Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


About the Book

Title Page


1. The world upside-down

2. The girl who came to school

3. Everybody dies

4. The gangs, the Gadgies and a gun

5. The family

6. A new boyfriend

7. The big night

8. Training

9. Homes and jobs

10. Death, heroin and hookers

11. Down those streets

12. Each leaf and piece of debris

13. Redecorated

14. A biblical prophecy

15. Sweet dreams are made of this

16. Que sera sera

17. Glasgow smiles

18. ‘Janey, shut the door, eh?’

19. Trains and floats and pains

20. Ashley’s education

21. Diamonds and pearls and death

22. A scary fairground ride

23. Cleaver and Polis and pills

24. Running out of time

25. Toad Hall, London and Ocho Rio

26. The handstand

27. Welcome to the Hotel California




About the Book

Janey and her family live in the tough East End of Glasgow. Her father is hard-working but hard-drinking and her depressive mother struggles to cope. And from an early age, Janey is being sexually abused by her uncle.

When her parents separate, she has to witness her mother’s abuse by a violent new boyfriend. Then, when still a teenager, Janey marries the son of a notorious gangster and is suddenly immersed in a dangerous and insular Glasgow underworld.

This is the true story of one girl’s everyday fight for her family’s future that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever struggled against adversity.

To the strong women in my family

To my Mammy Annie for giving me laughter, to my stepmum Mamie for giving me patience, to my sister Ann for showing me courage, to my niece Ann Margaret for letting me listen, and to my beloved daughter Ashley for giving me a reason to stay alive

Certain names have been changed to prevent identification of the innocent or, in some cases, the guilty.

The facts are all true.

The world upside-down

hear my Mammy’s voice, singing.

My palms were sore from small hard biscuit crumbs on our kitchen floor digging into the skin, but my legs still leaned against the wall. I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside-down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling. The ceiling was marked with grease and smoke stains. The washing hanging from the ceiling pulley looked like ghosts were wearing the clothes. Woolly hand-knitted jumpers stood straight up with their arms outstretched, but they had no hands or heads. Maybe my secrets and sore bits would disappear if I were to stay like this. My big sister Ann pinched me on the knee:

‘Janey turn the right way up, eh?’

‘Not yet.’

Sometimes I would only talk upside-down. Sometimes I would talk in a code only I knew. Sometimes out in the street I would kneel down and scoop water from puddles with my hands coz I was thirsty but too scared to go home and face what was there.

* * *

My first memory is being about four or five years old and standing inside our small first-floor flat in the East End of Glasgow laughing. I was the only one laughing. Everyone around me was crying. Our first dog was being taken away to be killed by the vet. I was laughing with happiness because I had an ice cream. No one ever bothered to ask why I laughed at strange times. I had two elder brothers, Mij and Vid, and one elder sister, Ann. I was the youngest, so I was allowed to be daft. When I was about seven years old, I laughed when I realised the words
real fun
are an anagram of

The six of us lived in a small two-bedroom flat at the corner of Kenmore Street on the middle level of a three-storey, grey-stone building in the heart of an industrial area called Shettleston, whose only claim to fame was that it was the least healthy place to live in the whole of Scotland – an average man’s life expectancy was ten years less if he was born and remained in Shettleston. The area was a mixture of big brown tenements and grey stone buildings, all mostly engrained with a layer of black soot at that time, the 1960s.

My mother Annie Currie was a world-famous actress, singer and dancer in Hollywood movies – but only in her fantasies. She would sometimes clear back the furniture in our cramped wee flat so she could sing and dance and be Judy Garland for at least one afternoon.

Or, on rainy Sunday afternoons in front of her favourite movie on our old black and white television set, she would stop being my Mammy who collected fag coupons and black eyes and become Ginger Rogers, the dancing sweetheart of the movies.

My father Jim Currie was a hard-working man. In 1960s Glasgow, if you had no money, your options were either a job in the steel works or in one of the big shipyards on the River Clyde. My Dad’s family had had high hopes for his future because he had been educated past the age of fifteen – very unusual – and he had later paid to go to night school. He did well, got himself a job in the local steel foundry and, because of his extra education, worked not in the big forge itself but in the laboratories. As far as his family were concerned, though, his downfall was meeting my Mammy, getting her pregnant then marrying her in haste. His family disliked my Mammy’s lies, her fantasy world and her inability to keep house. My Dad’s family were hard-working, clean people who looked after their kids. My Mammy’s family wasn’t.

In our home there was a constant damp, dirty smell which rose from the grubby, swirly yellow lino on our floors. Like everywhere at that time, we had one coal fire in the living room with a back boiler in the kitchen. Our two unheated bedrooms were freezing cold in the Scottish autumns, winters and springs. The small, square living room had a large, framed print of a flock of pink flamingos hanging always lopsided on the flowery wallpaper over our open coal fire and I used to wonder where exotic birds like that really lived.

My sister Ann, my brothers Mij (my father’s name Jim spelt backwards) and Vid (short for David) and I had almost constant infestations of fleas and head lice. I would sit quietly sometimes and catch the fleas as they leapt off my legs, then throw them onto the open fire and listen for the sound of their bodies cracking in the heat. Mammy would laugh when I did this; Dad would look away.

My parents were almost complete opposites. Dad was a well-read man who enjoyed politics and debating the current issues of the day with anyone, including us children.

‘This is the Prime Minister,’ he’d tell us. ‘And this is the shite he’s doing with this country,’ and we’d all get bored because we were only children. When he debated politics with some of his friends, I would interrupt with lots of questions because I didn’t know some of the long words they used.

‘What was that word, Dad? What does

‘It means they’re bastards,’ he explained to me when I was four.

‘That’s no’ what it means, Dad! What does it mean?’

‘It’s a government,’ he explained, ‘that believes in giving money to rich people. They don’t help the working classes. The other people are called the Labour Party. But they’re all bastards too. Naebody will look after you, Janey. Naebody.’

It was quite tense with him in the flat sometimes, because he did have a bit of a temper. He was a hard-working man and he would come back in the evening, tired, to four lively kids and lots of financial worries. Television was still a luxury at that time but we always had a black and white TV because my Dad could repair old sets.

‘Right! The News is on!’ he would shout. ‘Everybody shut up! I wanna to watch the News on TV!’

He hated the News being interrupted. My Mammy was a lot easier-going and she was always whispering to us:

‘Wheesht! Watch yer Da. Don’t say that to yer Da…’

She told us we had to keep all sorts of secrets from our Dad.

‘Don’t tell him they found nits in yer heed at school … Don’t tell him ye got sent hame from school coz yer shoes had burst.’

I asked her once why we all had to keep so many secrets.

‘Shut up, Janey,’ was her answer.

She involved us kids in her double life. We became frightened that, if we gave away one of Mammy’s secrets, our Dad would take it out on her. I never saw her being beaten, but I remember once she had a black eye and Dad was holding her in his arms, saying:

‘I’m really sorry, Annie. I’m really sorry.’

She was a slim woman with dark brown hair, piercing brown eyes, smooth sallow skin, an ability to laugh at any situation and she was completely irresponsible. She fascinated me because all her little movements were so quick, running around looking after four kids and a husband. I used to watch her and think she was like a colourful, swirling spinning top. As her youngest child, I spent hours with her after the others had gone to school and it was good to get her alone, sitting still, and just stare at her. I used to gaze at her as she sat quietly brushing her dark hair by the bedroom window, chain-smoking cigarettes – she smoked about 50 a day – watching the world pass her by.

I loved those times we would sit together at that window and watch the late summer sun set over the skyline of Glasgow: those two giant gas tanks to the left of the five tall cellblock ends and distinctive chimney pots of Barlinnie High Security Prison and all the prefabs and grey, roughcast, two-storey council houses of the High Carntyne. My Mammy would stand all her cigarette butts on end in a circle like Stonehenge and I would look at her face and wonder what she was thinking about and why everything had to be so complicated and often I would make her tell me stories of her own childhood. She had a great memory and could entertain me for hours with tales of her happy times as a teenager during the Second World War. Somehow I could never imagine my slim, funny, harassed Glasgow Mammy ever being a teenager. She told me she had been a fantastic sportswoman, a swimmer and a hockey champion.

Her main local haunt now was the pawnshop. This service was vital in any inner city community of the time; it was a form of credit and the only way locals who owned nothing really valuable could get cash. I used to go with her and loved the smell of varnish and the shiny, waxed, old-fashioned look of the three or four wooden booths which were built so your neighbours couldn’t see you pawning your family’s possessions. My Mammy would lift me up to sit on the oak-wood counter and the wee Jewish pawnbroker behind the half-bars on the window would always be wearing a clean black suit, smart white shirt and dark tie and he would always crack the same joke:

‘So you want to know how much money I will pay for Janey, eh?’

Every Monday, my Mammy would hand over a box tied with string, saying it contained ‘my husband’s best leather shoes’. The wee pawnbroker knew the routine and would hand over to her a £1 note. Every Friday, when my Dad got his wages, she would pay the money back to the pawnbroker and take the box home. He never found out the box actually contained a small brick wrapped with paper.

My Mammy loved my Dad and, to my mind, kept him going with her funny ways. He was a gifted artist and encouraged me to paint and draw. He would sit and draw cartoons of us children and we would scream at him when he sketched us sitting on a toilet pan; he loved to wind us up by drawing us in silly clothes or strange situations. But, like many Scotsmen of his generation, he had a problem. Alcohol. Almost everyone in his family had a drink problem. When I was growing up it seemed most people I knew had an alcoholic in their family. At weekends, the local pubs were bursting at the seams with heavy drinkers.

Our local pub The Waverley was at the bottom of Kenmore Street with a steep uphill climb back to our building, something difficult and precarious for a jiggy-legged drunk to manage. On Friday and Saturday nights, all the kids in our street would hang out of their upstairs windows to watch their staggering, swaying dads and/or mums meandering home. The dim white streetlights would mark out the course of this strange ritual race and we used to make pretend-bets on whose dad or mum could make it up the slope without falling down once or holding on to one of the lamp-posts. I was proud of my Dad coz most times he would succeed in one big long drunken stumbling run. It was only rarely that his legs buckled and he fell down. Normally he would reach our corner building safely and we would hear him singing one of his favourite Frank Sinatra songs – usually ‘My Way’ – as his feet thumped up the stone steps to the building’s outside door then
up the echoing concrete steps of the stairwell inside to reach our first-floor flat. Sometimes he would stagger in still wobbling about and – missing all his usual targets: dog, budgie and kids – collapse onto the only thing I truly loved – the television set. I would watch in horror as it fell with a thud onto the floor then blinked to blackness and I was absolutely terrified it might explode. I had visions of it blowing up like I’d seen on TV in some cartoon – like an atom bomb going off.

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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