The Ties that Bind – a love story for Valentine’s Day

These characters are fictional, any similarity to any persons, living or dead, is probably intentional…

The scene is an old fashioned hospital ward with high ceilings, big windows and curtain rails above each bed. It is mid-February, but a weak winter sun lights up the room. It is quiet, a lull in the middle of the afternoon. The only sounds are the quiet beeping of a monitor and the low murmuring of some staff at the nurses’ station. There is a rumble of distant traffic.

There are about 10 beds, only a few with any occupants. All are asleep or unconscious.

Three women sit by one of the occupied beds, Molly’s bed. One holds the old lady’s hand, the other two are talking quietly, heads close together.

There are some more figures around the bed, but none of the living can see them.

BRIDGET: Come on here Maeve, what the hell are you doing over there? Let that poor boy die in peace.

MAEVE: But he’s got no-one Bree, he’s confused, like our wee cousin Paddy, remember him? His name is Simon, surely it wouldn’t do any harm to just hold his hand until his Ma and Da come? I heard that nurse say they’re on the way. That one, with the red hair.

BRIDGET: Oh, bring him over here then, but stay behind me, I don’t want him confusing poor Molly. It’ll not be long now, maybe once Christine and Frances get here.

MAEVE: Oh, are they coming then?

BRIDGET: Audrey got a text message, they’re on the way from the station now. Which you’d know if you weren’t so busy poking your nose in other peoples’ business.

LIAM: Girls! We’re supposed to be here for Molly, not bickering like children.

MAEVE: Ah Liam, you always were the peacemaker. Sorry Bree. What about the grandkids, will they be here, and the little ones?

BRIDGET: Honestly Maeve you’ve a head like a sieve! The boys were here yesterday, don’t you remember? And the girls brought the wee ones in last week.

MAEVE: Ah, was that yesterday? I DO remember, it’s just this time thing, it’s a bit hard to get used to when you’ve come back from eternity. Those boys are fine young men, sure, one of them even has a tattoo.

LIAM: Ah, that’ll be young Joe, Vera’s boy, did you see the muscles on him? He’ll soon be rowing for the University I wouldn’t wonder. Or boxing.

MAEVE: Oh no, Vera wouldn’t like that, I think.

BRIDGET: Well Vera will just have to lump it. And who cares what YOU think anyway? You always did want to be the centre of attention, right from when you were a child. Ma and Da were far too soft on you.

MA and DA: No we weren’t!

MA: She was poorly as a baby. She was the wee lamb you needed to wrap in a blanket and feed with milk drop by drop.

BRIDGET: Ahh, maybe so, but she could always wrap you round her little finger so she could! She was the favourite.

LIAM: No, Da’s favourite was always Molly, remember how he’d always take her with him to mend the walls?

SIMON (whispering to Maeve): Is that your Mum and Dad? How come? You seem so… sorry… old. And they seem younger. I don’t understand.

MAEVE: Yes, that’s me Ma, and me Da. They died when they were a lot younger than me. I was older when I passed. You see?

SIMON: No, not really. They died? You died? And me? Did I die?

MAEVE: Yes son, you were in a crash, don’t you remember? Your motorbike? I heard the doc telling the nurses, massive brain trauma they said, no chance of survival, and sure enough you just slipped away before they could even stick a needle in you. Look that’s you over there, they drew the curtains around you when you stopped breathing.

SIMON: That’s…me? I don’t remember anything. I want to see.

MAEVE: They’re just waiting for your Ma and Da to get here and then a porter will take you to the Mortuary. You can go in and look – just pass through them curtains, that’s it.

GRANNY: Hello Simon

SIMON: Granny? But, but…

GRANNY: Come here my lovely boy, let me give you a hug. We’re just waiting for Betty and Alan so you can say good bye, I heard that red-haired nurse say they were stuck in traffic.

SIMON: Mum and Dad? But, Granny! You’re… I mean, I was at your funeral… is that really you? You’re just the same as I remember you, you even smell the same. You feel like granny. Mum and Dad, will… Will they see you?

GRANNY: It’s only spirits that can see spirits Simon. But we will all meet up again, eventually.

MAEVE: I’m away back to Molly now Simon, you’ll be fine now your gran’s come.

SIMON: Thanks Maeve, for helping me understand.  And Molly, is she…?

MAEVE: My sister, she called to us. It’s the ties that bind, you see, the blood ties. And the one true love, of course – that’s yer man there at her head. Jack. She’s missed him every day for 30 years. And he’s missed her too, and all the family. He’d have loved to have been a great grandad, there’s nine little ones now you know.

SIMON: Why are there so many of you here? I’ve just got Granny.

MAEVE: Ah sure, her passing’s not been as sudden as yours, she had a big stroke and she’s been unconscious for a month and more. And she’s a very old lady, the oldest of us. 95.  Her mind has been wandering all over the place for years. She’s even forgotten the house she lived in for 50 years. Her thoughts just go back to Ireland, and to Jack.

Ah, here’s Frances and Christine arriving at last. I need to be there, Molly will maybe be able to let go now. You can come back over and watch if you like…

SIMON: Granny? Do you mind…?

GRANNY: Away you go, I’ll just stay here and watch over you until your parents get here.

SIMON: I’m sorry, Granny, I guess you’re not supposed to die when you’re only 19.

GRANNY: Things are as they are Simon. And I have you now, it’s Betty and Alan who have lost you, who have to say goodbye to their child.

There is a murmur of voices as Vera, Audrey and Lizzie greet Christine and Frances.

LIAM: Look, she’s stirring a little, I think she can feel those kisses on her cheeks.

MAEVE: And the tears.

BRIDGET: Come to us Molly, we’re waiting for you, dear sister.

MOLLY: Bridget? But…

LIAM and MAEVE: Hello Molly.

MOLLY: Liam! Maeve! And Mam and Da! I’ve been dreaming about you all.

And Jack! My poor dear Jack!

JACK: You’ve been asleep a long time darling Molly, but now the girls have set you free, free to fly to me again. Look at them, they’re holding hands just like they did when they were children.

MOLLY: Oh Jack, have you been there this whole time? Look at poor Lizzie, she looks worn out.

JACK: She’s come here faithfully first thing every morning and sat with you all day. And Vera and Audrey have come after work and made her rest and eat. And Frances and Christine would come up from London when they could.

MOLLY: Our girls, so full of love. They’ve always made us proud. And Jack, we have grandchildren, and they have children.

JACK: I know Molly, I’ve only ever been a whisper away from you, and now you’ve come back to me.

MOLLY: Oh, but I’ve got so old, so very old!

JACK: Nothing like that matters any more my darling. And anyway, you are the same to me as that day we first met. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, in life and in death. I loved you then and I love you now and I will love you forever.

MOLLY: Oh Jack….

HeartDuo2

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End of an Era

As the 1960’s ended and the 70’s began, our family was heading towards the end of an era. By 1974 I had got married and had my first child, and over the next decade or so my sisters, one by one, would also leave home and start to make their various ways in the world. All of these transitions brought their own challenges of course. Suffice to say that in some ways Mum and Dad, and perhaps especially Dad, didn’t always find it easy to adjust to the ever changing family configurations as their six daughters ventured out into the big wide world.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Before all this re-configuring began, there were still a few years when we would all pile in to Victor the car and head off on various trips, which Dad would continue to document in that old leather album.  In 1969, we crossed the Irish Sea, and for the first time met our Irish cousins. For my Mum, it would have been 14 years since she had last visited her homeland. That first picture, of my mum and Phil her sister in law, has always made me smile as they pose in the garden complete with handbags!

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What do I remember of that visit? Very little I’m afraid. I see from the pictures that we visited Galway Cathedral and were taken by our Uncle Pat for rides in the hay wagon. My memories coincide with how my sister Mary describes it: “The family visited Mum’s home in Davros where she displayed her bike-riding skill to the astonishment of us all. On our journey home through Belfast we encountered a crowd throwing a pipe bomb and stones. We cowered in the car as Dad drove us to safety (the wrong way) up a one-way street. As we left on the ferry we spotted large graffiti letters painted on the jetty behind us saying “Paisley for Pope!” which we found very funny – I suppose because it seemed to insult both sides in equal measure – and it became a saying in our family for years afterwards.”  Trust us to choose practically the first night of the Irish troubles to finally make it over the sea to Ireland!

It was maybe a year after the Irish adventure that Mum and Dad acquired a great big tent, big enough to sleep all of us, and we became a family who took camping holidays instead of just going away for day trips. I think Glen Orchy was chosen for our first proper camping expedition, a spot beside a stream, which was our one and only concession to modern facilities. I remember my sister Ann and I being allowed to walk maybe a couple of miles up the road to the Bridge of Orchy, where there was a hotel and a shop. I’ve got a feeling we did no more than hastily buy some chewing gum before we headed back again for fear we wouldn’t get back to our camp before it started raining – I know, intrepid or what?. And we probably ended up with blisters as our footwear of choice was wellies!

After that we discovered North Ballachulish where there was an actual campsite owned by a very nice couple called Dykes. Although when I say campsite it was more a bit of extra land attached to their cottage, an informal – and relatively inexpensive – arrangement which suited us so well we went back a few years in a row. This was an ideal location for us, a mere 15 miles south of Fort William and thus within easy reach of places – and relatives – from Dad’s childhood, and indeed the place where Nellie had been the family nanny and the story of their romance began. (See post from 10 March “A Glasgow Wedding”). Both of them loved the Highlands, and passed that love on to us.

We would make visits to various of Dad’s Highland relatives and “John’s girls” would be duly lined up and coo-ed over.  One time we went on what must have been quite a major expedition to Dundee where we visited my Dad’s Aunt Ettie, Sister Mary Evangeline – she belonged to the Convent of Mercy there. The nuns seemed delighted to have us as visitors and the younger ones ran around the garden playing tag with our “wee ones”, Jane and Eleanor. I remember the nuns’ parlour with its characteristic smell of furniture polish, and all of us standing in a row entertaining said holy Sisters with our rendition of “Eidelweiss”. The nuns, being nuns, were very kind and clapped enthusiastically – or maybe they really did enjoy it. Another time we reached even further north and visited Ettie’s sister, Aunt Winnie, in Inverness.

In truth we rarely had much appreciation of who all these relatives were – I think in those days adults were not much in the habit of explaining things or introducing themselves to children, and it’s only as I look back now that I can understand just who those various aunties, uncles and assorted cousins were. In fact part of the purpose of this blog is to try and make some sense of it all.

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As you can see, at some point Dad had upgraded from the box brownie and discovered glorious technicolour! I was also lucky enough to acquire a camera of my own (a wee Kodak Instamatic as a reward for doing well in my Highers). One of the first pictures I took was this one of Mary, who had obviously just received her box brownie training! Now I come to think of it, I have very fond memories of my Dad showing us how things worked. He would take your hand in his and position your fingers in the right place, explaining all the time – Don’t shake the camera.. Make sure you stand with your back to the sun.. Press in the button gently.. He’d also tell you a whole load of stuff that you didn’t want to know – shutter speed, exposure times and so on. But, there’s something about those big gentle hands that is a deep abiding memory for me. My mum used to tell me that when I was a very little girl I’d push my hand into his and say “Hold oo wee handie”

So, to finish, here we all are, still at school, still having our pictures taken in the back green, still relatively unaware of the changes that would inexorably come upon us, and indeed upon the world. Embrace it or resist it, nothing ever stays the same for ever…

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The Enchantment of Books

IMG_1605This book is my oldest possession, it was my prize for “General Excellence” at the end of Primary 3. I have to confess I wasn’t even there for the presentation. I was mortified when an older pupil turned up at our door in Rathlin Street bearing said prize. In my head  “the holidays start tomorrow” meant we were on holiday immediately, not that we would break up after school the next day, and in fact after prizegiving – whoops!

I did manage to attend subsequent primary school prizegivings where I proudly went up and received my books in person. Actually now I come to think of it, it could be that primary school was the peak of my intellectual achievement because I never won anything at all once I went to High School! Or…nothing for academic subjects, where I would usually come second or third in the subjects I was good at. There was a prize offered for four years perfect attendance and I knew I’d be in line for it as I’d never been off in all that time. But…well, would YOU want to win a prize just for turning up? I think my sick day was entirely justified!

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Anyway, the Thousand and One Nights. I loved that book, with its exotic stories and beautiful illustrations. I read it over and over again, I read it to my sisters, to my children, and I’ll read it to my grandchildren sometime soon, now that I’ve unearthed it from the cupboard where it’s been stowed away. Flicking through the pages now, the stories and the pictures are still familiar after all these years.

Books do that, don’t they? At least some books do. Make a lasting impression, change your perspective, influence your outlook and opinions. For example, in a book called The Two Families (First Prize, Primary 5) there’s a scene where a couple of teenagers are cooking breakfast and the girl tells the boy, “Cook the bacon first in the pan, then the eggs in the bacon fat”. I do it that way to this day!

But of course I’m talking about a much more profound effect than just offering cooking tips. Some books even present us with a blueprint for our soulmate in life. Who hasn’t fallen in love with Mr Darcy, either Fitzwilliam (Pride and Prejudice) or Mark (Bridget Jones Diary)? Not to mention Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Sir Lancelot, Rhett Butler. AND, on a slightly less unattainable level, I have to confess to also having an enduring soft spot for William Brown (Just William) and J.C.T. Jennings of Jennings and Darbyshire fame. Not to mention the latter’s long-suffering schoolmaster Mr Carter, who is described as having a “shrewd understanding” of the boys in his charge, combined with a “sympathetic ear”. What’s not to love?

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It could be that the affinity with William Brown isn’t so surprising. I didn’t know it at the time, but the character of William was probably deeply embedded in my Dad’s psyche – I discovered from one of his letters to his Mama that he received William the Outlaw for his 10th birthday in 1931. I think the sort of authors Dad enjoyed also reflected his persona – adventure stories by Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean, among others. And Mum! Over the years she acquired an enormous number of books, mostly from her habit of browsing the charity shops in Byres Road – she absorbed everything that interested her and she was interested in everything!

Perhaps as a child it was partly a way of escaping a busy and crowded household, but you’d usually find me with my nose in a book whenever I had the chance. I think in some ways I was more influenced by the imaginary worlds in my head than by the real life going on around me. In fact my reading matter greatly coloured my perception of the world. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge is a case in point. I totally identified with the 12 year old Katy, eldest of 6 siblings. In fact in my head I WAS Katy; Ann, next in line, was Clover, her loyal lieutenant; and then Mary was little Elsie. Katie’s next three sibling were, I think, boys, so the roles of Grace, Jane and Eleanor were less clearly defined. Why I would model myself on a heroine from 1872 is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Katy was always trying, and failing, to be good, and so was I.

Ann has reminded me of another favourite volume: Going on a car journey was a bit of a trial for me. I sat in the front with mum because I was carsick. You used to sit in the back with your 4 other sisters, often reading Little Women. When mum asked why you were crying, sisters replied you had just read the bit where Beth died. I had forgotten that! The thing I do remember about those car trips was the singing, sometimes we would sing the whole way there. Wild Mountain Thyme, Skye Boat Song, Flower of Scotland, sung in full and with feeling.

I read voraciously: books, magazines, comics, cereal packets, the HP sauce bottle: “Cette sauce de haute qualite est un melange des fruits orientaux, d’epice et de vinaigre pur”. I kid you not, I’ve heard many people say that reading that sauce bottle was their first introduction to the French language, I rather think it was mine! There’s even a you-tube clip of the late Marty Feldman singing La Sauce HP in the style of the French crooner Charles Aznavour. I recommend it to you!

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Thursday was comic day, which would involve a trip to the newsagent’s to pick up my copies of Bunty and Judy, both of which were avidly read from cover to cover by all of us, though of course my sisters would have to wait until I was finished catching up with The Four Marys and Sandra of the Secret Ballet. I never really forgave my mother for not bringing my comic collection with us to our new home when we moved from Govan to Kersland Street in 1963, especially as I had accumulated a complete set of every single Judy from issue #1. I moaned about it for years, “I mean it’s not even as if we don’t have lots of ROOM now to keep them in”. I think I’ve just about got over it now. Later we also read the Mandy, the Beano, the Dandy, Topper, June and School Friend – anything we could get our hands on really!

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I think it was not long after we came to Kersland Street that Mum acquired a big pile of old (rather musty) books from someone in the close next door – probably they were clearing out the house after an old relative died. These books were a real treasure trove for us. I can’t really remember the titles, but I know there were lots of vintage annuals and boys school stories and were full of “ripping good yarns” which for some reason greatly appealed to me and my sisters. One of the best of them, and the one I do remember, is “Desmond Plays the Game” (1929). I don’t know what happened to it, I’d like to think it’s in the custody of one of those sisters, but I was delighted to find a copy for sale on ebay the other day, hence this picture. I’m still toying with the idea of putting in a bid…

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The public library – in fact Partick Library to be precise – featured largely in my life for a year or two at the end of primary school (St Peter’s Partick, just a few streets away). I would visit there several times a week on the way home from school or on a Saturday, dropping off the six books I had finished and picking up the next. I could read the lot in one evening! And yes, I was one of those children who would read under the covers with a torch until late at night. Having exhausted the library’s childrens’ room, I discovered that my little cardboard library card was also a passport to the adult section. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was already familiar with Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Edith Nesbit, to name but a very few. At the other end of the scale I would also seek out Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, Billy Bunter, The Chalet School and the aforementioned Just William and Jennings. And of course everything in between! I suppose this habit tailed off once I started High School and homework started to rear its head. Which reminds me – I did of course read all of my school text books from cover to cover well before term even started – Shakespeare, Chemistry, Latin, whatever….

I’ve maybe made it seem that I did absolutely nothing but read my way through my childhood, and perhaps I did inhabit this world of the imagination rather more than average. But let me assure you that I also had real life friends too, and I certainly had my sisters. Looking back now, perhaps books filled gaps which our family’s modest means couldn’t stretch to, and which I would never have dreamed of asking for. But I could always read to my heart’s content about music lessons, ballet classes, horse riding, boarding school. However my interests weren’t confined to those topics – I would be just as gripped by Science Fiction or Agatha Christie. So it seems likely that the desire to read, to be told a story, is just in my DNA, as necessary to me as food and drink – after all I had a double dose of it from those great readers, my Mum and Dad.

The enchantment cast its spell early and continues to the present day – reading, that wonderfully private and personal pleasure, is still my favourite pastime.

Sisters, sisters……

Take a good look at these six photos – notice anything?

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That’s right, we are all wearing the same First Communion dress! And of course me being the oldest (Beatrice, 1961) I got to wear it new, AND I probably got to choose it too – tough luck little sisters! I think that by the time it reached Eleanor in 1971 there had been an invisible mend or two (Mum was good at those – she had to be) and the veil seems to have totally disappeared. In fact if you look at Jane, 1970, that’s not the original veil at all. I’d love to know what happened to that hardworking outfit – maybe we could resurrect it for a new generation, these things never really go out of fashion, do they?

The other thing I notice about this array of pictures is that it not only graphically illustrates the hand-me-down nature of being a family of six girls, it also tracks the movement of our family over the years. My first communion picture was taken outside St Anthony’s Church in Govan, which was where our family lived in a tenement flat within hooter distance of Fairfields Shipyard on the Clyde. In 1963 when the frock had been passed on to Ann, we had gone up in the world and were having our pictures taken outside the front door of what became our much loved family home in the West End of Glasgow. As you can see from Mary, 1964 and Grace, 1966, having your picture taken at the front door became something of a family tradition, and carried on long after our dear Dad left us in 1981 and the life of the house carried on without him. Here are a couple of examples from my own collection, and I know that members of the family will have many more…

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It was a momentous event for us when we came to sell 8 Kersland Street in 2014. Mum had lived there for a total of 50 years,  half a century since we had migrated over the river and taken possession of what seemed to us a palatial home on two floors, not to mention a garden, compared to the room and kitchen with tin bath and loo on the landing that we were used to in Govan. I still remember the wonderful imaginative games we used to play together downstairs in the “big room”, including one where we had to traverse the room by climbing over the furniture – anyone who touched the floor was out, and many arguments ensued over whether this one or that one’s foot did or did not make contact with the floor. And we did argue, of course we did, like any family. We would split into factions – The Big Ones, The Wee Ones, The Babies… I’m afraid I used to resent terribly always being made responsible for the behaviour of my sisters and I would often lead the daily crocodile to school “hold hands with your sister” in a bad mood and would walk too fast for the wee ones, and hold their hands too tight. I hope it’s not too late to say I’m sorry.

But you know, mostly what I remember about growing up in our little corner of the West End is the feeling of closeness with my sisters, of knowing that this was our own little world that we could rely on and feel safe in. My memories of all the things we did together come in random waves – Mum taking us to the Botanic Gardens and the Art Galleries: watching Doctor Who from behind the settee: counting how many times you could run round and round the back garden; standing for hours watching our Dad tinkering with “Victor”, the car, occasionally being allowed to hand him a tool; days out at the Trossachs where we would light a fire and cook sausages for tea and spend a lot of time poking sticks in streams; going down Byres Road to Woolworths to spend our “Saturday penny”; the summer we went to Church Street Baths every day and learned to swim… I could go on and and on, and yes, all these memories are of sunny days!

One last recollection is of my “Give a Show” projector, a kind of magic lantern toy I was given for my birthday when we were still living in Govan, so I must have been 9 or younger. I used to love this toy, and would line up my sisters on top of the coal cellar cupboard we had in the hall of our tiny flat, with a sheet hanging over the front door for our screen. I’d then make them watch the entire collection of 16 slide shows, doing all the voices in fine dramatic style, everything from Cinderella to Popeye – “Avast ya swab, leggo my goil!” This of course continued once we were in Kersland Street in our more commodious auditorium (the aforementioned Big Room), the audience enhanced by the addition of Jane (who had been just a baby when we moved) and Eleanor (who arrived in a bit of a hurry the following year).

They say, don’t they, that your position in the family affects who you are. Oldest children are supposed to be smarter and more successful than their siblings. Well, I don’t know about that (I’m not), but I certainly think my leadership qualities (bossiness) and organisational skills (desire to be in control) do stem from those early days of being the oldest. This picture says it all really …

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The years – in fact the decades – pass, and our siblings gradually transform into real people, and wonderful friends who are always willing to understand and forgive you in a way no-one else can. At least mine do, and for that I am very grateful. Here we are all together celebrating Eleanor’s wedding day in 2011: not a hand-me-down in sight!

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