– The Helper –
It was to be a day of firsts for me. For the first time, I would ride alone on the bus to Edinburgh. Although I would be getting off the bus quite a bit before the city centre, that first journey on my own was still a big step for a twelve year-old from the sticks. For the first time, too, I was to be paid for the work I would do that day; not like the odd sixpence or shilling that I received from my father for helping him round the Ferry, but a proper hourly rate direct from the owner. That’s how dad explained it, anyway. I wasn’t to know it beforehand, but the day would also bring my very first encounter with the bourgeoisie, an experience that was to remain with me and influence my thinking for the rest of my life.
So it was that early on a Saturday in mid-April we set off from home on our respective journeys. Our destination was the wealthy suburb of Barnton, about five miles to the east of the Ferry. I would get there by bus. Dad, wanting to save on bus fares, would cycle there. As I left the house and headed left to get to the bus stop on the High Street, dad gave his customary ‘Cheery bye’ and pedalled off in the opposite direction on the old boneshaker with peeling black paint that he had ‘borrowed’ from the dockyard. Even when I had reached the end of our street and dad had disappeared round the opposite corner, I could still hear his happy whistle. As if to bless our mission, a soft Spring sun came out that morning and continued to shine all day.
I don’t remember much about the bus journey, except that I spent most of its fifteen minutes fighting off waves of nausea. I had never been a good bus traveller. When I was five, I had gone with dad on my first bus trip into Edinburgh. We had barely stepped off the bus in Charlotte Square when I unloaded my stomach down the pinstriped trouser leg of a passing businessman. Dad had been highly embarrassed, but the man had been very kind, even patting me on the head and giving me a sixpence before he continued on his way. On bus journeys after that, I was made to sit on a newspaper: to reduce the vibrations, I was told. There was no newspaper to sit on during this latest journey, though; nothing to lessen the constant shuddering. That, combined with the frequent juddering stops and starts, and the occasional pungent whiffs of petrol, kept my stomach in turmoil, forcing me to breathe in and out slowly and to concentrate on anything other than being on a smelly, slow-moving bus. It was of no surprise, therefore, that when the bus pulled up in front of the Barnton Hotel, the bus stop where dad and I had agreed to meet, I had no idea if it had passed dad on its route.
As I waited my turn to climb down from the bus into the fresh air, I felt both relief and anxiety: immense relief for not having been sick, of course, but the beginnings of anxiety about meeting up with dad. He said that the bus might get there before him. If that was the case, I should wait at the bus stop. But what if something had gone wrong? What if he had had an accident? Or his bike had broken down? How long was I to wait? With these thoughts forming in my mind, my heart skipped a beat when I couldn’t see dad at first glance. Then I recognised his old bike. It was just a few feet to the left of the bus stop, propped up against a low wall. Behind the wall was the sombre Victorian façade of the Barnton Hotel. And there, sitting on the wall next to the bike, grinning and waving to me, was dad. He was wearing his working clothes: a pair of dark trousers tucked into short Wellingtons; the long dark jacket from an ancient suit; an old white collarless shirt; and a red kerchief knotted round his neck. A black beret with a narrow leather trim, placed at an angle on his head, finished off the outfit. With his dark stubble making him look more swarthy than usual, his long, slightly hooked nose, and a freshly lit roll-up dangling from a corner of his mouth, he could easily have been a member of the French Resistance. But he wasn’t. Dockyard labourer, occasional bookie’s runner and soon-to-be gardener to the toffs: this was my dad.
We were now well away from the noisy traffic on Queensferry Road, having turned a corner into the quiet cul-de-sac at the rear of the Barnton Hotel, dad wheeling his bike along the pavement and me walking quickly beside him, striving to keep up. There was a wood across the road on our left and a row of big houses immediately to our right. Every house in the row was designed in a different style. A few were semi-detached, but most were detached, standing in their own grounds and fronted by wide gardens or courtyards.
‘The job today is a really special one,’ dad was saying. ‘It’s for a high-ranking Navy officer from the base. The head gaffer at the dockyard gave him my name.’ He seemed very proud that his reputation had been passed on at such a high level.
I had been busy studying the rich men’s houses ahead of us, but now I looked up at dad. ‘Is he an Admiral, then?’ I asked, catching my breath.
Dad grinned and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Not yet, anyway. No, he’s just a Commander, son.’
We stopped in front of the last but one house in the cul-de-sac. It was a large, whitewashed affair with a built-in double garage on the left; enormous, rounded bay windows on either side of a porticoed front door; and a courtyard that was completely paved. A sleek, modern caravan squatted under a clump of trees in one corner of the otherwise bare courtyard; bare, that is, except for the weeds – grass and dandelions mostly – that sprouted almost everywhere in the spaces between the paving stones.
Dad tutted at the sight of the weeds. With me hurrying behind him, he ignored the front door and crossed over the courtyard to follow a path round the right-hand side of the house. There, at the farther end, he stopped, took off his beret and knocked at another, smaller door. The door was opened by a wispy woman in a cashmere twinset and matching skirt. I don’t recall much more about the woman’s appearance, except that her eyes were grey and cold and that she looked a good bit older than mum. And there was that voice, of course; a voice that could have cut glass.
‘Yes?’ it said loudly and haughtily, more of a statement than a question.
Nor do I recall much about the ensuing conversation between dad and her. Standing back from them, I had caught sight of the garden at the rear of the house: a wide expanse of lawn, which was lined on both sides by shrub and flower beds, and which seemed to stretch for ages down to a copse of trees. It wasn’t the sheer size of the garden that had grabbed my attention, though, but its condition. Between large patches of clover and clumps of dandelions on the lawn, the grass was over a foot high. Weeds of all descriptions, some as tall as the tallest shrubs, also thronged along the borders.
I found myself comparing this cavernous place – with its cracked and peeling whitewash, its weed-strewn courtyard and its unkempt garden – and the much tinier semi-detached house that we rented from the Council. Our back garden wasn’t large and rolling, but we made maximum use of its limited space. There was a small drying green with a neat concrete border. There was a patch given over to growing vegetables: potatoes mostly, but also carrots, leeks, onions, cabbage and lettuce. There was a trellis for growing peas, a rhubarb patch and even a small patch of wild strawberries. There was also a row of blackcurrant bushes and another of gooseberry bushes, from which mum made jam. The border along the side of the house was always full of shrubs and flowers. The borders round the lawn in our front garden were similarly chock-a-block. The lawn itself had been laid by dad a couple of years before with squares of turf he had cut from the soft grass that grew below bushes in the little wood close to our home. The wild climbing rose bushes, which mum had planted to hide the Council’s ugly chain link fence at the front of the house, and which bloomed white and yellow and pink all summer, had also come from the wood; like the turf, snatched at dusk when no-one was about. Yes, what little we had was nurtured, treasured, precious. The people who lived here were the opposite; they had everything – too much, perhaps – and they seemed not to care about any of it.
A sudden rising of her voice brought my attention back to the woman. ‘Do, please, make use of whatever, um, implements are in there,’ she was saying, waving her hand dismissively at the small garden hut behind us. There was a look of disgust on her face, as if the hut contained the plague.
She began to close the door, but paused. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, not looking at either of us, ‘I’ll be preparing a spot of lunch for you and the, um, boy. About one o’clock. I’ll call you ten minutes before so that you can, um, wash up and things.’
There was an awkward silence as dad looked first at his watch and then at me, and finally checked his jacket pockets nervously. ‘Thanks very much,’ he said eventually, smiling. But I sensed the disappointment behind that smile. Both he and I had been looking forward to the pile of sandwiches that mum had made for us just before we left. Some were made of cheese, others of egg and a few of my favourite, corned beef. They had been neatly parcelled up in the greaseproof wrapper that came with the loaf of bread, and were now weighing down the left-hand pocket of dad’s jacket. Acting as a counterbalance, a big flask of tea, already milked and sugared, stuck out of the right-hand pocket. Instead of enjoying our sandwiches and tea in the Spring sunshine, it looked like we would have to endure a posh lunch in a posh house in the company of a very posh woman. When the door closed behind the woman, dad and I stood looking at each other for some moments. Then we shrugged in unison.
With only the occasional word exchanged between us, we worked solidly throughout the rest of the morning. Dad found a small sickle in the hut and a sharpening tool. The tool was made of steel and had a rough surface; slender and tapered, it looked like a dagger without a hilt. The hut also contained one of those newfangled electric lawn mowers. Dad seemed dismayed when he saw the contraption, but his eyes lit up when he spied a manual mower beside it. The older machine was bigger and wider, and came equipped with a heavy steel roller. I had seen one like it being used on the Bowling Green back in the Ferry. Dad was almost gleeful as he dragged the machine out of the hut. ‘That’ll do nicely,’ he said.
Once dad had sharpened the sickle, he set about cutting down the long grass on the lawn. My job was to gather up the fallen grass and transport it by wheelbarrow to the compost heap under the trees at the foot of the garden. After that, dad gave me the sharpening tool and showed me how to use it to burrow deep into the lawn so that I could loosen and then pull up the roots of the biggest dandelion plants. He also showed me how to pack the resultant holes with earth and little stones. Between us, we prepared the lawn for its first proper cut in a long time.
Dad had just wheeled the mower into place at the top of the lawn, and I had begun to haul some of the larger weeds out of one of the shrub beds, when we heard her. ‘Cooee!’ she cried. Wearing a white apron now, she was waving to us from outside the same door at the side of the house. ‘Cooee!’ she cried again.
‘Fuck!’ I heard dad say under his breath. He looked over at me and sighed. Tiny bits of grass mingled with the sweat that ran down his temples.
After taking off our shoes outside, we followed the woman through the door and straight into the kitchen. For such a grand house, its kitchen seemed rather small and nondescript. A tall fridge occupied the corner facing us as we entered the room. Next to the fridge was a round table with a yellow Formica top. Four aluminium chairs with yellow plastic seats were spaced around the table. I noticed that places had been set at only two of the chairs, a knife and fork, a napkin and a beaker of water in each case. Along the wall to the right of the table and chairs was a door leading into the rest of the house, a cooker and a large cupboard. On the adjacent wall was a long, narrow window that overlooked the back garden. Below the window was a smaller cupboard, also with a yellow Formica top, a draining board and a sink. A geyser protruded from the wall just to the right of the window, its arm hovering over one end of the sink.
The woman motioned towards the sink, handing dad a towel and a bar of soap. ‘You can wash up there,’ she said.
Dad and I took turns to wash our hands and faces before sitting down at the table. The woman busied herself at the cooker. She spoke with her back to us. ‘It’s always the way, isn’t it? The lady who, um, cooks and cleans for us isn’t here today. So you’ll just have to, um, put up with my efforts.’ She turned round with a plate in each hand. ‘I’ve heated up what was left over from last night’s meal and, um, divided it between you,’ she continued. ‘I do hope you’ll enjoy.’
As she placed the plates in front of us, dad muttered his thanks. I echoed his mutter. The woman stood behind us for some seconds, seeming to hesitate. Finally she said, ‘The Commander’s away at the moment … exercises, I think … in the, um, Med. But I think he’d be rather pleased with the, um, progress you’re making today. I wonder, though, if you would remember to do something about the front of the house … the, um, courtyard … those ghastly weeds, you know …’
Probably certain that she couldn’t see the expression on his face, dad looked at me, smiled wryly and rolled his eyes. ‘Aye, no problem,’ he said lightly without turning his head, ‘we’ll not forget.’
‘Jolly good,’ acknowledged the woman. She appeared to hesitate again. Then she looked at me for the first time that day, catching my eye. She smiled weakly. ‘I have two sons, you know. A bit older than you. They’re off at boarding school just now. But they’ll be back in the, um, Summer.’
I couldn’t think of anything to say in reply. ‘Yes,’ I managed to mumble.
‘Anyway, enjoy your lunch,’ she said and promptly left the room, closing the door behind her.
Just for a moment I felt sorry for the woman, all alone in her big house, her husband and her sons God knows how many miles away. But the feeling passed in an instant, replaced by the memory of her coldness.
We examined our plates as soon as she had gone. Each plate contained one slice of meat that looked like roast pork, three small boiled potatoes and two Brussels sprouts. ‘It was hardly worth washing our hands for,’ I hissed.
‘Shush now,’ dad whispered, but I knew he felt the same.
As if we had rehearsed it, we picked up our knives and forks simultaneously and looked again at the Brussels sprouts on our plates. Dad groaned and I went ‘Yuk!’ It looked like we would get to eat mum’s sandwiches after all.
Outside in the sunshine with our shoes back on, dad handed me the sharpening tool again. ‘I’m sorry, son,’ he said, ‘but I need a favour from you. Would you mind doing the weeds at the front? The Commander never mentioned the front, and we won’t get finished today if I try and do it myself. I ken it’s bloody awful work, son, but just do your best, eh?’
‘Sure, dad,’ I replied. ‘I’ll give it a go.’ Although the words were said stoically, secretly I was glad to have been given the responsibility, to have the whole courtyard to myself.
We worked on for the next couple of hours, dad at the rear, pushing the heavy mower down and then back up the lawn, and me at the front on my hands and knees, picking out the weeds from between the paving stones. Around three o’clock, we stopped for a break. Out of sight from the house, we sat among the trees at the foot of the lawn, eating our sandwiches and drinking our tea. While dad rested his back against the trunk of a tree, stretched out his legs and began to make a roll-up, I went for a pee behind one of the other trees. Dad followed suit shortly afterwards, with me keeping lookout for him. Not having been invited by the woman to do so, neither of us had wanted to go to the house to ask to use the toilet.
It was when I was returning to the courtyard to resume my work that I stopped at the window on the side of the house. The window was next to the door that we had used to go into the kitchen. I had gone straight past it several times now, but this time curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to take just a peek inside, to gain a tiny inkling of how the people in this big house lived. But the room behind the window was disappointingly small and narrow. On the wall opposite me, I saw a door on the left and a pair of bunk beds on the right. A cricket bat rested against the wall at the side of the door. Her two boys, I concluded. Their bedroom. There were no pictures or posters on the walls, though, no Airfix models suspended from the ceiling, nothing to brighten up the room, which seemed drab and impersonal and uncared for. On the top of what could have been a sideboard or a bookcase directly below the window, I could see a pile of old comics and a shallow fruit bowl, in which someone had placed a rugby ball. Next to the bowl, as if just discarded there, was a small, slim, lozenge-shaped tin of toffees. The tin was silver-grey with a picture of a racing car on the lid. I had seen tins just like it the previous Christmas in McGillivary’s, the little sweetshop on the High Street back home. A posh boy’s unwanted stocking filler, I remember thinking.
It was nearly six o’clock. The sun was sinking below the roof line at the front of the house, leaving a chilly shadow in its place. Having deposited the last of the weeds and muck from the courtyard on the compost heap at the rear, I had returned to collect my jacket and the sharpening tool. My back was aching, my knees were sore and the constant wielding of the rough handle of the tool had left me with blisters on both hands. But I was happy, pleased with myself and with the work I had done. The courtyard was immaculate now. Dad had said so, too, when he came round earlier to view my handiwork.
I put on my jacket and went back round the side of the house, where dad was putting on his own jacket. After returning the tool to the hut and closing the hut door, I took one last look at the garden. Its whole length was bathed in a soft orange glow from the rays of the setting sun. Neatly clipped and freshly edged, the lawn was now unblemished. Dad had even managed to create that two-tone effect with the mower, just like on football pitches and cricket grounds that you saw on the television. The plants along the borders also now looked healthy and vibrant and weed-free. The many months of neglect seemed to have just vanished.
‘Magnificent,’ I said, standing alongside dad.
‘Aye,’ dad nodded. ‘A professional job, right enough.’
Clutching both his beret and the handlebars of his bike in his left hand, dad knocked at the kitchen door with his right. As soon as the woman appeared at the door, he said, ‘That’s us finished now and ready to go.’
Still wearing the white apron, the woman stepped out of the house to look down over the garden, just as we had done moments before. Then turning back to face us, she exclaimed with her hands clasped, ‘Absolutely marvellous! The Commander will be delighted!’ Her voice was more strident than ever.
She produced a small manila envelope from the pocket in the front of her apron. Handing the envelope to dad, she said, ‘For, um, ten hours’ work. As agreed with the Commander. And thank you so much.’
‘It’s a pleasure,’ dad replied, slipping the envelope, unopened, into the inside pocket of his jacket.
The woman looked at me now, smiled and dug something else out of her apron pocket. ‘And this is for you, young man,’ she said, bending to offer the object to me. ‘Thank you ever so much.’
My heart sank when I recognised the tin and the picture of the racing car on it. I took the tin from her and slid it into my jacket pocket. I didn’t want to look at the woman, so I kept my eyes lowered and said ‘Thank you’ to her as politely as I could, just as I had been taught at home. I was crestfallen, but I tried hard to remain impassive, to fight back the tears that were welling up in my eyes. When I looked up at dad, I could see from his face that he, too, was deeply disappointed.
With the woman’s false ‘Byee’ ringing in our ears, we left that big house the same way we had arrived, dad wheeling his bike along the pavement and me walking quickly to keep up with him. There seemed to be an added urgency in our step this time, though, as if we wanted to be rid of the place as quickly as possible.
We didn’t speak a word until we reached the bus stop on the other side of Queensferry Road. By that time, the surprise and disappointment that I had experienced back at the house had hardened into a sullen anger. Dad put on his beret. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I don’t have any lights on my bike, and I want to get home before it’s dark, so I’m going to push off just now. The bus should be here in about ten minutes.’ He paused, searching my face. ‘You did a great job today, son. And I wouldn’t have got on so well without you. I’m really sorry about that bloody woman and her bastard sweeties. Don’t worry about getting paid, though. I’ll square up with you when you get home.’
I could feel the tears building up again. I tried to smile. ‘Okay,’ I said hoarsely, ‘I’ll see you soon.’
Dad looked tired and gaunt. There was no cheery whistle this time as he mounted his bike and pedalled off slowly into the stream of northbound traffic.
I was still angry when dad left. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. My anger was mounting. My eyes were beginning to hurt from constantly peering up the road to check for the shape of the bus in the distance. The traffic going both ways seemed to have grown in volume and speed and noise. Alone at the bus stop, I felt small and insignificant in the midst of the cacophony. The sun had gone now, and the whole place had become colder and unfriendly.
After half an hour, the anger had gone, no longer important. I was very worried now. And there was no-one to talk to, no-one to share my concerns with. But those concerns simply melted away when I saw the bus approaching at last. Trying to stand as tall as possible, I stuck out my hand as straight and as far as I could. My heart sank for the second time that day when the bus sped past me, its driver not even acknowledging my presence. I caught a glimpse of people standing in the aisle of the bus, some staring at me as they flashed by.
Every instinct I possessed wanted me to panic at that moment, but something familiar about the packed bus made me think instead. Then it dawned on me. It was Saturday evening, of course! The time when the city’s outsiders finished their shopping and wanted to return home. There were always long queues at the Bus Station at this time, and the buses were always late and full and too few. I had been a member of that same exodus on several occasions. I knew that once the buses left the Bus Station it was rare for any of their passengers to get off before the first stop in the Ferry, leaving no room for new passengers to get on along the route out of the city. If I continued to wait there at the bus stop, there was no guarantee that I would get on the next bus or the one after that or even the one after that.
When I realised that it would be better to walk home, I was glad. It meant no more waiting and uncertainty, and no more disappointments as buses flew past me. Almost as important, it meant that the morning’s experience would not be repeated; there would be no more fear of being sick on the bus. Moreover, by cutting down through Dalmeny village, I could take a quicker route than the bus. I could be home in an hour, an hour and a half at most. ‘Who needs buses anyway?’ I said to myself as I set off positively at a brisk pace.
My positive outlook didn’t last long. As I walked, the events of that evening replayed in my head, and my anger and resentment returned. I was angry with the bus service for its inadequacy. I was angry with dad for being too soft, for accepting what the woman did without complaint. Most of all, I was angry with the woman. Dad didn’t check inside the envelope, but I knew that she hadn’t paid him for my work. She had cheated me out of ten hours’ payment. She had then belittled my efforts, adding insult to injury by presenting me with something that was of no value either to her or to her own children. She may not have done any of this deliberately or with malice, but it wasn’t an excuse to be thoughtless and arrogant. To make it all worse, dad said he would square up with me, but that would be like stealing from him.
These angry thoughts consumed me so much that I didn’t realise how fast I had been walking. Before I knew it, I was crossing Cramond Bridge. Out of breath and with the traffic thundering past, I stopped for a rest, leaning over the parapet to watch the shallow, fast-moving waters of the River Almond far below. I heard a soft clunk as the tin of toffees in my jacket knocked against the parapet wall. I took the tin out of my pocket and, without hesitation, hurled it over the wall as hard as I could. The tin made a long arc before plummeting. I saw a glint as it skiffed off a flat stone at the side of the river and then a splash as it hit the water, immediately disappearing below the surface. Sparkling in the twilight, undisturbed by this little drama, the Almond continued to gurgle on its journey down to the sea.
It was at that moment, when the offending tin had gone for ever, that I made the vow. I would never end up like dad, labouring all day at the dockyard, running bets for the bookie whenever he could, spending every other spare hour doing people’s gardens, always striving to pick up that few extra quid to feed and clothe his big family. I had brains and intelligence, so everyone kept telling me. If those failed to make enough money, I would lie and cheat and steal if I had to. But, whatever happened, I would never ever rely on handouts from her kind again. Thus resolved, I resumed my journey home with a fresh vigour.
The dusk light was fading when I turned the corner into our street. High above the trees of the little wood at the end of the street, a flock of starlings was wheeling across the darkening sky. I could see dad standing at the top of the steps outside our front door. He was in his shirt sleeves, a mug of tea in one hand and a roll-up in the other. He waved when he saw me, and I waved back.
‘The bus was full, so I walked,’ I said as I shut the garden gate behind me.
Dad nodded. ‘Thought so,’ he smiled.
When I reached the top of the steps, he put his arm round my shoulders and led me into the house. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I owe you some money.’
He never mentioned the tin of toffees again. Nor did I.
– o –