Mother was pleased that Father was dead, because the thought of me getting divorced from a wonderful girl that had given me everything and three captivating children would have killed him plum dead. I was callous, in the way that grown-up children are and suggested that she could marry again. I didn’t really have anyone in mind. Perhaps my Uncle John. He ticked all the boxes. He had all his arms and legs for one thing. For another he had always worked and was canny with money. He was practical and full of energy. He did not rot in a sick bed for days, weeks, months and years, cold, angry and frustrated. Uncle John was in his early sixties, well-dressed, humorous and still relatively young. Father was never young.
Mother had her own ideas. She’d come and live with me. If I was getting divorced I’d need looking after. ‘How could I marry anyone else after being married to your father for so long?’ she said.
They met in the usual way during the Great War. He got blown up at Ypres and Mother nursed him. She was a very efficient nurse. If Father thought about dying he had another think coming. His left hand was a claw with two fingers that functioned to frustrate and his right leg was a fallen log, which disgusted him. He was never affectionate, but I can remember clinging onto his leg while he smoked a pipe and talked to Uncle John, which I thought very daring because I thought his body was made of hard wood. They were both Communists, part of the Clydeside shipyard lumpen proletariat, and sat in our kitchen planning to overthrow Capitalism. A curtain made of towelling material separated it from the other room where mother sat clicking knitting needles, her hands never at rest, planning the next meal.
Father had been a draughtsman with John Brown’s shipyard. He retained his job in the same department, but at the reduced rate of a day labourer due to his injuries. Uncle John called it war profiteering. More work. Longer hours. Less pay.
Mother claimed he’d been a promising artist, one of the Glasgow School, said to be incisive in form and weight so that each character he drew, or painted, leaped off the paper. Father saw it rather differently. It all seemed so pointless. He burnt his portfolio.
He tried to fashion a new way of seeing the world so that civilians would understand the effects of war and trench warfare in particular. His initial idea, ‘ticketing’ had limited success. Father took affiliated members of the Young Socialists to football matches. We were all football mad in those days. It didn’t really matter to him which one. I was old enough to attend the Scottish Cup Final in 1925. The Glasgow Herald reported that the attendance was over 110 000. I remember none of this. Only the dust when a goal was scored and the noise, like heaven falling, and getting separated from my father, passed down over the heads of other supporters and onto the trackside. I’d a blank school jotter. The ticketer’s job was quite simply to count those they could see. We made gates of tens, hundreds, thousands on the page, until our hands cramped. After the match we were to report back to Father. That was when he was most animated. ‘There you have it,’ he said. ‘All dead.’ And depending on the attendance calculated by us Young Socialists he’d match it with a battle. ‘You have there a Verdun.’ Partick Thistle at home. ‘The first battle of Ypres.’ Celtic at home to Rangers, ‘a Passchendaele’. Scotland against England at Hampden, ‘the Somme’. There were numerous little known football matches, matched with little known battles: ‘Arras, Caparetto, St Mihiel’. Sometimes he’d allow for the player that walked off the pitch at the end of the game to be ticketed as survivors. And once in a fit of generosity he allowed those in the North Stand at Hampden during a Third Lanark game to be ticketed as injured and not dead. There was a humorous letter sent to The Glasgow Herald in which the Young Socialists were named as the Ghoul squad.
For a short while, Father was famous. The trench-free game he developed was more popular than the landlord’s board game – Monopoly. It swept through Glasgow, out into the West of Scotland, England and abroad. It was a variant of British Bulldog. The object was to reach the other side of the room, hallway or street. Opponents were coming from the opposite direction and trying to do the same. Father’s innovation was to introduce bottlenecks that narrowed after each round. In a church hall, for example, benches would be moved closer together and each side would have to squeeze through the shortened space. Because those running between trenches automatically crouched with the effects of shelling and machine-gun fire, Father made one boy carry another in a coal-bag position. The game was great fun. It lost the ticketing and trench tags and the connection with the First World War was shunted aside.
In April 1932, during the Great Depression, there was street talk of Moscow’s gold, when money was found to make an anti-war film that was to be filmed in North Dakota. Samuel Goldwyn was purported to be in attendance. The trench-free game was to be played in wheat fields. Charlie Chaplin and other lesser known Hollywood actors were dressed as British soldiers and filmed carrying Enfield rifles with bayonets attached. It was billed as man against machine. They were to run between the gaps left by ten Gleaner Companies’ self-propelled harvesters moving steadily forward. Father was there in an advisory role. One of the men didn’t make it. His foot caught in the reel. His legs made it into the cutter bar. His body was caught by the header auger and churned.
The New York Times reported it as a tragic accident. The man wasn’t one of the actors. William Kilda was a nineteen-year-old with a low IQ and a lengthy case history of attendance at Broughtan Hospital. The Sherriff and Coroner said that no one was to blame. The film was shelved. The project forgotten.
Father remembered. All he did was remember. ‘No one was to blame,’ he said. ‘They would say that. Wouldn’t they?’