When I was taken into care by Social Services, I considered it a betrayal of the most sacred trust. It was like dying. As far as I was concerned, my family should have fought to keep me. But it didn’t and so, I had none. It was as if my mother had killed me.
I was brought up where I was born, on what some might consider was the wrong side of Glasgow – the Gorbals area of the South Side in the 1960’s. Probably only Drumchapel or Maryhill were considered worse. My parents were virtually illiterate, having never really been encouraged to attend to school matters or any form of education beyond that which was necessary to obtain an income of some kind. And because they had been deprived of an education, that was how it had to be for me; it could be no different – they didn’t have the education to know any better. So school was an inconvenience that had to be endured from the age of five until sixteen for most of the kids in our part of Glasgow.
During those years I was expected to find whatever jobs I could to earn whatever I could, whenever I could, to add to the family coffers, which were for the most part, completely empty. So I did odd jobs for neighbours, to earn a few pennies and sometimes a shilling or two. Once I was even given half-a-crown for helping Mrs McCormack, the woman who lived in the flat opposite ours, to write and post a letter to her sister in Birmingham, to let her know she would not be visiting that Summer as she was too ill. She was the only person for whom I had any respect. She was kind to me. She always remembered my birthday with a gift and gave me socks or a scarf or something at Christmas and a chocolate egg at Easter. She must have been more ill than I thought because she was dead within a month. I soon forgot about her.
That was the most I earned, at least the most I earned legitimately. I soon learned that it was much easier to acquire what I needed by other means. Shop-lifting became a regular occurrence. At first, I was scared, but having been taught the craft by particularly experienced artisans, and having escaped any suspicion of wrong-doing, let alone punishment for my initial endeavours, I soon left my fears behind me and threw myself headlong into my profession. Fostered by the growing admiration of my peers (something I never experienced at home) I went from strength to strength. Initially I stole what I needed, mostly food. Soon, I was stealing what I wanted. Then I stole what others wanted. That’s how I made my money.
My friends and I would go out in groups, having planned the night before which establishment would play host to our craft. Someone would distract a naïve shopkeeper while the others did the lifting. That was easy in the one-man operated shops, those owned by a poor Indian or Pakistani, who could barely speak English. It was not so easy in the Supermarket that had just opened on a busy road in our area. Despite having to adopt a different approach, the lure of more and better goods forced us to develop a bespoke approach to this new challenge. But, we not only managed, we achieved a level of success that was the envy of our rivals in the district.
I soon had enough to keep me in relative luxury. What we stole (or “knocked” as we would refer to the art) but didn’t want, we bartered with other thieves. I even established a “knock to order” service, a facility that was in great demand even by adults. They would let us know what goods they wanted and, if we were able to negotiate a mutually acceptable price, the goods would be procured, money would be paid, the goods were handed over at a “knock-down” (pun fully intended) price and everyone would be happy – everyone except the shopkeepers or supermarket owners. It seems strange from the perspective I have now, that I never considered that someone, somewhere was suffering from my activities.
The business was so successful that, even before I was half way through my secondary school education, I was acting as an agent, taking orders from clients and selecting which of my growing staff of thieves was best suited to which job. I wanted for nothing. And what was best was the fact I didn’t have to do the stealing myself. Everything was done for me. All I had to do was organise the workforce and collect the money. Soon I was bored.
I was tired of stealing.
Doing nothing robbed me of the excitement of working in the field. I longed for the rush I had experienced when I had first embarked on that career. Stealing from shops and supermarkets however, no longer held any appeal for me. I had mastered that art. I needed something else to persuade me out of bed each weekend morning.
Most of the thieves with whom I interacted, were for the most part, small timers. They were just happy to do a job and be paid a reasonable commission for their efforts. A few, however, decided that having been trained in the art of theft, they would establish their own businesses. That was something I could not afford. That was something I could not allow. There was enough competition from the already established adult firms. The heads of those institutions tolerated me because we had an understanding – we would respect the geographical boundaries which contained our respective businesses and even come to the assistance of each other when circumstances required.
Those few individuals who wished to branch out on their own soon felt the full force my and others’ fists and feet. Very quickly, no one dared to steal any business from the master thief. No one dared to question my authority despite the fact that I was still a teenager attending school. I even caught the attention of some of the real hard men in Glasgow, but again we had an understanding – they would not bother me if I didn’t encroach on their territory or compete with their chosen brands of business. I knew enough to stay out of their way.
I used to wonder why so many in the community resorted to crime because no-one, to my knowledge, starved there. But then I realised that was because of petty crime for most people, and hard work for a few – those that were lucky to have work. Of course, there were some I knew who wouldn’t have suffered too much if they had missed the odd supper now and again, but those sorts of people were the sort with whom we didn’t mix or were supposed to even know. My father had placed an absolute embargo on any association with them. They were the criminal fraternity and, as my father often said, “’though we must live in the Gorbals, we need not be of the Gorbals”. Woe betide me if I was ever discovered to have transgressed that edict.
In those days I did occasionally wonder what my father had meant by that. I think I did what I did out of defiance of him. I didn’t know then, probably because I didn’t want to know, or perhaps simply because I couldn’t be bothered to find out what he meant. I could have asked him, of course, but I would have felt the back of his hand before I had completed the question. My father was not one to be questioned, not even if the question did not question him. My father was a do-gooder everywhere except at home. Home was where he took out his frustrations in life. Each time he lost a job, whack! Take it out on the bairn. It was raining and he’d forgotten the umbrella. Whack! Take it out on the bairn. The milk’s off? Whack! Take it out on the bairn.
If I was at home when he arrived, I would quickly dive into bed and pretend to be asleep in the hope he wouldn’t wake a sleeping child to vent his anger. But most of the time that was no protection. Sleeping or not, Whack! Whack! Whack! And not just with his hands. He used anything that was close by. Most of the time it was the doubled over electric kettle flex. I grew to hate that kettle.
It was not that my father was a drunk – he abhorred alcohol. That attitude was all part of his beyond-the-front-door-image of the good husband and father. My mother, on the other hand, was totally under his control. She did all the housework and waited on him hand and foot. She rarely left the flat except to look for me. No-one ever came to visit us.
I soon learned to stay out as long as possible, even if that meant not coming home at all some nights. Still in my early teenage years this brought me into contact with even more undesirables, the lowest of the really low-life Glasgow has to offer; the drunks, the drug addicts and the house breakers. I had my first drink of whiskey at 13. It was disgusting. It might be the national drink of Scotland but all it did for me was burn my throat and make me puke. I was lucky because it put me off alcohol for life. My father would have been proud.
As for the drug addicts and glue sniffers, I very quickly saw what potheads they were and how cheaply they would sell their bodies and souls for just one more high. “Dunder-heeds” we called them. They were pathetic. No pride, no dignity, nothing. What really clinched it for me was seeing a lad, with whom I had grown up, become hooked on glue.
I went looking for him one night when his mother told me he hadn’t been home for a week, which was an unusually long time for even him. I knew exactly where he would be. I found him dead in a broken down, derelict tenement flat, an empty smoky bacon crisp bag in one hand and a half empty tube of glue in the other. His mouth was wide open, although his eyes were closed. His body was heaped over in a grotesque manner, at the bottom of a flight of stairs. It was a sight that haunted my dreams for years. No drugs for me after that. And I never use glue – staplers and paper clips for me.
The house breaking however, was another matter. Those lads knew what they were doing. Most of the ones I met were opportunistic, breaking into a house, which they happened to come across and found to be empty. They mostly took money, jewellery and TV’s when they could.
But the good ones had a much better system. Those boys could read and write and had organised themselves well. They, at least, had an elementary education and they made use of it. They read the newspapers regularly and made a particular note of the obituaries. From these they would learn when the deceased’s funeral service was to be held. That would be the day and the time they chose to burgle the house. It was simplicity itself.
I don’t know what would have become of me had my father not died. It’s likely that I would have continued to meet more and more daring criminals and become involved in more and more serious crime. Now I shudder to think that I might not have stopped at house breaking. I might have become a pimp or a murderer. But luckily for me my father’s death saved me from that.
To this day I cannot say what really happened. I had been out all night, and returned home to my flat early one morning to find my mother staring into space. When she saw me, she didn’t scream or shout at me as I was expecting, and as was her normal custom. She and my father had made it all but impossible for me to stay at home and so she didn’t care when and where I went but gave me the sharp edge of her tongue when I came home, just to salve her conscience, to make out she cared. I never did understand that. Not happy with me at home, not happy when I came home.
This time however, it was different. Instead of having to turn a deaf ear to her cacophony of curses and complaints, she simply looked at me, without really seeing me, her eyes red from crying. No, “Where have been all this time!” No, “Out all night and not a word from you!” Not even a “Don’t you care about me? About how worried I’ve been all this time?” It didn’t occur to me that love could be expressed in a scowl, a scolding and sometimes even a curse.
She said nothing as I went straight to my bed and slept soundly that entire Saturday, waking in the late afternoon to find her still sitting on the settee in the living room, in much the same position as she had been that morning. When I told her I was going out, all she said was, “Your father’ll no be commin’ back. Ye’er on yer ain noo.” I thought nothing of it; he had threatened to leave many times but had never done so. This was just another threat to try and contain what he perceived to be my waywardness or my mother’s lack of affection for him, or more likely, both.
It was when I was in the park, discussing who we had to put in line with a colleague, that I saw a police car draw up. My friend shouted something about smelling “bacon” and fled in the opposite direction. I, however, stood transfixed to the spot. I was confused. I had run from the Police many times. I had never yet been caught. I knew all the best hiding places; all the derelict tenements in the district were like second homes to me. I even knew the ones the druggies had not yet discovered. It would take a fast and clever Policeman to catch me.
But this time it was different. I knew how the Police behaved. For starters, the driver stayed in the car, looking in my direction. Usually both would give chase. Besides, the one coming towards me was walking – usually he would be running Hell for leather after me. And this one was looking intently at me. Usually a torrent of abuse and profanity would issue forth from him as he chased after me.
No, this time it was quite different.
When the Policeman had come to within a short distance of me, I could see he had a blank expression on his face. He did want me, but this time, not because I had been caught in an act of criminality. He wanted to give me something. Information.
He asked me my name. I gave it. He asked me my address. I gave it.
“Yer fether’s deed. Ye’ve tae come wi’ me,” he said blandly.
“How come?” I asked.
“Cus ye’er mither disnae want any mair tae dae wi’ ye.”
He hadn’t understood. I wanted to know why my father was dead and how he had died.
I knew not to pursue the matter. I followed him into the back of the car where I sat without speaking for the entire journey to the Police Station. The driver made cruel remarks about how I had at last had my ‘comeuppance’ and that I would regret the day I was born soon enough and other similar trite. I hardly heard what he said. I was still trying to fathom what his comrade had said. I tried to explain to myself that they had made a mistake. It wasn’t really me they wanted, it was someone else’s father who had died. But even as the thoughts materialised in my mind, I knew they were wrong.
The Police didn’t make mistakes like that.
I stayed at the Police Station for the best part of the rest of that day. I had no idea what was happening. I was left in room on my own with a biscuit and a thin, sugarless cup of tea. It was disgusting.
In the late afternoon, a chubby, middle aged lady, dressed in a heavily creased brown coat and carrying a black PVC handbag, came to see me. She introduced herself in a high-pitched, lilting voice that reminded me of someone I had once met from the Isle of Lewis. She told me that she had arranged for me to stay with someone that night. My mother wasn’t well and until she was better I would be staying elsewhere.
I never saw my mother again.
After spending a week fostered out to a family in the West End, I was taken to Social Services. The woman with the black PVC handbag and creased brown coat took, me there and told me that I would be living with someone else. “Just until your mother recovers from her illness. Hopefully that won’t be too long now,” she had said.
I didn’t ask questions although I was desperate to know what had become of my father. All these years I had hated the man, and now the thought of not ever seeing him again, almost broke my heart.
Another woman, this one older than the Social Worker, but more kindly and slim, dressed in a white blouse, grey jacket, dark skirt and smart shoes, but no handbag, smiled at me and introduced herself. She was Mrs McCormack’s sister. She wanted to take me to live with her in Birmingham. I later found out that Mrs McCormack had extracted a promise from her that if anything should ever happen to my family, she would take care of me. I knew Mrs McCormack liked me. Until then I had no inkling that she had cared for me.
The thought of leaving Glasgow, the only place I had ever known, horrified me. I cursed at the women. The Social Worker, Mrs Mckenzie, lifted her hand and said she would beat some manners into me but Mrs McCormack’s sister, Susan, simply stood there, looking steadily at me, not in the least perturbed by such foul language issuing from a child’s mouth.
“Now, young man,” she said in soft but firm voice. “There’s nothing you can say that will shock me. I lived in Glasgow for more years than I care to recall, so there’s not much I haven’t heard. But if you and I are to get along with each other, there’ll be no more of that kind of language. So … ”she softened her tone. “… what do you say? How about an understanding between us – I’ll not nag you, and you’ll not use that sort of language; it’s not fitting for a fine, young man about to set out on a great adventure.”
What was she talking about, I wondered. She wanted me to live with her in Birmingham, wherever that was. I was not about to leave the only city I had ever known and where I had established and built up a massive (well sizeable) business. And what about my friends? I knew no-one in Birmingham. No, there was no question about it, I was staying put in Glasgow.
“Well, if that’s how you feel, I’ll respect your decision,” she said. “The fact is, your mother is quite ill and is likely to be so for some considerable time.” Her forthrightness might have offended some, but to me she sounded like someone to whom time was a precious commodity and not to be wasted. I thought I could like her. Besides she smelled really good. Not that overbearing cheap perfume my mother would occasionally wash herself in, but light and faint, almost like a long hidden memory of flowers in a garden. I had to stand close to her to smell it.
“But perhaps we can compromise,” she continued. “You look like a reasonable sort, so stay with me for, let’s say a month, before you decide. Then if you feel you want to come back here, I’ll bring you back.” She looked at me, then added, “You have my word on that.”
Somehow I knew she could be trusted. That was a new experience for me.
I was taken by this lady’s refusal to be perturbed by my profanity, and more than that, I felt I was already beginning to like her. She not only smelled good, she smelled of money. Her clothes were classy and her accent, West End Glasgow despite her years in Birmingham, was firm without being commanding. This was a woman who was used to having her own way by persuading rather than ordering. She was not a great looker, and far too old for the likes of me of course, but her face was friendly and her smile was warm and genuine. I had the distinct impression that she did care about me, although why, I could hardly begin to guess. The alternative was to stay in Glasgow, and end up being fostered here, there and everywhere or worse, placed in an orphanage.
I knew there was no point in resisting.
She had lied to me – not Susan, that Social Worker. Susan Hendry a middle-aged, childless widow, did not live in Birmingham. She lived in the country just outside the city. She had an impressive, large house placed, slap-bang in the canter of a large garden. There were a variety of flowers and bushes at the front, a massive lawn with fruit trees and a vegetable patch in the back. It was one of five houses in a private gated community. When she had been married, Susan’s husband had worked for the government and the couple often hosted parties for visiting dignitaries. I discovered some years later, that her husband had been killed a few years ago whilst on a project in the Middle East. He was a diplomat. A gardener was employed full time to look after all the gardens so the whole area was immaculately manicured.
I had my own room, one of five with my own ‘en-suite’ shower room, which looked out onto fields beyond the back garden. For two days I pretended to be in a bad mood at being stolen from my beloved Glasgow. I shunned the children of my own age to whom she introduced me, although all were polite. The food she cooked smelled delicious but I pretended the broccoli and carrot soup was not to my liking nor was the trout or the pork chops or the roast chicken … In truth, it was the best food I had ever tasted and in secret, during my first nights there I sneaked out of bed and gorged myself on the left overs in the fridge. I knew Susan was too much of a lady to make any comment about her disappearing food. I was used to chips from the chippy on the corner of my street and the odd pizza, deep-fried of course. Most of the food I ate was drenched in salt and vinegar. I don’t think I ever tasted the food itself in those days. After a while Susan began deliberately to leave extra portions in the fridge. I had no idea that home cooked food could taste so good.
I passed the first week in a detached manner, trying not to engage her in conversation and scowling to demonstrate my anger if I caught her looking in my direction. She would try to start a conversation, usually when we sat at table. That was another new experience for me, actually sitting at a table with crockery, cutlery and crystal glasses. I loved it! But I was resolute in my determination not to enjoy myself.
Despite my bad manners, which would easily have earned me a beating to within an inch of my life at my father’s hands in Glasgow, Susan would continue to converse as ‘though I were actively contributing to the dialogue. Not once did she scold me or reprimand me for my intolerable behaviour. I had once knocked a tooth out of a lad’s mouth in Glasgow for much less than I had done to Susan.
Over the course of the next two weeks I engaged in a series of daily battles with Susan. She would be as cordial and accommodating as she could and I would be as obstreperous as possible. My problem was that I liked her more and more. I was finding it increasingly difficult to hide my affection for this dear lady. I had tried my best to keep from liking her, but her patience, tolerance and understanding of a young boy’s need to grieve for the loss of his parents, home and old life, made it almost impossible for me not to wish she were my real mother. The first time I had that thought, I felt guilty, feeling I had betrayed my own flesh and blood. Nevertheless, faced with the relentless onslaught of Susan’s compassion and understanding, I was soon defeated.
One morning sitting at breakfast, she served me potato scones, fried eggs and bacon.
“Would you like salt for your egg?” she asked as she took her seat opposite me.
I thought for a moment, opened my mouth, thought better of it and closed it again. Breakfast, like all the meals so far, were normally conducted in a one-way conversation. Then I changed my mind. “Yes,” I said in barely a whisper. She stopped in the middle of buttering a slice of toast and looked expectantly at me.
“Please,” I added, breaking eye contact with her. I may have won a few of the battles. She had won the war.
Very soon the four weeks with Susan was drawing to a close. I had been enrolled into the local private school where the other kids from the estate went. My lack of literacy was apparent but with extra support (and homework!) I was soon able to hold my own with the rest of the class. There was no doubt that Glasgow was now far behind me. The thought of what I had become there and how I might have ended up was a thought I could hardly bear. As much as I loved that city and as much as it would forever reside in part of my soul, my life was now in England with Susan. I had made friends here who expected nothing more than a fair game of football from me.
No, I could not go back.
I had almost forgotten my previous life after a year of living with Susan. I liked my school and even enjoyed some of my lessons. I determined I would study English at university and try to break into journalism. Susan took on extra tutors for me to help with maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I was never going to be a doctor or a scientist but I still needed passing grades to secure a place at university, so I didn’t put up too much resistance. In any case, the kids in the estate all had tutors – they were the children of well-to-do professionals and so there was no shame in studying. In fact we all helped each other and even had a study group. In Glasgow the least an interest in academia would earn you was a good laughing at and expulsion from your peer group.
One of the girls in my class was given a pair of hamsters by her father and I, along with the other children, was invited along to see them. They were cute I thought but hardly worth going all gooey over. Nevertheless, I had learned by then to keep my disparaging thoughts and views to myself rather than say what I thought and injure others’ sensitivities.
I told Susan about the pets in somewhat glowing terms that evening over supper, which turned out to be a mistake. I am not an animal person. The next day she brought home a rabbit, complete in a hutch. “I thought you might like a pet too, seeing how you took to the hamsters,” she announced. It was large, white and fluffy. Not at all the sort of thing I would have wanted for myself, but I didn’t want to hurt Susan’s feelings. So I thanked her and brought my friends round to see it. When asked what it’s name was I realised I didn’t even know what sex it was. I called it “Bunny” as that would suit either sex.
For the next two weeks I fed it, cleaned its hutch and tried to hold it and play with it as often as I could, but no matter how hard I tried it always seemed to know I didn’t like it. When I approached, it would cower in a corner, looking at me with frightened eyes. When I did hold it, it shivered as though trembling with fear. Frightened or not, it certainly ate enough. Almost every day it seemed to grow bigger.
Three weeks later I woke in the cool light of a Spring morning. I showered and dressed as normal and went whistling downstairs to join Susan who had prepared breakfast. “We have a guest this morning,” she announced as I munched on lightly buttered toast. I could see no-one other than ourselves, and I hadn’t heard anyone arrive. But that was all Susan would say, maintaining an air of mystery, insisting we finish eating before she would reveal any more. At first, I was worried that someone had come to take me back to Scotland, but Susan’s rye smile was reassuring.
After breakfast Susan led me into the back garden to the rabbit hutch. There, nestled amongst the hay at the back of the hutch was the rabbit. At first I couldn’t understand why she had brought me there. I knew we had a rabbit.
“Patience,” she whispered. “Don’t make any loud noises.”
Slowly, she coaxed the rabbit from the corner. There, almost hidden from view, was a tiny rabbit. Bunny had given birth! Bunny was a ‘she’. Unlike its mother, the baby was tiny and smooth, with no fur at all. It’s eyelids were closed tight as if the sunlight was too bright for it. It’s head was disproportionately big for its body. It’s chest moved rapidly and occasionally it’s whole body twitched. It was quite ugly. Susan said it was sleeping.
That evening, after school, I brought my friends round to see the baby rabbit. When I took them to the back of the house to where the hutch was, the rabbit was there but there was no sign of the baby. All I could see was some blood around Bunny’s mouth and on the hay in the corner where the baby had been. I was really confused and a bit embarrassed. What would all my friends think? They would think I had lied about the whole affair, I fleetingly thought. But I needn’t have worried. They all put it down to some over active imagination on my part and pulled my leg about it for a few minutes. Eventually, we all walked into the kitchen and consoled ourselves with a drink.
When my friends had gone, I asked Susan what had happened to the baby.
“Rabbits look fluffy and sweet, and so they are,” she said as she sat in an armchair by the empty fire in the living room. “We often forget that rabbits are not really meant to be caged in a hutch. They prefer to be running around causing havoc to a farmer’s lettuces and carrots. Mother rabbits look after their young and, like any mother, want the best for their children. Sometimes, however, if the baby is not right, or ill or in danger of not turning out right, the mother will eat it to save it the pain of a bad life.”
I felt a tremendous urge to go back to the hutch. Bunny was there, as usual looking straight at me, nose twitching, blood still on her fur. But now she was in the middle of the hutch, not cowering in the corner. Now her eyes held no fear of me. I was suddenly reminded of my mother, caged in that dreadful, tiny tenement flat, never able to run free as she would have wished, confined to that cage by a husband who was self-serving and a son who was out of control and probably heading for prison or worse.
For the first time in my life, I felt a tear running down my face, without a preceding slap from my father. I became aware of Susan standing behind me. I didn’t want to turn around, but I did want her to hug me and tell me everything would be fine, that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t, it wasn’t …
“Are you all right?” she asked. I didn’t answer. My head was filled with too-late-guilt and remorse, remembering my mother. “Mothers always love their children and do what’s best for them,” Susan offered in her soft voice, responding to my silence. “There was probably something wrong with the baby.” I still said nothing. “It was the kindest thing she could do for it.” She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Are you crying?” she asked.
I turned to look at her, silent tears flowing down my face. “No,” I said.