Don't talk back
I slept through the Russian missile crisis when John F Kennedy called the Russian’s bluff and sent them homeward to think again. It was a simpler world when if you didn’t like some nation you just blew them up. At a local level my Da practiced the same principle. He could punch the gaffer on Friday, get his books, and start a new job on Monday morning. One look from him brought a kind of vertigo and you’d stare mesmerised by the red floral splatter on the scuffed linoleum. His features sterner than Mount Rushmore and ledges of eyebrows quivering in the aftershocks of an earthquake of hearing what you’d done. Leaning in, he went a curious plum-purple colour when he was angry, boozed up, or had more sun on his face than the sand on the Sahara desert, or a combination of all three. Guilty of doing what’s what or what’s not. He didn’t want any backchat. And he didn’t want you to be noisy, or hear of you being cheeky to somebody, especially your mum. Didn’t she do enough for us? Didn’t she do enough for you? Always slaving. The only thing she didn’t do was wipe your arse. Are you listening? There might have been a man on the moon, taking one small step for mankind. But he didn’t like the way you threw yourself down on a chair, and having no appreciation of how much it cost. Kick up the arse was what you needed most. And he didn’t like you not finishing your dinner. Or greeting for money for sweets. Or the way you wore your shoes out to quick because you played fitba with they and they’d cost a fortune and he’d told you not to. Didn’t he. Now we’d need to get a Provvy loan. Pair of good shoes a fiver. No appreciation. And he’d already told you about playing out the front green, out the back green, or the side of our house. If you wanted to play there was a perfectly good public park just up the road. Where you listening? What were you watching on telly? Star Trek. Randal & Hopkirk (Deceased). The kinda shite they make nowdays. There must be something better than that on. Turn it over. Food and panic buying because of the dock strikes, no bread in the shops, no milk and no sugar for your tea. All he needed was a plate of soup and a couple of potatoes. Don’t fling that milk out. It’s not that bad. Put it on the windowsill and I’ll drink it later. Don’t make that face. It’s good for you. And I imagined he thought it a great pity they no longer took child soldiers, kitted them out in a bright uniform, taught them a useful skill, how to kill people, and as an added extra how to drum and lead them into battle. The army was a great life he’d said, nudging me out the front door. But he did go easier on my sisters. He cut them a bit of slack. At six foot and a mop of curly hair, which he tended with military precision and a variety of nail-tooth combs, he was cleaner in theory than practice. Despite his obsession with washing his feet and going to the pubic baths in Hall Street a stale smell of unwashed meat followed him about like a stray dog and he didn’t seem to care what he hung open-necked on his body. Wearing my mum’s pinkish anorak to go to the shops because it was hanging on the door and it was raining was a cute trick. His motto was he wasn’t doing any harm. He was big Dessy to most of his pals. Easy going. A great guy. For us he was just the guy that lived in the room at the end of the hall that blundered out to glare at you with watery greenish eyes and shouted at you for leaving the light switch on. You think we were made of money? Did you think we lived in a bank vault? Did you!
But there was some idiosyncrasies they just couldn’t fathom. Why Dessy didn’t smoke for example.
McBride had a theory it was because big Dessy was a fitness fanatic who liked to walk everywhere, even the ten miles to Parkhead and back. Everybody knew smoking killed you, but it was more to do with the price 27p for a packet of Senior Service and a pint of beer 12p, how were you supposed to live? And everybody had a granny that smoked a clay pipe and a granddad that smoked, drank more than a fishing fleet crew could, and lived to be 150 and died in their sleep hand in hand. You could die tomorrow. But as long as you had your smoke and your drink and a wee bite of grub then you were happy. That was the way of the world. Jesus, you might even live until you were sixty-five. What would be the good of that? An old man, not even able to button your fly.
But McBride was biased, unmarried, oily Mediterranean complexion, skin rough as drystone and the colour of nicotine. He chewed on garlic to ward off the cold, and help with a list of ailments that begun with arthritis, and it took up residence in his body and walked in a shroud beside him. But he never complained, unless it was about those orange bastards. God knows what they’d been up to now. You could smell him coming. ‘Are you in?’ he used to shout, already standing in the hall, his Russian hat in his hand. A square-pegged furry animal with ear muffs. His hair was captured from the past. Black as the boot polish that sometimes stained his neck, or the pillowslips if he stayed overnight. He was around the same age as my Da. They exchanged birthday cards. Da first with a fiver wedged into the card and a forced familiarity. ‘Och, you shouldnae have bothered John’. Then a week later my Da put the same fiver in the card he handed to Uncle John. His voice practiced the scales of heartiness in a megaphoned greeting when he came in the door. The one that got away. And he intended to keep it that way. Scheming woman with their worldly, grasping ways, always looking for something new. He was always on the hunt for bargains. Hatching plans, with a tap to the side of his nose that said stumh. He had the afterlife sorted. A conspiracy of two and the other one was my Da.
They looked down on those fools that used teabags and didn’t know how to make a proper cup of loose-leaf tea. The way they did in the View, they harped on about the place they were brought up, the place they’d called home. A Catholic ghetto of blackened sandstone, the cheapest tenement housing. Outside toilets it was up to the women folk to keep clean and up to muster, with kids growing out of the walls, often without shoes. With rents that made middle-class landlords grin, it was within spitting distance of the Clyde and the yards. John Brown’s a ten minute walk. But it was no coincidence that orange halls faced the yard gates. The message that your sort weren’t wanted her was well heeded, with Catholics seen as unable to work machinery, only good for the drudge work, no Protestant boy would want to do; Fuck the Pope was their war cry. That was one way to lose your teeth in the View.