Aince upon a day my mither said to me:
Dinna cleip and dinna rype
And dinna tell a lee.
For gin ye cleip a craw will name ye,
And gin ye rype a daw will shame ye;
And a snail will heeze its hornies out
And hike them round and round about
Gin ye tell a lee.
Aince upon a day, as I walkit a’ my lane,
I met a daw, and monie a craw,
And a snail upon a stane.
Up gaed the daw and didna shame me:
Up gaed ilk craw and didna name me:
But the wee snail heez’d its hornies out
And hik’d them round and round about
And – goggled at me.
– William Souter
I watched him fae the meeting room windae. He wis leaning on the entrance wall o the Naafi, like a statue, no movin. I felt how I think a puppy must feel, ken how a puppy gets? Pishes a ower the flair cause it cannae work oot if it’s excited or feared, or baith?
The manager shut the diary wi a bang an I near aboot when through the roof. He sat opening and shutting his trap fir a bit longer, fir nae other purpose than tae listen tae his ain voice. I mind o wishin I had een on the back o ma heed; I kept checkin the clock, then the windae. As soon as the meeting finished I just lifted ma stuff and left. I kept telling masel – breathe, breathe – as I went ower tae him.
He wis crouching by then, elbas on his thighs, heed hangin, beret in his hand. He didnae get up tae start wi, he just looked up at me, one eye shut against the sun. I asked him what he wis daein there. I hadnae seen or heard fae him fir ages, and neither had Mum. He didnae say anything for a guid few seconds and then he shifted. I stepped back no kennin what he wis awa tae dae, and as he started tae get up, he said sorry. I’d never heard him say sorry before. Ever. Ma stomach wis churning and he wis clenching his teeth an I just wanted him to say something, aw the time, watchin his shadow rise until it engulfed mine, like I didnae exist.
I wouldae preferred a joab in Woolies or someplace like that. I’d worked in the Naafi but ma Gran pulled a few strings an selt it tae ma wi the promise o wads o cash. “Guid money, lassie”, she said, “ye’ll hae enough tae pay me ma digs, save a bit fir a place o yer ain, an ye’ll still hae some left tae yersel.” I’d no long got here an she wis on aboot ma movin oot awridy. She kept remindin us that ma Granda kent folk in the cooncil. “It’s no whit ye ken, its whua ye ken in this life, lass”, she kept sayin. Fuck knows what she means, he popped it years ago.
So there I wis, standin like a fanny hangin ontae a fuckin plastic bucket wi holes in the bottom. I didnae ken anyone, they were aw just chattin amongst themselves like I wisnae even there. There wis a group o them in front o ma on the way tae work, an a couple o them kept lookin back as if they expected ma tae catch up an speak tae them.
I just wanted tae keep goin, cut across the park an doon tae the loch, tae the auld boat shed Mum used tae tak ma when we were here on holiday. She’d tell ma aboot bunkin aff the school. Her an her pals’d sit in the shed an smoke fags an dae Séances. When she telt ma what a Séance wis I started dreamin that I wis possessed by evil spirits.
I’d go tae ma bed an lie face doon, slide ma hands under the pillows so’s the spirits couldnae see if they were watchin, an I’d cross ma fingers on each hand an say three times: Dear God, I believe in you an the Angels, please keep me safe fae the demons an the Devil. I always managed tae sleep but it didnae stop the nightmares. Some nights I’d wake up screamin, soaked wi sweat. Mum couldnae understand it an she’d shout that it wis just a story, that devils an demons wirnae real. But they were. We both kent they were.
I stuck ma fut in the bucket
I futted the bucket aboot
The mair I futted the bucket
The bottom o the bucket fell oot.
A squat bloke wi ginger hair stood at the end o the conveyor belt. He shouted me ower an gave me the bucket, an ran back tae the line. I just stood there like a fud until a wee wifie wi a white bowler hat marched up tae me.
‘Are you Nola?’ I didnae get a chance tae reply, ‘I’m Sine yer supervisor. Ye’re tae be workin the carrots aw week an… how’ve you got the bucket? Hae ye worked in a cannery afore?’
‘No, I’ve never–’
She shook her heed an muttered tae herself.
‘C’mon tae fuck you lot,’ she looked comical wavin her wee erms aboot, but I could tell she wisnae een fir messing wi, ‘the lassie’s just startet the day! Let her on the line fir a bit so she can see what’s what. Jeeesus Christ! Davie! Davie! Get up here an tak this bucket. Two grade ones an a grade two, ok?’
‘How’ve I got tae buck–’
‘Cause I’m tellin ye. See ma hat?’
‘Aye, what aboot it?’
‘It’s different fae yours.’
‘It’s different fir a fuckin reason, noo dae whit yer telt an tak the bucket. Nola, you gine whuar Davie wis standin, in atween May an Lizzie, they’ll keep ye right, go on, that’s the first prams aboot ready fae the grader.’
I made ma way doon the line conscious o everyone starin. Ma body felt like a giant artery; pulsin. I could feel ma minter, ma scalp tingled where ma hat made contact wi ma heed an I wondered if I had it on the right way.
‘Awright, lass, dinnae look so worried, we dinnae bite, da we Lizzie?’ May had a warmth aboot her which put me at ease an she looked aulder an wiser than Lizzie who looked like she wis awa tae faw asleep. She wis wi the group I follaed in. Her eyes wir heavy, like piss holes in the snaw, but she cranked up when she started speakin.
‘Nah, we dinnae bite, no unless we dinnae like ye.’ I wisnae sure how tae tak her. ‘Just kiddin, dinnae worry, ehm Lizzie beh the way, Lizzie Wilks. Ehv no seen ye in the toon afore, ye a newcomer?’ I didnae like questions. They lead tae explanations an I wisnae ready tae explain anyhin tae anyone. ‘Aye, kind o, ma Gran’s fae Forfar. I’m stayin wi her fir a while.’ I avoided Lizzie’s blue eyes; they seemed tae look intae me, through me, but when I flicked glances at some o the others on the line, they wir watchin me wi curiosity an I flinched.
‘Dinnae worry. Ehm a newcomer tae, o sorts, ehm fae Dundee but fancied the teuchter lifestyle so moved up here tae bridie toon.’ Lizzie smirked an winked, noddin her heed towards Davie.
‘Here! Less o the “teuchter” Wilks, ye wee gadgie, else I’ll belt yer smile tae the ither side o yer pus, ye Dundee peh,’ Davie said, swingin his bucket wi pride. Lizzie bounced on the spot, pointin straight at him.
‘Doesnae tak much fir you tae bite Davie dickless, disappointer o sheep, does it?’ She wis goadin him, an before I kent it, there wis aw sorts o banter an it wis hard no tae get caught up in the hilarity o it aw, an I found masel laughin, safe fae the sidelines.
May rolled her soft brown eyes. ‘D’ye think ye could get used tae this?’ I liked her warmth, I felt comfortable when she looked at me, like I could open up the dam withoot washin her awa and we stood bletherin until Lizzie an Davie simmered doon as another supervisor arrived, pushin what looked like two giant ice cream tubs in metal cages on wheels. She rolled them up to Davie, one at either side o him. They wir waist hight an full o steamin carrots. The supervisor wis tall, taller than Davie anyway an hard faced wi deep-set eyes. They had a light in them an it wisnae a soft glow. They wir mean eyes. Cauld. If she’d come ower ballin an shoutin I widnae hae minded, but she wis quiet, and I dinnae mean meek. Her een settled on me fir a few seconds too long – breathe, breathe – and abody went quiet, even Lizzie, and it wis only then I noticed the sound o the factory comin tae life around me.
Oh! Come up an see ma garret
Come up an see it noo
Come up an see ma garret
fir it’s a furnished noo
A chair athoot a boddom
A stail athoot a leg
A humphy backet dresser
An a bowsy leggit bed.
I smellt the mince as soon as I opened the front door. Gran came shufflin intae the loabby like an egg-on-legs, dryin her hands on a dish tooel that had seen better days.
‘Well, lassie, how’d ye get oan?’ she asked, as I sat on the flair an hauled aff ma trainers.
‘I’m knackered, I’m starvin an ma feet are like blocks o ice.’ I peeled aff ma soggy socks tae expose waxy, wrinkled taes.
‘Aye, lassie, ye’ll be jiggered but ye’ll get used tae it. An mind, a herd day’s work niver killt onybody.’
‘Maggie Low wis askin aboot ye.’ I wriggled ma taes tryin tae get some heat intae them.
‘Wis she? I hope ye didnae tell the nosey auld bitch onything.’
She hung the tea tooel ower her shidder. It wis dirty grey an threadbare wi a faded Puffin on it. Mum had ain exactly the same but she’d never used it. She’d ironed it intae a perfect square an kept it in a drawer, telt me tae keep ma hands aff.
‘Where did ye get the tooel, Gran?’
She took it aff her shidder an had a look. ‘Fae yer mither I think. Ye’d be better wi a pair o boots or wellies, lassie, else ye’ll end up wi chill blains an ye dinnae want thoan. Sair bliddy things.’
© Wanda McGregor