A story for Christmas…
A sharp blast of wind caught Alfie as he turned in the gate of the Botanic Gardens and shrugged his duffle bag more tightly onto his shoulder. At least it’s not raining, he thought as he headed straight up the main driveway towards the glasshouses. It had been nearly a month since Erin has issued her invitation and Alfie had still not given her an answer. He’d spent most of December agonising about it, endlessly going over the pros and cons in his mind. Peter and Robert had been no help and he’d just about stopped even listening to their mumblings and grumblings. “What do you want to go to New Zealand for anyway?” “What about us and OUR families?” “Don’t you care if you never see us again?”
Well of course he cared! Why did they think it was such a difficult decision? But the truth was that, despite these two sons of his being no further away from Glasgow than Aberdeen and London, he never did see anything of them. His sons were fine men with great careers and lovely wives and families, sons to be proud of. But their lives were full and busy and while they were always making promises, they never actually found the time to make the trip to their home town to visit their old Da.
Of course it had been different when Nancy was alive and still herself. Somehow she’d been the magnet that had drawn them all together for Christmas and had orchestrated the complicated arrangements with her daughters in law which meant that they’d bring the grandchildren to visit for a few days on the way to or from some more exotic holiday destination. But these days…
He stepped inside the Kibble Palace and loosened his scarf as the warm blast hit him. It had been quite a while since he’d visited this place, but as he strolled by the goldfish pond, the memories came flooding back. He smiled at the mother of a young child who giggled as she plopped pebbles into the water, just as his own children had done all those years ago when he used to give them a penny and tell them to make a wish as it hit the water. Just as he had done as a youngster.
It had been just the two of them, him and his mum. His dad had been injured in the second world war and had never really recovered from his injuries, though he’d managed to return to work as a train driver for a few years before the bullet fragment that was lodged in his brain had one day shifted slightly and killed him suddenly and silently. Alfie had been five years old and he still remembered the day when his mother, white as a sheet, had collected him from school at home time. The fierce hug she gave him, and her tears, told him that something terrible had happened before she even managed to spit out the words.
They had moved from Partick to live with his Aunt Maureen in her big flat in Hillhead. “Of course you must come and stay with me, Peggy! Look at me, rattling around all by myself in this big house – you and Alfie are just what this place needs!” And Alfie discovered that the formidable woman he’d always been a little afraid of turned out to have a heart of pure gold. The temporary arrangement became a permanent one, with Peggy keeping house for them all, and Auntie Maureen dropping Alfie at St Peter’s Primary every day on her way to the High School where she was the Headmistress.
Alfie stopped when he reached the statue called ‘Stepping Stones’. It depicted a young girl carrying a younger child with his arms around her neck, their heads close together as she carefully stretched out her bare foot to feel for the next stone. This had been their favourite, his and his mum’s, and they had visited it often on the way home. They’d walk round the circuit, carefully examining each of the marble statues in turn, before deciding that yes, ‘Stepping Stones’ was the best. Satisfied, they’d return home where it would soon be time for Auntie Maureen to come home and they’d all have their tea together.
Alfie quietly wiped away a tear as he returned to the main driveway. He wasn’t really one for feeling sorry for himself, but visiting the statues had only highlighted the fact that here he was on Christmas Day taking a solitary walk in the park. He told himself not to be daft and continued on up the hill, allowing the memories to flood in. That’s what he was here for, wasn’t it? To lay those memories to rest?
So many memories associated with this place. Of his mother, his wife, his daughter, all gone now. Of his sons, who had always chosen the statue of the naked man with the monkey on his knee. Of Auntie Maureen who, to his surprise and childish embarrassment, had professed a liking for the statue of the naked Eve. This was on one of the rare occasions when she had joined them for their Sunday walk. Not long before her death, he remembered. He’d always regretted that Auntie Maureen hadn’t lived to see him go to University and follow in her footsteps into the teaching profession, first as a lecturer and finally professor.
And of course Erin was still very much alive, albeit gone to the other side of the world.
Erin… So much younger than Peter and Robert, who had already grown up and left home by the time their little sister, the ‘afterthought baby’, had been born. She’d been a happy, mischievous child who had given her middle aged parents so much joy as she grew up, and caused them such anxiety when at 18 she’d announced that instead of going to University like her brothers she was going to take a gap year and see the world.
The gap year had turned into a decade, and a way of life where there was always something new to see, somewhere new to go, all funded by a few month’s work as a nanny or a bartender or a tutor. They learned to stop worrying about what their daughter was going to do with her life and instead stuck a map of the world on the kitchen wall where they could follow her progress with coloured pins and make a border of the postcards she faithfully sent from the four corners of the globe.
Until the day, on one of her rare visits home, she had lost her heart to the tall New Zealander she’d bumped into in, of all places, Sauchiehall Street! Her brothers had had plenty to disapprove of as the whirlwind romance turned into a registry office wedding. “You’ve only known him 5 minutes” “Why can’t you have a proper wedding in a church?” “This will kill your poor mother.” But the ‘poor mother’ had been Erin’s staunchest ally and had reminded her sons that they had previously spent their sister’s flying visits asking “When are you going to get married and settle down?” They could hardly have it both ways now, even if settling down was so alarmingly far away.
Alfie too had surprised himself by being quite sanguine about Erin and Niall. After all, he had learned long ago that Erin was someone who, like her mother, would always follow her own path in life no matter what anyone thought. In any case, who was he to judge? He and Nancy had only known each other a couple of months before they had got married in the student chaplaincy. They saw no point in waiting and knew that if they did it would be too late for Peggy, prematurely old and frail with heart problems. He had never forgotten his mother’s face, shining with happiness, as she sat between Nancy’s parents in the small friendly chapel. The three of them had held hands as they watched their offspring make vows that were heartfelt and – as it turned out – long lasting.
It was as if the wedding had given Peggy permission to slip away and she died peacefully in her sleep the following week. Just like her to leave without a fuss, thought Alfie. He was a little out of breath now as he reached the top of the hill and stood for a moment waiting for his heart to slow down. There was always a choice to be made at this point. On weekdays, he and his mother would turn left and start heading for home. On Sundays, they’d go right and he’d get a chance to explore the overgrown pathways that led down to the river, thrashing at the bushes with a stick and sometimes coming across frogs or a pretty pebble that he’d slip into his pocket to give to his mother when they met up again at the bottom of the hill.
He’d once asked if it wasn’t boring for her just walking quietly by herself down the path while he dashed off into the undergrowth. “Oh no, dear,” she’d said. “I love it here, it reminds me of your father. We used to come here when we were courting. See that big oak tree over there? That’s where he proposed to me” Suddenly he understood the dreamy look she sometimes had on her face as she strolled calmly down the hill and then sat on the bench at the bottom while she waited for her son to come running up, dirty and dishevelled, and eager to tell her about the frog he’d seen, or to put a round pink pebble into her hand.
He’d seen his mother in a different light after that, imagining her and the handsome young man from their wedding photograph strolling hand in hand under the trees and maybe even kissing, as he’d seen people do in the movies. How he’d blushed at the thought – he must have been maybe 9 or 10 when he had that revelation. And somehow he had understood that no-one would ever take his dad’s place in Peggy’s heart. That was why instead of burying her, he’d brought her ashes home and had placed them on the mantlepiece beside the urn that contained his dad’s.
Nancy had understood, but had occasionally asked when he was going to scatter his parents’ ashes. “When the time is right” he would reply. She’s never say any more, but when her time came he’d known what she would want and had taken the boat to Millport one sunny day two summers ago and committed her ashes to the waters of the Firth of Clyde, so that the ocean currents could sweep her away to the far off places she’d never had a chance to visit in life.
He took the path to the left and as he strode down the hill it occurred to him that it wasn’t until he had sons of his own that he had understood what a solitary child he had been, tending to shy away from the rough and tumble of the school yard rather than being in the thick of it as his boys inevitably were. They had been such scamps as children, so close in ages as to be almost like twins, and inseparable as they got into one scrape after another, climbing trees and falling out of them again, laughing their heads off. He was pretty sure he remembered rescuing one of them from that big monkey puzzle tree there at the corner. Probably Robert – he never could turn down a dare.
He listened to the men they had become tell him how impossible this proposal of Erin’s was and how he should just dismiss the idea out of hand. “I mean, do you expect us to come all the way to New Zealand just to visit you?” Well, why not, he thought. What happened to those carefree boys of mine who were always looking for adventure? But you couldn’t really say a thing like that out loud, could you?
Erin could though. “Just ignore them Dad, they never even come to Glasgow, never mind New Zealand!” She was right, and more than that, she also addressed head-on the question which bothered him more than any other – what would happen to him as he got older and perhaps could no longer look after himself. His sons were vague, “Oh you don’t need to worry about that yet, Dad, you’re fit and healthy aren’t you? Why concern yourself with something that might never happen? We’ll do our duty by you, you know that.” He knew they realised that getting older was inevitable. He also knew that their avoidance of the issue was because of their unwillingness to admit that once their father could no longer fend for himself, their duty would consist of finding a nice care home in which he could live out his final days. The thought made him shudder.
On the other side of the world, Erin was the one who understood, who chatted with him practically every day on Skype and actually listened to his concerns. He’d learned how to open his heart to his daughter during the dark days when Nancy had reached the point where she no longer knew him and couldn’t be left safely alone in the house for fear she would leave the cooker on or would wander out into the street and forget how to get home again. He’d refused to even countenance putting her in a home – she might have forgotten me, he told his sons, but I remember HER – and he took early retirement to look after her until, finally, his beloved Nancy had passed away in his arms after a massive stroke.
Unlike the boys, Erin was never satisfied with his assurance that he was fine, he was coping okay. She had gently insisted that he tell her how he really felt, that he share his sadness and despair with her. She had been with him every step of the way.
And now she was asking the killer question “What’s to stop you Dad? We want you with us, Niall and me. I can’t bear the thought of you ending your days all alone in some home or other when you can come and live with us on the farm. When you can have a new life: have some fun for goodness sake! You know I’ll look after you when the time comes. How could I ever put you in a home after all you did for Mum? Don’t you think it’s no more than you deserve, it’s no more than I can do? I know Mum would agree…”
Alfie took a deep breath. He knew the answer, he’d known for a while. In the past few weeks he’d been visiting all his old haunts, saying goodbye. He knew that if he did this, he’d probably never see Glasgow again, even though the Glasgow he knew was really only somewhere that existed in his memory. But ‘never’ and ‘forever’ were words that could stop you in your tracks, and he had one more thing to do before he’d be ready.
He had to push aside some overgrown brambles to reach the spot, but sure enough, there it was, surrounded by some sturdy railings. The low level platform of Botanic Gardens Station, deserted for some 70 years and now completely overgrown and covered in graffitti. He hadn’t been the only one to be fascinated by this glimpse of the past. Over the years many people, old and young, had stood right here to gaze down at this tantalising and perhaps haunted relic of the Victorian era. He’d always been glad of the substantial railings, preventing his mischievous boys from surely climbing down and disappearing into the tunnel.
They’d always listened in wide eyed wonder, and Erin had too, when he told them about their own special connection with the railway that used to run under the Botanic Gardens. Because their own grandfather, his dad, had actually driven the train that had taken this route! They knew the story well but never tired of hearing how in the olden days Botanic Gardens Station had stood just there, near the main gates. They’d imagine the Victorian ladies and gentlemen standing on the platform waiting for trains that would chuff into the station in a great cloud of smoke and steam and noise. And no, your grandpa didn’t drive a steam train, it would have been diesel engines by then, this was after the second world war.
He smiled as he remembered his eager children always asking the same questions as he told the tale. They especially liked the part where he told them how the actual station had been closed just before the war, never to open as a station again. But that the trains had continued to run through the ghost station for another decade and more until the line had been closed for good in the 1960’s and the station demolished in 1970 after a fire. Yes, that’s before you were born! But not before YOU were born, Daddy, they would prompt.
And he would tell them what he could recall. How as a little boy he remembered his dad coming home in his railway uniform – yes, he had a cap – and talk about about the train that would run without stopping through the subterranean ghost station all the way under the Gardens until it came out at another station called Kirklee. And no, I don’t know if he ever saw any ghosts, but I suppose he might have. There are lots of ghost stories to do with old railway lines, did I ever tell you about the Gray Lady of Hillhead, she was supposed to be a happy ghost who smiled at people….
In truth Alfie couldn’t really remember whether it had been his father who had talked about the ghost station. Or perhaps it had been his mother who had taken to occasionally taking him for trips on the very line where her dear Jack used to travel. As a train-mad youngster, these trips had been a huge treat.
“Why do you shut your eyes when we go into the tunnel Mummy, are you scared?” “Oh no darling, I know it might seem daft, but it makes me feel closer to your Daddy, this was the same train as he used to drive.” It didn’t seem at all daft to Alfie, it seemed to make perfect sense, and he took to also closing his eyes in the tunnel to feel close to the father he could barely remember. Perhaps his ghost did come and join us in the tunnel he thought. Perhaps it was waiting there still. Why not?
He took his duffle bag and opened it to retrieve a plastic food container. It had amazed and touched him when he’d emptied the urns to see how small a space the ashes of two human beings took up. He took a quick look around to check there was no-one near, then carefully opened the box and reached over the railing to shake out the contents. At that moment a sudden gust caught the ashes, sending them in a joyful upward spiral. To his eye it was as if the two lonely spirits were entwining in an everlasting dance before disappearing together into the ether.
“The time is right, Nancy,” he whispered.
It was with a lighter heart and a lighter step that Alfie walked out through the gates of the Botanic Gardens that day. He’d be just in time for Christmas Lunch with his neighbours the Dempseys, a kind young couple who had insisted he join them as soon as they discovered that his family had other plans which didn’t involve him. And then he’d go home and listen to the radio while he waited for Erin’s call round about 8.00. By then it would be early on Boxing Day morning in New Zealand and Erin would be having her first coffee of the day while she checked in with her Dad. She’d wake up fast, he thought, when she heard what he had to say. “Yes Erin, I’d love to come and live with you in New Zealand.”