Three Women

Andrew O’Hagan

It was the evictions that created the Effie Bawn people still remember. She was never political before that. She had never listened to politicians. She had only listened to saints. But the Rent Strikes brought her out to the world with her small fists clenched in a white-knuckle fury.

Fathers were dying in trenches. Children and wives were put out on the street. Effie was sick at her Glasgow windows. And looking down she saw other women, swaying sick at their windows too. Women stood on tenement stairs, covering their mouths, watching the bailiffs at their work below. Effie saw these other women, and they saw her. Their eyes would meet from house to house. Mary Barbour up the road was keen to get them organised. Effie joined her. Together they brought the women of Govan in league with women in other parts. They agreed that no one should pay their rent. Out there was an unknown land, with pain and broken bodies. The thing to do was to hold your ground. The women’s emotion rose up like smoke, and joined the air of political fact, as if somewhere they could hear the guns, and picture their husbands crying for shame.

The Rent Strikes began. Life would not be the same again. Not for those women, nor the babies they held. And not for the country either. The stuff of progress would be bred in the bone, and Scotland would make a legend of change, of socialist leaders and future bliss. A century of hopes would settle in the blood. We’d stir them up, and bleed them away. But Effie Bawn was in at the start. Her family would never leave houses alone.

‘We Are Not Removing’ the placards said. So many of them painted up in Effie’s kitchen at Number 11.

The women who came to the meetings were not of the poorest. They had well-mended dresses and petticoats and boots. Once the strike was going, some of the women travelled to Govan from the groves of Kelvinside, their handbags heavy with pamphlets. A ham hough for the soup. A tin of shortbread.

Hugh inherited those shortbread tins. They stood on a shelf in the spare room at Annick Water. Most of them were decorated with pale scenes from the first Empire Exhibition of 1909. But some were later than that: 1938. Beauties they were: The Palace of Engineering; The Palace of Industry; The Garden Club; The Dominions’ Pavilion. They were stacked on the shelf. Hugh had stuffed them with insurance policies.

Some days the women went down to the Burgh Court Hall with their babes in arms. The municipal buildings. Everything smelled of wood waxing. A nervous succession of tenants would rise before the Baillie.

‘Why do you not pay your rent?’

‘My man’s at the Front. No money. The wean’s sick. A don’t have it.’

‘Three weeks to pay, or eject.’ Sometimes: ‘Pay by Wednesday, or remove all articles.’ The women of Govan and Partick and Wilton Street would hiss over the banister. They would hiss and bawl and shake their children at the magistrate.

Effie started a system of watching. The women would place their placards in the windows of all the tenants up for removal. And in every block they took turns to watch the street. They stood with a bell. First sight of the bailiff’s officer the alarm bell would ring out the strikers’ angelus. And down the women would come from all parts of the building.

‘Some with flour, if baking, wet clothes, if washing,’ wrote Effie’s lieutenant Helen Crawfurd.

And any missile that came to hand. Helen wrote of how the bailiff would run for his life, fiercely pursued by the mob in their aprons, mad for justice, brandishing wooden spoons. The engineers and labourers would sometimes appear from the shipyards with their black faces. Out they came at the sudden behest of Mrs Barbour or Ella Crawfurd or Effie Bawn in their high dudgeon. No bailiff in Glasgow, for all his court decree, would dally on his heels when this pretty rabblement came tramping down the street. The Rent Strike held like a pig-iron gate.

Hugh was just over two years old. But the colours stayed. And the noise. The day of the Rent Strikers’ march on George Square. He was there in the arms of Effie Bawn, and sometimes he walked on his first legs, leaning out from her hand, the big gold band on her finger. The morning was harsh. The Glasgow puddles held every oil and grime of the sky that day. Fog was everywhere. The Clyde had earlier spurned its banks; the Green was all mud. With a coat of frost on their backs, the leaves of autumn span in circles in the public parks, and blethered about the statues. Leaves all rotten and lolling like tongues at the feet of great men in their iron clothes of dignity.

There was silence in all the glasshouses, as the lamps began to swing on their hooks, the great crowd approaching, singing their song. The morning mist had swirled at the stanks, and then disappeared, clearing the streets, and the rumble of feet grew louder and louder. Up on the road they marched to a drum. The fences shook to the beat of them coming. A bad day for statues of Gladstone and St George, but not so bad for the women of Glasgow, who came in a tide.

An anarchy of parasols, or faces free to the open air. They came in a tide. Elbow to elbow in their thousands.

‘I was there,’ said Hugh. ‘And I hear the noise.’

Placards high for all to see, and down among the citadels of St Enoch’s the procession passes, the clamour rises, brushing the fronts of those ornate buildings, and into Buchanan Street, the thousands of women were shouting now, and all the tramcars stopped in their lines, to roar them on, and roar them on, the wind coming in from the Campsie Hills to choke the streets, and drunken men laughed at the roadside, hollering out at the very display of these women.

And the housing managers hung from their high balconies on Royal Exchange Square thinking surely not. And surely not.

The watchmakers and jewellers they pulled down their shutters for fear of a riot.

Hugh remembered the fur collars and black gloves of the women in George Square; and the easy smiles of that day, a metallic gleam on top of the Post Office building. Effie held one side of a banner – ‘We are Fighting Landlord Huns.’ There were many others, drawn in her own home paints. ‘The Will of the People is Law.’ Mrs Ferguson’s crowd from Partick passed out button-badges and pamphlets.

‘Our Husbands, Sons and Brothers are Fighting the Prussians of Germany; We are Fighting the Prussians of Partick; Only Alternative – Municipal Housing.’

Netta Laurie was one of the characters of the time. She held up the other end of Effie’s banner. In those early days she smoked a pipe, she had bright orange hair, and deep in her frock there cowered a half-quart of whisky. In years to come she would tour the Temperance Halls of the country. She would offer a personal tale of redemption, and include the news that Effie Bawn was the nicest person to live in Glasgow since St John Ogilvie. But before that day, as a reformed woman, Netta would rinse her clothes in Barlinnie Prison, for other niceness, and other reform. She incited a crowd to riot, and was said to be behind the suffragette burning of Leuchars Station.

Netta held young Hugh in her arms. His mother climbed on a truck. She had words for the crowd, and was sure of them. But heaven knows she was shaking.

‘We know the laws of God well enough about here,’ she said, ‘and we know that justice will be ours, and is harmful only to them whose business it has been to profit by ignoring it.’ The women’s faces looked up at her.

‘My man is just now at the Belgian Front. God bless him. And bless them all, if we’re ever to see them again. But whatna country sends its men to war and throws their wives and weans out in the street? The soldier fights for his country and the broker calls for his furniture. Women of Glasgow see it plain. We will not be paying these higher rents. We are not answering to Hun landlords. We are not removing. We know that justice will be ours, and we will pay the cheaper rent, and we will work, and our men will work. These tenements are barely fit to live among, never mind to starve in, for want of money. We have people to be proud of, and one day we might have houses the same. Come the day we have a room to live in, and one to die in. But in the meantime, we are not removing. God bless.’

The papers quoted her word for word. Effie on the back of that lorry. The crowd heard something of her Ayrshire vowels and saw the tears upon her. Some of them waved their good lace hankies then hushed to silence at the way she spoke. And they remembered her. A room to die in. Not many people had said that before. But our Effie’s words went out to their hearts, and when she stepped down a roar went up, a women’s roar to puzzle the air. Hugh was oblivious to the meaning of words. But he said he noticed the Post Office roof. It shone like a tray of diamonds. Lloyd George got the message of that day. And the Rent Restrictions Bill was not long in marking the books. Effie liked to say they had given Lloyd George something to talk about. They gave him a subject: housing. But Effie was like Lloyd George in that way. She had needed something too. The women of Govan gave her a subject; a reason in front of her own scarred mind. She always laughed at Lloyd George. But she carried in her purse a snip from a London newspaper. It quoted a speech in Wolverhampton. ‘What is our task?’ he had said. ‘To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. That is the first problem. One of the ways of dealing with that is, of course, to deal with the housing conditions. Slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war, or for their children.’

Margaret

Hugh met Margaret on the boat to Rothesay. It was a works outing. They sailed into the Clyde Firth on the Glen Sannox; they saw a dolphin in the water. The wind out there had a life of its own. But softly, softly it blew.

Rathesay had a salt-water swimming pool. The crowd went there. All arms and legs and laughing faces, a flotsam of glee in the holiday soup. Margaret wore the most elegant costume: pink and blue, a short frilly skirt, a flower, a posy, sewn around her waist. Fats Waller called from the corner tannoys. At the shallow end, with their hair in caps, the girls from Typing did the jitterbug in twos. It was 1939.

Hugh sat in the spectators’ row reading a newspaper. Margaret says she saw him first. His nice clean hair over the paper. The whole crowd later went to a variety show at the Winter Gardens. Old Glasgow songs. Gangs of tartan clowns. Men dressed as women, and women dressed as Germans. Margaret came and sat beside Hugh. A shy smile she said later. A lovely smile he said. Brilliant eyes and a talker to match she said. A funny girl he said and the loveliest teeth he’d ever seen on anybody. And pure he thought. And smells nice she thought. They sneaked outside, and went for a walk along the promenade. Ice-creams. Lovely here she said. Light going over the water. Down that day from a croft near the town of Muir of Ord she said. A Highlander he thought. She was there on a day out with her friend from the typing pool.

‘What is your surname, Margaret?’

‘Dargan,’ she said. ‘Like the town of Ballydargan. But my folk have always lived in the Highlands.’

A Catholic he thought.

‘Did you go to school in Glasgow?’ she said.

‘St Mungo’s,’ he said.

She smiled at the water, green turning brown. He loved the way she spoke. It was singing. She was bold. He put his mouth in her hair and they leaned on the railings. He could see a light giving out on the mainland.

A nice kisser she said. Noise coming down from the steep hotels. Let’s go back to the boat early he said, and sit up there on the deck he said, and talk he said, for a while. And that was that.

Margaret told her mother she would marry a brilliant man. After Rothesay Hugh bombarded her with letters. He thought of her every day. She chewed her nails in Muir of Ord. But then one day she decided. She took her pictures down from the wall. She packed a suitcase. She came on the train to Glasgow. Her friend from Typing gave her a key.

Effie liked her. She helped her to a job at the Singer factory. And in six months’ time Margaret and Hugh were married in St Andrew’s Cathedral. A rapid cloud of starlings blew over the seven bridges.

Margaret was different. Her family were gentle people. They liked to put pictures around their house, and the flowers of the field on the kitchen table. Her father read from novels when the plates were cleared. They had doctors in the family, and crofters; the sort of people, she said, who had followed Charles Edward Stuart to the water’s edge. And she knew all the songs.

Margaret told me once of her last days at Muir of Ord. She would go down the glen with her drawing-book and her colours, beyond the fir trees and the water over stones, to the open spaces, with bell heather thick on the ground. And she’d bend and put an ear to the earth. She would listen, she said. She would listen for ages. And then she would try to paint what she heard. Rabbits and eagles and salmon and wind, a distant engine: the sound of her own blood turning.

Alice

The Firth of Clyde – an iriscope. The sea is black glass. The wind breathes over. As the wind breathes over, it seems to find colours: yellows and browns and greens out there. The wind moves on. The colours disappear. The sea again is a pane of black glass. Dark water: a half-second’s peace. The sea is black glass, and the wind comes again. Yellows and browns and greens out there.

A fishing trawler floated in the sea’s dark middle, outriding the waves and the EU, the rocks, the Ministry of Defence. The spray ran white on the beach below me. Up at the door, with the sign above it, and pale ale logos here and there, I stopped to remember my lines. But nothing was there. Just the wind and me, the curve of the rock. The dram-drinking noises, the song inside.

An elderly man with smiling jowls asked me to sign the book. His tie flopped out of a V-neck jumper.

‘Wee Alice is in the corner,’ he said, ‘with all the girls.’

He laughed to himself, enjoying his role.

‘Now you watch yourself with that lot,’ he said. ‘A parcel of rogues the lot of them.’

He continued to laugh as he turned the book, and dropped my two coins in the cash tin. A card school was busy just past the doors. Headless pints and a smattering of loose tobacco. Folding tables and plastic chairs. The men at the bar were talking about football. Hair pomaded, beer-bellied, loud and restless in their three-button shirts, each seemed ready for anger and joy, high on a boast, or a promise of fun. Everyone had a hardened look, their features said something familiar.

I thought I knew them. Each one looked like someone I knew.

My eye stayed there for a second too long. I just nodded. I didn’t know them. My shirt and tie made a small fellow nervous.

‘It’s not me it’s him,’ he said, pointing to one of the card-players. ‘He’s the Poll Tax dodger.’

The circle laughed. And I did too. One of those smiles that’s a frown of the lips and the chin.

The women were cheery, each one festooned with gold chains. They all wore a variation of the same blouse. My mother looked up from the table as I came across the dancefloor. The girls all hushed.

‘Is somebody dead?’ my mother asked me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We’re still alive. I’m here to buy you a drink.’

She smiled and bit her lip. The girls looked nowhere, or inspected their nails, waiting for Alice to open. They knew something large was happening. This stranger, this dark suit. And Alice stood up, a spark in her eye.

‘Lassies,’ she said. ‘This is my boy Jamie. He lives in England.’

And each fell in with smiles about them; hands to my mother’s wrists.

‘What a lovely big fella,’ said the one I liked. ‘Bonny like you Alice. Oh my. The big blond.’ Cackles came down, a jackpot of coins.

‘You can sit beside me any time you like, son,’ said a ruby-faced one.

Easy laughter.

‘Hey moaners,’ she shouted to the men at the bar, ‘you can all go home now. That’s the talent in.’

‘I hope his suspension’s in good nick,’ said a man who sounded like her husband, ‘if he’s to take you anywhere, that is.’

‘Cheeky bastard,’ said the woman, and all the girls laughed, and lifted a glass. I went round the table and sat with Alice.

‘A nice big boy,’ said her friend at my side, and then, with all the others, she fell away to allow us a notion of privacy.

It was as if this group was used to trouble. I don’t know if Alice had ever mentioned her son in England. But there was no embarrassment, no shy looks. Everyone played it just right for Alice. No wrong questions, no mock-surprise. It was something to talk about for later, I’m sure. But just then, with my mother still flushed, and worry in her eye, they all turned their backs, new jokes rising, cigarettes burning, Alice and me just a moment to ourselves.

‘You look a bit thin,’ she said. ‘Your hair’s down over your ears.’

‘It’s your Scottish water,’ I said. ‘Never did a poor soul any good.’

‘Hey watch what you’re saying. We sell it now in fancy bottles. Your smart people down the road can’t get enough of it.’

We laughed into the table. When the girl came past I lifted the list from the kitty tumbler and handed it over, with money. ‘Bring us a round, would you please,’ I said, ‘and add on a pint of Export.’

‘You don’t need to be buying rounds,’ said Alice.

‘Never mind us, son,’ said the woman nearest, with a cough.

‘Not at all. No problem. It’s fine.’

My mother and the women exchanged looks and smiles. Alice was great; she seemed so alive and well-tuned. She looked like she knew her way around herself. And here was the person she wanted to be. Her hair all layered and tinted in a shop. Her make-up light and carefully done. I took in everything about her then. Her perfume upgraded from the Avon vapours of yore.

She once had the scent of weekly instalments. The new smell was hers: softly it spoke of her affluent days.

I had never seen her with painted nails.

Light brown and smooth, even-cuticled.

I never thought my mother could have such nails. And everything about her seemed just like that. Mature and stylish and kept in check. Her look spoke of time to herself, and few money worries, and no constant back shift. She looked like a woman with charge cards. A person with views, opinions and shocking things to say. A woman of silences and thoughts. And most of all, I could see it there, and see it there as I never had. My mother looked like a woman who was having sex. She was not the object I’d long made her into: the desireless wonder; the queen of endurance. This was not the woman I saw. The woman I saw was having sex. And it struck me. It struck me as something new and important.

The oddness of thinking these things of my mother, of seeing so much in the wave of her hair, the hand on her glass; of finding so much in the tone of her voice, the depth of her laugh, the way her scarf was knotted and tucked; the oddness of this, of grasping these things, was wiped clean away, just by the force of who she was now. I thought in those seconds that perhaps none of us had ever known her at all. We had no idea but our own idea of her. And that idea was dead. She had her own life now. And it was new. Sitting beside her in the Railway Club I suddenly saw her for the first time. She wasn’t just a child’s lost mother, or a victim trapped in time. She was something else. She had not lived her life as an absence. She was here, and was much, much more than the bare, abandoned thing that lived alone in my head.

‘You’re so like your father in some ways, Jamie,’ she said, ‘wanting us all to live in the kitchenette.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I was just wondering. I mean. When did you start coming to the social clubs? The pubs. I mean how did you meet the ones who come?’

‘Let me tell you something, Jamie. You’ll remember it yourself. All the singing and dancing was knocked out of me years ago. When you were a baby, you know? But I had a life before then – a good life. My mother was a singing-and-dancing person, and I used to go with all the girls then to the Scarborough. I had a life before your father, and I’ve had a life since ... since that all ended. I wasn’t going to just lie down and die. These are my friends here. They’ve been good to me. And so has Bob. But, you know, that’s fair enough. I’ve been good to him.’

‘When I saw you that time in Blackpool,’ I said. ‘I was happy for you. You seemed like you had ... you seemed like you’d survived all that rubbish years ago.’

‘We’ve never spoken of anything, Jamie.’

‘I know.’

And just as she spoke it occurred to me that I wouldn’t say those things I had thought about all day. The tower block, the demolition, and Hugh bad now and dying in his bed. The fact that I sometimes had panics in my car. None of that. The long-term plan. The getting back together. My Karen and the baby that wasn’t born. None of it. I was happy to just be with Alice, talking a little, one thing or another, and watching her there in the middle of her own life. Everything could wait for another day, or could wait for all time for that matter. What I’d come to find was here quite differently. The sight of Alice was an answer in itself.

My mother had allowed me to go free, to lose my cares in an act of becoming, and now it was her turn, and she wanted to be free to lose her cares, and not be silenced by the forces of before. The fact was clear in her every aspect. I mustn’t confuse her with my own confusions. And neither did I want to. I was all the man I would ever be.

‘... And your mammy came in,’ said Ella, the one with the ruby face. ‘And she gave each one of us a miniature of vodka. (You know the wee vodkas.) We’re sitting there in our rollers right, drunk – four in the one room in a bed and breakfast – and the wee baldy guy’s ready to pap us out if we don’t shut up. Yer mammy and the vodka. Next minute, the bold one. Muggins here. I’m out on the landing there looking for the toilet. I sees a door. No problem – in I goes. Feel around the wall. A basin. That’ll do nicely, says me. (Puggled as a monkey.) Messing about with the nightdress. The light comes on. Big Malcolm! I’d walked right into his room. Well. The look on him. Mental he went. Your mammy here had to go in there in the morning and speak nice to him. Right out of order. What a laugh.’

The women at the table were screaming. All the tales from a weekend in Rothesay. My mother was chuckling away to herself.

‘Characters,’ she’d say, just under her breath, at the end of every story.

‘A bit of order over there,’ shouted one of the husbands at the bar. ‘The pensioners here are having to turn down their hearing-aids. Shut it.’

But the women just went on as before. Alice was right about them. They knew how to enjoy themselves. They knew they wouldn’t have to wait around for tragedy. In years still to come there’d be cancers and cures, failures of the heart, trouble with nerves. Husbands would wander; a car would appear out of nowhere. The women in this group would one day have police at their doors. Drugs and failed marriages; loneliness, depressions. And grandchildren too; the troubles ahead.

All would know tragedy, and each their own. My mother’s friends and my mother too. But this day they were laughing for all the world. Cruising along on a second wind. They laughed at each other and poured out drinks. No time to think of a world not here. Alice was right about these women. They could enjoy themselves.