The man was talking to someone I couldn’t see. Or maybe he was talking to someone only he could see.
All I knew was that when I reached him, there was no one at the top of the steps.
He carried a plastic supermarket bag and he looked about my age. He was wearing a dark jacket and his shoulders were stopped but his hair was still dark and full. As I neared, he turned, nodded to me and walked away.
I wondered if he’d lived here all his life. I wondered where he’d been, where he was going.
I wondered if, at one time, I knew him.
I was back in Springburn, where I spent part of my childhood. We moved around a bit – I usually say that we moved whenever the rent was due. From Glasgow to Manchester to Ashton–Under–Lyne back to Glasgow to Cumbernauld to East Kilbride.
But this was where I was born, in the very street I saw the man talking to someone who might not even have been there.
Valleyfield Street. There used to be tenements on both sides but now only one. There was a little shop here then, Dale’s Dairy. I remember I used to think about a popular radio show called ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ whenever I saw the sign.
I’d had a lunch meeting just down the road (boy, that sounds grand) and had a few hours to kill before meeting a couple of close pals for dinner. At the lunch I’d talked about Springburn, about being born there, living there.
My memories, though, are fragmented. Snapshots, really. Shadows of time that flicker in my mind and then are gone. Some may be false. Memories can be tricky.
My grandmother – my Nana – lived in Adamswell Street, up the flight of steps from Valleyfield Street. It was a much longer street back then. Part of it has been bulldozed to make way for a wider road taking traffic to and from the M8. All the tenements have gone, although the street remains.
The café at the corner sells drinks for a penny. Irn Bru in little glasses, just like the cowboys used in the films. We sashay in, order a drink, slap our money down and stand at the counter like it was a bar. And, if we’re flush, there are Penny Dainties and Blackjacks and lucky bags.
I remember coalmen in leather jackets with no sleeves carting huge bags up the stairs of the tenements to the flats, big, burly men covered in coaldust, and they lifted the heavy loads with such ease I thought they must be supermen.
I remember, or think I do, men with little ladders lighting lamps but that can’t be, because we’re only talking the 1960s and that didn’t still happen, surely?
I remember the rag and bone man on his cart, calling out RAAAGS, RAAAGS. And his horse, which I hope was cared for properly but we didn’t think about it back then.
I remember bits and pieces, and many came back to me like flashbacks that day.
I’m running through a dark passageway. We call it ‘The Dunny’ and it runs from the back courts of Adamswell Street to Valleyfield Street. I’ve been dared to go through and honour dictates that I do it. It’s pitch black and seems to go on forever. There’s a smell of damp. And there’s water dripping somewhere, I’m splashing through it. But there’s something else here, I know it, something breathing in the shadows. Something watching. Something waiting for my step to falter so it can pounce. But I keep moving, faster now, feeling the fear build with my beating heart and when I finally burst back into the daylight that fear escapes in a giggle. I’ve made it. I’m safe. And my honour is intact.
I was asked during the lunch about street gangs in Springburn. I’m sure they existed but I was too young to be aware of them. Our gang was made up of the kids from Adamswell Street and there was a brief rivalry with kids from a neighbouring street.
I recall us facing them down one day. There was about six of us and maybe a dozen of them, strung out across the street. They had sticks and leather belts as weapons. We had a few cheeky comments and not much else. There was at least one coward among us that day, and he ran off and hid up a close. I couldn’t help myself. I’m no fighter. The street battle didn’t amount to much in the end. A lot of shouting. A lot of running. No one was hurt. I’m not even sure any blows were actually struck in anger. So much for my juvenile delinquency.
The other side did capture two of our guys, though, and I redeemed myself by sneaking over the old disused wash house roofs to free them. They’d been tied to an old metal washing pole and I’d watched their captors running round them and whooping like the Native Americans we’d seen on the telly. We didn’t call them Native Americans, though, for these were less than politically correct times. Being PC back then meant getting into blue serge and keeping your thermos and sandwiches in the blue police box on Adamswell Street.
An old car. Rusting. Abandoned. Unlocked. We can climb in and pretend we’re driving, hands running up and down the steering wheel in exaggerated fashion.
My old primary school is still there – Hyde Park. It’s now a business centre, but you can still see the two entrances, one for Girls, one for Boys. It was my first experience of school and I was there twice – before we moved to Manchester and after we came back.
I’m fighting with a boy outside the gates. I don’t know why. We’re rolling around the ground and landing weak punches. There’s very little pain but real tears. Especially from me because I’m losing. My honour is not so intact now.
We used to walk down the hill to Valleyfield Street and the dinner school, a collection of low pre–fab buildings (or that’s the way I remember them). We used to sing a hymn every day before food was served. All Creatures That On Earth Do Dwell. I now can’t hear that without smelling boiled cabbage.
There are houses on that bit of ground now but as I stood looking at them I remembered the dark day I ended up with a severe gash on my leg. We’d snuck into the dinner school grounds, the mean, fierce, scary old man who watched the place must’ve been away, and we were playing at the far end, up against what is now Flemington House. There was a steep concrete ramp from the grass to the fence at Adamswell Street and we used to take a runny up to try to reach the top. There were metal railings at the side of the building, big, rusting old spiked things, and somehow – I still don’t remember how, although I was probably climbing them – I managed to slide down one and gouge a large flap of flesh from my leg. There was pain and there was blood and there was crying and there was more blood, so much blood.
I’m being carried out of the grounds. There’s a crowd of people at the gate. My sister, Katrina, is there. An ambulanceman is there. They take off my shoe and it’s filled with blood. I remember nothing else.
I still bear the scar of that encounter with a spiked railing.
What I don’t remember are the names of my friends and that makes me sad. I know some of them lived across from my Nana but that’s all.
So maybe that guy, the one with the friend who may not have been there at all, maybe he has lived around there all his life and maybe we once knew each other. And if that was the case, what’s he been doing all these years? What has he seen, what has he done, what’s happened to him that he talks to the air?
Did he see ghosts?
I’m walking back from the Lifeboys, passing the great cavernous sheds where they used to build the locomotives. Springburn was famous all over the world for its locomotives. They’re empty now, the din of the machines and the riveters and the voices of the men who worked them has stilled. But now and again I find a way to peek into the empty sheds and faintly, behind the steady and incessant drip of the water from the holes in the roof, I fancy I still hear hammering and tapping and shunting.
The past. It’s not what it used to be. But it never dies.
They can bulldoze the buildings and they can build factories on parkland and they can turn the schools into business centres. They can flatten the old washhouses and the bin shelters we called middens. They can take away entire streets and create new ones. They can do all that but the old places – the way they were – live on as memories.
We grow out of childhood but it also never dies. It nestles within us, living, breathing, the way we were shaping what we are. Good, bad, happy, sad, loved, neglected. It’s all in there.
And that day parts of it came back to me. Snapshots, certainly, but vivid and real. Chronologically I didn’t live in Springburn for very long but wherever I am, I will forever take a piece of it with me.