“You went to France and left me alone with the kid,” she said with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “Well now it’s our turn.” A novella in three parts.
Seventeen days after the bairn showed up in the world I was the happiest man alive. She was eight pounds eleven ounces, a big baby meaning Danni had to be cut. I was there for the birth, dashed over from the shipyard, and there for the needlework. The Chinese doctor with the thread had a cold and he was breathing hard trying to sniff back the snot that was saturating his mask because he couldn’t interrupt the flow of what he was doing to blow his nose and I was sitting there worrying he’d infect us, especially the baby. She was lying sleeping like one, in her glass bed, smiling blissfully unaware and despite my concerns about Doctor Snot, Danni and I couldn’t stop smiling too and whispering that we’d brought something so wonderful, miraculous, to life.
After two drunken days and nights I was back to the Infirmary with my sister because she had a car to bring them home, mother and daughter. Nervous, anxious, inexperienced and excited twenty-something new parents were what we were.
At the time I was welding on the Clyde in Govan, just about clinging onto a job Thatcher’s Eighties would surely claim. “Another wee belly to fill,” Danni said. So between shifts at the pub with the lads to wet the bairn’s head I was putting in as much OT as possible, welding the social, professional and fatherly roles together. Until with impeccable timing calamity struck and I was told the job was no more – come end of the month I’d be like the rest of the lads and the hordes of unwashed hopeless.
With Danni not working obviously we needed something quick but it wasn’t easy. Precious few new ships to sail and my severance wouldn’t last so long. So when my brother-in-law Peter said he needed a hand with a painting job I nearly tore his arm off.
“Guess who’s got some work?” I said to Danni, who was giving wee Phoebe a bottle when I was home from the pub.
“Great!” she exclaimed, “Where?”
“Painting job with Pete,” I said.
“Ah that’s brilliant so it is,” she said, “But where?”
“Only temporary, but it’ll keep us going till I find something more permanent.”
“Of course but are you going to tell me where?”
“He said we should be able to string this one out for a month or so.”
“But where for Christ’s sake!?” she said, and I took a breath or two before saying the word France.
Peter’s friend of a friend of a friend called Andy from Edinburgh was one man the Eighties were being good to. He drove a fancy BMW and owned a string of properties from Edinburgh to London, and his latest acquisition was a Pyrenean chalet in some place called Les Angles near Andorra. Apparently he’d bought it so him and his wife could spent the winter there skiing, jammy bastard, and he wanted it tarting up for their first luxurious trip.
“I’ve seen the photos,” said Pete, “It looks fucking gorgeous.”
“So what will we be doing?” I asked.
“The roof wants looking at, the drains are backing up and some of the wooden structure needs replacing.”
“Sounds like a big job.”
“Maybe a month and we’ll need scaffolding. I’m taking you and a man called Ab I met in the pub. Nice enough bloke with a wonky eye but knows his way around the tools. He’s signing on and fancies a bit of moonlighting.”
“So what will I be doing?” I asked.
“The balcony’s away from the back wall in danger of coming down the mountain.”
“She’ll be comin’ down the mountain when she comes.”
“If you insist. Anyway that’s where you come in with your welding tackle.”
“And then it wants repainting, inside and out, and the floor varnishing. That’s where we all come in.”
“Aye. There’s a lake at the bottom of the mountain called Lac Matemale and you can see ibex apparently.”
“Is that a fish?”
“No it’s a goat.”
“In the lake?”
“Do you want the job or not?”
“I want the job aye.”
“I’ll show you the plans tomorrow. Meantime you’ll have to work out how you’re going to tell Danni you’ll be leaving her and the wee bairn.”
“No sweat,” I said, and hid a while in my pint as he gave me a look.
And that night I found her giving my beautiful little Phoebe, the name we’d agreed on, a bottle and nervously broke the news.
“France!?” she said, pulling the bottle out with a plop.
And so I told her the spec, all about Pete’s friend of a friend of a friend called Andy from Edinburgh who was doing well for himself in his posh BMW and string of properties the latest of which was some holiday retreat in the Pyrenees.
“Bully for him! But France!”
“I know love, but the man’s a gold mine. Could be a lot more work if we pull this one off.”
“What about me and wee Phoebe?”
“I know I know,” I said, softly. “But the money won’t last for ever. We need to feed wee one and clothe her, they soon grow out of things my sister said, and somewhere to live. She’ll outgrow this place as quick as her clothes.”
“I guess,” she said, showing signs of weakening.
“I’ll phone every day,” I said.
“And Millie said she’d come round and help and that.”
“You told your sister before you told me!”
“Only because I was nervous of telling you,” I reassured, knowing I’d jeopardised things and fearing some fire from the Irish side of her.
“What did she say?”
“She said of course she’d help you, it goes without saying. And she knows the score, we need the money.”
“Is she alright with Pete going to France?”
“No sweat at all, she said. She trusts him.”
“Are you saying I don’t trust you?”
“I’m not saying that! I know you trust me. It’s in the mountains, there’ll be bugger all else to do except work.”
“No French maidens then?”
“No French maidens I promise. Anyway apparently there are ibex.”
“What are ibex?”
And she laughed and said take over the feed because she needed a pee.
“Are you sure this fucking heap of rust will get us there?” asked Ab, giving Pete’s old DAF the once-over with the eye that could find it.
“Cheeky bugger,” said Pete, “This van’s never let me down. Get your tools in.”
Pete had got the cheapest deal possible and we were to drive to Dover for the ferry, then share the driving from Calais through Paris, down through Limoges, Toulouse and climb the Pyrenees to Les Angles. He knew the route, got it sussed, and even knew where we’d be stopping off for a beer and a bite. It was a long trip but we were ready for it, excited, three lads in a van, some money in our pockets, singing songs. Ab even had his banjo, which he couldn’t play but at least he had it. He seemed a decent bloke, bit of a joker, non-stop supplier of simplistic views of life and how to handle women. “Treat ’em mean,” he said, “Let ’em know who’s boss.” Turned out he hadn’t even told his wife he was coming for fear she’d say no. But he was tolerable except for his feet and the smelliest farts ever known to man – not what you want for a twelve-hour drive in a capsule as small as that and Pete often threatened to make him walk. But we survived it. Just.
By the time we got there I was already missing Danni and the baby, so Pete dropped me in the village of Les Angles to find a phone box. It took me ages to get through because I didn’t know you had to drop the first zero of the code till Ab put me right.
“Hiya,” I said.
“Hello you!” she said, “I can hear you so clearly.”
“Everything OK?” I said.
“Never mind me, did you get there safely?”
“I did aye,” I said, “I miss you.”
“How’s my Phoebe?”
“Phoebe’s fine,” she said with a giggle, “and sleeping at last so I won’t put her on if that’s ok?”
“I’ll not spend long on because of the money and Pete wants to get started,” I said.
“No,” she said, “And tell the bugger to pay you well.”
“See you soon.”
“A month feels like ages.”
“It won’t when you’re used to it. I’ll phone every day.”
“You’d better or the locks will be changed when you get back.”
“I will,” I said.
“Love you Hun,” she said.
“You too Danni.”
“And give my love to the goats.”
The chalet was a mostly timber construction carved into the cliff face and when you ventured inside it was bigger than it seemed from the outside. Downstairs there was a wee vestibule with a cupboard and toilet off, and the one large room with a log fire beyond had a kitchen niched into the corner. A large window at the far end looked out onto the most picturesque views I’d ever known, down over the valley and to Lac Matemale which seemed like a puddle from so far. We couldn’t go out onto the balcony yet because I could already see it was coming away, and one boot trodden on the wooden decking would’ve surely sent it, and us, tumbling down the mountain. The hills beyond were snow-capped, but just outside it was mostly dry, the odd patch of white here and there among the pines where eagles soared. Up some winding stairs were two fair-sized double bedrooms and a small cove to sleep one, which Ab bagsied and we were glad on account of his flatulence. As I set down my tackle, Pete was already downstairs throwing logs on the fire to get it stoked – the place was cold and needed a good airing – then he set about his recce of the work we were there to do.
That night though, we sat thawing by the fire, eating baguettes with French ham, drinking five-centime bottles of wine we’d grabbed in Limoges, talking, joking and listening to Ab’s farts and songs accompanied by his equally tuneless banjo. But then, before we settled merrily for the night, Pete dished out the rota, my first job being going down to the village to get some provisions before making a start on the balcony.
Which was no mean feat. Balanced precariously over the precipice, I knew I’d have to erect some scaffolding but there was hardly any footing before the big drop. But with a series of poles and ropes I managed to climb up there and, well aware of the two hundred feet below me, make a start on replacing brackets I’d welded below. It took a good three days to fix rigidly in place and Pete was pleased with the outcome, taking pictures to show his mate Andy when we got back. No mobiles in those days to Whatsapp or whatever.
“A fucking doddle,” said Ab, casting his good eye over the fruits of my labour, “I’d have had that done in half the time.”
“Bollocks,” I said, “You’d spend two days looking for the fucking thing.”
And we all laughed.
The job was a sound one, the main problem being the shit-filled drains, which meant digging into hard rock outside and finding the source. At one point Pete pierced through the mains pipe and water spurted everywhere, so we had to dash down to the village and ask for a plumber. Some hours later a wee Citroen van came rumbling up the hill and out gets this tiny fella wearing overalls and a toupee. Not a word of English, he tutted disparagingly at the predicament we’d found ourselves in and reluctantly gave us a hand, climbing into the sopping hole and turning the main key to shut off the supply. Guiltily I handed him a beer to keep him going and he angrily cried, “Apres le putain de boulot!” We didn’t know what it meant but it sounded rude so Ab said “Keep your hair on!” and we fell about laughing while the poor oblivious bastard got his wig drenched.
But that was the trickiest working day, the rest was a breeze, and by the time we got round to painting we could stretch things out, stretch our legs at times, explore the couple of bars in the village and get pissed on cheap French and Spanish wine. I knew I was having the time of my life and though I missed Danni and Phoebe and kept my promise of phoning every day, it would be something I’d look back on and tell my grand-kids. And by the time it came to say goodbye to the place I felt saddened to miss its dreamy beauty, and even worse that I’d be going back to the harsh reality of the dole.
When I returned to our little one-bed flat in Govan I found Danni waiting for me, a welcome sign up in the window. I gave her the hardest hug of my life and asked where was baby and she was sleeping in her carry-cot where I noticed the first tufts of orange hair from the Irish half of her mother. I wanted to pick her up and at first Danni said no she’d only just got her down, then caved in. I’d missed them so much and while I’d had a good time in France I was glad to be with the woman and daughter I loved the bones of.
Pete had paid me well for the work and first chance I got I asked my sister to babysit while I took Danni out for a curry, though I had a bit of a fight because she said we needed to go careful. She ate well, a veg biriani, enjoying my Pyrenean stories about the plumber in the toupee and the drains that were backing up and reeked of shit. And she was appreciating the freedom of being away from baby yet wanting to get to the phone every five minutes to check everything was OK. “Relax,” I told her, “Everything’s fine. We’re going to a club next.”
“We’re not,” she said, firmly, “I told Millie we’d be back by twelve.” And that was final, I knew it, no argument, so I squeezed her hand and said we’d be back straight after the meal and I loved her.
We were very happy, Danni and me and little baby Phoebe, and though I had no work lined up as yet, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I went round all the yards I knew and asked if anything was going, and even trawled the local garages to ask for welding jobs. But nothing, and Danni kept saying keep trying because something was bound to come up.
When Phoebe was about one with all her teeth and toddling, it was Danni who found some cleaning work while I stayed at home. I was happy to be with baby, not self-conscious when out or walking the pushchair one-handed like other fathers did for fear of emasculation. I was happy. I loved spending time just me and baby. Now and then I used to just watch her sleeping, just for a wee while. And I was happy for Danni to bring in some money, buy herself some new clothes, some independence. I couldn’t wait for her to come home though, so I could tell her all about my day with Phoebe, how she’d said Dada again, and she could tell me all about her day, cleaning for Mrs Montague and Mr Wilson who had a son called Harry who’d always drop by to check up that his dad was getting his money’s worth. Apparently he played drums in a brass band and once invited her to go and see them play but she’d said no.
“Why not?” I said.
“What do I know about brass bands?” she said.
“It’ll do you good to get out.”
So eventually she did, and got to quite like it, even talked about buying a trumpet one day and it made me laugh.
“What’s so funny about that?” she said, “Harry said I could pick it up easily.”
“Harry would,” I said, not meaning anything by it.
Over the weeks to follow, Harry came to pick Danni up and go to see the band play as often as possible which I encouraged.
“It’s when a person stops talking about a person that you need to worry,” said Millie, and I was stupid enough to ignore her. Because it was true, in hindsight, I noticed Danni would go off to these band practices and gradually stopped mentioning Harry by name. And I thought nothing of it, till Ab saw me in the pub one night with his good eye and happened to mention he spied my wife get into a bloke’s car in Evans Street round the corner from our flat. “You want to keep that one on a lead,” he said with a wink of the eye that could see me, and I told him to fuck off, my wife was sound, me and her were unbreakable. And we were, that’s how it really was. Till the night she told me her head had been turned, and smashed me to pieces.
The two further parts to follow…