Friday, 15 March 2013

The Invisible People

The Invisible People

The harsh wind blown rain of the day had been replaced at dusk by a soft drizzle which floated lazily out of the brooding Glasgow sky. A thousand grey puddles reflected the lights of the night city in shades of orange and yellow. Someone had once joked that Glaswegians had a hundred names for rain, just as Eskimos supposedly had a hundred names for snow. Young Frankie McCarthy had no time for such thoughts though as he hurried home through the darkening streets. He was returning from an important errand and his feet splashed carelessly through the puddles. He didn’t want to miss any of the party and was a little disappointed that his father should have asked him to undertake such an errand on a wet, windy night like this, and more importantly a night when all the McCarthy clan were gathered.

 He could feel the slim, smooth outline of the long playing record which he had placed inside his coat to keep it dry.  He pressed his arm more tightly against his body lest the LP should slip from his grasp and increased his speed. He wanted to be home and he ran the last few yards into the dark close.  He quietly knocked the door and when it opened by his father, he was struck immediately by the blue pall of cigarette smoke which hung in the air like the aftermath of a gas attack in the trenches. A wave of noise and laughter assaulted his ears; it was a sound he always associated with such family gatherings. It surprised him that the big heavy front door kept most of this sound in so well. Indeed, from the close no one would have guessed that virtually the whole McCarthy family this side of the Irish Sea were gathered in the small tenement flat.

 His father, looking and sounding a little the worse for drink enquired earnestly, ‘Did ye get it?’ whilst simultaneously  scanning his first born like a store detective looking for stolen goods. Frankie smiled and like a clumsy magician opened his coat and produced a thin cardboard sleeve which contained a 12 inch vinyl LP.  His father reverently took the LP from him as if it were the host at communion and turning the sleeve scanned the back to see what songs were on it. Frankie noticed that, unlike before, his father’s tie was now hung loosely around his neck and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone. He could also smell the unmistakable scent of whisky.  ‘When does Spud want it back?’ his father enquired in a low voice without taking his eyes from the precious album. ‘He said Monday’s fine,’ Frankie replied hanging his coat on the rail in the hallway. ‘Yer a wee star Frankie boy,’ his father said patting his son’s head and turning to enter the crowded, noisy living room.

Frankie followed his father into the smoky room in which more than 2 dozen of the McCarthy clan and their various in-laws were gathered for his parent’s anniversary party. They sat around the room on a bewildering variety of chairs, some smoking or laughing, others in seemingly deep, animated conversation. His mother, busy as always refilling glasses, distributing sandwiches and emptying the ashtrays, caught his eye and smiled at him. He implored her with his eyes, begging to be allowed to stay up a while and listen to the stories and legends of the McCarthy clan. She nodded and mouthed silently ’11 O’clock.’ Frankie smiled, nodded to her and scanned the room for his Grandfather.  At 13, he knew he was already up past his usual bedtime, but he loved talking to his Grandfather and besides hadn’t he gone all the way down to Spud Murphy’s to borrow the LP his Da had spoken about so much?

Old Pat McCarthy, the family patriarch, was in his early 70s and sat in a chair by the fire surveying the room and smoking an ancient black pipe that was, seemingly, always lit. He sported a thick head of carefully parted grey hair and a physique which suggested long years of hard manual work. He was still a strong man in every sense of the word but the self assurance this offered him allowed him to sport a calm, almost gentle demeanour. Even as a young child Frankie recognised the natural authority of his Grandfather and noticed how the other adults of the family sought his opinion and advice on matters of importance. Frankie wandered over and gently touched the old man’s hand. ‘Can ah get ye a drink Granda?’ The Old man looked fondly at his Grandson and without speaking, handed him a half pint tumbler with a small almost imperceptible smile. Frankie squeezed past his Father, who was carrying a small case which contained the family’s portable record player, to the erstwhile kitchen table which had, for tonight, been set up against one wall of the living room and seemed replete with all manner of bottles, cans and glasses. Frankie couldn’t help notice that his Mother had arranged the cans of lager in such a manner that the scantily clad young women adorning the cans were turned to face the wall. He asked his Mother to refill the old man’s glass. As she poured a rich, brown liquid into the glass and handed it back to her son she said, ‘Mind Frankie, 11 O’clock, no later.’ He nodded, turning away from her with the glass carefully held in his right hand, ‘Aye Ma.’

Frankie wandered back towards his Grandfather, careful not to kick over any of the drinks or bottles sitting at the feet of his various relatives. He gave the glass to the silver haired old man and was pleased when his Granddad patted the arm of his chair for Frankie to sit. ‘Whatever is your Father up to now?’ the old man said in his soft Irish accent. ‘He’s got an LP he wants us tae hear,’ Frankie replied, ‘I think he’s setting up the record player.’ The old man nodded and took a long sip at his drink.  At that point the somewhat slurred voice of his father cut above the chatter, ‘Right, a bit of order, noo.’ The room quietened as Frankie’s father went on, ‘See if yeez recognise any o’ these songs.’ He placed the arm of the record player carefully down on the spinning vinyl disk and sat smiling on a vacant chair beside the record player. A quiet scratching sound emitted from the front of the machine before an accordion was heard and then a melancholy Irish voice, filled the room with, what to Frankie’s young ears anyway, was an enchanting, almost mystical sound…

‘It was early, early, all in the spring
The small birds whistled and did sweetly sing
Changing their notes from tree to tree
And the song they sang was old Ireland free’

Frankie watched the faces of his relatives and noticed that, for the most part, their carefree chatter and laughter had given way to quiet reflection as they listened to the song. The music seemed to have transported them out of 1970s Glasgow to some other place. A few hummed or quietly joined in with the song and Frankie saw his mother whisper something in his father’s ear, rolling her eyes towards the ceiling. Frankie knew she was reminding him that the family upstairs were unlikely to appreciate his choice of music. Frankie saw his father nod and reaching towards the record player reduced the volume a little. Then, as she left the room laden with glasses, he returned the volume to its previous setting.

As the song flowed through the room like some melodic stream, Frankie turned and murmured quietly to his Grandfather, ‘What’s that song about Granda?’ The old man sucked on his pipe and blew some stale smelling smoke into the already heavy atmosphere of the room. ‘It’s about the sad times in the Old Country,’ he said. Frankie knew that his family originated in Donegal but, these gatherings apart, it was seldom obvious. He remembered once when his father had been involved in an altercation with a man in a bar who objected to him singing an Irish ballad. He had returned home with his clothes torn and blood on his face. His Grandfather had told him in quiet firm tones that Irishness in Scotland needed to be worn like a tattoo and not a badge; it needed to be hidden under your shirt. ‘Why?’ his Father had enquired, ‘It’s not a problem in America or Australia or even bloody England, is it?  The old man had looked at him sternly, ‘Well, it’s a bloody problem here son, remember that.’

Frankie watched and listened as the night wore on, he always felt as if something meaningful happened at these events. It was as if his family were being themselves for a few brief hours and that the people he saw and knew from their every day lives were more constrained, more controlled. Maybe that’s what alcohol did, maybe that was its function, helping people to be themselves? When the music stopped pouring out of the little record player on the table, his relatives began to sing. There was recognised etiquette, about such things. No one joined in unless the song specifically demanded it, no one sang a song they knew to be the favourite of another and each female singer was followed by a male until every adult in the room had sung. Proceedings were begun by his aunt Bernie, who sang in a clear and not unattractive voice…

‘Blow me a kiss from across the street
Tell me I’m nice when I’m not
A line a day, when you’re far away
Little things mean a lot’

Her attentive audience smiled and followed every word, some of the women quietly joining in at appropriate moments. Not too loudly though, as that might detract from the singer’s moment in the spotlight. She finished the song to rousing applause and someone shouted ‘Right, it’s a man’s turn noo.’ Frankie’s father needed no further invitation and closing his eyes began to sing…

‘A great crowd had gathered outside old Kilmainham
Their heads all uncovered, they knelt to the ground
For inside that grim prison, a true son of Erin
His life for his country about to lay down’

There was stony silence as he continued and unlike the previous song, this one seemed to touch a deeper chord for the listeners. Frankie noticed his Mother slip back into the room and looking at her husband, she raised her eyebrows in that warning fashion of hers. Frankie had learned that his mother could say much without words. She was in her own surreptitious way warning his father to keep it down and remember the neighbours. His father, eyes closed, continued the song seemingly oblivious to her warnings, though most of the other woman in the room recognised the signals. He went on…

‘God’s curse on you England, you’re a cruel hearted monster
Your deeds they would shame all the Devil’s in hell
There are no flowers growing but the Shamrock is Blooming
On the Grave of James Connolly, the Irish Rebel.’

When he had finished and Frankie’s cousin began a modern pop song, his mother caught his father’s eye mother nodded towards the kitchen, ‘Give me hand with this, Frank, will ye?’  Frankie watched his father resignedly followed her to the kitchen to receive his chastisement. Maybe he thought it was worth it? Frankie wondered sometimes about who they were. Were they Scottish or Irish or some mixture of both?

11 O’clock came and went and despite trying to avoid his Mother’s searching gaze, Frankie was ordered to bed. He hugged his grandfather and said goodnight to the assembled clan before slipping from the room. He lay, wide awake in the dark listening to the songs and laughter from the living room. Beside him, his younger brother Kevin snored soundly, oblivious to it all. Frankie looked around the dark room and discerned in the gloom the outline of his football posters, stuck in neat ordered rows on the bedroom walls. His father went to see Celtic most weeks and always bought the Citizen newspaper on a Saturday for the free posters of the players. Frankie quietly ran through the names of the players in the team group photo as if counting sheep, ‘Brogan, McNeil, Wallace, Murdoch, Johnston, Hood…’ The last thing he recalled before sleep took him was his Mother’s voice saying, ‘That’s yer taxi, Bernie.

The following afternoon the rain had relented and Frankie joined his friends playing football on a patch of grass opposite his tenement block. The scrubby grass was still wet and slippery but this enhanced rather than detracted from the game. The outline of a goal had been painted onto the gable end of the tenement adjoining the pitch and the artist who painted it had thoughtfully followed the line of bricks ensuring a fairly straight and accurate representation of a goal. Everyone wanted to shoot towards the ‘Gabie’ end because the ball rebounded back into play whereas at the opposite end, a shot at goal usually ended up on the road and the ball had to be fetched by whoever kicked it last. Frankie was joined by seven other boys including ‘Archie’ from upstairs. Archie wasn’t his real name though; he was nicknamed ‘Archie’ in honour of a well-known football commentator from the TV sports show because of his continual habit of commentating on games as he took part in them. His real name was Ian Campbell and Frankie liked him, he was funny and unaggressive, although he was less sure about his brusque father.

As the 4 a sided game was about to begin, Archie was already in full flow. ‘The teams are lined up ready for this cup final, Campbell the star player of the good looking team is sure to score a few today.’ As play began, Frankie raced towards ‘Archie’ but was easily fooled by some clever dribbling, ‘Campbell easily beats the flat footed Frankie from downstairs’ As Archie raced towards the painted goal he sidestepped another challenge, ‘He rounds specky Derek and is through on goal, what a player he is!’ Frankie watched amused as Archie slammed the ball into the goal past a startled and frightened looking goalkeeper and continued to commentate as he took his bow before an imaginary crowd. ‘Yes young Campbell has scored again, how long can the Scotland manager ignore this great talent?’  The game continued in this vein for a good half hour before a husky voice called from first floor tenement window, ‘Ian, get yer arse up here.’ It was his father.  The game was over for Archie for today, he knew better than to keep his father waiting. ‘See ye later, Frankie’ he said. Frankie smiled and nodded as Archie jogged across the street still commentating, ‘And as young Campbell is substituted he rightly receives the applause of this huge crowd…’ Frankie could hear him impersonate the roar of the crowd as he disappeared into the close.

Frankie and the others continued playing for a while minus their commentator. Derek, a nervous, skinny boy with round wire NHS spectacles and dark deep set eyes which made him look like a cross between John Lennon and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, said with a nod towards the tenement behind them, ‘Check oot fuckin bonnie Prince Charlie.’ Frankie turned to see Archie and his father emerge from the close. His father, a tall red faced bull of a man, carried a plastic bag under his arm, while a clearly embarrassed Archie sported a royal blue suit with a double row of silver buttons on the jacket. The neatly pressed trousers were replete with a red stripe down the outside of each leg. On his head he wore a Glengarry cap topped off with a large feather. Frankie thought he looked like he was off to fight at Waterloo. In his hand he had a bright silver flute. ‘Aff tae the walk.’ Derek quietly said, ‘There’s a big parade in the toon the day.’ Frankie waved at Archie but his erstwhile football companion pretended not to see him and hurried after his farther.

Later that day Frankie and his mother walked down the hill past the hospital, past that last survivor of medieval Glasgow, the dirty old cathedral and on into the City centre. They could hear the shrill noise of flutes in the distance and the dull ‘thump, thump, thump’ of drums floated in the air like distant artillery on a First World War battlefield. They were going into town to buy Frankie new shoes and his mother’s tense, silent air suggested that she’d rather get it over with quickly. ‘Mind now, Frank’ she said, ‘Get a decent pair quickly and we’ll get the bus home before the Walk comes back.’ Frankie was unsure about how the big parade and his trip to a shoe shop were linked but he nodded anyway.

They crossed George Square and headed down towards Argyll Street. As they reached the busy thoroughfare, a noisy crowd of young men surged past them. They were drinking from large green bottles and sounded pretty drunk. They were singing a song Frankie didn’t know but it sounded aggressive and challenging, like some of the chants he heard at the football. His mother held his hand tightly and deftly stepped into the nearest shop, which Frankie was surprised to see, sold expensive men’s suits.  They gazed with a few other refugees from Argyle Street out of the shop window as a few Policemen attempted to herd the noisy group further along the street. One of the group, a tall gangling teenager draped in a union jack, struggled with two of the policemen before being dragged from Frankie’s sight. An elderly man with a walking stick and a distinct smell of beer about him watched the unruly scene from behind Frankie and his mother and mumbled, ‘Ought to ban the lot of these bloody Parades, nothing but drunken troublemakers.’ The shopkeeper, a dapper man in his 50s with a neat little moustache that would have suited Errol Flynn, ignored his rather coarse remark and attempted to return the day to some sort of normality, ‘Can I help you Sir?’ he enquired expectantly in a polite tone. The old man looked at him with a weary, bleary eye, ‘Aye,’ he replied, ‘you can phone me a fuckin’ taxi.’ It appeared that he too was merely sheltering from the storm outside and not looking for a new Italian suit.


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