Wings

by Alan Spence

I’m back in Edinburgh after two months away – a trip to China – and the flat has that cold, empty, unused feel, a fustiness, a faint smell of damp. It’s there as I push open the front door. There’s a slight resistance as the door catches the jumble of mail accumulated behind it, skims a few letters, bundles up the rest.

My wife is still in China, won’t be back for another week. I’m separated from my luggage – it happens more and more on longhaul. My suitcase is somewhere between Singapore and Heathrow.

Through to the back room, open the curtains and let in what’s left of the light this grey mid-January afternoon. The windows look out across the park, and a vicious east wind rattles the frames, seeps in through gaps and under the skirting boards. Switch on the heating, hear it crank and grind into action, but I’ll keep my coat on till the place starts to warm up, thaw out.

The light on the telephone is flashing. 14 messages. Most folk who’d be calling me knew I was away. I’ll listen in a minute – in the meantime, put the kettle on. If there’s any milk in the fridge it’ll be rancid, bulging the carton. So I’ll make a pot of green, a couple of bags so it’s strong enough, let it steep.

The letterbox is an old one, has stuck, wedged open. I flip it shut, pick up the bundle of mail. Do a preliminary sorting, junkmail and the Council’s free tabloid, bills and bank statements, finally personal letters, the odd-shaped envelopes probably Christmas cards. Make a further subdivision into the ones that are handwritten, to open first.

The big square one – pale yellow – has my name and address painstakingly written in a careful, shaky scrawl, the letters taking up the whole envelope. The card is from Ralph, a reproduction of one of his own paintings, all vibrant reds and blues, a stained-glass intensity of colour, depicting what could be a winged angel emerging from fire. I prop it on the mantelpiece beside the bronze statue of dancing Siva, and open the rest of the cards, half a dozen in all. Then there’s a plain white envelope, regular business-size, the address, again, handwritten. But this time the writing’s neat, small, contained. Glasgow postmark. I ease it open and it’s a letter from Ralph’s daughter informing me that Ralph died just after Christmas, a few days short of his 101st birthday.

*

It must have been 1963 I first saw Ralph, striding across the school playground at the morning break. Football was banned, ostensibly for fear of breaking a window, or causing injury. But really, we knew, it was because the school game was rugby, and football was for scruffs and hooligans. That was us, and we played anyway, smuggled in a tennis ball, jinked and passed and dribbled with it in the cramped space beside the canteen, fired in shots at tiny chalkmarked goals. We wore our school uniforms, navy blazers and greyflannel trousers that hampered movement, and we lumbered about in clumpy blackleather outdoor shoes, awkward for controlling the footery skite and bounce of the ball. Somebody must have taken a wild swipe at it, battered it into touch and across the main quadrangle. I went speeding after it through clusters and scrums and covens of other boys, and just out the corner of my eye saw a tall figure advancing towards me. I just managed to brake, avoid crashing into him. He was tall and gangly, dressed in a lovat tweed suit, bottlegreen shirt and bright floral tie. His hair was silvergrey and long, swept back. He looked down at me, distracted a moment by this commotion at the edge of his universe.

I didn’t breathe, waited. I had no idea who this man was, but he had to be a teacher in spite of his flamboyance. He had the power, could march me to The Boss’s office and hand me over for summary trial, conviction, sentence, execution. For the crimes of playing football (contrary to regulations), running like a madman across the playground and alarming a member of staff. Then the Boss would start on the general scruffiness, the hair long, over the collar, the variations in school uniform. Were those trousers tapered? Black instead of grey? The shirt blue instead of white? Christ, it would be four of the belt at least, and detention, and orders not to come back to school without smartening up.

The tall man in the tweed suit seemed to bring me into focus, waved his hand with a kind of languid dismissiveness.

Mind how you go, he said, the voice English, or cultivated Scots, and he strode on.

I picked up the ball and ran with it back to our pitch just as the bell rang for the end of break.

Bloody hell! said Doug. Who was that?

New art teacher, said one of the other boys.
Man! said another, and he pinched his nose as if making a tannoy announcement in a wartime film. Poofter alert! Arse bandit at ten o’clock! And he strafed a row of first-years as we dragged ourselves inside for a double period of maths.

*

I’ve let the green tea brew, poured it into my favourite china cup – fine ceramic with a darkblue glaze. Now I’m letting the heat of it warm my hands.

Peter Falk in that Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire, playing himself as a fallen angel. The scene where he can’t see the Bruno Ganz character but senses his presence and talks to him about the simple joys of being human. He is smoking a cigarette, he has a coffee from the catering caravan, he holds the cup in his hands, warming them. But then he talks about drawing. How does that fit in? Does he have a little notebook? Is it tucked in a top pocket?

Another scene replaces that one. It’s from My Ain Folk, first part of the Bill Douglas trilogy. The old woman sits in her cold kitchen, you can see her breath. The wee boy, her grandson, comes in and sees her. He runs tapwater into the kettle, boils it up and pours some into a cup, swirls the water round then empties it out, places the warmed cup in the old woman’s hands, wraps her stiff fingers round it.

The scene is in black and white, like my own memories of my childhood – Glasgow in the Fifties and early Sixties, before everything changed. I don’t want to go back there, don’t want to write about it again. It’s like that Irish short story I read years ago – it was called Not another bloody Irish short story. Enough said. But there’s something about the dankness of this midwinter cold, the flat not yet warmed up, the small comfort of this cup held in my hands. For a moment I was back there, as I often am in dreams.

I check the messages on the answering machine. Nothing much. Half of them are just blank, an irritated click and buzz. There’s one from Scottish Power, about an unpaid bill. If you could contact us. An automated sales pitch for something or other. Cut it short, erase. One or two from friends, wondering when I’d be back. And one from Ralph’s daughter, telling me about the funeral arrangements, for last week.

Ach.

*

The Glasgow I grew up in was grim – no other word for it. Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow sonnets got it just right. The gang slogans daubed on the wall a lost libera nos a male. How it was. The same weans never made the grade. / The same grey street sends back the ball it throws.

Doug and I were weans that did make the grade. We’d passed a bursary exam at the age of twelve, a scholarship to this Good School. It was a step up, a way to get on. Great opportunity, my father would say, chance of a lifetime.

My father never coped with my mother’s death. She was 38, he was barely 40. Christ. How do you deal with that? He didn’t. He drank, despaired, fell apart. Myself am hell, which way I fly is hell. The deepest circle of Dante’s hell is not fire, but ice. My father shut down, numbed, and the only thing that kept him going was the hope that I would get out of it all, make something of my life. Get out of this, he’d say.

The place was a tip, the pits. A room and kitchen, one coldwater sink. No bath, a shared toilet outside on the landing. Cold linoleum on the floors, the furniture old and heavy and dark, pre-war. It smelled dank and stale, dull background of damp stone and dusty upholstery, overlaid with the cold-lard residue of fry-ups, the lingering taint of the old man’s fagsmoke. And we were useless, incapable of keeping the place clean or even halfway tidy. Rubbish would just accumulate – newspapers, empty bottles, even ash shovelled out from the fireplace and into thick paper coalbags. Look at us, I’d say. Look at the state of us. And from time to time, when the clutter became unbearable, we’d lug some of the stuff down three flights of stairs, dump it in the midden in the back court.

At one stage my father got into debt, drinking too much, gambling. An electric bill went unpaid and we were cut off, went months without electricity, through a winter. I can hardly believe this as I’m writing it. I’m seeing it like a film, images somebody else has dreamed. The boy coming home from school to the empty house, lighting stubs of candle, clearing out the grate, to get a meagre fire going, eking out the coal so it would last the night. Heating a pie in the oven, hoping the shilling in the gas would last; crumbling half an oxo cube in a cup of hot water to make a gravy, pouring it over the pie. I can smell it, taste it. Another bloody Glasgow short story.
Or it becomes a Python sketch. A shilling in the gas? Luxury. We never had gas. We lit the methane from our own farts. What, with matches? Luxury. We had to strike sparks off a flint. Flint? Luxury.

*

The heating’s kicked in now, warmed up the flat. I can take my coat off, pour myself more green tea.

The strange thing about those memories is, for all the misery of it, there was a kind of contentment with what I had – a cup of tea, the fire going, the candlelight. I sat at the heart of my own story, touched some core of my being, a self-sufficiency. I could make do with little, could even feel grateful.

Peter Falk in that scene, with his coffee and his cigarette, alive in the moment. I have the film on DVD. I must look it out, watch it again.

*

Eventually the electricity was reconnected – somehow my father had got hold of the money, paid the bill. He’d begged or borrowed, maybe backed a winner for once, won a few quid. He flicked the switch and the place lit up. Fiat lux, I said. He grinned. Let there be light, eh? And suddenly we could see the room as it was, in all its dingy shabbiness, the light harsh and unforgiving. This was how we lived, among this clutter and detritus.

Come on, I said, and he stood up.

Shoulder to the wheel, eh?

Together we dragged out the last of the rubbish, filled up the midden. I stood a moment, hands on hips, breathed in the cool air, looked up at the tenements, the night sky.

I remember it. The exact feeling. Sweat drying on my t-shirt, starting to chill; hands and face and clothes grubby, smeared with grime and ash. Somewhere a voice raised, shouting, Ya bastard. A cough, a hard laugh. A door slamming. Bark of a dog. And back upstairs, the light on in the shabby flat, showing us where we were.

*

To get out, to get away, to get on.

A step up. A great opportunity. Chance of a lifetime.

The school founder had been an engineer, and the arts were peripheral. Surplus. Doug and I were never going to be physicists, or captains of industry. He wanted to paint and I wanted to write. Somehow Ralph recognised us, saw what we were trying to be. He saved us, made us believe.

His absolute opposite was The Boss. Black cloak and pinstripe suit, Old Boy’s tie. Greying hair shorn at the back and sides, brylcreemed slick across the pate. You’d hear the clack of his blackpolished shoes along the corridor as he patrollled the school.

If the footsteps stopped outside the classroom door it usually meant trouble. V2 rockets during the War. My father had told me about them. The sudden silence when the engine cut out, before the bomb fell. The hush before the Boss stepped in the door. Doug and I tried to keep out of his way, but we always fell foul, and it would be the belt or lines.

I must not model myself on the lowest element in society.

Ralph got us involved in the school magazine, published my poems alongside Doug’s drawings.

You’re a poet, he told me. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

*

When we left school we produced a magazine of our own, printed it ourselves on a hand-cranked roneo duplicator – poems and articles, a few gratuitous obscenities for the hell of it. Doug and I made a cartoon strip – he did the drawings and I wrote the words. It featured a superhero called Lavvyman. By day he was mildmannered public toilet attendant Plurg O’Tiffey, at night he soared over Glasgow on his lavvicopter, a flying lavatory pan with rotorblades instead of a cistern – it could switch to rocket power at the slide of a snib marked engaged. Lavvyman was dedicated to fighting the forces of repression, and with his flush-operated bomb function, that mainly involved shitting on his enemies from a great height.

FLUSH! KER-BAM! SPLAT!

We took a copy to the school to show Ralph.

Marvellous, he said, laughing. Marvellous!

*

Marvellous.

Once he invited us to his house, a bungalow in the suburbs. His wife had made vegetarian food, a curry, and after we’d eaten he said we should all sit down and meditate. He led it, chanting Aum. He lit incense. There were flowers in a vase. We were awkward, wanted to laugh. But we persevered, felt it just for a moment, a calm gladness. It opened a door, just a chink, let the light in.

*

We went our separate ways. Doug became a graphic artist. I wrote books. Ralph sent a postcard from time to time, congratulations for this or that, kept in touch through decades of love and loss, birth and bereavement, success and despair. He made it through a century, outlived my father by 30 years, the Boss by 20.

*

We saw him again just a few years ago. Doug had heard he wanted to see us, and the next time we were both in Glasgow we met at Ralph’s house, took him out for lunch. He was frail and gaunt, his white hair down to his shoulders. We helped him along, one on either side, took an arm each, felt the thinness of his bones through his old tweed jacket.

His wife had died. His eyesight was fading. But he still worked. Back at his studio he showed us his latest painting, a great galactic swirl of blues and greens. He painted up close, his eyes a few inches from the canvas.

Thank God I have my third eye, he said, to see what I’m doing!

*

It’s getting dark out there now. I draw the curtains, make more tea. Prop up Ralph’s card on the mantelpiece. It reminds me, and I find the DVD, Wings of Desire. Slot it in the machine, fastforward to the scene with Peter Falk.

I can’t see you but I know you’re here…I feel it…I wish I could tell you how good it is to be here… just to touch something. ..You draw, you make a dark line and you make a light line, or when your hands are cold you rub them together…it feels good.

*

Yes.

Copyright © Alan Spence & National Short Story Day

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