Chapter One: The McLeod’s first born son.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
It was a natural progression from marriage that the next step for John and Mary McLeod would be to begin trying for children. Mary edging closer to forty than she would have liked, was feeling great pressure from her family. ‘Come on Mary, dear, when are you going to give us grandchildren? You and that husband of yours better hurry before your father keels over’ her pushy mother would declare, giving a self satisfied nod and winking in her father’s direction while he sat upright appearing fast asleep in his ageing armchair in the dingy living room of their tenement flat. Giving a start, he would snore as if on cue before resuming his original silent position on the matter. Coming from a large family, it was expected that all of the Kielty clan would follow suit and breed like rabbits. Mary was the last one to do so, and she certainly was not the youngest of the lot.
Mary McLeod was an obedient, meek wife. A little out of the ordinary of the Kielty lot, who were made up of bolshie women with mouths like fish wives and the volume control of power drills. She had never really felt the maternal type and, honestly, she was terrified of having children. Not only because of the daily trials and tribulations of being a parent, and the financial worries; but mostly because she felt she wasn’t good enough. She did not feel wise enough or clever enough or without enough common sense to impart any of her life skills or knowledge on an impressionable human being. The fear of making the wrong choices haunted her. The responsibility of a whole life would be entirely in her hands. Terrifying.
Quietly she also feared for John’s role as a father. Fear was a strong word, but fitting. John was a loose cannon; she had no idea how he too would cope with the responsibility of a child, he had enough trouble keeping hold of a job. She wondered how he felt on the matter.
John, utterly devoted to his wife but would die before telling her so, had no deep or philosophical thoughts on the matter. You got married and then had kids. Everyone did it, so why not them?
And so, Johnnie McLeod was brought into the world. A product of caution, pressure and family tradition, this ugly, chubby, crying baby with a creased up face made the McLeods into a ‘proper family now’. Poor Johnnie’s birth was bittersweet; his life in the world began the day of a family feud, over a subject long since forgotten. The majority of his extended family hissed angrily at each other across the waiting room of the maternity ward at the Western General Infirmary. The tension in the room could be cut with a butter knife as the poor nurse crept in, head first, to break the news of the family’s new baby boy only to receive an entire family look up angrily and ask her to come back in later, for they were busy. A feud they continued to snipe and groan at for years, until finally Aunt Eileen snapped and forbid anyone to mention another word of it, stunned silence filled the room. Too shocked to argue against this vicious outburst from a usually gentle and shy family member, Johnnie’s birth and the feud were never mentioned again.
Johnnie grew from a chubby bawling baby to a scrawny, quiet child with a shock of curly, red hair. The hair colour came from his mother’s side, as Granny Kielty proclaimed proudly every time the subject arose, ‘you should be proud son; these are your Celtic roots!’ she said. And they were, literally. He seemed to be the only one with such a bright hair colour, so these roots must have come from way back from his ancestors. Arms aloft in the highlands, kilts waving in the wind and bright, red hair flowing behind them. Before his Granny had the white hair which she daily plaited into a neat bun on the nape of her neck, maybe hers too had been just like his. That didn’t bode too well for him though; he didn’t want to grow old like her. She had gnarled fingers tortured by arthritis and a hacking cough from years of smoking while it was still considered healthy and encouraged to do so. It’s just, and only the hair I’ve inherited, he hoped.
The child would remain ‘wee Johnnie’ in the eyes of his family however tall or old he grew. For the ease of reference to separate the two Johns. Mary’s John and wee John were given nicknames to last a lifetime. Thus Johnnie, name chosen by others and looks given to him from a number of distant relatives began life borrowed, without a sense of himself in his own right.
By the time he started primary school, Johnnie, had developed a habit of people watching; their peculiar habits and traits intrigued him. He wondered why people did the things they did, for what end. He was interested in how the children interacted in the playground, quite happily sitting on the outskirts; sometimes alone, sometimes not. The adult world, however, was more interesting yet confusing to him. The unusual ways many of the adults in his world acted did not make sense to the child. Especially his parents, they would say one thing, and do another. Spend all Tuesday evening, for instance, bawling and screaming at each other and on Wednesday morning act as if nothing had happened. They would be nice to the next door neighbour when she bobbed in for a coffee but as soon as she left, they would spend the next hour or so bleating at what a pain she is. There were so many rules the adults seemed to live by, but hardly any were followed. His entire family seemed to spend most of their lives in a running argument about something or another, but when special occasions came about all animosity was put on hold until the following week where they would pick up where they left off. There were plenty of cousins who, given the opportunity, Johnnie could’ve and would’ve liked to play with throughout his childhood. However, the Aunts and Uncles could not stay friendly long enough to get to a stage in the relationship to have all the kids over. Sometimes, in later years, Johnnie regretted not spending any time with all of the cousins he had and wondered if not playing out with them, and being an only child, had affected his life at all.
Johnnie made it through the local primary with a number of friends, a decent grasp on reading and writing and a true thirst for knowledge; he was trying to make his parents proud. Now was the time for them all to move on. Secondary school was looming.
They saved to make this day special for him. Neither of his parents, or even grandparents, had left school with much more than a bad report and a thick ear. Education was important; they wanted the best for wee Johnnie. So when the final day of summer arrived and it was time for their son to move from the primary to secondary school, the McLeod’s for the first and last time since their wedding, pulled out all the stops.
Wee Johnnie wearing his brand new uniform, proudly sporting the school’s logo on the chest of his jumper, stepped onto the school bus on his very first day of big school nerves bubbled up in his chest and his stomach felt uneasy. There were some familiar faces among the crowds of children from his primary, and he felt comforted by that. Excited by the day to come and the prospect of being able to use the pristine stationery he had packed so carefully into his new bag the night before, he plonked himself down onto an empty seat. Grinning, he waved eagerly at his mum through the dirty bus window.
The bus now loaded with eager first years and not so eager other years, rumbled into life and began chugging the weight up the hill on its way to the school. In its wake it left poor Mary McLeod, her face strained with worry and anticipation. A mother letting her son go on his own for the first time on a bus and adventuring solo into a new part of his life, was unable to do anything else but head back home from the bus stop; do the breakfast dishes and await his return at half past three.
Chapter Two: A betrayal in the Gorbals.
‘Can anyone explain to me the sum of....’ Miss Berkley asked, the stressed substitute teacher covering class 1B for Mrs Best, who was away on maternity. She was a new teacher, quick to anger and often only just hanging on to the control of the boisterous class. Mousy brown hair and rather short, she sat at her desk and shot out questions while peering over the pile of papers on the borrowed desk.
‘Aye Miss, your boyfriend Johnnie there knows – ask him!’ someone called out from the back. Everyone knew Johnnie may have developed a crush on the new teacher, and they would just not drop it. Cheeks glowing crimson, he slunk further into his seat. He hated being in the spotlight, and he hated speaking up in class.
‘Chris, that is entirely unacceptable!’ Outside!’ she shouted, discovering the culprit of the outburst immediately. The teacher herself now showing a rosy embarrassed colour on her face. She threw her pointed hand towards the door and glared at Chris as he proudly walked out. That would not be the only time during that day he would be sent out, for Chris was gradually building his reputation as a trouble maker. Those crappy teachers couldn’t do anything but send him out or call his parents – neither bothered him, so he carried on as he pleased.
‘John, dear – do you?’ A snort, quickly stifled, erupted from the back of the class. Fervently shaking his head, to clear the attention away from him, Johnnie then pretended to do something very interesting and important in his jotter. She swiftly moved on to the next question, and asking someone else.
Chris was one of Johnnie’s friends from the primary school, and they had been put in the same class together. They were good friends and enjoyed taking the mick out of each other all the time at the last school, but Chris had now started taking it a little too far. Especially once he found out how it pleased the other kids in the class. Making a funny remark or gesture often set the class into a fit of giggles, so Chris smugly continued.
The school was an amalgamation of three run down former schools, with all the students pooled together. Compared to the local primary, this place was huge. It was a maze of classrooms that all looked the same, with hurried teachers fast skip-walking between lessons juggling folders of plans and resource materials photocopied to within an inch of their lives and children likewise running in between classes whilst hurriedly trying to catch up with their friends on the weekend’s gossip. Johnnie was still getting to grips with the size of the place. Experienced older years skipped to the different areas with apparent ease, zigzagging through hoards of the smaller, lost looking pupils. It was hard to imagine being an older, self-assured student, feeling and looking at home in these strange surroundings.
Chris and Johnnie had been friends for a number of years. Both had been to each other’s birthday parties, arranged by parents. Arriving excitedly at the door with a card and a present wrapped messily in brightly coloured paper, they would leave exhausted with a belly full of birthday cake and jelly and ice cream. Like most primary school aged children, they were friends because their parents were. They bonded one year over a mutual like of a pretty girl in their class, Leah. Giggling with embarrassment when she spoke to them, and admired the ease in which she made friends and looked so confident. They both embarqued on this new adventure together, the first week spent cautiously checking out the rest of the individuals in the class. From a number of other primaries in the area, other nervous kids sticking with what they know whilst cautiously dipping their toes into the new, big pool of possible friendships and lifelong relationships. For that short period of time, all were equal. Hierarchies, Johnnie noticed, soon emerged. Some more talkative and funny than others. Some cleverer or sportier. This school categorised pupils by their interests and talents, everyone boxed in their appropriate box.
One month in, Johnnie had started to notice changes in the old friends from the old school. They were all starting to grow apart. Starting to grow up. Last week, Chris had caught a bug from some other unfortunate child and taken the day off school. During registration, Johnnie went to take a seat with the four boys Chris and he had spent the last few registrations with, chatting and laughing. They were nice boys – although Johnnie still felt a little shy around them and relied upon Chris to make a lot of the conversation between them. As he slung his coat over the back of the chair at the table where the boys sat, bags on the table, all still talking about the weekend, they momentarily stopped and glanced up at him. Having interrupted their conversation, he shyly muttered an apology then sat facing opposite Euan, the taller, blonder of the lot. The conversation still stalled, ‘John is it? One of them asked.
Then Kieran, ‘just ‘cos you’re mate isn’t here, you think it’s ok to sit with us?’ The rest scoffed and agreed with him, all looking silently towards Johnnie. He looked intimidating to Johnnie, glowering down at him with an unwelcoming face. Johnnie wasn’t sure what to do. Chris had become his comfort blanket during his time in registration so far. Again apologising, Johnnie stood back up, cheeks flushed red, picked his things up and moved to an empty table on the other side of the classroom, humiliated and crestfallen that he wasn’t and would not be part of that group. He longed for friendships with the popular ones in the class, he had grown out of his childish comfort of spending time alone, watching; he wanted, now, to take part. He spent that registration alone. It would not be his last.
It was break time and Johnnie went to spend it as usual outside the library window, a nice quiet area of the playground and had a bench which, though was a little rotten, was tucked away enough to keep him out of the wind, and of sight from the rest of the school children out having a kick about on the tarmac. He had chosen this spot after getting a stray football to the head, going home and having to explain to his father that, yes the bump was from a football, and no, he didn’t like or play football. Sounds of play, shouts, whistles and laughter floated out to Johnnie on the wind as he sat quietly with his lunch and school bag on his lap. Woollen hat covering his red hair and coat buttoned up to the top, Johnnie nestled his chin down into his coat. His once shiny new shoes were scuffed and dirty and his school bag looked worse for wear too. A small boy on a large bench, he sat alone.
Settling into completing his homework during the time, Johnnie clicked his pen and zoned in to the worksheet when a shadow slowly fell across the page of his maths textbook.
‘Alright Ginge’ spoke the owner of the shadow. Three bulky boys towered above the small figure, head buried in a textbook. He looked up at them, Johnnie had seen Chris hanging around them during lunch a few times. The shortest of the three was also ginger but that hadn’t seemed to have occurred to them was peering over Johnnie almost on tiptoes craning his neck and desperately trying to appear as tall and intimidating as the other two. The three stood for a while expecting a response from him. Johnnie cowered, hoping they did not want anything from him, for he had nothing to give.
‘I can’t believe Chris used to hang around with you’ the biggest had a face full of acne and spat unintentionally as he hissed the words at Johnnie, ‘pfft, he must’ve been desperate back then’ looking about him to the others for back up, he picked up the maths textbook in between his index finger and thumb and held it out in front of him; the disgusting foreign object was offending him. Pulling a face, he flung it back down beside Johnnie where it subsequently fell straight off the bench onto the ground, muddy, and dirty. There is lay, dog-eared, writing and sums hidden by the thick layer of mud, rejected. The longer he sat in silence, looking nervous and worried, the more confident the boys got.
‘I said alright?’ Kicking Johnnie’s leg to get his full attention, as he bent over to retrieve the ruined school book, ‘more bothered about stupid books than us are we? Why are you such a geek?’ They laughed among themselves, throwing the odd taunt towards Johnnie. Still hanging around, Johnnie wasn’t even sure they knew what they were doing there. Passing the time, bored, the boys picked on poor Johnnie, who was still eager to get on with his work, so he didn’t have to do it at home. Johnnie did not want to be someone’s source of entertainment, cruelly taunted with neither means nor purpose.
‘I just... ’ he spluttered, ‘I need to get this done, can you go?’
A deathly silence. ‘What did you say, you fucking retard?’ This time it was the third one who spoke; his eyes bulged as his anger came from him. A quiet anger which, by asking for his space, Johnnie had provoked. The pause as he waited for him to repeat himself lasted for an eternity. It happened in slow motion as he gave up waiting and threw his head back and hacking, coming back down he spat out angrily at Johnnie, the glob landing on the lapel on the brand new coat his parents had saved so much for to begin the term with. As they walked way laughing and nudging each other, complimenting, the acne sufferer on his deeds Johnnie watched; disgusted and hurt. Nobody had ever been so direct and so vicious to him. Holding back tears, he reached into his back for a tissue to wipe off the glob of spit that was beginning to soak through his coat. It left a mark.
This ritual tormenting became a daily routine for the boys and Johnnie. It hurt most when Chris and a couple of lads from his class, also, began to join in. They all took great pleasure from humiliating Johnnie, hurting him, and calling him names. He became withdraw and had developed a slow, hunched walk so as to make himself invisible during school.
Eventually, his mum stopped asking how his day had been as he sloped off to his room silently when he got home from school. He became withdrawn from his parents, preferring to sit on his own upstairs than confront the problem. Poor Johnnie didn’t want to upset his mother, nor did he want to be faced with the reality that, rather than being angry at the boys picking on Johnnie; his father would more likely be angry at Johnnie for allowing himself to be picked on. His dad, John, would have to come to terms with the fact his son was a weakling, and couldn’t stick up for himself. For that, Johnnie was ashamed of himself. Unpopular and alone, he saw groups of friends at school form bonds and settle into friendship groups to last their school career, caring little about those around them. He cursed himself. He sat alone in his room at night, wishing to be like others at school. He made up imagined conversations squaring up to an imagined Chris voicing his concerns and his anger. Confronting him, saying all the things he wish he could say in real life. If he had the balls to. He was hurt and angry that Chris would allow the other boys to be so vile and horrible. He was a small, insignificant speck to them. He felt so very, utterly betrayed that Chris took pleasure from doing it himself – that making Johnnie feel small, like something he’d stepped in, in order to make himself feel bigger and better and more popular. It was working. Chris had changed; he had become gloating, self important, violent.
Johnnie slid in through the door trying not to attract any attention. Closing it quietly he kicked his shoes off and shot up the stairs to his bedroom before his parents saw him. Sitting alone on his bed he held a pocket mirror up to his face. It was still hurting and blood still escaping from his split lip. His left eye was swollen and beginning to purple around the socket. It was tender to touch, he winced. His shirt torn and his esteem broken. Chris and he had got into a scuffle. A one sided scuffle. He had had enough; Johnnie threw himself onto the cold bed in his empty bedroom – burying himself into the pillow he screamed – frustrated tears streamed from his face onto the sheets. He had finally allowed himself to cry, and it was all coming out.
The next day he shouted from his closed bedroom door to his mum that he was ill, and wouldn’t be attending school that day. Or the next. In his room he was safe, hidden from the world and protected by the four walls around him.
When Johnnie went back to school, ushered in by his worried mother, he asked to move class, away from the bullies, he wanted to keep his head down – get through school, get some sort of qualifications. He sat nervously in the Head Teacher’s office, hands clasped together in his lap as she looked seriously over her glasses at him. They had difficulties with bullying at the school, especially over the past year, and she knew how difficult it was for the students to speak up about it , ‘look, John, if there have been problems between you and some other boys in your class, you need to let us know. Nothing can be solved if we don’t know about it’ she said. Fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, he told her, everything. He blurted it all out, cathartically. Upon leaving her office, closing the door behind him. Johnnie stopped for a moment, feeling guilty. By speaking to the authority, by confiding in an adult, he had broken a ‘code’ surely. By choosing the adult world to dob in his fellow pupils, his own generation; he felt like he had betrayed them.
A new class, a new term, a new beginning. Johnnie was not built up with excitement and expectations like the last time he was introduced to a new class. Instead, he quickly found a vacant desk, and shot, head down, past the rest of the pupils to it and to begin studying.
After registration, as he was leaving, a voice called him back. ‘John, hey’ Heather O’Neil skipped to reach him. She had been at his old school, so she recognised him, ‘John McLeod? I’m sorry to hear what happened with the boys in your last class. Ours is a lot nicer, I hope’ she told him, with a grin. She walked beside him, holding her workbooks in her arms.
‘Thanks, I’m just glad to get away from it all for the moment,’ he replied. They hadn’t really ever spoken before, but news of the nasty boys, and the big fight, in his last class had already got around. She had changed a lot in the years since he last saw her in primary school and he barely recognised her so he was grateful by the fact that she explained that. A head shorter than he, Heather had thin straight hair that hung limp over her face. But she looked out through her hair with bright, cheery eyes and a warm, inviting smile.
Talking all the way to the next class, Johnnie probably hadn’t spoken that much during all his time at school so far.
They were instantly friends.
Chapter Three: John and Mary throw a Hogmanay party.
The boredom of the winter break had set in. A small group of children seemingly at a loose end were milling around George square, huddled together all wrapped up in cosy woollen hats, scarves and rubbing their frosty fingers together beneath thick gloves. It was the coldest winter in a long while, and these kids, wanting their own space away from the parents’ houses, were joking and playing about as if it were the height of summer. The rest of the square was mostly deserted; save for the resident snow-topped statues, stood tall above the group, watching through stony eyes.
‘Ah, man, you should’ve seen it! The whole kitchen was black!’ Malcolm exaggerated the tale of the burnt Christmas dinner with exuberance, flinging his arms hither and thither to the rhythm of his tale, ‘Mum had to run outside in her slippers to get some air and to let the smoke out, still carrying this charcoaled bird!’ the group, more entranced by his enthusiasm than anything else, stood by him egging him on as he subsequently started hopping about, impersonating his mother with added ‘ooo’s and ‘ah ah ah’s jumping from one foot to another while struggling with the weight of an imaginary cooked bird.
Johnnie finally felt at home here, among these few misfits. Heather and himself had grown closer as friends in school and she had introduced him to some of her friends on the outside. Malcolm was quite the storyteller; he could captivate anyone (even a reluctant listener) with what would be, told by someone else, the most mundane story. Times like these, among family and friends provided an escape, a change of routine, where all can feel relaxed and comfortable. There were a couple of others and Maneck, too. Johnnie liked them all, and felt comfortable with them all – for once he felt like part of group, a crowd – genuine friends. Maneck was quiet, he barely spoke, but seemed comfortable that way, happy to watch and join in when necessary and the others all enjoyed his calming company and an awkward silence was never a problem. He had a warm, inviting smile. He was happy. He was welcome.
The troubles of the world, like the cold frost on the air of that cold winter’s day, melted away when the friends were together, relaxed and happy. The lonely statues, cold atop their plinths watched as the happy people gathered together and left for home.
Malcolm was on the same route home as Johnnie, heading south, as Heather and the others caught the train for west. Like the square, the train station was devoid of people. The cold air blew in from the open entrances while the sad pigeons pecked hungrily for leftover specs of food hobbling on their injured feet, ignoring the children. As the outdated coach pulled onto the platform, chugging to a stop allowing the others to get on, and waving at the two goodbye, Johnnie and Malcolm began discussing plans for New Year.
‘It’s always shit, Johnnie, my parents spend all day arguing about what to do, then end up down the pub again. They promise each other every year to plan better,’ giving a knowing nod to Johnnie, ‘so it’ll be the local again this year, which means me and my brothers shut up in the house, waiting for’em to get back, pissed as newts’ he said, fiddling with his ticket as they both boarded the next train. Johnnie took that as the perfect opportunity to recruit company for his New Year celebrations.
‘Mines actually have planned something; my family are getting on well at the moment, for once. So mum invited them over to ours for Hogmanay’ Johnnie said while Malcolm nodded, knowing full well of the mercurial relationships between the members of Johnnie’s family, ‘so if you get bored, you can come and keep me company if you want, you know. If you want.’
Face brightening, ‘I thought you’d never ask, pal’ shaking Johnnie’s hand enthusiastically, as if he had saved him from a shiter of a night. With that, for the first time ever, Johnnie had invited a friend home.
A week later, preparations for the party had begun. The McLeods did not often have anyone round, for they were a private type of family – they did not really even enjoy spending that much time with each other. Mary was rushing about by two in the afternoon, for a party beginning at eight, thoroughly cleaning already clean rooms and baking various cakes and finger foods to be picked at by the party-goers later. Fretting about the number of chairs and the free space in their tiny house she was nervous and regretting her snap decision at Auntie June’s birthday in November to invite them all round. John had taken it upon himself to invite a couple of his mates (of whom she’d never met, she already did not trust John’s judgement of character) and even some of the stuck up neighbours who they had barely spoken to in the twenty years they’d lived there said they would bob round to see the bells in.
John was already picking at the nibbles set out on the dining table, wrapped in cling film to keep them fresh. ‘John! They are for the guests!’ Mary, hands in the sink doing yet more dishes, keeping herself busy, shouted through from the kitchen once she heard John’s sneaky rustling.
‘Ach, one or two handfuls won’t make a difference,’ he argued, taking a bowl of crisps from the table ‘stop panicking – all your rushing about and fidgeting is starting to put me on edge.’ He cracked open another can of beer, ‘you bloody women, always having to be the hostess with the mostess,’ he then leaned back into his armchair sighing. John put his feet up on the coffee table, crossed them and started on the next cold beer, ‘no-one cares about the fucking snacks at a party anyway,’ he scoffed, grabbing another handful from the bowl and eating them loudly, mouth wide open.
‘John! Watch your language – especially once the little’uns are here,’ she shouted again from the kitchen, her voice high and stressed.
In the meantime, Johnnie was hiding up in his bedroom; he knew better to keep out of the way when his parents were on edge. He could hear them downstairs, shouting sarcastically at each other from the different rooms. They had spent all day moaning at each other and complaining about the various invited guests. Who would cause the most trouble, who was going to spend the entire evening stropping about with ‘a face like a slapped arse’ it was evident they were regretting the party already. It seemed to Johnnie that they didn’t like most of the people who were coming, going by the way they had been complaining about the guests before they even arrived. It was strange, committing an entire evening to spend with people you do not like.
By nine the party was in full swing. The house was alive with neighbours, relatives and friends. Mary had spent the most part running about after people, clearing mess and topping up glasses. John had rarely moved from his spot in his armchair, with a six pack on the floor next to him, and crisp bowl in hand. Every room was ringing with the chatter of merrily inebriated guests, each accounting tales of Christmas and other stories, catching up on each other’s lives, making new friends, and drinking some more. Johnnie weaved in between the huddles of chatting people to get to the kitchen, looking for his mother. She was there, arms full of empty bottles, attempting to take the bin out. ‘Mum! Have you seen Malcolm?’ he called to her as he approached. He was getting worried that Malcolm had forgotten, and would not turn up, leaving poor Johnnie in this party of adults on his own to deal with them.
‘No, sweetie, I don’t think he is here yet, don’t worry – he’ll get here at some point’ she briefly stroked his arm affectionately with a sympathetic smile before rushing away again, leaving Johnnie alone. His Uncle Rich seeing this made his way over to his young nephew.
‘Here, son’ Rich handed Johnnie a bottle of beer, ‘have one of these while your mother’s away busy’ Johnnie took a swig, his face twisting involuntarily at the bitter taste. Rich saw his reaction and laughed – ‘ah boy, give it a few years and you’ll be begging me to get you some more eh?’ he thumped him on the back enthusiastically and took a step closer to Johnnie. He could smell the alcohol on his breath; he was standing uncomfortably close to him. Johnnie struggled to concentrate, trying to lean away from his Uncle and his boozy air. Arm clamped around Johnnie’s shoulder, however, keep him close. ‘Sup up, son’ tipping the bottle Johnnie was still holding towards his mouth, ‘you won’t grow big and strong like your Uncle here without it!’ He encouraged.
John, seeing his brother in law with his son, promptly made his way through the packed kitchen to them, shoving a few unsuspecting guests to make space. His face contorted with drink and anger.
‘Rich! What do you think you are doing?’ he grabbed Rich by the shirt, pulling him away from Johnnie, ‘my boy is thirteen! Giving him a beer?’ Johnnie was surprised by his reaction, considering the amount his Dad drinks the stuff. Johnnie had not been expecting such an outburst, especially from him.
‘Ah come on, he will do it eventually!’ He joked, throwing his hands up innocently.
‘Johnnie, put that down before your mother sees’ John instructed his son pointing his finger at him fiercely, then directing his anger back at Rich ‘you! Are nothing but trouble, you are always out to upset your sister!’ he said, reigniting the famous family feud, after so many months of peace.
‘Are you kidding me? She is miserable; she could have so much better than you! You fat fucking slob!’ he shouted, the two men squared each other up, the alcohol fuelling their rage. There had always been tension between them, they never really got on. It had all built gradually to a point where it needed one little thing to set them off. Johnnie stood there helpless, embarrassed, and slowly put his beer down onto the kitchen counter beside him. Wishing himself invisible, ashamed to be related to them. These two grown men were picking petty fights – hurtling insults and hurting everyone around them.
‘You’ John thrust his accusing finger violently into Rich’s face, ‘and your bloody family, need to keep your nose out of our business!’
‘Stop broadcasting your business then, you hypocrite’ Rich interjected John’s rant at his family and their gossiping. The incident hit a crescendo, shaking with anger his face red and furious, his dad unsteady on his feet, lurched at Rich. The room erupted, as Rich countered by hitting the empty beer bottle he was holding off the back of John’s head. They had gone too far. John slumped down grabbing his now bleeding wound. The crowd parted as some of the guests rushed to John’s aid when Mary appeared. Her face was white as a sheet, instead of rushing to her husband; she grabbed her son and pulled him out of the room.
‘Johnnie, here,’ she panted, tears in her eyes, her hands in his, ‘I’m sorry you had to see that, your father will be fine’ she hugged him, clinging on tight and Johnnie felt her tired shoulders heap as she wept. He was so confused. She was upset; his dad was pissed, sat on the cold tiled floor of the kitchen bleeding from the head while his Uncle was being shouted at by his wife outside. All emotions were running high, alcohol fuelled. Guests stood awkwardly around, unsure as to whether to go to the aid of Mary, John or even Rich and his screaming, furious wife. It had all escalated so quickly, and changed the jovial tone of the party. He clung to his weeping mother, feeling closer to her than ever. The brief glimpse into an adult world had frightened, and confused the young boy. Johnnie felt as though tonight, something had changed, and that he had discovered a little more about his family, their flaws had bubbled to the surface, brutally laid bare in front of the houseful of guests.
Malcolm showed up not long after looking flustered and sporting a guilty grin on his face for worrying Johnnie with the prospect of spending all night with his quarrelling family, ‘sorry mate, my brother took some convincing to let me out; Mum had made him promise to watch me. But, looky here at what I nicked from his pocket’ he explained, producing a ready rolled spliff from his inside jacket pocket, a devious look spread across his face as he smiled. Johnnie gasped. Both boys felt wicked, and excited.
‘Come, outside,’ he motioned. They snuck out into the chilly night air, leaving the noise of the party behind them, through the glass window of the kitchen door. The garden was narrow and long, with aged plants and a sparse lawn, it was rarely used and in the moonlight it provided an escape from the disaster of a new year’s party. Johnnie led Malcolm to the end of the garden and they sat together on the lawn, legs crossed, lit up and got high. They passed the joint back and forth and, unlike his first taste of beer, Johnnie liked the way the warm smoke filled up inside of him, his limbs felt weightless and, forgetting the night’s events, he felt contented. His busy anxious mind, rested. Suddenly, he no longer felt the icy cold air press against his skin, or the cold ground permeating through his trousers. As Johnnie lay back onto the soft, icy grass he looked up at the thick night sky and the stars hanging so perfectly within it. The two friends laughed looking up at the stars and listened to the sounds of the night. The clock struck twelve. ‘Three...two...one!’ the boys heard the cheers from within welcoming in the new year as sirens wailed in the distance.
Chapter Four: The death of a distant relative.
Mary nodded solemnly, and muttered something quietly before she hung up the phone, putting it carefully back on the hook. Johnnie watched as she moved to where he was sat at the table, and joined him. Johnnie, mid-way through breakfast mumbled ‘what’s up?’ through his mouthful of soggy cereal. Looking down at her hands clasped together, resting in front of her on the table, Mary sighed.
‘It’s my great aunt. Edna. She passed away in her sleep last night,’ she ran he hand through her damp hair and gazed out of the kitchen window thoughtfully.
‘Who?’ Johnnie questioned. He had never heard that name before.
‘She was ninety one, lived not that far away actually, I hadn’t seen her in years,’ Mary tutted, shaking her head, ‘what a shame,’ she said, ‘it makes you realise you should’ve spent more time with someone, after they leave, doesn’t it?’ she asked Johnnie, but really just talking aloud to herself, ‘a shame, and she lived so close to us.’ They sat silently for a while before she continued to eat her breakfast and motioned for Johnnie to do the same.
Johnnie rushed upstairs to change leaving his silent mother behind, still sat musing in the kitchen – he was meeting Heather in town. He sat on the bus, full of shoppers on a busy Saturday, looking forward to seeing and spending time with his friend, but the death of Edna played on his mind. He didn’t know her, but she had lived but a few streets away. He had the luck of reaching the age of fourteen without having experienced death, on a family level at least. He had seen it on television, in films and on the news. Every so often, a child would have a day off school because one of their grandparents died, and Maneck, his friend, had lost an Uncle earlier this year. But none of these deaths had struck Johnnie personally. The whole of the bus journey was spent watching the passengers wondering if they had been touched by death, and how they may have reacted to it. He also spent the journey imagining what he thought, based on his mother’s brief description, Edna was like when she was alive. He pictured a frail old lady, with a kind face, and a bowl of sweets always ready for the grandchildren. He pictured her as a younger woman, excited with what life may bring, he inadvertently gave her some of his mother’s characteristics; spoke when spoken to – a rosy face and smelt of the bread she baked weekly. Shy, reserved – but loving. When he met Heather, he told her what had happened that morning,
‘So, did you know her well?’ Heather enquired.
‘Not at all, never met her’ he said.
Heather laughed, ‘so why are you looking so bloody miserable, snap out of it!’ she grabbed his hand and dragged him off, away for their fun day out. Johnnie was surprised at her reaction. Heather, at first, responded with trepidation, sadness and sympathy. Once she found out Johnnie hadn’t even known her she immediately brightened up. Odd.
Fittingly, it was a miserable day. The sky murmured and threatened rain while the grey thick clouds heavy, saturated with raindrops moved slowly across it. The church where the service was being held wasn’t far and Mary insisted they walk; she didn’t want the struggle of finding a parking space. John feeling uncomfortable and awkward forced into a suit and tie, was already in a bad mood and the prospect of walking there did not brighten it. The trio set off, silently walking to the funeral of a woman only one of them had ever met, or heard of. This was the first funeral Johnnie had attended. There were rituals and traditions he had noticed as the closest family of the deceased greeted the guests, he watched them and noted how everyone acted so serene and calm, with sadness in their eyes. The automatic greetings and responses took away some of the heart of the whole situation. Nobody was showing how they were truly feeling.
He sat on the cold pew on the old, draughty church in between his parents. Johnnie looked about him at the figures dressed in black, heads lowered, and faces solemn. It felt strange. He knew that death was celebrated in India when Maneck’s uncle had died last year, as a Hindu, the family all wore white, and mourned their loss with prayers and songs. After the twelfth day of the death of his Uncle the mourning came to an end. Maneck explained how mourning too long brought the living closer to death, and was bad for the soul. Maneck showed all the photos of his family and he, happily speaking about his uncle and how much he cared for him. He was sad, yes, but his uncle had had a good life – so why should they remember him with a frown on their face. Johnnie could not help but compare today with Maneck’s description of that funeral.
The McLeod’s had chosen a spot towards the back, so as to not intrude too much – they were only distant family after all, not as important. Was he supposed to feel sad? His parents had the same, solemn look on their faces, heads bowed in respect. He didn’t know the lady, had never even met her. They had however, the same blood, they were family. They shared some sort of connection. Should he do the same, act as the others were acting? Though an unknown to him, she was still an old woman, a human, conscious being who had lost her life. Her life had become mere memories. He did feel sad by that. At the front, the close members, heartbroken, held back choking tears as they spoke to various members of the service. ‘Yes, we are fine,’ ‘yes, we are coping’ etc etc, head slowly nodding and after shaking hands, they moved onto the next waiting sympathee. At the back, teenage relatives looked down at phones sneakily held low in their laps lighting up their bored faces. Respect enough to hide them, and to put them on silent. But not enough to pocket them.
From the organ, the life of a church, the first few notes of an old familiar tune rose, echoing upwards into the high vaulted ceiling. He raised his head – watching the imaginary notes float up and away, followed by and joined by some more as the organ player swiftly moved his experienced fingers over the ancient keys. Contained sniffles dotted with the odd sharp intake of breath. The scuffling of shoes as the church filled up. Rustling of a packet of freshly opened tissues, while the used ones, full of tears and phlegm, are pocketed. The bearers heavy laden with the guest of honour slowly made their way up the aisle, the heels of their smart black leather shoes clicking onto the concrete. The vicar stands silently. Whispering from the sides of the pews, a young family, hush their young children. The organ played on complimenting the hush, whispers and the silence of the church – note after note. An orchestra of sadness.
The old, run down place changed by the music, now looked majestic. For a brief moment, the clouds outside parted to allow a ray of sunshine escape their clutches. The escapee ray pierced through, entered the church through a tall stained glass window. It picked up the colours and splayed them across the floor of the aisle. Johnnie watched the backwards patterns sweep the expansive dusty floor. His eyes rose to the beautiful window. It was not a biblical scene, figures with arms raised in glory performing a religious feat, nor was it a meek Mary, head bowed, cradling a new born son. The triptych of windows thin and tall, were filled with patterns wild and free. The design spread across all the panes and horizontally across each window. The longer Johnnie looked, the more he could find and see within it. A flowing river abundant with fish and greenery, birds swooping above. Flowers intermingling old, crooked trees overshadowed by saplings, reaching high. Rabbits, tall grass, sheep and fields. The colours, with all the hues of greens, blues and yellows. Lemon colour skirted the edges while the deeper into the magnificent sight the deeper the blues, a rich navy hid at the back, tainting the edges of a flock of birds. These were windows of life, of celebration. While the blue conveyed sorrow, and pain, the yellows of joy and happiness. The bright, light yellow peered out between images as if they were permanent rays of sunshine, for a little light and colour to remain on the cloudiest, dullest day.
This sight took Johnnie away from the reality of the sadness within the church. Lifted and free, he became immersed. It took him into nature, into light and happiness. He could feel himself running barefoot around the corn fields, chasing the birds and finding the frogs by the river. Eyes darting to and fro, watching, looking, discovering. The black lead holding the piece together looked fragile but sturdy, it broke up the design, interrupted the eye, the sun. But it had its place. Without it, the window could not hold itself together. The black lead held it all, over the years it lasted; it fought the weather, war, love sorrow. Just as the window had seen births, deaths and marriages, so had the lead. Johnnie appreciated it. For this was not the beauty, but it allowed the beauty to take place, it gave up all in order for something else to take the glory.
The vicar stood on the pew and raised his hands, to indicate the beginning of the sermon. All sat.
‘Good afternoon. We are here to mourn the death and to celebrate the life of Mrs Edna Evans. I extend a warm welcome and gratitude to all the family and friends who are here with us today’ he was a small man with a loud, projected voice, and had delivered many similar speeches throughout his life, by his familiar confident tone. Johnnie watched and listened as the vicar spoke of Edna’s life as a committed Christian, he took passages from the bible, relevant to her life, to the church and to her family. Members of the congregation solemnly nodded, agreeing with his choice of words.
The family were silent on their walk back home after the wake. His dad had had a few beers, his mum had gotten a little embarrassed and so they left early, sneaking some extra sausage rolls and slices of current cake in her handbag to have for lunch tomorrow. Once home, the entire day was over, and forgotten, and ordinary life resumed, John with a beer in his armchair, Mary in the kitchen sleeves rolled up and arms kneading the dough of her next creation, and Johnnie in his room, behind a shut door.
Great Aunt Edna had passed away, her death had been acknowledged and remembered and she, grieved; life went on.
Chapter Five: Johnnie speaks to God.
Religion had previously played a small part in Johnnie’s life; the funeral was the most significant event to bring him into a church. Somehow, it felt special. It drew him back. The strange ways people acted once they passed the threshold of this place of worship intrigued him. He got to know the vicar better, Duncan, he was told him to call him as Johnnie introduced himself when he turned up the following Sunday for a service. Duncan was excited to see a church-goer under the age of fifty, coming of his own accord. Duncan was a young man himself, in relation to the mean age of church goers, he was in his thirties, and had moved to this vicarage less than a year ago. He seemed to be making a good impression on the congregation, they were still coming back regularly. He did not have a lot to live up to; the previous vicar was a raging alcoholic, with wandering hands and rather dubious political opinions. The past vicar had left in a rage of vicious insults and a stinking breath. Not a pleasant man, who had become far too comfortable with his position in the community, pumped up by the power and responsibilities it brought him. In comparison, his replacement was an absolute saint, so his youthful age was not an issue for the kindly women who attended his services.
When the service was over, Johnnie approached him, nervously. Curious, Johnnie asked about the funeral, whether he gets tired of them, or of the way he must act at them; not personally knowing the deceased.
‘We all suffer, son,’ he replied quietly yet his voice filled the room with a stoic importance. Death and suffering is universal and all humans have the ability to empathise with those in need. He placed a gentle hand on Johnnie’s shoulder as they both looked ahead at the figure of Christ. The silence and peace of the church was heavy and serious and made Johnnie feel claustrophobic under the weight of it. He continued. ‘I must respect that, I feel their loss every time, just as strongly as the last,’ with a slight frown upon his face, Duncan spoke softly; just the one would imagine a vicar should. A kind, soft voice speaking kind, soft words. ‘I am here to provide support and to comfort them that their loved one has passed on, and his happy and safe in the arms of God.’ With that he looked up at the triptych of colourful windows Johnnie had been so fascinated by, and became almost lost in it himself. Drawing himself back to the room with a start, Duncan looked back at him, ‘so in response to your question, no, I don’t “get bored”’, he said, quite sternly, with a hint of sarcasm. Duncan stood up from the wooden pew, as if to signal the end of their conversation.
‘Oh,’ he looked down at his lap. Johnnie then became almost embarrassed at how childish and immature his question had been he somehow had wanted to impress this man who had made such an impression on him the other day. Involuntary his face went red, his ears burned in embarrassment and he made his excuses and promptly left. He felt like a naughty child, exploring areas of life he knew nothing about and it was still not his place to ask.
It was the building itself that attracted him back again and again. He loved the symbolism of everything inside it. He was sad that so much of it went unnoticed by the congregation, eyes locked on Duncan or head down and eyes closed as he spoke. The melancholic face of Christ watched over them, hung limply on his cross, body starved and twisted in pain. Where on the opposite wall, a community wall, with pictures of happy children, faces filled with cake, wave at the camera with sticky fingers. The Sunday school was popular, it provided a day off for stressed mums and free unlimited diluted orange juice and sugary treats for the children, with the occasional bible story and moral thrown in. Next to the collage of pictures taken during church events was Noah’s ark, delicately crafted from cereal boxes, tissue paper and reams on pva glue and glitter; the children last year had created, and were very proud of it. The animals residing in this architectural feat were a mixture of shop bought plastic, yogurt pots painted and play dough baked. There was even a sneaky dinosaur on there, which amused Johnnie greatly. Every time he entered the church, he would find the lone, two inch tyrannosaurus rex and nod knowingly at him, they were both intruders in this Christian place of worship.
Johnnie had not had much contact with religion before. His father was a Catholic; he knew that only because of the green and white striped shirt he wore to football games, and the Celtic names of his side of the family. His grandmother wore a crucifix around her neck. Johnnie could never take his eyes off the strange piece of jewellery every time they visited from Ireland. When he was naughty, she threatened hell. But he didn’t know of this place, so didn’t feel threatened by it.
Eventually this strange, enthusiastic, stern man became a confidant to Johnnie. He could visit whenever he felt like it, and speak to Duncan about anything. He always had an answer, and never judged him. It was odd to have an adult treat him in this way, Johnnie had never had that before. Although he had his friends to discuss things with, anything too philosophical and about the meaning of life, or why he saw so much pain and hurt in the world they usually laughed awkwardly and quickly changed the subject to something more light-hearted. Johnnie felt Duncan had no ulterior motive, except to advise and to care, and of course to inform about the means and ways of the Christ. Johnnie felt they had become friends. Duncan was just tall enough to peer over the pulpit when he gave his sermons in the morning and because of that he did not have an imposing manner about him. But people respected his quiet, wise ways.
Johnnie made it a habit to watch the news on the television with Mary before school every morning; he wanted to know what was going on in the world around him. Ever the curious child, he wondered what more there was out there in the world, he felt he knew nothing, and wanted to know everything. He tried to discuss over breakfast the issues they had just watched together with his mum. She never really had a lot to say and showed little interest, she was caught up in her own world; the people suffering on the television screen were far away and did not affect her life at all. She would, as usual, tut and shake her head, ‘och, Johnnie dear, the world is a cruel place, lots of bad things happen and there are lots of bad people. You just need to make sure you don’t get involved in any of it.’ This was the most advice he got out of her. Stay out of trouble.
Mary was worried about her son, as always. He always asked difficult questions and she never knew how to answer him. She wasn’t clever or a philosopher and she would hate to say something and later regret it. Still, the weight of mothering responsibility was too much for her. So she gave advice she felt any mother would give, and hoped he wouldn’t get into too much trouble, and hoped he loved his mother despite her misgivings.
Duncan explained that war, poverty and hunger were all part of God’s plan, and ‘people like you and I, are put here, to help, to care for others and to try as much as we can to help God, to help others,’ he said knowingly. These words rung true to Johnnie, he felt like he needed to, wanted to, help people in need. And indeed there were so many people who were in need, who had been dealt a very bad hand in life and spent the rest of their lives trying to improve it.
Johnnie felt like, in this church with this friendly man and the group of elderly people every Sunday, he was part of something, which he knew was big. That little groups like this, all over the world joined together to celebrate something special, that they all were part of something good. They had common interests and all strived ostensibly to be better people.
Just one problem, however. He didn’t believe in God. He tried, he really did. That there was an intelligent being that had the power to change and control the earth and its inhabitants. But the idea seemed absurd to him – every time he looked around, eyes open at the world, near and far, so many things just didn’t make sense to him. After confiding in Duncan, he asked if Johnnie had prayed before and suggested that maybe he tried to speak to God, the pray, and ask him these questions himself, directly.
So Johnnie spoke to God. He got on his knees, hands clasped and he prayed. He prayed hard. He first whispered, but soon felt embarrassed, so silently he continued, and questioned. He sat for a while, until the concrete floor ached his knees through the prayer cushion. His body ached, his mind tired. He sat until everything in his young enquiring mind had been thought out, discussed and pleaded.
But God did not speak back. For all his efforts he received silence, an emptiness, and nothing, nada. His religious interest had built up so far to this point, and had been let down. He couldn’t deny, spending that time thinking and resolving problems and questions had been beneficial. There was no one at the other end of the line, helping him along. He was sure of that.
He checked his watch, a longer time had passed than he had at first realised, so rushed home to change before heading out once again to meet with his group of friends, his mind feeling a little clearer and less anxious than before. While he was out, his mind kept wandering back to that peaceful place, where he could go. It was nice to know there was somewhere else he could go, away from home.
This didn’t stop him attending church, Duncan had made it clear that the belief of a higher being was kind of important if one was to attend church, but he also recognised something in Johnnie, a synchronicity, that they had common aims and wishes, and recognised something of his younger self in him. This young boy was just looking for somewhere of meaning with which to belong; he couldn’t possibly turn him away. It wasn’t the Christian thing to do.
Chapter Six: A marriage in trouble.
In order to get away from home, Johnnie spent more time out on the streets, hanging around with Heather, Malcolm and Maneck. They provided an escape and never asked about how his parents were getting on. Their jovial spirit and light-hearted conversation allowed an escape from the reality of daily life at his home. He also spent a lot of time at church. Sitting silently among the empty, uncomfortable wooden pews. He did not mind that it was uncomfortable, it kept him present in the moment, reminding him where he was.
Duncan passed, carrying his paperwork to get completed for the following Tuesday, he had let it fall behind, when he caught sight of local boy John sat alone on the pews, who had been coming here a lot more often than usual.
Duncan approached him. ‘Look here, son,’ sitting beside him, he coughed a little and continued, ‘the local charity Glasgow Community Aid have asked me to recommend a volunteer for them; I think you would benefit from going there if you are at a loose end. They need someone to help out at the soup kitchen; it’s in the centre of town. Coming here weekly is not good for you – you need to be out there with others, helping others. That, I believe, is what you are looking for,’ he said. Looking directly in his eyes, Duncan looked serious, ‘Johnnie, I can provide support and religious guidance to those who seek it’ he said ‘I believe you need company, and most importantly, a purpose.’ He paused, looked concerned, conflicted, ‘you are always welcome here, whether God is with you, or not.’
Johnnie thought about confiding in Duncan about the problems at home, and why he felt the need to come here so often, but decided against it- they were his parents’ problems, and he knew they wouldn’t appreciate him going about mouthing off about their private issues, even if it was to the local vicar. Personal business stayed at home, and Johnnie felt he should respect that. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said, taking the leaflet Duncan was offering him. He was too worried about his mum and dad to worry about anybody else, to think about it.
John and Mary fought. They had argued before, not like this, as loud and overt. Johnnie could hear the muffled shouting through the walls. He hated it, during the times he would crank his music up as loud as he could get away with, or stick his head under his pillow, further muffling the conflict in the house downstairs.
It had become a strained, desperate daily attempt to make it work. The silent breakfasts, a force of habit clink of the palm leaf – the offer of a brew. Delicately placed on the breakfast bar of the table. Dry, cold toast, lolling about the mouths of the couple, so set in a routine. Back in the honeymoon periods breakfast was such a treat. Giggles, laughter, happy clinking of cups full of hot freshly brewed tea, full of intentions of promises of a lifetime of love. Now it seemed slow, tasteless.
The food tasted like cardboard to Johnnie too. Chewing, it went on and on. Eventually he gave up and packed away his plate, rinsing it under a running tap, Johnnie excused himself. He could bear this atmosphere no longer. He left them both sulking and silently picking at their food. He needed to get out.
His father was a gambler – had been for years, but hid it well. At as it turns out; he hid a lot of things well too. Johnnie eavesdropped on these arguments. John, feigning work, had left the house each morning heading straight for the bookies, and then the pub. He gambled whatever was in his pocket, then spend any winnings on cold pints, then go home empty handed, empty pocketed and with an unsteady walk stinking of stale alcohol. Any days without winnings, he would call upon his friends to loan him a pint, or added to the growing tab at the pub. For ten years. Mary hadn’t a clue, nor had his son. They both felt so stupid. He had spent all their money, they had nothing.
Mary had spent the whole of their marriage allowing John to take care of all the bills and their finances. She had had the odd part time job during the times John had struggled to find work to subsidise the job seeker’s allowance. But for the past ten years, she had blissfully been a housewife, believing John to be in control. He had gone behind her back and created a whole separate life. That of a low life, a gambler, a drinker. She cringed at the prospect of being humiliated in front of the community. That people will have seen her husband acting like a drunk and a bum. Betrayal. Mary relied entirely upon her husband; she had no life outside this tiny house. All she knew was John, her housework and her son. Mary, after this particular argument, did something she never usually would. She stood up, and slowly made for the door, she had run out of words. Closing it behind her, she felt free. Now what?
She would never leave home, or kick John out; after all, he had no money. Mary was determined to at least try and keep the family together for her son, despite the fact she now hated the man.
They went to school together but never spoke. Meeting up years later once she had blossomed from an awkward teenager into a fully grown, confident woman. Mary was a nurse; she worked long hours and cared greatly for her job, but gave it up when they got married. As a child Mary flourished everywhere, around everyone. Rosy cheeked glints and in her eyes, greedily palming the sweet toffees Aunt Edna offered upon arrival every Sunday dinner. Favourited and loved, never knowing the pains of confrontation, even hate. She curtseyed as she met visitors to the house – cooing and aweing at the quiet, smiling gracious miniature host, ‘oh Martha, your daughter is simply precious!’
Now the foundation crumbles on her dry face starving of moisture, now her shiny locks hang limp in front of her sodden face. Looking in the mirror she looked haggard, old. She had given her best years to this man. Her once glossy, thick hair hung thinly at her shoulders, as dry as her skin. She still wore the same clothes, make-up and jewellery but now it looked dated and cheap on her. There were wrinkles where once there hadn’t been. The same could be said for their bedroom. Neglected, worn out, outdated. In fact the whole house could do with an update; nothing had been done since their son was born. Even his bedroom bore the gender neutral yellow wallpaper they had chosen, excited and prepared for the birth. He had plastered numerous posters of his favourite music bands, films and games over it – but she knew his baby wallpaper – growing old as he did too, was underneath it all. Thinking of her son comforted her; she smiled as she remembered briefly his tiny little chubby face, all bright and sparkly, laughing at everything with wonder in his eyes. She knew that period would be brief, all babies grow up. She cherished it all, as she would with all the stages of his life.
She had to get out, to begin to make a life of her own, in her own right.
An unenthusiastic grunt. Quite content with an undiscovered, mundane life as it is. Mary was determined to begin some sort of life, and the father of her son had to be part of it. She was frustrated; she wanted to see more, experience more. There surely was a whole world outside their living room, and she wanted to see it in person rather than through the cold, pixelated screen of their television where John was happy to view it from. He was grounded at the moment; she didn’t trust him to leave the house alone, though she hoped to trust him at some point. It sounds desperate, sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
‘Let’s go out’ Mary looking expectantly to her other half for a confirmation. Eyes still locked on the television screen, across the room from this worn and tired armchair. Tired from years of use, spending night after night wasting his life away in that godforsaken chair. ‘Some live music, there must be something on’ she starts racking her brain for ideas all the while remaining upbeat, enthusiastic. ‘John...’ she whispered.
‘Yeah, sure whatever’ eyes and focus still entirely on the channel and whatever had captured his attention there. Mary wasn’t even sure if he knew what she’d said, or that she was even there.
Silence, ‘isn’t there a nice film on the telly or something later?’ that was it, no intention of leaving that sofa for the entire evening. They very rarely had evenings together, as John often ‘worked’ late, and now they weren’t in the habit for spending enjoyable time together.
‘Doesn’t matter... I’ll find some work to do...the curtains in the kitchen could do with a clean, I might make some bread while I’m in there,’ flustered she sighed heavily with her weighted shoulders. Mary left the room. At least she had tried. One way or another, she had to begin her life, sooner or later, wee Johnnie would leave home – begin his own life as an adult. Leaving just her and John. Something had to change.
Chapter Seven: Johnnie becomes a man.
On the morning of his sixteenth birthday, Johnnie awoke, feeling exactly the same. Heather had arranged a party for him. His mum had quite frankly refused a party at home, a house full of teenagers treading muck and dirt through her house? Certainly not. She had her own problems.
So the party was to take place at Heather’s. When Johnnie arrived she had put balloons, streamers and ‘sixteen today’ banners. Her house had been cleaned and tidied especially. It was a small, cramped terraced house and Johnnie wondered whether it would be able to cope with all the guests she had invited along. He was delighted; nobody had ever gone to this much effort for his birthday. Usually, his mum would bake a cake, they’d sit around the lit candles and sing the happy birthday song, then normal life would resume after cards and presents had been solemnly opened. Actually, this was the first party he had been thrown. And with real friends attending. Once he saw the room he jumped over to Heather, giving her a massive hug in gratitude. She blushed, looking at her feet, ‘it was nothing really, my mum had all this stuff left over after mine.’
Despite that, Johnnie was still taken aback. A few hours into the party, everyone was there. The initial group, plus some of Heather’s friends from school. Johnnie didn’t mind that he didn’t know everyone at his own birthday party; actually, it felt rather cool. Heather had ‘an empty’ for the weekend, her parents were away on a trip visiting relatives, and she had school work to do, so couldn’t go. Such a coincidence that it landed on the weekend of her good friend Johnnie’s birthday. At house parties, guests gravitate toward the kitchen, and it becomes the liveliest part of the house, where the beer, food and good times are. Johnnie and his closest friends, frightened off by the loud noises, like timid creatures, and the imminent light conversation with strangers required from them, soon gravitated away from the kitchen. Hanging out in Heather’s bedroom, Johnnie, Heather, Malcolm and Maneck sat cross legged on the floor, sharing a case of beer and passing a joint around the already hazy room. Heather was not really a girly girl, her room looked much her friends’ covered in popular posters, cds stacked high in the corner, dirty dishes high in the other, and an unmade bed, a typical teenager. This is where Johnnie felt happiest, chilling out, with people he didn’t need to force a conversation with.
Malcolm, too, was in his element, he was a little merry. They were sat next to each other on the floor of Heather’s bedroom discussing the success of the night, ‘I’m glad it is just us up here though, it is getting wild downstairs’ Johnnie said as he took a sip of beer.
‘Aye, I hate parties so full of people, I much prefer a couple of mates and a six pack to be fair,’ nodding at Johnnie, looking for agreement and acknowledgement. He jumped up onto his feet with a sudden burst of energy, ‘and look how much fun we are having here!’ Still gesticulating wildly Malcolm swung his runaway hands knocking over the pile of music, sending it crashing to the ground. The room erupted.
‘Whoa there Malc!!! One too many beers maybe?’ Heather laughed.
Malcolm, trying to keep a straight face, ‘there is no such thing, Heather – pass me another!’ for added effect he once again flung his arms in an even more overt manner, he had the attention of the entire room now. Johnnie rolled on the floor, giggling.
‘Ha! I’ll drink to that,’ Maneck declared, raising his unopened can of beer high.
‘You’ll drink to anything’ Johnnie joked.
Standing up, Maneck raised another can, and jokingly leered in pointing slowly at each and every one of them before standing tall again hands aloft, ‘I shall drink to that too!’ He opened the can and dramatically took a long, cool chug of beer, still stood tall in the room where everyone else is sitting, as everyone else rolled about in laughter.
They conversation flowed as easy as the beer. The room was now thick with the fog of a rolled up joint that was being passed around, adding to the relaxed, laid back atmosphere. Heather, noticed a gap in conversation while Malcolm and Maneck were chatting, sidled up to Johnnie as he got up to change the music.
‘Hey’ she quietly said. A pause as he pressed play on the machine, and waited for the song to begin. He looked at her, taking another sip of beer as he turned to face her.
‘Hey’ he replied, nodding coolly at her.
‘You having a good night? I wanted it to be good for you’ Heather seemed more quiet than her usual bubbly self. Johnnie put it down to the drink, he had never really seen her drunk before, most people got louder, more raucous, and maybe she did the opposite.
‘Yeah man, great stuff! I really appreciate it Heather!’ He looked about the room. Heads bobbing to the rhythm of the tune he had chosen, he had chosen well – the group silently approved by the smiles and the sways of their bodies. It had been a good night, his mind and body felt uncoordinated, the alcohol was making him confident and chatty, the weed, relaxed and slow. He felt good. He wondered how the party was getting on downstairs without them. He didn’t feel like he was missing out, it was way better up here – and he barely knew anyone downstairs.
She cleared her throat. ‘Listen,’ Johnnie jolted back to the room, eyes focusing slowly on her, ‘you know I like you, right?’ her hand briefly brushed his arm as she looked up into his face, looking desperately for a response. He laughed.
‘Of course! I like you too! We are best mates; you saved me from the class from hell!’
‘Yeah. I know. Best mates.’ Dejected, she turned back to the room and promptly joined Maneck and Malcolm’s conversation about alcohol-free beer.
‘Urgh, my dad drinks it. Pure shite you know man?’ Malcolm said.
‘I mean, what’s the point? The actual point? Pish’
Johnnie, thinking it a little odd Heather turned her face away so quickly, shrugged it off and joined them. The rest of the night to drink and party away with his best friends, game on.
Party over, Johnnie was officially sixteen, in his mid-teens, a man. Though he did not feel it, not just yet. He no longer had to attend school by law, so he didn’t. Education could only take him so far. Johnnie was not outstandingly clever, he did not have an aptitude for IT or science. School had finished, and so had he. For Johnnie, like his dad when he left school, it was work or the dole. Luckily, his uncle had found him a spot as an apprentice in a builder’s yard for the time being, until he found something he wanted to do. ‘If you aren’t in school, at least get into some sort of training, don’t end up like your father’ she advised him, the wagging, warning finger pointing in his face as she spoke.
On his first day, he entered with his head bowed and spoke in a quiet, hushed tone; still a young lad, he was a whole lot smaller than the work force there. He was nervous, and had never been in this environment before. This was a real work place. The boss, a surly, overweight, proper man’s man. Smithy. His was confident and totally in his element, surrounded by his workmates, on a building yard.
Johnnie was put to work as soon as he arrived, lifting heavy bags of sand and other stuff. Concrete blocks and sweeping floors, generally keeping the place tidy. He was trying really hard, it was his first day and he wanted to make a good impression, it seemed, however that the others really weren’t. It was a miserable, drizzly day as usual and the men did not look as though they were up for working hard today. They were already on their fourth round of builder’s tea holding the pots of steaming liquids while they gossiped like a group of old women. It was typical, a typical male workplace. Johnnie was surrounded by explicit language, explicit calendars and a general lack of enthusiasm for work.
When Smithy caught sight of the slim, slightly built Johnnie huffing and puffing trying to heave a cinder block he nudged the others, winking. They all looked over, laughing and jeering at him. Some even began to make cruel bets on how long this young weakling could last here.
He felt extremely uncomfortable, like they were always watching, and laughing at him behind his back. Some were right, he barely lasted a week.
Johnnie decided to keep his head down and just do the work while ignoring the taunts of the men. Johnnie was old enough now to realise that these people get bored, just like a fire dies out if provide it with no fuel. He would starve them from fuel for their taunts.
That was true. He stopped retaliating, they eventually stopped teasing. Johnnie could not believe that these grown men still found enjoyment in picking on a younger, weaker man. Childish. They did leave him, but they left him out of everything; chats, cups of tea, Johnnie was never invited to the pub for a swift one after work, or invited over to eat lunch with them. In a way he was back at school. He hated it, and could not wait to finish his placement and leave. Leave these child men behind, unchanging and ungrown.
A day after his first day working and two after his birthday, stinking of stale beer, his dad John pounced on Johnnie as soon as he got home through the door. His mum looked on from behind John, in the kitchen apologetically, she had given Johnnie a card just from her on the morning of his birthday – it was the first time she had done that before, she usually wrote dad on there too. Johnnie guessed she was giving him opportunity to redeem himself, to act like a father and a husband without needing to be reminded or prompted. Johnnie nodded in thanks to his dad, and legged it upstairs, taking two at a time, leaving his dad, stood alone in the hallway, hand still out from where he handed the card to his son.
A cheap, petrol station purchase – comic style, a grotesque cartoon figure face grinned at him with bulging eyes from the front, thumbs up – HAPPY BIRTHDAY SON!! He opened it, ‘sixteen! You are a man now, just like your old man,’ scrawled in child-like letters across the inside, ‘love, Dad.’
Johnnie scoffed. ‘Hypocritical bastard!’ Chucking the card onto the floor, he jumped up and angrily kicked his desk, hurting his toe in the process. His dad only just remembered his birthday, without Mary’s reminding. She had taken it upon herself to do things separately at the moment, until John bucked up his ideas. But at least he did remember, got the age right, too. Feeling guilty, he went to pick it back up. It lay next to the Glasgow Community Aid leaflet Duncan had given him a few weeks ago which he had carelessly strewn onto the floor as soon as he got home. He picked it up, to look at it properly. Duncan had written his name on the top of it, underlined. He had obviously intended on giving it specifically to Johnnie, he had even circled the local number on the back for him to call. The card from his father remained on the floor.
He didn’t need to spend day after day, getting picked by overweight, middle aged builders; it was like being back at school. He wasn’t earning enough to merit staying there – after all he was only an apprentice. If he explained to his mum, the experience would do him good. And he would be more suited to charity work, well more suited than building that was for sure.
Chapter Eight: Living on the streets of Glasgow.
It was an icy evening, the sun was setting slowly covering the street in moonlit darkness, the Christmas shoppers still bustling away oblivious to the coming late hour using the harsh false lighting coming from the shop windows to light and guide their way down the streets. Johnnie, hands thrust deep in his pockets attempting to keep them warm, was hurrying home after a quick pint with his best friend, Malcolm. They had had a good chat; Johnnie explained his difficulty with the lads in the building yard, and Malcolm offering a kind ear and as always providing an uplifting distraction away from work.
As Johnnie was walking, he neared a man sat on a mat on the ground, outside a shop window. Holding his frost bitten hand out for change, Johnnie fumbled clumsily as he stopped by him. The man looked frozen, his legs tucked up underneath him, warmed by the heat of his body. Dirty fingers in fingerless gloves wrapped around a polystyrene cup weighed down by the weight of a stranger’s spare shrapnel. His clothes, tattered, worn and old. He wore a raincoat over an old fleece. His young face made old by alcohol and drugs, experience and worry. But kindness lived in those yellowing, tired eyes, Johnnie saw that straight away. ‘Any spare change, pal?’ he croaked into the cold air, the breath leaving him a cloud of warmth escaping his freezing body.
Hands deep in his pocket and quickly patting himself down. Nothing, absolutely nothing to hand to him. Not the ‘sorry mate no change’ he said, he tried, he really did, he did not want to have to go such a measly response. Johnnie had no money in pocket, purse or even disposable in the draining account his mum forced him to open with some of her savings. He shrugged, embarrassed, even in front of him to admit he had nothing to offer to help this poor frozen man. “Listen, I’ll come back in a couple of days” excuse as it sounded, Johnnie honestly told him, “I can give you something then, stay warm” the useless bit of information hangs shamefully in the air as he hurried on down the cold street full of Christmas shoppers, hands and pockets full of greed, carrying boxes of guilt to pass onto unworthy nieces and nephews in a week’s time. He smiles, and nods, and disappears amongst them, a lonely, vulnerable calm face shrinking into the crowds.
Homelessness, perpetual movement around without being weighed down by the responsibilities that come with a home, and possessions. Some out of choice, others forced. Pushed and pillared around, out of the ordered society created for them. It often worked against the needy, providing more difficulty and obstacles for them.
After he left, Johnnie made for home, embarrassed and ashamed. This man was in need he was not able, financially, to do anything about it. He scoped out the leaflet, and gave Glasgow Community Aid a call. This, he felt at that moment in time, was his calling. He was out of the academic business and definitely out of the building business – hopefully this would work better for him. Phone in hand, Johnnie listened to the voice on the other end of the line; this would be a new step for him, he would later excitedly tell his mother of his plans to volunteer, beaming proudly as he did so.
It was a small group, who met up for a quick coffee and a briefing in the morning before departing and spending the day out and about, providing aid and support and the odd hot meal, out on the streets of Glasgow. They were a great group, a mixed group – some would call them hippies. Dan, a tall guy, with long brunette dread hanging down his back who punctuated every sentence with ‘man’. He had so much to talk about –he had spent the last two years travelling the globe on a shoestring. He had been everywhere and done everything. After just twenty minutes of speaking to him, Johnnie was utterly in awe, baffled by this man and the things, at thirty-odd, he had done. It got Johnnie thinking about where he had come from, his parents. Dan put them to shame, they were well older and had barely left Glasgow – they managed to make it to France, once, on their honeymoon. Any holiday Johnnie had taken with them was North, to Skye or the Hebrides, or South, to London (that was fancy enough for his parents) or Blackpool, a firm favourite for them. Even Edinburgh felt continental. Though his father would spend the whole time complaining about all the tourists ruining his holiday for him.
They were, by far the friendliest collection of people Johnnie had ever met. They welcomed him with open arms. Apparently, Duncan had called ahead and told them all about him. He was not sure whether that was a good thing or not. But they were expecting him, and had got the office all ready for a new member as they, too, were excited to see a new young face enter into their world. Johnnie was given his own pass and shared his desk with Dan, who had been elected to show the newcomer the ropes.
Johnnie found himself in a half way house, situated next to the church, the staff used the office there as their meeting point, their base. In the office they found themselves cramped, a lack of chairs so latecomers hovered in the corner resting their weight on the radiators which were still beginning to warm up the room. The office shelves were piled high with unfinished paperwork and company manuals and health and safety checklists and many other forgotten papers and casebooks. Johnnie looked about him at the people in the room, his new colleagues. They had only a couple of residents in at the moment, there was always at least one person floating about, chatting to staff members. They tried to keep everything relaxed and laid back in order to create a welcoming atmosphere, friendly and informal and the staff never wore uniforms. There were hangings of pictures made during creative time in the social room. Different classes were held during the day of various ilks; drop ins, to get some people in and to see them regularly. It was a good base, somewhere constant and regular; somewhere people can rely on, always to be there. Johnnie felt it looked a little run down, in dire need of some new funding. It was once brand new and shiny, but that new sheen had started to wear off. Paint on the hallway ceiling and walls had started to chip away, the bulbs were out and hadn’t been replaced in a while and now forgotten in the upstairs landing. The carpets worn and frayed after year’s worth of hundreds of new troubled footsteps treading the place day in day out. The place was worn and used. But, Johnnie thought, it being used was a good thing, it was definitely needed.
It was done in such a way to make people feel at home. Like they belonged. The needy people Feeling like they belong to a part of a community and that the community is there to support and help them. Homeless people, living and working together.
Johnnie first went on duty with his mentor, Dan. Together they walked the streets of Glasgow. It was a cold, dark night and the winter frost was beginning to set in. Summer was definitely over, he thought. He liked winter; it held the country captive – spreading an ice over all the landscape. He thought winter, snow and ice covered was beautiful, it looked great. There was a different, harsher side of winter of which he had never had encountered before. Locked up safe and soundly each night in his family home, Johnnie had been protected from the cruel world. Seeing these people who lived so close to him in such need came as quite a shock to the young man.
It was a community kitchen run by local Buddhists, and the Glasgow Community Aid sent volunteers to keep an eye on things and to help out when they were running low, especially over busy periods such as Christmas. They were helping homeless men and women throughout Glasgow. They were on the soup run out at Cadogan Street, handing out food to the needy and to the hungry. Many of the visitors were quite often starving of company as well. The food average but warm against the cold frosty air of the night and provided much needed nutrition. The warmth would light up their faces. Dan knew each by name, he had been volunteering here for years, and he was at ease with everyone. Nervous Johnnie, from the cold or otherwise his shaking hand timidly held out the food to these strangers. Some looked intimidating. The unknown can be frightening, tall desperate figures dressed in rags asking for money can be dangerous – at least that is what Johnnie had always been taught. He remembered his mother’s reactions when passing the homeless in the street, crossing the road and clinging that bit tighter onto his young tiny hand; protected too from the true world, she did not know any better. As the night wore on and as he built up more confidence to chat to some of the regulars, grateful for Dan who introduced Johnnie to some, Johnnie began to feel a little more comfortable cracking the odd joke or lending a kind ear. By the end of the night Johnnie left feeling conflicted. He felt good for what he was now part of, but he felt so incredibly guilty for the way these people were treated on a daily basis, for the most part unprompted. He felt guilty for knowing that he had done the same before in the past.
There were some new faces for Johnnie at the soup kitchen who were not from the charity, volunteers who could only offer a couple of hours away from their full time busy lives on a Wednesday night to offer support and hand out hot food to cold hands. Three extra pairs of giving hands were welcomed with open arms.
A large talkative woman and her daughter, Jane and Bethany, were regular volunteers. They were very close and this Wednesday night volunteering had brought them closer. They were bright, cheery, and helpful and easily could have been sisters, especially the way they acted. Both were tall, blonde, Nordic looking beautiful women. And then there was another woman, though Johnnie did not catch her name, keeping herself to herself, one of the volunteers mentioned she had once relied upon this very soup kitchen and had only just got over a problem with drugs. She seemed content just filling mugs with steaming liquid, quickly nodding, then moving on to the next needy pair of hands.
Johnnie could see kindness and selflessness all around and he smiled, happy being part of it. He smiled all the way home, his body warm, not with heat but with goodness. This was his calling. Here were some new, innately kind people with whom he would be spending a lot more time with. He hoped some would rub off on him eventually.
Chapter Nine: A time for revenge.
Johnnie settled in like a fish to water. He enjoyed being out in the field with his pal Dan, but equally revelled in being given the responsibility of staying in the office, dealing with the paper work, finding and recruiting other volunteers and arranging various things. He felt like a proper worker with a true purpose. Johnnie walked taller and spoke more confidently in front of strangers. Mary watched him leave every morning proudly sharing his enthusiasm and love for his new way of life. He had been spending less and less time at home, enjoying his time at work he arrived early and finished late. And when he finished he would often be tempted to go out, paint the town red with a few of the youngest of his colleagues at the Community Aid who, too, enjoyed socialising and the vibrant Glasgow night life.
He was walk-running, hopping about as he was still tying his tie as he left the house, a piece of cold toast hanging out of his mouth. What a sight, he thought to himself. Johnnie was running mega late for work, the previous night’s friendly couple of beers had turned into quite a number, Dan’s fault, always egging him on to stay out a little later and having the next pint waiting on the table before he had even finished the last. Arousing himself from his hangover influenced deep sleep was a task indeed. His heavy eyes opened and he reached for the alarm clock before realising he’d overslept. It is amazing how fast you move when you are late – everything can get done in half the time, at least it seemed. Just as the bus driver was beginning to check his mirrors in order to move away, Johnnie caught up and hopped on. And, as an extra plus – he had enough change for the driver. Result, they usually would kick him off, or look awkwardly at him if he had not enough change, or only a note to pay with. The bus pulled away from the stop and joined the queue of traffic up the hill. He tapped his foot impatiently craning his neck to look at the traffic ahead, come on, come on – get moving, he thought, checking his wrist watch.
Working voluntarily and gaining valuable experience, it meant Johnnie simply did not have the funds to be able to move away from home just yet. The situation at home had not changed in months; the tension over breakfast in the mornings was still unbearable. Johnnie had taken to waiting until no one was about downstairs before sneaking out, grabbing a banana to eat on the way, or getting up mega early before the sun was up and beginning the day. His father had gone on the dole and now spent his days lazing about on the sofa, only moving to check the fridge and to use the bathroom. A permanent, miserable look fixed upon his face. His parents reached a new stage of arguments – the silent treatment. They communicated via Johnnie when they could, or through a series of grunts and hints. Johnnie could see some improvement and both parties clearly were making an effort to stay together and try to make each other’s lives bearable. Bearable for now, better later. His mum had got her first full time job as a receptionist at the local doctors and was really enjoying it, but the job hunt had obviously eluded his father. After the incident with his sixteenth birthday card, his mum had obviously given John a right bollocking. He had then stopped drinking during the day; years of blank memories, of shameful behaviour haunted his days. John had been embarrassed at his behaviour the past few years, and he had blocked out, or could not remember large chunks of them, and important, significant events seemed to pass him by. And his relationship with his wife and son had dramatically suffered. He was such a pillock. And he was determined to right the years of wrong.
Mary was not content with life; she had started to show more interest in Johnnie’s life; wanting to spend more time with him, as if she knew he was on the cusp of leaving home. She would collar him when she caught him leaving and attempted to engage him in conversation about the news. The same sort of conversation Johnnie tried so hard to do whilst he was younger, and still at school. She was trying, maybe to make amends, maybe to feel more present in her son’s life. A desperation for his attention.
Surprisingly, with all the rush, Johnnie had bought himself a ten extra minutes. The traffic had cleared unexpectedly and the bus driver had put his foot down to make up the time lost. He got off a stop early and began to saunter in the cold early morning sunshine to work, a skip in his step things like this never seemed to work.
Johnnie stopped dead. Out in front of him, a high pitched screech echoed across the houses either side of the street, the car brakes too late to prevent the collision. It happened in slow motion before his eyes. The two cars collided at the roundabout. A small blue, battered old car had not given way to the right and tried to sneak out just as a larger, newer silver car came round. It sounded worse than it looked, both cars were repairable and from what Johnnie could see, neither of the drivers were hurt. But they were angry, both innocent, free of fault.
As he neared the roundabout, the owner of the silver car jumped out and stood, waving his arms about frantically to slow the oncoming traffic while the female driver of the other car stood away from the road on her phone, her face contorted with worry, the deep lines on her forehead furrowed in upset. The man seemed familiar, perhaps one of those common faces that cause strangers to double take as they pass by, mistaken for someone they know. Johnnie sped up his pace, to reach the scene of the incident, to lend a hand if he could. After all, he was a witness.
It hit him; he knew exactly where he knew him from. His acne had cleared up, he had lost weight, and he looked good – Johnnie hated him still. Fucking Chris. The guy who made school a nightmare, Chris. It had been years, an eternity, since they had last seen each other and both had changed in many ways, but Johnnie still felt angry at him, at the way he so casually moved from friend to bully in a matter of months. Just at the time Johnnie was most vulnerable, most shy and needed a friend the most. He raged watching this slick young man and was furious that life hadn’t given him the comeuppance he deserved because of the way he treated a poor helpless young Johnnie in school. Karma did not work, did not exist. For that moment Johnnie was angry at the way life allowed an individual to act and to behave the way he wanted, as disgusting as it was, without any consequences. But here it was. He was his own moment, to make karma happen, to take control. To show this vile human being what happened if you treated other people like shit. No matter when, there was no excuse.
‘You were driving too fast!’ She shouted, for they were already in a heated discussion by this point. Though a head shorter than Chris, she squared up to him aggressively as an equal.
‘What are you? Blind? You took a stupid chance, and pulled out in front of me!’ Chris tried to explain to her. Both were waving their arms about frantically, pointing to the exit, then to their smashed up cars emphatically.
‘God! Look at my car, look what you have done!’ She put her hands up to her face and shook her head, visibly upset, but still refusing to back down.
‘Here, mate!’ Chris beckoned with his arms once he saw Johnnie, signalling him over. The glint of a polished wedding ring shone in the sun as he waved.
His face showed no recognition towards his old schoolmate; to Chris, Johnnie was simply a well-timed strange,, and that chapter of their lives had barely passed with importance, a minor stage of the inevitable childhood only to be grown out of as life got sweeter. Chris’ life had passed with ease. Jealousy gripped the pit of Johnnie’s stomach. The sour taste hitting his tongue like bile, redemption for the months of torture unrequited.
Johnnie was the only witness to the accident. The two parties explained over each other angrily, that the other was in fault and should come clean. Eventually the police were called, and both requested Johnnie explain when they got there. It was clear who was in fault, the woman was not paying attention. Chris had been driving at the speed limit and his horn alerted the women to his presence before she pulled out entirely in front of him.
Chris, frustrated with the woman’s lies threw about his arms in anger at the police man emphasising his side of the story. Equally the woman, short in stature but not in voice was arguing her side quite fervently. Johnnie feared for a moment that a punch was to be thrown, by the now red-faced crazy eyed woman, two inches from Chris’ face. The police officer, already looking a little pissed off, calmly stepped in and looked to Johnnie; after all he was the witness, both parties at least agreed to that. ‘Young man, could you please step aside with me, let us get this cleared up,’ he advised, note book in hand and quickly checking his watch, eager to leave the scene and go to more important matters. Johnnie knew who was in the right here. Alas, this was not the tale Johnnie told the policeman. He agreed with the woman, Clare,
‘He was speeding, there was no way she could have seen him before it was too late’ Johnnie explained with a finality, nodding seriously overcome with anger and a latent sense of revenge. He wanted to do something, as small as it was, to make this man’s life just a little bit more difficult. For a fleeting moment, after the police man snapped his notebook shut after taking his statement and details, he felt a sense of twisted pride. He did not even stop to see what would happen from there on. Johnnie quickly left, guilt ridden. But not so much to stop, turn back and alter his statement.
Johnnie hotfooted it back to the pavement, and did not look back at the scene, two crashed and crumpled cars and one now smug looking woman behind him. He quickly resumed his commute to work, now half an hour late. Nobody blinked an eyelid by that fact Johnnie was late. He briefly told the story of the crash, emitting some of the details about his history with Chris of course. They all laughed at his impression of the little woman fists out threatening to fight, and that was the end of it. However a large, grey guilty cloud hung over Johnnie’s head hung over him for the entire day, threatening rain. He hated that man; he could admit that to himself at least. Johnnie felt small and belittled by the incident; especially the fact Chris had not recognised him, he was not important enough to remember.
Chapter Ten: An old friend.
They were sat at the bar. Luke warm, flat beer in one hand and lit cigarette burning in the other. He looked away, as if searching the other side of the room for an answer, but unable to find one. Granted, it was a difficult question. Sighing, he pushed his heavy body up from the chair to leave for the bathroom.
‘It doesn’t matter anyway, we are here now’ she said, sadly.
She looked at him through the swirls of fag smoke rising from his mouth and the cigarette between them. Disgusting habit. One after the other, she imagined him years from now hacking up the tar that had fixed itself to the crevices at the bottom of his full, dying lungs. She was pissed off that he had not been in touch for so long, that their friendship had fizzled to an anticlimax, and she was upset that he could not even think of a reason why he had not spoken to her, and had been so distant. Life had just got in the way.
The place lit itself with a few measly laps hanging off the walls. The diners hunched their backs, their faces a little closer to their plates than is comfortable in order to see their food. The carpet slipped silently out of fashion twenty years previous and there was a smell of bleach hanging in the air. Heather, once again rejected by Johnnie, felt he had moved onto a different part of his life and no longer needed her. They hadn’t met up in what seemed like a long time. Johnnie filled his days and nights helping with the charity and partying with the charity folk, he had abandoned the old crew. They were not good enough for him now. She had helped him through a difficult period of his life, but now she was not needed, he had moved on.
There was a group of friends, all sat together on the corner table at the back of the room. Every so often there would be an eruption of laughter as someone cracked a joke or told a hilarious tale. Heather looked on in envy; she remembered times like that with Johnnie and her pals.
Johnnie had been promoted to a paid position, and had rented out a small room in a shared flat with three other ‘professionals’ of whom he barely ever saw. They did not get on, each worked different shifts and had different interests and when put in a room for any period of time together (other than the weather) had nothing to talk about. One housemate had taken to writing notes and attaching them to the fridge for the others to read and act upon, rather than speaking. Various passive aggressive notes about the kitchen cleaning rota or the usage of bathroom toilet roll showed up every so often. And were keenly ignored. Johnnie was quickly growing out of living with strangers. It was a good base to crash out after long days of working and even longer nights partying. Life was going well, although he had been so busy the past couple of years had gone in a blink. He had last been to see his mum and dad a couple of months ago and he felt like he had nearly lost touch with the old group of friends he used to spend so much time with. Malcolm and he were still best friends and they would often meet up in the nearest local and catch up briefly before stumbling home to each other’s respective homes.
But Heather, he had not seen in an absolute age. It had been both of their faults, Johnnie had gotten too busy with charity work and making new friends, and Heather had spent some time away in London, Johnnie was not sure but he heard on the grapevine that she had run away with a boyfriend, and that it had not worked out, so she was back in town. He contacted her and now, here they were. But things had changed and it just did not feel like the old times. She seemed a lot older, more experienced and more serious, her bright eyes had somehow been dulled while she was away and the disappointment of having to move back to crummy old Glasgow showed clearly on her face.
It is late. The night air sits over the town. Silent except for the far away hums of nightlife, and miscellaneous goings on. Heather and Johnnie, after having finished their drinks in the depressing pub on the corner of the high street, took a stroll together down the street towards the taxi rank.
A horrible wailing as a voice tried to sing, out of tune, in the entirely wrong key, and made up words drifted out of the window of another pub. He winced, looking at Heather. She smiled, they both hated karaoke. There was a time when they used to hang out when Maneck had dragged them all to a karaoke night, he and Malcolm had absolutely loved it, seeing it as an opportunity to display their cockiness and act up in front of a crowd. Heather and Johnnie, the shy, retiring two had loathed every second and spent the entire night giggling between themselves at all the tone deaf attempts at some truly awful songs. It ended up being a great night, both Maneck and Malcolm had had way too many beers and by the end, cuddling each other, arm in arm belting out Bohemian Rhapsody, all out of tune, with made up lyrics while Heather and Johnnie sat in front of the stage clapping and laughing along, it brought them all together as a group. This brief encounter with karaoke from the outside of a pub on a dull rainy Glasgow night had reminded them both of this time. Silently they continued. A new sense of their friendship had been renewed; tentatively, Heather grabbed his arm and cuddled closer to him as they walked on together.
Johnnie had been spending more time with Duncan, outside of church, they had become quite good friends, and the only one who did not insist on taking him out to a pub to get him pissed, and spend all his money. But for Duncan too, he was getting a little worried about Johnnie, the party drinking and smoking lifestyle had taken over this youthful, bright young man and dulled him. One day he summoned enough courage to confront Johnnie about cooling down the lifestyle, to maybe start eating healthier, and keep away from the pubs. But it had not been received well; the usually calm and kind Johnnie had erupted angrily, shouted at him to mind his own business, and stormed out of the room.
Johnnie left Heather puzzled, she had acted so strange so angry with him. The same happened with his mum, and Duncan. They all acted as if he was a bomb, ready to explode. He needed some help, they said. He did not want to admit it, but he was acting more and more like his father every day. He recognised aspects of him in himself, and he could not help it. Was this is destiny? Like father like son, no matter what? The very thought made him feel sick, made him hate himself.
Johnnie decided to take some time away from the crazy social life for a week or two. He had smoked and drunk too much, had too many blank memories of nights out and it had caught up on him. He felt dreadful. His body, soul and mind were most definitely partied out. His youthful excitement to see and do everything, especially in relation to the nightlife of Glasgow had gotten too much for him. Life had been passing him by, and the meeting with his old good friend Heather had made him realise he had not been paying much attention to those around him. Sure, Johnnie had been helping out and doing charity work every night, but it had become a routine. He had not been present in the moment and taking the true meaning of his work in. The people visiting and who Johnnie spent his days working with, speaking to and helping out had just become appointments, a quick blur of indistinct faces passing before his eyes. Those who had once stood with him had a history and a life, with tales and stories now made up part of his daily mundane life which he spent counting the minutes until he could be back in the pub or in bed with yet another beautiful lady clinging adorably to his arm. But in the end, it all would mean nothing. Twenty years from now the booze and the women would mean nothing. Did he enjoy his life? Probably not, he was just living it.
His life should have more meaning. He needed to be present in the moment. What use was life if it continued to pass by unnoticed. There needed to be some meaning, more meaning. A discovery of sorts. Of himself.
Chapter Eleven: Johnnie falls in love.
Midnight in the town centre on a Friday night. The main street was alive with revellers, either walking to the next place of drink or getting on their merry way home. Women tottered about on high heels with sore, squashed feet, pulling down their short skirts which rode up as they walked. Groups of men, out on the town with the lads, hair slicked back fashionably and stinking of too much cologne. Taxi drivers idly sat on their phones or reading newspaper by the light of their courtesy bulb in the cab waiting for punters. All this was part of the beginning of the weekend routine for the people out in town. Falling drunk yet again from one of the many bars that reside in the city centre held up by a not so sober himself Malcolm, Johnnie tripped over his own feet landing on his knees.
‘Come on, pal, one foot in front of the fucking other, you can do it!’ he patted Johnnie’s back as he pulled him out of the place, worried at how green Johnnie was starting to look. Malcom’s jacket, left in the rush to exit lay forgotten on the sticky, dirty floor underneath the table at which they were sat, so he was only wearing a thin polo shirt, the cold wind nipping at his skin underneath it. Johnnie leant over the curb to empty his stomach as Malcolm, hit by the cold, hailed a taxi. Ashamed and drunk, Johnnie stumbled in, ready to get home for some needed kip.
He had deliberately been trying to move away from the party lifestyle he had so briefly had. It had not been working so well at the moment. The group of volunteers were mostly young and often tried to get him to fall into his old habits. Glasgow was a great night out, but when you are trying to stay away from beer- it is all around. Johnnie had seen the same pattern in his male family members; especially his father had problems with alcohol. He had decided (after recently seeing Heather physically recoil in disgust when she first saw him after all these years, stinking of booze and fags he felt ashamed, and too much like his own father for comfort) to nip it in the bud before it became a big problem. Dan was being a great help, they stopped hanging out in pubs so often. This was his last slip up, he promised himself.
Walking to the nearest coffee shop together, to get a round for the office, Dan and Johnnie got chatting. The two men felt close, this was a true friendship; he opened up to Dan like he could with no one else. Johnnie told him about his dad’s alcoholism, gambling and his mum finding out after so many years of it. Dan listened and responded. He was good at listening and giving advice. It came from the years of experience with working with the charity, he had an aptitude for being someone to confide in. He stood with open body language, a welcoming, understanding expression on his face. ‘I feel bad for egging you on all the time, man’ he said sadly, Johnnie was easily influenced, and he had taken advantage of that, ‘I guess we were just trying to impress each other, eh?’ he said, nudging Johnnie. He agreed and they both laughed. Cutting the weekends of over abundance out of his life meant Johnnie could give himself time to recognise what was truly important, and necessary in his life.
The soup kitchen volunteers all worked well together, they had fallen into a rhythm of teamwork, serving the visitors and cleaning up efficiently. Each had their own station and knew exactly what to do. The visitors to the kitchen did not have to queue around too long before being handed a hot meal and a cup of tea with a friendly smile and someone offering a caring ear to listen to them. The efficiency felt good.
Working at the soup kitchen became Johnnie’s favourite part of his job, and his week. It was one of the only times he could physically see the good they were doing there, and the smiles it put on people’s faces. But not only that. Not only that. There was Beth as well. Johnnie had gradually got to know her a little bit and managed to get her aside after they finished a couple of the Wednesdays before she ran away back home with her mum. She intrigued him so; she began to give Johnnie’s life some meaning. Some much needed meaning, filling a void that had appeared during the months of over abundance.
She was just eighteen, and beginning her first year at university, the first of many. She wanted to be a doctor – she had brains, that girl. Her mum and she had been coming to volunteer every Wednesday for just less than a year. She was completing a Duke of Edinburgh award the time they started and needed some voluntary experience, and her mum felt it was safer if she came along too. They both loved it, and stayed on once the award was completed.
Beth, golden hair reaching past her shoulders, so long she always kept having to flick it away from her face as she leant forward. Beth, with big green innocent eyes, not weighed down or disguised by heaps of makeup. She carried a little weight, puppy fat, but it looked natural, curves – she wore well. Beth was beautiful, and kind.
They gradually got to know each other, and eventually became friends. They would often laugh and joke during shifts and the other members watching them from the sides, smiling knowingly at them.
Finally, gathering courage he decided to make a move. Johnnie was infatuated; he walked on lighter feet and shrugged off anxieties that had previously blighted his life. Beth became the focus of his weeks.
‘You alright there?’ Seeing her struggling with two nearly overflowing bowls of soups, navigating them to the counter without spilling a drop, Johnnie offered to take one off her.
‘I’m fine, thanks’ she replied, still concentrating on the task in hand. Successfully placing the unspoilt bowls on the table she looked back at him, and smiled, hands on hips, ‘see?’ she said, smugly.
‘I know you are fine, but are you alright?’ He gave her a little wink and smirked.
‘You got a boyfriend, Beth?’ She side-eyed him and smiled. She shook her head in embarrassment, her mother was always trying to set her up with strapping young men, she would later explain to Johnnie. She was a shy girl, it seemed, and she made Johnnie shy too.
He was smitten. Every opportunity to speak to her, he would pounce on. And any opportunity to speak about her, much to the others’ dismay he would also jump on. His life had briefly, for a moment, lacked focus. He had focused on Beth. And Beth was all he saw.
He asked her out. After a Wednesday night kitchen, while the rest were packing away the gear, wiping the tables down and washing the cutlery, Johnnie took her aside. ‘Beth?’ she looked up at him, coyly, ‘would you like to go out for dinner, outside of work, sometime?’ he developed a lump in his throat, and awkwardly coughed, ‘it would be nice, we get on so well.’
She looked at him for a while before nodding and smiled at him, ‘yeah, good idea, I am free Friday?’ He had never officially asked a girl out like that before, it was awful.
Their first date soon came. They were a couple of shy youths, not wanting to show how much they both liked each other. Johnnie did not want to take her to the pub, he wanted to keep this new part of his life separate, keep it pure.
A quaint Italian on the corner of the town centre where he spent so much of his time as an excited youth with his friends. They gazed at each other across from each side of the narrow table at which they were sat by the pushy, greasy waiter. The table was so small and narrow that they often found themselves playing accidental, footise with each other. They would laugh about this later on – explaining that neither wanted to acknowledged it and embarrass themselves. The food was delicious, made better by the happy conversation ever so often lilting into slight flirtation. Johnnie chose confidently a dish he knew well, intimidated by the Italian menu littered with unknown dishes and words, while she ordered for herself in a disjointed but impressive Italian. She fluttered her eyelashes at him in such a feminine way, drawing him into her direct gaze when speaking. Beth appeared so young and innocent, but with a determined, mature side to her. And she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. That impressed Johnnie, who still felt like he was floating about life, taking opportunities when they fell in his lap and being grateful for them. He was entranced by her openness to speak about her dreams and wishes, and boy did she set them high! She knew where she wanted to get, when and how. A forceful decisiveness so deeply embedded in a woman was unusual to Johnnie; and like the proverbial cat, the curiousness of it drew him closer.
She let him pay the bill and they left the restaurant in high spirits, the bottle of wine making them feel merry and a little lightheaded. All added to the mood and the feeling that these two had begun the descent, of falling in love. They did not know where it would lead them, or how much it may hurt once they hit the bottom, near or far. But excitement, that night, had begun and they took a tentative leap into love.
Chapter Twelve: Making plans.
The house looked tired and dated. An aging pot plant stood drooping in the corner of the room, stowed away next to the television. It had been forgotten, left to survive until its fuel finally ran out. There was a layer on dust gathering on top of the leaves as there was on the television screen, and the shelves. A pile of dirty dishes sat left piled up in the dry sink. This was unusual.
She held the cup delicately in her hands, warming her fingers as she waited until the tea was cool enough to drink. ‘How is everything, mum?’ Johnnie asked, as he brought in a plate of biscuits from the kitchen carefully, piled high with custard creams, her favourite. She nodded,
‘not bad, Johnnie. Just getting on. Have you heard about my job?’ She said, with pride in her voice and a childlike glint shone briefly in her eye. He had, last time he visited. Mary described the workplace, new and modern, but clinical – she had put a framed photo of him on her desk and a nice calendar to warm it up a bit. And she spent some time describing her workmates, all of whom had welcomed her and been patient with her while she learnt the ropes. It was still all very new, the IT side had been the hardest to cope with. They had never had a computer at home, Johnnie had one in his room, but Mary had virtually no experience, when she was at school, computers and fancy software and spreadsheets didn’t exist. ‘But I’m getting it, I feel like I’m at school sometimes’ she shrugged and brought the cup to her lips taking a sip, ‘it puts money in the bank, and gets me out of the house, anyhows’ she said, dimly.
Johnnie leant over and took her aging hand in his, ‘and dad?’ he asked.
‘Same old man, but dealing with it’ cracking a forced smile, she went on, ‘I have had him on house arrest for a while, he has learnt his lesson’ she said, Johnnie laughed humourlessly at her weak joke, he decided not to ask where his dad was now. John had begun to make himself scarce when his only son came to visit. Leaving the mother and son to catch up, they were their own little family, better off when he was not around. He felt like a naughty family pet, locked up in the next room, to prevent it from making a fool of itself and disappointing its owners.
Since dating Beth, Johnnie had been to visit home less and less. Before, he would visit often without a set date or time, just turn up and raid the fridge and cook himself up some food and a pot of tea and before catching up. Now he was coming over every Sunday for dinner, and she did not hear from him the entire rest of the week. He seemed happy, and that was important enough for Mary. That was all she wanted from life, a happy son, making a nice life for himself. A smart, pretty girlfriend and a happy family was what she wanted for him. He was all there was for her, Johnnie was everything.
Johnnie was happy. While he was throwing himself into work, he had been spending every spare minute with his new, beautiful kind caring girlfriend who surprised him every day with the things she would say to him and do.
Waking up early one morning, Johnnie took the opportunity, before the rest of the household woke up, to have the living room to himself. Making a cup of hot coffee and settling down on the threadbare, IKEA sofa to zone out for half an hour in front of the television before he had to get ready for work. The news channel greeted him good morning. The serious faces of the news readers informed the nationwide early risers of a crisis.
A war zone, torn apart, a terrible scene displayed in front of his eyes. For a moment Johnnie was transported, taken to the place displayed on the television screen. Blinking and shaking his head, he pulled himself back into his reality, his life, sat with a now cold cup of tea in his pyjamas alone in a shared house. He wanted to forget the poor people, pleading with dirty faces and starved bodies, victims of their geography. Johnnie had a job, and a girlfriend, for once things in his own life were going well. He shrugged of the negative guilty selfish feeling niggling in the back of his mind. Just as the household had begun to stir, Johnnie went off, washing his mug and spoon, for a shower before quickly rushing out to work, leaving no trace that he had ever been there.
Helpless eyes look into the camera sadly; widows and children without a father stand alone. Their ramshackle house stands unsteady. More people join the scene, shouting, crying for help. The surroundings were dusty, bare and dirty. Johnnie could not rid this picture from his mind. There was war in the world; there was poverty, starvation and hate. He hated that he was helpless, could not do anything. The pain and destruction that happened throughout history without good cause was senseless. Johnnie had always struggled to come to terms with the things he saw, the pictures displayed, explained by a serious newsreader before moving swiftly on to the local news.
Life trundled on. Beth filled his days, and Johnnie checked in with his mother every so often, for a cuppa and a chat. Work was becoming mundane; he had become bogged down by the ever growing pile of paperwork. Ever since he had moved into a paid, higher position there was a lot of paperwork. In that respect work had become monotonous and boring. Johnnie yearned for change.
It had been a lovely day. They had gone for an autumn walk through the park. Johnnie enjoyed watching the colours of the leaves gradually change colour as the season progressed. The leaves eventually would drop and become mulch under their feet. But for the moment they hung, a yellowy, orange colour. They walked slowly holding each other’s hands and swinging in time with their footsteps. He enjoyed the silence and the fresh air of the park. Leaves clung to the branches of the trees, swaying in the breeze. Joyous laughter floated on the breeze of the children playing in the park to their left. Beth clung to him and grinned. They began the short walk back home, energised and happy.
‘I hate this flat’ Johnnie looked up at the ceiling of his room, joined by his girlfriend laid beside him. His room was cold, and the floor messy, covered in both their belongings. Feeling too uncomfortable to spread some of his stuff around the rest of the flat, it had to remain in his room – despite the lack of storage. The small chest of drawers beneath a lonely shelf and tiny wardrobe simply were not enough.
‘I know, your roommates are total wankers’ Beth had experienced the coldness of his flatmates, she spent a lot of time there, though none had more than a couple of words to say to her.
‘I might start saving,’ he said, resting his arms behind his head and nodding, ‘stop going out and drinking, maybe get a better job, and move out’ he suggested. He had thought about it for a while, but this was the first time he had voiced it. His heart skipped a beat as he thought about living with Beth, for real.
‘Whoa, Mr. Plans’ she laughed ‘but you love your job, the people and the good it does’ she smiled and leaned over onto her side, now facing him resting her head on her hand, ‘and of course, me.’
‘I know, but it doesn’t pay that well, with my wage I can only afford this shitty place’ he sighed and gestured towards the door, ‘with these shitty people,’ he looked at her expectantly, ‘but with a better job, more money, and maybe and certain second person’ he whispered, winking, ‘ we could get a lovely little one bed roomed flat, in the west end maybe?’
‘Mr McLeod, are you asking me to move in with you?’ she teased, leaning over and giving him a peck on the cheek.
‘At some point, yeah! Once I get finances sorted. Cannot wait, bring it on!’ excited, they both embraced.
He laid back and closed his eyes, slowly drifting off into a contented slumber, he dreamed of the future, him and Beth had much to look forward to. He could even, for the first time in his life imagine what it would be like to be a father, and a husband to this beautiful woman now laying sound asleep next to him. A niggling selfishness still hid in the back of his mind. Could he not allow himself to be totally happy, just this once, he thought. Eyes closed, and still smiling, he pushed these thoughts further back into his mind, through a door and shut and locked it. Now was the time to be selfish. After all he was young, and he had never been in love before.
Chapter Thirteen: Winter brings sadness and truths.
‘Merry Christmas, son’ Mary raised her glass and reached to clink hers with Johnnie’s, on the opposite side of the table. The table, decorated with mulled wine scented candles, a table runner with dancing Santas printed on it, various cheap decorations and the remains of a successfully cooked, eaten dinner looked Christmassy indeed. This was Beth’s first Christmas with the McLeod family, one of many Johnnie hoped. She had met his parents but a few weeks before. He excitedly introduced her, a big grin plastered all over his face. Mary knew he must be in love, he had been so reluctant to bring his girlfriends home, she had barely even met any of his friends. Beth had played the perfect part meeting his parents. Acting meekly, Johnnie’s perfect girlfriend, she neither ate nor drank too much, and she used all her 'p's and 'q's. Johnnie had scorned her after, ‘just be yourself, they are only my parents!’ he laughed and joked as he mock shouted at her for being so reserved.
Beth sat next to Johnnie, facing his father at the table. They were all stuffed; Mary had cooked far too much food in fear of not having enough. There was still dessert to come, but they had all mutually agreed to wait a little, let the food digest, before continuing the decadent Christmas feast. Beth had never eaten so much in her life, and was struggling. Mary looked a little upset last time she was there and left food on her plate, so she was determined not to let that happen again. The tree, an artificial one, almost as old as Johnnie, stood in the corner, little lights twinkling in the corner of her eye, lighting up the fragile glass ornaments that hung from
the baring branches. The house was decorated for their benefit, she guessed, it looked odd and uncomfortable, strings of tinsel were hung over the frames of the pictures and the mirrors awkwardly.
She wondered if it was only these three family members every Christmas, it was very quiet and the conversation, forced. Johnnie did not often speak of his family with her, so she knew only what they had told her themselves. It was an entirely different scene to the one in her household during the Christmas festivities. She had a number of siblings and a sibling-in-laws and nieces and nephews. It was mayhem, a chaos of wrapping paper, Christmas music and excited shouting. But it was her mayhem. This evening made her a little sad, thinking this as what it always was like. The smiles that his parents wore looked fake and she could she Johnnie pretending that he did not notice that, too. Each member of the Christmas party wore a crooked, crumpled paper hat on their heads, each too raising a glass aloft to Mary’s toast. The rest of the night swiftly concluded with more food, more wine, and more forced chatter over the table.
The night before had been a late one. The family had set off, all wrapped up in wool and hats and gloves to Duncan’s church for the midnight mass. Navigating their way along the icy road littered with patches of melting snow they arrived twenty minutes later, faces flushed with the night air. Duncan had asked Johnnie and his family to come, for it would be his first one in this church and he was particularly nervous. He was worried whether anyone would turn up for it. The church was lit entirely by candles giving it an atmospheric feel, the congregation walked slowly and silently as they took the scene in as they entered. It felt intimate, and spiritual. There was a real Christmas tree stood at the back in the corner, decorated with baubles, ornaments and decorations made by the children of the Sunday school. A nativity scene with characters delicately made from a painted polished wood stood in the other back corner. All faces went bent down towards Christ looking lovingly and adoringly at the newborn child in the wooden manger.
Duncan was dressed in all his formal church wear, he winked at Johnnie as he arrived and mouthed thank you to him. The sermon was nice and peaceful. Mary enjoyed it, and Johnnie was glad of the pressure being taken off him.
Back at home, late at night, John dozed in his armchair while Mary sat on the other sofa with her feet up watching a Christmas special, sipping a sherry. Johnnie and Beth snuck off to bed giggling quietly with each other, filled to brim with hot food and hot wine. This night was the end of their Christmas together, as Beth was going to spend the rest of the holiday with her family and was leaving early the next morning. Johnnie did not mind that his invitation was not there. He was happy doing the rounds, seeing his friends and catching up with them all.
He knew he should quit, it is pretty dire when all your friends are non smokers and, on a packed night, you find yourself having to excuse yourself for a quick fix, momentarily pausing the night, leaving it behind you to satisfy a craving. However, Johnnie quite liked these moments of addicted calm, on his own. Johnnie stumbled out of the pub, leaving the laughter and action and warmth on the inside. Alone, he lit up a cigarette and looked about the empty street. It was a quiet, clear night. The frost had just begun to set in. Muted Christmas music played in the distance throughout the many pubs, bar and restaurants of the square. It was too early for the clubs to be kicking everyone out and the rush hour of taxi queues and it was later than the first wave of loved up couples and families emerging from restaurants filled to the brim with hot, hearty food at a pushed up price. For this hour or two, the streets of Glasgow were quiet. He took another draw before flinging the butt onto the floor and snubbing it out with the toe of his shoe. Rubbing his hands together to heat the tips of his icy fingers, blowing on them, he regretted leaving his coat and gloves flung on the back of a chair deep inside the pub. Just as he began to push the heavy glass door to get back into the heat and company of the pub he heard a couple come round the corner, laughing, and he looked up out of curiosity and interest. On the other side of the street they were walking, hand in hand and joking about. They both looked cold as they stopped for a cuddle, and passionately kissed each other. Johnnie watched on, frozen to the spot in horror.
There, a matter of yards away across the street, oblivious to his presence, was his beautiful girlfriend. The woman of whom he had thought long and hard about, and who he had planned to move in and eventually spend the rest of his life with; kissing, holding hands laughing and sharing a special moment with a stranger. Should he confront them? His breath hung in the air, his body rooted to the spot. He did not call out to them, he made no noise.
He, did not. Johnnie went back inside the busy, stifling room where the atmosphere had turned sour and the music and arrogant laughter imposing and unwelcome. He made his excuses to his company, and quickly left.
Johnnie sat silently in the taxi as the driver desperately tried to make forced conversation before eventually giving up. Once home, he shut himself away in his bedroom and threw the covers over his head. In his cold, empty dark room, he curled up in a ball as small as he could, and wept.
He stared at the picture of them as a happy couple he kept framed on his bedside table. A seething, ugly feeling rose inside of him. He saw, staring back at him, two gruesomely happy mouths gurning in false, momentary happiness. Eyes looking, searching expectantly into the lense. Take this scene. Keep it forever. Show the world and my future self how happy I am now; at this moment, now, they said. This moment forever held in suspense – telling the story of this split second. The faces of his own self and Beth were mocking him, laughing right in his stupid, deceived face. He had tried to make his life better – for it to mean more. It ended as badly for him. Johnnie sat looking around his room, around at his life he felt so betrayed.
At work, the next morning Johnnie slinked in, dropped his bag by his feet and sat at his desk, hiding, checking his emails and catching up on paperwork. Lunchtime came and went and he still had not said a word to anyone. Dan sidled up behind him with a freshly made cuppa. ‘Heavy holidays?’ he joked motioning a glass to his lips and winked cheekily. Johnnie took Dan aside and they both went outside the office for a fag break; he told him the whole story.
‘Look, mate, don’t say anything’ Johnnie pleaded, hating to be the centre of attention and gossip. ‘I won’t go to the Wednesday kitchen anymore, if you do not mind taking my place’. Johnnie, as angry and let down as he was by Beth, he did not want her mum to find out anything about her daughter, especially through word of mouth, she was such a lovely woman.
Dan was astounded, ‘you didn’t say anything?’ Johnnie was afraid of confrontation, he knew that, ‘have you even spoken to her?’ he asked, surprised at Johnnie’s reaction and response to the whole thing. He would have gone ape-shit at her. He clenched his fists angrily as Johnnie explained, he was furious at her for Johnnie’s sake.
‘No.’ Johnnie looked at the ground, stubbing out the butt with his foot after throwing it to the floor, ‘and I don’t really want to, she does not deserve to get to try and weed her way out of it, I just want to get out of here.’
Not entirely convinced, Dan patted his broken friend on the back before escorting him back inside to work, ‘I understand mate, but you will need to speak to her some time, sooner or later,’ he warned. They both went back inside to resume working, the matter settled, for now.
Chapter Fourteen: Dan’s story. An adventure ensues.
Life went on and on. Sounds around were deafened, drowned out by a long wail, coming from deep in his head. Johnnie lost weight, stopped showered and spent most of his spare time hiding in bed. He still had not confronted Beth. He just ignored her calls and texts, and pretended she never existed.
He got drunk and, against Malcolm’s wishes, and advice of which he drunkenly and passionately gave to Johnnie, angrily texted Beth. Of course he felt guilty afterwards, texting someone like that was a cowardly act. But he reasoned it that she had been cowardly too.
I saw you at Christmas with that bloke. I guess we are over. Bitch.
She did not reply and he felt glad of it. Although he had texted her in a drunken fury, he was still not in the right place, he simply was not ready to speak to her. Johnnie felt as though his legs would give in beneath him, and his tears would give way. His body would betray him, and his heart would do worse, he knew one word with Beth, and he would collapse, begging for her to come back that all was forgiven. No, he absolutely was not ready to speak to her, just yet.
One morning, after weeks of sulking, going to bed early and spending time being soothed like a child by his mother, he awoke feeling brand new. He had not had a drink the night previous. Shortly before going to bed, he had gone for a quick walk around the block, to get a little fresh air and to clear his head. He felt clear, he felt, in what felt like a long time, like he could move on. The birds had begun to settle on their branches, preparing for the morning songs, and the silence of the night had begun. He was alone, he felt like he needed to be away from Glasgow, he needed to widen his horizons. All he knew was here, everyone he knew was here – Johnnie needed difference, a change.
Life was renewed and so was Johnnie. He was intended to go for a transformation. He no longer needed the childish nickname which he carried through childhood, school and eventually reluctantly dragged with him into adulthood. His name was John. It was on his birth certificate. I shall call myself John. To begin completely anew, he wanted to shed any connotations his childish nickname carried with him. From the moment onwards, any time he introduced himself, he firmly shook their hands, looked directly into their eyes, and held their gaze, ‘its John, nice to meet you’. He had ownership of this name. It was not his father’s name – it was his.
It was another usual day at work, but Johnnie could not concentrate, he had grown tired of this day in, day out. He knew his work was good, and worthy but he needed change. He stood up to go for a five minute cigarette break, nodding to his mate Dan as he passed his desk. Dan joined him outside on the balcony for a quick fag before they both had to get back to work, ‘I need to get out of here, seriously’ Johnnie said, taking a draw on his cigarette, looking out over the city. Dan, too looked out, nodding.
‘Man, this is the best city in the world. What you need is a break, some perspective’ Dan said, ‘take some time out, go travelling, see the world’ he smiled and turned to Johnnie, ‘that’s what I did, best thing I have done,’ Johnnie, intrigued, wanted to know more. That was exactly what he wanted to do; he had hardly been anywhere, done anything, now was the perfect time.
‘I learnt so much during those few short months’ he began, explaining the lifestyle he shared with many other travelling students. He had spent a lot of time away from home, travelling, a few years ago. He would sit on the terrace, all relaxed and laid back legs crossed on the floor or up on the chairs, they would sit around until the early hours of the morning, every morning, watching the night time leave and the morning arrive. Discussing the validity of their lives. Where they had come from, where were they going. Johnnie recognised this relationship to that of his friends from his teens. All were equals, and each meant a lot. ‘I was fresh out of university’ Dan said, while Johnnie leant in, listening, ‘which was some time ago now, mind,’ Dan had, once leaving, tried month after month to get a job which recognised his degree that made three years of hard work worthwhile. But he was informed he was too young and inexperienced for most of them. He was at the bottom of the pile, and felt like it. With every intention of joining society, society had closed its doors on him and hung the ‘no vacancies’ sign in the window. The people inside looked comfortable, well off and as if things were only going to get better for them. All the while, graduates with no experience had to sit on the outside, and watch all the things there were promised before signing up to university.
Dan began to envy those of his friends who had chosen to go on a gap year, before beginning their studies and now blissfully unaware of the job struggles and unemployment toils that awaited them once they finished their finals. However, these individuals would have a year’s work or travel experience under their belt; which was more than Dan had. With no job, no home and desperately running out of money; Dan had thrown he hands in the air, exclaiming ‘fuck it!’ he had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. He left the country, to travel, to experience, and to buy himself a little time to decide what the hell he was going to do with his life.
Friends staying in Berlin put Dan up for a couple of months, and that is where he began. He inevitably made his way over through Europe by rail before heading over then to south East Asia, following the crowds of eager back packers looking for an alternate lifestyle, a year of excitement.
In Berlin, he visited the wall, stealing away a tiny part in his rucksack, to carry a little history with him on his journeys. The rock sat snugly at the base of his rucksack, a quiet reminder of the beginning of his life journey, it sat now, many years later, on his mantelpiece, an ugly ornament. He made friends with a friendly bunch of Germans, with whom they continued to travel together. They spent the time laughed exploring, teaching each other about their own cultures. Berlin had a wonderful charm about it, art and culture surrounded him for the three weeks he stayed there. The bars and cafes were full of young, beautiful, enthusiastic people happy to share a drink or two. He enjoyed being able to experience the world with others, to share the happiness, the good, memorable, and bad nights, the early mornings running for trains lugging their heavy rucksacks with them, while fighting off a hangover.
In Europe, he stowed away on sleeper trains, hiding in the toilets whenever the conductor came round punching tickets, laughing with his friends, feeling mischievous. They would spend the savings from skipping train fares on lavish meals, trying a local dish and delicacy wherever they could. His light bag became loaded and heavy as he collected a memory, a souvenir from each country he visited. A weight he carried happily, until it would become too heavy for his young body, partied out body.
In Thailand, he partied all night long at the infamous full moon party, with neon painted in stripes across his face. Dan felt euphoric, he was in his element. The music, the people, the culture. He met a girl out there, on that night – it was a summer romance, looking back, but they both felt strongly. They danced on the beach, lit by the moonlight, feeling the sand beneath their bare feet. Eyes closed and arms high they swayed together to the music until the sun rose, calling an end to their magical nights.
She was French and had a beautiful lilting accent that would sooth and calm him and take Dan away to the French Riviera. In her voice he could hear the sea, as the tides gently lolled on to the shore. He could hear the riches of her surroundings, the boulangeries, and the cafés with their hum of the coffee machines and the clatter of fashionable diners eating rich food. She was exotic and mysterious; he spoke fondly of her with a faraway look in his eye, tinged with regret. Dan did not know a lot about this woman, during the time they spent together, there was not a lot of talking. Their bodies yearned for each other and the excitement of things new and unknown fuelled their passion.
‘Of course I eventually ran out of money, and had to come home’ he shrugged and lit another cigarette. The last bunch of people were from Glasgow, and on their way back home. Dan joined them. He had been gone over a year. Glasgow became his new destination. He liked the music, the culture, and the good and bad parts. He loved that the rich and poor lived so close together. So he stayed, ‘and now, here I am, talking to you,’ there was nothing else he could’ve done to prolong his adventure; it was all over, for now. His face lit up as he spoke about the adventures he had experienced, and all the different sorts of people he was lucky enough to experience it with, and when speaking about how it had all come to the end, the light in his eyes dulled for a moment, before he returned to the balcony, with Johnnie, in a cold, drizzly Glasgow.
Dan had used the time away to find himself, to get the excitement of youth and discovery out of his system. He had set out on a wing and a prayer, with no plan to speak of. The people Dan met along the way determined his next destination. It was a risk, it could have gone dreadfully, but he was lucky.
Johnnie was to embark on a similar journey. But his would be different; it was to be a sort of pilgrimage. Following a route, alone, to discover himself. He too wanted to discover new and wonderful cultures to see all that he could see and to learn about the world and the people on it. The grey miserable cloud that had hung above Johnnie the moment he saw the love of his life on that cold winter’s night, began to disperse, little by little. It was no longer as heavy or as constricting, and as such, Johnnie also felt a little lighter. He booked the time off work. He packed his bags that night.
Chapter Fifteen: Johnnie the traveller.
At Central station, Johnnie happily handed over the debit card, loaded with the savings he had put together for the flat he and Bethany were to get. The clerk handed back a single, one-way ticket to London, he would catch a flight from Heathrow once he got there. He heaved his heavy bag loaded with his most important belongings over his shoulder and took a step towards his brand new adventure, away from Glasgow, and his past. Into goodness. Leaving the noisy sounds of teenagers laughing and joking with their mates and business men running for late trains, and the whistling of the conductors behind him, the Glasgow-London train doors closed as he went to find his allocated seat. The train was full and of course typically there would be no place to store his baggage, above the seats the shelf was too small, and suitcases packed into the sections at the end of each carriage left no space for Johnnie’s belongings. Instead, he placed the bag on the floor by his legs between his knees. This was going to be long trip, but he knew full well this would not be the only gruelling journey he was to experience.
Like Dan, Johnnie left home without an itinerary, just with a full rucksack and a pocket full of money. Unlike Dan, he had his savings, and fully intended to write a plan, just as soon as he could think what he was going to do, and where he was going to go while he was away.
On the train he was lucky enough to have a table seat, unpacking his things he settled down for the journey. Johnnie, after unsuccessfully tucking into book where his eyelids kept drooping after every sentence, he soon decided to make a start with some planning; so on his phone managed to book a flight from Heathrow to Goa, India. It was a better place than any, he guessed. He also managed to find a place to stay that first night, and he would go from there. He tingled with excitement and trepidation. Knowing he had somewhere to go, and somewhere to stay, he settled down resting his head against the window, and slept the rest of the way.
Arriving in London, with heavy eyes, Johnnie had a few hours to spare before he needed to head for the airport. He had been to London before, once, with his parents for a weekend. They had crammed the weekend, knowing they would probably not come back anytime soon, full of all the touristy things any self-respecting tourist would want to do once unleashed in one of the most popular destinations in Europe. So the sights of the bridge, the palace, the wheel, he was not very interested in visiting again during this brief interlude in the capital. Dropping spare change from his pocket into the empty cup of a beggar sat just inside the station doors, Johnnie continued to the outside, the ‘fresh’ air of London. The streets were already heaving with people, eager to spend Christmas money and return unwanted gifts and hitting the shops for the sales. He immediately took a smaller street away from the hustle and bustle, finding a quiet cafe on a corner. It was almost empty bar the stressed out mother almost weeping at the end of the narrow room, trying to feed her wailing child. Nice one, the only quiet cafe in London I find has a wailing kid in it. Passing, the waitress shot an apologetic glance at him. As lunchtime came, the cafe got busier, and louder.
Colette the waitress, name proudly displayed on her brand new badge moved slowly between the packed tables. Each full of busy chattering voices obstructed with food. The manners. Mushing about lolling about the mouth. Someone called for her, clicks for her beckoning her over to the table. Clitter clatter of cutlery and murmurs of conversation filled the room. Orders and orders. Colette slumped against the counter, gathered her breath and wiping her hands on the dirty towel hanging from a clasp beside her. Just another hard day’s work. Johnnie watched the life of the cafe clatter along from the back of the room with exhaustion.
As he sipped his tea, an elderly woman stepped over to the empty table next to him. She sat down with a sigh, placing her shopping bag on the seat next to her, rubbing her aching hands from the weight of her groceries. She looked over to Johnnie and nodded, acknowledging him. Colette rushed over to the woman with a plate of food and stopped for a brief chat with the regular customer. The woman picked around at the food on her plate before looking up at Johnnie sat alone, seeing his bag, ‘going anywhere nice?’ she asked.
‘I’m flying to India. In a couple of hours actually’ he pointed to his watch, ‘it is all a bit last minute, actually, very excited!’ Johnnie replied, glad of a friendly welcome to London. She recognised his strong Glaswegian accent, and expressed a clear delight , she shuffled to the chair next to him, bringing her plate of food with her, ‘I moved to London over forty years ago, imagine that?’ she coughed quietly into an handkerchief before continuing without an invitation from Johnnie. She had come from Glasgow with her mother, widowed with no money and London was where she had an aunt who was willing to take them in, ‘I fell in love, head over heels, and got married, that is where my story ends’ Johnnie ordered a tea for two as they sat down and spoke. Johnnie about his nervousness of his first holiday alone, she advised him best she could. Her haggard face lit up as she spoke about her life. She had never left the country before, ‘the journey you have just taken, was the longest one I had ever had’ she said, sadly looking down at her hands, ‘but you, laddie, have the whole world at your feet, and can go anywhere, oh how I would love to be young during this age, it is so easy to travel about, and do and see all there is to see!’ She smiled at him, envious of his journey to come. Feeling bad, Johnnie was aware of the time now ticking by. He was eager to leave. He nodded curtly as she spoke, trying to find a gap in the conversation to excuse himself.
Hands gently overlapped on her lap, she did not move at all while she was speaking. Unlike his friend Malcolm who over exaggerated everything and every word was accompanied by a gesture. Perhaps a generational thing, hers more of a reserved one. White hair pinned into a tight bun on the nape of her neck and a home knitted cardigan; one could say she was the stereotypical grandmother, an old woman. It was nice to see a touch of home, with this familiar stranger in London, before he went away. A final farewell from the Scots. He kissed her gently on the cheek before thanking her and wishing her all the best.
The journey on the plane was about as comfortable as the train to London. Squashed between a family of four, one of whom seemed to be terrified of flying and spent the entire flight in tears, and a rather portly, rather smelly business man who delighted in telling Johnnie various stories accounting how important and busy he was – leaning over him, halitosis tainting every word. He felt sick the entire way, swearing to himself he would never travel economy again, as he sat with his legs under his chin, cramped up and uncomfortable. He swallowed a couple of glasses of cheap whiskey, to ease the flight, and to help him drift into a light slumber to pass the time, ignoring his painful companions on either side.
Once there he sleepily haggled, or tried to (based on his change back one could safely assume the taxi driver had won that haggle) with a taxi driver, the owner of a dubious looking ford, rusty and dented on the outside and missing seatbelts, radio and headrests on the inside. Not entirely sure whether the place he had asked for had been lost in translation, Johnnie clung to the car as the driver sped through the busy streets dodging food carts, children playing football, stray dogs and pedestrians. White knuckled, Johnnie choked out his destination again, he could have sworn he saw that food cart selling hot dogs by a fountain once before. The driver grunted, before halting, rather suddenly. Johnnie guessed they must be there. He would be travelling on foot from here on, he thought, wiping his brow with his shirt cuff, and exhaling loudly as he finally, after a long day of travelling, found his hostel.
A grand building, standing tall, was towering over the street and the tiny citizens scurried below it. The hostel took up a small section of the once opulent building. The rest, apartments, various shops and a restaurant. The sign for the hostel ‘Hostel Svarga’ did not really raise his hopes. Hanging, squeaky in the soft breeze, off one hook with peeling paint. It was a cheap hostel, Johnnie, even with his savings could not afford five star accommodation. So, sensibly, he had prepared himself for a let down. The narrow hallway, floor decorated with mosaic but dusty, was deserted, there seemed to no one around. Johnnie whispered a soft hello into one of the rooms, door ajar, but received no answer. Further into the house he walked, looking for a welcome, or any soul. None but a timid tabby cat greeted him. The little fur ball poked its head around from one of the rooms, and gave a quiet meow before scurrying away again, he must be used to strangers by now, Johnnie thought to himself. Watching the cat go, his thoughts then turned back to the lack of human beings in the building.
Beyond the back exit, French doors obscured by a heavy curtain he heard a faint chattering and even fainter music. Peering through the curtain, which had been shutting out the daylight, Johnnie found what seemed like the entire occupancy of the hostel. In a large garden, there was some sort of celebration. Johnnie was surprised to see that they had a garden. From the front, situated in the centre of town, there was little space for anything. And on the inside, the hallways narrow and rooms cramped and small. The garden was a joy to see, a little space to relieve oneself from the claustrophobia of city life.
Ten or twelve people were sat and stood, chatting drinking, smoking, in the late afternoon cooling sunshine. They looked, casual, relaxed. Johnnie, feeling nervous about interrupting this scene, carefully opened the door.
‘Erm...hello. John McLeod’ Johnnie found the nearest person, hoping they might be in charge, and reached his hand out as he introduced himself, ‘I called yesterday’ he said nervously.
‘Ah, John, welcome!’ The kind man grabbed Johnnie’s hand with both of his and firmly shook while his kind eyes shone at him, taking this new visitor in. He patted John’s back, leading him further in to the garden, ‘you have caught us mid celebration, we were expecting you a little later, no?’ he questioned.
‘I managed to get away from the airport a lot faster than I expected’ he said. It felt strange, being in this unknown place, with all these unknown people. He was well and truly out of his comfort zone.
‘No worries. Here, have a drink. Today is the three year anniversary of this very place, Hostel Svarga! Three years ago I opened these doors for travellers far and wide!’ He threw his arms wide, gesturing openly with a big grin on his face. He looked away for a moment back at the house, reminiscing, sighing, ‘oh what a journey we have been through,’ he moved through the crowd, signalling Johnnie to follow him.
‘Ishvar, nice to meet you, dear boy. I hope you enjoy your stay here. Now, go drink. Be merry!’ Ishvar gave Johnnie a gentle nudge towards the rest of the group. That was the owner, Johnnie assumed. An enthusiastic man, he looked middle aged, and good on it. A little portly but not self conscious, he wore traditional dress, white and large which skimmed over his bloated rounding belly. His kind face was covered by a salt and pepper speckled beard, and laughter lines framed his eyes.
Johnnie joined the party, met the staff and the residents. For these were the people with whom he was to spend the next few days, in fact it turned out to be weeks, with.
It was a mixing pot of people; travellers from all around the world visited the hostel, and all so far away from home found it necessary to be open and friendly at all times. Lucky that. All travellers had their own different reasons for leaving home, and searching a new one. Each brought their own life experiences to the table, and were willing to teach in order to learn. A mutual exchange of knowledge and friendships, all taking place in the Hostel Svarga.
Chapter Sixteen: Johnnie lends a hand.
The hostel soon became his home. It had a communal area in a square, the stairs to the rooms led directly from it onto a balcony overlooking the room. It was a small place, so often was full and bustling with people.
Group of one, two, or more joining up together as they moved from place to place. John noted that they stayed a day or two before the wanderlust called, and they moved on to the next adventure. Collecting friends and experiences as they go. John did not see them as friends, how can you become life long friends with somebody you knew for two days? But they were company and he really enjoyed their company. There were Swiss, Dutch, Indian, Australian, American, and it seemed that a representative from each and every country had passed through the doors of the Svarga at some point or another throughout its twenty odd years of business. Some returned often, some briefly, and others, after storming out complaining about the cold showers and dirty sheets, they never saw again. He felt like an old timer- not moving along for months. Constant fresh, excited recruits, eyes wide plunged into the world and the culture of travelling. Moving your home and your friends about as you pleased whenever the feeling took hold was infectious. It was a struggle, having to constantly make and remake friends and inevitably sad when someone he particularly liked left the hostel for greener pastures, to make new friends and new memories.
They shared an evening meal, those who were around, anyway, every night. Ishvar prepared it himself and would proudly bring it in a large dish to the table, giving the food a grand entrance. He beamed proudly, and invited everyone to tuck in. Johnnie never missed these meals; it was a chance to catch up what everyone was planning to do the following day and to see if he could tag along for the day. It was also a chance to meet the new visitors of the hostel, arrived that day. They would timidly sit with the raucous crowd of friends, feeling no doubt that they were intruding on a family meal. That is how Johnnie felt on the first few nights, but now he was a family member, through and through.
A freckly boy, burnt by the cruel sun as soon as he stepped off the plane, Johnnie empathised, with his fiery ginger hair came with thin, pale skin, had spent most of his time hiding in the shade. They made friends under a tree. While a group of the lads he came with were having a kick about in the yard. Johnnie saw him, and his irritated red forehead and laughed, ‘come to join me in the dark side?’ they shook hands and introduced themselves. Peter was here with three of his school friends, ‘we are on a gap year, before we all split up to go to university. We thought we should go out and see the world before we get stuck down with uni work and jobs and stuff, you know?’ Johnnie nodded, understanding. They, too were using this journey to run away from life, before facing the harsh reality of lay before them once they returned.
The kick about went on all afternoon. Many times Johnnie and Peter found themselves shouting and yelling at the boys on the pitch, too involved in the game, hands in the air and rubbing their faces during the tense moments. The game began as a three aside, but once some of the local children saw the lads playing, they asked to join, and the numbers grew. Shouting at each other in various languages, however the rules of football were international. After some serious football, half time came about and they all joined the two boys under the tree, under the cool escape of the shade. Panting from exhaustion they downed bottles of water and wiped their brows as they recuperated. The laughed and joked about the game so far, getting to know each other better. Johnnie was reminded of Dan, and how his story of life travelling had begun to resonate here. He smiled as he listened to the cacophony of conversations thrown back and forth from the large group of people over the make shift pitch, sat under a tall tree, cool and relaxed on a hot summer’s day back resting against the trunk and his legs crossed out in front of him.
Inevitably, Johnnie got ill. He struggled with the food given to him on a daily basis. It tasted great, of course, for Ishvar was a wonderful cook, but it certainly did not agree with him. His poor, European stomach had not come in to contact with this food before. And of course, in comparison the poor hygiene. It had not been prepared for this. The illness drained his strength and eventually he could not come on long days out walking and exploring with the groups of travellers, and even a short walk in the sunshine would wear him out –sweating and needing to know where the nearest toilet would be. Hopefully within a short run’s distance. He was pale, sweaty and weak and had his ribs were beginning to show under his thin skin. Ishvar went to the pharmacy for him, kindly, and got some pills to stop the stomach upset. As it was really draining him, bed bound, Johnnie was frustrated, if he had to stay in he could at least have company, anything to get away from those god-awful bunkbeds.
Johnnie spent a lot of time in the communal area, preferring the open plan area, strewn with patterned rugs bleached by the sun and mismatched furniture, to the cramped stuffy bedrooms. No television, but he had made friends with the tabby cat who he met on his first day at Svarga. Every time Johnnie came wandering down the stairs, so too the little cat would come creeping round the corner from the reception room where he usually slept. The cat had never been given a name, he was a stray who, once given a spare bit of chicken, had just kept coming back, until eventually, and in sympathy he was given a bed. He was tame, and snuggled up to new guests as soon as they crossed the threashold. The resident pet. Johnnie called him Billi and the name stuck.
While laid up, attempting to regain some strength, the cat snoozed, curled up beside him, he was at a loss of things to do that required little physical effort. Thus the reading started. Johnnie could never imagine saying for one second while he was younger that he would come to love reading – but he did.
He was gradually working his way through their library of forgotten books. It was made up of books travellers had brought with them and left behind finding their bags had become too heavy with the stuff they had accumulated along the way. Ishvar had tried to make a bookcase of sorts, shelves made from spare planks of wood hung dangerously on the wall unnervingly weighed down by the weight of the books. Some of the books sparked an interest in reading in Johnnie. There was such a wide variety of books, in all different languages, and each reflected the types of people who had passed through the hostel at one point or another.
Johnnie found the worlds into which he could randomly pick up and explore fascinating. They were originally there to pass the time. There were little stories with which to dip and dive into. He could disappear into different cultures. He regretted never having really picked up a book in his younger years. It made Johnnie realise how little an education he had received. His school was not a bad one, but when it came to the point to decide how far he should take his education, Johnnie left at the first opportunity. At first thinking school or education was not for him, and that better, other things lay in his future, he was now starting to think otherwise. As his met people along the way, Johnnie often found himself at a loss for things to say. He wanted to be able to join in; he wanted to say he was going somewhere in life, and not just getting by. Peter and his friends had a wealth of opportunity waiting for them once they returned to the UK. But Johnnie was not sure what he had.
Thinking back, he often felt the same way with Beth, who was so clever and wanted to be a doctor. When he met her parents the inevitable question came towards him, a clear look of disappointment showed on his face when he explained he had not, and was not planning on going to university. He remembered being surprised that they did not value his charity work as much as his own education or the money he, eventually could bring in a support their daughter with. Sitting in their grand stuffy house in the nicer end of the city he felt out of place, odd and that he did not belong there. Looking back he was right, he did not belong in that world, Beth did not belong in his. She helped on a Wednesday to further her own education, to complete an award, something to put on her CV to look good and to gain a place at a top university. Johnnie had joined for different, but equally selfish reasons. For once, he looked back on their relationship and realised all the things he had not noticed at the time, that he and Beth were very different people, too young people in the same place at the same time. They were not soul mates. Perhaps she had found that in this other bloke, she went about it the entirely wrong way, and had broken his heart at the time, but she maybe had found peace. Johnnie’s heart has felt broken, in the heat of the moment, as he realised Beth as she truly was, in a different world, of a different ilk, he came upon a truth, his heart was fine, and he was fine. There was a future finding that person, his equal, in all manners of ways.
Aside from reading in the communal area, Johnnie and Ishvar had created a nice relationship between them. Johnnie had intended to stay a good while longer than any of the other travellers, so Ishvar had decided to put him to good use. Johnnie became the hostel handy man. After hearing about Johnnie’s short experience working with builders, Ishvar jumped at the chance of having an extra pairs of hands about the place, he often struggled to get things done, other than Lee the receptionist and one cleaner, Ishvar was the only member of staff to get things done around the place. Johnnie, now a member of Ishvar’s staff, knew why the hostel looked so run down. Ishvar was a very busy man indeed.
The balcony above the communal living area badly needed repainted. Years old paint peeled off the walls and damp patches lurked in the ceiling corners. The floor was well trodden, the varnish worn away by hundred of eager, foreign feet. Johnnie offered to do it up, he enjoyed being given complete control and had never decorated anything himself before. His parents had not changed anything in the house, including some dubious looking tins in the cupboard since 1979 and his room in which he rented he was not even allowed to put pictures up so as to not damage the wall with a hole. For that he would lose his whole deposit. Landlords were more wankers than his flatmates; Beth had proudly stated when he told her that fact. So being given the whole of a hallway and a balcony to repair, paint and then decorate was not only a challenge ion itself, but a great leap into another step of adulthood. He excitedly told Ishvar of his ideas for the area, like a child he waved his hands about the room, imagining the end as he spoke.
‘You’ve convinced me, John boy’ Ishvar responded, handing over a handful of crumpled notes, ‘here get some supplies for the room, it is all in your hands.’
He went shopping at the market for some furnishings, some lamps, plants and curtains as well. He wanted it to look a little less hostelly and more homely -a lick of paint would certainly update the area.
Two weeks of hard work ensued. Johnnie roped in some of the guests, using it as a team building exercise. Johnnie became immersed in the work; the job took over the minute he awoke in the morning to when his fell exhausted into his bed at night.
Finishing the final coat of paint on the walls and arranging the final touches, Johnnie wiped his paint splattered hands on a cloth and stood back proudly and admired his work. The room was fresh, and clean. Decorative lanterns hung from the ceiling throwing a coloured glow across the clean, varnished floor when lit. He had found two second hand rugs in an old store room and had them cleaned. The colours came out beautifully, the patterns bright and vibrant. He was exhausted. Ishvar came up behind and joined him, ‘well done, son, it looks mighty good!’ patting him hard on the back, Ishvar turned and left to get back to his work; one of the many, many jobs Ishvar had to do.
Chapter Seventeen: A local bar far, far away from home.
They loved his accent, though struggled to understand him, especially when he got excited, or had had a drink or three. So John developed a slower speed of speaking, and his broad Glaswegian accent became a little less broad. When calling his mum for the first time, to check up on everything back home, and especially how she was doing, she scolded him. ‘Who is this? This cannot be my son?’ she said, sarcastically, ‘my wee Johnnie?’ His nickname had not left his home, apparently, ‘You are losing your accent, and you need to come home!’ She was missing him, a certain sorrow echoed in her voice down the line as she spoke ‘your dad has a job now, mind. Things are getting better,’ Johnnie wondered how many years she was going to claim it was getting better, ‘but we are still struggling; you see, it is so quiet without you around, son. When are you coming home?’ she asked. He felt guilty, leaving his mum behind at home with his father. He still had an adventure to deal with, and once he got back after his mum could have him home forever. During his illness, with nothing to do all day, homesickness gurgled in the pit of his stomach. When he saw some young girls talking to their families online, both parties in tears missing each other, he felt a twinge of sadness. He missed his friends back home, sure the mates he met here were cool, but they did not know him like Malcolm and Heather once did. New friends cannot have in jokes and know how to cheer each other up when they are down. He missed his job, and the friendly faces he had come to know and like, lightning up his day as he lit up theirs. His missed his mum, and even at times his dad. But he reminded himself why he was out there – and that travelling experience was something he wanted to do; to discover life and to learn about the human kind in the world around him.
One cannot travel and discover the world without leaving something, and someone behind. In order to gain, he reasoned, sacrifices must be made. These were minor sacrifices in his eyes and he could catch up with everybody when he decided to return home.
Ishvar was friendly with the owner of a bar in the area, where many of the travellers spent their evenings and nights. The two men had moved to Goa at the same time as each other. They had been friends ever since they first met each other on the first day of opening, hanging their ‘open’ signs out with pride. They spent the time each watching and supporting as both businesses grew and gained customers, and in time their relationship grew from a smile and a nod from the other side of the street, to become very good friends. They were like brothers. They were both from small villages in a different part of the country, and too missed their siblings and families.
Sahib was married, and Ishvar had become known as Uncle Ishvar to his children. He had watched his friend’s children grow and develop as if they were his own; they would come around to the hostel and help Uncle Ishvar cook the evening meal for the tourists and the travellers would delight in talking to these two cute children, happy to play along and play with the tourists. Ishvar, too, wiped a stray tear away from his cheek as it escaped and rolled down as he watched the two children skip off to their first day of school. He too had been excited to meet suitors for the husbands and wives to be for the children. They were grown up with children of their own now, both living in the city. Ishvar, like sahib missed them. Sahib visited them during holidays and birthdays, because it was too much of the trek for them to come all the way over. When Sahib lost his wife, Ishvar was there to comfort him, and when Ishvar lost his parents, Sahib was there too to comfort him. They began a weekly ritual, to go out and take a morning walk to the pond, and feed the birds and catch up on the week’s events. This kept life moving, prevented the men from becoming stagnant.
But now Ishvar threw himself into his job, taking it upon himself to welcome all the colours and creeds into his country, and his home, treating all guests like family, inviting them to spend dinners with him and the staff, and of course little Billi, as he was now known. Ishvar was beginning to feel the same fatherly way towards this Johnnie as he did with Sahib’s children. He liked him a lot, he was always eager to please, and he was such a smart lad, if only he knew it.
The bar, much like the hostel, was a little run down after years of life going on around it and no attention or funds in order to update it and to fill out some of the cracks that had begun to appear in the walls of the place.
There, soft quiet music reverberated around the room in the back ground, coming from the meek band in the corner. It had an eastern feel to it still; one man sat on the ground cross legged holding a sitar, trying to keep up with the rest all sat on chairs above him. Seeming almost too embarrassed to be there themselves, each musician seemed to want to shrink further into the background than the other. Faces hidden in the darkness behind their instruments and the music, as beautiful as it was. The bar was lit by candle light, and on the tables encouraging the parties to lean a little closer to see each other better and to get that little bit more intimate. It was a good place to sit and drink, plenty of seating, a relaxed and friendly bar man who would pour extra long shots for the regulars, and music that you could talk over without feeling too guilty, or becoming too hoarse.
Johnnie gathered together who ever was staying that night, and encouraged them to come for a drink. The owner would treat Johnnie to a few extras if he brought over a large group so he had a little incentive. In the communal area he stood at the front of the room and declared to the room, ‘it is Friday night, and I am taking you all on a night out. No excuses. Ten minutes, I’ll meet you all back here’ the group dispersed, all in a rush to get to the shower and the girls shot off to decide on outfits.
Peter, feeling way more comfortable in the safety dark of the night, holding a pint of local lager in his hand became more confident in his chat and took it upon himself, much to the amusement of his friends, to chat up one of the beautiful girls at the bar. She humoured him for a little before moving away, back to her friends. Peter came back to the group and was greeted by hoorahs and laughter, ‘nice try eh?’ Johnnie patted him on the back. The awkwardness of late teens had not quite left him yet either, so he empathised. Johnnie pondered for a moment, how in Glasgow he had often gone out for a night out and never really met anyone other than the people he had arranged to go out with. He was shyer then. Travelling on his own had forced him to come out of his shell, to purposefully go up to people and introduce himself, beginning the conversation. So much good had come out of doing that.
‘Next time, try your own league, little man’ someone else jeered. He took it all in good humour, and played along. Some of the younger ones had already started to slur their words, unaccustomed to the strength of alcohol that was being served at the bar.
They stayed until the bar had emptied and the staff hovered anxiously around them with a mop ready to quickly clean the night’s mess and head home themselves. So they bid farewell to the sleepy staff, eager to clock off and made their way down the long dark road back to the hostel to continue the night’s frivolities.
The house was asleep. Members of the group tiptoed in and exaggeratedly shushed each other as they knocked into furniture and each other. The party began innocently, with whispered conversations, and they kept hushing each other when they got a little too loud. But, alas the alcohol fuelled the volume levels of the group. But it continued to flow.
They had exaggerated conversations, littered with bad language and explicit tales. Raucous laughter filled the rooms, and love was all around. The most solemn of the group became more withdrawn, sitting alone into the dark corners. A fight broke out between two of the men, big burly alpha males looking to assert their power and status; their anger and confrontation fuelled by the alcohol. As the night wore on, Johnnie’s ability to speak clearly and fluently dried up and fizzled away. Deciding to call it a night, he stumbled carefully upstairs to his room, his hands groping the walls for the stability in which his legs were unable to carry out. He slumped onto the bed, his body a rag doll. No more drinking, he promised himself.
Chapter Eighteen: A one night stand in Goa.
The night before had been spent in an alcoholic stupor. An excited trio of Australians of whom Johnnie had met just that morning, arrived jet lagged from Sri Lanka where they had just flown from. It was the Goa dance festival and, thrilled by some new faces Johnnie took it upon himself to show them a good night,
‘Alright mate? Where’s good to get a drink round here?’ One of them asked, getting his priorities right, and knowing the right guy to ask.
‘Perfect timing pal – it is festival time’ Johnnie responded, mentally adding three more to his bunch of friends attending, ‘I know someone who can get you tickets!’
The group of men entered the festival wide eyed into a sea of people. The waves surged with the music, a whole movement in unity by the festival goers. Lights moved and cast over sections of the crowd, also with the rhythm of the music pumping through the speakers. The sight truly took his breath away. Turning to the others and grinning wildly, Johnnie grabbed them, cheered and they made their way onwards deeper into the crowd.
They danced and drank all night long. They spoke to all kinds of people, met all kinds of people. Euphoric with the music, he danced until the music stopped. He had lost the Australians by the end of the night, and was hanging out with a different set of people entirely; he did not even know their names. The night became a blur of music, lights, laughter, drink and drugs.
They fell, in a drunken stupor laughing on to his bed.
The coffee was too strong, it was making him jittery, made him feel sick, on top of the hangover. Yet another one. The cover up was thick on her face. Hiding behind expensive make up. Looking cheap. Eyelids hung low with the weight of false eyelashes, false hope. Vanity, with vain children, becoming more and more the normal. A factory setting from birth, looking good equals feeling good. And for those who could not look good? Bottom of the pile. Posing and trying too hard. Will they all look back at themselves in embarrassment when vanity comes out of fashion? Or will it ever? Narcissuses everywhere you look. If the dark of the festival, she had looked a lot better, a lot younger. Not the sort of person to be sleeping over in stranger’s dorms at hostels, anyway. He had taken her home, and ashamed at the state of the place he was living quickly shuttled her out on the offer of breakfast and a coffee before they both departed for their days, never to see each other again. Johnnie left her and the coffee shop feeling worse than before.
The city was getting too crowded for him. Just like Glasgow and London. The heat became stifling, claustrophobic, he loosened his shirt opening the top button. Hangovers in a country like this were the worst, he felt dreadful. Sweat ran down his back underneath his shirt and over his temples. He was sticky and dirty, stopping at a stall; he chucked a coin to the seller in return for a bottle of ice cold water. He held it to his head while the cold beads of condensation ran down his face.
He strolled about in the busy market to pass the morning. Window shopping. His funds were low, and he had restricted himself only to the essentials, and food, to keep him going for as long as possible before eventually having to find work. So he settled with wandering the streets, hoping to feel a little better with the walk. He would retreat back to the hostel and catch up with the guys later. Leaning back on a side wall covered in graffiti, he stopped to take in the scene, a Saturday afternoon in the market, shoppers hustled busily and tourists snapping at the local sights and attractions.
His caught a glimpse of the woman from last night, now showered and re-dressed, looking good in high black boots and a white summer dress. She was looking very couply, with a tall, dark stranger. He felt sick with guilt, she had had a boyfriend. The previous night’s alcohol gurgled in his stomach. Almost retching, how could he have done that to someone, he did not even know. He regretted it anyway this morning seeing her features in the cold light of day. She and her tall companion smiling compassionately at each other as they walked the markets in bliss just twisted the knife. No, it stuck a whole new entire knife in the wound. Johnnie kicked the kerb in anger, stubbing his toe through his flimsy shoe causing him to yelp in pain. He quickly silenced himself so as to not draw attention, especially not from the woman and her boyfriend. They looked at the stalls and perused the gifts, laughing about a private joke, sharing their private loves and history. On this busy street rushing up and down shoppers dawdling with arms laden with merchandise, souvenirs, gifts for loved ones, but he could only see them. This couple, he had invaded their relationship without even knowing it. They stood out in colours, oblivious happy faces shining out while the street stood colourless, in darkness. Their chatter and bustle, now silent. He was such a shit. He needed to change. He had come away from home but had just ended up living the same sort of life, only in a different city and in a different country. This was not travelling, not the romantic, self discovery that he had imagined, that he had been in awe of when sitting on tender hooks, at the pub listening to Dan recount his years on the road. He felt like he had let himself down, was he always drawn to this sort of lifestyle, wherever he went? It felt like it. The time in Goa was over. He had not changed. He needed somewhere serene, away from people. Away from himself. He wanted a quick exit; otherwise, he would change his mind.
This trip had to be different. The culture of students taking a year from daily life and responsibilities at home was not suited to him, now. He called Dan, his voice of reason.
‘Man,’ his voice was crackly over the bad phone line, he was a quiet talker anyway, ‘that was right for me, at that point in my life, but not you, you are different’ Johnnie picked up the phone base and brought it with him, pulling the wire along with him, to sit down.
‘I do not even know what you mean, I have come travelling, and am back in the same old rubbish I was in at home, and people are all the same here too,’ he pleaded, still upset with himself.
‘You get out from it what you put in, go somewhere quiet, with nature, and keep away from bars, pubs, clubs, man’ he laughed , ‘you’ve got all that shit waiting for you back here, you are not missing out, go on go do’ without waiting for a reply, he hung up. The tone rung in Johnnie’s ears as he processed Dan’s words.
But first, some arrangements needed to be made.
He spoke to the people he was sharing a room with and they all said a quick goodbye as he dumped his stuff, unfolded and unwashed, into his rucksack.
As he was running down the stairs on his way out, he bumped into Ishvar, knocking him nearly to the ground in his haste. Eyeing Johnnie up and down, Ishvar saw the rucksack and the look on Johnnie’s face. ‘You are not leaving us dear boy, I hope?’ Johnnie remained silent, but the guilty look answered Ishvar’s question, ‘oh but we had such a good thing, I need a young man like you to help this old man run this place!’ His happy jolly face now tainted with a hint of genuine sadness. Johnnie had begun to see Ishvar as a father figure. Such a kind welcoming, honest man.
‘I’m sorry, Ishvar. I need to move on now. Like the others do,’ he explained,
‘But...you will stop by before you return to your home town...will you?’ He looked up at Johnnie expectantly. For they were still on the stairs, and Johnnie one step above from him. Johnnie knew he probably would not. Ishvar knew that too. But they carried on the charade.
‘Yeah, I will. Thanks for everything.’ Johnnie said. They hugged a good friendly squeeze. Johnnie would miss Ishvar. He truly would.
Chapter Nineteen: A step into a new world.
His heavy eyelids opened slowly as the train pulled onto the platform. He was curled up hugging his backpack while he slept to keep it safe, and stretching his long, tired body out he peered onto the scene that greeted him. Bihar Sharif Station was deserted, and no one alighted except for himself.
It was primarily a yoga school offering meditative and academic studies. This was truly a step into the unknown for Johnnie. He decided on the spur of the moment. He wanted a change of lifestyle, and this place would offer it to him. A place of peace and of discovery.
A calm, all around. They offered a place of beauty and cheap food and board. Seva, samarpan and karuna were taught to all students. They dedicated their lives to goodness.
Settling his lone suitcase on the single bed, John sat down to write his first postcard home. He had left his mobile behind in Goa, and given it to a newcomer who had had hers stolen at their previous hostel. Not wanting the poor girl to think badly of the kind who stayed in hostels, or going home dejected with a bitter taste in her mouth after being robbed, he gave it away with a smile. He gave it away purposefully – he was really committed to this lifestyle while he was here. Without his last link to first world mobile technology he felt lighter and the paranoid feeling that so often lurked in the minds of those back home laden with technology and consumerism, No phone, no technology. It was a dull room; practical without embellishment. He was lucky to get one all to himself. Many of these ashrams offered only dormitories, shared rooms, much like Ishvar’s place, but this was different. It was any room a single, young man would need. Johnnie was not perturbed by the sight of his room, he had not moved here for luxury, he needed some simplicity in his life, and this was a good place to start. He knew all too well that the beauty lay without, outside of these walls.
A forest thick with trees stood solidly side by side. An army of nature, standing tall and proud for years on end. They were a dark, rich green, sumptuous. Beautiful. There was a noticeable difference to this hostel from the last one. The place was simple on the inside, but within beautiful settings. He looked out of his small, dirty window onto the landscape that befell him. The sun was just rising, and welcoming the day with its warm, opulent rays. Johnnie could hear, outside the walls of his room, the musings and rumblings from beyond, of a day beginning. Yawns all around as the various residents of the ashram house yawned and stretched, revitalised from a sound night’s sleep. Awakening their sleepy muscles and wide eyes now open, allowing the daylight to stream through their windows as they draw the curtains. He stood a while, calmly taking in the view, he could see for miles, the birds were swooping in groups in celebration singing proudly as they dip and dive, narrowly missing the tips of the trees, reaching high and swaying slightly in the morning breeze, coming in fresh from the mountain tops. In the soft morning breeze, the trees waved to him.
It was such a contrast, the residents here tended to keep themselves to themselves. They were not social travellers, merely bowing their heads when they passed each other in the quiet corridors of the building. After ten o’ clock each night the entire campus was shrouded in a heavy silence muting the noise of the world outside. The silence was comforting and Johnnie realised he had never truly known quietness to this extent and throughout his life; he had slept, rocked gently to sleep by the mumbling city lullabies. Here, they chose to spend their time differently, with quiet solitude and meaning.
The scene out of his window reminded Johnnie of his previous life, of the stained glass window in Duncan’s church back home. Nature in all its glory, living harmoniously with man, the bright, spring, summer colours lit up with life and love. He remembered the patterns of the glass as each pane interlocked with the next.
The communal breakfast area was alive with quiet chatter, the clinking of cutlery and the smells of cooked food and coffee filled the air. Johnnie’s empty stomach rumbled reminding him he had not eaten since the stale roll he had eaten from the buffet cart on the long train there. He grabbed a plate and perused the food laid out for the residents, mouth watering. It was not a big place, but the amount of people attending breakfast made Johnnie wonder where they kept them all.
‘The place is a bit old and stifling, but you can’t go wrong with the food here,’ the man next to Johnnie in the queue said in a slow, lilting South African accent, as he was piling his plate high, a handful of fresh fruit garnishing the top now. ‘It’s fantastic’ a popping another grape into his mouth. ‘Come, sit, eat’ He grabbed Johnnie with his spare arm while balancing the food on his tiny plate in the other. They sat down together on one of the three long, ancient wooden benches at a table already occupied with eaters, already tucking into their own breakfasts, not fluttering an eyelid at their visitors to the table.
‘Craig’ said the lover of food, extending a hand. He wore his long jet black hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Tall and slender, like Johnnie, his robes reached mid length on his arms and legs. He looked in his forties, however without a wrinkle on his face. His badly fitting clothes looked humorous on him despite his serious, thoughtful face.
Johnnie shook it and introduced himself, ‘I’m John, nice to meet you’ he whispered, still getting used to the quietness of the whole place. They then ate the rest of their morning meal in silence, as if breakfast itself was a ritual to be taken in and concentrated, pondered upon alone; an activity of mindfulness. Craig nodded to Johnnie before he went off to wash his plate and cup, and to begin his day. Johnnie sat alone until the room emptied. What was he going to do now? He was in an unknown country on an adventure he was not sure exactly how he was going to go about.
Each morning they would sit together, and eat their breakfast in silence, before separating and beginning each of their own respective days. It was not until two weeks later that they had a proper conversation. Johnnie was wandering around the local market when they met for the first time outside of the communal breakfast area.
It was early morning, and Johnnie posed in a salute to the sun, arms stretched up towards the sky, palms together, feeling the warm heat from the sun radiating through his window onto his skin. The energy flowed freely throughout his body relaxed, revived, his limbs stretched as he held the pose. Johnnie studied the philosophy of yoga and meditation. He attended classes and awkwardly began to learn and gain a deeper understanding of the practice of yoga. Still self conscious, he could only put his all, at first, into the poses when alone in his room. A British shyness he obviously still had not shaken off yet. He left for his sole trip to the market that day, to look around the town, and to get to know the area a little better. The campus was strict about students leaving, but that didn’t stop Johnnie.
The sellers were yelling loudly haggling with the villagers, hands aloft and waving. There were rich colours of the different foods on the stalls, the luxurious fabrics hung from the ceiling for sale, the jewellery, clothes and furniture; everything was there to see, laid on the stalls in the street. Eyes wide trying to take in all the sights sounds and smells around him Johnnie wandered in a daze. It was an assault on all the senses. He stopped by a gentleman selling glass lamps. Picking up a small, table lamp it studying it, it was much like the ones he had bought for the Svarga, whilst fixing up one of the rooms. The thick, coloured glass refracted the sunlight streaming in from the opening to the stall, squeezing in between the gaps between stalls. He smiled as he gently placed it back on the stall table. The beautiful, opulent colours made him think of his mum, she would love it here. He wanted something to send home to her. Browsing the stalls, a more focused browse this time, he found a small stall towards the end, tacked on last minute it seemed this stall was an almost forgotten one. There stood towards the back, a beautiful jewellery box, a varnished dark wood on the sides and the top encrusted with jewels and a stained glass motif of an elephant. His mother would love it. After some awkward haggling, the box was his.
Clutching his treasured gift to his mother in his arms, walking back through the market, he saw Craig at the food stalls, vigorously haggling with a grocer, waving an pepper around in his hand enthusiastically, ‘hey, let me help’ Johnnie grabbed one of the paper bags overflowing with various goodies as he watched Craig struggling with them, ‘more food eh?’ he said, offering to give him a hand with it, but was politely refused.
‘Yeah dude. I help the kitchen out, I know where to get the good stuff’ Craig was a chef in the kitchen and was often sent out weekly to get the fresh produce.
‘I cannot get hang of the whole haggling thing though.’ Johnnie said, it all made him nervous, what was wrong with just normal, plain and simple price tag. He was not bothered about getting a bargain.
‘Nah, John, they love haggling. You have to put on a good show, it’s all in good humour’ he laughed and shook hands with the grocer, who also had a big grin on his face, and waved them away before beginning the same ritual with the next waiting customer.
‘It is kind of rude if you do not, ooh, what you got there?’ eyeing up the packed Johnnie had in his other hand.
‘For my mum, back home, it was her birthday, I need to make up with her’ Johnnie shrugged ‘ I have not been home in a while , or even called home so I imagine a wee gift before I do might soften her up a bit’ he said.
‘Where is back home for you then?’ he asked Johnnie,
‘Scotland, Glasgow. What about you? How long have you been away from home?’
‘South Africa, Johannesburg. I have been out here for three years, and I was travelling over America the year before that, so yeah, a long time away.’ Craig replied, sounding distant, thinking of his home. They were all lost souls. He realised, just like him. Trying to find their place in the world. Some went home; some ran out of money, like Dan, and others stayed on the road forever.
They walked home together, reaching the forest where through he trees stood the home they shared together. The house an escape, a symbol for the calm and serenity that was taught within it, the eye of a storm in a frantic, hectic rushed world.
Chapter Twenty: The road to enlightenment.
The kitchen was alive with spices and exotic scents. Steam rose from various pots and pans, bubbling away. It was a cramped and dirty space. Little room to manoeuvre bodies between the cookers on one side, sinks and shelves of food on the other and the spare surfaces loaded with empty dishes and spare prepared food stood next to the giant fridge. A second hand purchase which had put the kitchen back a fair bit, it was their pride and joy. Johnnie peered over into one of the pots. Through the rising steam he saw all kinds and colours of delicious dishes filled with exotic smells and flavours.
The kitchen was bustling with activity, it always was when he passed. It looked and smelt delicious, so he stepped inside, ‘mmmmmmm, my wee belly is a’rumbling now!’Johnnie exclaimed.
Craig looked up and nodded at him through the steam. ‘John! Come here, let me show you’ he waved him over. He rolled out a final chapatti and threw it in the ceramic pot to cook before moving over to a tidier surface and chucked an onion Johnnie’s way. ‘Head’s up. Dice this, will you? I will show you how to make this’ he said as he waved his hand over the selection of ingredients. Johnnie took a chopping board and knife and stood next to Craig as he too began to chop more vegetables.
‘So you are the chef here then?’ he asked
‘Once a day, for the lunch time meal’ Craig said ‘No, no, like this’ he said miming how to correctly dice an onion with his hands once he saw Johnnie make an attempt. ‘Any man worth his salt should know how to cook something’ ‘how will you woo your beautiful lady wife otherwise?’ he teased.
Johnnie scoffed ‘ha, I do not have a beautiful lady wife. Would I be here if I did?’
‘Exactly. Hmm. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t’ he replied vaguely, shrugging and turning back to his work. Craig continued to busy himself with the preparation of the food to go into the dish he and Johnnie were making. So Johnnie followed suit, taking instructions and doing as he was told. Learning as he went along.
He had not a lot of cooking experience, only that when working in the soup kitchen, but that as more heating up and dishing out than actual cooking. But he wanted to help out, and to learn, in any way he could. He felt exhilarated.
Over the weeks, Craig brought Johnnie into the crowded kitchen every time he saw him pass by, nudging a fellow cook over to make some room for his friend and showed him a new, exciting meal. Soon enough, Johnnie would turn up on his own accord, and prep some food for him. He loved this time, the routines and, the inventiveness that cooking allowed, the sense of camaraderie between the people working in the kitchen. Food had never meant so much to Johnnie before. Before, it was just something to do, in order to survive. Now, he tasted it.
On the roof of the building was a shaded terrace, with paved flooring and a series of bright cushions scattered around. It wasn’t large, but there was enough space for a few potted plants to decorate, most dying, all except for a bleeding heart plant, which bloomed red with colour. Alive and blooming, where the others had withered away had died.
The plant sat under the glow of the terrace lights, hanging in a row above the seats, rivalling the stars far above them. It was a simple, beautiful terrace. Calm and quiet for the most part. Johnnie, from that moment, took it upon himself to water and to tend the terrace garden. He watered the dying plants daily, too long it had been overlooked, and ignored.
Lessons took place on the terrace, meditation and yoga. Johnnie struggled to feel relaxed and refused to partake in these lessons, preferring his own company – one cannot humiliate oneself alone. He hoped on day he would get over the silly, childish anxiety and join the classes proudly and confidently, but for now, the time for mediation had to be alone, and totally alone to feel. He had been here so long, now was the time. Preparing himself, he sat crossed legged, under the stars and the lights, with eyes closed. Cool air floated down from the mountains and he allowed his mind to roam. Deepening his breathing. His mind drifted to thoughts of Goa and the parties and his friends. Other thoughts drift to the bullies at home, during his school days, and his father cheating and lying to his mother, but he kept pulling it back to the present moment. Sighing, frustrated, Johnnie furrowed his brow. Think about nothing. Think about nothing. My mind is a calm ocean on a calm day. My mind is the sky, cool and soft on a breezy morning. He breathed in through his toes, and out through a coin shaped hole on his forehead. Compassion and kindness in, angst and worry out.
The words spoken to him by his neighbour on his first day of arrival, an Arabic proverb, struck his mind, ‘what is coming is better than what is gone,’ he must look to the future and not to keep looking to the past.
The feelings when he saw the man who had once bullied him at school crept into his mind in rude, unwelcome flashes. Vividly those feelings haunted him. Chris had altered Johnnie’s path in life by actions he would not even deem worthy. The tiniest thing to one person can mean the earth to another. Johnnie tried to remember the Dalai Lama’s words, 'hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone, for that is ancient law’. Again, that guilty feeling rose up in his stomach like bile, remembering back to the time Johnnie had acted like one of them, fuelled by hatred, and giving a false statement to the policeman, to make himself feel better. A flock of birds, disturbed by something on the ground below, simultaneously flap their wings loudly pushing their entire body off the ground in a quick swift moment, lifting into a swooping swirling pattern in the sky. Opening his eyes to watch, Johnnie was distracted once again.
After days of finding a quiet moment, alone while the terrace was vacant after the daily classes, he sat in lotus position and vacate his mind, focusing on the present moment, the here and now. He concentrated on his breathing, the fresh air coming in and the used air going out. He had begun to find it easier, simpler. It gradually less time to clear his mind of all the difficulties and complexities he had previously struggled with. Time at first went slowly minute after r painful minute. This soon became a slow, peaceful time, finding it easier did not quicken the time, but made it bearable, it got use out of it. Distractions were no longer seen as distractions but as moments in the present, one could focus further on.
Johnnie patiently waited for the class to end, so he could have the terrace to himself. He watched the group say goodbye and then disperse, each in different directions smiling and relaxed as they went. One man walked alone, separate. Johnnie watched him from the side, walking down the road, off towards the village, hobbling, using his walking stick for support.
He smiled at Johnnie; he must have been in his eighties with bright white hair. He walked with the aid of a stick, slightly hunched over. He was thin, and frail, and small his wrists and ankles looked painfully thin.
‘Do you have a family? Can they pick you up?’ Johnnie asked him, concerned that the man was thinking of walking home alone. Touching him gently on the shoulder to get his attention.
‘No. There is only me, my wife passed away twenty years ago.’ He replied, his voice soft and calm. ‘I do not trust these cars,’ motioning to some of the other members who were walking towards their cars, ‘too fast, the people too angry, my feet are sturdy, and I will walk’ he continued, walking past Johnnie. He scurried to catch up with the old man,
‘Can I walk you home then, at least? I could do with some company myself’ he nodded in agreement silently and Johnnie held the man’s arm and supported his weight on his own. They began their walk home.
Chapter Twenty one: A fire burns.
Every day, after the classes, rather than take the chance to run up to the terrace alone, Johnnie would go down to socialise with the group after the class, then walk the old man home, sometimes they would stop along the way to share a tea and a cake. Others they would walk in total silence, straight there. Johnnie first began to do it out of a sense of duty, knowing this man was alone, without a wife or children to help him. But now, he enjoyed it. After dropping the man off, Johnnie would walk home and then go up to the terrace to meditate. It did not matter whether he was alone or not. If there were people, he would nod and say hello then carry on regardless. He was no longer embarrassed or self conscious for they were all there for the same reason, all had different ways of getting there. Johnnie soon began joining the man in his classes. It was a shared experience, a mass of calm and focus. It was entirely different altogether.
Reaching the slums one evening Johnnie attempted to press a note into his hand, to help him somehow, but the man refused, looking offended,
‘I have no need for your money, I am happy.’ Pointing to his face as he pulls an absurd grin, ‘see!’ Johnnie sniggered,
‘Ok, I see your point.’
But the man continued, ‘I have a home, no?’ pointing to his hut, ‘I am well fed,’ he laughed pointing to his stomach. He kissed Johnnie lightly on the cheek and turned, ducking his head, entering his home.
Johnnie began to see parallels between his life back home and the troubles and toil of the lower classes and the lives that he saw around on a daily basis. The rich lived oblivious while the poor continued to struggle.
He decided to take a walk, where he passed a local school, kids playing during their lunch break outside. The sounds of laughter were contagious. A warmth feeling of happiness filled his chest, cavities of cold, worry and emptiness banished. This school could be anywhere, the way the children laughed and played. Innocence was universal, children and their games and their joyful friendships and thirst for knowledge was universal. He smiled at that. Before moving on he watched them briefly, reminded of the happy younger years of his life carefree playtimes ending each day tired from laughing and play. It was sad how quickly this time passed, and how he regretted allowing it to pass so unnoticed and not cherishing every moment.
Passing through the slums, Johnnie saw where the old man lived, watching the people who live there go about quotidian business and duties. The poorer part of the area was just a short walk away from the ashram itself. Down a make shift wide uneven road the houses stood. Ramshackle huts leaning against one another, children playing in the dirt and grime, with smiles on their faces. There was hope in the faces of the people he passed. Such poverty. A resilience despite the unfair lot life had given them.
Johnnie could not believe the man did not need for anything. He lived in the slums, how could he help him without offending him? Stood in the kitchen one evening, helping to prepare the evening, meal for the residents, he broached the subject with Craig, ‘well, what do you think?’
‘He says he wants nothing, so give him nothing,’ Craig replied. ‘One thing I have learnt here, possessions mean nothing, and you should know that too. He wants your friendship and your kindness, just give him that’ he advised. Johnnie nodded; he made a lot of sense. But still.
Johnnie continued to find quiet moments during the day to sit alone, up on the terrace. This time, however, the man’s face kept springing into his mind. His friendship and company, he did not want possessions, not things, but people. Thinking of the gift he sent to his mum back home in Glasgow, she too wanted her son back, not a gift. Even so, she had been delighted for some form of contact from him. Inspired, he rushed up to his room to write a letter. He had not written since the very first, brief postcard from his first arrival here, tired and anxious months ago. This time he would write something more meaningful. Maybe he would write to Heather too, they had spoken a few times months ago on the phone, but he knew how much she liked hand written letters. They were sent so few and far between nowadays, he thought. He wrote to his mum and then to Heather. Backtracking, sharing his experiences; he explained about Ishvar, and the hostel, becoming a handyman; he described his first experience cooking, properly. And how peaceful it was here, in the house, the area where he was living. He promised his mother to bring her back here, so she could see it all, as a proper family holiday.
Signing off the letters in his careful unpractised script he licked the envelopes and addressed them learnt from heart, ready to post the next morning. It had been a long while since he last wrote anything longhand, emailing and texting had become the norm. Writing felt unnatural and after a while his writing lost concentration and the letters became erratic and untidy as his hand had begun to ache and cramp up.
It was a normal Wednesday afternoon, the old man’s yoga class had ended and Johnnie was already there waiting outside to walk him home. As soon as he saw Johnnie, his face lit up,
‘Here again?’ the old man asked, smiling and bowing his head ‘namaste’, he greeted hands pressed together as he bowed his head.
‘Yes, of course, shall we go?’ Johnnie said, offering his arm. They began to walk. Birds sang softly in the trees that lined the road which they walked upon. It was an idyllic scene. As they made their way out of the house grounds and up towards the village Johnnie began to tell the man about his day, and how he confided in his friend Craig. ‘I saw where you live, I want to help you,’ Johnnie explained Craig’s reaction.
‘But of course, I want nothing but your friendship. And the occasional help, for I am an old man. This hill is steep when you have no young, strong man to lean on.’ He gave Johnnie’s arm a friendly squeeze.
‘I want to help, be helpful to somebody’ they walked a few steps further, watching as the sun began its descent from the sky, ‘I wrote to my mother today. I haven’t written in so long. I miss her – it has taken me so long to realise it’ he explained, the old man stopped to look at Johnnie.
‘Family is very important. I miss my mother every day. And I am eighty!’ Johnnie nodded, understanding, ‘you must always love and look after your family; they bring you into the world, and keep you safe,’ he advised Johnnie. He was true, Johnnie had never truly thanked his mother for everything she had done for him.
They walked further along, nearing the slums.
The sky was aglow. Ahead in the distance Johnnie strained his eyes to see what was ahead. Stood by the others, Johnnie looked ahead in horror. Their stricken faces were lit up by the glow of the hut. There was no-one inside, the residents had managed to escape and raise the alarm. For now, until the fire service made its way through the narrow streets and alleys to the hut, all they could do was stand and watch, helpless. A life of memories, an accumulation of year’s worth of belongings. An entire home was ablaze. A woman screamed, on her knees looking at her home, burning. Tears streaked her smoke scorched face as a neighbour tried to comfort her, crouched down beside her.
Johnnie, gently pulled the old man away and told him to carry on home, away from the danger. A young girl, clothes blackened, frightened by the fire, coughed the smoke out of her lungs and ran to her screaming mother, looking for comfort. Wisps of black smoke swirled up into the sky away from the buildings packed closely together. Residents scrambled out onto the road, carrying children and pets away from the danger. The rhythm of sirens rang over the crackling flames. The engine’s headlights cut through the smoke and loomed into view. It screeched to a halt to the relief of the group of people huddled together on the road away from the fire.
Every one stood astounded watching the great flames lick the black building within it. The hot, dry days had dried everything out over the past few weeks, providing a perfect condition for the fire to grow, and to consume everything it touched. Devastating, cruel flames, flames that give life can also take it away. The heat, even from standing very far back, was scorching their faces as they watched, their eyes dried out and their words burnt in their throat before they were spoken. The fire truck arrived in time to prevent the fire from spreading, but not soon enough to stop the entire contents of the house being engulfed. The whole place was reduced to ashes. Possessions mean nothing. These words are empty when your entire home had vanished in a matter of hours.
It had been a gas fire that had been faulty and the owner had left a pot boiling while she went out into the back garden to hang the washing out; it took just five minutes for the fire to take hold. She had reacted quickly, adrenaline taking over her body as she rushed to get her three children out to safety; there was no time to save anything else.
Johnnie felt her pain; he cradled the youngest child, frightened and scared. Shaking, and covered in soot. It was night-time now. Only the light of the flames lighting the sky and the horror stricken faces of the villagers, drowning them in an orange glow, flickering away. It would take some time to get over this event in this small village.
Johnnie had spent the day helping to clear the mess left by the fire in the slums. Many of the residents of the ashram had come down to help too. It had become a true community effort to rebuild what had been lost in the fire. The fire had destroyed everything. They all grouped together to lend a hand to the family who had lost their home. The village was shaken. Luckily everybody was safe. Such is the fragility of life.
Chapter Twenty Two: Mary.
They had been on a hike to one of the popular destinations for the residents of the Bihar ashram the peak of the walk was the most peaceful place. It was a hard, tough walk, and Johnnie revelled in the hard work of it. His calves burnt from the strain and his eyes sore from squinting out the strong sunlight, wishing he had brought sunglasses. The slowly climbed to the summit.
Johnnie reached the top, exhausted, out of breath. The dust from the dry sands on the mountains had got into the back of his throat making him cough dryly. His reached in to back pack for his flask of water. It was cool and refreshed him as he drank the glorious moisture in. He saved the last few drops and splattered them on to his hot, sun burnt face to cool him down further. Hands on hips, he stood atop the mountain, toes perched precariously over the edge, he looked down onto the path he had trekked and out onto the scenery below, it all looked so dry and hot, and it was the height of summer. The forests were thinner and he could see where some of the river banks had shrunk as the river water evaporated in the heat. He loved this country; everywhere his went was peaceful, beautiful. Contrasting the two sights, he thought back to the night of the fire in the old man’s village, reflecting on how nature can cause so much beauty, but equally can cause so much devastation.
It was a two hour drive back to his residence, exhausted, he slept the entire way, body aching deeply from the hard physical labour of walking. The backs of his legs were hot and sore, his feet rubbed to death by his borrowed boots. He could not wait to get home, have a cold shower and get straight into bed for a long, restful sleep.
Shaken awake by the driver, they were home. His next door neighbour came running out as soon as he saw the car, flustered. Grabbing and pulling the door before John even had had a chance to. He grabbed John’s arm and yanked him out. ‘Where have you been? You have been gone all day!’ Still sleepy from the drive Johnnie mumbled an answer and walked past him, into the house up towards his room.
The lad chased him up the stairs in a panic, ‘John, John!’ he shouted as Johnnie turned around to look at him ‘You need to call home, terrible news. I am so, so sorry’ he looked sympathetic, but Johnnie did not know what he was talking about, he would call after he had a little sleep, he was too knackered to function now.
‘What? What are you on about?’ Johnnie asked, sensing the tone of his friend’s voice, now more than a little worried.
‘It’s your mum. I am sorry mate, you were away all day, and we could not get in touch with you’ he quickly tried to hurry away, uncomfortable with the situation and unhappy to have to be the first one to see and explain to Johnnie. He braced himself as he prepared himself for an answer,
He coughed and spluttered, ‘a heart attack. I’m sorry. You should call home and speak to them’
‘No’ Johnnie pace the small room, back and forth ‘no, no, you are wrong’ Johnnie kicked his clothes on the floor out of his way, ‘no, that is wrong’ he pushed past his friend as he was exiting, throwing him towards the wall as Johnnie leapt out into the hallway and ran down the stairs out of the house. He ran out into the woods, where nobody was.
As he reached the deepest part he let out a howl, an animalistic wail. Falling to his knees, Johnnie wept. He was so far away from home. He had never felt so lost. His mum would never be there to welcome him back. It was hot, dark and uncomfortable; he had not been out to these parts of the forest before. The trees closed in on him and his feet wet and dirty, nipped at by the fallen branches. He wanted to be at home, where he knew, where it was comfortable, where his mum was.
The day of the funeral arrived. Johnnie had flown home, he felt numb, and those at the house had arranged everything for him. For Johnnie was still in a state of shock, unresponsive to those around him, he needed their help. He was home safe but not sound. Johnnie was dull, lifeless and going through the motions without care.
His father greeted him as he arrived, shaking his hand firmly, but avoided his eye. Johnnie had not seen or spoken to his father in more than a year, he realised. Familiar faces all around greeting him with sympathy. It was a blur. The room felt putrid, the people false, he wanted his mum. She was gone. While he was out gallivanting, and ‘finding himself’ he had, in the process lost the one person most important to him and the one person who he was the most important person to. Guilt ridden, he found his seat in the church and sat silently, head bowed, for the service to being.
As a young boy, in the same church he had been intrigued by the rituals and traditions that were beginning around him. But now these passed without notice. Selfishly Johnnie did not stop to greet family members, also grieving. Only one thing mattered that day, and only one thing on his mind. And that was his mother. The only person not there, the only person he wanted to see.
The empty music filled the empty space. It all meant nothing. The music, meaningless, and had nothing to do with his mother. He resented it, the organ sound, and the organ player. The vicar, they all had no idea, just there for show. He looked around at his family members, most of whom he had not seen in years, they too, there just to show face, the way he had been at Aunt Edna’s funeral. He resented them too. Bitter, angry feelings dwelled in him, showing on his face overtly, he did not care.
His father refused to speak to him all day and avoided any chance Johnnie tried to make to speak to him. He barely spoke to anyone, actually. And it seemed most people did not want to speak to him. Eventually Johnnie took him aside. John senior looked old; he carried heavy dark bags under his worn eyes. They stood out brightly on his dull gaunt face. The suit he wore was ill fitting and hung limply off his slouched body. ‘Where were you?’ he hissed at his son, ‘do not pretend to be all high and mighty we me, son. You were away, selfishly while I was here looking after your mother’ the bitterness showed through in John’s voice, ‘where were you, eh?’ His father was angry at his loss and needed someone to blame it on. Johnnie recognised these feelings, they were both angry and hurt, but this needed to be sorted out some other time. For now, they both needed to grieve.
Johnnie saw his old friend Heather speaking to some of his relatives in a hushed tone. He went up to her and she gave him a sympathetic look and hugged him kindly. ‘I am so sorry Johnnie’ she whispered in his ear as she held him close to her. She had matured since he saw her last. Her face had shaped out, he noticed and she now wore make up. Heather was slimmer, and she had cut the long lanky hair that once hung over her face, it was now healthy and shiny, pulled back away from her face into a chignon. She was dressed smartly, nothing like the awkward jeans and scabby trainers he had last seen her in. He pulled away, ‘thank you, Heather, it is nice to see you’, he said genuinely, it was nice to see a friendly face.
She held him at arm’s length, ‘how are you, really?’ she eyed him, looking deep into his soul with her still bright, shining eyes,
‘I have nothing, I feel nothing’ he admitted, only to her he could say that. She understood.
‘It will happen,’ she insisted, ‘the clouds will clear, in the far distance, they have already begun.’ Philosophical words from his oldest, best friend. She smiled shyly and shrugged. He needed to hear just that. ‘Hopeless as it feels now, I know. Come back home, Johnnie. We miss you’ she looked at her feet, ‘I have missed you.’ She said to him quietly. Then, remembering, ‘Thanks for your letter, your mum called me when she got hers as well’ she said, lightening the tone a little, changing the subject.
‘You have been in touch with her?’ asked Johnnie.
‘Yeah, she missed you, wanted to talk about you to someone and when she found out I had moved home, she called in every so often for a cuppa, and we sat and talked. It was nice. Weird, but nice.’ Said Heather. Johnnie was glad that his mother had someone to talk to, to turn to, other than his disgraceful father, in his absence. Guilty again.
After the wake, John charged up to his son and declared, ‘I am going to the pub, alone.’ His father gave him a staring glare before turning on his heel and storming off in the opposite direction. He well and truly felt abandoned. He felt guilty. Johnnie was left to wish everyone there a good bye and a safe journey home and to tidy up all the cold, disgusting finger food that had been left out untouched for far too long.
Johnnie went home. His parent’s home. Slowly, quietly opening the door, he peeked his head round. No sign of his dad yet. The house was empty, and quiet, too quiet. It felt unlived in, and cold. His mum’s slippers still were placed by the foot of the stairs, a breath caught in his throat, he looked away and scrunched his eyes tight. Johnnie moved into the living room. Everything was in its usual place, furniture, ornaments and such that have not been moved in years. Growing up, his mum was so particular about where things were placed; everything had its own spot. Except, on a table, dust free and clean, stood, looking shiny and new almost out of place, was the gift he had sent, his letter, placed beside it, opened and read. His heart was touched.
Silently, Johnnie sat on the sofa, in his mother’s spot, and cried. He cried until his eyes were dry. He held his head in his hands, resting elbows on his knees, in an empty room devoid of life. His mum made this his home, she was no longer here. Now it was just an empty, old fashioned out of date house, with nothing but useless memories. He grabbed his jacket and made to leave, he could not stay here. Just as Johnnie exited, closing the front door behind him he met his dad as he was staggering up the garden path.
‘Johnnie’ he slurred, just in from the pub. Drowning his sorrows and looking for the answer in the bottom of his beer glass. Typical, his dad had not changed while he was away, Johnnie thought. He stunk and looked dishevelled, the buttons on his overcoat done awkwardly and his laces trailed behind his shoes.
‘I am leaving, I will find somewhere to stay for tonight, and I will figure something out after that.’ Johnnie said, as he pushed past him angrily and made his way down the path to the gate.
‘Johnnie, I am sorry. I miss her. I was angry. All I could picture was her sad face, missing you all this time. This is your home,’ he hiccupped, ‘I am lonely, stay here tonight.’ John pleaded. Despite all the time away, the both needed some space, and come back with a clear head. They needed to work out a way to get on. Mary had always been a mediator, now she was not there, they would have to do it themselves.
‘I will come back in the morning, and help you sort out everything,’ he promised, shouldering his bag, and closing the gate behind him. Just before turning to walk away, Johnnie looked up for a moment at his helpless dad. He looked back at his son; they both shed a silent tear before parting ways. John, to bed, to sleep off the mourning beers. Johnnie, down the road, to find somewhere to sleep for the night.
Glasgow, a city with a rich history of poverty and wealth, with streets filled with character and landmark architecture all battered by the year long drizzle and cold winds, is where Johnnie had returned. It felt less like home than ever.
Chapter Twenty Three: Johnnie moves back to Glasgow.
He sat alone. The world moved along regardless. The air was cold, his body was cold. He felt tired and hopeless. What would he do?
Uneasy, Johnnie decided to go home, shower and have breakfast, and deal for once with his dad. It had to be done sooner or later.
After entering, Johnnie poked his head round in to the kitchen, where he heard the rustlings of breakfast, ‘good morning, where did you go last night?’ his father asked croakily, rubbing his eyes sleepily. He was still wearing his dressing gown and the smell of stale beer still hung on his words. Cup of tea in hand as he offered it out to Johnnie, a palm leaf, an expression of apology and forgiveness.
‘It does not matter’ Johnnie replied, slumping his tired body onto the kitchen chair, ‘we need to talk, don’t we?’ John nodded in agreement and sat, joining him. The two men looked at each other from across the table. The tension cloyed the air and the clock loudly ticked reminding each of the passing seconds over the sizzling of the breakfast on the stove.
They both took a deep breath in, and began.
‘You were needed here,’ he sighed, shaking his head.
‘I feel bad enough, Dad, you really do not have to add to that’ Johnnie explained. No matter how hard he tried, he could not wash his hands free from the guilt of not being around for his mother in those last hours. They needed to be adults here, and to not put the blame on each other, the two men were all that was left of the family, Mary had been the pillar of the McLeod’s, and she was no longer there. They just had to deal with it. The family must continue.
His father explained what had been going on. Mary had started saving, putting money together for Johnnie when he came back; she did not want him moving home to nothing, with nowhere to go. John described her joy when opening the package sent from India. How she bragged to all her friends at work. Johnnie was the first McLeod to travel as far as he had, she was so proud of him.
Johnnie gave him an ultimatum. His mum had struggled long enough, Johnnie would provide all the help and support his dad could need. If he put as much effort in too. Johnnie helped his father out of love for his mother, not him. He despised his dad still, but he was his dad, and he wanted to change. But this time, he had to.
Little by little, Johnnie aimed to rebuild his life, and to remember his Buddhist teachings that he learnt whilst he was away. He did not want his trip to be entirely wasted. Now, every time he meditated, his mother’s face was in front of him, and he focused on her. He wanted to make his mother proud. Everywhere he turned in Glasgow it brought back memories he would really rather forget, and that was something he just had to deal with. He would try and make new, good memories in this old city.
The agreed to try and make their family work, for Mary’s sake. Just John and Johnnie were left. It was times like these that Johnnie wished he had siblings, someone to share this unique experience, so they could help and support each other. Another member in their family could fill awkward gaps in the conversation, and take some of the pressure off them. In a way, Mary had done that too. But no, it was just the two of them. For now. Johnnie had never felt more alone. Johnnie noticed how the house had changed in the months without his mum. There was a thick layer of dust over the ornaments that stood arranged on the windowsills and the mantel piece. In the kitchen, grease coated the appliances and the huge pile of dirty dishes accumulating in the sink began dominating the room, the stench of leftover food almost unbearable. The fruit bowl on the table was empty and the lace table cloth that usually was placed beneath it was gone. The fridge too, was empty, Johnnie noticed as he routinely checked it – for nothing in particular, he wasn’t even hungry - as most grown children do when the return home. His dad had moved the sofa at little closer to the television. And the television, a little more central to the room.
Johnnie’s gift eventually had been packed away, as had other little treasures that Mary had kept of her possessions lying about the house. It had to happen sooner or later, but it still hurt.
Much like his hermit father, Johnnie shut himself away from the world. He deliberately avoided people he knew, he did not want to talk to anyone. He was not up to it, he needed time alone, to reflect. But, hearing of Mary’s death, and Johnnie being back in town, Dan eagerly tracked his old, heartbroken friend down.
‘Mate, come out’, he stood on the doorstep pleading like a school child persuading stubborn parents to allow their child out to play for the evening. ‘I’ve missed you, we need to catch up.’
Arm-twisted, Johnnie and Dan sat at the corner table of the local café, each with a steaming mug of coffee warming their fingers, listening quietly to the idle chatter of nearby tables before finally being able to catch up. Johnnie barely spoke while Dan, happy to fill both sides of the conversation, nattered away.
‘I suppose you want your old job back?’ Dan questioned half heartedly after they had chatted for a while. Johnnie paused, as if the question hadn’t once occurred to him.
‘Actually, no’ he began, a plan formulating in his mind as he continued. Life must go on, he thought, ‘I was wondering if you could do me a favour’ Johnnie replied at last.
He wanted to work within the same charity, but he wanted out of the soup kitchen, out of the office, he wanted to train to be a counsellor, and he knew Dan could pull some strings to allow that to happen, for certain. A flutter of excitement hit Johnnie’s stomach as he realised how important this conversation may be to him. He responded with a smile, ‘I will see what I can do, anything for you, pal. It is so good to see you again. We all missed you.’ They embraced, and parted good friends again. A weight had lifted from Johnnie’s shoulder once more.
After a while he began to feel a little better, Johnnie and his father were on speaking terms and had even managed to have a laugh with each other, living together again after all these years. As adults they had more to talk about to each other, and found it easier to connect than during Johnnie’s childhood years.
Later one evening, he was chatting on the phone to Heather, ‘I am having a house warming, you really should come. It will get you out of the house for a bit, just what you need. Malcolm and all the guys will be there, they will all be really pleased to see you’ she enthused, practically begging him to come, she wanted him to get out of that tiny cramped house with his dad so badly. It was for his own good.
‘I am not sure I am up to it. To playing happy with them all about’ Johnnie sulked, voice quiet and low over the phone. She tutted.
‘They are all adults now, you forget. They understand, everyone knows about your mum, it will be good. I promise.’ Only Heather would have been able to invite Johnnie out and have the possibility of him accepting, ‘please come, I am not sure I can handle Malcolm’s bad jokes or karaoke without you there!’ She joked. She fell silent waiting for his reply, on tender hooks on the other end of the line.
‘Alright, but if I hate it I am leaving straight away’ he said warning her. Johnnie hated being forced into stuff.
‘Excellent, seven thirty on the dot, do not bring anything, we will have it all ready here. Can’t wait for you to see my house’ she said, and then hung up. He was dreading this party; he really was not up to socialising. And, after all, he guessed he was looking forward to seeing her and spending some time to catch up properly with her and finally seeing Malcolm again.
Friday night, Johnnie arrived at Heather’s doorstep with a badly chosen bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers. He had stood in the aisle at the supermarket for an unreasonable length of time trying to decide what to get, hoping Heather wasn’t really too into fancy wine. In the end he opted for a lucky dip and just grabbed the first one on his eye level, he really knew nothing about fine wine. She greeted him excitedly and ushered him in, ‘they are gorgeous! Thank you. Come in, come in, everyone is already here!’ she took the flowers and rushed them into the kitchen, resting them in the sink while she found a vase for them. She placed them in pride of place in the middle of the dining table, for all to see. He looked, wishing he had bought a bigger bunch as they shrank in the middle of the grand oak table full of snacks and dips for the party goers, with other gifts surrounding them, over towering.
The dimmer switches throughout the house had been dimmed, to create an atmosphere. The house still smelt of fresh paint and the new clean carpet seemed to make Heather nervous. She glared at the guests drinking red wine, her eyes watching them as they passed by her and flinching whenever they made a sudden movement. Johnnie never thought he would see his friend, who used to keep weeks old plates of food under her bed out of pure idleness, like this.
The large hallway housed a grand staircase leading up the right hand side of the wall, mahogany beams. When they had chance to speak properly together and to catch up, he wanted to ask her about the house. He was only there for her, after all. He was excited to hear about this new life she had built for herself here.
Everything was new. In the kitchen hung pictures of Heather and her partner smiling up at the camera, and pictures of her nieces and nephews, her older sister now lived in Edinburgh with her husband and three children, Heather later explained.
Party guests moved about the house aimlessly moving from conversation to conversation. People littered the hallway, kitchen, living room and garden. Johnnie watched as they each greeted each other with kisses on the cheek before getting bored, making a light excuse before moving along to the next static group. A good party should always have flow, movement, to keep things exciting and to prevent staleness, he bitterly thought to himself. But grieving, lonely Johnnie was unable to partake in such frivolous party behaviour. Pointless, routine activities. Malcolm did not turn up; Johnnie was relying on his company, knowing that Heather would be busy most of the night. He was actually looking forward to seeing his friend after such a long gap.
He realised that he knew nothing about these people. While he was away, life had not stopped, frozen in time until he came back. They had all moved on, got jobs, had families, and grown up. Now Johnnie felt out of place, and behind the times. There were so many faces he did not know.
He felt uncomfortable, and the wine was giving him a headache, he had not drunk in so long, the end of the night was nearing and he had not spoken to Heather for more than two minutes, she was too busy meeting and greeting guests, moving among them like a perfect host, dipping in and out of conversations and filling up empty glasses. He watched her in awe and admiration – how she had changed, she was now an elegant, beautiful woman. And he, the same old awkward Johnnie. A few hours in, he gave up and sloped off home, without saying goodbye to anyone. He felt worthless, like he was not supposed to be there. He had nothing to say to anyone, and was not of any value to anyone at the party. Back in the safety of his home, the four walls to shut out the world, just him and his dad. The party was a bad idea, too soon, too big, too many people.
With his new job came the studying he had to do to become qualified, for that, he must apply to college, he never thought he would be doing something so grand. College was a minor thing to some people, just a small platform to get somewhere further. But for Johnnie, and his dad, it was a big deal. He was proud of himself.
Johnnie carefully put on his suit brand new and tailored; he had treated himself especially, looking at himself in the full length bedroom mirror as he buttoned it up. Finally completed he stood tall, as his reflection looked back. How different he looked from the last time he stood in front of the same mirror. His flame red hair, which used to grow so unruly in wisps and curls over his head, had deepened in colour and the curls, over time had straightened out. His gangly long thin limbs had lengthened. And he carried more weight on him. He looked healthier. His skin was no longer tainted as all teenage skin is with excess grease and pubescent spots. In its place was a little stubble which covered the lower half of his face. Slight wrinkles had begun to form under his eyes and on his forehead and the summer freckles had faded through the winter months without sunshine. Stood in front of him was a man. No longer a weak, victim child, who did not know what he wanted to do with his life, or where his place in the world was. Johnnie still had some of these fears, and some of these questions. But he felt that was natural, he was at peace with that.
Brushing his front and straightening his shirt, he left his outgrown childhood bedroom, and went downstairs to show his dad.
‘Oh. Look at you!’ His eyes filled up for a moment, before resuming back to normal. ‘Your mother would be so proud to see you like that.’ Without a hint of sarcasm, his father had expressed pride. Out loud. Johnnie took it, confused. This must be a new step. A new step that they were both taking. Father and son.
Johnnie walked to the college early that morning, filled with nerves and excitement. Clutching his papers to his chest he pushed the entrance door. Usually a place filled with academia would have made him feel uncomfortable. But this, this was different.
Chapter Twenty Four: Settling in to a new routine.
A quiet Sunday morning, the sky was clear and Johnnie awoke feeling clear headed and fresh. Taking a deep breath in as he sat on the edge of his bed he decided the day, his only full day off for the week, would be spent purposefully. Fully relaxed, he would lounge about the house, getting some chores done, and maybe even some meditation – as it had been a long while since he last found time for some. Taking his time getting ready and showered, Johnnie trundled down the stairs, a freshly brewed tea in hand when a figure shadowed the glass of the front door. His father stepped in, surprised to see Johnnie and almost apologetic for having bumped into him on his day off and sloped off into the living room. Johnnie was alarmed; he assumed his father was still asleep in bed. Following John through, he looked him up and down, this Sunday morning was certainly a strange one already. John had had a haircut, and did not stink of stale alcohol. His shirt was clean and was wearing what looked like a new jacket. Johnnie furrowed his brow.
‘Expecting someone?’ He asked. John stood up from his armchair and breathed in deeply. He looked nervous. His forehead was sweating profusely and he gulped air like a goldfish.
‘Yes’ he replied, unintentionally wringing his hands as he took a step towards Johnnie. Did his dad have a date? But it was so soon? Johnnie was close to getting upset and angry, once again reacting and acting before thinking, but his dad had other plans.
‘An interview, for a job, I wanted to wait until I got back to tell you’ he looked nervous, Johnnie noticed, his dad had never been for an interview, any job he had had was through mates or by acquaintances.
‘When?’ Johnnie asked eyebrow raised, hoping this was really the truth, for he was still wary about his dad and his ease with lying.
‘In an hour, I have booked a taxi to pick me up, I don’t want to risk being late getting the bus, you know what they are like, eh?’ Johnnie walked up to him and hugged him. It had been so long since the two had embraced, and in that moment they both realised that,
‘Well done dad, good luck’ they separated and, embarrassed at showing so much emotion with someone who he had never done so, Johnnie turned to make himself a cup of tea forgetting the one stood abandoned and getting cold on the side. Things were definitely starting to change. Oh, if only his mother was there to see it all.
Finishing college earlier than usual, Johnnie stopped by the sandwich shop round the corner for a munch before catching the bus home; he had a last two fifty in his pocket, that would have to do for his tea. It was nothing but a greasy spoon but his hungry stomach cried out for attention, and he could not rely on either his or his dad’s cooking once he got home to satisfy it. His bag was heavy with files, books and papers he was later to study over heavy lidded, and his body weary from a run of very early mornings. He was not looking or feeling very good.
‘Hey. Johnnie, hello?’ came a voice from behind him.
‘Heather, hi!’ Johnnie unintentionally ran his hand through his hair as he turned to face them. Heather was stood holding hands with her partner.
‘Johnnie, this is Angus’ she motioned to the gentleman next to her, he was an artist from Edinburgh, he was studying in Glasgow at the school of art. A big, good looking bloke.
‘Nice to meet you,’ he said as he leant forward to shake Johnnie’s hand, ‘heard a lot about you’ he said, sternly. He was the man she had run away to London with. His career in London had not gone as well as he had hoped, they had made up their differences, and he was back. And back with Heather. Johnnie did not take well to Angus. He had never met him before, he was there during the house warming party, but they must have kept missing each other. Well, Johnnie had seen him wandering about – but never paid any attention – thinking he was just some casual guest. Johnnie sat down and joined them at their table.
‘We moved to London, just packed up and left. Our parents were against the whole thing of course. I fell out big time with my mum; she refused to speak to me for months.’ Heather explained how she had left home, on a huge fight, they made up by the time she returned, tail between her legs. Her parents were not so ecstatic that she and Angus were back together again. Any time they went around, she had, her mum would give her an ‘I told you so’ look, expectantly, as if her wise mother knew better, and they were heading straight for another breakup. ‘We have joked, Angus and I, that we are still together out of spite, just to prove her wrong!’
She took a long, hesitant gulp of her tea. Although Johnnie had not seen Heather in years, they had grown up and grown apart, he still thought he knew her quite well, and it seemed as if she was hiding something, that she was holding something back. Not only from him and her family, but from herself also. Angus’ family were a lot easier about the whole thing, Angus being the youngest of several, they had been through hundreds of heart aches, and boyfriends and girlfriend drifting in and out of their life. As long as he was closer to home than London, they were happy.
Heather invited him and John around for dinner one evening. She was getting into cooking and was quite enjoyed the role of housewife and host of dinner parties.
However this one was odd. Strange. Johnnie wanted to laugh and joke around with his old mate, as they had not seen each other in so long, and the house warming had gone so fast, with so many people they barely got chance to speak. There were two other people in the room preventing them from being like they had been back in the day, but their eyes, when they quickly glanced at each other before shyly looking away again proved to each other that they were thinking the same thing. They needed to meet up alone next time. And talk, and catch up properly. They looked at each other across from the table. Heather winked, and smiled before awkwardly, quickly changing the conversation.
She handed over an envelope, gig tickets, a local, intimate gig with some indie band. Heather had won them in a work raffle at work the day before but she could not attend and actually was not really into that sort of music, so she offered them to Johnnie.
‘Oh, thanks,’ he needed a night out,
‘Only if you take someone with you, you know...a lady’ she giggled childishly.
He groaned, ‘leave it out, Heather’ shaking his head, his cheeks glowing red, embarrassed that Heather was setting him up.
‘Come on!’ It has been ages, get back on the horse’ lightening the tone she laughed at him ‘it is not that big of a deal. I want you to be happy.’ There was a short pause over the table as Johnnie pocketed the tickets and took another long gulp of wine. His father, glad it wasn’t him, chuckled to himself.
They met up for a drink beforehand. A blind date, tragic, and I’m the first one here. He smoothed his shirt and stepped into the bar, a fancy modern new one. It must have popped up while he was away, clean straight lines and kooky decor, the place was badly lit, in order to be cooler and more hip, he imagined. He double checked the tickets, safely stored in his back pocket before heading to the bar to get himself a drink, ‘lager-shandy please’ he wanted to keep a clear head, but equally did not want to come across badly, and no fun, sat with a glass of tap water. He found a cosy seat towards the back of the bar, that way if she never turned up, not too many people would notice, and he could just slink away.
She sauntered into the place, head tall, a worried expression looking for Johnnie, the fear of being stood up written all over her. She saw him and her face changed in recognition, she smiled and waved, then made her way over. ‘Heather described you perfectly,’ she held out her hand as Johnnie stood up from the table to greet her, ‘Amy.’ He responded, taking her thin, well manicured hand in his.
What to talk about? He knew people hated bragging about holidays, and especially travelling.
Amy sat expectantly, eyes wandering about the room while she chewed on her lip. She looked bored. She was waiting for him to begin a conversation, but he had no idea what to say, how to small talk and chat incessantly.
Amy liked this young chap, but he was quiet, and did not seem at all interested in her. He was polite, of course, but they just did not click. She would stay, and enjoy the date; after all, it was a free gig.
They went on together to the gig venue. It wasn’t far, she did not mind walking. Standing in the crowded room surrounded by jumping people, Johnnie could not help but wish to be here with Heather, taking the mickey out of all the funnily dressed teeny bops around. Rather than this girl, with who he was quickly finding out he had nothing in common with. They danced, and drank, the band were very good. Afterwards, he felt flat.
He kissed her on the cheek and sent her off in a taxi. Neither asked for each other’s numbers.
Groups of teenagers, hanging out together on a free Saturday afternoon, were huddled together, watching music and funny videos over a single, handheld device. Dan laughed as Johnnie recounted the story of his night, how this woman of whom Heather had set him up with was exactly the wrong person for him. They had absolutely nothing in common except for the fear of living and dying alone. And that conversation topic, he and Dan agreed, was way too morbid and up front for a first date.
But something had struck Johnnie about that night; it had not been the girl, or the band. But how much he had wanted Heather there instead. On a date, not there as a friend. He wanted to buy her drinks, and safely tuck her on her way home into a taxi, and talk about everything that was in their head with all openness and honesty with which they had always had, back when they were younger.
The image of Heather lingered in his mind as he headed home, choosing to walk the long, and dark way back. The music was still ringing in his ears, the blood pumping round his head and heart thumped rhythmically into the dark, empty night.
Chapter Twenty Five: Making old friends.
The sun had begun to set, throwing an orange yellow glow across the ground in front of him, contrasting with the pale cold blue of the sky above. The fresh, cool wind whipped around his body. Stood tall on the top of the world Johnnie took in the scenery. The clouds hung low over the valley below. Glints of the small villages of crooked houses and local pubs and the windy road leading off them showed through the clouds as they moved across with the wind. The top was all silent except for the howl of the wind. Johnnie took a deep breath in, allowing the fresh air to enter into his lungs, and revitalise his body. Closing his eyes, concentrating, he could feel the oxygenated blood flowing around through his veins, pumping with his heartbeat.
‘Beautiful! Isn’t it?’ Dan shouted, moving carefully navigating over the rocky path to come and stand next to Johnnie.
‘Yes. Unbelievable.’ He replied. They stood, side by side, silently taking in the scene together. The walk up had been a tough one, Johnnie had at numerous points found himself wheezing for breath when climbing the steepest parts. ‘So peaceful, away from the craziness of the city’ Johnnie pondered.
Johnnie had eventually got into the swing of making new friends again. Sometimes he had to remind himself he was still as young as many of the people he went to college with, takings years out to explore made him feel a lot older than he was. He was getting tired of new names and new faces.
They had met at Dan’s house and got all the gear together early that morning to get the gear together. Dan had leant Johnnie a fleece and a waterproof, which fit a little snug considered Johnnie was still carrying some holiday weight. Dan had become involved in outdoor activities recently and was making a point of exploring the wild Scottish countryside, this time he had invited Johnnie hiking with him up the Cairngorms. It was bloody freezing and windy though. Johnnie was glad he had all the warm clothes on.
Paula, Dan’s sister, an avid walker had come along too. She knew the walk and jumped at the chance when Dan mentioned he and Johnnie were thinking of going. As children their parents had enthused about getting their kids out and learning about the countryside. They had spent their youth skimming stones in rivers, building dens and running about wildly. Dan and Paula spoke to Johnnie about these times on their way up. She revelled in telling stories, she was so similar to her brother in that way, ‘One year, we found a little frog, he lived for three days in our care. So careful he sat snugly in our palm we could feel his tiny heart thudding so powerfully through him,
‘We loved him, little frog. Chest moving rapidly up and down. His glisteny skin shining in the fresh sunlight. He smelled wet and of mud. Little frog. Mum found a shoebox where we collected grass and twigs and filled a ramekin with water and arranged it so homely for him. I took him to sleep at our house, his home was on the dresser. Every morning I jumped from bed as the sun rose, breathless with excitement to greet our little frog to the new day. On the third day, he didn’t greet us back. I took his shoebox home to the fields, to show the others. Too young to know death, of any kind. Hysterical, we all glared down at his lifeless body, unable to understand what we did wrong. We loved him, his home was perfect for him, unable to comprehend that our cruel captivity and childish selfishness killed him.’ Dan nodded solemnly, as he stood beside her, listening to the tale of their little pet frog. A tale well practised.
‘We were bigger and more powerful, but no more important than that little frog’ he declared. As an adult, still having to pull away from feelings of need, to want to own something so – to keep it all for ourselves, all three recognised that need within themselves.
Their dad would take them camping every summer, the long drawl of the last of school before the break was always tinged with excitement. Brimming with eagerness, they would rush home from their last day, to arrive to see their dad packing the car up for the following morning while their mother prepared dinner. The rest of the holidays would be spent learning, discovering and playing.
‘Och, those were good times, eh sis?’ Dan nudged her with his elbow, ‘before we had to grow up and get all boring’ he joked. They laughed together and were at such ease with each other. Johnnie, jealous, longed for a sibling with whom to share these experiences with, and with whom to reminisce, and joke.
‘Yeah, before you got all cool and stopped wanting to drag your little sister along with you to places’ she chided, smiling as she said it, all harmless banter.
‘And here I am now, dragging you to places now though’ he replied, ‘but beautiful places.’
‘Indeed’ for a moment, once again, all three looked out together and studied the landscape.
They had toured all over Scotland, Wales and England during those years in their little family car packed full with camping gear, unable to see out of the rear window it was stacked so high. All until puberty hit them both, and time with their parents and each other, was the last thing on earth the wanted to do. Sitting alone in each other’s respective bedrooms and playing computer games, listening to music became their new occupier of time. Luckily, in their older age they had made up and rediscovered old passions and interests, and the fact they actually quite liked each other, and that, being brother and sister, they had a lot in common. Johnnie had been welcomed into this family, as an honorary member.
Dan had gotten into hiking – and wanted to take that tentative step into mountaineering, he wanted to push himself – he wanted to see the world, and climb its highest peaks, his training started here, in Scotland, aged thirty four. A wealth of a different kind of experience already behind him.
Paula looked very similar to Dan, there was only just over a year between them. She had freckles spattered over her nose and cheeks and a slim face, high cheekbones. She had deep muddy brown eyes and looking into them she could easily be mistaken for her brother. Like, Dan, she was tall and lanky, except where she had grown womanly curves in puberty.
She looked at her brother proudly, ‘you are a lot like him you know?’ she said to Johnnie, ‘he speaks a lot about you. I am sorry about your mother.’ Johnnie nodded without responding. ‘Listen, I don’t know whether you would be interested or not,’ she turned to look at him, ‘but my dog has just had a litter, and we really don’t have the space. As much as I’d like to keep them all, of course. I don’t suppose you would want to take one off our hands?’
‘Well, I don’t know, I’m not really a dog person’ he said. A pet was way too much of a commitment for him right now.
‘They are lovely little puppies. At least come and see them!’ she turned to walk back to Dan leaving Johnnie alone to think about it.
The way down was easier, they realised the steepness of the pathway as they struggled unsuccessfully to avoid slipping on the loose gravel and rocks as they stumbled down. The nearing villages growing in size the further away from the top they got. By the time they reached the bottom the sun had set and night time was upon them.
‘Next week, we go mountain biking,’ Dan chortled, patting Johnnie on the back as he skipped past, unlocking the car with a beep and jumping inside. Johnnie dawdled after him, knowing know that in agreeing to go with Dan what he had got himself into. He tutted, shook his head in amusement and then joined his good friend Dan in the car.
The walk had revived Johnnie, and for once he felt fresh, and good. Sitting alone in his living room, for his father was out working, he reflected on the day. Stretching his tired limbs, aching from the day’s walk, he flicked on a film, put his feet up and lay down to watch, zone out and relax. His mind was calm. The rest of the house was still and silent. All other rooms sat waiting in the darkness for life to enter. He pulled the blanket from the back of the sofa over his body to warm him up as bit. It was easier than getting up to turn the heating back on or even worse trying to make a fire. Snug and cosy with the film drivelling on in the background, Johnnie slowly closed his eyes and drifted off into a contented slumber, breathing deeply and slowly.
The next morning, he awoke, still on the sofa, with an aching back and neck. His body had cramped after being kept in that hunched position all night and after the long gruelling walk the day before. Johnnie stood and stretched, easing his muscles. The television had been turned off and the curtains drawn.
A note – ‘saw you sleeping, did not want to wake you. Dad X’ Johnnie smiled, and then went upstairs to shower and change.
Next week, they did go mountain biking.
Once again, drenched and muddy, before he returned home muscles aching from the day falling off bikes, Paula invited him round for a drink, ‘first things first, tea?’ he nodded in approval. She showed him into the kitchen and went straight to put the kettle on. Hearing his mum come home Paula’s youngest son came running through from the living room, heavy, bare footed and arms wide, ‘mummy’s home!’ he jumped into her arms when she greeted him, she rested him on her hip and turned to Johnnie, ‘now, this...’ she looked into her son’s eyes and wrinkled her nose and pulled a funny face at him while he giggled, ‘is my youngest, Charlie’ he was the sweetest child, dark curly hair like his mum’s and a bright, chubby innocent laughing face. Nearing school age, Paula was making the most of their days together before she lost him to the school system. Johnnie watched the mother and son interact, heart warming.
‘Charlie, this is Johnnie, he is here to give a home to one of the puppies!’ Charlie’s face lit up, he was excited to show the man their collection of puppies, jumping down from his mum’s arms and showing through to the Johnnie to the conservatory, Paula following after them.
Nestled warm and cosy in the corner in a little bed made of pillows and blankets were four puppies, all asleep, entangled between each other, each head rested on another’s back legs twitching in their happy slumber.
‘Sshh’ Paula warned Charlie as he began to run up to the dogs to wake them and play. Mummy dog came up behind them, tail wagging and mouth open, salivating tongue lolling out of her mouth. They were Labradors with beautiful ebony shiny fur. Tiny little things, cuter than any other little dogs he had seen before. Johnnie, in that second, became a dog person.
He fell in love immediately. The puppies all awoke and dozily came to. Each had already developed their own individual personalities. Johnnie was drawn to the one taking longer than the rest to wake up, the one that liked the warm cosiness of sleep and was reluctant to leave. Johnnie liked that attitude. He picked the little one up in his hands and greeted him. Holding him close to his face, the puppy licked his nose in greeting. Watching the little toddler skip so joyfully towards the basket of puppies was a wonderful sight, and to remember this simple act of joy he named the dog, Skip. Skip and he went home together, the puppy sleeping in the passenger seat of his car. Johnnie felt happier to add a new member to his family.
Skip cried all night. Scared and unsure of where he was, alone and in the dark, he wailed and wept, and scratched at the closed door. Johnnie tossed and turned, trying to ignore the noises, telling himself it is for the best, the dog needed to learn that this was now its home, and that it would often be alone. He felt cruel. He crept on his tip toes to the outside of the door and listened in on the dog. It was still carrying on. He creaked the door open, and hushed the weeping creature, picking it up in his arms, cradling it like a baby, shushing it as the noises came to a stop, and the shaking decreased. He carried the dog into his bedroom and placed him on the end of the bed. He curled up, curling his tail underneath him and fell asleep. That had become his bedroom too, now.
Chapter Twenty Six: Heather.
Her eyes were hollow, she looked so tired, worn out and drained. Heather looked like she had been eating less as well, her usual cheeky grin had sallowed out, her cheeks sunken. Johnnie tried not to make it obvious, but her appearance distressed him. She had turned up unexpected, luckily Johnnie was in just making some tea for himself when he heard a timid knock at the door, surprised, he never had visitors, especially unexpected ones, and he went to investigate. She acted as if nothing was wrong. There was such a change in her in such a short amount of time.
‘Are you alright? I mean, you don’t look so good, Heather’ he asked inquisitively, hesitating a little so as to not to offend her.
‘I have been ill a bit lately, maybe the flu,’ she shrugged, ‘it is nothing, don’t worry about it’ flicking her hand as if throwing away the subject, ‘tell me about these new adventures you’ve been going on’ she said as she pushed past him into the living room.
‘Heather’ he cut in.
‘Sshh. I didn’t know you were into hiking, and bikes. Last I knew you hated all that. You would moan at having to walk home from school in the cold and the rain’ she said, smiling, ‘is this a new Johnnie I see sitting in front of me?’
The new puppy greeted her, jumping on his hind legs tail wagging with a grin on his face. Putting his front paws onto her knees as she entered, Heather moved her hand down and gave his floppy ears a good rub, ‘hello you, aw what a sweetheart!’
‘Skip,’ Johnnie said, introducing her. She sat down on the chair and sighed heavily. Breathing in, as if she wanted to say something but then changing her mind, she sat silently, looking about the house. Johnnie sat opposite her, pulling a dining chair in from the kitchen table.
‘I think a dog; a companion like him was just what I needed. And he has settled in well here, don’t you think?’ he said, and his puppy came and sat obediently on the floor in between his legs, Johnnie patted his head as he spoke to Heather.
There was a tension, an awkward silence that they had never experienced before. The main reason as to why Heather had come round needed to come out. They skirted round the topic for a while, before they ran out of inane topics, Johnnie gave up and asked her outright, ‘come on Heather, tell me what is wrong? You have not visited me here before. Something must have happened,’ he asked.
Heather and Angus had fallen out, it had been a long time coming, she explained. In one big fight. Plates had been thrown and the neighbours had called, worried about all the shouting. In the end, she had just stormed out, frustrated that they were not getting anywhere. She had not taken anything with her, so had turned up just as she stands. They had been falling out a lot and he had started to become jealous and over protective. He didn’t like her going out without him; she had not seen any of her friends in a couple of weeks, and before that, not without him there.
Johnnie opened a bottle of wine, and brought it through, with a couple of glasses which he had quickly washed in the kitchen, having no clean dishes at all.
‘He is stressed, work is really stressful and busy at the moment for him, he is just taking it out on me’ Johnnie shook his head, worried. ‘I love him so much, I hate fighting, I want it to be easier than this. Should it be?’ she asked uncertain, not knowing what she wanted him to answer.
‘I don’t know, Heather. I’m not really the person to be asking, am I?’ he smiled, trying to lighten her mood.
‘He was always so different when people were around. I always put it down to the fact he was just tired, or in a bad mood. With company, he is such a perfect gentleman.’ Johnnie asked for her to explain a little more about what had happened ‘I don’t know, we had a fight and I left, I am not really sure what to do at the moment, you were the first person to pop into my head, and now I’m here’ she shrugged, looking down into her lap and wiped a tear from her cheek that had fallen silently.
They looked at each other. She leant over and, looking deeply into his eyes, kissed him.
A moment passed before she pulled away, embarrassed, ‘Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.’ Taken aback, he was stunned. He stuttered, unsure of what to do, or say.
‘The wine,’ she excused, holding her half empty glass up and shrugging. She searched her head for an excuse, a reason. ‘We have such history, I don’t want to ruin our friendship’ she said through her tears. Johnnie nodded, taking another sip of wine to calm his nerves, ‘I’m sorry, I am upset, and I have taken advantage of you’ she turned her head away from him, ashamed.
‘You need to take some time. Let’s just forget this. You are confused, and have had a fight with Angus. Don’t worry about it,’ he reassured her, placing a comforting hand delicately on her knee. She put hers on top of his, and without saying anything, gently wrapped hers fingers around his hand and squeezed. It was a tender moment. A moment of support, between two very close friends. Johnnie loved her. He knew that, and felt jealous that soon she would make up with Angus and go back, instead of staying here, with him.
He went into the kitchen, turning on the light while Heather watched him from the living room, over the back of the sofa. She sipped her remaining wine and placed the empty glass on the coffee table. She sat alone, awaiting Johnnie’s return. What had just happened? She felt so very strange. She was confused; she would have to sleep on it.
‘Listen stay here tonight, I’ll camp on out the sofa, you have my room’ he said as he brought in pillows and a duvet for himself. He was happy to give up his bed for her; she needed a little time away from home while she figured everything out.
The next morning, Johnnie was up early, aching from another cramped sleep on the sofa and cold regretting not having the heating on in the morning downstairs. All his clothes were upstairs in his room so he could not get a clean set of clothes before Heather got up. He had already started on breakfast, eggs broken and mixed up ready while he searched for other ingredients in the depths of the fridge for an omelette. If he knew he was going to have a guest he would have stocked the house with food. He so rarely had a full fridge. Heather emerged from upstairs just as the kettle had boiled. Bedraggled, but looking better after a good night’s sleep, she smiled sleepily at him ‘good morning!’ she said as she sat down cradling a cup of hot tea between her hands at the kitchen table. He joined her after a while, placing a plate of food in front of himself and Heather. After a few bites, Heather put down her fork, and looked up at Johnnie. He matched her gaze, and smirked.
‘This is awful isn’t it?’ he asked.
She nodded, lips tight, ‘why don’t we go out for breakfast?’ he suggested.
‘Done,’ she replied. They both grabbed a jacket off the back of the chairs and left. Johnnie still in yesterday’s stinking clothes. Heather without any makeup or hairbrush. What a state they looked, and neither one cared, their hungry bellies were rumbling and they were well on the way to remedying them.
They went to the cafe round the corner, plonking their bums on a corner table with a sigh and ordering full Scottish breakfasts, nothing like a bit of grease to help with a hangover and an empty stomach. The cafe was full with hungry workers beginning their day with a proper fry up. Sounds of clattering cutlery, and idle chatter drifted around the rooms. It smelled nauseating.
Not a word was spoken about last night. But they were both thinking about it.
‘I...better go, I need to get home, get ready for work’ she said, as she checked the time on her phone. ‘Thanks for everything though. I really appreciate it Johnnie. You are such a good friend.’ There. That was it. That was the moment that, some years ago where Johnnie had knocked Heather back without realised it, he was too involved with himself and his own problems, and here she was doing it to him. As soon as she said it, they both looked at each in a moment of recognition. They were both remembering that same moment, but for each it meant different things. Heather shook it off, ‘so....yeah. I need to go. Thank you.’ They embraced and she quickly scurried away. Johnnie began the walk back home, and resumed. He showered, shaved and changed his clothes.
Heather crept into her silent house; Angus must have left for work early. Breathing a sigh of relief, she too, showered and changed. She felt guilty, but nothing had happened, she promised herself. And she would stick to that.
Chapter Twenty Seven: The kite.
Heather did not contact Johnnie for a couple of weeks after their little late night rendezvous.
John, Johnnie’s dad, was working, full time for the first time in years. He wished, really wished, Mary was still live to see the change in him. The stark realisation that he had lost so many years of bonding with his son due to drinking and gambling had shocked him brutally into changing for the better. The horrific day of Mary’s funeral showed John how little he actually knew his son, and hearing Johnnie speaking about Mary made him realise that actually, had lost true contact with his wife as well. He had excluded himself from his own family. One could pick and choose friends, pick up and drop friends at different stages of your life. But family remain, family are the one constant in life. They are always, and will always be there. John had only just realised this. And it took the death of his wife in order to do so. Family was important; they see you through everything, no matter what.
His body had aged considerably since the last time he stopped to look at himself properly. He had aged, and his body had taken a beating throughout his life, all self inflicted. He had not looked after himself. Mary had left Johnnie the house in her will, but she was allowing his father to stay until he also passed away. That gift from her, when she could have left him with nothing, an estranged husband out on the streets, he would hold onto forever.
He had lost so much money gambling, sitting in the bookies on a bright sunny afternoon, ignoring the outside, eyes fixed seriously on the tiny screen above him on the wall. Betting slip scrunched tightly in his hand as he yelped and sweated, hoping for a win. If he lost, he could try again, maybe win the losses. If he won, he could use the winnings to double the money. It was addictive. It was a dangerous road to go down, but he did. And now, he regrets it every day. Rather than spending the time on birthdays and Christmases and school parent and teacher evening, he instead sat alone, at the pub or the bookies, convincing himself and other that it was the right thing he was doing. Regret, so much regret.
Taking a leaf out of Mary’s book, he had swallowed his pride, and just accepted the very first job he was offered. After a month or so searching seriously, and only getting one interview. He ended up working for a local supermarket in the warehouse. Apparently taking years out of work for no particular reason did not look good on an application form. The work force were great and he got on well with them, having a laugh every day and that, but the work itself was dull, and repetitive, and if John was being honest, he really could not see himself lasting much linger doing this. But the point was he had tried, and he hoped Johnnie could see that too. Nights when he had been working late, and come through the door after ten or eleven, shattered and aching, he had sloped upstairs straight to bed, Johnnie had never said anything to him, but he hoped he had seen. He hoped he had seen how hard he was working, to earn an honest living. There had been times in the past when money was low, especially when Johnnie was very young, when John had almost been forced, out of pressure of bills and hunger, to resort to less legal ways of bringing money into the home. It had kept them afloat, on top of the benefits, and that he did not regret. Some things were ingrained in a person, being a hard, honest worker was not ingrained in him. This felt unnatural to him.
Johnnie took a journey to the seaside, the west coast, Skip had never seen the sea before, and it had been a while since he had. He was packing the car with warm clothes and a flask of tea for himself; it was not the height of summer and therefore was expecting it to be very cold, and very windy. The dog sensed an adventure was near and ran about the house eager to get out, jumping up at Johnnie and wagging his tail every time Johnnie passed him.
Johnnie tried calling Heather before they left, but still received no answer. He was worried, especially since the last time they saw each other she had not been on top form. The phone rang and rang and without an answer machine it beeped to an end. He put down his phone, unsure of what to do next. Like white noise, the radio in the background continued to play and the dog nudged Johnnie for his attention, but his mind was preoccupied.
Driving down this minor road braking and accelerating negotiating the bends like a pro, Johnnie watched the sun rising on the horizon over the fields to his left. This place was so familiar to him, many summers spent out here, building sandcastles and watching games of Frisbee and rounders longing to join in. Though the road was so familiar to him there were times when he felt lost or found himself wondering where he was, afraid of not being able to navigate home. Blanks in his memory, it certainly wasn’t the roads changing, or the years going by faster than he could track, especially the large gap of times missing, bypasses are built and bridges broken then rebuilt, larger further down the river. Different routes, pedestrians, cyclists taking over some, and abandoning others, schools built, homes built, older houses knocked to make way for others. This urban landscape is constantly changing before his eyes, how he can ever keep up. The rural landscape on the other side seemingly stays the same, but he knows that is not true. Plants and trees not indigenous to Scotland thrive, where animals in long past abundance have disappeared making way for others- it’s a slower process, granted, but it stills depletes, and grows with time and for the people that make this place their home. The landscape changes, and so do the people who change it.
Arriving at the coast Johnnie let Skip out of the car. He leapt into action, excited by the new surroundings. He took in everything around him as fast as he could, panting his head darting to and fro. Skip dashed out onto the sands struggling up the grassy dunes before sliding back down the other side, and then he saw the sea. Unsure at first, he stopped and barked at the waves as the lashed upon the shore pushed by the winds and the tide. As Johnnie came up behind him hands in pockets and reassured him, Skip trusted and then pounced into the waves, yelping in delight as the cold water drenched him. He jumped in and out barking and biting at the waves, he got a little braver and swam out a bit testing his new found sea legs. Johnnie watched his crazy dog with a smile on his face. Such delight in something so simple.
The beach was deserted except for the odd dog walker and person on the pavement out away from the sands. Johnnie breathed in the cool, salty air and watched the sole family coming out onto the empty beach a hundred yards or so away from him. He gave them a nod in greeting as they passed him. A father, mother and a young son, they had come out particularly for the winds and the empty beach. Johnnie watched in the distance as they all huddled together, Dad bent down on one knee as he spoke to his son, a precious package in his hands. They looked in the bag together and produced a delicate collection of bright colours. Parachute material held together by a frame with colourful, shiny ribbons dangling from the end of the shape. Greens, blues, yellows, reds, and oranges all manners of colours were patterned on the kite.
As the women held her son’s hand as he held the spool of rope, unwinding it as dad ran backwards holding the kite tenderly, pulling the string along with it. When the string was taught, he gave the two a nod, as he let go, both mum and son ran as fast as they could, in the other direction, watching the kite as it struggled to take flight laughing and giggling as they went. Timidly it wobbled behind them and, aided by the wind, it lifted slowly up into the air. The family, breathless from laughing stood watching. The man had joined them again and was showing the young boy how to wind the spool and pull on the string in order to keep their kite aloft. The boy’s face was lit up in enjoyment, his face all smile. The parents stood back a while, arms around each other, watching their little joy experiencing such joy. They then looked at each other, smiling. The boy could not contain his excitement watching the kite and being in control of it, ‘look! Mummy, look! I am flying the kite! Look’ he hopped from foot to foot, unable to control himself.
‘Yes, dear, how wonderful! Well done!’ she encouraged him. Daddy stepped in to help his son keep the kite in flight, winking at his wife as he did. It was a lovely, heart warming scene. A young family all experiencing play and joy in its simplest form. Johnnie watched sadly, he had never experienced such an instance during his childhood, and he had never had this closeness, that, for them, these three people were the only and most important people in the world. For them at this particular moment nothing else mattered. His eyes looked skyward. He yearned for his own mother, the loss of her life and the loss of his childhood.
The family, and Johnnie and his dog watched the kite in the sky. It dipped and dived, a contrast of harsh colours against the pale sky, the ribbons fluttered below it twisting and winding in the sky. Like a glistening fish diving about swishing and swirling in the water, colours shining off its back in the sunlight. The material flapped against the strong wind, and the string was held taut, connecting the boy with his precious toy, connecting sky and earth. Heavens and the earth. It looked beautiful.
Johnnie, fingers frozen, left the family to it. He had suddenly realised, though he was sat a fair bit away that he was intruding on this private moment between close family members. Whistling to Skip, he turned his back on the scene, and headed to the car.
Driving, his phone rang. He leans over to look quickly at the caller identification. Heather. He cursed, as he could not answer, and vowed to call back as soon as he got home. Once home, he listened to the message she had left.
He had to see her.
Johnnie frantically ran to the reception desk, stricken. Nerves and adrenaline shot through his body. He had to find Heather, to let her know he was here for her. That she was safe now.
She was asleep on the hospital bed. Her face was blackened with bruises, and even thinner than before. Her nose was broken, and covered by a bandage. She barely looked like the Heather he knew. Shocked, he put his hands up to his face and took a short breath in, ‘oh, Heather...’ he sat beside the bed, taking her limp hand in his, squeezing. ‘Oh.’ Words escaped him. He looked up at the nurse, who glanced consolingly at him after checking the charts and paperwork. Putting them carefully down, she moved towards him, whispering in a soft voice, so as to not disturb Heather in her slumber.
‘She will be alright; she just needs sleep, a lot of rest,’ she told him kindly, just as Heather began to wake up. She had been in a fight with Angus. Johnnie was the only person she could call, her parents would only gloat, saying they knew better, that she should have listening to them.
‘He hit me,’ she cried, her voice affected by her bloodied nose. ‘He must have felt powerful, better, because he just wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know what to do. He just isn’t like that’ Heather sniffled and Johnnie passed her a tissue. The police had been called by the neighbour, and taken Angus away, still in his fit of anger. Johnnie did not ask what they had been fighting about. It was not important, he was here, and Angus was in a cell. For now, that mattered.
He sat by her side, hand in hand, and wept. He felt so helpless. He should have seen the signs, and helped her before it was too late. That he had not been there to stop this that she had to go through that alone, broke his heart. He never thought to probe her further during the times she looked sad, or thin, or worried. More guilt, surging through his body.
Chapter Twenty Eight: Johnnie falls in love.
Over time, her face healed, but she was still broken. She did not want to go out. He wanted to help, her parents stepped in and took her home. To safety, to heal. She had gone back to work, and back to her home. Angus had disappeared for the time being, but she felt strong enough and ready enough, with the support of those around her, to deal with him if and when he did.
They were spending more time together, Heather and he. Johnnie suddenly saw this girl with whom he had spent many happy years throughout his childhood, in a new light. She was a woman, grown wise, grown beautiful.
Summer was here. It was dry and dry bright. The air was crisp. The skins of passing Glaswegians had been burnt by over exposure to the sun. Every summer, if it ever appears, the residents of the city try to spend as much time as possible sprawled beneath the warm rays, sunning themselves, getting a year’s worth of sun within a week, sometimes a day. Under the midday sun, students and youths and young families hounded the parks, laying their possessions on patches of grass and eat and drink the day away while enjoying the rarely seen summer time sun.
The summer fair in the west of Glasgow had arrived. The west end festival a weekend of parades, events, music and fun. Heather had convinced Johnnie to come with her to experience it. They were at the botanic gardens, trying to find a spare patch of green grass with which to place their rug and sit down upon to sit in the sun together. The parade had begun to make its way down towards the park, the sounds of drums drumming rhythmically in the distance was getting louder as they neared. And crowded hushed and whispered as they craned their necks to see the oncoming parade, all dressed up in fantastical clothes and dancing extravagantly. The couple stood a little further back away from the crowd in order to watch the commotion. Johnnie had rarely hung around the west end of Glasgow before. A place primarily preserved for the rich and wealthy. A place for young families and students prancing about pretentiously. Now older, Heather had persuaded Johnnie to come and see what the fuss was about, without feeling intimidated, or that he wanted to retreat back into the safety of the south or east side. She had grown to like this area of the city. She now spent quite a bit of time there. Parts of it reminded her of parts of London that she visited while she lived down there for some time.
She had a favourite shop; it was full of antiques piled high to the ceiling reaching far in to each corner of the small, square room. Year’s worth of forgotten goods and left over treasures. People had spent years collecting things that had ended up in this room. A ginger, furry cat lived amongst this rubble. Scrambling about the piles, it made its home in the section towards the back in between two wobbly piles of dusty books; it had made its bed. She showed him around, tiptoeing over the odd fallen tower of treasures lying on the floor. Hand in hand they explored, finding old telephones, oddly shaped vases. Johnnie found dusty old toys and a sad looking teddy bear. Heather found a glamorous brooch encrusted with jewels galore and the hat of a lady, dark green velveteen, made to be worn in a classic sports car of sorts. They dipped and dived through the piles of treasure, smiling at each other through the cracks in the piled objects on the tables in the middle of the room. Seconds turned to minutes in to hours in that place.
The festival was alive with people. Johnnie watched the families around them, enjoying a magical day together and involving themselves in the festivities. It reminded him of the family he saw, during the kite flying, at the beach. The tender moment between those three people had struck him so.
They were all taken away by the atmosphere, happy faces all around.
‘I love you’ He said. He had known it all along. So had she.
‘I love you too.’ They smiled, held hands and looked deeply into each other’s eyes. They stood among the chaos. A still within the abundance of movement and colour. For them, time stood still. All around people moved in slow motion. The cheering, yelling and singing, muted. Only Johnnie and Heather stood. Gazing deeply into each other’s beaten, hardy souls. They have each other. It is not a match of hearts, nor is it a match of two people found after years of searching ‘Mr. right’. ‘I just don’t know, it’s so quick and soon.’ ‘But my wages’ ‘how will we afford?’ ‘We’ve just moved, you’ve yet to find a job’. A walking cliché. Johnnie stooped reducing his six two to a five eleven. His shuffled his feet and looked romantically at Heather. Hypnotically they swayed towards each other; a nervous smile stretched across both faces. Love blinds everything. Love is the subjects of poetry, music, films and more because it encompasses the soul. It blacks out all troubles and everything else in a loveless life.
It was a Sunday afternoon, sunny and bright, the sun shone in through the living room window as Johnnie held his arms aloft, stretching and breathing throughout his entire body. Relaxing, he felt energised. Heather, putting on her coat and coming through into the room, doing the buttons up, ‘come on! We will miss the train!’ she called through to him. Johnnie listened to her, but did not respond. Finishing up, he too, put his shoes and coat on and joined her outside. They had put the afternoon aside to have a little dinner and a stroll down the river, and they were already running late for the train.
Afterwards, later that evening, arm in arm they walked slowly, never minding about the train times or rushing to get somewhere, Johnnie and Heather walked. Sometimes in silence, sometimes not. Nothing had ever felt so perfect.
‘Does it feel strange’ she asked, looking about the lights of the city, ‘being back here, after all that time away?’
‘It was an incredible experience, cut short. It changed me, and coming home so suddenly for such a horrible purpose was a shock. It felt like jumping into a plunge pool, of ice cold water. Numb’ said Johnnie. Heather frowned, it was not quite the answer she expected. ‘But’ he continued, ‘this, us, feels natural, perfect.’ They took a few further steps in silence. Their footsteps echoed down the quiet street as they walked along side by side together.
Chapter Twenty Nine: A time for reflection.
The telephone rang; Johnnie answered it, with a mouth still full of lunch. John was calling from the hospital. He had had an accident during his night shift last night. They had been having problems with the automatic lights in the warehouse; the motion sensor had been playing up for months, and still had not been fixed. It had become a fault that was part of their daily lives, a part of the personality of the place.
He had been working late at night, in the dark, without high vis vest or reflective clothing on. One of his colleagues had been working in the other section, on the fork lift truck moving various heavy boxes, came hurtling round the corner. John was knocked totally off his feet and the lower half of his body crushed by the machine. It was a gruesome sight. His colleague, unsteady on his feet and feely a little woozy, had barely managed to call an ambulance before he fainted.
The doctor looked seriously at the men. Clutching the medical papers between his hands, he stood awkwardly and unnaturally by the door, as if he wanted to, he could leave at any time, escape from the moment, the room. He broke the news.
He may not walk properly ever again. Hard physiotherapy. John struggled with the effort it would take him, there were days when he refused to wake up, to get out of bed. He grumbled more, and entirely shut up. He did not respond to Johnnie and merely grunted at the nurse who visited daily. The days dragged for him. They went on miserably, looking at the same four walls. Johnnie tried as hard as he could in order to make his father’s recovery as easy as possible, and Heather supported them both. Her kind, peaceful presence was a god-send to them both. In many ways she reminded them of Mary.
He became dedicated to the cause, to helping his father try to walk again. For once, John wanted to get out, to go back to work, to get back in to the swing of his everyday life. Everything felt grey and dull for him at the moment. The four walls of the rooms closed in on him. The four walls of the house were prison cell wall. The outside, freedom. Somewhere that was very far away.
He ached all over, what once seemed natural was strange, and unnatural, alien to him.
‘Come on, Dad!’ he encouraged, enthusing, ‘you need to try, or else you won’t get better’
‘It’s hard. Too hard’ shaking his head in disappointment, embarrassed. Defeated.
‘It will be worth it, though, trust me,’ Johnnie tried looking into his father’s eyes to give him some hope.
‘Will it? WILL IT THOUGH!’ John shook his fists, angry. He was so frustrated, stuck here, being able to do nothing. Useless.
It would take months, they all knew, and effort from everybody. They got him on his feet. Kind of. John hobbled in from the kitchen with his crutches, and landed on his armchair with a grunt. Johnnie came in with a cup of tea for him, he placed it gently on the coffee cup stained old side table next to him, grabbing a coaster from the other one to prevent further marking. ‘Letters for you came this morning,’ Johnnie said, handing his dad the pile for him to begin to open. Johnnie was still staying at home; his dad needed help getting upstairs, to the bathroom and to bed every morning and night. When Johnnie was away working during the day time, they had a kindly local nurse who bobbed in on the pretence of a cup of tea and a catch up chat in order to protect his father’s pride, kept a watch and helped him when Johnnie could not be there. She was a lovely, older woman, who beamed a glorious smile when she greeted Johnnie on his way out as she arrived every morning. Her enthusiasm and kindness would play a large factor in his father’s recovery. He could not have helped his dad alone; Johnnie lacked that certain something, or even the knowledge of his dad, to help him alone. Looking after his dad was a job he did because he needed to, he did not particularly enjoy it. His dad had no one else, except for the NHS. He was his son, after all, and the past couple of years, he admitted, had been spent by his father trying to atone for all the years of neglect and pain he had caused unwittingly to Mary and Johnnie.
‘It is from the council,’ John shouted through, Johnnie came in again, still drying a plate from the dishes he was currently doing,
‘and?’ he questioned, motioning for his father to carry on, and explain the content of this all important letter. They had been struggling lately with money. There was only a little bit left over from the compensation his dad had received from the accident at work and Johnnie’s wage barely covered the mortgage and bills. They had applied for a disability living allowance from the job centre a while back to help support John since he could no longer work. They were both dubious, since John over the years had made so many fraudulent claims for job seeker’s.
‘It has been approved, payments should start next week’ it was good news, but neither of the men looked happy or pleased. Living off benefits, again, after so much had gone by and happened in the years. It hurt both of their pride.
Shaking out of the disappointment of the harsh reality, the truth and a deathly silence that had entered the room, Johnnie exclaimed all of a sudden, ‘well! Good news! We can afford food now!’ he turned on his heel and left the room, to finish his chore of washing up before heading off to work, he was running a little late already. It had taken longer than usual to help his Dad get up, bathed and downstairs this morning. After helping John, Johnnie took the lead and made his way out with Skip.
Walking the dog, early on a frosty morning, Johnnie wrapped up in a long knitted scarf and the dog pulling on the lead, eager to go after being shut in the house all night long. They walked briskly to the park, to warm each of them up a bit, get the blood pumping around their veins. A brisk walk in the morning always tended to wake him up, and prepare him for the day.
He saw her. Beth, jogging. She smiled, and then a look of recognition appeared on her face, it at first looked cautious, then relaxed. ‘Johnnie. Wow, erm, it has been a while,’ she bent down to stroke the dog, ‘how are you? How have you been?’
‘I am good, you?’ he said, she smiled and nodded. She was out of breath from her run and, obviously keen to move on, was hopping from one foot to the other in order to prevent her muscles from seizing up. She asked after everyone, ‘aye, not bad, I have lost touch with a few people, but Dan is well – we meet up quite often’ he replied ‘into walking now, big time. Bit of a health freak actually’
‘Ha, who would have thought it?’ Beth said. She was on her way to completing a medical degree – stuck by her guns and gone through with all the plans she and Johnnie had chatted about back in the day.
Johnnie no felt no anger or grief towards her. Beth was young and impressionable then. She had had some years to grow up, and it looked like she had. They wished each other well, and each went their own way. Johnnie wished that it had ended this amicably the first time round.
He carried on, letting the dog off his lead to run off wildly towards the park, ears flapping in the wind. Johnnie sighed to himself. He realised the pettiness of the reasons for him running away. He was hurt, but everybody hurts, but we all don’t have the luxury of running away. He had run away from his problems in order to search for the meaning in his life.
All people struggle to discover the meaning of life, the meaning of their life. But it is an ungraspable thing, a meaning that changes with time. He smiled, walking alone at a steady pace into the park after his dog, hands in pockets.
Chapter Thirty: Spring brings hope, joy, and happiness.
A cry breaks from his tiny mouth. The most glorious sound. Tiny fingers reaching out into the new, strange world in front of him. Johnnie held the tiny newborn in his arms looking down curiously. So magical, this poor little creature could grow up to become anything, anyone. Malcolm entered the living room and took his son off Johnnie, ‘come here, you little monkey!’ he held the child into the air and pulled a funny face at him.
‘He is lovely,’ Heather said, talking to Jane, the mother of the boy and fiancée of their old friend Malcolm. She was kind and motherly, and warm. Her stylish hair and clothes made Heather feel scruffy, but she liked Jane the minute she stepped through the threshold of their house. She was perfect for Malcolm.
It had been a long time coming, the friends needed to meet up again. During those years, Malcolm had been a bad influence and Johnnie, wanting to change felt it necessary to keep away from all enablers, to cut off from his unhealthy lifestyle totally. He felt guilty for not trying to get into contact with him since he had returned to Glasgow. Johnnie had been dealing with the death of his mother, and his father’s illness. But now, Heather had persuaded the two old friends to finally meet up again. He was the same old Malcolm, and he, Johnnie. After five minutes and an awkward greeting, it was like the old times, familiar, and comfortable.
Malcolm signalled to Johnnie to come outside for a chat. He rubbed his face, covered it with his hands as Johnnie joined him on the porch.
‘Fatherhood, eh?’ Johnnie said, ‘if you had asked me ten years ago who would be the first to settle down and have bairns, you would be the last name I would have said’ he joked.
‘Mate, I feel inadequate. Me? A whole new life, I am responsible for him entirely. Me, Malcolm’ he said, shaking his head in disbelief, as if the weight of fatherhood had just hit him. He looked tired, the bags under his eyes were new and dark, and three day stubble resided on his face, looking out of place on the usually clean shaven man. His priorities had changed, and shaving daily was simply not important to him at the moment. But he looked happy. When Heather and Johnnie had walked through the door, he had been most surprised to see how comfortable and happy his old friend had looked in these surroundings. What a change.
‘Malc, this is an opportunity to show your son the beautiful, troubled world in which he was born. Where we live, where he now lives. You love him, show him’ Johnnie said, face serious and his hand rested on Malcolm’s shoulder. It was as if these two old friends had never been apart.
‘We are going to take it steady, it is no race’ he hesitated, ‘we can do it, easy’ he said. Johnnie had convinced his father to join them. It was another of Dan’s plans; they were hiking, he Heather, Johnnie and his dad, into the highlands, up one of the Munroes. His father, now steady on his feet was more than a little nervous. But with his son there, and this crazy, enthusiastic man, Dan, helping, he thought maybe, just maybe, he could do it. The four set off, walking boots on their feet and supplies on their backs, Skip barking excitedly and running ahead in front of them.
The weather was kind, and so were the new boots. As the clock neared two o’ clock they reached the summit. The wind howled around them, all four were exhausted, but feeling proud. It had been a wonderful walk up, laughing and joking, Dan pointing out the various peaks and landscapes as they went. John moaned light heartedly while Heather ushered him on. They were a true team.
Johnnie moved over to look back on the track they had ascended, down at the country below him, his home. Heather came up behind him and threaded her arm through his and rested her weary head on his shoulder, ‘och, that was tough’ she said, ‘come, have a sit down’ she motioned over to the other two already settled down and unpacking their lunch. John was taking a well deserved rest, taking the weight off his aching knees and feet and rubbing his ankle, wincing. Dan knelt beside him, pouring them both a cup of tea.
‘Ok, I will be over in a minute’ he said, still gazing out over onto the landscape beyond. She kissed him delicately on the cheek and joined the other three. This was the third time he had stood atop a mountain and contemplated his life so far. He took a long deep breath in and closed his eyes, escaping the scene for a moment or two. The cool air entered his lungs, his body felt weightless. He had conquered this summit with his family around him, and his dog Skip laid loyally at his feet. He was happy.
He would continue to love and live and learn. His mother had quietly supported him through childhood and he had never given himself the opportunity to thank her; but he now had the opportunity to thank his dad for changing, for trying. Duncan had taught Johnnie patience, and a belief, though not the belief he wished for Johnnie. Ishvar had taught him to be welcoming, and kind, that we are all just lost, looking to be found. His friends were there no matter what, as he was for them. Johnnie would thank these people, silently, for the rest of his life.
Johnnie imagined the shrill, high pitched wail of the new born baby of his best friend echoing around the ward. It had been born into a world and a society already well established. This new being will have to adapt and change and eventually find its own place on this earth. We are born into a system of beliefs and values. Into a society already determined and established. Crying, naked and vulnerable new borns have no choice or influence upon the society they are born into. We adopt sayings and ways of living from these set cultures whilst also trying to construct our own individual beliefs and attitudes about the things that are around us. Characteristics, beliefs and the way we all live our lives can bring us all together. However different we all are, and believe ourselves to be, and however much or little we display it. Love, compassion, and kindness, we all have in common.
‘Right,’ Dan declared, hands on hips displaying an energetic, triumphant smile on his face, winking at Johnnie as he turned back to them, ‘time for the trek back down!’