UK fast track and premium passport service

July 4, 2008

Applying for your passport under one of these services? Read what happened to me and then consider if you really want to put yourself through this. I think the Home Office passport service must be in melt down. That’s the best reason I can think of for the dire service I received and for the attitude of staff towards me, which was, to say the very least, rude. I have been told that failure to meet the guaranteed seven days service for Fast Track service is due to human eror caused by the numbers of people applying, yet with an 11.45 appointment, I entered the building at 11.25 and was through the procedure and relieved of my £97 by 11.32. Targets to meet?

Here is my story!

“They took my 97 quid and all I got was this!”

For images missing from the original article:

Let me start at the very beginning!

A few months ago, my son and his partner travelled on Eurostar to Belgium. I just happened to mention that I would quite fancy trying out Eurostar and my son told me that he had a special offer on tickets and why didn’t we all (son + partner + me) go to Paris sometime before the offer expired? Great idea. I love Paris!

So, that was how it all started and I shall tell you how I ended up paying £97 for the above receipt, which would shame a, “Pound shop,” for its lack of professional quality, losing three days’ wages and not getting to Paris! Oh, and being treated in a manner, which can only be described as, “shabby,” by the London Identity and Passport Service.

Ok, so we have a plan! We are all going to Paris! My son booked the seats on Eurostar and gave me time and date. All I needed then was a passport. My old one, which I had not used since 1999, and which expired in April 2007, was somewhere around the house, but a search of the obvious and not-so-obvious places did not result in finding it. No matter: it would have been useful to have the old one in applying for a new one, but a new application would have to be made anyway. I hadn’t seen that passport for a number of years and had no idea in what, “safe place,” I might have put it!

So, I collect a passport application form from the Post Office and discover that I need a UK passport holder to countersign. No problem! I ask a friend who has known me for around 10 years, but unfortunately, he can’t find his passport. Time is getting on and I have around three weeks to get my passport after several weeks of his not finding his passport and not finding his passport!

So, I ask someone who has known me for around 17 years, but who does not live in my town. I meet up with this person on a shared holiday. He signs the form, but has forgotten to bring his passport. He will phone me with the passport number. It is now just over two weeks before the planned date of departure for my Eurostar experience.

The friend phones with the passport number and the following day I go to the Post Office to make use of their, “Check and send,” (or words to that effect!) service. I complete form LSO1, lost passport form, and the woman at the PO counter checks my application form. There are problems! My photograph is not full-face and the woman notes that the passport number has obviously not been written in by the person countersigning.

Right! It’s now just under two weeks to the planned trip! I need to get another person, who has known me for more than 2 years, to countersign another form. I ask the licensee at my local shop. He, being a very kind person, helps in my time of need. I go back to the Post Office to have the form checked! Everything is OK apart from the fact that my signature is a fraction of a millimetre onto the brown border!

So, I go back to my friendly local shopkeeper and he signs another form for me. There is now 10 days to go until Eurostar leaves St Pancras at 11am on Friday 13th June. I phone the national passport service helpline. I am told that if I want my passport for the day before the trip, which is, of course necessary, given the time the train leaves, I will have to have an interview at a passport office before 12 noon on Thursday 5th June, that being the latest time for the guaranteed delivery of my passport by Thursday 12th June. An appointment is made for 11.45 on Thursday 5th June at the London office of the Passport and Identity Service.

I could do without all this because I work for an agency, which means I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid and this means a day off. However, my very kind son has booked a treat for his mother and I really don’t want to let him down. My son really is a very kind person.

Anyway, I have my appointment, I am told to arrive at least 10 minutes early, and I find a Google map for the address and postcode given: 89 Eccleston Square, SW1V 1PN.

View Larger Map

I will refer to this map a little later.

I set off really early on the morning of Thursday June 5th, allowing time for late-running trains, crossing London on the tube, and finding Eccleston Square. I arrive at Victoria at just after 11.05, with what looks like a short walk from the station to Eccleston Square. (Please now refer to map. Eccleston Square is a, “U,” shape with a blue marker on the right-hand arm of the, “U.” )

11.10, I start at the nearest point on Eccleston Square, the left-hand arm of the, “U,” and finding low numbers, assume that number 89 must be near the other end! However, at the other end of the, “U,” is number 70-something! I turn right into Belgrave Road to see if the numbers continue, but they do only for one or two buildings. I turn left, back into Eccleston Square, thinking there must be some logic to this, somewhere! The blue marker on the right-hand arm of the, “U,” denotes where I then spotted a police van! Great! They should know!

There are two uniformed officers in the van, and I approach the passenger side, which is nearest to the kerb. The officer in the passenger seat looks at me and does nothing! I signal for him to lower the window. He does. “Can you tell me where the passport office is, please?” The officer points in the direction towards the base of the, “U,” in the opposite direction to Belgrave Road. “It’s on the corner round there,” he says.

So, off I go. It’s now 11.20 and I reassure myself that I will, indeed, arrive 10 minutes early. I walk right round Eccleston Square, and I don’t find number 89 or the passport office, and I walk up the left-hand side of the, “U,” towards Belgrave Road, where I spot a workman outside one of the houses. “Can you tell me where the passport office is, please?” He points towards Belgrave Road and tells me to cross the road and it’s on the corner. (Please refer once again to the map. The passport office is located by the blue marker on what is denoted as Belgrave Road.)

I arrive at the passport office at 11.25, with certain expectations of what constitutes an, “interview.” Hah! That’s as sensible as my thinking that 89 Eccleston Square would be in the road indicated by that name on the map!

Through the heavy glass doors I go, and come face-to-face with a group of security guards, who point me towards a glass booth on my left. I go over there and tell the person behind the glass that I have an appointment. I am told to see the security guards. I do and they show me the way to the metal detector, which I pass through, having placed my bag on a conveyor belt, and my bunch of keys in a plastic basket. I am then directed to another reception desk, a very high one that, at 5′ 0″, I can hardly see over. I give my reference number and I get a numbered ticket, just like the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s! “Go to the second floor. Lift over there.” says the person allocating the numbers. I do!

On the second floor there are rows of seats, with a few people sitting there. There are two large screens, one with a list of numbers, denoting who is waiting. This is more like Argos than Sainsbury’s cheese counter! A bot voice is calling out numbers one after the other and telling the holders which cubicle to go to. My number comes up and I go to the cubicle as directed.

As I said, I had certain expectations of what constitutes an, “interview.” The cubicle I arrived at was more like a public phone booth, with glass panels on either side, and a woman sitting behind a counter, in an elevated position. So, there I am, again, 5′ 0″ having to raise my arms to place my forms on the counter. I wait for some kind of introductory greeting from this person who is supposed to be interviewing me, something like, “Hello,” maybe. She puts on an impatient face and says, “Got your form?”

“Got your form?” Well, I would expect a more courteous standard of communication at the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s! I pass the form over. “Your old passport is lost?” This woman is looking more and more irritated! “I’ve completed an LSO1. Would you like it?” Curl of the mouth and, “Has it been checked?” “Yes,” I say, “It was checked at the psot office.” The woman extends a hand and I place the form in it.

While I stand there thinking, “What on earth have I come to?” the woman taps away on her keyboard and compares what is on my form to what she is reading on her monitor. I ask if she is managing to access my old passport details. After a few seconds, she says, “Yes.” I ask is everything ok then? She says, “Yes.”

“Have you got proof of ID and address?” Yes, I have brought my birth certificate, my marriage certificate, my driver’s licence, and a bank statement. I ask which the woman would like to see and she asks for the bank statement. I locate the envelope and hold it out.

The woman looks at me as though I am passing something contaminated and says. “Take it out of the enveolpe.” Now, I may be old-fashioned, but I would have expected something like, “Would you mind taking it out of the envelope, please?”, even if you never know who might be trying to spread dreadful diseases like anthrax, even a 5′ 0″ grandma of one! And if I were a terrorist, cunningly disguised as 5′ 0″ grandma of one, would such a command, issued in a seemingly disgusted tone of voice, put me off spreading anthrax?

Anyway, bank statement gets taken out of the envelope and passed over. I ask if my birth certificate is needed. “No.” Then, after a few key strokes, I am handed a flimsy piece of paper and told to pay at one of the cubicles opposite. The person at this other cubicle takes my £97 in cash, and hands me, in return, the receipt copied at the top of this post. I am told that my passport will arrive on Thursday 12th June, sometime between 8am and 6pm. I look at the flimsy receipt and it occurs to me that a receipt from a, “Pound shop,” would have more detail and look more professional. This is what I get to show that I have travelled here and been through an, “interview,” with the, “Got your form?” woman? Having arrived at 11.25, for an 11.45 interview, my 3″x5″ piece of paper bears the time, 11.32.

I leave the passport office, feeling somewhat peeved at the lack of courtesy shown, but glad that it’s over, and my passport will arrive the day before my trip.

So, gentle reader, if you have read thus far, I thank you and I will create a little break and carry on in part 2!

Part 2:

Terrorist,” granny in funny hat found with nail scissors in her toilet bag! OMG!!!
(That hat had a flower on it! Obviously suspect!)
So, we come to Wednesday June 11th. On that day, I decided that I’d better get my Euros and my travel insurance, since I had no idea when, between 8am and 6pm the following day, my passport would arrive. I return home with my holiday spending money and a travel insurance pack, at around 6pm. I check my messages on 1571 and I have a strange one, of which this is an accurate transcript! (Identifying details crossed out. Lots of, “ers,” and, “ums,” not included!)

Hello Miss, eh, Mrs xxxxxx. This is London Identity and Passport Service. I have to give you a call regarding your forename. In your previous passport, the one that was lost, we managed to get the file and it has got your forename is xxxxxxx, your surname is (as?) xxxxxx. I am unable to add xxx….xx….xx, xxxx, Weed (sic!) because it is not in your previous passport and you have not stated in your application form on Section 8 that you wanted forenames to be added as a forename. You only wrote your old passport was lost at home somewhere. That was it. We have got to do according to the procedure for us to implement the same name, xxxxxxx xxxxxx.

If you are not happy, well you have to send me* a letter, otherwise you will not receive your passport in time. We have got to go according to the old passport, which is xxxxxxx xxxxxx.

OK. Bye bye now.”

*Me? Who?

Telephone number recorded on caller ID as, “Number withheld.”

Now, I had big trouble trying to understand the message this person had been trying to convey, in heavily accented English, but after listening to it quite a few times, I finally decided that from the underlined section I could extrapolate that if I was happy and I didn’t send, “me,” a letter, that I would get my passport on time.

OK, so now we have arrived at Thursday June 12th, the day that my £97 is supposed to guarantee delivery, by courier, of my passport! Another day off work, which I lose another day’s pay for, but I really don’t want to disappoint my very kind son, who has booked the trip as a treat, knowing how much I love Paris!

I am up early on the morning of Thursday June 12th, ready to receive my passport at any time from 8am onwards. Well, time grinds onwards; I have lunch and still no passport, but I’m not getting worried yet. I spend the afternoon at my PC, not concerned until around 4.30pm, I decide that I will just check to reassure myself that the passport is coming.

I phone the national number given on the Passport and Identity Service web site. I am told that my passport was printed on Wednesday, but it has not gone to the courier. This worries me somewhat, but the person on the helpline tells me to wait until 6pm, since passports are sent to the courier at regular intervals throughout the day.

At 6pm, no passport! I call the national helpline and I am told that they have no way of knowing where my passport is, only that it has not gone to the courier, and I cannot contact the London office as their phone line closes at 5pm. All I can do is call the London office after 9am on the Friday morning. This causes some upset and I ask the person how I can travel to London for a 10.30 check-in at St Pancras if I cannot even talk to anyone before 9am? I am told that this is all that can be suggested. I take up the offer to make a complaint and ask for the response in writing.

Now, if I had not found the, “Fast track,” service, guaranteeing a 7 day service for £97, I would have reluctantly told my son that I was very sorry, but I did not have a passport, couldn’t go, and wished him and his partner a happy trip. I would have been disappointed, but life is full of disappointments. However, having found the, “Fast track,” service, I thought I was going to be able to travel with my son and make sure his kindness was appreciated!

So, I have to make a decision. I have already spent £97, lost two days’ wages and spent some considerable time on this. I decide that the only hope of getting my passport is to travel to London on the Thursday evening and be at the passport office by 9am, where hopefully my passport will be waiting, since at 6pm it had not gone to the courier.

This is what I did. My son met me, I stayed overnight, and my son accompanied me to the passport office, arriving there before 9am, my son carrying my heavy bag. Ever hopeful! Get the passport, straight on to St Pancras!

Through the glass doors, past the security guards to the glassed reception, tell the person I want to find out where my passport is, get sent back to the security guards, directed to metal detector. I have to go to the second floor. My son suggests that I go ahead and he follows me, carrying my bag. I go to the next reception desk and get my, “cheese counter,” ticket. As I turn back, I realise that there is some kind of altercation over at the metal detector. I hear my son say, “It’s my mother’s bag. She’s just over there.” I don’t hear what the security person, who has a grip on my bag, is saying, but I then hear my son say, “Why are you talking to me like that?” He sounds very offended.

So, over I go, to try to find out what is happening. My son has a hand on my bag and the security person is holding the bag tightly. I ask what is the problem and I am told that there is a pair of scissors in the bag, showing up on the metal detector. Right! I am told that I must remove the scissors! I rummage through my bag, having decided that the only thing likely to contain scissors is my toilet bag and sure enough, there’s a small pair of nail scissors at the bottom of it. I remove the scissors and place them in the polythene bag being held open by another security guard. I then have to wait while a receipt is written for my nail scissors.

So, finally up to the second floor, where I wait for my number to come up, and I walk to the cubicle indicated by the bot voice. Once again, it’s the cubicle that looks like a public pay phone. I describe the problem to the man behind the elevated desk and he goes off to see if he can find out where my passport is. He comes back twice to give me an update, each time telling me that he has not yet found any information. I go to let my son know what is happening. He is sitting out in the rows of seats, under the two large screens with the lists of numbers. I go back to my cubicle and wait. The man finally returns, after about 10 minutes, and tells me that the passport is on its way to my home address…around two and a half hours of travel from where I am in Victoria, and therefore ruling out my getting to St Pancras for a 10.30am check-in!

At this point what I feel is that I have let my son down. This is what upsets me. He has gone to some considerable trouble to organise a treat for me and I can’t go because I have no passport. I feel like an idiot for all the assumptions I have made about interviews and guarantees! We have a cup of tea, my son and I, he goes on to St Pancras to meet up with his partner, and I make my way home, lugging my heavy bag and my handbag in which is my travel insurance document and my Euros. I still have those Euros. They are symbolic, not of my missed holiday, but of my shabby treatment by the Passport and Identity Service and I can’t even bear to look at them.

When I arrive home, I write a letter of complaint. Two weeks later, I receive an acknowledgement and the information that my complaint will be dealt with, within two weeks.

Yesterday, I received a letter. Here are a few details:

“Please be assured that we set high standards of Customer Service including the care of applications and supporting documents and the response to enquiries and complaints. All our staff are trained and encouraged to meet these standards and I am sorry that you did not share this experience. However, given the volume of passport applications dealt with on a daily basis, unfortunately some human error does occur.”

Now, would that person call my interviewer’s rudeness, “human error.”?

“Our system shows that you submitted your application on 05th June, 2008, and your passport was printed on 11th June, and then delivered on the 13th which was, indeed, the day after the passport was due.”

The gentleman signing the letter then goes on to say that he is very pleased to say that he is sending me, under separate cover, a refund of £25! After all that! A refund of 25 quid! TWENTY-FIVE QUID! That’s more of an insult than no refund at all! Three days of lost wages; one for my travel to the so-called, “interview,”; one for sitting here like an idiot waiting for the delivery that didn’t come; one for going to London trying to take possession of my passport. Add to that thoroughly discourteous service, for which the staff are said to be trained (!!!) and I am offered TWENTY-FIVE QUID! It’s not even better than a slap in the face with a wet fish!

I suppose there is always my 3″x5″ flimsy, would-shame-a-pound-shop receipt! My passport was waiting when I arrived home, about two hours after my train would have left St Pancras. It remains unopened. And I am offered twenty-five quid! Well, the man who dictated that letter may be pleased, but I am certainly not! I am not so upset about the missed holiday as I am about the losses incidental to a contracted service not being delivered. It was that guarantee which led to the application and the journeys to London. So, losses are incidental to that guarantee.
That was my, “Fast track,” to Victoria and home! Zut alors! And the passport office is pleased to offer me a refund of £25!!!!
My son had a brilliant time on his first trip to Paris. I had been hoping to show him my favourite places, but hey! My twenty-five quid should be on its way soon. What more could I want?
This from a government office! Part of the Home office? I do get better service from the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s! And I always end up with something more than a flimsy receipt to show for my hard-earned cash that I hand over. At least I get some good quality cheese to enjoy!
And Mr Sainsbury’s staff always say, “..please,” and, “..thank you,” and, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Maybe Mr Sainsbury could do some training for the London Passport and Identity Service, starting with, “The customers are paying your wages. They are entitled to some courtesy for the money they pay for the service. Repeat after me. ‘Can I have your form, please?’

If only the passport service was run like the cheese counter at Sainsbury’s! If Mr Sainsbury’s staff behaved like those at the passport office, I am sure that they would be on their way out the door in double-quick time! But then, Mr Sainsbury knows that Customer Service is a very important part of any business. The passport service calls me a, “customer,” but I sure didn’t end up feeling like one!


Now, dear readers, telephone your local Trading Standards and ask this question: If British Gas offered to guarantee the servicing of my heating system on a particular day for £100, and I took an unpaid day off work, and they didn’t come, what might I be entitled to?

Watch this space folks if you too have been failed by the Home Office Fast Track or Premium passport service! I am going to try to set a precedent from which you may benefit! That guarantee is a contract and what you lose incidentally to that contract not being met is meaningful in law.

When My Mother Died.

January 6, 2008

Whatever life circumstances we are born into, as human beings there are certain basic needs, which we all have in common. We all come into the world in a very vulnerable state, dependent on others to meet our innate needs for physical and emotional care.

In a Western industrialised society, with its emphasis on the nuclear family unit, the most significant person is usually our mother. She is
most often the one who is charged with the onerous responsibility of being primary carer to growing individuals. A mother is someone who is expected to be wholly and personally answerable for her children’s successes and failures in a society, which separates us into very small and isolated family units. This socio-economic system leaves each of us totally dependent on one, or in a “modern” family, possibly two adults to meet all of our emotional, physical and spiritual needs.Once upon a time, when people roamed over the land surfaces of our planet we lived in groups where children had many significant adults in their lives. Freud would have been out of work and ideas in a society where a child’s birth mother was only one of the important adult influences and the man who donated the sperm was probably unidentifiable!

In twentieth century Britain mothers are the primary carers for most of us, and because that one person cannot possibly meet all of our basic needs for unconditional love and acceptance, we all carry a knotted mass of frozen needs into our adult lives and our relationships with others.The presence of my mother in the world, even when we were separated by considerable geographical distance, kept alive the hope that one day I would get it just right, and in being the daughter she felt she had never had, I would finally get the kind of mothering that I felt I had never had.

In October 1995 my mother was diagnosed as having a terminal illness. She was not expected to see Christmas. No one told Maisie this, and she clung to life with great tenacity and with the familiar mental attitudes, which had kept her going through the many hard years of being mother to nine children. Maisie was emotionally absent from my childhood life. Each new arrival sent her deeper and deeper into a world of romantic novels and escape from the reality of many small, needy, dependent people in an environment of abject poverty. She never faced the truth of a situation where her husband was mostly absent from the day-to-day hardships, and her children were struggling to survive in an emotional desert.

I cannot blame my mother for not facing that reality. Her survival and consequently ours would probably have been doubtful had she really recognised the full extent of her powerlessness to change the conditions of her life. As a working-class woman, with an unemployed husband and nine children in a nuclear family set-up, which imposed on her a responsibility for all of them, she had very few options. She made it through those years by remaining stuck in mourning past fantasies of living happily ever after.

At the funeral we sang “Bind us together with love”. Through the days of our growing up we were bound together by our mutual lack of love and separated by constantly being made to compete for the crumbs of emotional succour that our mother had the capacity to give.

Maisie was eight months dying. Reluctantly she went and reluctantly we let her go. Nine Adults came together with the collective responsibility of caring for our dying mother. Maisie chose to believe that radiotherapy treatments had cured her of lung cancer and we chose to collude with her in this belief, each separately trying to come to terms with her imminent departure while competing with each other to be the very best the most caring son/daughter ever. We planned her care, making sure that she was never alone long enough to face the pain and possible despair on her own.

While I was attempting to address the contradictions, which this situation presented, I seemed to be observing my siblings behaving in a state of collective amnesia, playing a game of “Let’s pretend she was the best mother who ever lived”. Excuse me folks; did I dream that our childhood was one of deprivation and neglect, of emotional and physical abuse and violence? Maisie did her very best to be a good caring parent within the limits of her own capabilities, and the limits imposed by a society which condemned her for being a working-class woman with too many children. Our mother was just as much a victim as we were, but our collective experience and our individual experience in that situation with Maisie as our mother has had long-lasting effects on each of our lives. Through the long days and nights of her dying I had a great longing to reach out to each my brothers and sisters. I wanted to draw them close and embrace them in a space where we could honour and acknowledge our own unique ways in which each of us experienced the pain of our childhood reality. As much as I was already grieving for the mother I had and for the mothering I never had, I was grieving for four brothers and four sisters whom I desperately needed to care how I was feeling and would accept that I cared how they were feeling.

It didn’t happen. There was no space in the scenario to explore the past or resolve the present. We slipped into the old family roles and resentments, rather than face anything that could be interpreted as criticism of our dying mother. In the fragile cast list of the family script and allotted roles I was the intelligent one who achieved academically, but was of no practical use.

I was also the who criticised and said no to our mother in the atmosphere of a Scottish Protestant household where whatever your mother did or said was to be unquestioned and obeyed. I was bad and mad and a snob for wanting all of us to have a better life, I gained my mother’s approval for bringing academic achievement into the family and a certain amount of kudos in having a daughter at the very posh Grammar school. I earned her disapproval and the rejection of the family for speaking the language of middle-class education.

When I made attempts to talk openly with the family about what the past had been like for all of us, I neatly placed myself in the old role of critic and educated middle-class deserter. My attempts to use my skills to help my mother through the pain of her illness and to gain her approval, only seemed to confirm for her what she had decided a long time ago; that I had become an educated snob with no practical use. As far as she was concerned the acupuncture treatments I gave her produced a rash on her arms and a pain in her leg. It was the delayed effects of two radiotherapy treatments, which had got her out of bed and into the world again in a comparatively meaningful way.

My mother’s illness was a time, for me, of great ambivalence, of desperate attempts to be close to her and to my brothers and sisters. I remember someone saying to me that they finally began to grow up when their mother died. My reality of this sentiment is that when my mother died I could begin to liberate the needy child within from the impossible task of fitting the template which my mother had constructed for me and which the family hegemony maintained.

I had hoped that sharing, the pain of losing our mother would forge stronger links between us. The gaps had widened and I began to feel that it was going to be almost impossible to create a future based on a past that did not exist. The challenge was to address the past in its entirety, to acknowledge the distress, to recognise the forces which had shaped our lives, good and bad, to let go of our mother with love for her and for each other and to move on. We move on still Joined by a common birth name and the names of two people identified on our birth certificates as our parents. Pandora’s box remains closed.

Our father’s passing preceded our mother’s by seven years. Into his place stepped nine progeny who made sure that Maisie did not have to worry about such practical matters as decorating and fixing mechanical things. In assuming this responsibility for our mother the mutual entanglement of co-dependency went unnoticed. Our mother’s illness and death brought an opportunity to look at the outlived patterns of behaviour. However, the structures that had served us well as survival mechanisms became hardened into rigid shells around our emotional blocks, masks, dogmas and prejudices. We do not willingly leave self-built prisons or welcome any challenges to our firmly held world-view. One person in a relationship may make a conscious effort to grow, but if the others involved resist, change becomes impossible. We must each then find our own way and travel it. I realised very quickly the futility and the arrogance of trying to persuade my brothers and sisters to follow my ideas when each must work within our own limits and emotional parameters.

My mother has gone. I have no more time and no more chances to be a good daughter, to be the person she wanted me to be. I could go into therapy and sift through the emotional detritus of my childhood, bit by bit, but this could prove as useful as sorting the rubbish left after a wild party, identifying who might be responsible for each offensive piece of litter. Somewhere under all the emotional gunk stuck round my heart is a small child, still wanting to sit on her mother’s lap, still grieving for what she never had, unconditional love and acceptance, even when she doesn’t win prizes, even when she messes up with great excellence. I wanted my mother to love me not in spite of or because of anything I did or didn’t do, but just because…just because.

Last week I walked along our street, past the house where strangers live now. A very fine rain was falling and the air was as grey as the houses. Somehow the street didn’t seem as long as it used to. I looked from one end to the other and saw rows of houses, all slightly different, but somehow a cohesive whole, where once I had seen fragments of life and buildings painted with my sorrow and grief. Perhaps I am no longer carrying my great burden of guilt and so my path along the road is lighter and no longer painfully heavy. As my old house faded into the greyness of the early evening twilight and drizzle, with nothing to distinguish it but a sense of familiarity, I knew that I had finally let my mother go, knowing that she did her best and that I did too.

Harry Mac And The Wee Chookie Chicken

January 5, 2008

When Harry Mac got the job down at Big Geordie’s farm, my dad said they could get engaged when he had been there for six months. Betty said that was a bit too long. Harry had got the job and he was going to keep it and they were engaged now and that was that. Harry came up the road every night and he always brought a few potatoes or a box of eggs and once a bunch of carrots with the muck still on them and then one night, that wee chookie chicken. Mammie treated Harry like he was our great benefactor every time he arrived with the goods. Geordie must like him, Betty said, if Harry gets all that stuff from him. So he’s not going to sack him, is he? And Harry wants to get married. So he’s not going to pack it in, is he? He’s got a good job and he brings the wage packet on a Friday to show us. So, what’s the bother about?

Well, that was Harry Mac and my sister. Harry hadn’t had a job as long as we’d known him and that was a year or two. Well, I can’t actually remember how long it was. I reckon time seems a lot longer when you’re just fourteen than when you are looking back from a distance of quite a few years. So, it may have been just a few months and seemed like a couple of years. Betty had started hanging around at, ‘The Cabin,’ with her mate Eleanor. I looked in there a few times when I passed on my way up the hill to school or to my granny’s house. The door wasn’t open very often and that made it very tantalising. In my mind there was something secret, something wild and untamed about it, something adult. The bikes got parked on the pavement. All the way up the hill they were, gleaming with chrome, big, black and masculine. And Harry Mac’s, black, dull and welded together in his dad’s living room. My sister loved it. The café, I mean. She loved that café. I nagged and nagged at her to get to go there with her and Eleanor, but she just said I was too young. And that just made it all the more fascinating for me. I imagined what it must be like inside. It was huge, with dozens of tables, with five or six people at each of them, leaning in towards each other, conspiratorial, intimate, smoking, drinking frothy coffee and talking adult talk.

Then one day I was passing, and trying to have a look to see if the door was open, so I could have a look inside that dark and mysterious adult place, but trying not to look like I was looking. While I was trying not to look, I nearly tripped over the woman with the broom swishing away on the steps. She had on one of those wrap-around aprons with the big kangaroo pocket on the front and a scarf over her rollers. My mother wore one of those all the time at home. Do you remember those aprons? Mammie got hers every year for Christmas from my granny, stiff and shiny, the apron that is, not my granny, that went limp the first time it was washed. Morrison’s sold them. Great heaps of them on the mahogany counters at Christmas; Paisley patterns, aprons with flowers, and even modern abstract for the discerning housewife with allusions to social grandeur. That wasn’t my Mammie or my granny. They always had the Paisley ones. Mammie kept her wee doots in the pocket. She took a few drags on her Woodbine, then nipped it out and slipped the doot into the pocket for later. One Woodbine could last right through the jobs: brush the floor, a few drags, wash the dishes, a few drags, tidy the beds, a few drags.

So, anyway, there was this woman with her apron and her rollers and her broom, swishing away, swooshing a load of rubbish, fag ends, Coke bottles, chewing gum wrappers and what looked like two week’s worth from a Glasgow midden.

“Watch oot!” she said. Ye’re gonna git covered in rubbage wee lassie.”

Too late, I thought, but didn’t say, because this woman looked big and she looked rough and she looked like she’d follow her words up with action if I didn’t move. I wasn’t about to say anything about the stuff stuck to my shoes, not me. Betty would have said something. She was good with the quick retorts and the tone of voice that said, “don’t mess with me,” whoever you are. Not me, though. I had been practising the parley I imagined they used in the café, but to tell the truth, I always had trouble wrapping my lips around the swear words. So, they never tripped lightly off my tongue. I wasn’t what you’d call a, ‘natural swearer.’ My swearing sounded like someone learning a foreign language from a book, like my friend Jean at school learning her French vocabulary in the cloakroom and absolutely killing me with, Sykes auntie! Soixante to the rest of us!

Where was I? Yes! Wee lassie? Well, she wouldn’t be saying that when she saw me in the dress I was going to wear when I made my grand entrance, with my make-up done and my hair up. I wouldn’t be looking like a wee lassie then.

Well, I looked up at her with my best look of defiance, which was probably quite feeble, I know, but it was my best bad look. Then, without thinking about it, without even trying to get a look, there I was looking. I was looking past her into the den of iniquity where my sister disappeared and closed the door and wouldn’t let me follow her in because it was for adults and I would not be an adult ever, because I was just a whinging wean and always had been and always would be. Well, it was about the size of our living room. Honestly it was. Must have been about six tiny wee tables with three or four chairs crowded round them, leaning over like they’d had a hard night. Probably had with the weight of all that leather and chains on them. And there was a big tin of Nescafe on the dark wee counter at the back. Never knew you could make frothy coffee from instant Nescafe. I thought it was that American stuff, you know, beans that got crushed to bits in a machine. Not Nescafe. That just stayed in my mind that tin, as the symbol of my disillusion. Six tiny wee tables and a tin of Nescafe. Some mystery! Some bloody excitement!

“Ye gonnae ston there aw’ day then, hen? Cos ah’ve goat tae git this midden cleaned for six.” That woman sounded like she wasn’t going to stand any nonsense, and I just thought, well, if she worked in that place, with all those bikers, well then, she must be quite tough herself. I wasn’t exactly street savvy when I was fourteen.

“No, sorry,” I said. Felt like I was showing myself up as a right dopey bitch. “I was just wondering if my sister was in there.”

“There’s naebiddy in there, hen. Kin ye no see we’re shut?”

“Oh,” I tried then, “ She told me you opened at five o’clock,” feeling like I was sounding more and more feeble and less and less adult like the people who sat at those little tables.

“Look, hen,” she sounded like she was getting really fed up then, “We’re shut. Naebiddy’s here, because we’re shut. OK?”

“Um, right, ok, thanks,” was all I managed next and in the absence of any more intelligent banter decided it was time to leave the big woman to her work.

Off I went up the hill, where the bikers were beginning to take up their places, sitting astride their machines, smoking, breathing smoke down their noses, claiming the territory as theirs. Each had a girl on the back, a silent white-lipped trophy in a too big leather jacket that looked like somebody had rolled around in it a lot. To think that I wanted my hair to look like that. Bouffant so high and so heavily lacquered that Marge Simpson would have looked like a hippie. But back then, I did want to look like that, white-lipped, high haired, breathing cigarette smoke down my nose and so tough nobody would bother me.

The reason I mention the café is that it was there that Betty met Harry. Well, I never told Betty or Harry what I had seen, but I didn’t pester anymore to go to The Cabin. I just knew it wasn’t my kind of adult place. Strangely enough, soon after my day of disillusion, Betty and Harry Mac stopped going to The Cabin. I say, strangely, but I don’t think the two were linked in any way, just one of those coincidences that makes you notice things more because you were thinking about something and I noticed after the disillusioning glimpse that Betty and Harry Mac were around the house a lot more or up at my granny’s, drinking Buckfast out of cups because granny kept her glasses for New Year and for visitors that she thought were of a higher social class than we were. I suppose she never saw Harry Mac as being in a higher social class. He did get his biscuits on a plate, but he never got a glass for his Buckfast.

Anyway, yes, when Harry Mac got the job at the farm, he had found a way to make himself very popular with our mother. She was brilliant at making a coupla quid feed us all, but carrots with the muck still on were not a feature of the Saturday shopping bag. They were tied up in bunches at the fruit shop and brought down for the women in high heels who ostentatiously pointed and asked for, ‘A bunch of your best carrots, Mr B,’ sounding all their, ‘ts,’ and pronouncing bunch as, ‘bench.’ Snobby cows! Most of them lived on the same estate as us. They just had the men who spent their lives working overtime at the foundry. My dad used to make fun of them walking up the road with their wee tin boxes for their pieces. Mammie used to tell him to go and get a job down at the foundry because there was obviously money to be made there. She never made the greengrocer reach for the, ‘benches,’ of carrots; she poked through the bargain box and filled a threepenny bag with the best of the bruised apples and bashed-about turnips. I often wondered if my mother had been used to better things before she got married because she always looked embarrassed leaning over that box, same as when she was asking for the broken biscuits at Woolworth’s. So, when Harry Mac started at the farm and came every night with armloads and pocket loads of fresh fruit and vegetables, my mother practically kissed him, though I’m glad she didn’t because he’d probably have stopped coming with what turned out to be swag, stolen property. He told us that Geordie said to help himself, but that night when he brought the wee chookie chicken, well we guessed that Harry was helping himself, but maybe not with Geordie’s approval or knowledge.

The night of the wee chookie chicken is one of those episodes that are like those illuminations in an ancient manuscript. You know, the ones down the side that tell you what the story’s about. They pop into your mind from time to time, these little illuminations that may not be of great significance to anyone else if you told them, but must have been significant to you at the time. Looking back over my life, from where I am now, I see little freeze frames of different scenes, light and bright and colourful, and especially bright is the scene with the chicken and Harry Mac and what he did to that chicken. It was actually a hen, I suppose, since a chicken is a young bird or an older bird once it’s plucked and trussed and wrapped for sale. Anyway, this bird, which I shall continue to call the chookie chicken because that was what Harry Mac called it, was bright reddish-orange. It really was quite big and had lovely feathers and made a lot of noise. Now our kitchen was not the place for a living, hopping, clucking chicken, but there it was, in our kitchen. It was like the big, fresh outdoors, farmyard and straw and smells of animal food and even sounds like the farmer squelching through a muddy yard, had come into the small, square, dimly lit, cluttered space that was our kitchen. It was as out of place there as I would have been in my one pound a pair three and a half inch stilettos in the farmyard.

When Harry arrived that night, the night of the chookie chicken, it was like any other night, really. Harry pushed in through the front door, which was never locked. Well, more like Harry usually fell through the door. Don’t know why, but he always looked like he had pushed so hard he was going to land on the carpet or keep going until he hit the bathroom door at the end of the hall. Harry arrived, dressed as usual in his leather jacket and he was in such a rush that I didn’t notice the bulge in his jacket as I followed him into the kitchen. Harry’s arrival was the highlight of my day. I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I enjoyed the company of my sister’s and they always let me sit in the kitchen with them and even let me play, ‘Postman’s Knock,’ with them when one of Harry’s mates came round and we used the back lobby as the dark place for the snogging.

I followed Harry into the kitchen, ready to put the kettle on and ingratiate myself, earn my place at the table. I had a few stories saved for Harry. He liked my stories about people at my school, the teachers, the pupils from the posh estate where people bought their houses and the cars that came to collect some of the really posh ones. Harry looked for these stories every night, and if nothing interesting had happened I made something up. I had a good one that night and I was ready to tell it. Ian Ray had let off a firework, a Jumping Jack, in the science room and this was one of the best yet.

Well, that night Harry didn’t take his usual place at the table to wait for his cup of tea, he rushed over to the sink and I thought for a minute that he was going to be sick because he leaned right over, while tugging at the zip of his leather jacket, which was odd really if he was going to be sick, but that’s what I thought at the time. As the zip went down, there was a strange sound from the jacket and the chicken fell into the sink. When it stood up, I nearly ran out of there. It looked that big in our little sink and it probably was quite big, probably one of Geordie’s layers, and it started to make loud clucking noises and trying to hop out onto the draining board. Harry tried to keep it in the sink as Betty walked in and had a go at asking him what he was going to do with it.

“It’s for my feckin’ dinner,” he said, spitting the words at her, but this was Harry’s usual way of communicating, nothing unusual there.

“So, how is it gonnae git tae be yer dinner then,” Betty came back with, more than a hint of scorn in her voice.

“Ah’m gonnae kill the wee fecker, is whit Ah’m gonnae dae, ye daft bitch.”

As he turned round to add emphasis to his words with a pointy finger the hen saw her chance and began hopping around on top of the clean dishes on the draining board, sending cups, plates, pots and pans and the dog’s dinner, scattering over the edge and clattering to the floor. Harry flicked some of the dog-dinner slop off his foot and went back to the task of the chicken dinner. The hen decided that the grey light filtering through the mucky kitchen window might be its best route to freedom and leapt onto the ledge. Everything on the window ledge went flying: jam jar with daddy’s paint brushes in turpentine, mug with shaving brush, bar of soap in a plastic tray. Having a rather poetic nature, I noticed the contrast between the living, outdoor vibrancy of the hen’s richly coloured feathers and the rusty window frame running with condensation.

Around about this time Mammie decided to come and see what the noise was about. She stood by the door, taking in the whole scene, and then she reached into her pocket, took out her wee doot and lit it.

“Whit’s e’ gonnae dae wi’ the hen?” she asked between puffs, seemingly not at all bothered or surprised about a large reddish-brown hen hopping over the draining board and shitting on what was left of the dishes. She reached past Harry and under the squawking hen and filled the kettle, lit the gas and set the kettle on to boil.

The cigarette dangled from the side of her mouth. Amazing how she did that. Screwed up the eye on the fag side and talked out of the fag-free corner of her mouth.

“Anybiddy gonnae tell me whit that hen’s daein’ in ma scullery?”

No reply.

Betty got some clean cups from the press and laid them out on the table. We usually made the cups of tea on the draining board next to the cooker, but Betty was always such a practical person, really sensible about things like that. So, she set the cups on the table on the opposite side of the kitchen to the hopping hen. She pulled up two rickety wooden chairs and me and her sat down on the plastic covered seats.

I decided that this might be a good time to start my story about Ian Ray and the Jumping Jack in the Science room. I just hated tense situations and this sure was tense. So, I tried to distract attention by changing the subject, which never was something that actually worked for me, but I tried anyway because I couldn’t think of anything else. Some people laugh when they’re nervous, some people try to make an exit, I change the subject with interesting anecdotes.

I touched Betty’s sleeve to get her attention and gave a little chuckle, “You should have seen what happened in our Science lesson today,” I looked over at Mammie, who was standing by the cooker, trying to draw her in. She nipped out her fag and pushed it deep into the pocket of her apron.

“Look,’ said Mammie, ‘that hen’s makin’ a big mess. Take it back whaur ye got it fae, Harry. Ah need tae git the dinner done.”

I thought maybe she hadn’t heard the start of my story. I decided to wait for a suitable gap to start again.

Meanwhile, Harry had managed to get the hen back into the sink and was holding its head under the water gushing from the cold tap, trying to drown it.

Mammie leaned over the sink.

“Where did ye git the hen, Harry?”

The kettle boiled with a loud whistle, which made the hen squawk even louder than before and struggle to wrench its head from Harry’s grip. Betty got up from the table and made the tea. She poured four cups and got Mammie to sit down. Mammie plonked herself down, but she was not going to be silenced with a cup of tea.

“Harry, Ah’m askin’ ye a question. Whit are ye daein’ wi’ that hen?”

I chuckled a bit to attract attention and launched in once again with my story.

“Did I tell you about what happened in the Science room today?”

Still thinking that somehow my story about the fireworks was going to suddenly make everyone sit down for a friendly chat while Harry just got on with the slaughter in the sink.

They all ignored me. I sipped my tea.

“Whit dae ye think Ah’m daein’ wi’ the hen? Ah’m fixin’ it fer ma dinner.”

“Ye could at least gae Mammie some ae that chicken, Harry,’ Said Betty. She always was good at getting on Mammie’s good side. Wee sook!

I just felt guilty then because I hadn’t even thought of asking for some just for Mammie. I had just been thinking about how I would have liked some nice roasted chicken.

“Mammie’s been good to you, Harry,’ I tried, as an attempt to be as unselfish as Betty and not as selfish as she and Mammie thought I was.

“Oh,” says my mother, “Ah wis hopin’ ye’d brung it fur dinner the morra. Long time since we hud chicken fur oor dinner. That hen’s big enough for us aw’ tae get a bit.”

“The three bloody witches speak,” shouted Harry, turning round and spitting downy red feathers at us as he spoke. “Double, double, trouble, trouble,’ he sneered at us in a grim parody of what he obviously thought was a clever thing to say.

I felt sorry for Harry. He sounded silly and I liked Harry. I thought about Harry coming out with this bit of his own brand of Shakespeare in other company and I thought they’d make fun of him. I didn’t like the idea of that happening. Better coming from me, I decided, someone who liked him.

“I think, Harry,” trying not to sound patronising, “you’ve got that a bit wrong there. Which witches are you talking about?”

“Which witches,” he said, “Which witches? Well, the High School expert speaks.”

It was cruel the way he mimicked what he thought was my snobby High School voice. Yes, I was speaking differently from the others in my family and my street, but I had to get by at the High School, didn’t I? I had to start pronouncing my ts and saying you not ye and definitely not yous as a plural. I had to go to the toilet and not the lavatory and I had to drink lemonade and not ginger. It was just difficult to swap back when I got home. I sometimes wondered if he asked me to tell stories about my school just so he could laugh about my snobby voice.

“Well, Harry, I do know that if you are thinking of Shakespeare, that’s wrong what you’re saying.”

“Who the hell bloody cares about Shikespeare,” said my mother. Oh mother! “I just want to know if we get some ae that chicken. We huvnae hud chicken fur a long time, Harry an’ you’ve hud yer dinner here every night fur ages.”

Yes that was all true. Harry had been coming to our house for his dinner every night since he started at the farm and it had been a long time since we had had chicken or anything in fact that was like a dinner you’d have chicken with. In fact the last time we had had chicken was at Christmas, ten months before this living fowl was argued over. That was the year that my mother had joined one of those clubs and paid a few shillings a week for the luxury hamper and we had all these tins and jars and packets at Christmas. There was a pack of petticoat shortbread, a tin of fruit cocktail, a miniature bottle of whisky that my dad got the magnifying glass to see and among the other luxury items was a biggish tin that said on the label that it contained, “A whole roast chicken.” Well, it was a biggish tin, biggish in comparison with the tiny tin of fruit cocktail or the tin of apple pie filling, or the tiny wee tin of cream, but it really didn’t look big enough to have a whole chicken in there.

On Christmas Day, the tin was opened. The vegetables, courtesy of Big Geordie, were all boiled and roasted and ready, because the chicken just needed heating. So, Mammie got the tin opener, and we all gathered round to watch as this treat was about to appear. Daddy was pacing about the kitchen muttering about the tin being only big enough for a sparrow. Mammie was saying it must be big enough because it said on the tin that was a family-sized whole roast chicken. I wanted that chicken to be enormous because Mammie had been so cheerful and optimistic about having roast chicken for our Christmas dinner.

Well, the lid was removed and the moment had arrived. Mammie looked at Daddy, pursed her lips, did a, ‘you’re going to see,’ look, turned the tin upside down and gave it a hearty shake. The contents slid out and plopped onto the large serving plate with a rather unimpressive squelching sound. In the middle of a gleaming mass of jelly was a chicken that should not have been taken from its mother. Daddy leaned over the table, looked over the heads of those of us squashed against it.

“It’s an abortion!” he said.

It did look like something that had been born prematurely. It was supposed to be a whole chicken, but it did not seem to have any bones to hold it together. It was just a blobby lump of pale-looking animal flesh, swimming in slimy jelly.

Mammie burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen. Daddy did a good job of removing the flesh from the soft bones of that bird and making sure that we all had the same amount, around a tablespoon of meat. Nobody spoke right through dinner. Mammie was persuaded to come and eat, but she pushed all of her chicken onto Daddy’s plate, saying if he was so unhappy about it, he could have hers. Daddy pushed all of the chicken off his plate then onto the wean’s plate and nobody had a good time except the wee yin who was stuffed with chicken and we had to put him in the bath when he puked all over his new Christmas clothes.

Well, that was the last time we had had chicken. And now there was this big captive hen in our kitchen and Mammie was going to get that hen for our dinner. I could see it in her face. That hen was not going to be just dinner for Harry Mac. He would have eaten all of it, don’t doubt that for a minute. Harry could eat a whole packet of sausages to himself with a whole tin of beans too. Then he could polish off a tin of condensed milk, spooning it straight from the tin. And I do mean polish off. He scraped the tin so clean it gleamed. So, that hen was no bother for him.

Harry did not respond to my mother’s suggestion about the fate of the hen. Mammie went quiet and we sat there drinking our tea, me, Betty and Mammie and just watched as the hen kept escaping from Harry’s big grubby hands and made a renewed bid for freedom over the dishes. The hen had by now been in our house for about an hour and we were beginning to get used to it and see a personality there. It had a range of clucking sounds and it did sound frightened and trying to communicate. Every time Harry managed to grab it the chicken cried out loudly, screeching with a sound that was quite alarming really. I began to feel sorry for the hen and Betty said she did too when I mentioned this. So, we gave it a name, Elsie, and we told Harry that we wanted to keep Elsie as a pet. We could keep it in the coalhole and it could run around in the garden and since it was a girl we would get eggs every day. Mammie jumped up with renewed vigour and enthusiasm and went off to search in the hidey-hole under the stairs for a box for it to sleep in. She liked the idea of eggs every day and I reckon she was also planning on a Christmas killing. I just had that feeling. She was a right schemer my Mammie. She kept her chocolates down the side of the chair and thought we didn’t notice when her hand slid down into the rustling packet then slid up to her mouth.

Well all this planning for our new pet got Harry really mad. He just got more determined to make that hen into a dead one and get his dinner on the table. He gripped the hen by the neck and began to bang its head on the edge of the sink, grunting and swearing with every whack. When it looked like that hen had breathed its last, Harry threw it into the sink with a great gasp of triumph and immediately began to pluck handfuls of feathers. Unfortunately, Elsie had not gasped her last. She was clinging tenaciously to life. With huge bare patches amongst the reddish-orange plumage, and bumps rising where the feathers had been, Elsie stood up and squawked her loudest squawk yet. I felt like an accomplice to torture, sitting there not doing anything to save Elsie and I thought I was going to be sick. Harry lunged and wrapped both of his big hands around Elsie’s neck and began to wring it like it was a dishcloth. Elsie was gasping in a way that I reckoned only a hen with a pair of hands around its neck could gasp when Mammie came back with a cardboard box and made a rush to the sink to save the eggs and our Christmas dinner. She threw the box aside, grabbed Harry by the collar of his leather jacket and pulled with all her strength while shouting at him to leave that poor wee hen alone. Harry held on and soon the hen was dangling out of the sink and over the floor with Mammie swinging from Harry’s jacket, her feet nearly off the floor. I wondered what she imagined we could do with a half-plucked and half-dead chicken.

At this point Daddy, who had been outside helping Tammy the Tinker with the gearbox of his old van, came whistling in carrying a very serious looking big spanner. He edged around the wrestling bodies, poked the dangling hen with the spanner, inspected the feathers in the sink and the faeces on the dishes and laid the spanner down with a clunk on the edge of the draining board. He leaned one elbow on the edge of the sink and carried on whistling some unidentifiable tune as Mammie grabbed a handful of Harry’s hair and Harry persisted in trying to shake her off and keep up the wringing action on the hen’s neck.

Betty decided that things had gone beyond the point that we were going to keep Elsie and she made an effort to bring the whole thing to a conclusion. She added to the turmoil by grabbing hold of the hen’s body and attempted to wrest it from Harry’s grip. I stayed where I was and poured another cup of tea, wishing that I could think of something assertive and decisive. Daddy picked the spanner off the draining board with his right hand and began slapping it rhythmically on his open left hand. A slap, slapping metronome measuring the beat of the tussle going on; Mammie and Harry Mac in a crazy, sliding dance across the floor.

“Somebody put that hen oot o’ its misery! For the love of Jesus,” Betty yelled, “ Somebody kill that bloody chicken.”

Daddy gave a heavy sigh, put the spanner down and pulled himself away from the sink. He placed his hands on Betty’s shoulders, “Sit doon, now hen,” he said. And she did. She let go and sat down at the table. Ok, now Harry, gae me the hen, son.” Harry looked at Daddy, seemed like he was going to carry on wringing the hen’s neck and swinging Mammie around, then his fists opened and Daddy had the hen. “Ok, now everybody sit doon and have a cuppa char. Ah’ll deal wi’ this chookie chicken.” And he did. He laid the hen’s neck across the rim of the sink, picked up the greasy spanner and brought it down with such a whack that Elsie’s head and her body parted company. And then he threw our Elsie into the sink. I felt sick. No way, I decided, could I eat any of that chicken now, even if Harry did decide to share it.

“There ye go, son,” said Daddy, as he got himself a cup from the press and poured himself a cuppa from the pot. “Ye kin pluck that wee chookie chicken noo.”

Daddy sat back in his chair grinning with what I thought was smug satisfaction. In fact he knew something that Harry and the rest of us didn’t. As Harry reached into the sink to start plucking, Elsie, or what was left of her, stood up again. Harry gave a yell and leapt back. Daddy nearly fell off his chair laughing as the hen twitched a few times and flopped over. Harry just stood there for ages, staring at the heap of reddish-brown feathers, like he was waiting for another resurrection. When he finally decided that Elsie had given up the ghost, he began to tear the feathers out. They went everywhere, especially all over Harry. He spluttered and spat as the finer downy feathers were thrown up and into his nose and mouth, but he kept going until there was a completely naked body in the sink.

I went over then and had a look.

“Why’s it got all those black marks on it, Harry?”

“Ah don’t feckin’ know,” was what he said. “Betty, hiv ye goat a big knife?”

Betty tramped over the debris on the kitchen floor, nudging broken cups and plates aside with her foot until amongst the bits she found the knife she was looking for and handed it to Harry who used it to hack at the business end of the chicken to get the giblets out.

“I think that hen’s all bruises,” I said, “You gave it a real good battering there, Harry.”

“It’s gonnae taste alright,” he said. “Ah’ll eat it anyway.”

Daddy now took charge of what was going to happen to that chicken and who was going to eat it.

“Harry,” he said, leaning over the sink, “Ah think ye’ve goat tae share that chicken. Ye can use oor cooker if we aw git a wee bit. Itherwise Harry, ye kin take it up tae yer faither’s hoose. See if he’ll let ye eat it aw tae yersell.”

So, that’s how we came to have a roast chicken dinner on a night that wasn’t somebody’s birthday and wasn’t Christmas. I couldn’t eat any of it after seeing Elsie alive and kicking so much in our kitchen. I tried one bite, but I couldn’t chew it. I had to go into the coalhole and spit it out. Harry got a leg, of course and when everybody else was done, he chewed the bones clean. The dog got the licked clean bones and sat crunching under the table. I had just begun to tell my school story about the boy with the Jumping Jack in the Science room, when Big Geordie arrived at our door to have a wee word with Harry about a missing hen. By this time, of course, there was nothing to show that Elsie had been there. Still, Big Geordie couldn’t have believed Harry because he told Harry to collect his wages and his cards.

Well, the next job that Harry Mac got was driving a taxi for Wee Willie McCabe. Wee Willie’s cabs were cheap. I don’t mean the fares, though, because they were just about the same as you’d pay a real taxi company. No, Willie McCabe’s cars were cheap. Real old rust-buckets. The radios he installed were worth more than the cars and the wiring probably held the dashboards together. Harry carried on trying to please our Mammie. I reckon he thought he had a better chance of getting round her for a wedding present than he ever had with daddy. Mammie got picked up on message day and out she traipsed with her message bag over her arm and a sly look round to see if the neighbours were watching. An hour later, back she came, getting out of the taxi with the message bag full of the usual broken biscuits, fruit and veg from the bargain box, the brown paper bag of porridge oats and the tins of beans. Daddy said she should have asked to be let out at the corner so the neighbours wouldn’t see her getting out of the rust-bucket, but Mammie just said that at least it was a car and at least Harry had got a job, not like some people she could mention.

I’m having trouble finishing this story, I’m telling you. I feel like I could just go on and on until I get it right and never get there. What would getting it right be? A happy ending? Yes, Harry Mac got a wonderful job, he married my sister and we all lived happily ever after and my father won the pools and Mammie didn’t need to nag any more for him to get a job and she bought the, ‘benches of carrots,’ from the hooks at the fruit shop. A surprise ending? Big Geordie was just leaving our house when he saw the cat with reddish-brown feathers protruding from its chops? Well, that would be a good ending and might leave you, my readers with a smile. Sorry readers, can’t leave you with a smile, though I have given you a few things to smile about, have I not, in the course of my wee story about Harry Mac and the wee chookie chicken? That will have to do you in the humour bracket. A sad ending? I could give you a sad ending where my sister never got to marry Harry because Harry never managed to find a decent job and keep it. So, she vowed never to marry and spent her life grieving for her motorbike boy. What about a no ending ending? Is a short story supposed to have an ending or can I leave it hanging, or just stop in mid-sentence so it’s like one of those films my daddy never liked, you know, the ones where you never get to know who got the girl, or you don’t see the baddies being put away?

It’s not a slice of life, my English teacher used to say. A short story would be terminally boring if it were a slice of life. A play on television or a film would be terminally boring if it were a slice of life. Well, in a way this story is a slice. It’s like a slice of Mammie’s dumpling. Most of the slices of my life at that time would have been like slices of Mammie’s dumpling, all dull-coloured with a few wee bits of drama, like the sugar encrusted on top.

Jeez! I’m getting a bit profound and metaphorical here. What I think I’m trying to tell you is that it doesn’t change very much. Life, I mean. When you’re at the bottom end of a very large pile, it’s a long way up and not many of us manage the climb. The men who went past our door with their pieces in wee metal boxes, carried on going past our door with their pieces in wee metal boxes. They carried on living on our council estate and they carried on working themselves to sickness and tiredness. My Mammie carried on making the most of mouldy vegetables and grieving for a life she never had. My sister got married to Harry Mac and she carried him and five kids through a long and sometimes happy marriage. Big Geordie installed huge barns to house his big, scrawny chookie chickens. Me? I’m still making up stories!

Surfinias Are Everywhere

December 18, 2007

It’s Sunday, June 20th, 1999. On this lovely day I’m travelling home.

Not-My-Home is Holloway Road and I’m wondering what other people do on a quiet summer Sunday in this place. There are people around not carrying bags. Do they live here? How can it be possible to live here?

If I started walking now, heading north, south, east or west, how long would it take me to be in countryside? Too long. I’m glad I’m going home.

Signs of activity are few. Boards outside cafes tempt Sunday moochers with “ALL DAY BREAKFAST,” and “SPECIAL SUNDAY ROAST.” Only £3.95. Moochers are few. I’m trying hard to make sense of why anybody would want to linger here long enough to eat. People who live here and people who work here? It’s not a part of London for tourists. What is there to see? Decay. Things that are broken, and it’s too late for repair. Anything new looks temporary. Small shops, lots of bargains and quick profits, plastic fascia and lettraset signs; not staying long. Me neither. I’m a traveller and the tourists are somewhere else.

Sunday, June 20th. Tomorrow is the summer solstice and yesterday was her birthday. If it were Friday, this road would be buzzing with activity. People work here and go somewhere else on Sunday. If it were Friday there would be more of us, workers, travellers and moochers. Did she choose today, this day, because yesterday was her birthday and there is a letter in her bag from her mother? Or did she choose this day, today, because this day is Sunday and Holloway Road is decaying and the tourists are somewhere else?

I don’t like crossing Holloway Road. It’s wide and straight and the traffic sweeps through. This road is a thoroughfare. It’s coming from somewhere else and it wants to go somewhere else. I’m trying to be here because this is where I am, feeling small and fragile at this moment, and easily broken. I hold my breath as I step off the pavement like it’s Friday. But it’s Sunday. Very few vehicles to dodge on this day. I look back when I am safe and I see the flowers for the first time. “Surfinias are everywhere,” I tell my partner. “Look at them. Even Holloway Road has Surfinias.” He’s not listening. He lives here, but he hasn’t noticed them. Swaying masses of colour outside pubs. Huge, living pendulums dragging down crumbling archways. “Look,” I say, “They’re so vibrant and vigorous.” He’s not listening. His intention is fixed on the destination, mine on the journey, the path that brings me and others to this place at this time.

John is hurrying me. “We’re already late,” he says. I’m trying to slow it all down to the speed of comforting communication. John is settling uncomfortably into the role of person who gets us there. I’m here. He’s somewhere else.

Here is the station. It’s dank and dark and cool inside. I forget where I’m going. John doesn’t. He has the money ready and he buys the tickets. I watch as no hands touch. Money into the tray, tickets out of the tray. I wonder. John doesn’t. He has lived in this place long enough to pass through without wonder.

Here is the platform. We must have come down in the lift, but when I look back from a safe place that scene is missing. We sit on a bench. Here is the tunnel. The train will come from here and we will get in the last carriage. John says the last carriage is always empty on a Sunday.

I don’t know if she’s here yet, or if she will walk past while I am somewhere else. Tel Aviv is across the track, enticing travellers. I am a traveller. I want to go there. John says only the tourists read the posters.

I lie back in a deck chair and the sea laps around my feet, cool, gentle and comforting. The sky is clear blue, fills my field of vision and John is a long way off in Holloway Road tube station, looking into an empty black hole. I’m still floating in the azure when I hear the train, singing along the tracks, “I’m coming. I’m coming.” The sea is still lapping around my feet when I hear the train, nearer and nearer, rattling through the tunnel, “I’m coming.” There is a movement in the Tel Aviv sky, a billowing of fabric to the left of my field of vision. Tel Aviv is on my right. The grey front of the train is on my left, in the black mouth of the tunnel. Something is floating in the airstream, halfway to Tel Aviv.


It’s wrong. It’s not right. I draw a breath and hold it. When it comes out, it comes dragging a sound from somewhere deep and dreadful, deep and full of dread.


And now I am looking at the train. And under it, under it is something soft and fragile, and it must be broken beyond repair.

I want not to be here. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. People on the platform, Train on the tracks. People on the train. Train leaves the station.

People are moving. Further along the platform are people who are unaware of this fracture in the fabric of life in this place. These are the people who do not know, or do not care that the last carriage is always empty. A woman asks me what has happened. Only two carriages have arrived. The last one is a long way back in the tunnel.

I tell her.

I tell her that a young woman is under the train. I’m trying to

tell myself that this is true. Train, platform, tracks. She was on the track. Now the train is here. She flew through the air. She landed on the track and the train went over her. I don’t know how to describe the slow-motion film now playing to the left of my field of vision.

When the day speeds up again, men in yellow tabards are flying down the stairs. The driver is being helped from the cab. John is telling me that I have to give someone my name and address. I am a witness.

I don’t want to be a witness. I want to go home. She did not ask me if I wanted to be a witness. She did not ask my permission to involve me in the drama of her life. Excuse me, I would have said no. I have a ticket to travel from Holloway Road to Marylebone, Marcia. I did not ask for a ticket to a ringside seat in your carefully planned last act.

John has found a policeman with a notebook. He wants me to tell the policeman my name and address.

I wonder why John didn’t do that. I wonder if he knows who I am. John is here now. I am somewhere else.

In ordinary reality I walk out of the station into bright sunlight. Fire engines and ambulances are there, confirming that something serious has happened here on this day. I want to go quickly. I do not want to see her leave the station. She will not walk out in the ordinary reality of this day, this Sunday, the day after her birthday, with cards in her bag and a letter from her mother, and keys to the house where she does not live anymore. When did she walk into the station? Was she in the lift with us? Did I look at her face and wonder who she was and where she was going?

Here I am in the cafe. The board outside still reads “ALL DAY BREAKFAST.” Everything in this place is as it was before. It should be different, but it isn’t. It is unchanged, and I am changed by what has just happened along the road. People are sitting at tables. People are eating. It’s a cafe. That’s what people do in cafes. My teacup is on the table. I am lifting it, putting it back, lifting it, putting it back.

I am on the edge right now. Grief comes creeping at the slightest opportunity. Tea spills into the saucer and tears want to spill too, but they don’t. John wants to be right about what she was wearing. I didn’t notice. Feelings of sadness threaten to overwhelm me and I don’t feel safe to let them. Still they come, and I square up to them. “OK then,” I say, “Show me your face,” but they slink away, grey lizards on their bellies under the table. No one notices.

I need to know who she was. Her path crossed mine on this day. Her journey through her life brought her to this place, at this time, as I was travelling home via Holloway Road and Tel Aviv. My path continues in ordinary reality. I am drinking tea. On Holloway Road, people are buying newspapers, sleeping late, going out for brunch. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. On this day, as every day, that’s what people do. They sit in cafes. They cross the road from the safety of one pavement to another. Cars on the road, people on the pavement. They stand on the platform and wait for the train to stop. They sit, whole and safe in it’s carriages. They are not supposed to be under it, crumpled and broken.

I’m at work. I am talking to children. I am watching T.V. I am talking to people who do not know what happened in Tel Aviv. And slightly to the left of my field of vision, the shape of a young woman arcs through the Tel Aviv sky. She hangs suspended in the airstream, She floats, and her coat is a sail above the sea. She floats. She lands on the track and the train goes over her. I see her face and the train goes over her. She lifts her head, I see her face and the train goes over her. I see her face.

After a few weeks, the movie becomes stills. After a few months, the still images come only when bidden.

I am a witness. This drama in this other place is called “An Inquest”. There is the driver. There is the policeman. The family members have gone. I know. I passed two women on the way. They were crying. They were going somewhere else and I wondered who they were. And I knew.

Here we are. We who were drawn, uninvited, into her life. We are the storytellers. We make the story piece by piece. The policeman speaks his truth, the whole truth. The doctor continues the story where we left the scene. He tells us what she was like when she left the station. His voice is a flat monotonous chant, like a Catholic priest who has been doing the Mass for twenty years too long. He can describe her clothes, he can describe her wounds, but he does not know who she was.

I am a witness. I am asked to tell my story. Freeze-frame details are taken from me. No one wants to see the Surfinias and only tourists and travellers go to Tel Aviv.

Now it’s the driver’s turn. He stands in the place of truth. His truth is tears.

He cannot speak his story.

The movie is still running for him.

I still don’t know who she was. I know her name. I know her address. I know what she was wearing and what she said in the letter to her mother, the letter which the policeman found when he took the keys and went to the place where she used to live. I know that she slept in the kitchen and she wrote in an A4 pad, letters to God and the Angels and her mother. I would like to have known who she was, this woman who entered my life briefly. And left. Leaving me to carry her from the station. .I couldn’t leave her there, under the train, crumpled and broken. Now that the story is told in this other place, I can let her go, as she wanted to go.

I hope she has found her way home.

And now I’m a traveller again. In the ordinary reality of this other day, I step out of the place where the stories are gathered. I walk out into unseasonal sunshine. When I look back I see the Surfinias, but it’s March and there are no Surfinias.

I must order some.

By Way Of An Introduction…I suppose!

December 18, 2007

I am going to use this blog to post some of my writing that’s been sitting on my computer, waiting for me to do something with it. I guess I could delete it and in that way stop it nag, nag, nagging at me to do something, but I would miss it, like a small child I had nurtured and then given away.

So, here I go! My first piece of writing to see the light of the internet is, “Surfinias Are Everywhere.” It is actually a true story about a very tragic suicide I witnessed. That’s all I’m going to say about it. I hope it is of interest.