A Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Woman
Ally bally, ally bally bee,
sittin on yer mammy’s knee,
greetin for a wee bawbee,
tae buy some coulter’s candy
– ‘Coulter’s Candy’, Traditional Scots Song
What does father look like? I haven’t seen him for a long time, but I know he has blue eyes like me. My eyes are Mum’s favourite but I wish I had Margot’s wriggly yellow hair, she gives me the tightest cuddles in bed but I’m still jealous. I’m really sleepy today; Peter’s being an awful pest rifting and tickling all night long keeping us all awake. I love him because he’s my brother but today I don’t like him at all, he’s so naughty.
I really don’t like it when the planes come. They don’t come much but it’s so noisy and always when I’m sleeping. Peter told me a story about two planes chasing another one and making it fall out of the sky but I think he’s telling porkies because he says he played on the plane in town beside where we get off the tram to go to the shops and I’ve never even seen it. Mum says it’s the planes’ fault that we have small dinners, but it’s okay because my father who has blue eyes like me is going to beat them and soon we’ll have sweet tea.
Sometimes if dinner is really little I go to the bottom of the garden at night and dig in the pig bin for pea pods but Maureen always tells on me and I get a row. Maureen never gets a row, she’s so clever and has yellow hair too but it’s not as wiggly as Margot’s.
* * * * * *
It’s a really sunny day today and the roses around my window are pink. It was my birthday last week and even though we had wobbly green jelly I’m more excited for today. Today my father comes home and I’m going to keep him safe forever. I don’t mind if the Jerrymans are sad as long as we can keep him. All week the neighbours have been coming to the house making plans, giving us eggs, jam and sugar but I don’t know where my mum has been putting it because I’ve looked everywhere for a piece of jam and bread.
Because it’s sunny the whole street are going to have dinner outside together. It’s funny because the people are all a big mix, like the chairs everybody has brought from their houses. Big fat Mrs Thomson was wearing a flowery dress and the biggest brooch I have ever seen that sparkled in the sun. She matched the jellies on table when she laughed and wobbled and the sun bounced off the rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Mrs King is like my second mum, she doesn’t have any little girls or boys of her own. She tells me “Now Annie, when you see your Daddy you have to give him a big cuddle and you mustn’t be shy. He’s a hero.” I don’t really know what a hero is but Peter tells me that my father is a hero because he’s killed hundreds of Jerryman soldiers, but I think he’s lying because my father would never do that. I’ve never tasted lemonade before but boring Mr and Mrs Hunter give me some.
My mum is really excited today too she doesn’t look like a cleaning lady anymore, she looks like a dressed up doll in a smart new dress and red beads. A tall handsome man walks round the corner and everyone cheers. I don’t really recognise him but then I see he has big blue eyes like mine and hair as black as coal, the same as me. It’s my father, the hero, I’m excited but shy. As he picks me up and cuddles me tighter than I’ve ever been cuddled everything about him feels rough. He’s a jaggy man, with a jaggy beard, wearing a jaggy soldier’s jacket that has huge brass buttons that dig into my face when he cuddles me. I don’t know why but my father is crying. I didn’t think soldiers could cry. He’s not a soldier anymore though, he’s my Daddy, and our family is complete again.
* * * * * *
O, my luve is like a red red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O, my luve is like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
– ‘A Red, Red Rose’, Robert Burns
I’ve met someone really fantastic, I can’t believe I’ve met the man I’ll grow old with at the tender age of seventeen. I’ve not even been out of school two years and I can feel my life coming together. My mother would probably say I was mad, I know my father definitely would. It’s funny we’ve always lived near each other but never actually came across each other until secondary school where I was never really Elizabeth Anne Gorman, more often than not I was Margot Gorman’s sister. However Willie Vidler was unique, he was the only boy in the school not to fall for Margot’s flowing curly blonde locks and athletic figure.
I’m sure we’ll marry, not quite yet it’s only been three days, but we will one day. Because my father won’t stand for us courting in the house every moment is precious. At lunchtimes we meet up in the arcade on North Bridge for all of a brief fifteen minutes, we take the bus home together and sitting on the back seat of the bus snatch a kiss, I imagine one of the first of many millions through our life together.
* * * * * *
I really can’t be bothered with tonight’s literature class, despite the fact that further qualifications will help me to be more than a secretary or a typist, tonight I want to be young and live my life. Since it’s a Tuesday I know Willie will be in and we can go for a run in the car and go dancing. A quick jaunt east and we were at ‘The Palais de Dance’ in Fountainbridge, this is absolutely the place to be seen in Edinburgh. The hall is absolutely enormous and between dances we like to sit on the balcony at the top and watch the people below. Willie was absolutely fascinated by the mechanism of the revolving stage and we postulate on how it works. Despite the place being full to the brim of couples, sailors, and slick-boy yanks making moves on local girls I feel this is where we can really be alone and express ourselves. There’s only so much time a young couple can spend canoodling in a garden shed before it becomes tiresome. The hours float past, clock hands revolving like the slow dancing couples below. If I’m late my father will be furious and give Willie a clout round the ear so we leave shortly before the last dance at eleven o’clock.
Inside the windowless ballroom of ‘the Palais’ hours can become days, lost in the eyes of a lover you are in New York, Monaco, Paris, anywhere, anywhere but snowy Edinburgh, and goodness me how it had snowed. The city dazzles in its crystalline finery, the canal frozen and dusted with a heavy coating of snow, everything is quiet. We wandered across to the car in a few inches of snow, wiped down the windscreen, and staggered the car out of the snowdrift. I was scared for the drive home, but I know Willie is sensible and will keep me safe. Despite it being a short journey the snow is absolutely treacherous and we are reduced to crawling pace. Being an apprentice electrician for the Co-op it is a miracle that Willie can afford a car at all and its reliability is a bit of a running joke between us. However tonight the joke becomes reality, the engine cuts out and we end up grounded out on a snowdrift on the Slateford Road.
There’s no chance of us getting back on time now. We can’t really leave the car alone either so there’s no option but to try and dig it out and get it going. Eventually we get it out after hours of trying and we manage to get back on the road. Approaching my house at 3am I’m tired but thankful to have been stuck with someone so resourceful and reassuring, pressing our blue lips together I can’t help but think of my father sat awake waiting to give me hell. Luckily I’m experienced in sneaking in and out of the house for our many liaisons and I know exactly which steps creak, but just as I get to the top of the stairs I hear movement from my parents’ bedroom and leap into bed heels still on dressed to the nines pretending I’ve been here all along.
* * * * * *
Fareweel, fareweel, my native hame,
Thy lanely glens and heath-clad mountains!
Fareweel thy fields o’ storied fame,
Thy leafy shaws and sparkling fountains.
Nae mair I’ll climb the Pentlands steep,
Nor wander by the Esk’s clear river;
I seek a hame far o’er the deep-
My native land, fareweel for ever!
– ‘Scottish Emigrant’s Farewell’, Alexander Hume
Today’s battle is the same as yesterday’s battle; tomorrow’s will probably be the same. Five children and a husband who works all the hours under the sun, times are hard. Life isn’t impossible but we are struggling to make ends meet, it’s not just us, families all over Scotland are feeling the pinch. Companies clamping down on overtime or cutting it out all together it feels like time to find ourselves a different economy to be part of. As a family we are agreed that the time has come to bid Scotland farewell.
After a bit of searching we’ve found an opportunity in South Africa that we can afford and within a couple weeks we said our goodbyes to Edinburgh and made the bold move to step out into the great unknown and transfer our lives to the other side of the world. Naturally people are jealous of us and have been saying stupid things about us looking to capitalise on the political instability and reap the rewards of apartheid. But this is just total hearsay, we are moving as a family to somewhere that can provide us with a freer lifestyle and experience of a different culture.
We arrive in Johannesburg with little more than money in our pockets, five children, and a need to invest in something that will provide us both transport and temporary accommodation. Soon after our arrival we found a Volkswagen Microbus within our price range, and also with a tent attachment to provide some accommodation. This investment will either make or break our foray into South Africa as this is the vehicle that will take us one thousand miles across the ‘Garden Route’ straight through the heart of our new home.
* * * * * *
I should have known it was too good to last. As I look around at the golden sands and beautiful blue sea and breathe in the salty breeze of the Cape peninsula for the last time I feel the tears comes to my eyes. After five and a half years of spending every weekend at the beach enjoying the fine weather and jovial company of our new friends our intrepid family were about to start our lives again for the second time. Willie places a strong comforting arm around my shoulders and our five brave children nestle into us to shelter from the Atlantic wind. My heart feels heavy on the drive home through the scenic mountains of Cape Town as we reminisce about all the great times we’ve had in this beautiful land. We all knew in our hearts that it had been too good to last but we would carry with us wonderful memories of a magnificent country and we would certainly all be richer for the experience.
* * * * * *
When chitterin’ cauld the day sall daw,
Loud may your bonny bugles blaw
And loud your drums may beat.
Hie owre the land at evenfa’
Your lamps may glitter raw by raw,
Along the gowsty street.
I gang nae mair where ance I gaed,
By Brunston, Fairmileheid, or Braid;
But far fraw Kirk or Tron.
O still ayont the muckle sea,
Still are ye dear, and dear to me,
Auld Reekie, still and on!
– ‘Auld Reekie’, Robert Louis Stevenson
We decided to splash out a bit on the return journey, to soften the blow of losing our beloved new life, and take a two week journey home by cruise ship. For these two weeks we lived like royalty, eating five course meals, our son Kenneth thought we were obliged to eat every course and completely pigged out at each meal, once even gorging himself so much that he was sick. Without a home waiting for us we moved in with my parents, but naturally having nine in a house made for four at a push wasn’t ideal and we began looking elsewhere. Instinctively we felt we had to return to Edinburgh, but finances and common sense dictated a move slightly further up the coast to the picturesque fishing town of Cockenzie. As we had in Cape Town we’ve learned to fit into the Cockenzie lifestyle, unfortunately being this far out of the city the only real job for a woman is filleting fish. We’re starting again but I still have the same excitement as when we made our expedition to South Africa. As a family we have no regrets about moving back home to Britain since a family fragmented across Scotland is much easier to keep in touch with than one spread across Sub-Saharan Africa. I feel I have learned in my life, through moving home and friends, what the heart is and what it feels. From here we move onwards to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our race.