Da’ drank the dregs of the tea and muttered it was unnatural that his son Alex couldn’t sleep. Mum shrugged. She’d be up when he opened his eyes, banking the fire, or tending to one of the wee ones, and still up when Alex closed his eyes.
Alex meant to say it was the noise of his Da’ banging about all night that kept him awake, but he knew there were no easy answers only aggravations. And he liked the quiet spaces of nighttimes. Before he finally dropped off, when time seemed to hang in the air like fog, and all he could hear were his mum’s sighs, ticking like a clock, he’d sat up and asked her if insomnia ran like rickets in the family.
In the morning she whispered and coughed and coughed and choked out, ‘Alex, Alex, it’s time’.
The shrieks of cold Northern wind outside competed with the farts and groans whistled by the open mouths of dreamers inside. Darkness filled Alex’s mouth and he licked his lips as if to answer, but clutched onto sleep as long as he could, like the spittle grey edge of his childhood comfort blanket.
Alex cried out in sleep babble, some unknown Esperanto-like tongue, when mum nudged him awake again and again with the tip of her toes.
‘Alex, Alex, it’s time.’
Alex tried to rise from sleep; to make light of it. But the dead weight of bodies head-to-toe angled towards him like rank organ pipes on the floor around, produced a tar like heat that called him back to the charnel house of euphonic sleep. His mum waited at the top of his bed, with the half- light of the coal fire behind her, a spectre against the grain of the day. She gave him time to disentangle the white roots of his limbs from the knot of his brother Gerry’s. She also stood in as a referee and to make sure Alex didn’t accidentally-on-purpose kick Gerry much as the latter spread himself out on a full mattress, with tugged blankets as blinkers, pulled over his head, an emperor taking possession of a warm virgin spot. Even when Alex swung his legs out and mum had stirred the light in the fire she carefully watched him take half a minute to sit and take possession of his body. His head seemed top- heavy on his shoulders, ready to topple like a king and fall sideways and backwards onto the lumpy softness of the mattress. Yawning reminded them both he was still awake.
There wasn’t much for his feet to avoid, just a pine wardrobe, a walnut table and two pock marked chairs that at some point in their sad history had been painted green. Mum tugged the blankets up and over the babies contentedly sucking each other’s faces lying snug as chestnuts, in two grey drawers that were used as cots
Alex sleepwalked the last part of getting up from memory. He pulled his torn nightshirt down to cover himself better, because despite the muggy heat of unwashed bodies it was cold at the sink and grit from the tiled floor got in between his toes, which made him feel even colder. Mum had already run a little water into the basin for him to wash in and left a slither of soap and a cloth to rub down with and make himself respectable. He shivered and splashed at his face and ran the cloth around the back of his neck, respectable enough for anyone that cared to look. Alex’s work clothes were brushed down and hung on a nail, beside Da’s, but there was no work, only the dole queue, for him.
Outside, the horses were up stomping in their stables, sticking their heads out as Alex chanted their names, in a nimbus cloud of affection that hung in the air and merged with the horse’s own breath. He patted one, but not the other, looking for a bit of sugar or a biscuit. Fat chance. Alex was lucky, but not that lucky. He got an extra three pence a week for taking a gallon of milk from the Co-op at Hume Street and carrying its clanging weight all the way down to the kitchens at John Browns and breaking the empties back before the horses were harnessed.
The boss- woman in the kitchen, Isa, was good to Alex.
‘Alex, Alex when you goin’ to grow big enough to marry me,’ and she’d bat her eyes like Betty Boop and roll her hips like a theatre going dame and make a grab for him and he’d hear the other women cackling with laughter inside. But she’d slip him a sandwich in a brown paper bag. ‘Sshh’ she’d signal with a finger to her lips; our little secret.
At Christmas she’d even slipped in an orange. He took it home, like an unopened wage-packet to show his mum, which was a mistake. His mum had made him sit in a chair, like Santa, and share it out segment by segment with the wee ones. One after the other they’d taken turns in spitting it out in his lap because it tasted funny and fought each other, with the gusto of veterans of the baby wars, with ear splitting howls, to eat the skin.
The first time Alex had tried to lift the gallon urn in the Co-op yard he thought that his wrists would fall off. His legs also went into spasm as if he’d been played football in the street for hours and days on end and was never going to win. The worst bit was his hands. They were that cold that he couldn’t feel them and when he put them under my armpits to heat them up they felt as if Mr McAulay had given him the belt at school. He felt salt tears creeping into his eyes, because mum had been so proud that he’d got a job and promised that on a Saturday he’d be able to keep some of his wages to himself. But he wouldn’t, because that wouldn’t be right.
Gradually, Alex worked out a system. He moved the gallon milk jug about six paces and put it down and moved it four paces and put his hands under his arms to heat them up. But then he’d managed only two paces and nearly got knocked down by the tram going the other way towards the Gorbals.
Alex shivered because he’d never have lived that down. He could hear the voices at his funeral, they’d have muttered in derision, how could a tram have knocked him down? A snot nosed wain of three could get out of the way of a tram, and he was nearly twelve, ripe for leaving the school and going to work. That got him moving, rolling the urn, like a hoop and praying that the top wouldn’t come unstuck and spill milk all over the cobbled side street and then he’d need to throw himself in the Clyde.
‘Is there any tea Ma?’
Mum was sitting in the other chair. She had the rosary beads in her hand and her eyes closed, whether she was praying or sleeping, he wasn’t quite sure and whether there was any difference between the two he wasn’t quite sure either.
Mum soon roused herself. She was up peering into the fire and had a half mug of tea stewing and handed it to him.
‘Sorry son, there’s no much heat in it and the leaves have seen better days, but there’s nae point in banking up the fire when there’s only you’.
The tea looked like engine oil and he was half ready for work and just idling in the chair. He took a sip and then another and smacking his lips pronounced judgement. ‘That’s ok Ma.’
All he had to do was find a jumper and put his shoes on and that would be that. He crouched down onto his haunches trying to draw the shallow heat of the fire into his bones, a remembrance to use against the cold later. And winding down he checked his pockets to see if he’d put the two bits of rag in, a bulwark against the metal containers sticking to my hands with the cold.
‘I’ll no be long Ma,’ he said, running the remains of the tea around his mouth to clean my teeth and spark the day.
He always said that, a kind of charm that would make it happen, even though they both knew that he’d be lucky to be back before the shipyards had sounded the first horn. He looked over, Mum was dozing in the chair, but her eyes opened quickly as if she’d been caught out.
‘Beat it. I’m asleep.’ Da’ grunted and curled himself up into a ball and shut his eyes and opened them again to see if Alex was gone.
‘Wheesht!’ said mum, as if Da’ were one of the wains.
‘Uncle Stephen’s coming to see you,’ Alex tongued a hole in his teeth, trying to guess its circumference and how much it would hurt to wriggle and waggle it out of his gums.
Mum’s green eyes opened wide and she stared into the curl of fire and then at him so that it was as if her eyes were alight. ‘Away with yeh,’ she whispered, ‘your Uncle Stephen’s on the other side of the world, in Australia.’
‘Aye,’ Alex put the mug carefully down on the grate beside the poker, ‘but he’s comin’.
Mum pushed back into her chair, her face cloaked in shadows. ‘Just think a minute,’ she said, ‘you don’t even know what he looks like’.
‘Am away Ma.’ Alex leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, in the way he usually did. ‘A’ve seen a photo of him with you when you were younger,’ He smiled in triumph at his trickery.
‘That might be true,’ said mum, ‘but how do you know he’s coming?’
‘Dunno.’ Alex was in a hurry now, turning away, moving his toes about in his hobnail boots, and preparing for flight. He’d taken an extra pair of socks to and put them over my other extra pair, so that the heat would build up in his feet and blast me around the streets, his feet moving so fast that the cold would be left behind.
‘It makes me scared to hear you talk like that.’
Mum’s lone voice in the big room sounded sad and Alex hadn’t meant to make her sad.
‘Don’t be daft Ma.’
‘But how can you know?’ Mum looked into the fireplace, stirring the embers into life and coaxing them with the poker to give just a little more heat.
‘You mustn’t think about these things.’ Mum coughed and in the flickering yellow light her face was pinched and screwed up with worry.
‘When’s he coming?’
‘Dunno. This week. Today or tomorrow.’
There was another bout of coughing and Alex wished he hadn’t spoken.
‘Och, away with you,’ said Ma, shaking her head in consternation, ‘you’ve got some imagination. I’ll give you that. But you talk such rubbish’.
He cushioned the click of the front door so as not to wake anybody. The clang of the hammers from across the Clyde beat out the new day.