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After a simple breakfast consisting of coffee and toast and an emotional hug of the cat goodbye we started our journey north to Scotland. The deaths of my father and of uncle Iain last night have left me feeling raw and confused and naturally somewhat subdued. Mark has insisted on doing the driving for I am too distracted to be safe behind the wheel of a car. Once again I was thankful for the strength and kindness of this man and how he’d marshalled me along since returning from Minneapolis.
As we speed along the m1 and m6 motorways, I think about the scores of times that I’d undertaken this journey; times when the excitement of seeing family and friends was palpable and uplifting and my heart soared for they were sorely missed. A deep homesickness had been prevalent in my early years away and I was never happier and with a real lightness of heart just to know that in a few hours we would be in the land of tartan, clean air, more mountains than you could shake a stick at and sharing sharp banter with a population of natural comedians.
My home city of Glasgow had the dubious moniker of ‘home of the deep fried Mars bar’; I’d never eaten one but I had no trouble imagining the combination of sickly sweet caramel, fondant and chocolate encased in a greasy batter and knew it would be enough to make me heave up the lining of my stomach. This atrocious concoction, loved by many, was swiftly followed in popularity by the deep fried pizza. Cleary ingesting both these delicacies on a regular basis was a death by clogged artery suicide; but that’s Glaswegians for you, the constitution of an ox with an attitude of ‘manyana’ to all things risky in life.
“Aye hen, a’ll gie it aw up the morra when a’m no sae pished and hungry”, was a popular retort of many a drunkard when challenged by some sour faced auld biddy feigning disgust at the inappropriateness of the drunk man’s evening repast. It could usually be relied upon to be followed up by a quick aside of “An’ away an sort that sour auld face aw yours oot cause a’ll be sober in the mornin’ but you’ll still look like the fecking grim reaper huvin a bad night oot, mrs. Ah sure hope you're no married ‘cause God help the poor bugger if he’s huvin tae wake up tae that old fisog on a daily basis”, he would lob as a parting shot, with grease drippin' doon his chin.
The warm and down-to- earth attitude, the simple cheek and the never short of a quick retort of Glaswegians makes for an abundance of humour in everyday situations and life. Although a city, Glasgow could easily be a big village for everyone knows everyone or at least will know someone who knows someone who knows you, if you get my drift. Talk about six degrees of separation - in Glasgow it’s more than likely three. And you can’t stand at a bus stop for someone telling you a tale or if the bus is long enough in coming, their whole life story. It is well known that most Glaswegians suffer from the same affliction to talk the hind leg off a donkey for we are genetically predisposed to do so and it is this that I miss most since leaving home; well, that and someone peeling open a well wrapped paper poke, (bag), that wafts out the tantalising aroma of volcanically hot freshly cooked chipped potatoes doused in salt and vinegar and calmly seeing if, “you want wan hen?”, as he/she pokes the bag in your direction. No one is a stranger for long in Glasgow, no one, irrespective of colour, creed, shape or size.
Reminiscing about my clan folks and their ways fills me with warmth and a deep appreciation of home and I smile for the first time in an age. It is a magic place to be. I feel comforted and slowly relax back into my seat, close my eyes and find the gentle hum of the car soothing.
Normally my natural ebullience at heading home would have me playing my favourite songs at top whack whilst I willed every hour on the road to be a minute so that I could be home sooner. Sometimes I flew home for the occasional long weekend when time was of the essence. But mostly we drove home for there was always a list of food orders as long as my arm to bring back to the Scottish diaspora exiled down south in search of better paid jobs and careers. On those return journeys back to England the car boot was laden with the type of Scottish fare that we had grown up eating and taken for granted but had since become manna from heaven purely because they were unavailable outside of the Scottish borders.
For months after returning home to England we could be found snaffling rare Scottish treats such as neeps and tatties, bridies, mince and dough balls, square, (Lorne) sausage, tattie scones, Scottish plain and pan bread, bread rolls, Scottish steak and sausage pie, Scotch pie, clootie dumplings and black pudding. Several generations of Scots had been reared on this stuff and as wains, (kids), it stuck to our ribs and gave an extra layer of protection from those bitter north winds that would whip around our wee bodies as we ‘played ootside tae gie oor mammies peace and quiet fur a wee while’.
But what of the legendary Scottish haggis you might ask? Well, you could stick your haggis as far as I’m concerned; to this day I can’t imagine swallowing and keeping down a pile of sheep’s innards cooked in a sheep’s belly. It’s no great mystery to me that you need to down a quick shot of scotch after you swallow a mouthful of haggis; you require it to quell the need to propel it rapidly across the room as your belly rejects it in record time. It’s no wonder that every time I see someone projectile vomiting I assume I am witnessing them having their first and last taste of haggis. It’s a common fallacy that just because you are Scottish you will be eating haggis by the poundage and feeling all the better for it.
I certainly fare no better with shortbread either. About a ton of flour, at least a block of butter and a pound of sugar creamed together and baked with millions of fork pricks all over it then left in a tin for months to dry out; it has no trouble lodging itself firmly in my throat. It’s handy if you want to shut me up for a while - and many do - because it totally sucks every piece of moisture from my mouth and it takes at least a pint of liquid to rehydrate it again.
Still, haggis and shortbread aside, “everything in moderation”, and “a little of what you fancy does you good”, being the cries of the war baby generation of our parents so we take heed and limit ourselves to scoffing smaller and healthier amounts than they did. We also take care to grill rather than fry in copious amounts of lard as was once done by our grannies and their grannies before them. And so it is, all washed down by a huge glug of Irn-Bru or if you are even luckier, a wee dram or two of the finest malt whiskey. We might hail from ‘Heart Attack City’ but we don’t have to adhere to the lifestyle and habits that has made sure Glasgow has become a worldwide centre of excellence should you suffer a myocardial infarction north of the border. No wonder it is so with the abundance of raw material it has to work with.
But, on this journey home I have no appetite, no need for sustenance or goodies as it feels greedy, feels disrespectful to be thinking of enjoying and spoiling ourselves in the face of the loss of life. I have no unadulterated joy at arriving and catching up with friends and family for how can I when family numbers are dwindling and grief is dominating my every thought and move. The time moves slowly as the miles stretch ahead of us and I suggest we take a break. Mark must be hungry even if I’m not and so we slip off the motorway at the next available services; plastic soulless places where you can buy burgers and chips, stodgy cloying meals that have been left languishing under hot lights for hours that only the very ravenous of people could eat out of desperation or with a serious lack of palate. Nevertheless, with a quick trip to the loo, followed by a weak and tasteless cup of tea and a lacklustre sandwich, we return to the car to continue onwards.
Mark is as downcast as I am for it is his first experience of death at close quarters. “I can’t help but think about my own parents mortality now; can’t imagine what it would be like to lose one of them”, he says trying hard to empathise with what I might be feeling.
“I don’t think you need worry about that too much just yet”, I respond, trying to put his mind at rest “your parents are quite a bit younger than my dad and at seventy eight he’s had a good innings".
“How old is your mother now, she’s quite a bit younger than your father isn’t she?” he looks for a reminder because he can never quite remember.
“She’ll be sixty four in May, in no time at all”, I say, suddenly musing as to what I should get her as a gift this year. It seems unfeeling and trivial to think about birthday presents when there are funerals to be planned but we’re sailing in uncharted territory and life must go on in spite of everything.
Every year that my mother is alive is a gift for only four years previously she had a massive heart attack, one that should have ended her life. As we held vigil overnight in Intensive Care during those first crucial twenty four hours, doctors gave no hope that she would survive the night let alone much longer. But, through sheer force of will and a determination to survive she was hailed a fighter and a miracle woman. What science couldn’t do alone was helped by fortitude of steel from a wee lassie from Glasgow who was certainly going nowhere as her time wasn’t up. Survive she did but so much of her heart had been damaged to the point that she was existing on a cocktail of drugs such as warfarin, an anticoagulant that thinned her blood, making it easier for her heart to pump the blood around her body. But all too often her heart struggles to cope and her lungs fill with fluid when it can’t work as efficiently as it could do. It’s at times like that she is hospitalised and her condition stabilised and she lives to fight another day. My wee miracle mammy; a woman with a zest for life; compassion for others she sees as worse off than herself and a woman deeply in love with her par amour Henry. It is my belief that this deep love she has found so late in life is what keeps her going for I have never seen her so happy to be alive. She embraces every moment of every day and Henry is the epicentre of her universe as she is his.
I am thankful he is in her life because I cannot always be there for her. Work commitments demand so much of my time and it is easy to become selfish and to place my own needs above hers. Too often I claim workload and distance as a barrier to helping when she might need me. Too often I rely upon my sister Fiona to fly in from Luxembourg to do what I should be sharing with her. I convince myself that at least now her family is grown and being a housewife affords her the time to be there for mum. Too often I am simply not in the country and it’s all over bar the shouting by the time get back to the UK to find my sister has once again shouldered the brunt of her care. I help financially but I should do more; offer more practical help but my mother refuses, tells me she’s proud of me and my career and that she wouldn’t hear of me cutting short a business trip to come home “just because she’s feeling a bit under the weather”. Too often I am too ready to believe her and carry on with my life in glorious isolation of her and her problems. But now that my father and uncle have died in such a staggeringly close timeframe, I am starkly aware of how fragile a hold we have on life. I resolve to make more of an effort and put her first at this time of her life. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ‘it is a tragedy to lose one parent, to lose two is just carelessness’. Providence has given me a bum deck of cards to deal with but in doing so I am reminded of how precious my surviving parent has become to me.
After five hours and several traffic jams our journey is coming to a close and soon I must face the reality of my father’s empty home and my brother’s grief stricken state. Mark tries to distract me as we pass by Uddingston and Daldowie crematorium where my father’s ashes will rest. All too soon we will be here saying goodbye to a man that I am not sure I will miss. Shortly after, we pull up outside my father’s home. My brother waiting eagerly for our arrival steps from the house looking ashen and deeply sad. Once more I am overwhelmed by his grief and hold him tightly in a wretched bid to say sorry, to make up for leaving him to deal with this on his own.