Dad was better fun than an alarm clock. I used to watch him before I was old enough to get locked up in school. The light in my room was on the death list of things getting fixed and, at that age, and even now, I didn’t like the dark. He got up around five in the morning. I’d hear him at front door, fiddling with the sneck, leaving the door ajar, clumping down the stairs in tackety, work-boots to the cludgie on the landing, yesterday’s Daily Record under his arm. Regular as clockwork, he used to boast. Then there would be the cheerful warning afterwards to Mum, or those that would listen, about the God’s of ill winds and ill omens: ‘You better use the toilet one down, McLafferty’s, or put a gas mask on’.
And he’d often, at the same time, get a wee dig at Mum, about the rent being only two quid a week and some folk thinking they’re too good for here, but imagine having a lavvy in the house and that stink of shite in beside you. That was his clincher, before that toilet got blocked and you can only pee in the one in the bottom landing without it overflowing. He’s no one to argue with now the stink of shite and damp is more familiar than a warm house and clean clothes.
He knows his way around tenement blocks and most people that live in them. A dying breed. Works for McGinlay on the coal. Ten-minute stroll, straight, to the yard at the pen, beside the canal. Delivering knock-down coal in a horseshoe-run that took in the splendour of fireplaces in Dalmuir, Old Kilpatrick, Duntocher and Yoker and carrying his body weight up and down four-storeys, stairs worn smooth, bowed and broken, blackening the stone outside and filling the lums and lungs with a sweet cloying sickness. There was nothing grassy green in the back courts, drawn up on housing plans, unless it was rotting. Older and wiser. Glad still to be working. And works all the hours, God gives him, six days a week, half-day Saturday, to put food on the table. He doesn’t bother with breakfast, just a cup of tea and four sugars. Main meal when he comes in. Then it’s the pub, Macintoshes, downstairs, along from the Jennie’s shop, where I bought my sweets on the ground floor, and the Kippen Dairy, next to it, bright with the endless cackle of mothers, wives, and the lives of too many little ones, too little time, until they’re that age, playing on the pavements, needing set right, about how to wait and see. He warned Mum, she could find him with his cronies, the black-and-white minstrels, standing at the bar with a fag glowing in the red slits of their mouths, a half and half to wash the dust away, and a sparkle in him, if she ever needed him. She never did.
Da might guffaw, but his heart has left his body. He no longer laughs. His eyes dimmed go to her chair in the living room beside the fire. He sticks the kettle on. Lights a fag and the gas ring with the same match flicked into life, a cowboy trick, between nailbed of his right thumb, fingers in the Autumn of their years, turning nicotine yellow and brown. He sucks greedily on a Woodbine, and stands looking out into the darkness of the back court. Before the kettle whistles, he’s stripped to the waist, washing with cold water from the tap, Wright’s coal tar soap and a soppy flannel in the kitchen sink. He had a good build, impressive muscles, and everybody used to say Big Dermot was keen because he kept himself so clean. He’d wash in the same sink, with the same cloth, when he came in at night, change out of his work clothes. He was very particular about his dark wavy hair and used a variety of fine-tooth combs to keep it clean. Without fail he’d wash it on a Friday night, preparing, like a youngster, for the weekend ahead.
His working coat, long and deep as a grave, waits for a body to fill it and hangs on a nail on the back of the front door. He used to jest and call it his lucky jacket because nobody would ever steal it. Then there’d be that choking laugh and mouthful of fag smoke.
‘You can’t argue with that, can you?’
Mum stopped getting the joke and began coughing instead. Sometimes, for a treat, we got the Corporation, green and gold, 64,Auchenshuggle bus into Clydebank and went into Woolies. Mum would climb the stairs so she could smoke. We’d sit in the front seat, the world our oyster. The conductor was always impressed by my driving skills as looked down, king of the road, I’d practice tooting and swerving to avoid the oncoming traffic on macadam glittering with rain and tenements marching, unbroken and unbreakable, even though the Luftwaffe had tried, from Dalmuir to the town centre in Glasgow. Sometimes we’d go on an adventure and take the red SMT bus up the top of the hill and go to the La Scala, where late I joined the ABCminors club and sang-along-with-the-tune-every-Satur-day. Mum loved the pictures and she loved Westerns, her deep-set blue eyes glinting brighter than the house lights. We smuggled in our own pick-and-mix from Woolies and could sit together for hours chewing and watching Indians playing the white man and getting shot. When it was over we’d come out and blink in daylight, amid all the new build housing, and mum would take my small, hot hand, insurance, in case she lost me, she would say.
‘Never, never, ever,’ I’d reply.