I used to stand here as a child by the bay window of the tenement and wonder when I’d ever be big enough to go all the way to the chip shop on my own, so distant it seemed, so far away, and really not so very long ago. An Italian family had recently taken it over then and the new neon sign glowed like a beacon in the night and its attraction has never lessened in the intervening years.
Old man Verrichia has since retired to his big house on the hill while his son, Tony, has expanded the business and opened the new restaurant where the shoe shop used to be. It’s Tony who has supplied the eats now, as a favour to the family. He’s handing round profiteroles and Mrs. Oliver will say she shouldn’t but she’ll have one anyway while I stand here with my face pressed to the glass hoping no one will notice the tears, wondering how the chip shop could ever have seemed as distant as a planet while in reality I could shout further.
I remember my dad......
"I remember her dad, Hughie, d’ye remember nineteen seventy....seven was it ? The night we got the Wembley bus. Now that’s a story some of the youngsters won’t have heard before....."
1977. The Sex Pistols were at number one, the summer was high and it was the royal wedding anniversary. In some parts of the country there was bunting on the houses and parties in the streets. Where we lived the locals took a slightly different view of the monarchy. Not sufficiently republican to revolt, too drunk to organise, too beaten down by the economy to resist, our parents bore the savagery of the early Thatcher years while the punk movement jolted the kids out of the lethargy of unemployment. To be young and on the streets in the summer of that year gave the impression that anarchy in the UK might just be more than a line from a song. I experimented with a PVC skirt till my mum caught me.
Our most rebellious act was to try to get to the Radio One Roadshow. And Tony kissed me for the first time that summer. His dark skin and darker eyes made him ridiculously attractive and the reaction from Betty Wallace just made it all the more delicious to linger over in my memory.
‘Fat cow!’ was the best she could do. Even at that impressionable age I knew I’d never be fat. She was just jealous because I had tits inside my bra. And she was jealous too because she thought that’s where Tony had put his hands. That night in the bathroom I stared at my nipples in the cracked mirror until they grew hard at the recollection and my mum was banging on the door asking if I was ok.
Tony looks across. He too wonders if I’m ok now. I wish I could tell him what I was thinking but he’s playing the proxy host and now that Uncle John’s got a new audience he’ll be good for twenty minutes, if last Xmas is anything to go by. It was then that the nephews from Doncaster got the full benefit of the Scottish oral tradition, that classic mixture of sport, foreign fields, drink, religion and fame. Fame. Brief but blindingly bright and the very stuff of local legend. I remember my dad......
"It was a Friday night. It had to be a Friday night and we were in JP’s and McAllister was going through the checklist and he’d just got to can opener..."
One of Vera’s twins has to enquire what a can opener is while the other asks why they needed to puncture the tin before drinking from it. They’re both equally sceptical yet they accept it as a necessary fiction. And I can assure them that it’s true, every word is true.
Tony’s right behind me now with a hand of consolation on my arm. Condensation is forming on the window and I can’t see the chip shop for tears. The dam of nostalgia has burst. Uncle John’s in spate and he’s going to wash us all away.
Childhood is a time of ritual and one of our family rituals revolved around Friday nights. I would have a bath around seven o’clock while my dad went to buy the chips for our supper. Then I would sit in front of the open fire in my slippers and dressing gown while my mum brushed my hair and we would watch TV.
My dad would bring the chips through which we would eat as they came, in the newspaper and there would be a bottle of Tizer and a bar of chocolate for later. When we’d eaten the chips my dad would always volunteer to do the dishes and laugh like he was going to choke. Then he would get changed and disappear to JP’s for dominoes and male-bonding.
Me and my mum would have the Tizer and chocolate with the film and if it was a two-box weepie she would have to fortify herself with a cocktail, adding a measure of sherry from the bottle at the back of the sideboard to the tumbler of pop. For years I thought this the very acme of sophistication.
In recollection it doesn’t seem like much but I was ten at the time and it felt like heaven to me. Heaven got interrupted later, most noticeably by Man. Utd. and Tony Verrichia but it was one special Friday night, it could only have been a Friday night, when my dad, my guardian angel, suffered his most spectacular fall from grace.
"It was Tommy McLeod that was ill. He’d been hurt in that accident in the steelworks and was still in hospital so his youngster brought the ticket to JP’s. Well, we were due to leave at seven and that was after six so there was no chance of a refund and the driver needed paying up front so we needed a buyer.
Things were getting desperate when we saw Jaimsie, God bless him, crossing the road to buy chips for the family. Old man Pearce was on his feet and went to the door to shout Jaimsie across. He said he had some business he wanted to mention. Jaimsie said he’d be in at the usual time but Pearce insisted so he came across."
"Alright then, Joe, what`s so important that it won’t keep ?"
Pearce didn’t say a word, he just held the ticket out in front of Jaimsie`s face. There was a silence in the pub and Pearce added, "Pay me back next week, Jaimsie. Nae probs."
The bus had arrived and the guys were loading the supplies. Jaimsie reached for the ticket and held it up to the light, moving it this way and that, feeling the texture. It was so quiet you could hear his mind turning as he pondered repercussions and measured the possibility of reconciliation.
"It’s the real thing, Jaimsie."
It was wee Andra.
Jaimsie turned and looked at him, whispered "God forgive me" twice, crossed himself and they were on the bus, him still in his cardigan and slippers. The only man in the whole of Scotland ever to have walked down Wembley Way in his cardigan and slippers.
The twins were frankly incredulous but one glance at my mother would have confirmed the story. Shining through the grief there were proud tears and a wry smile as she remembered how we’d waited and waited, wondering what could have happened to keep my dad so long.
At first we were content to believe that fresh chips had just gone in the fryer. This could easily account for ten minutes as everybody knew how proud the Verrichias were of their reputation. They wouldn’t let you out of the shop with less than perfect food. Then mum said that he might have called in for a quick one on the way back but we both knew this was a lie.
At eight o’clock she put her coat on, told me to watch from the window and strode out into the evening to find out what had become of her husband, my dad, our supper. At that very moment the bus was approaching Beattock Summit and my dad was unwittingly preparing for his date with destiny.
I was at the same window now, Tony hugging me close. He had done the catering for their Golden Wedding anniversary last year and from my home in Manchester I had made the arrangements through him for the sake of surprise as much as anything. We caught up at the party and continued a correspondence moving from invoice to something like romance by post and long distance calls as we both wondered about resurrecting our teens.
He came to Manchester and outlined his plans for a return to Italy where he had the chance of a partnership in a prestigious Milanese restaurant. He seduced me with talk of Serie A and the San Siro, mocking me for my involvement with the Hacienda and Old Trafford. He was asking me to go with him. I couldn’t help it but it sounded like a transfer deal was being arranged. My dad was always critical of players who, when they had the chance of a move abroad, turned it down with talk of commitments at home. He always reckoned you should take your chances when they arose. I wanted to go. I know it’s what my dad would have wanted. I remember my dad......
My mum didn’t say much the next morning, or for much of the day after that. But after the match had been on TV there really was nothing she could say. He was on the news on the Saturday and in the papers the next day. My dad was a celebrity.
Of course the whole nation knew of the victory and I was doubly pleased for my dad, knowing that this was a pilgrimage he’d long wanted to make but with the stories of crowd trouble and riots and the police me and my mum started to worry. Her face never changed but she was frantic underneath her Max Factor; the apprehension was leaking out of her eyes.
But as the true story emerged and was later confirmed in glorious technicolour, emotions changed from concern to disbelief to deep embarrassment, even shame. My mum told Mrs. Smith next door that she was "black affronted", which translated into standard English meant utterly humiliated.
I wasn’t quite sure what I should be feeling but I remember watching as the fans invaded the park after the players had departed and transformed it into a living tableau of tartan before they began their infamous assault on the frame of the goals.
The news reader, who couldn’t help being English and therefore a loser (the 1 -2 score line was added almost as an afterthought) sounded like he’d just tasted something unpleasant and described the scene in tones somewhere just south of condescension and bordering on disgust.
This was not echoed on our street. There were cheers and roars from every television set and when the camera focused on the crossbar and my dad was, for that brief second, the centre of the nation’s attention, my mother dropped her cup and a short silence fell on the whole town.
It was him alright. Some were wrapped in saltires, others in lions rampant. Still others were bare-chested but only my dad was in his cardigan and slippers. He hung there for an instant before the wood gave way and we lost sight of him in a sea of flags and bodies.
People were out in the street by now, shouting up to our window. A party had begun in JP’s and somebody somewhere had got out a set of bagpipes and jigs and reels danced through the air. My mum’s reaction to all of this was to close the curtains and go to bed. Fame can be hard to take when it comes so suddenly.
Uncle John’s reached that point in the story where any remaining unbelievers have to renounce their agnosticism and sign up to the faith. From inside his jacket pocket he’ll bring out his spectacle case, open it, unwrap an old lens cloth and reveal the holy relic, for it is a piece of the true crossbar.
When I close my eyes and see my dad there, suspended for that brief moment on the frame of the goal, thieves, as my mother called them, to his left and to his right and an adoring crowd at his feet, my hand goes to the cross at my throat and I pray for him. Now I pray for him.
My dad and his mates in the workshop wisely fashioned a paperweight featuring the hallowed wood and presented it to the Chief Constable and in appreciation he granted them, what was, in effect, a licence to print money.
In the pubs and working men’s clubs along the 240 bus route they sold off pieces of the true crossbar at a pound a throw.
We went on holiday abroad that year when nobody else in our street had been further than Ayr. But eventually, when they had used up enough wood to build a flotilla of Noah’s Arks, the market was saturated, the free drinks dried up and a routine returned.
Uncle John folds away our collective memory and raises a glass for a toast to absent friends, looking my way as he does so. What’s my mum been saying to him, I wonder, and gradually the guests leave with words of condolence.
It’s late when they’ve all gone and Tony has kissed me goodbye with a promise of a meeting tomorrow me and my mum are left alone, much as we were all those years ago. I feel as if I’ve been glued into this corner of the room for hours and when I step away from the window I feel as if I might fall but instead I sink into the settee and she disappears into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I think I’ll go to mass tomorrow.
"So", she calls out.
"What’s that, mum ?"
Without realising it I’ve returned to my post at the window. Street lamps and some late curtains apart there’s no light and only a few cars and taxis trundle the night. She rattles through with a tray and sits where I was just a moment ago.
"So", she begins again, "Is it Italy then? Are the transfer talks still on?". The intentional humour is bringing a lump to my throat.
"He’s a lovely lad. Your dad always liked him. You know I like him. Go on."
I realise I’m not being much help, stuck here at the bay and the chip shop’s dissolving again.
"Go on, you’re a big girl now. You can go on your own."
"Oh, mum", I blurt.
I anoint her neck with my tears, stooping a bit to hug her. Sure, I’m a big girl now but I still want my mum and Milan seems so distant and so very far away.