A Hard Winter Day 16th December 1954
The bottom half of Shore Street ran the length of Inverness harbour. It consisted of a pub, warehouses and dwellings. Number Thirty five was the last before the railway bridge over the Ness. A stone built house. The gable ran parallel to the rail line for the pug locomotives used for light shunting. They took goods unloaded from the boats in the harbour across to the railway station to be shipped by other means to their final destinations.
The property, probably once one house, now consisted of four two roomed apartments and one single attic room over three floors. Outside crumbled mortar slipped from between the stone blocks. An old tired building its wooden stairs creaked complaints as the tenants trod to and from their apartments. A cold, drafty place. It took the full blast from across the open harbour when the wind was coming from that direction. A noisy lively area filled with the busyness from the harbour side across the street.
The pug puffing as it shunted back and forth to the station. It’s smoke caught by those who had opened their windows on the sunnier days. The work controlled by the season. Summer was good for the men unloading, extra hours of light, extra work, extra pay. The ship captains were keen to unload and be off again as quick as possible. A few harbour workers saved this extra to compensate for the shorter working winter hours. Most used it in the Citadel Bar at the bottom end of the street was always filled with locals and visiting crews.
The area often heard strange languages and saw different skins. Men laughing, joking, occasionally arguing as they made their way back to their place to lay their heads. Some enjoyed the company of certain women from the town. It was no secret, accepted by most that it would continue, despite the frowns and occasional outcry from the church.
On less inclement days Mrs McInnes would sit outside against the edge of the wide sun warmed stone windowsill watching this busy world. A mug of tea and a relaxed inhaling on one of her, self imposed limit of, five a day Park Drive enjoying the exhale drift slowly out. She felt she got more pleasure from less smoking and less coughing.
She enjoyed watching the harbour men at work. Their hands signalling from the quay guiding the crane drivers on board the boats to safely settle the cargoes on the pug wagons or lorries. Most of the people passing knew her and acknowledged or spent time in conversation about the things of the day. Mrs McInnes was the Queen of Shore Street. The oldest and longest sitting tenant. She probably knew more about the history and development of the harbour area over the last sixty years than anyone. This was her kingdom and her subjects loved her with good reason.
Dan Forbes had owned four houses in the street and Mrs McInnes collected the weekly rent and liaised with him on behalf of the tenants on any issues. She was a fair negotiator. Experience had taught her when a matter was valid to be raised with the landlord or not. The other tenants trusted her experience and knew when it was a valid issue she would fight their corner. Dan usually agreed. He was grateful for her as it often saved him unnecessary times of contention. When Dan died Gordon, his son became the landlord. She remembered as a boy who sometimes, usually during school holidays, came with his father to pick up the rent, his eyes lighting up at the homemade pancakes she had made for his visit. He also recognised her negotiating skills and remembered the pancakes. When he became the landlord he informed her the apartment was rent free for the remainder of her life.
Mrs McInnes’s, who was now in her eighties, apartment was on the left by front door. She and her husband Donald had come from Skye in the 1890’s with their two children. His brother had a job lined up for him with the Highland Railway. The couples’ plan was to raise enough money to pay for the voyage to America to start a new life there. Emigration was a common occurrence at that time. But they fell in love with the town and remained. Donald went to the Somme and never grew old.
The Cooper family had one of the two apartments on the first floor. The other apartments, one on the ground floor and one on the first were both rented by older retired couples who kept much to themselves.
Young Peter and Sadie Fraser, had married in March and had moved from his parents house into the one attic room in October. Sadie had been over seven months pregnant and Mrs McInnes was concerned how the young couple would cope in such a small space with the baby. There was a gas stove but no running water. They had to use the communal bathroom on the first floor. They had not been the first couple who had started out in the attic room. Over the years Mrs McInnes had helped other couples to manage through early days. Each Christmas the number of cards arriving reflected how appreciated the help she’d given had been.
She had stirred hearing the clink of bottles and the main door’s creaking. Still dark. It would be Davie Cooper or Peter. Early, probably Peter if the milk was involved. No rush, another snooze in her cosy bed heavy with blankets then rising and wrapped in her dressing gown and snug in her slippers she opened her front door to find the milk by the side of the doormat. It had been taken from the street and placed there. She was right. Peter,” Davie never did the milk’, Peter was a thoughtful young man. She would pop up and see Sadie in a little. Once she got her legs going enough to tackle the stairs.
After Peter had gone out to work Sadie finished feeding and changing the baby taken him back in with her to share the warmth of the bed. Her breath misted in the cold room enhancing her pleasure of the warm blankets.
“I think we’ll stay here until your dad comes home” she whispered, brushing her lips across the baby’s forehead. The thought had barely settled when she remembered it was Thursday. The Fraser’s washing day. Too much. She felt catastrophised by the thought of washing and coping with the baby in this cold.
The wee communal laundry room was stuck out in the back yard. It was a pokey affair, a Belfast sink, the depth ideal for clothes washing and a hand cranked mangle. The water pipe bandaged a precaution against it bursting during the winter. Just the image. She pulled the blankets and herself tighter, fraught, tears rolled down warm on her cold cheeks. It was early days the boy was four weeks old.
Mrs McInnes was a Protestant. Religion, or religious denomination could impact on housing and employment and the Catholic minority were often not so welcome by some employers or landlords in the town. She had noticed rosary beads in Sadie’s bag when she had come up to collect the first rent. Her view was that there was good and bad in all and that denominations were different routes to the same destination at the end of the day.
A missionary from Africa had come to the kirk in Skye one Sunday service when she was a young girl. A rare occurrence raising excitement amongst the congregation. He also Mrs McInnes left an indelible message. If in any doubt what to do in any situation. Stop and think what would Jesus do?
She found it hard to settle at church when she moved from Skye but persevered until the children had grown up. She read her bible daily and believed a Christian life was one lived in an attitude of love and compassion for others. You don’t have to go to church to do that, Jesus didn’t. She decided he would be okay with that. Something in her conscience told her he understood.
Regaining her breath Mrs McInnes knocked on the door.
“It’s me, Mrs McInnes, just popped up to see how you were getting on?”
Sadie responded slowly, trudging, opening the door and stepping back. The red eyes plain to see.
“Now, now what’s the matter? It’s frozen up here. Your man no put the fire on before he went off to work?” Her soft tone dismissed any recrimination within the question.
“He’s on early. Six to two. The coal’s almost gone so we’re saving the little we have for the evening when it gets colder. We’ll be alright he gets paid tomorrow. “
“How’s the bairn?”
“He’s fine, she replied dropping the blanket back on the bed. “Would you mind keeping an eye on him if I put him in his cot while I nip down to the toilet?”
“Here, I’ll have him.” Mrs McInnes’ children had both moved south for work in Glasgow. Although she was now a great grandmother she saw little of the family. She was always pleased when new young life arrived at Thirty Five. The stolen hugs in Sadie’s absence were priceless. She felt the contentment in the small baby. Despite the cold room he was warm and smelt of talc.
Peter Fraser energised by his rage thrust the coal that bit harder into the firebox. Angry that he was sweating in the heat as he fuelled the steam engine whilst he envisioned Sadie and the baby probably still sitting as he left them wrapped in the blanket staring at an empty cold fireplace. He’d bumped into Davie Cooper this morning on the way out to work. They’d briefly discussed the coal situation and a plan. Something would be done.
Mrs McInnes pulled her cardigan and the baby closer. The rattling old attic window offered little protection from the icy blast coming across from the harbour. She’d have word with Gordon Forbes about the windows.
“Listen love it’s your washing day, Thursday. The laundry room will be like ice. I can take the baby into mine in the warmth while you get your washing done? “
Sadie was hesitant about leaving the baby initially, but the offer lifted the heaviness of the day from her shoulders.
“That would be fine, save me having him out in the cold in his pram.”
Mrs McInnes appeared just as Sadie pulled the last of the wash from the mangle and put it in the basket. It was not coincidence. She could see the laundry room from her back window so knew precisely what stage Sadie was with the washing.”
“ Listen, you’ll have a job getting this lot dry with no heat up there. I’ve got a good fire on we can put them on the clothes horse by it and get them dried off. Look at you. Your hands are blue. Let’s get you in and have a tea. The baby’s fine, fast asleep.”
Mrs McInnes living room was also her bedroom and the small figure lay safely in the middle of the bed.
Sadie felt soothed by the tea. “Have you put…?”
“Just a drop to warm you,” as they both glanced over at the bottle on the sideboard.
Sadie warmed to Mrs McInnes, she felt safe and relaxed with her. She had settled back in the armchair, head up, no longer heavy and the dull eyes brightened.
Mrs McInnes observed the outcome of her work with contentment.
“What time’s your man due home?”
“The back of two.”
“Listen, it’s just turned twelve. I’m not going anywhere your welcome to stay awhile. I put on a pan of mince and some tatties when you were busy at the washing. Too much for me to eat maybe you could help me out.” Mrs McInnes turned the offer into a request knowing it would make it easier to accept.
Sarah accepted, smiling at how many times the old lady started her conversations with, listen.
There are those who listen and those who wait to talk. Mrs McInnes was amongst the former. She engaged mostly in silence with Sadie’s conversation, her eyes, the slight nodding of the head, the accompanying soft smiles her means of communication.
By the time Sadie was due to go back upstairs for Peter coming home she’d shared a lot about herself with Mrs McInnes, but she was left feeling unjudged glad she’d risked it. How she felt about baby, the changes the he could make to her relationship with Peter. The hopes and dreams of this only been a short- term home for them as a family.
Mrs McInnes went first carrying the baby and Sadie came up the behind her with the washing and a bowl of mince and tatties for Peter.
“Listen my love I’m always here if you need me. Just give the door a knock. Better that way. Those stairs seem to get steeper by the day.”
“I’m not sure about that Mrs McInnes, you got to be careful with people like that. Nosey, wanting to know your business.”
“The baby’s been warm all day, the clothes are washed and dried. It would have been so much harder without her help. She even sent up a meal for you. She’s not what you think at all anyway she me told how grateful she is that you take her milk in for her when you’re on early Peter. You’re not that hard a man.”
“The mince and tatties were almost as good as yours. She’s alright that Mrs McInnes,” he smiled and winked at her. All was well.
Peter sat admiring the baby in his arms. “I’ve got to go out later for a wee while.”
“Not to the Waterloo, we’ve no money for you to go drinking.”
“No, listen I promised you no more drinking. I’ve changed now we’ve got the boy to think about. He’s growing already. So beautiful. I want to do the best for him and you. Trust me!”
The gardens behind the houses that included Thirty five backed onto Lairds the coal merchants. Coal in December was a precious commodity. Mr Laird was aware of this fact and recognised the benefit of a night-watchman.
Wullie Gordon, viewed by many as stronger in the body than in the head. The tedium of sitting out by the warmth of a burning brazier through the night bothered him little. For a single man married to the drink it was ideal job. He’d spend a couple of hours each evening in the Waterloo before coming to the yard. Apart from Thursdays.
Sometimes as he passed the landing window going down to use the toilet before bed Peter saw Wullie’s figure silhouetted by fire in the yard. The glow casting a light across to the large piles of coal ready to be sacked and distributed.
He had no qualms about relieving Mr Laird of a small amount of his vast stock. The difficulty being how manage it without involving Wullie. He was a tricky character. Not a nasty soul by any means, but unpredictable especially if he was on the drink. He knew the watchman would gratefully accept a token bribe but likely whilst in the throws of alcohol to tell someone in the Waterloo what he’d done in confidence. Peter knew confidences were hard to keep in small places. He had no wish to be caught out stealing coal and he didn’t want Wullie to lose his livelihood either.
Davie Cooper was slighty older than Peter but life or at least financial life was similar although Davie’s love of the bookies meant his life was a mix of feast or famine. Davie was kind of family, he was Peter’s cousin’s brother in law whatever that made him. He was safe to talk to about the coal. Davie was in a time of feast, so they agreed to try and get Wullie to the Waterloo for a while. Davie promised to avoid the bookie’s and use his current flourish to buy Wullie drink if he could get him to the Waterloo. That would leave Peter the chance to get to the coal.
If there was any night it would be Thursday, Wullie would be skint and he’d long lost the option of credit. He’d be a bit craving of a swallow
In winter the men finished in the coal yard around five o’clock, but Mr Laird worked on until seven o’clock in the shed, he called his office, when Wullie arrived. The entrance to the yard like the gable of Thirty five ran parallel to the pug line. It was an imposing heavy wooden gate which was only opened to receive or send out deliveries. A small door was inlaid on the gate allowing access at other times. Usually Wullie sat with it open early evening.
Peter left the attic around eight promising Sadie there was no drinking involved and that he would be back within the hour. He knew if he told her the reason for going she’d be more worried than if he was going to the Waterloo. He remained just inside the front door and Davie walked past the gable end down to the yard.
“You down there yet Wullie?”
Aye, who’s there?” he barked, whilst blinding Davie with the beam of his flashlight.
“Aye it’s only me, Davie. Looking for the cat before I go out. It’s dead quiet down here. Is it always like this.“
“Aye, only sound usually hear around is the rats scurrying in the yard. They’re always busier at night. Not that keen in being around folk you know.”
“Anyway, I’ll be off. Just heading down to the Waterloo for a couple of pints. Had a wee win on the horses so a bit flush for a Thursday. Shame your working, I could have stood you a couple. See you!”
Davie had barely turned before the bait was taken.
“ Davie, I thought I might take you up on the offer. No life here apart from the rats. I’ll just padlock the gate. No harm nipping away for a wee while. I’ll I just padlock the gate.”
As the pair headed off Peter scurried to the back door collected the ladder he left earlier against the back wall placed it on the fence and quickly clambered over into the yard. The sky was frosty star bright enough for him to see without the need for the torch he’d had in his pocket. He quickly, filled three sack’s he’d picked up from the pile of coal nearest the fence.
His strong stoker’s arms and shoulders made lifting the sacks easy. He carefully climbed the ladder he placed on the yard side when he came over. He carefully dropped them into the garden. Came over himself and emptied a sack into each of three coal sheds before going back over and putting the empty sacks on the pile. Hard sweaty work. He could feel the cold on his back as the two men approached him as he stood back at the front door.
“Hi boys. How’s the crack? Where you been?“
“Me and Wullie’s just been for a quick couple of pints and drams in the Waterloo. Ah had a wee win on the gee gees so I treated him. “
“Nice work if you can get it Wullie boy.”
“I needed it, warmed me up. It’s alright for you boys your cosy beds and your women me off to my fire. Anyway, I’ll away back. Thanks Davie.”
“How did you get on ?”
“All sorted, I put a sackful in your coal-shed and one in Mrs McInnes as well as mine.
“Warm rooms all round tonight then Peter?”
“Just going to get some and head upstairs, see you Davie.”
“Where did you get that Peter, I think I can guess and it’s all over your face.”
“What if you got caught?”
“Don’t worry I’m just going to burn the evidence.” He smiled placing the full coal bucket down by the hearth, stoked what was left of the old fire before adding fresh coal.
The small attic room soon warmed, the cold outside forgotten.
“It’s an early night for me! I’m on at six again tomorrow.”
“ Clean sheets today, you need to go have a wash down in the landing bathroom before getting under them. I’ll warm the bed for you coming back. Don’t get any ideas boy, too early for anything more than a cuddle yet.
The glowing embers cast a soft light around the room. The baby fed and asleep. In this peace they lay tight her back against his front.
“He whispered, “It’s payday tomorrow.”
Don’t worry, it’s not the Waterloo on payday now. I was going to say I’ll nip into the bakers on the way home get a couple of our favourite snowball cakes to have.”
At this moment she was in love with her world. It had been a good day.
Wullie Gordon pulled his greatcoat collar to his neck as his legs toasted by the brazier.
They think I didn’t know what was going on. That Davie is usually too parsimonious to put his hand in his pocket. I smelt a rat then. The daft boy standing by the door coal dust streaked on his face. Well worth it for a couple pints and drams he reflected as he got back to his crossword.
Ma McInnes had watched it all, she could see the garden from her back window, was grateful for the coal, felt in her conscience God understood and remembered her Donald carrying out the same operation many times in years gone by.