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.