Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival (9 page)

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘Fuck me, it’s the Pope!’ we’d say. ‘Aha! He’s gone! We’ll dance again!’

The one good thing about having Charlie in our house was that he brought along his Philips stereo record player and I was in awe of his music collection. The Stylistics, Abba, all the best new disco hits and LPs by cutting-edge Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly.
I’d think,
He can tell a story that isn’t funny but the way he tells it makes it funny!
I would rush back from school before Charlie got home from his work as an apprentice electrician and play the vinyl records on his big rubber-matted turntable through his big loudspeakers. Mammy would shout at me:

‘Don’t touch that boy’s fucking records! It’s the only thing he’s got, the big stupid Catholic!’

But Charlie was OK about it and, in fact, liked to discuss music with me. Sometimes he would even let me go with him to buy his weekly record at the music shop; I was in heaven and felt I had found my vocation in life: I wanted to be a disc jockey! I would have my own record collection and play at all the best discos in Glasgow! But Mammy told me: ‘You’ll never make any fucking money playing records.’

So I went to my school’s career teacher for advice. This gloomy old man in a tweed jacket which smelled of musty pencil-shavings sat opposite me in a poky, mushroom-coloured office. His worn-out face asked me what I wanted to be. I came up with my favourite dream jobs. He put aside his books, opened up an old red card index box, flicked through to my chosen careers and, with a straight face, replied:

‘Disc jockeying, psychic reading and stand-up comedy do not constitute a career in Glasgow, but you can be a secretary or a sewing machinist.’

Rather disappointed, I went back to studying food, nutrition and history. I was doing well at my Standard Grade studies and looking forward to taking my exams, but the start of my January term was a bad time for Mammy. She always had no cash but this time was worse. I had no shoes at all to wear to start school and, on Thursday, 20 January 1977 – the morning of my sixteenth birthday – I went into the school office in my Mammy’s plastic sandals and said, ‘I’m 16 now. I’m leaving school.’

‘You can’t,’ they said.

‘Yes I can,’ I told them.

‘But you’re taking six Standard Grades,’ they said and got my art teacher to come and talk to me.

‘Janey, don’t leave. Stay on and get your art exam, then do your art Highers and go on to art school. You’ve always wanted to go to art school.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I need money. I have to leave.’

My maths teacher tried to persuade me, then my food and nutrition teacher – a wonderful woman, Mrs Jackson – begged me, ‘Please stay. Everybody else in the class is going to fail these fucking exams. You’re the only person who’s going to pass this exam. I’m gonna look like a fanny. Stay and at least pass the exams so I don’t lose my job.’

‘I’m sorry – I’m leaving,’ I told her.

‘Oh fuck!’ she said.

I liked her.

It was a quick, impulsive decision. I regretted it the next day but felt I couldn’t go back. I still had no shoes, only my Mammy’s plastic sandals. At the end of the week, I got hold of a pair of desert boots and that settled things. You couldn’t wear trousers to school – only a skirt – and you couldn’t wear desert boots with a skirt.

Nobody in my family had ever stayed on at school and gone to university. So I (and they) figured it couldn’t be that important, though my Dad had gone to night school. I had imagined that getting a job would be better and easier than staying at school, but I found it was easier said than done for an unqualified teenager who did not have any idea what form of employment she could – or wanted to – do. I heard about something called ‘Community Industry’ where kids who came from abusive backgrounds or had learning difficulties got to work in the community. I came into the first category, although the authorities were unaware of this. It was, at heart, a community project for daft people with no hope.

When I went for the interview, I told them: ‘My Mammy and Dad have split up and I’ve got nae education but I want tae help people.’

As I was a good talker, good with people and looked very shabby, I was accepted for the work and got sent to Castlemilk, a sprawling housing scheme on the outskirts of Glasgow. I was one of a group of 15 girls who, each day, were sent with two supervisors to work either in an old folks’ home or in a children’s nursery. Some of the other 14 girls had been put into children’s homes when young, were still in homes, had got pregnant very young, been abandoned by their families and/or had really serious learning difficulties. Two of them had had children by their own fathers. They treated me like an equal and I loved that feeling; nobody looked down on me for not having the right clothes or for wearing unsuitable shoes. I particularly loved working at the old people’s home. One old man told me about the days when he used to deliver milk around the cobbled streets of Glasgow with a horse and cart, keeping the milk cold with blocks of ice and with pre-arranged places to water the horse. The most consistent advice they all gave was
Live your life to the full, because you get old really quickly – and always make good friends because sometime later you will need them to look after you when you’re old

Every morning, I would get up quickly and happily rush out to get the bus to go to work. It was the first time I had had my own money and I made the best I could of dressing myself and helping Mammy out financially. I was finally beginning to feel grown up and making my own cash gave me some independence. Like my Dad before me, I soon decided to go to night school and pay to finish the education I had given up. Twice a week I travelled to Cardonald College on the other end of the bus route from Shettleston to study for my art and English Standard Grades.

At home, only Charlie and I had jobs and the house was even more overcrowded, as Charlie’s girlfriend sometimes stayed overnight. Mij had been sacked by the Royal Infirmary and we would spend our evenings listening to tales of his adventurous fantasy life. It was a couple of years after the film
had been released and Mij tried to convince us he had once fought off a shark at the beach in Largs, Ayrshire.

‘The shark died,’ he told us, ‘and I buried its body outside the County Bingo Hall at Castlemilk.’

He told us he had also tamed a wild lion from Glasgow Zoo.

‘It became my friend and I disguised it as a big dog and kept it on a leash.’

Mammy called him Walter Mitty after the movie character. At one point Mij convinced himself that he was the pop idol Bryan Ferry.

I was also starting to worry about myself as I still had neither breasts nor periods and I knew that I should be developing, but I kept all this to myself as no one in the family ever discussed sex or periods. Mammy and I grew apart a lot that year; she was no longer financially responsible for me and neither was Dad, so some of the pressure was off them now. My way of giving Mammy some help was to keep out of trouble, not cost much and try to be less of a burden all round. I made no big demands, had no big expectations and I was not moody.

My favourite day of 1977 was one morning when Mammy and I got up early and found a cheque in the post from the Welfare. She whispered to me in the kitchen that we’d have a day out. Just us both! I ran to the public phone box and called work to say I was sick, then Mammy and I cashed her cheque and caught an early train.

When we got off at Saltcoats, it was a beautiful, sunny, clear, seaside day that welcomed us. We giggled as we ran like two teenagers down to the shoreline and paddled in the cold grey water of the Firth of Clyde under a hot sun and cloudless blue sky. We ate breakfast in a beachside café then headed for the funfair in the afternoon, playing bingo and eating chips. She then talked me into going on a big wheel for the first time in my life. I was so scared as I soared
into the sky that I screamed and laughed at the same time, looking down at the now tiny figure of my Mammy as she waved and laughed up at me. When I staggered off the wheel, she held me close, laughing loudly, ‘Never be scared of anything, Janey!’

I wanted to believe her and wanted to tell her I thought the abuse was over now. But I couldn’t. She held my face close and smiled, telling me it was time to sit on the beach; she bought a can of beer to drink.

‘Why d’ye have to drink just now?’ I sulked.

She smiled and said nothing.

We both sat in silence as the summer sun soared above us and almost burned us to the bone. We watched the sea lap up to the shoreline as we lay back on our coats thinking about everything. The day had been one big adventure but then it was over and we both knew it was time to catch the train back to the place where we had to be ‘us’ again. I had savoured the whole day as if I knew I was never again to have that precious time with her.

A new boyfriend

year that changed both our lives. I grew up and my Mammy got a new boyfriend.

His name was Peter Greenshields. I really did not want to meet him. Nor did the rest of the family. She and Dad had been separated for at least four years, although they still got back together most weekends when he arrived back at our home drunk. It was hard for me to imagine that Mammy was sexually active or to cope with the knowledge that she might want a man other than my Dad.

When I met Peter, he was a neatly dressed but slightly creepy man, only about five foot six inches tall, thin and wiry, with thick, dark wavy hair and cold blue eyes. I thought he had a very lined face for a man who was only about 37 – my Mammy was 40. Peter explained to me that he was just out of prison but avoided telling me why and answered with a blank cold look when I probed. There was something sneaky and unsettling about him and I tried hard to be nice to him for Mammy’s sake but I disliked him on sight. He used to set a small wire noose outside his back window to trap pigeons and then he cut their throats with a Bowie knife and ate them. Mammy could see no wrong in Peter at all. She and I were walking with him in Tollcross Park one day when he saw a swan swimming on the pond, jumped into the water, grabbed it and strangled it.

‘I hate swans,’ was all he said by way of explanation. The white bird’s fat body lay by the side of the pond, with its long slender neck flopped around like someone had deflated it.

Mammy told me he had lived with some woman who was really bad to him and had taken away his young son when he was in prison; she told me he was a nice wee man who had just fallen on hard times and she really warmed to what I saw as his odd personality. They didn’t actually live together – for one thing, there was no space in our house – but, soon after they met, he moved into a ground-floor flat directly across the street from us. His window looked straight up at ours and I felt as if his eyes were on us at all times.

Mammy would walk across Kenmore Street and watch television with him in his flat, which had wooden floor-boards immaculately bleached clean. His home was very sparsely furnished. Characterless. A couch. Two chairs. A table. They smoked cigarettes together, but his flat always smelled of carbolic soap and Old Spice under-arm deodorant. I never really liked being there, but Mammy sometimes insisted that I join them for a cup of tea and a Fray Bentos meat pie. Occasionally he would try to make friends with me. On one occasion, because he knew I liked reading, he gave me a dog-eared, second-hand copy of James Herbert’s horror novel
The Rats

‘Thank you,’ I said.

Mammy was always very guarded in her conversation about Dad in front of Peter. I wasn’t and would eagerly chat about him while Mammy gave me cold stares. Peter would glare at me for talking about Dad and then suggest Mammy went home and take me with her.

She had bruises from the start of the relationship. Peter didn’t just hit her. One day, she was acting really scared, pacing up and down, clenching and unclenching her fists, very agitated, finally bursting into tears. I looked down past her, through our first-floor window and saw Peter across the street, standing in his ground-floor flat just glaring up at our window. I looked in my Mammy’s eyes and saw her fear. I opened the window and shouted down across the street, ‘What’s your problem? What the fuck’s your problem?’

Peter walked away from his window and my Mammy grabbed me.

‘Don’t upset him!’

‘Why, Mammy? What’s he gonna do?’

One night at his flat, in an argument after he shouted at Mammy when he was drunk, I smashed a large china bowl with a floral pattern onto the top of his head. It shattered over his skull and I pulled him down by his neck to the floor. While he remained stunned, Mammy and I scarpered out of his flat and across the dark street to our building. She was hysterical with fear; I explained the whole thing to my brother Vid and to Charlie; they took one look at Mammy’s face and tried to reassure her that Peter could not get to her – he had no key to our flat. But she was inconsolable and sat petrified in her bedroom, looking over at his window, a big kitchen knife in her hand, waiting for the madman to arrive. About half an hour later, he did come running to our door, banging on it, shouting:

‘Annie! Come oot! I’m no’ leavin’ – come oot, Annie!’

Charlie and Vid opened the door and chased him down the stairs. Peter was beaten, but only for the moment. The whole charade continued with Mammy feeling alternately sorry or scared and then taking Peter back into her heart. We all grew weary of her acceptance of his behaviour. She would always stick up for him.

‘He’s no’ that bad, Janey. It’s me. I make him mental.’

All the time, I thought to myself:
What is wrong with women who think they can ‘change’ a bad man into something good? I never want to be like that
. All the time, Mammy made excuses. She had ignored her own brother’s sexual abuse of me; she had made excuses when her own son Mij beat her – which he still did; and now here she was making excuses for Peter – a man who could only hurt her more and more. I thought:
How low can her self-esteem be?
My nightmares had started to include Peter. He was trying to trap me in a box, trying to suffocate me.

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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