I was 16 and it was 1977, the year of punk in the UK, the year the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee. It was 27th September and I was standing outside the Palaceum Bar in my home town of Shettleston in Glasgow’s East End. It was bitterly cold, frost was settling on the pavement giving it a slippy-ness that made old people walk even slower.
That’s where I met the man who asked me to marry him; he was called ‘Barra’ that’s was his nickname, he was born on 24th May 1962.
Let me tell you about Barra.
He came from a big family of Catholic housebreaking robbers (nice eh?) We chatted briefly and recalled how we had known each other as wee kids. I didn’t really fancy him; I didn’t really know what fancy-ing was to be honest. I wasn’t your average 16 year old sexy teenager. In fact I looked like a boy to be truthful and was often mistaken for one. Not that that fact puts a slant on Barra’s sexuality! I was chatty and was interested in loads of stuff, but not sexy or sexual in the least.
Anyway we walked together and he took me by the hand into this close (that’s a long public hallway in the Glasgow tenements) and we kissed for what seemed ages and I got slightly worried because I had to get to work in the morning and I had a curfew of 10pm. That time limit annoyed me as I was working and surely an adult? But my mammy insisted I get home for 10pm.
Time went on and I had to stop the kissing for two reasons.
1) I didn’t really like kissing
2) I didn’t actually know this boy and wanted to look at him but the darkness blurred my vision and every time we stopped kissing, I could feel his face very close to mine and to ease that uncomfortable quiet close scrutiny I kissed more!
We did eventually stop kissing and he brusquely grabbed my hand and led me out of the close and walked off into the cold and left me as if we had never been there in the first place. It was an odd feeling, like when you accidentally catch sight of some school friend naked at swimming class then meet them later standing at the school canteen. You know more about them than you needed to and now there sits that awkwardness that had never existed before. It was kind of like that.
Barra and I had held hands, touched each others faces, lips had met, tongues had been flickered and now we were strangers again. Maybe he was shyer than me?
I walked home in the freezing cold and went over it in my head. It was nice and dangerous and yet oddly I felt disconnected.
Maybe after kissing me he realised I was shite at it and left disappointed? Who knew? Not me!
I went to work the next day and when I got home I ran round to the Italian Café where I hung out with my mates. The Italian Café was our local place to be and there was a man who worked there we called Spock because he really did look like Doctor Spock from Star Trek. His long brown face, sharp arched eyebrows, flat dark shiny hair that came to a point on his forehead made him a real point of attention for us kids. “Spock can I have 20p tub of ice cream?” he never blinked or reacted which made us even more convinced he was a Vulcan. He was the only man who never got the usual two finger salute from us cheeky kids; we always gave him the open palm V sign that made Spock famous on TV!
Anyway my pal Elaine was there; she was two years younger than me and had just finished school.
“Guess who I kissed last night walking home from my sister’s house?” I giggled.
“Who?” She answered.
“Barra” I said.
Before we could react to my exciting information, I turned and there Barra was standing behind me. He looked angry and mumbled something to me and indicated that we go outside with one finger pointing to the door.
I was so shocked, I didn’t expect to see him and now was horrified that he had heard me tell Elaine, maybe he didn’t want anyone to know?
Holy Fuck! I thought…. I am in trouble. I knew he was violent and had heard about him fighting and stabbing people, he had a reputation. Was he going to slap me or something? I was shaken and slowly pushed through the queue and walked outside.
He stood there; around him were a few older guys that I knew were friends of my older brother. They all nodded when they saw me and then carried on chatting.
I stared at my shoes, they were shiny black brogues that were in fashion at that time, women wearing middle classed men’s shoes? Who knows? Anyway I stood and avoided eye contact. The glare of the café lights lit the whole street up.
“Janey” he whispered near my face.
I looked up and saw his very blonde hair, extremely blue eyes and pale skin and secretly wondered if he was actually German!
“What?” I answered. Teenagers can be very monosyllabic when it suits them.
He lifted up my chin and kissed me there in front of everyone. I recall being so embarrassed and could hear people laughing. I pushed him off and expected to see young guys pointing and laughing at me but they were all in other conversations, till one looked over and said “Barra you coming to the pub?”
“I will catch up you go” he said. He could get into pubs and buy beer.
He was only 15 but did look much older, he had a blonde moustache growing and had a weary grown-up face, and also his family’s reputation guaranteed that not many people gave him trouble. They were a just a bunch of petty criminals, though two of his brothers were serving time for robbing a post office in Glasgow.
“Can we meet later?” he seemed so confident and adult now.
“Yes ok” I stammered.
“Where will we meet?” he added smiling.
“Here” I said, I didn’t have many other places to go in Shettleston, it wasn’t like a sprawling metropolis with memorable landmarks and meeting places, it was either the café or the grave yard and I didn’t think the grave yard sounded romantic enough!
“Do you drink?” he asked me as he went to walk off.
“Yes” I replied then suddenly wondered if he meant alcohol, which I didn’t drink but I did drink Irn Bru (Scottish soft drink), and I thought maybe he wanted to bring me a can of Irn Bru as a gift and then all of that sounded mental and I added “I drink but nothing alcohol just mainly water, tea and Irn Bru and sometimes milk”
The stupid words all came out of my stupid mouth and he laughed out loud as he walked to open the pub door next to the café and shouted “They don’t sell milk, see you in an hour”.
I had a boyfriend!
I worked way up in Castlemilk, which was 10 miles from Glasgow’s East End and attended night school in Barmulloch which was 15 miles from Castlemilk! My nights and days were taken up with public transport and working in an old folks home.
Barra and I would get together two or three nights a week. We never went to my house as he was very shy about meeting my mammy and I never wanted him there as my house was so dirty and poor looking and sometimes the electric had been disconnected. So we spent most of the time hanging around closes, sitting in the cold street, chatting in the café or waiting on him getting a bus back to Easterhouse where he lived.
He would occasionally go to the pub with his brother and I would wait for him to come out, kiss for a wee while, wait for him to get on the bus and then go home. It wasn’t an exciting courtship, pretty boring to be honest and he never really spoke much. The kissing never went further than cuddling up against the cold and that suited me totally. He never asked me or pushed me further into anything more.
One Saturday he came to see me, unusually he was waiting for me at the bottom on my street. I could see him standing there, pacing and chatting to his older brother. I worried what may have happened, maybe yet another police charge for him (he had been pulled in by the police a few times since we had been seeing each other).
I reached him and he was staring nervously at me, his brother was rubbing his chin and stood then stood with his back to me.
“Janey, I fell asleep last night at this girl’s house and we woke up together in bed and I think something happened, you know what I mean” he stammered this out.
I looked at his brother who finally made eye contact, Barra stood there watching my face. I was touched that he had needed support to tell me this, I actually felt odd, because his demeanour required a reaction and I didn’t have one. I didn’t care if he had sex with another girl, I really didn’t and that moment scared me, because it meant he thought more of this relationship than me.
“I don’t care, if you are shagging someone it means you won’t be pestering me” I blurted out.
“I don’t pester you” he shouted angrily.
His brother walked away and Barra let him go. We walked together and got up to the café.
He looked so sad and I kept reassuring him it was fine, I was ok about it. In my naivety, I thought placating him and ignoring his ‘mistake’ was being a good girlfriend – he realised that it meant I didn’t really care enough to be angry. I was NEW to all these dating things remember.
That night as we stood wrapped up in each other kissing in the close he pulled my face close, I could smell the beer on his breath and I hated that, he then whispered “I love you Janey”
I was shocked, I didn’t know what I was supposed to say so I added “Me too” then realised that wasn’t actually an answer.
Barra pushed me out of the hug and spat “Fucksake, do you know how long it took me to say that” and walked away from me out into the cold.
We made up eventually, but we hardly spoke on a real deep level, he mostly sat on a step then got drunk and I chatted away about pop music, people at work, my studies, my latest art project, my mammy, my nephew, my favourite things, my yearning to travel, my political opinion and so much more as he just sat and stared at me.
When pressed he never had an opinion on anything, he had no intention to get a job, had no thoughts on his future, shrugged when asked what he wanted to be when older and over all never made any comments about anything. It bored me to death….I had a million things to do.
One night when we were walking back from the close to the bus stop (we did this every night we met, it was fucking freezing and I worked daily) we met an old friend of his mums.
“Hello Barra, how are you?” she asked in a jolly way.
“Am great Mrs Wilson how’s the boys?” he answered.
“Is this your new girlfriend? Your mammy said you had a new lassie” she smiled at me.
“Aye this is Janey, she is a…..college person” he beamed “She goes to a college at night and does college things” he stammered over his words, he was trying to boast about me but forgot the word for people who attend college.
“I am a part time student studying English and Art” I said.
“Why would you do that shite? You not getting married? I heard you were getting married Barra” the old woman added.
Barra blushed and mumbled something and we walked off.
I was horrified and staring at the wet pavement as we headed for the bus stop.
“Come up to see my mammy tonight?” he asked me.
“I have work in the morning and you’re a bit drunk, are you sure?” I tried to wangle out of it. He pleaded and I agreed.
We ended up on the long dreary bus ride to Easterhouse. The old ramshackle green bus trundled through the dimly lit streets heading out of the city and into the out lying schemes.
Finally we got to his street and walked the short distance to his six in a block 1940’s three bed roomed flats. His home was warm and smelled clean. I had met his wee mammy and dad before, just a regular nice middle aged, working class couple, except his mum looked older and beaten down by life; she had a small thin frame and wispy grey hair pulled back from her face. They had raised seven kids, most of which had ended up in trouble with the police.
I sat there and accepted the cup of tea, his mum smiled and chatted away to me and Barra sat there huddled near the fire.
“Janey will you marry me?” he blurted out.
I was stunned by the remark, he looked at me, his mum looked at me, his dad stared at me and I clenched everything in my body with sheer terror and shock. In the background a clock ticked, a cat stretched and meowed on the chair and everyone waited for my answer.
“I don’t want to get married, I want to go and paint the Taj Mahal” was the only words that came tumbling out of my mouth.
“The Taj Mahal? Is that a restaurant in Parkhead?” Barra said “Why would you want to paint that?”
“No its in India I think, its beautiful and I want to travel and maybe go to Australia, I like kangaroos” I added…words…. just fucking weird words kept coming out of the big hole in the front of my head.
The room went silent, I stared at the flowery cup in my hand, I could feel the glow from the fire on my face mixed in with the utter horror and embarrassment that swept over me, what was wrong with me? Who else mentions kangaroo’s in the middle of a marriage proposal?
“You are only fifteen Barra, I am only sixteen and haven’t finished my studies, we are really too young” the first sensible words came out.
“You can leave college, you said that it costs too much didn’t you? We can get a house near your ma’s and we can have kids, they don’t have to be Catholic” he looked at me speaking for the first time since I had mentioned Indian Palaces and kangaroo’s.
“You have to pay for college?” his mammy asked.
“Yes, its night school but I work all week and can afford it” I replied “I really want to get some qualifications so I can get a good job, I hate kids and don’t want a council house in Shettleston”
“What do you want to work at hen?” his dad asked me.
“I want to…..I am not sure really, but I want to travel” I spoke quietly, annoyed at my own lack of direction.
It was the beginning of the end. As I left his flat that night his mammy took me by the arm at her door and said “Go hen, go do what you want to do, marriage isn’t everything and my boys are bad news, I love them but you go see that Taj Mahal”
Barra and I broke up after that New Year, we really ran out of things to say I think. He was also accused of mugging an old man for his whisky on the way home from a shop and I was dragged into the police office for questioning as the police thought I may have witnessed something. I hadn’t but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted in my life. I never wanted to be involved in police issues. (Well we all know how that turned out! I got charged with possessing guns in our house in 1994- sometimes you can’t avoid that stuff)
I still have a poster of the Taj Mahal.
I never did see it, I still haven’t been to Australia and chased kangaroos, but I did meet another man who was born on the 24th of May 1962, outside the Palaceum bar and I did marry him on 27th September in 1980 (the day I met Barra in 1977). Strange coincidence? Who knows?
But I think I got the right man, last I heard Barra was selling drugs to kids in the street and has been in and out of prison for years now._