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. Or at least I think he does. 

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 about seven or eight when Faither wakes me long after my bedtime and gets me to put a coat on over my nightclothes and to slip cold shoes onto my bare feet. My eyes and my head are still full of sleep but 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, all seemingly whispering and waiting, wrapped up in greatcoats and caps. 

Faither doesn’t explain but just holds my right hand in his left and keeps me close by his side. I stand quiet, my head barely as high as his waist, looking around me and seeing no other boys my age out on the street. It feels special, like a treat. 

Most of the men are looking at the big arch doors of the railway works, darker than the night and tall enough for a giant to walk through without having to worry about bowing his head. Above the great doors and to both sides, the building stretches to the sky and as wide as the eye can see. Way above the door I can just make out two people standing at a window above a dark balcony, staring down at us staring up at them. 

Slowly, a rumble begins to grow behind the doors. They are thrown back with a sudden ceremony and the men on the street fall strangely quiet. My heart thumps like Christmas morning. Whatever it is, it is about to happen. 

The vague sound of an engine reverberates and I can feel the ground tremble ever so slightly beneath me, up through my shoes and into my clammy feet. I hold my breath until the nose of a black tractor steam engine pops through the doorway, a funnel of grey smoke leading the way down the tramlines. Two small wheels at the front, each the size of me, are followed by the engine then two large wheels that are taller than Faither. Is this it? 

No. As soon as the engine rolls through the door, I see that there is another right behind it and a metal pole couples one to the other. The second is the twin to the first, puffing smoke in time to its brother and rolling straight down the middle of the street in its wake. They remind me of photographs I’ve seen of elephants walking trunk to tail and I wonder if there will be a third, perhaps smaller engine, to follow. There isn’t. 

Instead 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. It is enormous. The biggest thing I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have windows and doors. The locomotive sits on a carrier of low wheels that barely seems up to the job of carrying such a beast. Its blackness shines under the light of the gas and it is beautiful. 

As it glides past, I try to catch my reflection on its polished armour but I’m too small, seeing no more than the ghost of my red hair halfway up its massive ivory wheels. 

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, light sneaking through the corner of window that it can reach, when the door opens and Faither sticks his head round the door. Up, he says. We’re going out today. 

Out with Faither is not something that happens often. I go to school. He goes to work. This day is different though and breakfast is waiting on me by the time I’ve hurried into shorts, socks and shoes and my white school shirt, my hair plastered flat to my head with water. 

Ready, Ronnie? Faither’s voice is as low and gruff as the train that rumbled down Flemington Street from the works. I’m ready and I tell him so. Good. Come on. 

As we walk up Balgrayhill Road, I attempt to walk 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. He catches me doing it though and foxes me by changing his stride. Sometimes, many times, I think he doesn’t want me to do as he does. 

It was like when I’d told him that I wanted a job in Hyde Park when I grow up. He fired me a look like summer thunder and growled No. I never dared mentioned it again but vowed to become better so that one day he might say Yes. 

Balgrayhill Road is the steepest street in the world. If you let a pram sit idle it will slip away and be gone in a second. In winter, the bigger ones get on sledges and plunge from the top. I’d heard it said that some of them had lost their legs like the brave boys in the Great War. Although I mustn’t call it that because Faither says there was nothing great about it. 

The climb up the Balgray is so sheer that there is no tram service up to the gates of Springburn Park.  I know, because Faither once told me, that it is the highest point in all of Glasgow. It is three hundred and sixty-four feet above sea level. Even though I don’t really understand what sea level is, I know it is very high. 

The houses at the top of the hill are extremely posh. And huge. Faither says they are so high up because it makes it easier for them to look down their noses at the likes of us. I don’t like the posh houses though. They look lonely up there and I wonder why they don’t get blown down without other houses either side to help hold them up. 

We pass through the park, climbing and climbing until finally, looking around as if nowhere will quite do, Faither says Here. There’s a big rock planted into the grass and I scramble up onto the stony ledge, expectation rising as I know we’ve reached our destination. Faither falls onto the rock, pushing his cap back and wiping his brow. He doesn’t say anything at first but looks out, all of Glasgow before us. I copy him. 

What do you see, Faither asks me at last. 

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. 

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. Those are the Campsie Hills, those the Kilpatrick and those… those are in Argyllshire. In these two weeks, when there is the hole in the sky, you can see seven counties from this hill. And there are only thirty-two counties in all of Scotland. And that, see that? That is the peak of Goat Fell on the isle of Arran. That’s over thirty miles away! 

At last Faither stops pointing and telling and asking. Home, he says. The sky will still be here tomorrow. There’s more I want you to see. 

When we climb the Balgray the next day, we have a warming sun on our backs and Faither has a book under his arm. I try to sneak a look to see what it is but he keeps it turned away from me. 

When we come to a stop, Faither picks out a flat piece of dry grass and we sit. Tell me what you can see that way. He points south east. We’d looked that way the day before so I know that there is the roofs and massive central chimney of the St Rollux Chemical Works and tell him so. He nods but purses his lips as if not entirely happy. 

You’re not looking, he says. Look further. 

I strain my eyes as far as I can but beyond the black city, things begin to roll into a haze of apple green fields and rosy hills. I fear I will disappoint him but I can only offer a shrug of my skinny shoulders. 

You’re only looking with your eyes, he says. If you look far enough that way you can see France and Germany, Italy too. I must appear confused because 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. 

Faither opens his book and I see it has a picture of the world on its cover and many pages inside. Tell me what you know about Germany, he says. 

We beat them in the war and their leader was a man called Kaiser Bill. 

Faither frowns. Do you not know about their castles on the Rhine or the great Black Forest? I admit I don’t. So he opens his book and he tells me. That their capital city is Berlin, about a composer named Beethoven and how part of something called the Brandenburg Gate was taken by the Emperor Napoleon.  

Napoleon was from France where the capital is Paris and they have a tower made of iron that is the tallest building in the world. The French eat snails and drink wine and had a revolution to get rid of the king. Faither tells me about Rome too, a wondrous place founded by children brought up by wolves and is over two thousand years old. Rome is built on seven hills, he says. Like Springburn, I jump in; eager to show I know something too. Faither doesn’t look impressed though. Not like Springburn, he mutters. 

Yes, seven hills, I insist, remembering the Springburn 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 on 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. 

Sometimes I think I’ve never really looked at Faither properly before. His hair is far darker than mine and has only a hint of the ginger and reds that pepper my own. His hands are huge and hard, nicked with scars and scorched with burn marks. They feel rough like sandpaper when they ruffle through my hair or when he takes my hand in his. Faither’s eyes are dark and sad with gloomy circles below them as if he never sleeps. His shoulders bend and he would be taller if he stood properly. 

He tells me about Egypt where the great train on Flemington Street was bound for. I ask about the train. Not about Egypt. Faither frowns. He falls silent for a while, his eyes closed over and his mouth heavy.  

Every train that crosses the ocean carries part of him, he says at last. He leans in close and speaks softly in case anyone hears. 

I make my mark on every one of them. 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. I have ridden them through the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, across the Canadian Rockies and to the deserts of Australia.  

My eyes open wide and Faither grins fleetingly, a rare beam that fills me with joy but is just as quickly snatched away and replaced with sadness. 

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 shake my head. Not just because I know it’s the answer that Faither wants but because it really isn’t fair. My head is full of the locomotives rolling through India and Africa, past huge elephants the colour of slate and mighty lions with their manes rippling on a cooling breeze. Trains rolling straight out of the works, down Flemington Street and onto the ocean itself, bound for adventure in Sudan or trouble in Nigeria, past pyramids and jungles and pharaohs’ tombs. It isn’t fair at all. 

The British Empire is held together by its railway lines, Faither tells me. There used to be three railway works in Springburn, he says. The Hyde Park, Queens Park and Atlas Works. They were merged to make the North British Locomotive Company and over half of all the trains in the British Empire are made in those works down there.  

But he says the best part of the railway works is the front gate. The big doors beneath the arch, because that’s the way out. 

 

Some days on the hill, we just rest when we get there. Faither pants and puffs even though I’m barely out of breath. He sits and looks out, his hand running through his hair and sweat dappling his brow. He looks older. 

This day, we’re only halfway up Balgrayhill Road when Faither has to stop and take a breather. I smile to myself because I am full of walking still and it is him that is struggling to keep up with me. He is turned from me, his face hidden but he is bent from the waist and breathing hard. He spits on the ground. 

Come on, he says. Let’s go. 

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. 

 

In Spain, men fight bulls and in Holland the land is so flat that there are almost no hills at all. The Pacific Ocean is so vast that Britain could fit into it a thousand times over. Australia is almost all desert but they have kangaroos which bounce on their hind legs and keep their babies in a pouch. In Africa there is a waterfall that is so big that it can be seen from forty miles away. Mount Everest, the biggest mountain in the world, is still growing every day. At the North Pole, they have mountains made of ice and in China they have a wall whose end can never be measured. 

In Glasgow, we can see the sky for two weeks a year. 

It is Sunday and nearly time for Faither to go back to work and for the hole in the sky to close over. We are both sad, Faither and me. We sit together, staring onto Flemington Street and down the tramlines to the river and beyond. Out to the Firth of Clyde and from there onto the ocean and to the rest of the world. 

We sit and say nothing because we don’t have to. Faither has told me everything that is in his book. Instead we look. Near and far, at hills and beyond. At mountains and factories, at lochs and dormant chimneys. The Hyde Park Works, all sixty acres of it, looks so much smaller than it used to. Springburn and Glasgow, chipped out of that dirty black stone, look smaller too. 

I break our pact of silence. Faither? Will you get into trouble for leaving your mark on the trains? 

Maybe. 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? 

I hesitate. You can’t do both, he says. I want to ride on them, I tell him. Good. 

We could do it together though, Faither. You and me. Take the trains to Cairo and Calcutta. 

Faither’s hand is strangely cold as it briefly rests on my forehead before ruffling my hair. 

Not me, Ronnie. Two weeks isn’t enough. 

‘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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