By Sue Haigh
Four-year-old Arthur McLennan’s sleeping features transform themselves into a bad-tempered wide-awake scowl and he lets out a wail of cold and hunger as his mother hurries up the steps of a dark close and hammers at the door of the first floor tenement plattie. She clutches Arthur to her shoulder, a shawl pulled round his face, and the heavy stench of urine and stale beer sting her eye-lids and make her nostrils quiver.
‘Come on, Jessie, it’s bloody freezin oot here. Dinna tell me ye’re no oot o yer bed yet, an me on early the day.’
Jeannie McLennan stamps her feet and knocks louder. An inner door opens and the voices of four or five of the unruly youngsters minded by Jessie Mennie echo round the stone walls of the close.
‘Ye’d better tak him quick, Jessie. Ah slep in. Ah wus that tired, an the bummer’ll hae went afore Ah get tae the gate.’
‘Get ben the hoose, ye wee tykes, an mind ye dinna touch the fire, noo. An dinna gang oot ontae the plettie, ken, til Ah come.’ Jessie turns on her charges fiercely as they retreat out of sight. ‘Gi us the bairn, Jeannie, an get alang the road.’
Despair at the thought of the day to come, with the evil-tongued Ma Mennie, makes Arthur wail even louder.
In the sparsley-furnished living-room a bald infant screams, its gargoyle face bright red with anger as it snatches frantically at the strips of dirty cloth which harness it to a wooden chair, whilst a small, ginger-haired boy of three or four, dressed only a in matted blue jumper and a pair of cleated boots, attempts to shove porage into the baby’s mouth with a wooden stirring spoon. The spoon being half as wide again as the child’s mouth, great dollops of grey mixture fall in slow drops onto the floor and seep down through holes in the linoleum and congeal like glue between the bare boards. On the window-seat, two little girls – one fair-haired and blue-eyed, pretty in a sly, watchful sort of way, and the other sallow and dark, front teeth gone and one foot turned so far inwards that her right heel is almost where her toes should be – wrap themselves round and round in dingy lace curtains, laughing and sniggering hysterically.
‘Hey, yous twa, stap yer cerryon richt noo! Ye’ll hae hauled they curtains doon afore ye ken what ye’re aboot, an ye’ll be for it, Ah’ll tell yers.’
Ma Mennie claps her purple hands onto her hips and glares at the two insolent faces, streaked with stour and tears of laughter, now peering out like Botticelli cherubs from the folds of dusty lace, tongues out in a grand gesture of defiance. Ma Mennie yanks the now howling Arthur by the hand and lunges towards the little girls to pull them away from the fragile hangings into the relative safety of the centre of the room, where they turn their attention to the ginger-headed boy, stepping heavily on his toes as he continues to stoke his victim’s mouth as if he were shovelling coal into a boiler. The boy’s screams silence the infant and send the two girls into paroxysms of malicious laughter. Two seconds later, the baby is silent, his head lolling in amazement as the ginger hair and the pale-faced dark head roll over and over on the poragey floor, flattening the globules and spreading them across the patchy linoleum. What Agnes McTaggart lacks in speed on her feet, she makes up for with her sharp fists as she lays into the boy, grabbing what tufts she can of his spiky hair, yanking at them viciously until the pain is so excruciating that he stops yelling for an instant, only to start again after a dark silence, this time howling like a wolf in a forest, his voice rising to an anguished crescendo. Delighted at her success, Agnes draws back a clenched fist in preparation for another resounding smack on her adversary’s nose. A fine spray of blood spurts from the boy’s nostrils and lands in the grey drops of porage, making them shine like red glass beads. The ginger head gathers its wits together, manages to break free from the pale face. Scrambling to its feet, it takes a step back, swings a leg and lands an almighty kick with a steel-capped boot on the bony ankle of Agnes, who is still writhing on the ground. She lies motionless for a moment, and the boy, satisfied with the outcome of the duel, retreats to the window-seat and sits impassively, staring through the grimy panes. The yell which eventually explodes from Agnes’s mouth eclipses any of the boy’s wolf-noises, both in volume and pitch. Arthur flinches away from the four-year-old’s wind-milling arms and the wild obscenities which are pouring out of her mouth like a hail of jagged carpet-tacks.
In the mêlée, Arthur breaks free from Ma Mennie’s grasp and creeps away to sit under the table in the corner, where the edge of the Courier and Advertiser tablecloth hangs down sufficiently low to afford him some protection from the direct onslaught of her anger. A little girl is already crouched in the corner of the news-print refuge, out of sight of Ma Mennie and her gang of juvenile prize-fighters. Smiling, she tosses a whale-bone toggle to Arthur and he throws it back. The child has dark skin and high cheek-bones and her eyes are as green as Arthur’s, the colour of the summer seas around the Western Isles. In the gloom under the table, three horizontal blue tattoo lines are just visible on each cheekbone. Her hair is as black and shiny as slate tiles on a wet, stormy night and she sings quietly to herself in a language which is neither English nor Gaelic, clicking her tongue against her upper teeth. She holds out a scrap of paper with some indecipherable words written on it. Arthur takes the piece of paper and stuffs it in the pocket of his short trousers, then goes back to their game with the whale-bone toggle.
‘My name is Terraguaire and you are Arthur,’ the girl whispers into Arthur’s ear, holding his arm gently.
Arthur looks puzzled, then, overcome with curiosity, abandons their game and lifts the edge of the newspaper tablecloth to investigate the situation outside. Out in the open battlefield of the living-room, Ma Mennie beats the air with her huge hands as she berates the terrified group. They gulp and snivel and look miserably at their blackened feet, hoping to avoid further attention from their enraged guardian.
‘Come here, ye wee buggers. Ah’ll skelp the lot o ye – an ye kin stap that greetin an a’, Agnes McTaggart. Ye’re no better than that sister o yours – the ane that doesna talk, an she got what wus comin tae her, that’s a’ Ah kin say.’
Ma Mennie’s habit of locking children in the basement coal cellar to cool their heels without benefit of food or drink, is well known to the cohort of little lives who have passed through her hands.
Jeannie, who has been hanging back in the doorway, in spite of her lateness, mesmerized by the chaos and noise, pulls the heavy door closed behind her, leaving Arthur and the black-haired child draped in the tablecloth, and runs down the stair, out into the cobbled alleyway, clattering in her unlaced boots up St Mary’s Wynd into the Overgate. A morning wind hisses its way up from the Tay, round the still-dark streets, and Jeannie pushes her hands deep into her apron pockets to protect them from the icy air. As she runs and walks and runs again, her numbed fingers turn over the whale-bone toggle which Arthur’s father, Eenoo McLennan, by now out at the Serampore Mill in India, has left her for luck. She feels the hole in the centre, carved out with a flensing knife by Nouyabik, Eenoo’s grandfather, in the distant wastelands of Baffin Island. Memories of Eenoo’s stories of his childhood fill her head – the journey from the Inuit encampment to Scotland with his sister, Terraguaire, and his parents, Davy and Nanou – the pneumonia which crept up on Terraguaire and Nanou on board the Bluebell, then the burial at sea.
When he had been contracted by the mill agents in Reform Street to sail to Calcutta to take up employment as an under-manager and tenter at the McCormack Mill at Serampore, Eenoo had literally danced for joy, swinging Jeannie round and round the bare room on the top landing of the tenement at St Mary’s Wynd, until she almost fainted from giddiness and laughter.
‘Jeannie, Jeannie! We’re off to Calcutta tae bide wi the jute-wallahs. We’ll hae money an heat, as much as we kin use, an eight hundred rupees a month, whatever that kin signify, an fifteen pound for ye an the bairn. Ay, an first class frae Glasgow tae Calcutta!’
There was, in fact, no first class ticket, but it had been a good thought. Eenoo’s green eyes had sparkled with excitement at the idea. Everyone at the Dundee mill had tales of the great life to be had in Calcutta and Bengal, but few, including Jeannie, had the foggiest notion where those places might be, apart from the fact that they were on the other side of the world – even further than Africa. Eenoo, the agent’s letter had informed, was to travel to India on eighteen months’ probation, and would learn Hindi and be required to pass a language proficiency test. After that, he would return to Dundee on leave and Jeannie and Arthur would set sail with him for their new home. Meanwhile, he was to take lodgings, free of charge, in the dusty, stifling mill dormitories at Serampore.
Jeannie, hair still awry from her bed, apron thrust out before her, the whale-bone toggle hooked round her thumb, is full of hopeful anticipation, although white-faced from a sleepless night with Arthur in their freezing gable-end ( furnace in summer, ice-house in winter ), beneath the lurching army of crooked lum-pots which stand rank upon rank, high above the street, holding each other up like drunken soldiers about to take off on some suicidal mission, grass growing from between the cracks, smoke belching into the steely sky, washing it blue-black like ink spilled in water. Jeannie’s hair is still grey with the dust of the mill and will remain unwashed until she takes her Saturday night bath by the fire, followed by a drying with towels as scratchy as a tweed jacket.
It is fifteen months since Eenoo packed his few possessions into a cardboard suitcase and tied it up with string. He has entered a distant world in a city whose name Jeannie can hardly write; but she imagines that the daily scene in the Overgate – apart from the temperature and the language and the appearance of the folk – must be like the streets of Calcutta itself. She has never heard of Clive Row, where mill agents sit in cool splendour, laboriously writing their weekly reports to their masters in Dundee; and she has never heard of the exclusive Calcutta Royal Golf Club or the Royal Turf Club. The luxury of those far-off establishments has little in common with the drinking-houses of the Overgate, where the sight of a bloodied and bruised heap of men – still in mill-stained clothes and full to bursting with Friday night ale, ejected with mighty and irresistible force by unseen hands from the doors of a saloon bar, followed by language so foul it could flay the lining from a wild man’s throat on its way up to his lips, as it emerges into the night air heavy with the threat of violence – would be enough to make the Hindu sailors who roam the narrow alleyways on shore leave, turn and run for their ships. Jute-wallahs on home leave frequent the Café Royal, not The Pump or the Variety Bar, packed to the gunnels on pay-day as soon as the bummer sounds at the Verdant Works, to signal release from the asphyxiating, dust-filled prison of the calendar shops, where the din of the machinery is so deafening that the workers exchange the traditional obscenities in sign language. Wife-battering is a well-kent pastime after the drinking-up bells have sounded in the pubs, but Overgate wives and bidey-ins cast in the mould of Ma Mennnie, subjected too often to batterings by their drink-crazed men, give better than they get when it comes to fist-work.
‘Hi, Jeannie. Hi, Jeannie, hoo’re ye doin?’
‘Better hurry, lass, or ye’ll be late fer yer shift!’
Jeannie looks up, but does not acknowledge the calls as she passes Greenhill’s pharmacy and the Venice Café, its model penny-a-tune grand pianos hanging on the wall outside. At the bookshop, The Poet’s Box, she leans her forehead against the glass and cups her hands round her eyes in the dim early light to squint at a map of the world, just visible on the back wall of the shop. Crowds of women hurry by anxiously, afraid that the noise of the racket of the bummer will fill the air before they reach the mill gates.
When it sounds again at night, the evening parade of workers is more leisurely – young women stroll arm-in-arm, bold-eyed, looking longingly into shop-windows, unconsciously preparing themselves for the avalanche of consumerism which is about to engulf their world. The jewellery at Petrie’s winks and beckons and the sequinned high heels twirl on the rotating stand in Birrell’s window, inviting them to the dancing at the Palais on the docks. While they crowd round, crane to catch sight of the latest fashions, a young mother, her face pinched and anxious, might carry her baby cautiously down the damp, uneven steps leading from the street level to pay a call on Mr Fagan, the pawnbroker, producing a gold ring and a watch – heirlooms she will never be able to redeem – from beneath her shawl. Fagan, in his dusty grey overall, might turn the offerings over and over in his blackened fingers, whilst the desperate girl, still filthy from the low mill, looks intently at her feet.
A passing drunk might have designed this maze of streets and shops to offer warmth and life to those who sweat and toil for a meagre living and asylum to the ungodly and the wretched – petty thieves, beggars, whores – as well as to the malevolent – the fire-raisers and murderers. Murky yellow air is torn by the frantic jangle of the fire-bell at least once every Saturday night and continuously on Hogmanay, when an unbroken line of barrows, illuminated by lethal naphtha lamps, stretches from end to end of the narrow thoroughfare, where ale-fired revellers jostle and swank their way down the noisy streets, stopping to ogle and whistle at passing females, receiving a crude gesture in return; or to buy a dressed herring from Kate Leggat at her stall at the foot of General Monck’s tower. Swaggering back towards the West Port, the lads buy a Woodbine and a dash of wine and, further along the way, a buster to keep out the cold. The unholy racket of the carnival and the midnight bell from the Steeple Church fills the labyrinth of streets to overflowing and floating balloons stick together like giant frog-spawn above the roof-tops, looking down on a scene of human theatre to rival any eastern bazaar – fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, fakirs, story-tellers and hell-fire preachers, acrobats, singers, trumpeters and fiddlers all ply their trade in the in the smoky, gas-lit night. And in the darkened alley-ways the whores, too, ply their own secret trade, the more wary among them equipped from the public condom machine which stands incongruously outside the Poet’s Box. Any male observed availing himself of the services of the machine is indelibly marked MAN in the eyes of his peers. A woman caught in such an act of self-preservation can surely count herself, according to young Father Ryan, to be in a state of mortal sin.
Walking on through the Overgate, Jeannie’s thinks about her first meeting with Eenoo, ( Eckie to his work-mates – short for Eskimo, although no-one remembers that any more), in the berry-fields of Perthshire, far from the cold, dark kitchen of the gable-end at number two, St Mary’s Wynd and rats skating and scratching across the attics in an endless search for food and nesting. Far, too from rain clattering on tiles and water streaming from cracked rhones into litter-strewn backlands. She remembers the birth of Arthur, her only surviving child, a hopelessly skinny and transparent infant she kept in a shoe-box by the fire for the first six weeks of his life. The wizened little creature had his grandfather, Davy McLennan’s, sea-green eyes and his Inuit grandmother’s jutting cheek-bones – ill-matched with the sandy tufts which rapidly replaced his thick, black birth-hair. He was all together an odd-looking child, Jeannie and Eenoo had to admit. As she sat by the range in the only arm-chair, pulling her shawl up round her neck, Jeannie had listened anxiously to Arthur’s wheezing and coughing, remembering her other two babies, fathered by the eighteen-year-old private Hamish Milne, of The Black Watch, who had beaten her in drunken rages and given her a glass diamond ring from the Woolworth’s store at the foot of the Wellgate steps. She thought of wee Jeannie, taken by pneumonia in 1937 and her son, Jamie, who did not survive the first two weeks of his life in Maryfield hospital, his heart weakened by a chest infection which caused him to struggle pitifully for breath, so that Jeannie secretly hoped for the end to come soon, to release him from his suffering. Father Ryan administered the last rites on the fifteenth night of the child’s life and by morning, Jamie had slipped quietly away, his rasping cough silenced for ever.
Private Hamish Milne had survived the first six months of the Second World War by being shipped back from the front with a leg wound. Then Jeannie, three months pregnant with the ill-fated Jamie, had wept as she waved her husband off from Dundee station, running down to lean out over the wall at Riverside and sniff the heavy soot and watch the steam belch from the engine as it hauled the carriages slowly across the bridge over the broad estuary, until it disappeared into the hills of Fife like a giant Pied Piper. Waving to its invisible passenger, Jeannie Milne had an overwhelming notion that, like the Pied Piper’s children, he would never return.
As things turned out, Jeannie was right, and her young husband’s expedition would take him far beyond the devastated wastelands of Europe, far beyond Egypt and the Western Desert and into Eternity. She received the telegram informing her that Private Milne was ‘Missing, presumed Killed in Action’ – which actually meant that they had not been able to find enough of his body intact to be able to identify him – a week later, delivered by a young, bright-eyed messenger-boy on a bicycle who thrust the paper into her hand and said ‘Sorry, Missus’, before disappearing down the close steps, just as she came home from her work on the weaving flat at McCormack’s mill. Old Mr McCormack had given her a week’s unpaid leave to ‘sort things out’ – not that there was much to sort out for a twenty-year-old jute-worker who had already lost one child and the sum of whose possessions could find enough space on the top of her kitchen table.
That same summer, five months pregnant, (although she had by now almost stopped thinking about the baby, not having the slightest notion of how she was going to manage life on her own, soon with another mouth to feed), Jeannie had joined the queues of young evacuees on the platform at Dundee West station, heading for the Perthshire countryside.
She had met Eenoo McLennan, half Scottish whalerman, half Inuit tribesman, that summer at Mrs McLaggan’s Friday night ceilidhs in the barn at the berry-farm in Newtyle. After a day working in the fields, Jeannie and Eenoo would step and whirl up and down the rows of dancers, then wait for their turn to go again. They made an odd couple – she taller and fairer, with wide hips and rosy pink skin, whilst he was tiny, with dark, shiny hair like black tiles in the rain and huge teeth which shone in the candle-light. At the end of the season, Jeannie agreed that it would be a good idea if she were to marry Eenoo and return with him to the town, where he could look for work again, after his spell in the Strathmartine TB hospital. He had a gable-end in the Overgate. Not much of a place, it was true, but somewhere they could bring up Jeannie’s child together. Jeannie said she would put in a word for him at the mill. Yes, it was a fine idea.
Jeannie gave birth to a son, Jamie, in the early hours of Christmas morning and buried him three weeks later at the expense of the government, the offspring of a soldier killed in action. The following year, Arthur McLennan was born, with eyes the colour of the sea round the Western Isles in summer.
A solitary planet hangs low in the morning sky as Jeannie, shoulders hunched, not caring to look up at the sea-gulls shrieking from the smoking chimney-pots, heads for Horsewater, then Henderson’s Wynd and down the hill to the gates of the Verdant Works, where the sun has already spilled over the guttering of the grey stone building, running down the walls like gold paint. The pavement is still deep in shadow, the tall mill buildings and the jute warehouses crammed so tightly together that not a single ray of light penetrates between the massive blocks of stone. As she reaches the gates, the bummer sounds, slightly out of tune with the dozens of hooters blowing simultaneously across the town. Black-shawled figures pop out of every doorway and alleyway in the neighbourhood, like rabbits out of burrows. The weavers pull on hats and gloves and head for the weaving flats, whilst batchers head for the low mill, where they will break open the bales of jute shipped from Calcutta and twist the rough fibres into bundles, tearing the skin from their hands and inhaling lung-fulls of the dust which will soon kill them. The dust hangs in the air, rising and falling in star-bursts as the pale specks slide down any watery sunbeams that have struggled through the grimy roof-lights. Bare-headed women, the spinners and winders, stream into the mill – the men have disappeared, conscripted long ago, gun-fodder on the battlefields of France and Italy and North Africa, never to return. Finishers labour in gloomy, cavernous barns, haul heavy tarpaulines onto great heated rollers without a break from morning until night, backs and arms cracking and shoulders aching, with only the briefest of pauses. No lingering even for a puff at a rolly-up, for fear of the gaffer’s revenge, the quartering – a quarter of an hour’s docked wages. Hands are mutilated, fingers and thumbs trapped in the spinning machinery or squeezed between rollers or swinging barrows as they crash and jostle their loads across the factory floor. The tenters, loom engineers, the only workers not on piece-work, are wily and malevolent. A weaver who crosses her tenter will be idle for three days if her looms seizes, waiting on the services of a churlish mechanic. The wages at the end of the week won’t last until Tuesday, when the tally-man comes round, let alone for seven days.
As she follows the noisy crowd onto the spinning-flat, Jeannie does not speak to the women who call to her and the human din dies away as she enters the mill, drowned by the ear-splitting racket of the spinning-frames, on the go all night long, enough to waken the dead in Saint Columba’s cemetery up the road. In her head Jeannie relives, as she does every morning, the day when she took little Arthur in her arms to say goodbye, for the second time in her life, to her man at the railway station not two hundred yards from their gable-end. In her imagination she runs with the child in her arms, panting and sweating, her hair flying as the rain starts, down to Riverside, leaning out over the wall under the bridge to catch sight of her green-eyed Inuit, as he begins the month-long journey to the sub-continent, sailing round the coast of Africa, West, South and East, then across the Indian Ocean into the Bay of Bengal. Goodbye, goodbye, Eenoo! Safe journey! The steel-grey of the water and sky bring memories which she tries to ignore, but which remain stubbornly in her head. But Eenoo is not going away to war, and he has left her his whalebone talisman. Nevertheless, a wave of fear grips her stomach as she turns back towards the city. The wind off the estuary slides icy fingers around her throat as she buttons up her jacket and pulls Arthur’s bonnet down over his ears. Ten minutes later, pausing on the dark close steps, she leans against the landing window-ledge to look out over the river to Fife. As she gazes, she floats away across the roof-tops and the water to the green and brown fields and she feels her neck stretch as she peers further and further over the curve of the horizon until she can see all the way to India. And there is Eenoo, his great white teeth glinting in the sun and his bright eyes laughing at her as they did in the berry-fields. He beckons to her in that urgent way of his, signalling to her to follow him over the horizon.
Taking off her shawl, Jeannie coughs painfully and begins her work at the frame, watching the twisting yarn winding onto the bobbins. Boys trundle round with trolleys, pushing and shoving each other when the gaffer isn’t watching, collecting the full bobbins and taking them to be wound for warp and weft. By the time the bummer goes again at 12 o’clock for dinner, her feet will ache and her throat will hurt with dust and fibres and her eyes will itch until she could scratch them out with her own nails.
On the last day of the eighth week after Eenoo’s departure Jessie Mennie informs Jeannie that the postie has that morning brought a picture post-card from the glorious Cape Peninsula and the Slangkop Lighthouse. Jeannie studies the blurred black and white photograph eagerly, trying to find some detail of the landscape she could relate to Eenoo in her imagination, as if she might catch sight of him sitting on a distant rock, waving to her. The laborious handwriting on the back of the card, executed with a blunt lead pencil, states that he is, at this moment, in Cape Town and about to sail for Calcutta and hopes his card will find Jeannie and Arthur fit. Little enough to lift her spirits, but for a moment, and for the only time in her life, Jeannie feels her future is secure.
Then pictures of Calcutta itself arrive in St Mary’s Wynd, images of grand buildings in Chowringee and Clive Street, of the Victoria Memorial and the Birla Observatory. For all Jeannie knows, they could be panoramas of London, for the capital of England is as foreign to her as the capital of Bengal. Her hopes rise with every new glimpse into the future and she imagines herself installed with Arthur in a quiet quarter on the outskirts of the city.
After a long silence, a letter is waiting for her when she returns from the mill, exhausted. Jeannie has never received a real letter in her life before and she examines the copperplate handwriting on the envelope with curiosity. This is the very letter which will transport her to the sub-continent and fix their lives for good, hers and Eenoo’s and little Arthur’s. It will change their lives for ever. She hesitates for a long time, then lifts the flap carefully, feeling the thin, foreign-looking paper rustling in her roughened hands and holds her breath as she unfolds the white sheets. Struggling to follow the carefully-formed but almost illegible script, Jeannie reads to the end of the letter, then reads it again, to be sure she has understood and has not misinterpreted the words dancing before her eyes. As she peers at the jumble of symbols and phrases they merge and reform and tease her with their incomprehensibility.
Hours might have passed before she notices that the tissue-thin paper between her right forefinger and thumb is disintegrating with the combination of perspiration and pressure. The furrows between her eyebrows deepen as she struggles to catch the meaning which lies somewhere behind the unrelenting copperplate. After a long time, Jeannie puts down the letter, sighs deeply, and calls Arthur for his tea.
It is our sad duty to inform you that your husband, Mr Eenoo McLennan, under-manager at our mill at Serampore, passed away on 12th March, 1948, by reason of an explosion in the boiler-room and was buried at the Scottish Cemetery in Calcutta the same evening.
We are returning your husband’s effects to you with the next mill shipment and ask you to accept our deepest sympathy in your loss.
Iain Campbell McCormack,
A dark and unseen shadow has wound Eenoo in its shroud.
In the far corner of the gable-end, Arthur is playing with a small girl, throwing two whale-bone toggles into a pot on the floor. She turns her face towards the window and the horizontal blue tattoo-lines on her high cheek-bones are just visible in the grimy late sunlight. Arthur is busy retrieving a toggle from between the floor-boards and by the time he returns to the game, Terraguaire McLennan has slipped out through the window, drifting up into the cold, darkening sky. As the small figure floats upwards, she turns back to look down at Arthur and Jeannie and lifts her hand, waving gently. Goodbye, Arthur. Goodbye, Jeannie. Goodbye, goodbye.