Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival (10 page)

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
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In time, the whole family just grew to accept Peter as part of Mammy’s life. I still fantasised that Dad would come home and sort out the whole sorry, shitty mess, but he never did. I tried my best to just keep my head down. I was still working hard during the day and going to college two nights a week to get my qualifications.

* * *

In September that year, I accidentally met a boy called Barra outside the Palaceum Bar in Shettleston. He was a blond guy who had lived in my street ever since I was a small child; he and his six blond Catholic brothers had played with little blonde Sandra and her
Children of the Damned
brothers. Barra’s brothers all had odd nicknames like Snider, Bug and Jason and they had a really bad reputation locally. I knew Barra had been in trouble with the police and had been put into a St John’s boys’ home for shoplifting and house-breaking with his brothers. His two oldest brothers were serving life sentences for armed robbery; another was on the run from the police for armed robbery.

Barra was not really a talker and was, in fact, rather shy. But, after he and I had walked around for a while that first night, with me doing most of the talking, he asked, ‘Can I kiss you?’

I was taken aback because I hadn’t realised it was a romantic walk. ‘Fine,’ I told him.

We became a couple. Teenagers in Shettleston could not afford to go on dates: they just walked up and down the streets talking. After work, I would meet him at the bus stop and we would spend the early evening walking around the streets with me doing the talking and hanging around the back of the local creamery with his friends who were always older; then he would spend the rest of his night getting very drunk without me while I hung out with my girl pals in the local Italian café. He looked older than his 15 years and could go into bars and get served. We had absolutely nothing in common: I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke and I was relieved to find he never once tried any sexual advances on me. He was actually nothing like his ‘hard’ reputation although, one night when I was with him, he got into an argument with a local fantasist called ‘Puppet’ McGill who, like my brother Mij, was convinced he was the pop singer Bryan Ferry. Barra stabbed ‘Puppet’ in the neck with a knitting needle. I ran away. I never asked why he was carrying a knitting needle. The police were never called; violence was commonplace.

Another night, as normal, Barra went off to drink with his male mates while I went to see my girl pals in the local Italian café and listen to the jukebox. Later, Barra mentioned he had got involved in a fight with an older man and the following Saturday a policeman arrived at my home to question me. He said Barra had beaten someone up badly. He tried to get me to confess to being a witness to the assault. I refused. I had not been there. After that, every time the same policeman saw me in the street, he charged me with loitering or breach of the peace. I was taken to court seven times, found guilty and fined every time except the last.

On that occasion, I had again been charged with loitering. I explained to the magistrate: ‘I was standing on the pavement, at traffic lights, waiting for the green man to light up.’

‘Are you calling the police liars?’

‘Yes, I am. I’ve never done anything wrong. I don’t smoke; I don’t drink; I work as a social carer in Castlemilk and I got arrested for waiting to cross the road. If I’d run across the road when the red man was lit, I’d have got done for jaywalking. That Polisman picks on me and he keeps arresting me. If you look, you’ll see all the past charges are from him.’

The magistrate looked at the policeman, said, ‘I don’t understand this,’ and dismissed the case.

Barra said he felt awful about it and knew he had caused me grief. When we were together, he was kind and polite and shy. With me, I felt he became the child he never got to be in front of the gang he hung around with. We always talked about my future, never his. He would tell me that I could be a really good artist and encouraged me to keep going to college. He often spoke about how we never had anything in common, but said he would miss me if I left him. He never tried to get me to drink alcohol and would shout down anyone who used peer pressure to wear me down. I did enjoy being with him. One night, as we sat huddled together in a cold hallway and the snow was deep on the ground and sensible folk were heading for home, he held my face, kissed me gently and told me: ‘I really, really love you, Janey, and I want us to get engaged.’

I was 16 years old and he was 15. I looked at him in complete horror.

‘No,’ I told him. ‘I don’t ever want to be an East End wife sitting in Easterhouse or Shettleston havin’ your weans and wondering how I’m going to afford to redecorate the hoose some day.’

He was crushed.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ he asked. ‘What’s wrong with getting married and havin’ weans and staying in Shettleston?’

But all I could see was my sister Ann, pregnant at 18, standing in our hall with her new husband, Jay, then being trapped by a baby. I did not want that – ever. I wanted something more. I wanted to see the world.

Barra and I continued the relationship. I had already met his parents and they were not much different from my own: two people in Glasgow trying to do the best they could. His mammy had actually told me to get rid of Barra as she liked me and did not want me to end up like her, stuck in a violent family always visiting one son or another in prison.

That New Year, after we had been together around four or five months, as we were stepping off a bus, Barra suddenly told me: ‘I’m no’ goin’ oot with ye any mare,’ and walked away. I never asked him why he dumped me, but I later found out that he had started seeing another tiny local girl – Lizzy. She and her pal Lauren were OK, but sometimes Lauren would bully me a bit and I was really scared of her. She threatened to beat me up once. It was the beginning of bad blood between us.

* * *

A few months before this, I had met my new best pal Maggie. She came from a big family in Shettleston. Her brother was already my brother Vid’s pal. Maggie had been in care for some reason which she never explained but, by the time I met her, she was free and unemployed. We became good pals so it seemed natural that she moved into our already overcrowded home. Mammy, Maggie and I all slept in the same room. Just after splitting with Barra, I had stopped the community work, so we were all claiming Unemployment Benefit and all just about scraping by.

Maggie smoked a lot but never actually said much – I was the opposite – but I loved her strange sense of humour; she was very dry and sarcastic but simultaneously very childlike and, because I was one year older, I always felt very responsible for her. She always looked vulnerable – like a victim – with big brown puppy-dog eyes and perhaps I was trying to mother her. She had been through her own shit in life but strangely neither of us discussed our past problems. She did not know I had been sexually abused, but what she
appalled at were our washing facilities and so we both shared regular trips to the local ‘Steamie’ – an old Victorian washhouse much like a launderette which was housed in Shettleston Public Baths. While our washing was being done in the Steamie, we would buy a ticket to have a hot bath ourselves. It was great just to sink into it and get the smell of the city off your skin, even if it was for just one day.

The next year, I decided to leave Glasgow.

* * *

One sunny May morning, Maggie and I packed the few clothes and belongings we had into one suitcase and headed for Glasgow Central Station. We caught a train to Redcar, the small town on the North Yorkshire coast near Middlesbrough where my brother Mij had lived for a short period, as had Aunt Rita and her husband and even my Dad. We had hope but no jobs, no accommodation and no cash except what was in our pockets. It terrified me, but not enough to stop me getting on the three different trains which took about six hours to take us to Redcar’s old Victorian station. When we emerged, Maggie and I just stood and looked around. Lack of forward planning seemed suddenly to loom large as a major problem for us. The only person I knew in Redcar was a woman I had met with my Mammy five years before.

‘Can you remember how to get there?’ Maggie asked me.


So Maggie and I walked through the streets of Redcar and, when we arrived, just stood looking for a few minutes at the rubble. The whole area had been torn down.

We counted the cash in our pockets, walked down to the seafront and approached the first of many guest-houses that lined the promenade. A fat woman with curly blonde hair opened the door and stared at us both suspiciously as I explained that we had left Glasgow and had nowhere to stay.

‘I’m 17, she’s 16,’ I said. ‘How much is it?’

We were shown to a small room at the top of the stairs: all brown wallpaper and old Victorian furniture. Maggie and I both sat on our foamy single beds with the sound of howling seagulls almost drowning out our words.

‘Where do you think we’ll get a job?’

‘D’ye think this place’ll be all right?’

anybody here any more?’


We decided to take a look around town before it got too dark. We visited the seafront, the rock shop, the café and the amusement parade then realised we had seen almost everything. Redcar was more run down than I remembered. We strode along the main street, spent the last of our cash on a bag of hot chips, headed for our new home, then talked into the night about how we would try and get some work here. Despite the fear, we both looked forward to the challenge. Eventually, Maggie slept. I lay awake there in the dark feeling absolute fear take over me. I was 17. But I was still a child. I lay awake and thought:
How can we manage tomorrow without any money? How did my Mammy ever sleep in her life when she was faced with all these problems?
I had never before been anywhere without my family. I thought:
What on earth am I doing here?

* * *

I awoke the next morning, looked round and sat up completely confused as to where I was. I looked across at Maggie and the enormity of the whole situation came crashing down on me. But I took a chance and asked Bessie, the owner of the B&B: ‘If we go and register at the Social Security will you let us stay here and give this address to claim benefit from? You’ll have regular payments – the Government is a more secure source of income than a job.’

The DHSS gave us £17.50 each a week; the room cost us £15 each a week. That left us with £2.50 each to feed us, launder clothes and live on. Bessie was an overworked nurse in nearby Guisborough, so we offered her our services as B&B chambermaids. Every day we got up, ate all the breakfast, cleaned all the rooms, hoovered all the carpets and washed all the dishes. She paid us each £2.50 a week. It was better than nothing, but we had to buy food every day for our evening meals and this, with other daily expenses, left us really living on the edge of poverty. Bessie’s husband Des was a kind, hard-working builder who felt really sorry for us. He knew that, for three days a week, we starved all daytime and evening until breakfast time came round again and we could eat. So, every evening when he came home and before Bessie arrived, he brought us in a huge pot of tea and a plate of biscuits. Maggie and I would wolf them down. I tried to ask Bessie for more wages but she would not bend.

‘You do seven days’ work for £5 between you each week. Take it or leave it.’

Bessie was a big wobbly-jelly person who had double chins which juddered when she spoke. She was certainly not unkind; she just liked a bargain. She knew we were desperate to stay and exploited that knowledge. At the height of the summer season, she shifted us into a wee caravan in the backyard, but we still had to pay her the full money. Our caravan had no gas and she told us we had to buy our own; she understood our financial set-up and realised there was no way we could buy gas, but still left us in a damp caravan with no light or heating. We were so young, so overwhelmed by our elders and so desperate that we never argued.

We must have made an odd couple: Janey with the chatty mouth and Maggie the silent smoker. She hardly spoke two words to anyone except me and would sometimes only speak to other people through me. Our only belongings were the cassette player Dad had given me and our treasured wee transistor radio. We listened diligently every Sunday afternoon to the chart show on BBC Radio 1 and could not believe how long Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta were at Number One in the charts with ‘Summer Nights’, the song from the film
. Every night, we would hang out at the beach or go to the café and play one song –usually ELO – on the tabletop jukeboxes. It was good to feel like a real teenager for a change. Life in Redcar had turned out to be not so bad; I even noticed that the local college ran a free art course in the evening, so I enrolled for that. Maggie – who could not draw to save her life – came along too because she did not want to be left alone. I used her as my model and, when she was forced to take part, I would paint her contribution as well as mine to keep her happy.

I called Mammy a few times at her local pub (we had no phone at home) and she sometimes wrote to me; the rest of the news from Shettleston was passed on to me through the monthly phone call from my sister Ann. I was also given the address of some people from Shettleston who knew us and who now lived in Redcar. Maggie and I went to visit them a few times; they had met all of my family at one time or another; I didn’t feel quite so isolated then. But Maggie never received any news from home: no letters, not even a phone call to our guest-house.

I loved the B&B and, despite her shortcomings, I did like Bessie. She even took me with her on a three-day trip to Blackpool; basically, I was there to keep her company. We shared a wee room on the seafront and went shopping together. I only had about £3 to spend, but she kept me fed. I went on a few rides at the Pleasure Beach which I enjoyed, but when I turned a corner and saw a mechanical laughing clown I was terrified and even the fairground game where you throw balls into a clown’s mouth frightened me. That night, Bessie took me to a dinner dance at the Winter Gardens and she introduced me to a tall man.

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
9.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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