My piece, Stone Memories, was selected for inclusion in an anthology, Between the Lines, that brings together work by students taking courses at CityLit in 2016-17.
Here it is…
It’s cold, clear, sunny and still. The kind of day when Glasgow winks at you in a knowing way – knowing it’s looking its best. Grand Victorian tenements grace the streets here in the West End. Trademark Glasgow: red and honey-golden sandstone sparkling in the sunlight; big, bonny buildings braced for their admirers, they seem to carry an imprint of my past.
I’m sitting in the café of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum reacquainting myself with my city, digging up memories. From here you look across the tiny River Kelvin to Gilmorehill, where a fine example of Victorian Gothic revival dominates the near distance. This is Glasgow University, an outstanding academic institution to which I scrupulously avoided applying in case I should be accepted and have to keep living at home.
I’m here to see an exhibition of Alasdair Gray, artist and writer, maker of magical, often quirky sketches of Glasgow in the 60s and 70s. Gray’s Glasgow is my Glasgow, where I got through childhood, tackled adolescence and finally decided to leave on the elusive brink of adulthood. The industrial landscapes, old tenements, intimate domestic interiors – all of these tiny images reach in and ruffle the memories.
In the 60s the tenements were still smudged with the grime of 100 years. A ‘close’ – an unlit common corridor straight off the street – took you in to front doors, up stone staircases with wrought iron balustrades, grand and grubby, often crumbling, always cold. I remember asking why a ‘close’ wasn’t closed at all but permanently open; the lack of an answer seemed another example of the limitations of adults when it came to helping you make sense of the world. According to Mum, they were also dangerous places where bad men lurked.
I never lived in a tenement, though our area was full of them. We lived in a house, sandstone of course, but grander, as befitted the social status assigned to the parish minister if not his economic means. We struggled with the upkeep. But still the tenements were a part of life. Miss Ferguson, my piano teacher, lived in one above a bakery on Great Western Road. I remember the smell of floor polish and mothballs, the lace antimacassars on heavy brocade chairs, the merciless metronome betraying how little practice I had really done. And then there were Mr. and Mrs. Bruce. Good parishioners, they used to babysit for my sister and me, occasions we dreaded partly because of his halitosis, partly because they lacked a way of relating to us. A childless couple, they had a quality of having been forever middle-aged, as dull as the drab interior of their second floor tenement flat.
Stones engraved with memories of another life, a lifetime ago. I realise, as I sip my Americano, how these glorious stone structures are like grid references of childhood and home, solid reminders of its safe, but eventually oppressive, coordinates. Conflicting emotions tussle inside: a sense of joy, familiarity and attachment rub up against a sure knowledge of no longer belonging, being out of place.