Phyllis McFadden 1931-1986
I was twenty-three when my Auntie Phyllis died. She was fifty-five. I’m older now than she was when she died. Back then, in 1986, I thought anyone over fifty was ancient. But it was a strange kind of counting, because it excluded people I knew, like my mum and dad. Like my Auntie Phyllis. It was the kind of counting we did when starting primary school and we sung the times table, and those in primary seven seemed adults, especially if they wore a shiny prefect badge with the school’s name embossed on it.
My Auntie Phyllis didn’t have time for dying. Her husband, my Uncle Jim, worked as a joiner at Sullom Voe, and she hadn’t even finished wallpapering. Her daughter Catherine had two boys and two girls that lived nearby and were still infants, as likely to be in my Auntie Phyllis’s house as their own. Her eldest son Jim had a whole stack of kids. Agnes was up in Fort William, and she’d two children and she needed her mum. Only her son John, who was the same age as me, lived at home.
Auntie Phyllis had told John she was going up the stairs because she had a splitting headache. She’d finally got the house she wanted, the house I remembered well was a street away, Kimberley Street—the street her daughter Catherine now lives on—but then it had that fusty smell, wide open windows, but stink of lingering dampness. The walls were whitewashed every year. They were our closest cousins. Once I’d bedded down on the floor in the boy’s room with a clock ticking beside me. The alarm on the clock didn’t work. Auntie Phyllis decided that since I didn’t sleep very well, I should get them up in the morning. I didn’t sleep that night, but I did watch the luminous dials of the Benelux clock like a telly, and did get them up too early.
Jimmy Reid, ex-Communist and one of the leaders of the Upper-Clydeside work-in, was the last tenant of the council house they moved into. He moved to Bearsden, seat of affluence, and wrote for The Sun. His refusal to join the rat race was confirmed when he tried to charge my Auntie twenty quid for the hall carpets he’d left behind. He might have turned the Heath government into a U-turn, but Auntie Phyllis was for burning him in hell. She ripped them out and flung them in the front garden. They’ve probably still there now. She declared them nothing better than for the rubbish heap, like him.
Auntie Phyllis had a well-developed sense of right and wrong. She was born at the beginning of the hungry thirties and her mum’s maiden name—and my mum’s—was Battles. She was born into the Irish Catholic Connelly clan in Dennistoun, in 1931 and Christened Philomena Mary (my sister was christened Philomena, but called Phyllis too, in honour of my Auntie Phyllis). In October 1931, 50 000 Glaswegians gathered at Glasgow Green in protest at the high levels of unemployment and the hated Mean’s Test. They were baton charged by the police for wanting to work. Sir Oswald Mosley, also visited Glasgow, the leader of the New Party, was met by hecklers and hit by stones and bottles. A column of protesters marched on his small group of supporters singing The Internationale. My mum was born a year later. They already had two older sisters and three older brothers who lived in the single-end tenement.
And before the beginning of the second world war their father, the patriarch of the family, made a decision that would change their life. He was sending Phyllis and my mum Jean back to the croft in Ireland. But it wasn’t against the aerial bombing of the Luftwaffe that worried him, but the threat to their Roman Catholic faith, especially with their mother’s health declining in what he regarded as an increasingly secular society.
Auntie Phyllis would be the elder sister, aged eight, the fiery one and protector, to the more calming influence of my mum, aged seven. As a boy it was difficult to pick up any hints of what happened in Ireland, especially if it had anything to do with sexual abuse. But there were some clues to it, picked up almost by osmosis. Whether it happened to my auntie, or my mum, or both, it was hush, hush, and I don’t know who the culprit or culprits were. They were wee girls and they only had each other, the bond between them tightened.
My Auntie Phyllis would have thought herself an adult when she moved to Dublin to work in a doctor’s surgery. She’d be fourteen, or fifteen. I’m not sure where my mum was. It’s one of those gaps in knowledge and knowing. Their mother and father dead. Auntie Phyllis spoke about this time as if it was quite glamorous. I’d use words like drab, and servant, and skivvy. Upstairs Downstairs and Downtown Abbey can burn down as far as I’m concerned, and those bastards can do their own laundry, get their own meals.
Their brother, my Uncle Tom, saved them from a life of servitude. He got demobbed out of the navy and got the family a house in the East End of Glasgow. Rounded up all his brothers and sisters and brought them home. He sent for my Auntie Phyllis and my mum and brought them home.
Jobs were plentiful and everybody worked— even women (but, of course, women were paid two-thirds less than men). My mum worked in a shop. I’m not sure where Auntie Phyllis worked, but she’d those knives and worked in McPhee’s in the fish factory later in life. The clock was ticking. She might have been a skilled worker and earned more. But there was still rationing. And a treat was going into a café for peas and vinegar.
My Uncle Jim McFadden introduced my mum to my dad. But my mum and dad married first, in 1955, their honeymoon in Dublin, naturally. Uncle Jim and Auntie Phyllis married in 1957. Auntie Phyllis had three boys and two girls. So did my mum. The eldest was a bossy little girl that gave you what for in each of our families. The McFadden family, girl for girl, boy for boy, we all went to the same school and were in the same year.
When we went on a trip on the train to Balloch, or even further afield to Helensburgh, we went together. Sandwiches and juice in a bag. And cigarettes. Auntie Phyllis and my mum smoked at least a twenty-pack a day. When I opened the kitchen door to ask for money for sweets when they were nattering, the clothes horse would be above their heads on the pulley with the washing hanging down bathed in smoke, and they’d have a cup of tea and overfilled ashtray to hand. And they’d be talking. Always talking. Never a minute of the day would they shut up, talking.
When I went in to see my Auntie Phyllis when she died, I stood outside a minute to collect myself. She was in the room and I knew real men didn’t cry. Her hair had been done and her skin was white as a China doll. I pressed my lips together and hand over my mouth and rushed out into the hall, bumping into John. I didn’t want to be in the house, I wanted to be outside where nobody could see how torn up I was. We didn’t say words like love. But I’d loved my Auntie Phyllis. Nothing but fond memories. RIP.