Southerly by David Haywood


A Little Voyage Around My Grandfather

The most vivid memories of my childhood are associated with visits to my grandparents. And none more so than the blissful sojourn that resulted from the unexpected birth of my sister on my fourth birthday.

I already had a brother. He was a sturdy two-year-old with a sunny disposition, invariably described by my Scottish relatives as "unko bonny". This verdict was issued with a certain note of relief in their voices. By contrast, I had been a memorably gloomy baby, whose incipient frown lines had reduced my mother to tears of anxiety on several occasions. Everyone was glad to see her blessed with a less Leonard-Cohen-like infant.

At night, tucked away in his cot, my cheerful little brother would laugh in his sleep. Genuine toddler belly laughs: "Ho ho ho... ha ha ha... ho ho ho". He was a likeable chap. It was strange to waken alone at my grandparents' house, with only the empty ticking of the cuckoo clock to keep me company.

In contravention of every known rule of child-rearing, my Glaswegian grandfather declared a daily competition to see which of us could get up earliest in the morning. The prize was a bar of chocolate, and I would generally eat my winnings for breakfast. My grandparents would have bacon and eggs -- followed by toast and red jam. Both courses were washed down with several pints of tea.

All three of us preferred our hot beverages on the sweet side, with two lumps of sugar and two spoonfuls of condensed milk. If the tea was too hot my grandfather would pour it into a saucer and then back into my cup -- a practice severely frowned upon by my grandmother.

After breakfast, the first job for the men of the house was burning the rubbish. The concrete incinerator at the bottom of the garden had been purpose-built by my grandfather, and he was proud of the fact that it had once cremated a cat. I was appointed deputy fire-lighter. The incinerator produced a deafening roar when it got going, and a plume of embers and thick smoke would waft cinematically over the neighbours' rooftops. This always seemed to please my grandfather. "Ach, I like a good fire," he would say contentedly.

Our next activity involved traffic practice. My grandfather would chalk a network of roads on the terrace at the back of the house, and I would glide solemnly around on my Edwardian-style tricycle. It was an occupation that we both viewed seriously. My grandfather would sit on his deckchair, smoking in a contemplative manner, until such time that he felt road works had become necessary. He would then rise, and signalling gravely with a red table-tennis bat, would bring the traffic to a halt.

A duster and chalk would be employed to redesign the traffic flow. Sometimes an upturned bucket would be requisitioned to act as a roundabout. A green table-tennis bat would be raised to indicate that I could now resume pedalling.

And so the morning passed in calm and dignified activity. Lunch took place in the cool of the front room: salmon-paste sandwiches and lemon cake. Another pint or two of tea. My grandmother was a good plain cook, and her cake deserved thorough and concentrated attention. At the end of the meal we would listen to the one o'clock news bulletin on the wireless.

Afterwards I would accompany my grandfather to the grocer's to collect the messages. A tin of condensed milk, some potatoes, a loaf of bread, a packet of cigarettes (Pall Mall plain). Having reached the age of four I regarded myself as practically an adult, and would insist on carrying the shopping. The lumpy string bag knocked awkwardly against my short legs as I stumbled along the footpath beside him.

The swing-settee was a good place for singing on a sunny afternoon. My grandfather had attached a rope to a peg in the ground, so that he could pull the pendulum-chair back and forth. I can effortlessly recall the words and music of the songs we used to sing together: Horsie Keep Your Tail Up, Save your Sorrow For Tomorrow, Me and Jane in a Plane, If I could Plant a Tiny Tree of Love, Mary Ellen at the Church Turned Up.

The last was a musical piece slightly unsuitable for children, which described a bridegroom who committed suicide rather than marry his fiancée. I used to enjoy bellowing lustily along to the lines about his eventual demise:

He didn't want to wed,
And you'll find him in the river
with his toes turned up.

We had our evening meal at six o'clock sharp. Dinner could be slightly problematic for me if it involved 'greens'. Neither my grandfather nor I were enthusiastic consumers of anything healthy; but he was supremely self-sacrificing, and would scrape my vegetables onto his plate when my grandmother left the room. "You can get your vitamins from pudding," he would whisper conspiratorially.

After pudding -- two helpings for me -- it was a fair bet that the Reids would pay us a visit. Mr Reid was the only person I've ever heard use the expression 'Hoot toot' in a real sentence. As in: "Hoot toot, it's a braw het nicht!". He was apt to sing songs in Gaelic with sufficient volume, as my grandmother put it, to address the Albert Hall. I was warned not to encourage him. Memory fails when it comes to Mrs Reid; I remember only a blurred shape and a rather posh Scottish accent.

The grown-ups would sit and drink tea, and perhaps play cards. Their conversation seemed excessively dull, and I would occasionally attempt to enliven the proceedings. I recall offering to entertain everyone by demonstrating my ability to count to one thousand. Astonishingly, my offer was declined. You can't help some people.

The promise of a story from my grandfather was practically the only thing that would get me to bed. My preference was true-life tales of the bombing of Glasgow during World War II. I particularly enjoyed accounts of my grandfather's former workmates who had been "burnt alive by incendiaries" or "blown to smithereens" by the Luftwaffe. Air-raid sirens and mass-murder made bed seem more appealing.

Later, made drowsy by Hitler's attempts to annihilate Glasgow's industry (a task shortly to be completed by Mrs Thatcher), I would listen to my grandparents in the next room. The rustle of my grandfather's newspaper; the low murmur of the radiogram; the faint sound of my grandmother's knitting-needles, as she fashioned an outfit for her new grandchild. And the slow measured rhythm of the cuckoo clock.

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