This week’s edition to our Olympia Extracts is the wonderful memoir book, Wine Alley Days, by Jean Anderson.
Family gatherings are probably the same for all families. Everybody contributes to the nostalgia. There is a collective version of all the major events which have become part of the family history. Everybody laughs, or is indignant as they remind each other of what they have gone through as a family. Sometimes they are sad, but only briefly, as they recall those who are absent.
My family – the Wallaces – are no different. Whether the occasion is a funeral, wedding, Hogmanay or just a get together, the ritual is the same: The four eldest go over stories that have become legend, about the time we spent living in the country as evacuees sent there from Glasgow to keep us safe from the bombing. I remember some of them, or I think I do because I have heard them so often. The themes are about how we were ‘sent from pillar to post’ because nobody wanted to put up a woman and six weans; how the locals called us ‘Glesca keelies’ and the school teachers despised us, because we were smart at our school work. Most of the stories are funny and show us always coming out on top, and emphasise our closeness as a family.
It’s the stories about our life after the war, when we returned to our home city of Glasgow, that are a constant source of wonder to me. Our ages range from seven months (wee John, born nine months after Johnnie, our dad, returned from the war); Billy, six; me, Maggie, eight, Roddy, ten; Conn, twelve; Nancy, fourteen; and Vicky, the eldest at sixteen – yet we all tell the same versions of the ‘big’ stories of that time.
I know I remember things differently from the accepted reminiscences, and I would like to know from each of them, how they saw their experiences of living in Wine Alley.
The following narrative is how I imagine them telling their own stories not how the rest of the family want them to be remembered. There are some things in most of the stories that, as a family we seem to have censored, so as not to spoil the hard won solidarity that we have achieved.
CHAPTER ONE - Coming home
“I’ll let ye off here son,” the driver of the rickety wee bus yelled, over his shoulder to Johnny. “Your wife and weans live in the third house down in main street. It’s the misses Mc Whirters’ cottage. No, very big for a big family, but a fine wee house. You’ll likely get something bigger now that your back, eh?”
“Thanks Jock, I’ll find it,” Johnnie answered as he jumped off, flicking his fag end to the roadside – there was no pavement – and standing on it.
“Good luck son. I’ll probably be seeing you a lot on ma bus.” The ‘son’ had been getting on Johnny’s nerves and he was glad to get off the bus before he would have to say something to the old fool.
He lifted his kitbag, slung it on his shoulder and began walking down the main street, of the small Ayrshire village, where he would be reunited with the wife and weans he had not seen for five years. All over Britain, men were going through the same experience – some found it at least as frightening as facing the enemy had been.
Johnnie was a day later than he had said in his letter to May. A crowd of ex POWs like himself met up in Glasgow and drunk everything they could get their hands on. They had dreamt of home for five years, yet they had put it off for one more night with their mates. Like putting off that first drink of water after suffering thirst for a long time.
He had taken only a few steps, when he heard the click of high heels behind him, (that had been one of those sounds, that the men had voted, one night was in the top three of those they missed most in the prison camp). A hand grabbed his arm and he turned to face a plump blonde woman, who was laughing and talking at the same time: “You must be Johnny Wallace.” She didn’t give him a chance to answer. “Come oan, I’ll deliver ye to them.” She pulled his arm through hers and he knew that the pressure of her round warm breast against his hand was not an accident. He felt that women had all gone ‘man daft’ since the war, but he did not complain, as she hurried him along the street, stopping at the end of one of a terrace of ancient cottages, with the white wash, badly needing renewed, she pushing him in front of her when May opened the door to her demanding knock.
“Here’s your man May,” she laughed proudly. “I found him wandering the streets looking for his wife and weans. Come on you lot, I’ve bought you yer daddy.” She hurried out the door, yelling, “I’ll see you later May – and you Johnnie.”
The first thing May noticed, of the changes in him, was that he no longer had his lovely rory red hair. He still had the thick hair, growing low on his forehead, but now it was the same khaki colour of his army uniform. The second thing was how thin and pale he was. She felt panic, that she didn’t know him, and stood still surrounded by six equally still children.
It was not how he had imagined it: None of his children rushed to him with open arms, or said, “Welcome home, Daddy.” He had to speak first. He held out his arms to them and said, “Come on then, you’ll have to tell me your names,” and then turning to Vicky and Nancy, “I think I know who these lovely big girls are – you are my Vicky and Nancy. Are you not going to give your wee daddy a big hug – come on then?”
Nancy moved first, with her hair as red as his had been, all over the place, as usual. She ran into his arms and said, “Welcome home, we thought you were coming yesterday, Mammy baked a cake.”
Vicky was next and moved much more slowly, with dignity beyond her years. She was still as beautiful as he remembered. Her hair was darkest brown and combed neatly in a middle parting, with ribbons holding it back from her face, which was serious and a bit impatient at the showing off of her younger sister. It was a beautiful face, with large dark blue eyes, a full-lipped mouth and perfect white teeth. The one feature, which she hated was her turned up nose, about which her brothers had long ago learnt not tease her. She allowed him to give her a hug.
His two eldest sons, whom he only vaguely remembered were next. “I’m Conn,” the taller of the two said. He had black hair, like his mother’s, and sharp features, which gave him a worried look. He was blushing, and moved back as soon as he introduced himself.
“I’m Roddy,” was next – another redhead, with a cocky manner that reminded Johnnie of himself. “I’m the clever one.” This thawed them out and they all laughed and teased him about being ‘big-headed’, which did not faze him a bit.
Then came a little girl, with fair hair and blue eyes, who reminded him of his own sister, long dead. She leaped into his arms and hugged him with her legs. “I’m Maggie, the second youngest. I’m top of the class. Did you get all of my letters I sent you? I’m seven and my birthday’s in June.” Where the others had moved back beside their mother after their welcomes, she stood beside him, holding on to his leg and talking non-stop, until May told her, “For goodness sake be quiet and let your daddy sit down.”
He gently put the wee girl aside and moved towards her. “Do I not get a welcome home from my wife?” he asked, putting his hands on her shoulders. She gave a little a little sound between a sob and a laugh. “Oh Johnnie,” she said. “It’s good tae see you at last.” They kissed as their family stood in a circle around them as if they were watching some sort of ritual. Vicky was the first to break the circle, she went into the scullery and they could hear the sound of the kettle being filled.
“Sit down Johnnie and I’ll get your tea. I’ve managed to scrounge the stuff to bake a cake and I’ve had to stand guard on it since it came out of the oven.” As she turned to follow Vicky he noticed a little figure who had been hiding behind her apron all the time.
“Who’s this wee man?” he asked, suddenly realising that only five weans had greeted him.
“It’s our Billy,” Maggie said. “He’s shy.”
It wasn’t shyness Johnnie saw in his youngest son’s eyes: it was resentment, bordering on hatred. He ruffled the boys red curly hair and said, “Hello Billy,” and decided to think about getting to the bottom of the bad feelings later on. First he wanted to be with May and be husband and wife again – the weans could wait.
After they had eaten, he put his kitbag down on the floor and opened it. He took out a pile of cigarettes and put them on the table at his side; some silk stockings (from the Yanks) for May and more chocolate bars than they had ever seen in their lives. He had been saving his chocolate ration for them and the expressions of delight on their wee faces – even Billy’s – showed him that he’d ‘won a watch’.Back to Blog