– The Shoppers –



The two women sat side by side on the bus, their backs straight, their arms folded and their handbags resting on their laps.  Both women were in their thirties.  Both wore make-up today and summer coats and those pillbox hats with little veils at the front that Jackie Kennedy had made fashionable back then.  But the similarities in their physical appearance ended there.  Mary, my mother, was small and slim.  She had long blue-black hair, and her dark, almond-shaped eyes were set in a finely chiselled face.  With blue-grey eyes, short mousy hair and a face that was more full and round, Rose, Billy’s mother, was bigger and heavier and fairer than Mary.  Whereas Mary’s voice was soft and lilting, which was not surprising in view of her origins, Rose spoke loudly and often with a stutter, the stutter becoming more pronounced the angrier or more agitated she became.


Although the two women were quite different in stature and complexion and speech, there were other things that connected Mary and Rose, helping to form that bond between them.  There was geography for a start.  They lived directly opposite each other, the back of Rose’s house looking down their sloping rear gardens to the back of Mary’s house.  A path had been cut through the gardens to make it easier for them to visit each other.  And, when not visiting, they could often be seen waving to each other from their kitchen windows.


They were also connected through their Irishness.  Mary had been born and brought up on a farm in County Cavan, close to the border with Ulster, in Rebel country.  She loved Michael Collins with a passion, and she hated Eamon De Valéra with a vengeance.  ‘Slimy toad’, she spat out whenever the latter man’s name was mentioned in the papers or on the radio or television.  She claimed that her father had been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Irish Republican Army, one of Michael Collins’ right-hand men.  Most people, including me, were sceptical about that claim, but I remember her showing me a book when I was a bit older.  It was a biography of Michael Collins, a paperback.  On the front cover there was a picture of ‘The Big Fella’ in his uniform, with the Irish tricolour in the background.  And in the Index at the back there was the following entry about my grandfather: ‘Lane, Padraig, Lt.-Col., IRA’.  I was a believer after that.


Rose’s Irishness was inherited, rather than experienced.  She had been born and bred in Scotland, but like many Lowland Scots her family’s roots were found in Ireland.  Being much further removed from the Republic than Mary, her love for the country was a more romanticised one, but it was no less fierce for that.  She had a strong, clear singing voice, with no sign of a stutter in it.  When she stood at the sink washing dishes in the mornings after breakfast and in the evenings after tea, she exercised that voice, working through her panoply of Rebel songs, the strains of ‘Kevin Barry’ and ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and ‘The Wearing of the Green’, amongst many others, wafting through her open kitchen windows.  Mary, who couldn’t hold a tune herself, loved to hear Rose’s singing float down through the gardens.  Stirred by the songs, she would hum along to them as best she could.


But more than their proximity to each other and more than their shared Irishness, it was their Roman Catholicism that created the strongest connection between Mary and Rose, cementing their bond of friendship.  Just as Catholics were a small minority in the Ferry as a whole, theirs were the only two Catholic families in that corner of the Council estate, their houses and gardens forming a tiny enclave in the midst of their Protestant neighbours, many of whom were suspicious and resentful of their ‘papist’ religion, some of whom were outright hostile to it.  Rose was the more devout of the two women, and by far the quicker to defend her faith in the face of any hostility from what she called ‘he-he-heathens’.  Although she made sure that her children attended Chapel regularly, Mary described herself as ‘a lapsed Catholic’.  She was concerned less with acts of religious intolerance there in the Ferry and much more with the injustices of the past in her home country, particularly those perpetrated by the British Army – ‘the English Army’, as she contemptuously described it.  She held a special contempt for Winston Churchill.  She could never forgive his creation, the Black and Tans, for what they did to her father after they captured him.  They ripped out his fingernails, wrapped a Union Jack around him and paraded him that way through his own village.  According to Mary, the shame haunted the poor man for the rest of his life, so much so that he eventually took to drink, neglecting his farm and family; her mother fell ill and was taken to a sanatorium; and she and her siblings were put in a home that was run by nuns.  When she heard a few years later that Churchill was close to dying, she laughed and said she would dance a jig on his grave.  She was not a forgiving Catholic.


It was because of their religion that the two women had come together on the bus today.  Billy and I, their sons, who sat behind them on the bus, would be starting secondary school in September.  As Catholics from the Ferry who had both passed the Qualifying Test – the Eleven-Plus Examination, to give it its proper name – we would be attending St. Mary’s Academy in Bathgate, where we would be able to study for O-levels and Highers in later years.  Those in our class who failed to qualify would be going instead to the Roman Catholic secondary school in Bo’ness, where the best they could hope to achieve was a Leaving Certificate.  Our mothers were highly proud of our achievement, of course.  Wanting us to look our best when we commenced our new school, they were intent on kitting us out with brand new school uniforms.  And those uniforms could only be purchased in Bathgate itself.  In those days, Bathgate was two bus journeys away from the Ferry, a total of some thirty miles away by road.  We were on the first of those journeys now, having passed through the villages of Kirkliston and Winchburgh on our way to the town of Broxburn, where the journey would end.  The sun shone in a clear blue sky.  It was the morning of 12th July, but it would be a while yet before the full significance of that date would dawn on the four of us.



Just like our mothers, Billy and I were opposites in appearance.  He was tall and blond and blue-eyed, looking more Teutonic than Scots, while I was small, dark and skinny.  But also like our mothers, we were best friends.  When we received the news a couple of weeks earlier that we had passed the Qualifying Test, we were ecstatic.  Laughing and joking, we went out on Billy’s bike that morning, with me sitting on the crossbar.  As we sped down a hill, one of my feet hit the front wheel spokes, and the bike juddered to a halt, catapulting both of us over the handlebars.  We were still laughing and joking when we picked ourselves up from the tarmac, our knees and elbows scraped and bleeding.  We were delighted not just because qualifying meant that we would go on to our next school together or because it confirmed that we were brighter than others in our class.  Much more important to us twelve year-old boys than both of those things was the relief of knowing that we had been spared the pain and torture of attending the other school in Bo’ness.  For that school had a fearsome reputation, with reports circulating in our class of gangs and fights and daily beatings of first-year pupils.  If you were a boy, untold horrors would befall you in your first week, or so it was claimed.  Little did we know that St. Mary’s in Bathgate was just as bad, if not worse.  The school not only gathered together from across West Lothian those Catholic children who had passed the Qualifying Test, but also took in from its immediate catchment area those who had failed.  Thus, accommodated alongside the academic cream of Catholic youth throughout the county, and overwhelmed by them, were the dregs – the morons and hard men and thugs – from the tough mining towns of Armadale, Blackburn, Whitburn, Stoneyburn and Fauldhouse, as well as from Broxburn and Bathgate itself.  And little did our mothers realise that the purchases they would make that day – the bright blue blazers with gold braid round the edges and the matching caps – would help to mark out their sons as shiny new targets of those very same morons and hard men and thugs.


But those were events that would unfold in the future.  For the moment, Billy and I were still very happy to be starting at St. Mary’s in September.  We were also excited by the trip today, neither of us having been to Bathgate, or even Broxburn, before.  We had been told that the bus going into Bathgate town centre would pass by St. Mary’s, so we were looking forward to the first sighting of our new school.  Meantime, as the bus approached Broxburn, we had become mesmerised by the scenery around us.  We had seen shale bings before – there was one in Dalmeny across the fields from our homes – but never as many bings at one time, and never as large or steep or pink as these ones.  The road was surrounded by the bings, the bus dwarfed by them.  We were really in cowboy country.  The Bad Lands.  Apache territory.  Our stagecoach was thundering through a dry gulch.  It had just escaped an ambush.  Soon it would be rolling into the rough frontier town of Broxburn ...



The sun was still shining at three o’clock that afternoon, but a stiff breeze had sprung up and was now gusting eastward along Broxburn Main Street, where we were waiting for the bus to take us home, our business in Bathgate finished.  Going into and out of Bathgate, Billy and I had seen St. Mary’s twice.  In contrast with our small, modern primary school in the Ferry, St. Mary’s was an enormous, sprawling building with a crumbling Victorian façade; we didn’t admit it to each other at the time, but those first impressions of the sheer size of our new school filled us with dread.  We had spent over an hour in a clothes shop, where we tried on blazers and caps, which our mothers purchased along with school badges to sew on them, school ties and two pairs each of grey flannels (short ones, of course, in spite of our pleas for long trousers), while all the time complaining about the exorbitant prices of the items.  Before returning to Broxburn, we had tea and sandwiches and cakes in a little tearoom next to the clothes shop, an old-fashioned kind of place where the waitresses wore black dresses and white aprons and frilly white hats.  Sipping their tea and politely dabbing at their mouths with their napkins, our mothers tried to behave like posh ladies; if one or other of them had raised a pinkie as she lifted her teacup, I don’t think I would have been surprised.


Feeling cold in their thin coats, the two women decided to go inside the shelter at the bus stop, while Billy and I stood outside to watch for the bus coming.  As we looked up the wide street towards Uphall, the direction from which the bus would approach, it was a little while before we realised that there was no traffic on the road.  We also noticed that groups of people had begun to stop on the pavement along both sides of the street.  The whole place had grown quiet.  There was an air of anticipation about it.  Then, there above a rise in the street away ahead of us, we saw the tops of banners fluttering in the strong breeze.  Seconds later, we could make out the men who carried the banners as they came over the rise.  The bowler hats.  The orange collarettes.  The dark suits.  Other men, dressed exactly like the first and carrying umbrellas like walking sticks, marched closely behind.  We heard the band long before we saw it.  There were the sounds of flutes and snare drums and bass drums, all belting out the rousing tune of ‘The Sash My Father Wore’.  We knew the tune and the song that went with it.  We knew what the song meant.  Even at our tender age, we were well used to bigotry – we had been chased and spat on and called ‘Fenian bastards’ often enough by our Protestant peers back in the Ferry – but this was a much more frightening kind of bigotry: full-blown and adult, it was designed to confront and intimidate, to cow us Catholics into submission.


If those were the aims of the Orange Walk on that ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of July, they certainly succeeded in the case of Billy and me, who promptly retreated into the bus shelter behind our mothers.  But they seemed to produce the opposite effect on the two women.  Gone was the politeness of the two ladies who had come out to shop that day.  Gone was the demureness that they had affected in the tearoom earlier on.  By the time the marchers strode into their full view and hearing, their faces had contorted into expressions of loathing.  A stream of abuse and spittle erupted from Rose.  Using words that I had never heard her utter before, and would not hear her utter again, my mother hurled out an equally offensive string of insults.  The strong, hard-faced men at the front of the march strutted on unaffected, not seeming to hear the insults.  But the women and their actions had been noticed by others, spectators on the pavement opposite the bus shelter, who had begun to return the abuse.  Billy and I recognised the danger of the situation.  We pleaded with our mothers to stop, to keep quiet, to stand back.  As we tugged on their coats, a Police Inspector and a Police Sergeant, both big and stern-looking, suddenly appeared in front of the women, blocking their view of the march.


The Inspector seemed exasperated.  ‘If you two don’t stop the racket, I’m going to have to lift you both ... and your children,’ he announced gruffly.

            ‘Be warned that there’s a Black Maria waiting just round the corner,’ the Sergeant added.


Billy and I cowered back, but our mothers stood their ground.  ‘What for?  What have we done wrong?’ mine asked defiantly.  She was at least a foot smaller than both policemen.

            ‘Because you are causing a disturbance, madam,’ the Inspector said, looking more exasperated.

            ‘That’s ju-ju-just rid-rid-ridiculous,’ Rose spluttered.  ‘It’s those bi-bi-bigots you should be lo-lo-locking –’

            ‘Enough!’ shouted the Inspector, finally losing his patience.  ‘This bloody town is like a powder keg today.  It’s bad enough having to deal with the headcases here without you pair butting in.  Now, for the last time, keep quiet or I’ll lift the lot of you!’


By the time he finished speaking, the march had gone past us.  We could just make out the remnants of it behind the policemen.  The band had been silent for a short while, but the drums began to beat again and the flutes launched into the tune of ‘Derry’s Walls’.


Her neck outstretched, her eyes bulging, Rose peered over the shoulders of the two men as she tried to get a better view of the band.  ‘Bunch of cu-cu-cun –,’ she screamed, but the noise of the approaching bus drowned out her words.



The two women sat side by side on the bus again, their backs straight, their arms folded, their handbags resting on their laps, their shopping bags at their feet, their composure regained.  Billy and I sat behind them again.  We were quiet, shocked by their reactions, but in awe of their bravery.  We had a new-found respect for our mothers.  The bus turned left off Main Street, leaving behind the marchers and the onlookers and the noise and the policemen.  We had just been run out of town by the Sheriff.  Our stagecoach was heading back into Apache territory.



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My Blog - writer's block
The Barman (2009)