A Christmas Shelter
“Mammy, look there’s Santa” the wee girl said as she stared at the big tinsel dressed window. One mitten fell off her hand and she struggled between the leather clad shoes and big boots to pick it up, a red mitten trampled into the slush and snow, her wee white fingers snatched it up and shook it fiercely, ‘don’t let mammy know it’s wet’ she thought, mammy is sad today. Her mother was busy trying to push the big pram with William wrapped up inside, through the crushing city centre, full of people with boxes, and bags all getting ready for Christmas day. Wee Julia wanted to run up to Lewis’s window and take in all the colours, look at the dancing toys, the Tippy Tumble dolls, the Hula Hoops the lights, but she knew her mammy was upset and in a hurry to go somewhere.
“Come on Julia” her mammy shouted as the wheels of the big pram slid and slipped through the dirty slushy snow that had been churned by the many Glaswegians who flocked to the city centre to get their shopping done. The lights in the city were fascinating to Julia, the red and green flashes glinting off the chrome suspension of the pram as she gripped on tight with a damp red mitten. “Where are we going mammy?” Julia asked…secretly hoping her mammy would say ‘Santa, we are going to see him and let you sit on his knee and get William a big car and a doll for you’ but she knew that wasn’t what was happening.
Last week when her daddy never came home and the women up the same close gathered round and hugged mammy and made her tea, she knew something bad was happening. In her stomach there was that tight feeling, it was the same feeling when she wet the bed in the night, a slow scary feeling of life draining away. It was her ‘daddy and the drinking’ she heard Mrs Woods say so, and mammy just sat there with William on her knee. Mrs Woods let Julia into her house to see the American man land on the moon in the summer time, she was a nice woman who made big dumplings and gave them to mammy, now she was holding mammy as she cried. Maybe daddy wasn’t coming home this time, he promised her a budgie from Santa. Would she still get a budgie?
“Can you move the pram please” an angry red faced woman shouted at Julia’s mum as they tried to cross the road at the bottom of Argyle Street. Julia’s mum grabbed her mitten hand and tried to get the big pram across the busy road but all the blankets and bags underneath and on top were making it hard to push in the snow. Julia was scared of the busy traffic.
After what felt like hours, they made their way right up into the West End of Glasgow with the snow slashing into them sideways. Julia vaguely recognised the streets, she remembered her Granny McClure lived up here, she was her daddy’s mammy and had a big front door house with a garden. She was scared of her Granny McClure, she wasn’t like Mrs Woods who hugged and kissed you and let you pet her wee dog Prince. Granny was skinny, angry and wore fancy shoes that made loud clacking noises on the tiled kitchen floor where she seemed to keep Julia and William sat when they came to visit. Julia hadn’t seen the rest of the house but she knew it smelled of floor polish.
Julia’s mum bumped the big pram up the five white washed stairs at the front of the house, the two white columns that stood either side of the broad mahogany door were entwined in thick vicious looking holly leaves and a tall tree twinkled in the big bay window. “Look mammy, a big tree!” Julia clapped her damp mittens in excitement, but her mammy was too busy trying to keep the bundles of clothes from falling out of the pram.
Julia bit on her wet mittens as she watched her mammy fix her brown coat and quickly drag a hair grip into the side of head where the brown curls escaped, her mammy had beautiful curly hair, but it looked messy and damp today.
Her mammy lifted the door knocker and rapped on the door. Julia felt scared, she didn’t know why, but her mammy’s nervousness was spreading to her, why was her mammy worried?
At that moment William screamed and tried to sit up, but the bundles of clothes seemed to be suffocating him. Julia’s mammy quickly pulled them off the top of the pram and eased the fat faced baby up into a sitting position as the door was flung open wide.
A formidable thin woman in a pink two piece cardigan set and calf length tweed skirt stood staring at them. Her hair was set in tight curls and her glasses were perched on her sharp nose.
“You need to call me before you visit Eileen, I have the church ladies round for tea” the woman spoke with a hint of venom as she quickly looked over her shoulder and stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
“Donald has left me and the kids are hungry Elizabeth, he is your son and these are your own grand children, we have nowhere to go and he spent the last of his wages on the drink, we have been evicted” Julia’s mammy said quickly but with more conviction Julia had ever seen her use when she spoke to Granny McClure. Julia stared up at her granny and smiled, she reached out one damp mitten, took the woman’s hand and said “can I see your big tree Granny?”
The thin woman recoiled and shook off Julia’s hand and hissed ” You listen to me Eileen, I told him not to marry you and get involved in your drunken Irish family, this is not my problem, Donald is up in Inverness now staying with my sister, he deserves a better start in life, go back to Donegal and find your own kind” and with that she slammed the door.
Eileen, Julia and William walked through the streets of Glasgow until night time came. The Christmas lights twinkled down and the people spilled out of pubs and folk were heading home to their warm hearths. Julia watched her mammy make some phone calls from the big train station in Glasgow and finally sit down on the benches and wrap both her and William up in the blankets. Julia climbed into the pram with her brother and even though she was too big, they cuddled up together.
Eileen sat homeless and cold in Central Station that night, and as the Salvation Army played Christmas carols to the people thronging back and forth, she pulled her brown coat around her body and pulled out the dumplings wrapped in greaseproof paper to feed the kids in the pram.
“Excuse me, you can’t sleep here with your pram missus” the policeman said. Eileen blinked and slowly pulled herself to her feet and quickly grabbed her bags “sorry sir” she muttered and pushed the pram back out of the cavernous train station and its shelter from the driving snow.
“Hang on” he said as she tried hard to stop the pram from slipping from her grip into the main road.
Eileen didn’t want to hang on, she knew full well a homeless Irish woman with two kids would only get the authorities onto her case and take her precious babies away. She skittered and slipped and tried to make off with as much grace and speed with a lumbering pram. The police man put his hand on her shoulder and Eileen froze, she wept silently and turned to face him.
The next thing Julia recalled she was in a bus in the early frozen morning light. She must have slept all night in the pram.
“Where are we mammy?” she asked as the bus bumped along and cut through the frozen countryside. Julia sat up and looked hard for red mittens in her wee duffel coat. William was sitting on her mammy’s lap and eating a big slice of cold ham. Her mammy’s face wasn’t as tight and pinched, in fact her mammy looked happy for the first time in ages and was smiling at Julia. “We will be going on a big boat to Ireland and you are going to meet your Granny Coyle, she will be so happy to see you both.”
“Does she have a big tree like Granny McClure?” Julia asked.
Her mammy smiled and hugged her close, she put William over her shoulder and patted his back and stared across the snow covered fields near the ferry terminal.
It was a frozen night in Glasgow on December 2013, the young woman with brown curly hair pulled on her red mittens as she wrapped a big coat round her and crunched into the frozen snow and headed towards the West End. Her friends waved her off and made promises to meet up later at The University Cafe on the Byres Road. The snow came at her sideways but her strong legs kept her going.
She walked up to the big brown door and smiled at the glittering tinsel covering the white portico and heard footsteps in the hallway as she banged on the door knocker. It was all newly painted, just renovated and ready for the coldest season.
A wee elderly woman with curly hair and soft round cheeks opened the door holding a plate of steaming dumpling.
“Granny Eileen, am here to help out.” The young woman said as her granny pulled her in the warm hallway “We’ve got a full house tonight Maggie, lots of people needing a hot meal and a warm bed.” the old woman said indicating the bustling sitting room and crowded dining room either side of her.
“Can I see the big tree first Granny?” Young Maggie asked, her face lighting up just as her mothers had done all those years ago, her Mitten covered had reaching out to her hard working Grandmother.
“Through in the big room, I’ve left the angel for you… away up that ladder and stick it on.” Eileen said smiling, as she watched her tall granddaughter bounce, all long limbs and a daft grin, through the crowd of strangers to put the angel on the top of the tree.
Eileen turned wistfully to a brass plaque and pulled a duster from the waist of her apron, she rubbed the lettering carefully and couldn’t help the small devious chuckle that emitted from her lips:
The Elizabeth McClure Homeless shelter, in honour of a Christian woman
“Merry Christmas you old cow.” Eileen uttered before clearing her throat and turning back to her house full of ‘guests’ “Right who wants dumplings?” she called before heading back to the kitchen.
So thanks for reading, if you want follow me on twitter @JaneyGodley for updates and daily shenanigans.
Please help the homeless this Christmas, many children in Glasgow spend the season in temporary accommodation, click the link and help them this year http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/