I don’t know if it was the crackling from the frying pan, or the smell of ham, which prised my eyes open and made me think about food.
‘Four sugars, young fella?’ Dad handed Uncle John a mug of tea.
Dad called Uncle John young, but he was really old. He sounded Irish, like Uncle John, when he spent time with him, even although Uncle John lived in the next close. They didn’t have any real fags, so they broke the filters off mum’s Embassy Regal, which she had left unopened on the mantelpiece. They belched out more smoke than the coal fire behind the grate, as they passed one fag after another to each other with the frequency of a metronome, until the pack and Radio Athlone was finished telling us the market price for pigs.
I yanked the bedding around my ears and tried to tuck in the last bit of warmth from sleep. But Stephen grabbed back the covers I had won and ran his big toenail, razor-like, up and down the inside of my leg, to remind me who the big brother was. I didn’t need to sit up to know he’d be flashing his evil grin. We could feel upside down Josephine, whose legs divided the two of us, sit up.
‘Stop that!’ Josephine spat out from the bottom of the bed, which was the top of the bed, for her.
Josephine looked different in the morning; bigger, with her brown hair tousled like a mane. She scrunched up sleepy forehead and skelly eyes, like Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion. I felt the echo on the blankets as she reinforced her words with a sharp kick, which bounced back and forth, from one to the other. We knew better than to drag our covert warfare, from the bed behind the couch, into the same room where dad was making a meal of frying for himself and Uncle John.
I didn’t need to turn around. I knew that Phyllis, alone in her truckle bed, would be waiting to ask me if I needed to go. She was to make sure the lavvy key was safe. It was hung on a nail by the front door with the same kind of brown shoelace that acted as a necklace for my dummy tit.
It was also her job to help me find my black slip on sannies from the pungent pyramid of sand encrusted plastic sandals of every kaleidoscope colour, damp black rubber wellies for puddles and less than shining black school shoes that had spawned at the front door since mum had gone on holiday to hospital. I was to help Phyllis by pushing my bare foot into the right and left feet of the shoes she shoved over to me.
With our vertical striped jammies we rushed outside, hand-in-hand, like two convicts chained together, somehow fearful someone would shout at us to come back and we’d get caught, as we ran down the cold tenement stairs to the landing toilet below. She was to turn the big brass key in the lock. But she didn’t need to come in with me; I could do the toilet myself.
I pulled and pedalled my feet into yesterday’s shorts, but couldn’t find a shirt, so just put a jumper on. There was only one sock, I had lost the other and so I put that on. Josephine ran the hot water tap, which was really the cold water tap, and tried to wash away the lash of the cow’s lick from my hair, to make me the same square cut as Stephen’s Frankenstein head. Phyllis swished and tied a bright yellow ribbon in her long silky hair. But me and Josephine were the same. No sticky Brylcream, spit, or decoration, could change our curly tangled mass. Stephen was supposed to put on the same kind of grey shorts as me, but he had fooled us, putting on his long trousers, which were meant to be kept good, for starting school.
We were hovering about, as dad would say, waiting to see if we could avoid him making us breakfast. He liked to use up all the old milk at the bottom of the bottle that had turned buttery bile and make us eat his grey plated puddle, which congealed like lumpy glue in your mouth, that everybody- apart from Phyllis who didn’t like porridge- had to finish, no matter what. The whistle of the kettle on the gas ring meant there was tea. And sugar on the table. And there was a bottle of milk that had just been opened. We kept stumm. Josephine dished out the breakfast bowls, like playing cards. We practically poured Kellogg’s Cornflakes, coated in sugar and soaked in milk, down our throats, without chewing, before dad caught us.
‘Where are your glasses?’
Dad picked Josephine out from the chewing pack, as if she had just come into focus.
I needed to go to the toilet again. I slipped my hand into Josephine’s and tugged at her sleeve, pulling her towards the door. Josephine’s round black NHS glasses were in two. Stephen sawed through the wire bridge when he decided to experiment with a giant double magnifying glass that would burn through not only paper and wood, but brick too. It initially hadn’t worked because the sun wasn’t warm enough on the ground. He had climbed up the drainpipe and onto the roof of the old washhouses, but he was only able to make paper smoulder there. To make brick burn he planned to get onto the tenement roof.
When we got back upstairs Josephine sighed like a grown-up and pulled her broken glasses out or her anorak pocket and handed then to dad. Uncle John hiccupped laughter that was contagious. We all started laughing. Even dad. Uncle John was funny. He reached out and pulled Josephine towards him and onto his lap. His hairy orang-utan arms swept all before him, first Stephen and then me. He’d captured all three of us and kept up a barrage of kisses, on the exposed skin of our faces and necks, as we tried, although not very hard, to squirm away from his firm monkey grasp and his clean Uncle John smell of Brut.
Dad rummaged in the drawer beside the sink and flung one thing after another back until he settled on what he needed. He cut down and across the Cornflake’s box with the small sharp potato knife, made a cardboard bridge by folding the red insignia cockerel head, like John Noakes of Blue Peter, and joined the two lenses of Josephine’s specs together with sticky black tape. He took off his own specs to look through the lenses in her specs. Satisfied, he brought them over and placed them gently on Josephine’s face, positioning them like a marksman, making minute adjustments to one side then the other.
‘They’ll do,’ he said when he was finished.
‘Aye, that’ll do right enough Dessy.’ said Uncle John, smiling.
Dad and Uncle John laughed together as if one of them had told a joke, but with Uncle John holding us we didn’t feel left out. Josephine took off her homemade specs.
‘Ah, ah ah,’ said dad, shaking his head and hitting his forefinger against the bridge of his own specs, until Josephine, put hers back on.
I don’t know who first suggested that we should go to Dalmuir Park. Soon there was an all round clamour. We all wanted to go. It was free, so dad also thought it was a good idea.
Coming up the Crescent stairs and coming onto busy Duntocher Road we had to stop. I had to hold Uncle John’s hand on one side and Phyllis’s hand on the other and she had to hold Josephine’s hand. My dad had Stephen’s hand, because there was just no telling what he would do next. After that we had to go through the tunnel underneath the park.
Stephen put his arm around me and whispered a big secret that I wasn’t to tell anybody: the drip, drip, drip of water from the rivets in the roof to the concrete below was really blood. This was the place where vampires congregated at night, because the tunnel was where they stayed and the damp green stuff on the walls was their jobbies. And not only that. He pulled me in closer, during the day, the bent and buckled beams supported a train track that was liable to dump a train on you at any time. Stephen was very brave running unbridled into the darkness and shouting away fear. I was too wee and scared to be the same as him. I heard a train thumping along, hitting every rivet on the roof above us. Although my dummy was dirty, dirty and for babies, not big boys, somehow it found its way into my mouth. With one hand gripping Uncle John’s and the other almost touching the curtain of water running down the wall, I felt my way through the tunnel to sunlight, green grass and normal people sitting on park benches and striped towels. I didn’t even know that I was sobbing.
‘Jesus Christ. What’s the matter with him?’
Dad nodded at me, waiting for Josephine to unravel the mystery.
‘Do you need the toilet?’
I nodded back at him. He jerked my arm and grabbed me by the hand and dragged me, in his wake, back down the hill into the tunnel. Just as brusquely he pulled down my pants and trousers to my ankles.
‘Pee,’ he said, pointing to the gutter, which ran the whole length of the tunnel into a drain.
I didn’t think I needed, but I did. I scrambled to catch up with dad, as he walked ahead of me whistling, before I had time to pull up my shorts up. I caught up with Josephine and pulled at her arm until she took my hand.
‘Where are the ducks?’
I whispered in case they heard me. Stephen had told me all about them. They were as big as Sandy, the dog, and if you didn’t feed them mouldy blue bread they’d come after you and bite you bad and it’d really hurt and you’d need to go to hospital in an ambulance with the sirens sounding and the blue light flashing.
The ducks were funny. They weren’t big at all. But when the bread was finished Stephen threw the bread wrapper at them. Then the ducks squacked and squacked and got all annoyed with him and more and more of them kept coming from everywhere. Some of them were flying towards me, really fast, and you could see their big white fangs. I made a run for it.
Dad was too quick. He swooped down and caught me and held me upside down by the feet, over the fence, which kept the ducks in. My hair was almost touching the water.
‘Since we’ve no bread left,’ and he laughed, ‘we’ll need to feed you to the ducks’.
My brothers and sisters thought that this was better than telly. I had my eyes closed. I wasn’t going to cry and get called a crybaby. But dad was only kidding. He flipped me over onto the footpath before the ducks could get me
Josephine made me blow my snottery nose on my sleeve. She had on mum’s old cardigan, but she wasn’t mum. Mum was to bring us back a little baby. But I didn’t want a new brother or sister. I wanted a dog. I would train it to catch sticks and bring newspapers in its mouth and roll over and play dead and do all sorts of things. I’d treat it really well. I’d let other people pat it, except for dad. You needed to give them a digestive biscuit, because they didn’t like chocolate biscuits, and a drink of water from a soup plate. I wanted to go home and find mum. She could make everything all right.