Authors: Jessica Stirling
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Friday night had never been Bernard Peabody's favourite time of the week, for then, rain or shine, sleet, hail or howling gale, he would be sent out into the streets of the Gorbals to collect what he could of the rents. This was the price he had to pay for being a humble factor in Shannon, Peters & Dean, the estate agents, who had been kind enough to employ him back in 1919 and who had rewarded eleven years of unstinting service by piling more and more responsibilities on to his narrow shoulders.
Mr Peabody did not complain. In fact if these little âpromotions' hadn't come his way he would have been disappointed. Every additional name in the tenants' book meant another tiny increment in his tiny wage and gave him â so he fondly imagined â a wee bit more status in the office. Not for him the genteel stairways of Shannon, Peters & Dean's West End apartments, the hot commercial properties of Glasgow's city centre or the leafy suburban estates that Mr Shannon had recently added to the books: the bungalows, the de-luxe apartment blocks that were springing up, arms akimbo, south and west of the river. His territory remained as it had always been, the vigorous old route that ran from Glasgow Cross through the Saltmarket and â holding on to its hat â across the Clyde by the Albert Bridge and into the district known as the Gorbals; or, to be a shade more precise, into that unpicturesque part of the Gorbals that everyone referred to as the Calcutta Road.
Nobody, least of all Mr Peabody, knew why the stubby thoroughfare that linked Keane Street and the infamous Lavender Court had been named after a city in India. No Indians, give or take the odd Lascar, resided in the area. Poles, yes, Italians, yes, Jews, certainly; plus a multitude of the Irish-Scots who had been left behind when the nineteenth century ran out of steam. All of those and even the odd Englishman, but not an Asian in sight.
Road? Only old Mr Dean could have provided Bernard Peabody with an explanation â âCalled after a clipper ship, laddie' â but Mr Dean was far too venerable to be approached by a mere clerk in whom curiosity would not be regarded as a virtue.
Names were not uppermost in Mr Peabody's mind as he trudged into the Gorbals, however. For the past five months no mental games or conundrums had soothed the agent's apprehension as he crossed the Albert Bridge and headed towards No. 10 Lavender Court, where the widow Conway and her three unmarried daughters lived.
It wasn't the girls who made him nervous so much as the widow herself. Although she seemed friendly, certainly to Mr Peabody, Mrs Conway had a reputation for scaring the breeks off every tallyman, tinker and tout who set foot in her close or knocked upon her big glossy brown door.
Why, Mr Peabody wondered, as he passed the window of Brady's pub, did Mrs Conway's door seem so much larger than anyone else's? It was, he knew, exactly the same size as all the others in the building. He could only put it down to the fact that within days of taking occupancy she'd not only changed the mortice-lock for a Chubb but had painted the woodwork a rich chocolate brown and embellished the surface with a series of wavy little lines that reminded him, for some reason, of maidenhair.
Strictly speaking she wasn't allowed to make alterations to the property without written permission from the factor. Therefore he could have exercised his authority and had her grovelling. But he could not imagine Mrs Conway grovelling to anyone, let alone a mere rent-collector. So he had said nothing except, âVery nice. Aye, very nice, Mrs Conway,' when she'd drawn his attention to the luminous oblong that added such distinction to the third-floor landing.
It had been on the tip of his tongue to enquire where she'd found the money to pay for such expensive luxuries as gloss paint and Chubb locks when she was for ever complaining how hard it was for her to make ends meet. He had put that question to one side too, however, for the eyes of the girls had been upon him, so sleek and speculative that he'd been only too anxious to scoop up the coins that Lizzie Conway had counted from her purse and beat a hasty retreat across the landing to the Gowers.
Now it was Friday again, and cold.
In mid-afternoon the first of the November fogs had come snuffling up from the Clyde. Mr Peabody had peeked from the windows of the office in St Anne's Street in the touch-and-go hour between three o'clock and four nervously awaiting the onset of a real pea-souper. He disliked the Gorbals at the best of times, more for its reputation than its reality, but on foggy nights, when the boys of the neighbourhood appeared like wraiths out of the murk, his nervousness would bring on a stomach ache that not even a nip of brandy or a tot of rum could ease. But, thank God, the fog had not settled and by the time he had strapped on his collection pouch, buttoned his overcoat and adjusted his bowler, the wind had stiffened and the sky over the city was as clear as it ever got at this time of the year.
It was cold, though, very cold. You could feel it pinching your nostrils, the tips of your ears and all around your mouth. Mr Peabody regretted that he had not heeded his mother's advice and brought along his muffler, the long grey woollen protector that his mother had spent weeks knitting for him but that he, a dab hand with the needles himself, could have knocked off in a couple of nights. He hadn't brought the muffler, though; a kind of stubborn pride had prevented it, the feeling that he would be regarded as a weakling by the office juniors, though it was mainly in the hope of impressing his hardiness on the Conways that he strode out into the November twilight ungloved and unscarfed.
To poor Mr Peabody â a thirty-four-year-old virgin â any girl who lived in one of Shannon, Peters & Dean's slum properties had to be âbad'.
Naturally that was part of the attraction that Polly â particularly Polly â and Babs Conway held for him: the notion that their flirtatiousness indicated the possibility, remote though it might be, of some form of sexual activity.
Small wonder then that he approached the close-mouth at No. 10 trembling with excitement as well as trepidation and, clutching his collection pouch tightly against his thighs, began a cautious ascent of the stairs.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Unlike most of the main streets of the Gorbals which, contrary to repute, were broad and airy and flanked by old but solidly built dwellings, Lavender Court had an overwhelming narrowness that made the tenements seem particularly menacing. It wasn't much of a street in any case, eight buildings, four on each side, racked together on a steep incline that ran up to the weeping brick wall of the shunting yards of the Kingston Iron Works above which, day and night, black smoke and white steam curled up into the slot of the sky.
The westward trek of affluent and aspiring citizens just after the war had created a vacuum into which had flocked the poor and shiftless. Overcrowding was rife, nowhere more so than in the region of Calcutta Road.
The Lavender Court tenements, for instance, were owned by a host of different landlords, many of whom were almost as poor as their tenants and none too particular when it came to obeying the letter of the law in regard to health and safety, especially when infants, small children, itinerant lodgers and relatives were added into the equation.
Even with the best will in the world the good-wives of the close couldn't possibly cope with the rivers of sewage that leaked down the stairs from the half-landing lavatories. They had to endure choked drains, backed-up pipes, leaking eaves, smashed windows, and, unfortunately, puddles of urine and vomit that appeared mysteriously in the dark and noisy hour after the pubs got out. No amount of mopping and scrubbing could keep the common stair clean and after a time even the most fastidious soon gave up and accepted that if things weren't going to get any better they certainly couldn't get much worse.
Then one fine June forenoon, a rusty little motor van rounded the corner from Keane Street, bounced over the cobbles, braked to a halt in front of No. 10 and Lizzie Conway emerged from the passenger seat and, aided by her good-looking daughters, began unloading furniture.
Windows all up the front of the building, most of which had been propped open against the stifling heat, suddenly bloomed a crop of fat arms and fatter faces, while out of the back courts packs of small children appeared as if summoned by a piper.
The sight of a motor vehicle of any kind was unusual in Lavender Court â in this neighbourhood the horse and cart still held sway â and the sight of a motor vehicle, even a battered van, with four females inside was rare enough to be regarded as a phenomenon.
Polly, the oldest and most sensible of the Conway girls, was well aware of the neighbours' scrutiny. Even before she clambered out of the back of the van she sensed their disapproval. She leaned against the back of the worn seat and looked past Mr McIntosh's head. The van, in fact, had been temporarily borrowed from the Department of Sanitation's laundry and Mr McIntosh, the driver, was doing Lizzie a favour by transporting her family and her goods and chattels from one tenement to another.
Polly watched through the windscreen as her mother clambered from the van and came around to the rear.
âNot much of a place, is it?' Mr McIntosh murmured.
âBetter than where we came from,' said Polly.
âIs this what your mam calls goin' up in the world?' Mr McIntosh said.
âIt'll do us fine,' Polly said, âuntil something better comes our way.'
âIf it ever does,' said Mr McIntosh.
âIt will,' said Polly, cheerfully. âYou'll see, it will.'
Lizzie opened the rear door and eased a small chest of drawers from the van while Mr McIntosh kept the engine running in case, for some reason, a fast getaway was required.
âYou comin' here for t' stay, missus?'
Lizzie lowered the chest to the pavement and leaned an elbow on top.
She had a manner to her, not hoity-toity exactly but so confident and assured that the youngster who had asked the question backed away even before the woman opened her mouth.
âOh, no,' Polly whispered to her sister, Babs, âMammy's going to get us off on the wrong foot again.'
âRubbish!' Babs said. âShe's just makin' her presence felt.'
name then?' Polly heard her mother say, in precisely the same tone a copper might use to interrogate a murder suspect.
âMe? I never said nothin',' little Billy Hallop declared and, though he was all of ten years old and built like a small tank engine, turned on his heel and raced away into the close, yelling, âMammy, Mammy, Mammy.'
A split second later Polly saw a male face appear in the window of a ground-floor bedroom, a small, round, squashed sort of face with features so flat that they might have been pressed in a vice. There was no curiosity in the young man's watery blue eyes, only annoyance.