The sun rose up from behind the concrete of the block of flats opposite, beaming straight into their faces. Davie Galloway was so surprised by its sneaky dazzle, he nearly dropped the table he was struggling to carry. It was hot enough already in the new flat and Davie felt like a strange exotic plant wilting in an overheated greenhouse. It was they windaes, they were huge, and they sucked in the sun, he thought, as he put the table down and looked out at the scheme below him.
Davie felt like a newly crowned emperor surveying his fiefdom. The new buildings were impressive all right: they fairly gleamed when the light hit those sparkling wee stanes embedded in the cladding. Bright, clean, airy and warm, that was what was needed. He remembered the chilly, dark tenement in Gorgie; covered with soot and grime for generations when the city had earned its 'Auld Reekie' nickname. Outside, their dull, narrow streets nipping with people pinched and shuffling from the marrow-biting winter cold, and that rank smell of hops from the brewery wafting in when you opened the window, always causing him to retch if he'd overdone it in the pub the previous night. All that had gone, and about time too. This was the way to live!
For Davie Galloway, it was the big windows that exemplified all that was good about these new slum-clearance places. He turned to his wife, who was polishing the skirtings. Why did she have to polish the skirtings in a new hoose? But Susan was on her knees, clad in overalls, her large black beehive bobbing up and down, testifying to her frenzied activity. - That's the best thing aboot these places, Susan, Davie ventured, - the big windaes. Let the sun in, he added, before glancing over at the marvel of that wee box stuck on the wall above her head. - Central heating for the winter n aw, cannae be beaten. The flick ay a switch.
Susan rose slowly, respectful of the cramp which had been settling into her legs. She was sweating as she stamped one numbed, tingling foot, in order to get the circulation back into it. Beads of moisture gathered on her forehead. - It's too hot, she complained.
Davie briskly shook his head. - Naw, take it while ye can get it. This is Scotland, mind, it's no gaunny last. Taking in a deep breath, Davie picked up the table, recommencing his arduous struggle towards the kitchen. It was a tricky, bugger: a smart new Formica-topped job which seemed to constantly shift its weight and spill all over the place. Like wrestling wi a fuckin crocodile, he thought, and sure enough, the beast snapped at his fingers forcing him to withdraw them quickly and suck on them as the table clattered to the floor.
- Sh ... sugar, Davie cursed. He never swore in front of women. Certain talk was awright for the pub, but no in front of a woman. He tiptoed over to the cot in the corner. The baby still slept soundly.
- Ah telt ye ah'd gie ye a hand wi that Davie, yir gaunny huv nae fingers and a broken table the wey things are gaun, Susan warned him. She shook her head slowly, looking over to the crib. - Surprised ye dinnae wake her.
Picking up her discomfort, Davie said, - Ye dinnae really like that table, dae ye?
Susan Galloway shook her head again. She looked past the new kitchen table, and saw the new three-piece suite, the new coffee table and new carpets which had mysteriously arrived the previous day when she'd been out at her work in the whisky bonds.
- What is it? Davie asked, waving his sore hand in the air. He felt her stare, open and baleful. Those big eyes of hers.
- Where did ye get this stuff, Davie?
He hated when she asked him things like that. It spoiled everything, drove a wedge between them. It was for all of them he did what he did; Susan, the baby, the wee fellay. - Ask no questions, ah'll tell ye no lies, he smiled, but he couldn't look at her, as unsatisfied himself with this retort as he knew she would be. Instead, he bent down and kissed his baby daughter on the cheek.
Looking up, he wondered aloud, - Where's Andrew? He glanced at Susan briefly.
Susan turned away sourly. He was hiding again, hiding behind the bairns.
Davie moved into the hall with the stealthy caution of a trench soldier fearful of snipers. - Andrew, he shouted. His son thundered down the stairs, a wiry, charged life-force, sporting the same dark brown hair as Susan's, but shorn to a minimalist crop, following Davie through to the living room. - Here eh is, he cheerfully announced for Susan's benefit. Noting that she was studiously ignoring him, he turned to the boy and asked, - Ye still like it up in yir new room?
Andrew looked up at him and then at Susan. - Ah found a book ah never had before, he told them earnestly.
- That's good, Susan said, moving over and picking a thread from the boy's striped T-shirt.
Looking up at his father, Andrew asked, - When can ah get a bike, Dad?
- Soon, son, Davie smiled.
- You said when ah went tae school, Andrew said with great sincerity, his large dark eyes fixing on his father's in a milder form of accusation than Susan's.
- Ah did, pal, Davie conceded, - and it's no long now.
A bike? Where was the money coming from for a bloody bike? Susan Galloway thought, shivering to herself as the blazing, sweltering summer sun beat in relentlessly, through the huge windows.
The First Day at School
Wee Terry and Yvonne Lawson sat with juice and crisps at a wooden table of the Dell Inn, in the concrete enclosure they called the beer garden. They were looking over the fence at the bottom of the yard, down the steep bank, contemplating the ducks in the Water of Leith. Within a few seconds awe turned to boredom; you could only look at ducks for so long, and Terry had other things on his mind. It had been his first day at school and he hadn't enjoyed it. Yvonne would go next year. Terry said to her that it wasn't very good and he'd been frightened but now he was with their Ma, and their Dad was there as well, so it was okay.
Their Ma and Dad were talking and they knew their Ma was angry.
- Well, they heard her ask him, - what is it yuv got tae say?
Terry looked up at his Dad who smiled and winked at him before turning back to address the boy's mother. - No in front ay the bairns, he said coolly.
- Dinnae pretend tae care aboot thaim, Alice Lawson scoffed, her voice rising steadily, implacably, like a jet engine taking off, - yir quick enough tae walk oot oan thaim! Dinnae pretend that!
Henry Lawson shuffled around to check who'd heard. Met one nosy gape with a hard stare until it averted. Two old fuckers, a couple. Interfering auld bastards. Speaking through his teeth, in a strained whisper, he said to her, - Ah've telt ye, they'll be looked eftir. Ah've fuckin well telt ye that. Ma ain fuckin bairns, he snapped at her, the tendons in his neck taut.
Henry knew that Alice was always driven to believe the best in people. He fancied that he could summon enough controlled outrage, enough injured innocence into his tone of voice to suggest that her audacity in believing that he (for all his faults, of which he'd be the first to admit) could leave his own children unprovided for, was overstepping the mark, even accounting for emotions running high in the break-up of their relationship. Indeed, it was just those sort of allegations that had practically driven him into the arms of Paula McKay, a spinster of the Parish of Leith.
The fine Paula, a young woman of great virtue and goodness which had repeatedly been called into question by the embittered Alice. Was not Paula the sole carer for her father George, who owned the Port Sunshine Tavern in Leith and who was stricken with cancer? It would not be long now and Paula would need all the help she could to get through this difficult time. Henry would be a tower of strength.
And his own name had been continually sullied, but Henry was graciously prepared to accept that people tended to say things they didn't mean in emotionally fraught times. Did he not also know the pain of the breakdown of their relationship? Was it not harder for him, he being the one who had to leave his children? Looking down and across at them Henry let his eyes glisten and a lump constrict his throat. He hoped Alice caught that gesture and that it would be enough.
It seemed as if it was. He heard burbling noises, like the stream below them, he fancied, and he was moved to put his arm round her shaking shoulders.
- Please stay, Henry, she shuddered, pressing her head into his chest, filling her nostrils with the scent of Old Spice still fragrant on his cheese-grater chin. Henry was not so much a five-o'clock-shadow man, as a lunchtime-shadow man, having to shave at least twice a day.
- There, there, Henry cooed. - Dinnae you be worryin. We've got the bairns, yours n mine, he smiled, reaching over and tousling young Terry's mop of curls, considering that Alice really should take the boy to the barber's mair often. He was like Shirley Temple. It could cause the laddie to grow up funny.
- Ye never even asked how he got oan at school. Alice sat up straight, fused with a new bitterness as she focused again on what was happening.
- You never gave me the chance, Henry retorted in tetchy impatience. Paula was waiting. Waiting for his kisses, for that comforting arm that was now round Alice. Crying, puffy, sagging Alice. What a contrast with Paula's youthful body; tight, lithe, unmarked by childbirth. There really could be no contest.
Thinking, beyond his words, smells and strong arm, about what was actually happening and letting the pain pulse hard and unremittingly in her chest, Alice managed to snap, - He cried and cried and cried. He gret his eyes oot.
This angered Henry. Terry was older than the rest of his class, missing a year's schooling due to his meningitis. He should have been the last one to cry. It was Alice's fault, she spoiled him, still treated him like a baby because of his sickness. There was nothing wrong with the boy now. Henry was about to mention Terry's hair, about how she had him looking like a wee lassie, so what else could she expect from him? But Alice was now staring at him, her eyes blazing in accusation. Henry looked away. She stared at his jawline, his heavy growth, and then found herself looking at Terry.
The laddie had been so ill just eighteen months ago. He'd barely survived. And Henry was walking out on all of them, walking out for her: dirty, flighty wee hoor.
She let the savage realisation just throb in her chest and didn't try to cower and brace herself for it.
Still upright and proud, Alice was feeling his arm limp, across her shoulders. Surely the next pulse of racking sickness wouldn't be as bad as that one
When would it get better, when would the horror abate, when would she, they, be somewhere else
He was leaving them for her.
And then the anchor of his arm was gone and Alice was drowning in the void of the space around her. In her peripheral vision she could see him, swinging Yvonne in the air, then gathering up the children and huddling them together; whispering important but encouraging instructions, like a school football coach giving his players a half-time pep talk.
- Your daddy's got a new job so he'll be working away a lot. See how upset Mum is? Henry didn't see Alice first sit up rigid, then slump in defeat at his words; it was as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. - That means you two have tae help her out. Terry, ah don't want tae hear any mair nonsense aboot you greetin at the school. That's for daft wee lassies, he told his son, making a fist and pressing it under the boy's chin.
Henry then fished in his trouser pockets, producing a couple of two-bob bits. Crushing one into Yvonne's hand, he watched her expression stay neutral while Terry's eyes went wide and wild in anticipation.
- Mind what ah sais, Henry smiled at his son, before giving him the same treatment.
- Will ye still see us sometimes, Dad? Terry asked, eyes on the silver in his hand.
- Of course, son! We'll go tae the fitba. See the Jam Tarts!
This made Terry's spirits rise. He smiled at his dad, then looked again at the two-bob bit.
Alice was behaving so strangely, Henry considered, checking that his tie was straight as he planned his exit. She was just sitting there, all buckled up. Well, he'd said his piece, given her every reassurance. He'd be round to check on the kids, take them out, a shake at the Milk Bar. They liked that. Or chips at Brattisanni's. But there was little to be gained in talking further to Alice. It would only antagonise her and be bad for the kids. Best just slip off quietly.
Henry nipped past the tables. He gave the old cunts the eye again. They looked back at him in contempt. He stole up to their table. Tapping his nose, Henry told them with a cheery coldness, - Keep that oot ay other people's business, or yi'll git it fuckin broke, right?
The old couple were speechless at his audacity. Holding his stare for a second, Henry gave a beaming smile, then headed through the back door to the pub, without stopping to look at Alice or the kids.
Best not cause a scene.
- Bloody nerve, Davie Girvan shouted and stood up, making to follow Henry before being restrained by his wife Nessie. - Sit doon, Davie, dinnae git involved wi rubbish. That's just trash, that.
Davie reluctantly took his seat. He didn't fear the man, but he didn't want to make a scene in front of Nessie.
In the bar, on his way out the front of the pub, Henry exchanged a few nods and 'how's-it-gaun's. Old Doyle was there, with one of his laddies, Duke he thought, and some other nutter. What a clan of gangsters; the old boy, bald, fat and twisted like a psychotic Buddha, Duke Doyle with his wispy, thinning hair still teased up, Teddy-boy style, his blackened teeth and the big rings on his finger. Giving Henry a slow, shark-like nod as he passed. Aye, Henry considered, the best place for that crowd was out here; the scheme's loss was the toon's gain. The reverence the other drinkers had for the men at that table hung heavily in the air, with more money changing hands for a casual game of dominoes than most of them made at the local building sites and factories in a month. This had been the pub Henry had used since they'd moved out here. Not the nearest, but his preference. You got a decent pint of Tartan Special. But this would be his last visit for a long time. He'd never really liked it out here, he thought, as he headed out the door; stuck in the middle of nowhere, but no, he wouldn't be coming back.
Back outside, Nessie Girvan was recalling the images of Biafran famine on the telly last night. They wee souls, it would break your heart. And there was that rubbish, and there were loads like him. She couldn't understand why some people had kids. - That bloody animal, she said to her Davie.
Davie was wishing he'd reacted quicker, had followed the bastard into the pub. The man had been a real rogue mind you; olive-skinned, with hard, shifty eyes. Davie had taken on a lot harder before, but it was all some time ago. - If our Phil or Alfie had been there, he wouldnae have been so bloody smart, Davie said. - When ah see rubbish like that ah wish ah wis younger maself. For five minutes, that's aw it wid take ... christ ...
Davie Girvan stopped in his tracks, unable to believe his eyes. The wee kids had got through a hole in the wire fence and were scrambling down the bank towards the river. It was shallow at this stretch, but it had a sloping gradient and the odd treacherous pocket of depth.
- MISSUS! he shouted at the woman on the seat, pointing frantically at the space in the wire meshing, - MIND YIR BAIRNS, BI CHRIST!
In blind terror Alice looked at the space to her side, saw the gap in the fence and ran towards it. She saw them standing halfway down the steep bank. - Yvonne! C'mere, she pleaded with as much composure as she could.
Yvonne looked up and giggled. - Nup! she shouted.
Terry had a stick. He was lashing at the long grass on the bank, chopping it down.
Alice implored, - You're missin aw the sweeties n juice. Thir's ice cream here!
A light of recognition filled the children's eyes. They scrambled eagerly up the bank and through the fence towards her. Alice wanted to batter them, she wanted to thrash them
she wanted to thrash him
Alice Lawson exploded in a sob and hugged her children in a crushing grip, anxiously kneading at their clothes and hair.
- Whaire's the ice-cream but, Ma, Terry asked.
- Wir jist gaunny git it, son, Alice gasped, - wir jist gaunny git it.
Davie and Nessie Girvan watched the broken woman stagger away with her children, each one gripped firmly by the hand, as jerky and full of life as she was soundly crushed.