Uncle John's Popemobile.
Black specks were moving on the stacked plates of uneaten leftovers and the casual smears of a man that had tried to tidy up. Casualties lay on the scum of pots sunk in the sink and were building a bridgehead. Some were under the sink. Others made a wavy line to the bread-bin. The lid wobbled like a hat on the wrong head. Uncle John was a great man for bargains. He’d whittle a stallholder in the Barras down to a price so low he was practically on his knees begging for loose change. The ants were taking their cut of his Scargill-like bargaining powers of negotiation over crummy rock cakes.
‘Help yersel,’ Uncle John shouted through from the living room. ‘I’ll no be able to finish them.’
I’d done what I could by turning the kitchen light out. I still had the checked towel in my hand used for most things, from drying dishes to mopping up stuff. I give it a shake and put it on the arm of the armchair facing his.
Uncle John’s dark eyes follow the screen in the corner. Horse racing never interested him—the only horse he’d ever backed was Red Rum—but it was on for a companionable noise. Decibels rose and horses fell. The telly vibrated and danced on its spindly legs as the jockeys reached the home straight. I put a mug of tea on the wee table beside him. He turned his head and felt for it with an arthritic hand. Made a muttering sound as he chewed his tea. ‘Ah,’ he said. The sound of contentment.
I shouted over the echo of hooves. ‘Yeh’ve got ants in yer kitchen.'
He scrunched his face and tightened his lips into a smacking sound. ‘Aye,’ he said, which meant No. ‘The wee woman had said something about that.’
He meant the warden in the sheltered housing complex. He’d said she’d chapped him up every morning to make sure he wasn’t dead. I wasn’t to confuse her with the wee woman next door and through the wall, who also took an interest in him. She was Irish, which at least was something. But a busybody, wanting to know his business in the way all women were.
I was a shadowy presence sitting sipping from my mug of tea. I wasn’t a gossiping woman, nor was I a Nose, which was worse. Blue Noses were everywhere. Watching and listening. Waiting to catch you out. His voice was matter of fact about the Masonic links. As Catholic men we understood that.
His Hillman Imp car had been a test of his faith. A snip at half the price of too much to talk about openly. The make didn’t matter. What mattered was the colour. Green as a shamrock on wheels. The government were always conniving against you by changing the colours of tax discs. A torn beer mat was a stopgap.
Dessy in the front passenger seat of the car. My mum sitting on my Dad’s knees. Us five kids in the back seat. Uncle John pressed his face against the windshield. He was registered blind, but he wasn’t really. That was just another wangle. As long as he pointed the car in the right direction and angle, we’d get to the caravan park in Wemyss Bay. Like the ants, other drivers didn’t exist until they were up close.
Dad was the pathfinder because he walked everywhere and knew which routes to take. When we were up and over the Erskine Bridge and onto the motorway, it was much easier because it was all straight roads, more or less, apart from the corners.
When we got off the dual carriageway, there were only other cars to worry about, and their strange ways of halting suddenly in an emergency stop. We could get out and stretch our legs and go for a pee. Apart from my mum and the girls, because it was well-known women didn’t pee in public, or at all, mostly.
Uncle John had tipped the Parish Priest a few bob to bless a couple of gallons of Holy Water, which was much cheaper than petrol. Another bargain. The engine ran on the power on the Holy Ghost. Two decades of the rosary could get you up any hill. Three decades could get you to heaven.
When Pope John Paul II visited Bellahouston Park in June 1982, Vatican officials took the shower room out of Uncle John’s house (they were no relation), bolted it onto the top of the Shamrock Hillman, without the curtain, but with the rail, and created the world’s first Popemobile.
If you look closely at the picture of that time, you’ll see it was my Uncle John that was wedged into the front seat, skulking down and peering out the window searching for other cars as he drove at five-miles-per-hour, his normal stuttering speed.
The Shamrock Hillman also known as the Popemobile was retired to the Vatican vaults, guarded by vicious nuns. My Uncle John went to stay in Vatican City. He took care of the car, because not even Pope John Paul II could start the car without cursing like a Pole. They couldn’t speak the same lingo, but had the same distrust of women—apart from the Virgin Mary and my mum—and neither of them believed in ants in the pants or kitchen or what the eyes couldn’t see. Whenever I chew on a rock cake, I’m reminded of my Godfather in heaven. Any cake with currants, I’m extra careful they don’t move without the spirits help. Amen.
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