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A Skittery Winter
By Brian Whittingham

(Sunday Herald Seven Days - Christmas Short Story Competition Winner - published Dec. 2000)

Joe stood in the kitchen, finished his roll and sausage, breathed steam onto the window and wiped a squeaky fist size opening in the frost. Through the snow outside, he could see the image of the ship's funnel against the sky.

He looked at the income-tax reminder on the mantle-piece then closed his eyes, and visualised the Plaza ballroom; the pulse of the brass-section, the squeak of leather soled shoes, the scent from whoever his partner for the evening, happened to be. No hanky panky though, just the dancing. This weekly escape was found in Marvin McVicar's Memphis Horns, the resident swing band. From Greenock, but that didn't matter. The idea, that was the thing.

Joe looked at the flyer in his hand. 'CHRISTMAS EVE at THE PLAZA - A TEATIME-TOE-TAP'. He shimmied round the sink. Bare feet on cold lino. He packed his shirt, good trousers and bow-tie in his satchel and as he did so, he whistled 'White Christmas.'

7:00 a.m. and Mary still asleep. Since she'd fell pregnant, all she seemed to do, was sleep. Lately, her and Joe were like ships passing. By the time she'd finished her day's chores, he'd be at an A.A. meeting. A year sober. Meetings, top-tables. Usually when he arrived home with his 'A.A. cronies', as Mary called them, she'd be in her kip.

Inside, Joe reckoned the new arrival would be a boy, felt it in his water, and, despite himself, he smiled.

On the odd occasion when they'd go to the 'Seven Sea's' lounge, Mary drank 'dark rum and smoke', that's what she called it, her little joke when she lit up another Embassy Regal. Joe would give her the evil-eye. He stuck to IRN-BRU. Weekend dancing, his only intoxication. Still, they looked the part, that was the main thing. They sipped drinks and stared at nothing.

In the living room, as he tucked in his shirt, he glanced at the wedding photo, taken on the day they had moved into their Clydebank flat. John Brown tenants. A grey sandstone building next to the yard. For twenty five year Joe worked in the Pattern-shop. A gold watch man, in with the bricks and captured for life.

This Christmas, Joe had been well warned. There was to be no repetition of last year's Christmas-eve binge, come weekend bender, come, well, let sleeping dogs and all that jazz. Mary'd lost the place that night. Say no more. He'd never had a drink since. He'd talked the talk. and up till now, had walked the walk.

The blast of the yard's 7:30 hooter. Joe should be at his work. He looked at the flyer again, raised his left eyebrow, left a note.

'I've an A-A meeting tonight - going straight from work - won't be late'. Joe shoved on his socks and boots, grabbed his donkey jacket and satchel, ran like the clappers down stairs.

Because he was late, he decided to avoid the inquisition from security at the main gate, so he scrunched through the snow like an escaped convict returning to jail, and when all was clear, he jumped the wall and went into the Pattern-shop by the back door.

'Fuckin shut the door, it's Baltic in here'

Joe took off his donkey jacket. Another day in purgatory.

The screech of circular saws sliced the silence, and, as Joe stepped into clean overalls, an increase in the volume of noise made him turn his head. The men were hammering wooden boards with cartoon like ferocity. Some blew into bent piece's of piping. Others whirled flexible hosing about their heads. Whooshing and trumpeting. The industrial orchestra heralded Joe's lateness. A skittery winter; the reception given to Christmas Eve's last arrival.

9.00 a.m., tea-time. Joe had sneaked to the urn, then hid his filled tea-can under his overalls as he made his way back to the howff. Once there, he tried to cool the drink by birling his arm like windmill blades. Sitting, he gulped his still hot tea and stuffed his face with cheese pieces. When Joe was finished, he asked the seated company, 'Why does Victor Sylvester wear baggy pants?'
'Who the fuck's Victor Sylvester?' an apprentice said.

'Don't know,' said some of the others.

'For Ballroom ………………… dancing,' Joe laughed.

One man sat on his tool-box, held his nose, and pulled an imaginary chain to flush the joke away.
The white coats appeared dead on 9:10.


Later, in the afternoon, Joe wandered to the stockyard, waited till security had passed, then jumped the wall, and made his way towards the public baths. He slid along an icy slide in the manner of a child going home from school.

The bath-house had two rows of bathing cubicles. The chunky taps filled the tub quickly. The steaming water, was first scalding, then soothed to a relaxing heat. Joe submerged, whistled 'In the Mood,' the musical bubbles popping on the surface. Then he soaped the scrubbing brush with red carbolic and scrubbed his back. He dried himself off, put on his good trousers, white shirt and bow-tie.

Joe jumped the wall in time to catch the afternoon tea-break.

Instead of pieces they drank their Christmas-Eve halfs, hiding under the tressled table. Joe reckoned one small swally wouldn't do any harm. A young journeyman noticed Joe's dress change and nudged the apprentice next to him.

They stood up, sang 'Twist and Shout,' danced the twist, going up and down. 'Sounds man, Chubby Checker,' the journeyman said, giving the peace-sign.

'Call that dancin?' Joe stood up, held his left hand round an imaginary partner's waist with his right hand in the air. He pulled her closer. He sniffed, as if sniffing her scent, then waltzed round the tool-boxes. Gliding, bending over at the waist, then straightening up he pirouetted and stopped. 'Chubby fuckin Checker?' The seated men clapped and whistled.

'Enjoy it while yi can, that'll aw stoap when the bambino comes alang.' the young journey man said as if an old hand, 'take it fae me.'

'Nae chance, ah'll teach him the leg into the groin routine, nae bother.' Joe said.
'Bandits at three o'clock,' shouted someone.

The men scattered.


Joe nursed a coke at the bar in the Plaza. The six o'clock start had been a disaster. Marvin McVicar had laryngitis, so they played a tape of him singing, but he was out of sync. with his miming. And at the bit where Marvin combed his bald head with the joke giant plastic comb, a couple of punters called him 'slapheid' and danced, slapping the baldy bits on their heads. Marvin lost it and attacked them.

Joe turned to see what the commotion was, and bumped a woman, spilling his drink over her white dress.

The woman stood and brushed off her dress. She made eye contact with Joe.
'Sorry aboot that - by the way, ma name's Joe.'

He made to dab her dress.

'Get tae fuck away fae me, look at ma dress 'ma name's JOE', it's fucked.'
The woman's boyfriend returned from the toilet.

'Eh - a slight accident.' apologised Joe.

'Aye, therr wull be,' shouted the man, as he picked up a bottle, smashed it on the bar and jabbed it towards Joe's face.

Joe leapt back, his face white.

Bouncers jumped in, pinned the guy to the floor.

'Christ, they're aw at it the night.'

They threw Joe out.

'Throwin me oot, whit aboot psycho therr? - state o this place by the way.'

Joe wiped his brow. Disorientated and shaking, his heart beat hard. He found himself in the Star Bar where boxes of chocolates that were peace offerings for errant husbands, lined the gantry. Joe ordered a double Grouse, and a box of 'Black-Magic'.

Later, after last orders, Joe was in the open air. It was 10:30. His legs couldn't communicate with his brain. They ran, but didn't seem as if they belonged to him. He slung his arms round a bus stop. The night air bit as he tried to focus on the oncoming bus. He couldn't make out the number, but he jumped on anyway, giving the conductor a handful of change, before slumping into a window seat.

His sleeping head bounced off the window as the bus threaded its way into the city centre. It jolted round a corner and Joe wakened. He jumped off and leaned against a metal fence, rubbed his eyes, trying to get his bearings. He staggered and fell over a low wall into bushes where he banged his head.

After a while, he looked about him, then recognised the Mitchell Library. He danced a few drunken steps on the paving stones.

He crossed the road and stared at the Koh-I-Noor restaurant. Joe remembered it from the Evening Times. Pat Roller's 'looking for trouble' column. Something about a flood. Maybe sabotage?

Joe looked at the pile of mouldy carpets lying on the pavement, then at the sign above the door. The words Koh-I-Noor had a human eye superimposed on top of a diamond. Joe stared at it. He felt steady as he done so. Then his gaze wandered to the carpets again. Someone had stuck on a makeshift cardboard sign with the words, 'Magic Carpets for Sale,' scrawled in black.

Joe raised his left eyebrow, looked about, then pulled a section of carpet onto the pavement. He flattened it and sat in the centre. Checked his watch. 10.45.

A late bus stopped at the lights on North Street. The occupants banged the windows, shouting and jeering and pointing at Joe. One man had opened the rear emergency escape door and was screaming abuse, when the lights changed, and the heckler faded into distance.

Joe crossed his legs and folded his arms. He stared at the larger than life human eye.

A snowflake breeze sprung up, and as it did, the carpet's tassels moved. They became luminous. The carpet's grey, became a mass of rich reds and golds and the carpet sparkled star-dust onto the pavement. Joe felt as if he were sitting on the softest, most luxurious mossy turf. In the fading light, the carpet and its passenger glowed. The carpet rose and rippled in the breeze which was getting stronger. Joe felt steady and calm as he stared at the eye. The breeze was now a strong wind.

At this moment there was a clap of thunder.

Mary shivered as she closed the curtains on hearing the distant rumble. She switched off the cooker that had welded Joe's dinner to the plate. She looked with disgust at their wedding photo and then she phoned the hospital. The baby that was due in two weeks, could wait no longer.

The wind increased and Joe and the carpet were rising, swaying on currents of air as snow flurried around them.

Momentarily, Joe faced upward to the sky. 'A word in yir ear big man, whenever the wee barra arrives, well, yi know, if yi could help me oot wance in a while is whit ah'm tryin tae say, ah remember yi hud a boay yirsel wance.'

Three tramps, who'd been searching for dowpts on the pavement, were pointing up towards Joe.
By now, his body acquired an airy lightness, his blurred vision had disappeared, his perception brightened and his senses seemed to redouble their power.

Joe was level with the dome on the Mitchell library. In its spotlights, it looked green, like tarnished brass. He wanted to sit and look, and, as if the thought was enough, he stopped rising, and hovered on the spot, swaying from side to side.

Facing him was the statue of Minerva, the 'Goddess of wisdom.'

Minerva's right hand was extended, so Joe hovered closer and gave her the handshake.
He found he could manoeuvre by his thoughts. He thought of the Plaza then the carpet started towards the Kingston bridge. He changed his thoughts to the Finnieston crane. The carpet stopped, rotated, then started over the rooftops with their rows of chimney pots, towards the crane. He looked over his shoulder and the library and red tail-lights on the motorway faded behind him. He flew down to the river and stopped level with the crane. A few seagulls circled, squawked at Joe, and two pigeons on the crane's jib watched him intently.

He floated, weaving from side to side on air currents down-river. He passed Princess dock and Govan on his left, he could see Yorkhill hospital and Partick. Then, on to King George V dock by Whiteinch, then Yarrows at Scotstoun, the slipways, the wet dock, Elderslie dockyard, then past Rothesay dock at Yoker and on to Clydebank. A giant black shed emerged in the gloom. On its roof, painted in large white letters, JOHN BROWN.

Joe's concentration was broken when he saw the shed, then the tenement building that was home. He descended and as he floated down, the exhilaration of the wind decreased, the glow around him dimmed and with a few wide sweeping arcs of the carpet's travel, he landed in amongst the middens, crashing their lids, and knocking them over as he clattered to a halt. Everything went dark.

When he came to, he staggered upright. His shirt was torn, his bow-tie squinty and matted hair fell over his face. He raised his left eye-brow when he saw a shadow parting his kitchen curtains. At the same moment, a siren hee-hawed somewhere in the distance.

Joe ran up-stairs, falling over a pram left on the landing, then stepping on a squealing cat.
With his 'Black Magic' under his arm, he rattled the door, the clatter echoing through the close. The hall light clicked on. The door squeaked open. It was Mary's sister Joan. Joan was as heavily built as Mary and in the dull light Joe thought it was Mary at first. He offered the chocolates.
'A wee present Mary? yill never believe …'

'It's Joan, not Mary, she's in hospital faither, where you should be the waste of space that you are.'
'Joan? … Mary? is she o.k.? … she's no due till … faither? … how? … Jesus, whit ur yi looking at me like that fur? … a wean? … ya dancer!'

Joe tried to grab Joan for support but fell and banged his head on the wall.
'Christ, no again.' Joe said.

Joan locked the door.

Joe, slumped on the welcome mat, and against the door, rubbed his head with a glaekit smile.
'I'm away to the hospital, I'll give Mary your chocolates. Sweet dreams Joseph.' The words floated over Joe like snowflakes, and, as Joan's heels clicked out the close-mouth, the diesel-throb of a taxi engine droned into the distance and fog-horn blasts signalled 12.00 p.m. as Joe dropped off to sleep.

The End

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