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Jean in the Dark

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When I was a child, we never had money, but we never thought of ourselves as poor. My Da worked for the Railway, and it was steady work. If it didn’t pay a fortune, we always had enough to eat. To me and my brothers, the road to the future seemed straight and wide: we’d leave school at fourteen; and they’d head to the depot each day with Da, while I’d get a job in one of the big houses up the Crescent.

Well, part of that turned out to be true, right enough. Yet life never comes out quite as you expect—takes bends and turns (and flat-out twisty bits) before coming round back on itself and landing you up where you least expect.

Looking back on it now, it seems as though it all ties up with wee Jeanie Robertson. She lived in the same close as us, but downstairs. There was just the three of them—Jean and her Da and Ma—where we had six kids as well as the parents. Even as a child, though, I knew we had the better of it. We had love.

Perhaps Jeanie got love from her father once, back before he spent his Saturdays getting foul drunk and his Sundays snoring it off. I think I can recall, in a vague sort of way, her walking off with him; and being told by my Ma that they were away to visit his mother, who lived in the Village. That was very strange to me, as you might expect. The Villagers had little to do with the Railies at school, any more than with the Trammies. About all you could say was that none of any of them had dealings with the Tinkers, except with words and fists. Still, my Da remembered when Hughie Robertson quit his job at the Home Farm and went to work on the Railway. I suppose it must have happened around the time that I was born, or maybe a year or two before. Of course, it meant that he and his wife came to live at Railway Buildings, downstairs from us. However, becoming a Railie didn’t alter the fact that he’d been raised in the Village, nor that his Ma still lived there. So it made sense that he’d go visiting on a Sunday. In fact, if there was anything that made no sense, it should have been the fact that Mrs Robertson didn’t go with them. Well, unless you knew Mrs Robertson. She wasn’t a visiting sort of person.

I was the girl of the family, and the only one in our close. So inevitably, when it came time for Jeanie to go to school, I was the one told off to take her. I handed her over at the teacher’s desk; and, when she proved too wee to know where she lived, said what was needed for the registration. After that, though, she was on her own—and proved well able to hold her own, too, the cheeky smout. I did walk her home that first day, though, to make sure she didn’t get lost. To a degree, I kept an eye out for her in the playground, too. At least for the first few weeks. Then Isabel Adair made a bit of a pet of her, proving herself leader by making the others leave her alone when she cheeked them. After that, I tended to stick with my own mates.

You see, Jeanie and me were never what you’d call friends, really. Not close friends, that is. A couple of years can make a big difference at that age. Still, we were part of the whole gang together, running rowdy in the streets until someone called for Beery-belly to chase us off. (Yes, and his own Minnie in the thick of it, too.) Not that I was at the outs of it with Jeanie, I don’t mean that. We saw each other all the time, at school and at home, coming and going through the close. However, her mother didn’t care for her to come visiting in our place, not even on days when it was pelting down and our Ma insisted we sit steaming round the stove and made us all cocoa. I think Mrs Robertson felt that, if Jeanie were allowed up to our place, then Ma might feel she had the right to be invited down to sit in in their kitchen. You see, Mrs Robertson never let anyone cross the threshold into their home. Not even Miss Miller, who also lived downstairs, but on the other side of the close. She must have been the nearest thing Jeanie’s Ma had to a friend; but they never went into each other’s houses.

Our family could not have been more different. My mother was a friendly body. When we got in from school, there was always some woman from down the street sitting at the table with a cup of tea having a gossip. My brothers’ friends were in and out all the time; and my mother was always ready to give them a piece, though the jam might be spread a bit thin just before pay day. Our bashed knees got a rag tied round (and, when we were small, a kiss to make it better). And each night, after we all ate, my Da would get up a sing-song for a bit, though Ma never let it go on so late that one of the neighbours would be knocking through.

Downstairs, on the other hand, was always quiet. Well, at least until Jeanie’s Da died in the war, after which Mrs Robertson started to take in mangling.

Even though Jeanie and I weren’t all that close, the fact that we were neighbours did still count, I guess. At any rate, I was the one who took her Up-the-Burn-to-the-Dam when she turned nine. There were other girls who might have been chosen to be first to go; but I held out for Jeanie, and there wasn’t much argument. She was sharp and quick. For all her small size, there was no question but that she’d manage to keep out of old Stink’s way. Strangely, she never took part in the secret meetings behind the Tramway Buildings’ washhouses afterwards, where we talked it all over again and again, savouring the details. I was always eager for the gab. Up-the-Burn was the greatest cheek to the adult world that ever was offered by the youngsters of Lochfoot—cocking a snook, not just at old Poopit or Beery-belly, but the Castle itself. You’d have reckoned it just wee Jeanie’s style. It puzzled me that she apparently didn’t see it that way. Still, if she chose not to be part of it, that was her right. As a result, though, she never was picked to go again—which I’d say was her loss, except that I could swear that I saw her once, guddling in the Burn. Someone sold the Belgies eels, I know that. I’ve always wondered if it was her.

The Belgies were refugees who came to live in Lochfoot during the war. My two oldest brothers signed up, as did Jeanie’s Da; and all three were killed, sooner or later, as were so many others. The war was the best of times and the worst of times, as it said in one of the books at school. On the one hand, there was the local hotel, the Lochfoot Arms, where tarts in their bright fancy dresses entertained young visiting soldiers, all so free with their pennies. On the other hand, there were the telegrams. Oh, we may have chased after Telly-pete for a lark at the beginning; but, when the first telegram came to Railway Buildings, it stopped being a game. Mrs Aitken quite fell to pieces; and my Ma went and brought down the bottle of whisky, carrying it under her apron, as women did in those days. That was the first telegram, but not the last. By the time Telly-pete came to our house, the whisky bottle had already been emptied too often. My Da took it hard, first Andy and then Joey, and wanted to sign up himself until my Ma talked him out of it. That was when he started drinking. Really drinking, I mean. He’d never been a drunk before, just a bit loud on a Saturday.

I left school and got that job up the Crescent, just as I’d always assumed I would. I found it hard work and unrewarding—and I don’t mean the pay, though that wasn’t much, either. On my half days, though, I’d go home. And glad to, for I missed my family badly. For those few hours off, things almost might never have changed, and I was a kid with my folks again. Da might be nursing a hangover, but home otherwise seemed normal enough. Then things started to change. The war ended, the tarts left the Arms, and the Railway Company half shut down the depot as work was shifted to other places.

At first, I hardly saw any effect from this: it crept up gradually. But repairs to the Railway Buildings were no longer done as a matter of course, and the terrace got more and more run down. At one time, my Da would’ve put a hand to fixing things himself; but he now spent his Sundays sleeping off the drink. Then he, too, was laid off. In compensation, he took to spending his days in one or another of the pubs on the High Street. Still, one of my brothers was in work; and, of the younger two, Jimmie was about to leave school. So there was enough coming in to pay the rent, at least for the time being.

Not that I saw much of home. I only had a half day, you see; so, after we’d had our tea, I’d have to be back off up the Crescent. When I got in, the first thing I’d to do was change. I had a uniform to wear, a plain dress with a long apron and a cap. Mind you, it was better stuff than the old tweed skirt with the rubbed hem that I’d worn to school; but it was identical to the clothes worn by the other maid, Teenie, making it their choice. And “Ma’am” and “Sir” as if I were talking to old Cock or the teacher at school, with my voice kept down low all the time so as to give the impression that I wasn’t there at all, really, but the work somehow done by the fairies.

So when the Belgies went back home, and the Shirt Factory opened in the old building that they had rented, I handed in my notice without a second thought. What was more, the Factory paid better than the Crescent, though not by much. For me, though, the real attraction was the independence: I was my own woman, with no kowtowing to the nobs. And there were my mates, too: we’d a real fellow feeling, we factory girls, chatting with sideways glances as we sewed at our machines. It meant steady pay coming in, and promise of more when Jimmie found work. Or so I thought. Instead, though, he began to talk of emigrating to America. As Hughie put it, taking me aside privately, home wasn’t what it was. I could see for myself that the old man had fallen far—and what it was doing to our Ma. He had his own future to think of, Hughie said; and, like as not the depot would be closed entirely soon enough.

In the end, he and Jimmie left together on the same ship. Neither was fool enough to think the streets in America were paved with gold: hard work was what they reckoned on finding. Work was for finding, though, which was more than you could say for Lochfoot.

By that time, Mrs Robertson was no longer mangling in the parlour of Number Three: she’d got a job at the Secondhand. It was a development that can’t have been easy for wee Jeanie, for I’m sure the other kids at school made her life a misery. She was of leaving age by then, though; so I suggested she join me in the Shirt Factory, as so many other girls were doing. At first, she was eager. Then her mother actually married old Pillans; and Jeanie chose instead to take a job up the Crescent, where she’d live in (as I’d done) and not have to follow her mother to her new home. On the one hand, I thought the decision a mistake, for a cheeky smout like her’d be a fish out of water in a mansion. Then I thought of the way she’d always managed to get herself out of trouble in the schoolyard and the street, looking up so innocent with her big blue eyes; and I knew she’d twist them round her finger.

And that was that. A year later, it was my youngest brother, Bobby, who left, though he chose Australia. Then my Da died; and his old mates rallied round to give him a decent funeral, which was well attended. I wrote my brothers at the last address we had for each of them; but, as none of them was much of a hand at writing (nor I, for that matter), I couldn’t be sure they heard the news. So it was just the two of us, Ma and me, rattling round in rooms that once had held eight.

A couple of years after that, the Shirt Factory closed. There’d been trouble before, with the strike and all that; but it had never occurred to any of the girls who worked there that all of us might find ourselves out of a job at once. Despite all the good times and good fellowship, we lost touch with each other almost immediately. Perhaps some of them went in service up Lochview Crescent. Others must have gone Down-the-line to find work (and maybe some of those kept in touch with each other). I did not have such options. I’d the old wife to take care of.

Now, at this point, some might say that I should have left Lochfoot anyway: the Social would have found a place in care for the old wife; and I’d surely as much right to make my own way in the world as any of my brothers. All I can say to that is…they emigrated before, which is a different matter. Or perhaps a closer truth is that I couldn’t forget the days of my childhood. We’d been poor; but we’d been cared for and happy. Now, it was my time to do the caring.

Then, as they say, it never rains but it pours. No sooner had I lost my job but I lost my home. Just as my brother Hughie had feared, the Railway Company did indeed decide to close the depot; and the Railway Buildings were sold off and demolished. Furthermore, for someone looking for a place to live, there was by now little enough left of the old Lochfoot—well, unless you had money, which was certainly not true of me! Little more than the old High Street remained, half its shops empty and boarded up.

So I moved the old wife and me into Pat’s 23, and took work what I could. Fortunately, the cottages of the Village had been sold to incomers who mostly used them as holiday homes. The buildings were, of course, far too small for live-in staff, being intended for working families; but there was no way their new owners were about to do their own cleaning. So I walked up the road past the school to the Village each day, with a round of clients getting their half-days each; and then I walked back each evening, wondering what I’d find when I got in. If the old wife had been failing while my Da was alive, she quite fell to pieces after. Like a bairn, you might say: wet at baith ends, and no’ very bright in the middle. Still, at least she never took to wandering—just spent the day lying curled in her bed, with a bit of a stink to the air when I came in at night.

It’s a time I’d rather not dwell on, mind, so don’t expect details. I will say that I owe a lot to the kindness of others, and leave it at that. During that time, I ran into Jeanie Robertson again. Pure chance, but the best luck of my life.

When I was a child, I always assumed that, when I was older, I’d work in a big house on the Crescent. And so I do. Perversely, the room I have here is in the attic; and she has the green bedroom, in order to be near her son. So, for all that our lives have changed so much, wee Jeanie still lives downstairs from me.