June 2020 / 2 posts found

Hole In The Sky by Craig Robertson

Where we live is black. Every wall, every building. Everything in Glasgow is built from a special kind of black stone. Faither says they cut it from a quarry in Hell but I’m not sure that I really believe him. Faither’s not much for smiling but he does joke sometimes.

Avonpark Street. Palermo Street. Cowlairs Road. Vulcan Street. Balgrayhill Road. Barcaple Street. All the streets in Springburn are black. The grown-ups are black too sometimes; men marching home from the works, their boots clattering down the street as they march like an army in dungarees.

I’m eight years old when Faither wakes me and gets me to put a coat on over my nightclothes and to slip cold shoes onto my bare feet. I take his hand and follow him in a dwam up to Flemington Street where the Hyde Park railway works are. The night is pitch dark yet the street is full of people standing out and huddled together under the gas lamps.

We’re by the big arch doors of the railway works, darker than the night and tall enough for a giant to walk through. Slowly, a rumble begins to grow behind the doors, and they’re thrown back with a sudden ceremony and the men on the street fall quiet. My heart thumps like Christmas morning.

A gleaming metal goliath emerges from the arch, a sight so extraordinary that my mouth falls open and the men around me let out a cheer. Faither just grips my hand tighter. The train is enormous, its blackness shines under the light of the gas and it is beautiful. It’s bound for Egypt, Faither tells me. Faither makes the trains.

Four years later, I’m stretching restlessly on a school-free July morning when the door opens and Faither sticks his head round the door. Up, he says. We’re going out today.

We walk up Balgrayhill Road and I attempt to keep in step with him, doing my best for my short legs to match his longer ones so that we march in time like soldiers off to war. It’s the highest point in all of Glasgow and the climb’s so sheer that there’s no tram service up to the gates of Springburn Park. The houses at the top of the hill are extremely posh and Faither says they’re so high up so they can look down their noses at the rest of us.

We climb and climb, past the bandstand and the bowling greens, past Breeze’s Tower and up to the clouds. What do you see, he asks me. I look and see Stobhill Hospital; the roof of the new Kinema on Springburn Road; the Hyde Park works, and my school in Mollinsburn Street. All below our feet.

Beyond is the rest of the city then fields and hills. I see so much that I’m not sure what answer he wants so I give him the one that makes sense to me.

Everything, I tell him.

Faither’s mouth turns up at both ends and I realise he is sort of smiling. Exactly, he says.

He leans towards me after a bit. Let me ask you another. What can you not see?

I don’t know and he senses it. Take your time. So I do.

Looking south I can just make out the river, the tops of the colossal cranes by the shipyards. The glimpse of a tram shuffling by down below. Tiny people walking the streets. Birds dipping and soaring, above and below. Wispy white clouds streaking the sky. It’s the sky. It’s different. It’s not black.

I realise that I can see so far because the dark cloud isn’t there. There’s nothing stopping me from seeing all the way to the city centre and clear beyond. I can see to the south side of the river. I can see the sky. Lots of it.

Faither sees where I’m looking and he nods. This is the third day of the Glasgow Fair, he explains. You know what that means?

I know it is the Fair Fortnight because Archie Hamilton and Hector McAndrew have both gone ‘doon the watter’ to Rothesay for holidays with their families. Faither and I always stay at home.

It means that the men have stopped working across the city, he says. The railway works. The shipyards. The foundries. The chemical works. The engineering works. The sulphur and copper yards. It means the factories have all shut down for two weeks and nothing is coming out of them. No trains or ships. No waste or smoke. No dirty black cloud. You see?

I do. We walk and stop and look. I see distant fields of green veined with golden barley and studded with sheep, the shoulders of far-off rusty mountains that I never knew existed and the curl of the Clyde as it slips towards the blue of the sea. A new river and an unseen loch, surprises at every turn. In the near shadows are the sleeping yards and factories, their black brick bleakness and the chimneys that for once aren’t spewing their foul breath into the air. But above them, a bright blue sky frames a glorious yellow sun that shines on everything.

You see there? And there? Faither points and asks. That’s Ben Lomond. And over there is the Trossachs. In these two weeks, when there is the hole in the sky, you can see seven counties from this hill, See that? That is the peak of Goat Fell on the isle of Arran. That’s over thirty miles away! We’ll come back tomorrow. The sky will still be here.’

When we climb the Balgray the next day, Faither points south east and asks me to look further than before. Not just with my eyes but with my mind. He says if I look far enough, I’ll see France and Germany, Italy too.

He pulls me closer to his side and stretches his arm till it points over the hills and beyond the mountains. Look further. Due east you can see China where people plant rice in fields and live to be over a hundred years old. Or India where there are tigers and great rivers and holy men. Look with your mind.

He opens the book he’s brought, and I see it has a picture of the world on its cover and many pages inside. He tells me about Germany and castles on the Rhine and the great Black Forest, about France where they have a tower made of iron that is the tallest building in the world. He tells me about Rome, making it sound like a wondrous place built on seven hills.

Like Springburn, I jump in, remembering the rhyme that is recited on the street. “Born in Balgrayhill, schooled in Petershill, worked in Keppochill, married in Springburnhill, sick in Stobhill, domiciled in Barnhill, rested in Sighthill.”

Stobhill is where the hospital is. Sighthill has the cemetery. Faither stares ahead, his eyes beyond the city. He must have heard the rhyme before.

We go to the park every day, my legs seemingly getting longer and stronger with every climb. I can keep up easily with Faither now and I remember how I used to be just half his height but am now nearly two-thirds of him.

He tells me about Egypt where the great train on Flemington Street was bound for. A place where the pharaohs ruled, and princes were wrapped in cloth and placed in tombs so they’re ready for the afterlife. I ask about the train. Not about Egypt. Faither frowns.

He leans in close and speaks softly in case anyone hears. I make my mark on every one of them, he says. I scratch my initials and a cross for Scotland on a set of slide rods on every train. Where they go, I go. Those trains have taken me to Cairo and Calcutta, past plains and prairies, to Table Mountain and Buenos Aries, through the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean and to the deserts of Australia.

The British Empire is held together by its railway lines, Faither tells me, and over half of all its trains are made in those works down there. We make the trains, Ronnie, but it’s the rest of the world that get to ride on them. Do you think that’s fair? I know it isn’t.

It’s Sunday and nearly time for Faither to go back to work and for the hole in the sky to close over. We’re only halfway up Balgrayhill Road when he has to stop and take a breather. He’s turned from me, his face hidden but he’s bent from the waist and breathing hard. He spits on the ground. As we begin to walk again, I look back and see the patch of the pavement where he spat. I see that his spit is black.

We sit together at the top, staring onto Flemington Street and down the tramlines to the river and beyond. Springburn and Glasgow, chipped out of that dirty black stone, look smaller than they used to.

I ask him if he’ll get into trouble for leaving his mark on the trains. Maybe, he says. But that’s just the way of it. You leave your mark on them and they leave their mark on you. Do you want to make the trains or ride on them, Ronnie?

We could ride them together, Faither. To Cairo and Calcutta. His hand is strangely cold as it briefly rests on my forehead before ruffling my hair.

Not me, Ronnie, he says. Two weeks isn’t enough. But for you, the whole world is waiting. Ride that train.

‘L’appel du vide’ by Craig Robertson

I’m on the platform at Edinburgh Park station. It’s Monday morning busy, mobbed with suits waiting to get into the city before nine. Commuter heaven and commuter hell.

There’s a message on the screens warning that the next train doesn’t stop here. It’s an express and will be tearing through the platform at full speed. Anyone who’s been there when a train thunders past, not even blinking at the platform, will know what a visceral experience it is. The platform seems to shake, and waves of air make you rock back on your feet.

I’m a few feet back from the edge, just behind the bobbled strip of concrete that’s meant to be as far as you go. No man’s land. Mind the gap.

It reminds me that there’s a thing. A scientific thing. Most of us have probably experienced it at some time in our lives, some of us feel it often.

The urge.

It might just last for a second, maybe longer. And as long as it lasts, it makes perfect sense, seems the right thing to do. More than that, it seems irresistible.

The urge. To just step out. To see what would happen. To see what it would feel like. It would only take one step and it would be done.

The French call it L’appel du vide. Literally, it means the call of the void. Some psychologists think all of us have experienced it at least once.

You’ve thought it, haven’t you? Probably only for a split second, and you’d never actually do it, of course. But the thought has stolen through your mind, making you wonder, ever so briefly, if you should. Would be so easy…

Maybe if not at a train station, then when you’re driving. You have your hands on the wheel and a voice in your head says, just swing the car to the right into that oncoming traffic. You’ll have felt your hands grip the wheel just that little bit tighter. Or you’ve been giving someone a bath and think of drowning them, or when you’re holding a knife or hammer and think how easy it would be to stab and kill someone nearby.

It’s the call of the siren song. Maybe you’ve felt it at the edge of a cliff as you look down. It comes from nowhere. The thought. The urge. Jump. Scientists call it the High Place Phenomenon. They say it’s the result of miscommunication in your brain, that it makes you imagine the jump so that your body rebels at the prospect of death and you take a step back from the edge. Maybe, I’m not so sure.

I sometimes wonder what’s wrong in my life that makes me think it. What’s missing or what’s there that shouldn’t be.

Am I so unhappy deep down that ending it by being obliterated by a train seems a good idea?

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I have a job that I mostly like, children that make me burst with pride. I’ve got a roof over my head and good friends. Above all, I have a wife that I love. Fiona’s smile makes my pulse quicken, her laugh makes me happy, and I’d know her perfume anywhere. Narciso Rodriguez for Her. Peaches and roses, amber and musk. As soon as she walks into a room, my head turns.

And yet, for all that, I can stand on the deck of a ship and look at the waves churning below, and I hear the voice. I can stand on a bridge and feel the call. We’ve been married fifteen years and that doesn’t come without some collateral damage. A rough patch, I guess that’s what it’s called. A six-month rough patch.

I remember climbing to the top of the Wallace Monument in Stirling. 70 metres high on a hill that’s already 110 metres above the ground. You can see for miles in almost every direction and there’s just a chest-high wall between you and the longest drop.

The kids were full of excitement beside me, Fiona keeping a wary eye on them. It was me she should have been watching. As I looked over the edge to the ground below, the voice said jump.

I can hear the roar of the express in the distance as it careers towards us. Stepping out in front of a train that fast means certain death. A thousand tonnes of metal hitting 12 stones of flesh, tissue and brittle bone at nearly a hundred miles an hour isn’t much of a contest.

Fiona works long hours, longer than she used to. Her boss, Andrew, likes her to stay behind, push on with work. I know I’m too scared to ask. Too scared to hear that the truth is what I think it is. Maybe that’s why I hear the voice.

Sometimes, the train does such a number on a body that forensic teams are called in just to prove that it had happened. Traumatised drivers have told of someone stepping in front of their train but there being no physical sign of it having taken place. The body instantly vaporises on the windscreen, leaving nothing but trace elements that could be washed away by a shower of rain.

Andrew, her boss, takes the same train to work that I do. Fiona takes the kids to school and goes in later. And stays later.

Answering the call of the void into the path of an express train promises the sweet certainty of an instantaneous demise. A slow train coming is a messy alternative. It could mean broken bones, paraplegia, brain injuries; any number of things that stop short of death. And if the train just catches you a glancing blow, albeit a thousand tonne –hundred miles an hour glance, then that can be very messy indeed. Then people standing on station platforms have been known to be showered in blood, bone and entrails as the jumper is ripped to bits. It’s all about the timing.

The express is in view now, racing towards us. I can hear the voice.

Andrew, her boss, is standing just a few feet away, close to the edge. He looks so pleased with himself. Smart suit. Expensive haircut. My wife’s smell on him from the night before. They probably laugh at me together. I can feel the ground shake, the noise is tremendous, the air is moving towards us.

That’s when I feel it. The urge.

The voice in my head telling me to go for it. Do it.

I take two steps forward, one to the side. No stopping me this time. It will be like he’s never been here at all. I can hear the strains of the siren’s song and it’s playing for Andrew.

I’m within two feet of him when, from behind, I get a whiff of peaches and roses, amber and musk. I’d know it anywhere. Then I feel two hands pushing hard into the middle of my back, forcing me to fly.

Above the thunderous roar of the express, I hear the call of the void.

 

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