.
Robert grasped his burlap sack half filled with coal, but his legs couldn’t reach the safety of the T shaped juncture of the outside fence and the inside fence. He writhed, each movement impaling him on the fence, his red blood coating the rust as he fell backwards into the spike that impelled his fall, kept him sitting up, but not down. He whimpered when he saw his sisters, like a pup that had been savagely beaten, but still hoped for mercy.
‘You’ll need to lift him up and over to get him off,’ said Lorraine.
Alex jammed his sannies into the stanchion and effortlessly pulled himself up. But he had one leg hanging over the fence and the other hanging in mid air.
‘A cannae lift him,’ he cried.
‘You’ll have to,’ said Sophie hard faced and even harder voiced.
‘Just drop the bag,’ she said softly to Robert.
But he shook his head and gripped the burlap sack even harder.
‘We’ll need to run and get somebody,’ said Alex, with tears in his eyes.
‘There’s nae time,’ said Sophie, gripping the two fence poles as if she was going to shake them loose. ‘You grab the other poles,’ she instructed her sister. ‘And you,’ she said to Alex, ‘stand on our shoulders and prise him aff’.
‘A cannae,’ Alex said.
‘Just dae it,’ said Lorraine.
Alex gingerly put one foot on top of Lorraine’s shoulder, and tested it as if he was a mountaineer. Then he put his other foot on Sophie’s shoulder. His hands were still tight around the bars, ready to take all of his weight if her legs buckled. He stood up and out from the fence like an Indian riding bareback he’d seen in Westerns. He was standing above Robert, but had to lean over the fence to lift him. If he slipped he would impale himself and make Robert’s wound worse.
‘Am I goin’ die? Robert asked. He was panting with his mouth lying open and his eyes were big as blue moons. Coal dust caked his face and body, as if he’d bathed in it. There was, however, a white rivulet on his cheeks, which showed where his tears had flowed.
Alex pushed his hands through his oxters, but Lorraine or Sophie stumbled and, apart from Robert, they almost all fell backwards.
‘Am I goin’ to die?’ he asked again.
‘No, you’re not goin’ to die. Just shut up about dying, won’t you?’ said Lorraine, but it wasn’t a request.
Alex once more tucked his arms under Robert’s oxters. There was a sucking sound as he lifted him, so that he almost stopped. Instead he panicked and lifted him straight up in the air and toppled backwards with Robert as a Christmas package. They all fell down like an exploding human pyramid. None of them said anything for what seemed a lifetime. Then Robert started blowing green bubble snotters and crying that he wanted his mum. Lorraine crawled across to look at his wound.
‘Shut up with your greeting,’ said Sophie.
‘He’s spoiled rotten, said Lorraine, ‘but it’s right to the bone. We’ll need to take him to the hospital.’
‘Ahhh want my mum,’ fog- horned Robert over the both of them.
‘We’ve nae money. The hospital wouldnae take you anyway,’ said Lorraine shrugging her shoulders.
‘Ahhh want my mum,’ shouted Robert making all their minds up for them.
‘Let’s see if he can walk,’ said Sophie, pulling his jacket up and lifting his body with it, like a marionette.
Robert’s legs went from under him and he dropped his package of coal.
‘You get the coal and I’ll get him,’ said Lorraine to Sophie. ‘And you stop your greeetin’ and jump up on my back and I’ll give you a coal bag.’
‘A want my mum,’ said Robert, looking at the blood seeping out of his shorts and running down his leg.
‘Shut up,’ said Lorraine, smacking him on the side of the head ‘and hurry up and jump on’.
Lorraine bent down and Robert put his arms around her neck and let himself be pulled up. She flicked her bottom out like a duck and Robert jumped on her back for a coalbag.
‘What do you want me to do?’ asked Alex.
‘It’s a free country,’ said Sophie darting ahead.
‘Maybe we should get a tram?’ said Alex.
‘We’ve not got any money,’ said Sophie slowing down with the weight of that idea.
A tram appeared just at the junction between Dumbarton Road and Yoker Way. ‘See if you can get us on,’ said Lorraine, ‘he’s a dead lump’.
‘Ah’m no,’ said Robert, looking over her shoulder.
The conductor waited for them to give him the penny fare for each of them, but they stood clumped together, waiting for somebody to say something, and waiting to get thrown off, even when the tram was moving.
‘We’ve no’ got any money,’ Alex finally admitted.
The conductor rung the bell and the tram ground to a halt. ‘Aff,’he said.
‘But my wee brother’s hurt himself,’ said Lorraine.
‘Aff,’ said the conductor.
‘Can you not help us?’ chimed in Sophie.
‘How many times have a got to tell you? Aff,’ said the conductor, signalling with his thumb.
‘He’s bleeding. What’s wrong with him?’ said Mrs Goldman, who thought she was something because she lived in the newer tenements across the road with inside lavatories, that only four families shared.
‘He was playing and fell on the railing,’ said Sophie breathlessly, sensing an ally.
‘Och, let them on the tram. It’s only three stops,’ said Mrs Goldman.
‘It’s mair than my jobs worth,’ said the conductor, ‘what happens if an inspector gets on in the next stop and this crowd haven’t got any tickets?’
‘He’s only a wee boy,’ said Mrs Goldman.
‘That doesnae matter,’ said the conductor, gesturing with his head for them to get off the tram.
‘Away and boil your heid,’ said Mrs Goldman standing up, searching carefully through her bag, and finally pulling three- pence out and putting it in his hand. ‘Shame on you,’ she added, flouncing down on the seat.
Sophie stuck her tongue out at the conductor before sitting down. They settled into their seats.
‘Home James,’ said Lorraine, ‘and don’t spare the horses’.