Football boots for Christmas (Revised Version) – Chapter Two

10 Hopetoun Place (1950)

“What’s this stuff doing here?” Bob Findlay(Cairns), who had just made home, was nodding in the direction of their kitchen table as he made towards it, trying his very best to keep calm; sensible; level-headed.

Without lifting her gaze from under her brows his wife Isa was edging past him and down the single concrete step into their wee bit lobby of a scullery, like she was in some sort of dwam, or else feeling guilty about something or other.

Had been rising from the big chair at the fireside as soon as she had heard him out there at their back gate with its slack hinge and broken snib and all that cursing. Been listening that hard this while she’d given herself a right sore head. Knew fine he wouldn’t be pleased with her.

Bob and that gate just never got on. He was needing to go and see about glasses before auld Churchill got back in and took away the new NHS and made them all pay for everything all over again, or so folk were saying.

Maybe someday before too long Bob would explain to her what politics was all about; starting with that wee skull-faced Mr. Attlee and his cabinet of heavy tweed suits and thick watch chains staring out of the ‘Daily Herald’ like they owned it. Didn’t look like labour men to her. Their hair for a start, was far too long for them to have sweated for a living in the shale mines about here, or even on the farms and herring boats back along the Berwickshire coast of her childhood.

The battered big chair she’d just left was the one  Bob’s Granny Findlay sat in that day of days thirty odd year before, although Isa knew nothing of that, when a wee laddie previously known as Rob Cairns from along there in Threemiletoun first learned to call himself Bob Findlay with a ‘d’ from here in Winchburgh, and this house home. The one he now shared with Isa and their three laddies. He stood at the table that had been Granny Findlay’s as well, glowering down at two pairs of brand new boxing gloves.

Their rough splintered plywood crate of a wireless much the worse of wear, wedged between the arm of the big chair and the badly scadded fire wall, crackled away while Isa busied herself through there in the scullery with the tea making behind Bob’s back, carefully tidying the place when she was at it. The task took all her concentration.

Bob just stood there like a heavy-headed horse too tired to turn away from the table to see what his wife  was it, or to even blink. The wireless, a present from her son ‘John the B’, had been Granny Findlay’s as well.

Bunkers on the longer walls reduced the scullery to a narrow bit walkway, six feet long at most,  with the tiny bathroom, that had been a pre-war outside cludgie, behind a narrow door tagged on beyond. One bunker enclosed a shallow sink and masked the deeper one. A small window above the shallow sink overlooked the concrete path from the gate to the back door Bob had just entered. Their back door and that of their three closest neighbours were set in the corners of a quadrangle of four small drying greens and the rough road which split their row of ten from the next.

From where she was standing, with her stomach hard against the sink, Isa stole a quick glance back through the kitchen doorway at Bob’s broad back. The presents for the laddies was his problem, and his alone; far too personal for her.

Her and the weans weren’t the most important thing in Bob’s life. Even the laddies knew that, or at least felt it, certainly their eldest Bobby did. Wasn’t right her thinking the likes of that, but that didn’t make it any less true, or less of a heartache. Wives were supposed to support their men, and she did her best, but then she didn’t even understand Bob, or what made him tick, no really.

Bob didn’t even seem to understand himself; always looking towards that father of his, seemingly hoping against hope that things would change, that things could change, but how could they after all this time?

Why was that auld man down there in Oakbank Place, just a miner like everybody else, so important anyway; more important to Bob than her, his wife, or their weans. Far, far more important, than them and any future they might have; just wasn’t right, was it.

If that auld man had been prepared to recognise Bob as his son, he would have done it long afore this. Couldn’t force him. She was sorry, so sorry for Bob, and even more so for their eldest son Bobby, but afraid to show too much concern for one or the other just in case she made it worse for everybody. Would have to do something, as a family, before it was too late.

Bobby was only twelve past but even at that, was already turning his back on his father. Just a wee laddie, but then in many ways so was Bob, when it came down to it, regardless of how really clever he was, or so he supposed.

Talk was cheap, but Bob kept all the past tenses to himself. Couldn’t make him talk. She wasn’t complaining, but it often sounded like she was, at least to herself and knew fine she shouldn’t, and anyway didn’t do anybody any good and things could never get near as bad as she had known as a single lass back home before the war, no having two pennies to rub together, her family back in Ayton, before she went into ‘service’ in Edinburgh, before marrying Bob.

The lump in her throat was as big as a prune. She was lucky, but it was all a worry just the same. Was like during the war with the planes back then droning overhead and her hoping the bombs meant for the Oil Works down there wouldn’t land here on her defenceless weans, yet Bob had stood outside there for hours, him suffering from claustra-somethin; hadn’t been right, surely, but she didn’t know why, so hadn’t said, even to her mother back in Ayton.

Bob hadn’t abandoned them, no really. Had no right to even think such things. Maybe was that stupid she didn’t know just how stupid she really was. Them, with what he had, couldn’t stand being hemmed in, and working under the ground must have been awfy hard for him to thole. No wonder he needed out.

Maybe they all needed to get away from what was paining him so much, before it was too late. She stole another glance at him through there; hadn’t moved. Maybe listening to the News on the wireless and imagining himself helping to gather it full-time, him being part-time correspondent for the local paper.

That was their big hope that took up so much of his energy and his every spare minute, just about. Was why he had so little time for anything else. Things were simple when she took time to think things through. Was a good man, course he was, everybody knew that, and clever.

That might well have been the sound of gunfire, thought Bob, amid the jumbled wireless airwaves, along with a passing reference to the Middle East. Must have been the Home Service News he was listening to and so after nine o’clock – trouble with the Arabs was flaring up again around the BP oil refineries out in Abadan in the Persian Gulf in the wake of that Jewish homeland carry-on with the Arabs.

Anything to do with BP (Anglo Iranian) normally interested him, but he easily enough resisted the urge to go across to try and improve reception by fiddling about with the splintered spindles that had long since lost their knobs. Had an early rise and yet another hard shift in the mine to consider, and anyway tomorrow’s papers would be full of it.

Meantime, would have to deal with this serious assault on what was left of his dignity; what else could it possibly be?

That draught from under the back door, playing about her bare ankles, had Isa dreading the coming winter. Supposed to be a place in Edinburgh, down Leith Walk, sold ex-army blankets at half a crown the pair.

The harsh green distempered walls of the scullery, running with damp, were uneven and wide cracked, the stone floor poorly camouflaged by dark flowery wax-cloth, well passed its sad bloom. A brick encased boiler took up one corner, at the side of the step, across from the back door.

The last few days washing, not already pressed back into service, was strung up on the rickety pulley. A wee bit burned and discoloured netting, ragged almost beyond repair, screened the bottom half of the small paned scullery window. An unadorned clear electric bulb hanging from the high ceiling cruelly highlighted the sparseness of the place. Still, far better than what most had, specially then out in the country in and about wee places like Ayton, down in Berwickshire.

Bob, very much the Burns man and with a tendency towards self-deprecation in the privacy of his own thoughts, plucked ‘From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs’ from the recesses of his mind as he at last raised his head and looked about the place. He was an abject failure and the boxing gloves the latest confirmation.

‘Man was made to mourn’ next shunted into review – over the years since first being abandoned by them along there in Miltoun he had become increasingly adept  at deflected pain in all it’s guises by seeing himself as only indirectly involved; an onlooker; a ghost writer; a journalist; words, only words.

His fleshy face was folded into a wry grimace – him and his deserved better, but that was up to him, nobody else; yet another depression was closing in fast.

Instead his journalistic mind veered abruptly back onto itself, moving from the particular to the general like some noted columnists did in the national press to give their stuff a bit gravitas and that. All ‘Company’ houses were much the same and had seen very little change save for the built-on bathrooms back in the hungry 30’s.

His thoughts were proper full-time newspaper copy, crisp, ready for the press; staccato they called it, like Hemingway on about the Spanish Civil War. Had been training himself, just like he had years before at the running. Cross country and along the canal banks in his working boots and sweaty semmit with half the village’s sons gasping in his wake.

Didn’t read as much now as he should, but the village didn’t have a library, or he the time. Would mention the lack of a library again in next week’s column. Locals had very little to grumble about, no really, he told himself yet again, compared to most. Scottish Oils had always prided itself in its quality housing, wages and conditions being much superior to that available to them working the coal measures up the other end of the county; safer for by.

Had the makings of a nice wee stand alone article; could bulk it up with a bit history of the industry  that was near unique, certainly in Scotland. Maybe the Sunday Post.

Bob nodded curtly in full agreement with himself and his oft stated creed. Him and his neighbours had a lot to be thankful for, specially back in the thirties when the company allowed them work every second week; folk had to be positive, specially them who worked for  the papers; along with his ‘uncles’ Bob was scorned by the village’s lumpen proletariat as just another ‘company man’.

There were others Scottish Oils villages across West Lothian all older than Winchburgh. Part of the BP empire. Lots of local folk, hence readers, had relations and friends working out in the Middle East oil fields, as well as sons on National Service caught in the crossfire. The likes of that written by himself in the light of the latest Middle East crisis would look alright in print. Even the ‘Scotsman’ carried such ‘copy’.

He was a shale miner and the village’s 7/6d a week basic part-time correspondent for the West Lothian Courier, the county’s weekly newspaper. Abadan was probably worth at least a paragraph in his column. Might even try writing it up, maybe staccato style, as a feature, on how the crisis had come about. If he didn’t write it nobody else would. Special features  paid extra. The morn would be time enough to acquaint himself with the very latest developments.

Would have a word with his Uncle John who knew all about such things and enjoyed spelling them out in great detail to lesser mortals. The likes of that kind of story could get a lead position in any paper; even English papers, based on Fleet Street, beside a photo.

That Courier editor up in Bathgate obviously lacked smeddum. Was seldom far from Bob’s mind, even in the depth of his weariness. Isa was still footering about in that damn scullery.“Asked you a question!” Bob was again gazing down at their kitchen table and the boxing gloves, his back still towards her. Wore a bashed soft hat, frayed white collar and tie and a threadbare rumpled dark blue suit. Was heavy built about the head and shoulders. Obviously an athlete of some sort in his day who was slowly going to seed. Blue eyes deep set in a taut face. His whole body was taut.

“Well?” Lifted one pair of gloves tied together with their thick white laces, sniffed the new leather, then dropped them back down again, eyes still downcast. Fine knew  the score, if not the details. His shoes were well down at the heel.

“Was that church organist woman,” Isa shouted through in an unnecessarily loud voice.  “Her in that next row, through the wall from the Clarks. Said they were for their Christmas, even if….”

“Christmas! That’s months away!”  He reprimanded himself. Only fools stated the obvious. Had long tried to keep himself separate from the common herd, just as his Uncle John had done for years.

“Know that fine,” chimed Isa. “Therer’s a lovely cattle float thing under the table for wee Jimmy as well. Take them back?” She had come through and was standing beside him drying her hands on a tea towel. There was an anxious look on her face.

He was leaning heavily on the table with both sets of knuckles and breathing hard through his fleshy nose.

“No got much, have they Bob?” Was little more than a whisper. Knew right away as she listened to his heavy intake of breath that she should have let things be.

“As much as everyb’dy else’s weans round about!” he thundered without looking up. Again realised he had over-reacted. Why not just forget the senseless past and play happy families with Isa and the laddies. Had nothing to do with them. If only he could get out of that damn mine and into a job he had a real feel for.

“Ay,” he sighed, and then whispered under his breath, “no easy being me.”

“That’s all I meant!” She was biting her lip. “Anyway, telt her to come back when you were in. Had opened that back door afore I saw who it was. Pushed them onto me out the dark. What else could I do?”

“No your fault.” He was staring into space, maybe at himself as a boy on this selfsame spot – auld Gutty gripping his hand and Granny Findlay across there in the corner looking into the fire. Had been uphill ever since.

“You know Ahm no educated, no like you. Had to leave the school early to help our mother. ” She dabbing her eyes with the hem of the tea-towel. “Don’t shout Bob. Waken the weans.” She furtively touched the back of the hand nearest to her. He brought his other one across and patted hers.

“No your fault Isa. Got bread left to make a bit toast?”

He took off his hat and placed it on the table beside the boxing gloves then had a quick glance under the table at the cattle float.

“A big heel there. Cut it in two,” she offered, making back for the scullery. “Still Australian jam left. Chips? Plenty tatties”.

“Tatties! Enough to feed a Royal Scots battalion!” He snorted and glanced again about their sparsely furnished place, stopping at their sideboard sitting in front of what had been the bed recess in his granny’s day. In the recess were five sacks of tatties the two eldest laddies had ‘harried’ from what Irish tattie howkers had left in farmer Crighton’s field. Shook his heavy head; now they were a charity case.

His uncle George, who he had never met, had served and died with the regiment in Flanders in the Great War. Was always thinking about him, especially when he was tired. There was a picture of George in uniform in the side of the sideboard; a wee bit laddie.

No wonder Granny Findlay had been devastated. The picture was alongside the ration books, penny policies and his and Isa’s very own two Edinburgh registry office wedding pictures from afore the last war.

Poor George, had been an apprentice engineer with an Edinburgh firm. Granny Findlay hadn’t been the only one to rue that day; Rob Cairns aka Bob Findlay had never got over the resultant metamorphosis, then or since.

“Toast an Carluke steak ‘ill do fine.” Drew a chair out from the far side of the table and sat down, facing back towards the fire, gripped his knees and stared down at the floor until his supper was put in front of him. His shoulders were slumped.

It was Tuesday evening and him just back from a football league meeting over in Broxburn; was secretary of the village team and delegate to the County Association, and its minute secretary. Just weren’t enough hours in his days, and now this.

“Have to go back,” he said, straightening himself up and lifting a bit toast from the plate Isa had placed in front of him. “Just put your coat on an go on over. Chap her door an hand them back.”

“Bit Bob…”

“That Mrs. Gibb’s an auntie of mine, or so they telt me. Just you say we’ve got all we need, bit don’t go in. Better give your face a bit lick an your hair a comb or they’ll be thinkin I’ve been hitting you again.”

“Hittin me? Wait you on aboot, hitting me?”

“An take off than bloody apron; no in Service now!”

“What if your mother’s there?” Isa had lifted her hand to her mouth.

“Mother?”

“What will I do then? No just send them ower the morn with one of the laddies?”

“She ower there?” Was looking up and examining her face intently.

“No, no, just that she’s no keeping well…” Isa looking down at the table.

“Oh, an I might go ower to her bit an hold her hand. That it?”

“Well, she is your mother an if she’s no keepin well…” Was avoiding his gaze again.

“Nane of your business Isa. Just you away over an give it  back.”

“Will I say thanks, bit no thanks? Could you no…”

“No! Just you away an do what your told. No much to ask.”

“No a bit late for knocking folks’ door?”

“Just do it it!”

As Isa made her road across the ill-lit track of  puddled tar macadam between  the back-to-back rows of houses, she glanced at the kitchen windows. Only the rows fronts had streetlights. Mrs. Miller next door still missed nothing; the partition walls were single-brick thin. The laddies took her for a witch.

Mrs. Miller would have heard, as well as seen Mrs. Gibb at the door earlier, heard Bob come in as well and would be sitting there at her window with the light out, knowing fine what was going to happen next.

Some evenings when Bob was out Mrs Miller would come in for a blether. They both enjoyed a fag. The next time she hinted about Bob’s past, would just let her carry on.

It was only the back end of September. Bob’s mother was probably so ill she didn’t expect to see the year out and was for giving her grandweans something now before it was too late.

The auld woman had never done anything like this before, not as far as she knew. It would be nice if Bob and his mother could make up. Tried to picture yet again what his mother might look like. No doubt they would all hear the full story some day. Then again maybe no.

Another two doors along from Mrs. Miller and directly opposite Mrs. Gibb was Bob’s uncle John Findlay. Him and his snotty wife knew everybody’s business, being the main man in the Rechabites and on the Co-op board, as well as clerk at the mine.

Bob seemed to look up to him almost as much as he did his own dour faither, who was also cried ‘Bob’, and who stayed further down the Raws. Another Rechabites stalwart.

Nobody else in the village seemed to have much time for the Findlays. They frightened Isa, her not being sure of her proper place in the scheme of things, in this strangely muted world she was married into and the way they all balefully eyed the world, including her. Felt uneasy in their company, which thankfully wasn’t often. Isa had just turned thirty-two.

Gibb’s light was on in spite of Isa’s silent prayer. The lady of the house was on her step immediately at the first chap.

“No let you keep them Mrs. Findlay? Come away in.” Mrs. Gibb was a heavily built, competent looking woman with piercing eyes behind sparkling glasses. They said she had a house like a palace and a great cook. Had installed her own white cooker. Gave crochet demonstrations to the Women’s Rural and the Co-op Guild. Even made her own clothes with a Singer sewing machine. Her and her daughter who was winching the minister. Isa felt like she was back at school.

“No, no thanks Mrs. Gibb. Bob…I mean we, we’ve …. That’s them back. Sorry, I’m sorry.” Isa thrust the gloves and the wooden lorry into Mrs. Gibb’s arms, turned, and fled her feelings of inadequacy. Would have loved to have seen what a white cooker looked like.

*

“See the brock man?”  asked Mrs. Miller who must have been around eighty. She had a thin long nose and chin which almost met, a constant twinkle in her eye and long straggly hair, very thin about the crown. Smelt faintly of cats and paraffin, but then so did the village. Bob called it naptha.

According to Alan, their second oldest, Mrs. Miller often stood at her door in the shadow of her coal house cackling and wearing a black pointed hat when there was nobody else about but him. She was always all in black. Isa wouldn’t have put it passed her and her wicked sense of humour; she seemed intent of making a parody of herself. Nobody ever crossed Miller’s threshold. Parody! Isa wondered where had she got that word; Bob’s brains must be seeping into hers!

Alan was a right timorous wee laddie who spent his life day-dreaming and hiding under the bed whenever he saw a hearse, or a dog any bigger than a pup. Was Saturday evening and the laddies were in bed.

“The big cheery man with the horse an cart, ye mean? Every Monday morning, that’s aye singin an laughin an reciting poetry;  wantin  tea off everyb’dy?”Isa was long-winded when she relaxed, whereas  Bob was precise and to the point. She tried hard to follow his example. Even as she spoke she knew she should be trying harder. Bob seemed to have spent his whole life trying harder.

Isa was proud that he was her man. One day everybody would appreciate his cleverness and as a result he would earn just as much money to live on as other folk seemed to have. Was only a matter of time.

“No Isa, just cups of tea from you!”  Mrs Miller was smiling. “Wonder, maybe fancies you?”

“Mrs. Miller! That’s a terrible thing to say. Sayin I encourage him?” Isa was blushing almost as red as her hair. She was sturdy built and attractive looking, in a no nonsense sort of way, and painfully shy. She exuded health and vitality. “An me with three weans.”

Mrs. Miller drew out her paper packet of five Woodbines and sniggered. “Only teasing you hen. Here, we’ll have this an I’ll be back across to brew a spell or two. He’ll be in shortly.” She shook out two fags. Isa lit them from the fire with a bit of folded up paper torn from a page of the Daily Herald.

“Why is he aye chaffin you? Tell me that. No! Who does he mind you of?”

“Why should he mind me? Just a man that keeps pigs.”

“Think now lass; his voice an the way he walks.”

“Bob! You think he looks like Bob?”

“Well he should, shouldn’t he? That’s his cousin Zander Cairns from alang there in Miltoun. Keeps pigs up there in Faucheldean; him an his father”

“His cousin! That right?” exclaimed Isa then puffed her fag. “Of course, that ill be why he stops for a blether with Mrs Gibb. She’ll be his auntie. Bob’s auntie as well! Got that right Mrs. Miller?”

“Ay, you have. Bob’s granny was a Boness Gibb. Robert Gibb and Rachel Cairns are brother an sister. Zander and Bob had the same grandfather, Sanny Cairns. They all byde in thon big villa along in Miltoun, Sanny was the only Labour man we ever heard of that lived what he preached.”

“Ay, Bob’s mother’s a Cairns from thon big villa in Threemiletoun. That first one past the kennels? Or so he said.”

“That’s right.”

“Imagine that! Does Bob come off moneyed folk?”

“Telt you nothing?”

Up to him, in’t it?”

“When I see Zander chaffin you I often wonder if that’s how your Bob would have been, had he no ended up here with Granny Findlay an her dour brood.”

“Bob’s faither doesn’t recognise him, Mrs. Miller.”

“Oh”

“That’s what he telt me. Don’t like going behind his back. That would be disloyal, would it no?”

“Still doesn’t? My, my, bit there a thrawn crowd.”

“Oh dear; me an my big mouth. Don’t you be going an repeating what I just said. Thought you knew.”

“Knew he didn’t recognise him when he was born. Everybody in the village knew that at the time of the court case, bit assumed things had changed since then.”

“Oh Dear.”

“Was the biggest scandal in the place, you ken, prior to Paddy Higgins murderin his weans. Been their neighbour here for the last forty year, near enough. We came into near split-new houses, the Findlays an my man John an me. He was foreman blacksmith.”

“Please Mrs Miller, don’t breath that about Bob to a soul. Promise?”

“Who do I talk to bar yourself lassie? Their secret’s safe with me, but you’ve got a right to know, living here amongst them.”

“Promise?”

“The Cairns family have a damn sight more to be stuck-up about than auld Gutty an his crowd ever had, can tell you that.”

“Gutty! Whose he?”

“Bob’s granfaither, him that reared him in this very hoose. Was an awfy man for the drink. Deed when Bob was about fourteen. That’s when they put him to the mine. A damn shame, so it was.”

“I don’t want you to tell me anymore Mrs. Miller. Please! Would like to ken, course I would, bit would prefer hearing it from Bob. Been terribly hurt an I don’t want to add to it. Please Mrs. Miller.”

“You think for a minute Bob Findlay kens the right story?” Mrs. Miller had risen and flung her cigarette end into the fire. “Damned if he does.”

“See you wondering at Bob being like the pig man. What did you mean?”

“Bein content with a bit land. A guid man Isa, as you keep telling us, an as wise as Solomn, bit a sad pathetic cratur just the same, the way he runs after his Uncle John up there an an his faither an that stuff he puts in the paper about thum. Mind you, after what you’ve just told me, can make some sense of it at last.”

“A guid man Mrs. Miller; couldn’t wish for better. A bit hard on the laddies at times, but maybe for their own good.”

“One thing certain, got a guid wife. Night to you.”

“Mind Mrs. Miller, no a word! Oh, there’s somethin else. Is Carluke steak another name for jam?”

“West of Scotland expression. Where you hear that?”

“Bob used it an I didn’t want to appear any more stupid than I am.”

“Nothing to be ashamed of hen; more than can be said for the Findlays.”

“Please Mrs. Miller! Goodnight to you.” There was a striking resemblance between the brock man and Bob, when she came to think about it. Isa glanced at the clock. Was coming up on ten and the pubs shut at half past nine.

She rose and went through to the scullery and put the kettle on; would be in shortly, most probably with his bachelor pal wee Rab Turnbull from across the row for a blether about their precious football team, the Albion. Apparently they had won earlier in the day.

Had neither smoked nor drunk when they were married at first. It had been all her doing. Her father drunk and she had encouraged Bob to do the same rather than sit in here with her on Saturday evenings. Hadn’t seemed manly. He started smoking to keep her company. Now with three growing laddies they couldn’t really afford it, no that she ever complained.

They didn’t have much except each other, and the laddies of course. Silly! Was forgetting her own family down in the Borders – a very different world. Why could the Findlays not be like them – cheery, straight forward and open with one other? Bob’s lot hadn’t laughed since they had the hives.

She suddenly remembered two or three weeks back talking to the brock man – something about being poor, after him saying how little was in their brock bin bar tattie peelings. Had struck her as strange at the time.

Mrs. Miller saying Bob came off moneyed folk had brought it back to mind. ‘No hen’, the brock-man had said, ‘you’ll never go wanting; can be sure of that.’

Did he mean the Cairns family were watching out for them. Were toys for the weans just the start and why was it such a crying shame Bob being sent to the mines when he left school. Where else was there for him in a mining village and staying in a Company house?

Did Bob not want to tell her about the Cairns side of his family because they had money. Maybe he didn’t want her to know how much easier life would be if he made up with them.

Was obviously under enough pressure as it was, trying to get closer to his father without her pulling him in the opposite direction. Her encouraging him to frequent the pub couldn’t have helped him get closer to that auld sad-faced Rechabites of a father of his.

Would be far better minding her own business. Wouldn’t ever spier him about his roots, regardless of her natural interest. She had made up her mind yet again. Was the very least she could do to help. Bob was well worth it.

“Heard voices.” A skinny wee laddie with a heavy drooping head of flaming red hair and a frowning freckled face, wearing a worn collarless shirt down to his ankles, was standing in the lobby doorway rubbing his eyes. “Need a pee.”

“Well go ben there and do it. Better be back in bed afore your faither gets hame.”

“Got to write a pen-pal letter next week for Miss Tripney aboot us in the village. Think our faither will have time tae give me a hand?” His eyes were downcast. “You ask him? Please! Never got time for us. Cannae sleep. Bad dreams again.”

“A busy man,” retorted Isa. “Just have to think things out youself.” She moved towards him, shaking her head, a worried expression on her face.

“Know plenty talkin words, but can’t spell them, can I? Even wee yins.” There were tears in his still downcast eyes.

“Know son, bit ye’ll just have to keep on trying.” Her tone had softened. “Nothing else for it, is there? Crying does nob’dy any good.” She was wiping his eyes and then his nose with the bottom of her apron. “Read your comics an that. Get better some day. You’ll see. We’ll show them. Get you a story book for Christmas.” She ruffled his hair.

“Bit Maw! Harder I try, worse it gets. Our faither doesn’t want to know, does he? Then punches me sore. Nob’dy tries harder. No even them in the comics, like ‘Limp Along Leslie’ an ‘Alf Tupper’, try harder. Even Walt Loader in the ‘Pony Express’ has an easier time with J. A. Slade than I’ve got wthi our faither! Alan looked up into his mother’s face. Were tears in her eyes as well.