Man and Boy
Fathers, sons and the grumbling terraces of industrial Scotland
My father was a diffident man with a sly sense of humour and marked intelligence, which was wasted in the factory where he worked.
Hasties. They made ship's engines. He was a marine engineer. Greenock, the West of Scotland, 1951. I was 10 at the time.
A boy saw very little of his father in those days – the men worked overtime, night-shift and swerved like a winger into the pub on a Friday night; in fact often when they emerged en masse from the works a few determined wives were waiting to make sure they got the pay- packet before it disappeared inside the publican's pocket.
It was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking world and, being 10, I didn't take much part in it.
On Saturday mornings I sometimes took his betting line to the bookies, which was 10 yards to the left as you look at it from the Willow Bar where my dad drank and was the domino champion. I disgraced myself once when my mother's horse for the Derby came in at the odds of 33-1 and my father, having thought the beast had no chance, had laid the money on another cuddy that lost comprehensively but comforted himself that he could hoodwink my mother as regards the odds. When he returned wreathed in Woodbine smoke from the bookies, he found that I, the mathematical genius, had calculated the due sum to the exact penny.
So he had to shell out and gave me what can only be described as a look of remonstrance.
But that's not what I wanted to write about.
Every other Saturday afternoon, my father would shine his shoes till they gleamed like a brass candle-stick, put on a clean shirt, his fawn windcheater if the weather allowed, comb his wiry hair to an undeviating-side parting then turn and nod to me where I stood in the doorway with my pilot helmet on.
"Are ye ready?" he would ask.
I nodded back. My mother, hunched over the two-bar electric fire — one bar of which worked – and already deep in her latest Max Brand cowboy story, called a farewell warning against drygulchers, and the journey began.
Cappielow not Camelot. Greenock Morton the team, football the game. Heroes on green grass.
This was our time together. Father and son. Even remembering it now, as we came down the tenement stairs together, the grey light spilling into the mouth of the close, a moment when he might mutter and adjust my collar which was never out or in, ever, between my jerkin and pullover, even now, in my solar plexus I feel that thrill of anticipation.
We lived at the West Station and already there would be knots of men and boys milling around where the five roads met, many of them sporting the blue and white colours of the team. I never saw my father wear one of those scarves or ever thought to ask him why he didn't. I suppose probably he, being vehemently anti-Masonic, was particular what he draped round his neck and I always lost my mufflers, so we cut sober figures as we met with his best pal, Jimmy Turner, a foxy Englishman who had married a Greenock girl.
He was a good companion but slapdash. When I brought my father's piece to the factory, men shouting above the hellish screeching of machines, Jimmy's workbench was like a midden. My dad's like a surgeon's table, tools all in a row, clean lines, razor-sharp. Precision was his watchword, especially when he laid down a domino.
"All right, Andra?" Jimmy called, adopting the Scots brogue best he could. My father, Andrew Scott, nodded and cast an appraising look at the sky as my own pal, Euan Cameron, a very tall, rather shy boy, joined us, hair hanging in front of his face so he resembled, as my mother often remarked, "a coo looking over a dike".
"Blowy," observed my dad. "That'll help Dumbarton."
It was a local derby. Dumbarton, from across the water, were a bunch of cloggers who inevitably fielded a team of six-foot-and-over raw-boned assassins.
This was the ritual. This was the day. My father and I. Together. He often had a slightly self-conscious smile on his face in my company and I thought it because I was an awkward skinny creature, too sensitive by half, prone to bouts of high excitement of a non-Presbyterian nature, but there was perhaps a tinge of envy.
He had been forced to leave education early to support his family; I was at Greenock High School and fated to be the first in the family to wear a white collar. Deskbound.
But to hell with all that. There was a game on and we both loved our football.
With Jimmy and my dad sauntering behind, we joined the queue of fans heading into the bowels of the West Station and then waited on the platform for the train to Cartsdyke. There was a tense buzz, very little raucous display, minds were concentrated. Dumbarton played in gold and black. Like bumblebees. And they were hard.
The carriages were mobbed. Men sat. Boys stood. The smaller kids were on their dad's knee but I was too big for that. My pilot helmet attracted a few curious glances and my father shook his head wryly as I adjusted the leather strap under my chin.
"You look daft," said Euan from behind his curtain of hair.
I liked that helmet. I wish I had it now.
The crowd spilled out at Cartsdyke and walked the last lap to Cappielow. A bus of Dumbarton supporters drove past and the Sons of the Rock, as they were known, waved their beer bottles cheerily enough. The Morton men had stocked up earlier and many a surreptitious pee was enacted up many a suffering closemouth but my father never drank before a game.
He was a purist.
As we neared the stadium the polis made their appearance. One of them was Euan's big Highland father, a sergeant no less. He smiled and we lowered our eyes in acknowledgement – always useful to have the law on your side, but don't fraternise in public.
I remember once when Celtic came for a cup tie and beat us 3-1. After the final whistle, even though our side was teeming with Catholics, more as an exercise than anything else, a fusillade of beer bottles like arrows at Agincourt sailed elegantly through the air to land on the charging police, who batted them aside like so many flies.
I didn't see Sergeant Cameron on hand. Perhaps he was organising from the back.
Anyway. Through the turnstiles, no more being lifted over — too big for that also. Up the concrete steps, heading for the far reaches of the terracing opposite, level with the half-way line, somewhat at the mercy of the elements. In Greenock they consisted of smirr, drizzle, rain, heavy rain, and heavy rain with a following wind.
But today there was a pale watery sun furtively peeking through the scudding grey clouds.
My father pursed his lips.
"Blowy," he remarked once more, zipping up his windcheater another notch.
Jimmy always sported a heavy overcoat, his thin English blood unable to thole the damp cold. Euan wore a Harris Tweed checked jacket, cavalry twills and heavy black shoes that might have once belonged to his father. I had an imitation leather jerkin to go with my helmet.
We forever got there early to snaffle the best standing position then scuffed and shifted our feet, leaning against the metal barrier as more and more fans poured in. A big fat man stood on the steps right in front of me and my father tapped him politely on the shoulder to request that he move a little aside because, "The boy cannae see."
The man glared at me and thought to demur but my dad had a way with him and Jimmy, smiling menacingly to show that the three teeth in his upper gums had no competition on either side, looked like a gangster on the run. So Fatty moved, enough for me to spot, as a roar built up, motion on the opposite side, then the sound became louder till the ears rang as we acclaimed our team, trotting onto the pitch; for this moment heroes to a man.
That was the thrill. The heart leapt. In that second anything was possible. Impulsively I grabbed onto my father's hand and he smiled at the excitement on my face.
"Where there's life there's hope," he announced.
In truth Morton were going through a dull patch, stagnating in mid-table but before the ball rolled they could defeat Puskás and the mighty Hungary, burst Celtic's balloon and wreck the Rangers.
All this in hope. It springs eternal in a football man. And I am one of those afflicted souls.
Dumbarton emerged to cheers from their supporters behind the far goal and boos from everywhere else.
The referee emerged to all-round condemnation; the coin was tossed, ends chosen, kick-off, once more that roar of desire over experience as the game began.
After half an hour I had a dull ache in my bones as if injected by the school nurse; Dumbarton, as feared, were ungainly, bony and big as buggery as they kicked lumps out of Morton. The ref seemed to find aesthetic pleasure in seeing the blue and white hoops fly into the air to lie in a crumpled heap.
The crowd were howling abuse at more or less anyone uncrumpled, and the language was livid.
"C'way the Stiffs!" Jimmy shouted in a somewhat compromised encouragement as Jackie Ferguson, our one class player on the right wing, caught the boot of the opposing back in both hands about a foot away from his chin. The ref blew and gave the foul to Dumbarton.
The fat man in front of me tore at his thinning hair with both hands as my father, with dead-pan face, cupped his hands round a lit match, sucked in a deep draught of Capstan Extra Strength, blew it out and caught my eye.
"There's nae justice," he said.
Half-time, goalless, a coin pressed into my hand, Euan and I sent for Bovril while Jimmy nipped at his quarter bottle and my father lit another cigarette.
As we waited in the queue for the magical brew, Euan put together his first long sentence of the day.
"This is a terrible game," he muttered.
Euan played centre-back for the school team and was as economical with the ball as his word usage. I wasn't even reserve goalie.
The Bovril was scalding hot in the paper cups as we inched our way back through the sullen, mutinous crowd caught between anger at the feeble performance of their own team and righteous disdain at the King Kong tactics of the opposition.
My father took his paper cup, lifted it carefully to his lips. Jimmy stuck to his nips, while Euan and I burnt our tongues on the scalding meat extract.
The fat man turned round.
"It can only get better," he sighed.
My father dropped the butt-end of his Capstan into the remnants of the Bovril where it hissed and died. Once more our eyes met.
"It could get worse," he remarked quietly. "That's aye possible. Things can always get worse."
The half began, Morton had the wind at their back and were kicking towards the home end; surely the second coming was at hand?
As the game wore on my thoughts drifted as they drift now, remembering the roll call of those who graced and disgraced the sacred turf.
Geordie Fleming, who could put the ball over the railway track from the penalty spot and laugh as if the joke was on him.
Gorgeous Gordon Wylie, his indoor tan and noble Greek physique reduced to weekly impotence by a succession of bow-legged, flat-nosed inside-forwards.
Tiger Cowan, the goalie, even on one leg and 10 years past his prime, clutching a ball at the near post in huge magnetised paws.
Doctor Adam Little, balding and cultured, measuring out passes like a quantity surveyor.
Tommy Orr, bony and horse-like, who never recovered from missing a penalty for Scotland; to watch him hit a 20-yard free kick low and deadly into the net was to feel history brush past in savage motion.
Jackie Ferguson hemmed in at the corner flag, watching sphinx-like as Ronnie Shaw the left-winger, whose father was the trainer, ran headlong into the goalpost.
And many more drifting like ghosts in memory.
I came back from dreams and there was Jackie Ferguson waiting on the 18-yard line as the giant Dumbarton centre-half thudded his head against the ball to clear a corner. The wind held it up to drop gently at the winger's feet and he hit straight as a die, the ball scorching into the top left-hand corner of the goal.
Bedlam. Euan and I hugged each other; Jimmy raised his quarter bottle in salute, the crowd, balm poured upon their discontent, acclaimed the conquering heroes.
An all-seeing, all merciful referee blew for the goal and then full time.
The mighty Dumbarton had been thrashed 1-0.
My father pursed his lips and nodded sagely. As if he had seen it coming. From a long way. A long, long way.
We never took the train back, always walked it, but this time my father and Jimmy took the lead while Euan and I trailed behind and earnestly awarded each Morton player stars up to five while the fans milled around us, scarves hanging round their necks like discarded snake-skins, all of us limp and breathless, throats raw, minds buzzing after the roaring Saturday afternoon.
I remember the first time I saw floodlights at Cappielow. It was like another world, the players' skins glistening in the white rays and the fans' faces like so many small moons in the dark.
A roar went up at the sheer magnitude of it all. We were floodlit. Sophisticated. No turning back.
"Great game, Andra!" Jimmy had finished his quarter bottle and was weaving a little.
My dad winked at me.
"It's aye a good game when ye win."
It was a long trail home but victory put wings on our feet. Plus there was the bonus of Euan and I being given money to buy two Sharp's Specials – a rectangular piece of toffee that occupied the entire orifice when fitted sideways into the mouth. It curtailed conversation and my jaw aches now just thinking about it, but when a boy you'll chew on anything. And swallow. Anything.
I kept seeing that ball go into the net. And something else as well.
The rain held off as we finally meandered back to the West Station and Euan, muttering that he'd see me at school, sloped off towards Barr's Cottage where his parents had a policeman's house.
Our place was directly above the Willow Bar where Jimmy and my father were heading. If we'd knocked a hole in the floor, I could have watched him play dominoes.
My dad reached out and adjusted the pilot helmet.
"It's aye squinty that thing," he observed.
For a moment our eyes met then he gave me a brusque shove towards the close.
"Away and see your mother before Geronimo scalps her."
Jimmy let out a whisky laugh, my father waved his nicotined fingers to indicate maternal bound motion and then the two of them disappeared into the pub where the rattle of the till and loud noise of post-match analysis told of an adult male world where boys did not belong.
I went into the close but, before finding out the fate of Texas Slim on the Chisholm Trail, I stopped to take a deep breath and soak up the day.
Our team had won.
God was good, even though my father was a Clydeside Communist. A protestant Communist to be precise.
And I was remembering the something else as well.
Just after the goal went in, before I jumped to celebrate with Euan, I saw my father's face – he was like a man possessed by happiness, alive and vibrant.
He caught my look and grinned. And I grinned back.
Father and son.