Andrew O’Hagan goes through the records
The man from the Corporation was fixing the bin-cupboard by the front door; trying, I think, to rip out the hinges and put in new ones. He kept going on about Rangers and Celtic to a joiner working at the next house along. I could hear their voices from upstairs, where I sat by the fire chewing a corner of the old, purple candlewick that covered my mother’s bed. I stood up on bare feet, and walked to the boiler, a round thing wearing a furry jacket that hung in a built-in closet. They called it the immerser. I put my arms around it, and strained to make them go all the way, but even with my fingers at full stretch I couldn’t grab the wooden thing behind. There was something there; I knew there was; it had been there for ages. My right hand could just flick the edge of the thing, just about pinch a corner, but there was no grabbing it. In the end I squeezed my body halfway round, and pulled hard until the thing loosened and fell into the middle of the room with me underneath it.
I knew the face framed by that rickety wood. I’d seen it before, in that frame, and I knew who it was: my grandfather Michael. I knew that’s who it was though I’d never met him. The grandfather was covered in dust and damp patches dried in. But that was him: he had the darkest eyes I’d ever seen. His hair was slick, combed up to a glistening ridge; the lips were thin, the cheeks white. It looked as if someone had gone round his ears with a pencil. My Granda Michael looked like Glasgow: a place that felt far away by then, that sounded old and big and always in the dark. Just over twenty miles away from our coastal New Town of wall-heaters and bin-cupboards, it was the place where we were all born. Glasgow sounded like granda to me; I was sure they were one and the same.
I sometimes went back to the picture, and I got to know a little more as time went by. He was missing. I’d never seen him, and I was born 28 years after he disappeared at sea. I couldn’t get over these bits of information. He looked like Glasgow. He was missing at sea. In another time, when I’d come to look something like the man in the picture, I looked at it again, and noticed how my Grandfather Michael hadn’t changed a bit. He was missing, and was to be forever dark-eyed, with a forehead fit to launch ships with.
HMS Forfar was built by Fairfield, and launched, first as HMS Montrose, just before Christmas 1920. An Armed Merchant Cruiser of the Campbell class, she was fitted with eight six-inch guns and two three-inch anti-aircraft batteries. In 1940, the ship was guarding the sea around the Shetland Isles and, sometimes, it would lead a convoy through the dangerous waters off the west of Ireland. A fair number of Scots manned the ship during the closing months of 1940: Ian Affleck used to work in Kalac’s Cycle and Motor Store in Forfar, and felt he’d been born to help power a ship such as this, named after his own town. Angus McInnes’s father had been a fisherman on the Isle of Harris; Angus had sailed with Forfar since early in the war, working as a lamp-trimmer. He was good pals with an assistant cook called James Wilson McGinlay, who was a bit younger. McGinlay’s father was a coachman at Milton, in Glasgow, a fact which eventually brought James into nodding and tobacco-loaning relations with my grandfather, Michael O’Hagan, who came from Glasgow’s Calton district. They say James was shy, though, and when people would ask him how come he had two second-names he’d just blush, and mutter something about being quite lucky. Michael protected him, after his own style. My granda spent most time with Jim Reilly, who was in most respects like himself, from the Calton, with a small but persistent history of personal trouble left behind him.
Some time, say in November 1940, my grandmother Molly received an undated letter from Liverpool, where Forfar was docked. It was the last contact she would ever have with her troubled young husband.
22a Woodstock Gardens
This is the first time I had the opportunity to write. I couldn’t send anything as I promised because I got into some trouble and got my pay stopped. I haven’t had the price of smokes since I got back and I won’t get any for a fortnight yet. Use the above address and I will get an answer quicker it is a fellow on the ships address. I am glad you and the kids are not here the bombing is terrible. I hope the same thing never comes to Glasgow. Tell Annie, Jeannie, May, Katie and them all I was asking for them. I hope you and the kids are keeping well I will be here for some time yet. I will draw to a close sending you and the kids my best love.
A thin strip of darkness, the U-boat U.99, commanded by the notorious Kretschmer, cut through the waters off Ireland soon after the last light had gone. It was joined by three other subs, part of the ‘wolf-pack’ strategy favoured by Admiral Dönitz, who also saw the advantage in having these boats travel towards the threatened convoy at night, and on the surface. The Royal Navy had been concentrating their efforts on the disabling of submerged boats, and hadn’t expected group attacks in the dark, from near-invisible silhouettes floating on top of the water. Thirty-seven British ships were lost in December, mostly the work of three U-boat aces: Kretschmer, Schcpke (in U.100) and Prien (in U.47).
A telegram stamped ‘priority’ arrived at 9 Sydney Street exactly a week later. ‘I deeply regret to inform you,’ it said, ‘that your husband Michael O’Hagan is reported missing on war service.’ Others had known of the ship’s sinking before then, and word had spread, but no one could face telling Molly or any of the women who had men on the boats. They left her pretty much alone with the telegram that day, but gathered round the day after, when a letter arrived from Wood Street School in Cardiff.
10 December 1940