I Love Leith

Meg smiled to herself as the number 25 bus lurched its way to a halt at the top of Leith Walk. Staring down at the pavement Meg was amazed to see Irvine Welsh's big sad eyes staring back up at her. It was just a poster, one of those massive cloth affairs with I LOVE LEITH emblazoned across the top of it. The whole of Leith Walk was lined with them. For one mad moment, Meg contemplated jumping off the bus and snatching up the poster before it blew away or was retrieved by some public-spirited bus driver or pedestrian. But Meg's days of jumping off buses and snatching up anything were long behind her. The moment passed, the bus shuddered into life and was off again.

Meg couldn't abide those posters anyway. She didn't need anyone, certainly not foul-mouthed Irvine Welsh or those two numpties, the twins, with their annoying faces and their annoying voices telling her how she felt about Leith. What did they know about life in Leith? Okay, yes they had all three, Irvine Welsh and those boys, the twins, the Proclaimers, or whatever they called themselves, they had been born in Leith, but they hadn't lived a life here, not like Meg. Not that she had always lived in Leith. No Meg had been born in the north-east, in Huntly and as a young girl had imagined a very different life for herself. Marriage to a farmer, or even a fisherman from Peterhead or Fraserburgh, a couple of happy little children running around the big comfortable farmhouse.

But those dreams had been swept aside by Johnny, handsome Johnny Capello. It had been her best pal Jeanie that had suggested taking the bus to Aberdeen and staying the night with Jeanie's auntie, but Meg had needed little persuading and Meg's parents had agreed readily enough. Jeanie and Meg had saved for weeks so they would have money to spend at the beach amusement park. They had screamed on the waltzers and bumped into each other on the dodgems. Jeanie had almost fainted in the ghost train and had been sick after the big wheel. Meg had almost fainted when Johnny had looked up from operating the waltzers and had held out his hand to help her down and asked her to walk with him while Jeanie was getting her fortune told. Meg had begged Johnny to be careful behind the shelter and had been sick every morning for a month after. At first she had hoped it would go away by itself. Then when her blue flannel knickers had started to bulge in all the wrong ways she had broken down and told Jeanie of her moment of passion and sin. Passion and sin, pain and disappointment more like. Jeanie had a big sister Irene and her best friend Pamela told her that hot baths and plenty of gin would get rid of it. Getting the gin hadn't been a problem. Jeanie's dad kept a bottle in the sideboard in the dining room for his English cousin who didn't know any better and refused to drink whisky. But hot baths had just made Meg's skin dry and blotchy. Drinking a large tumbler full of gin hadn't helped either, it had just made Meg sick again.

Meg must have been mad running away to Leith. What kind of plan was that? What had she expected? Well, to be fair, she hadn't really planned it and she hadn't really meant to end up in Leith. No Meg had just grabbed the rucksack that she had bought to go Youth Hostelling with Jeanie, stuffed clothes in it randomly and stormed out the door. Her mother her thrust a large paper bag in her arms as her father held the door open and shouted obscenities at her. That bag had contained a chunk of cheddar cheese, a half loaf, a miserable looking orange and crumple of bank notes and a few coppers. It must have been all the money her mother had squirrelled away in the old tea-caddy she kept on the mantelpiece. That money had got Meg as far as Leith but hadn't been anywhere near enough to get her on a slow-boat to China, or any other kind of boat for that matter. That had been her plan, get to China. The idea of China had come to her in the church hall. The missionary must have been a hundred years old at least and had worked mostly in India saving “fallen women”. Fallen, ha, if only Meg had just fallen. It sounded so simple. You fall down, you pick yourself up, you carry on. The old bag had gone on and on about those poor girls, calling them godless and even heathen. It sickened Meg and forced to ask if they didn't have plenty of god's in India without needing to import another one. Miss Reid, her beady-eyed Sunday school teacher, had jumped up ready to smack Meg's question down. But the missionary had held up a hand that quelled even Miss Reid and answered Meg's question. Not that Meg had really paid much attention until she started talking about some people in China just over the Indian border who didn't even know what marriage was. The Na people she had called them. “Imagine that girls, raising a child with your brother rather than the poor child's father.” Sounded fine to Meg, and since she didn't have a brother, she had set off with her mother's savings in a paper bag, to go and live with the Na in China. What a fool she had been. She got as far as the Leith docks and another dream shattered. There were no sailings for China from Leith and even if there had been, the money in Meg's paper bag wouldn't have come close to covering the cost of a passage.

Meg had wandered aimlessly back from the docks, scuffing her shoes as she walked. Somehow she had found herself on Leith Links and had stared blankly at the cricketers in their white jumpers and trousers, laughing and joking together, oblivious to the pain in Meg's heart and the new life growing in her belly. That's when she met wee Sammy. He said he was ten years old, but he looked about seven. He had plonked himself down on the bench beside her, stared at her for a few seconds and then tossed a bag of broken biscuits into her lap.

“Go on, you look hungry enough,” wee Sammy said.

Between them, they finished the biscuits in no time. Meg was still ravenous, but wee Sammy had a plan. Between the Roman Catholic School and the cricket pavilion were the allotments and in the allotments were all sorts of fruits and vegetables and best of all wee Sammy had a key. Not only that wee Sammy's granddad had a shed on his allotment where Meg could sleep. It was more like a summer house than a shed to Meg's eye. Wee Sammy brought a camp bed and blankets from his flat, and a battery powered torch. It didn't last though. One morning wee Sammy appeared saying that his granny and granddad were coming back from visiting his Auntie Lynn in Gourock, and Meg had better leave. Picking up the blankets and the torch, wee Sammy had ushered Meg out of the shed and left her to her own devices again. And she thought wee Sammy had been her pal.

Meg still had a ten bob note in her bag and set off for Leith Walk in the hopes of finding a place to stay the night. But it was hopeless, there didn't seem to be any lodging houses on Leith Walk and who would take her in with no ring on her finger and a belly like the back-end of a bus? Meg sat down heavily on a bench next to dumpy old Queen Victoria. Meg stared up at the statue, wondering what it felt like to have all those babies, what it felt like to have one baby, how much it really hurt. As she kept staring at the old Queen, Meg became aware of someone staring at her. Meg had thought it was just a bundle of old rags at the foot of the statue. But no it was a man, some kind of old tramp, Albert he said his name was, like the old Queen's husband. Meg squirmed on the bench. What did he want from her?

“Father Aiden might have taken you in, but not with that great lump on you,” Albert said.

Meg shrugged her shoulders and pulled up the hood of the anorak wee Sammy had given her.

When Meg looked up, Albert was gone and a battered old parcel was on the bench next to her. Meg was reluctant to touch the greasy brown paper and tugged feebly at the ratty string holding the whole thing together. Curiosity finally got the better of her and she pulled out the pen-knife that wee Sammy had left in his anorak pocket. Meg cut off the string and pulled apart the brown paper to reveal a large man's overcoat. The coat was some kind of thick tweed, something Meg's dad would have worn. It was far to big for Meg and was soiled in various places where the brown paper had been worn away. What was Albert playing at, leaving his coat with her? It was far too big for her and smelt nasty. Still it was warmer looking than wee Sammy's anorak. Meg stood up and struggled into the massive coat, folding it over her bump. She was just about to sit back down when she realised that the coat was so massive it completely hid her belly. Maybe Father Aiden, whoever he was, would take her in after all. She had passed at least one Roman Catholic Church on her way up from the Links, it was worth retracing her steps to see if she could find this Father Aiden. If only the daft old goat Albert had told her where to find him.

It took Meg nearly two more hours of tramping the streets before she did find the Father. He wasn't even in a proper church. Meg wasn't sure he was even a proper priest. He just seemed like a sad old man doling out soup in a cold draughty hall off Duke Street. Still he did give her a bed for the night and the soup was warm and filling, if a bit tasteless.

Meg was careful to keep the great overcoat fastened whenever Father Aiden or his faithful little follower Mrs McKinley was around, but he was bound to find out sooner or later. When he did, his reaction took Meg by surprise. Not the slap that she had got from her father, or the tears that her mother gave her, but a curious tilt of the head and an almost wistful sigh.

“Now what are you planning to do about that?” Father Aiden asked, tilting his head towards her belly.

“I don't know Father,” Meg replied.

“Well, I do. Get your coat on and come with me,” Father Aiden said.

“I'll not go to a home, or a hospital,” Meg said.

“Hospital?” Father Aiden said, “Who said anything about a hospital, or a home for that matter? I'm taking you to the Rose.”

The Rose turned out to be some pub, down a side street by the Shore. The owner Mrs McClaren had cried when she answered the door. Silly old cow, she wasn't the one who was 15 and pregnant. Still she had taken Meg in, given her a big plateful of toad in the hole and a seat by the fire in the pub. Father Aiden had stayed at the bar whispering and glancing over at Meg, while batty old Mrs McClaren had dabbed at her eyes with a grubby old hankie. Meg was sure they were plotting something.

But all she got from Mrs McClaren was good food and a warm bed, with no questions and no accusations. When the time came, Mrs McClaren stayed with Meg, held her hand and told her how brave she was. And it was Mrs McClaren who handed her the tiny squalling bundle and asked her if she had settled on a name. As soon as she felt well enough, Meg worked hard to repay Mrs McClaren, clearing up in the pub at closing-time, washing glasses, unpacking bottles of spirits, all the while waiting. Meg was convinced it was only a matter of time before Mrs McClaren would tell her it was time she did the mature thing, that Father Aiden had arranged for a nice couple to take the baby. So when Archie was six weeks old, it came as no big surprise when Father Aiden and Mrs McClaren sat her down for a talk. Father Aiden asked if she had thought about the baby's future, if she had given any thought to adoption. Six weeks, just like a litter of puppies taken six weeks after they were whelped.

“I could find a good home for him,” Father Aiden said.

“Is that what you think is best?” Meg asked.

“Well, he would have a good home,” Father Aiden said. “with a father as well as a mother and a name, all the things you couldn't give him.”

Meg did not reply just glared back at Father Aiden.

“And it will be hard on you, Meg,” Mrs McClaren said. “You haven't even finished school, getting a job won't be easy. You won't get to enjoy all the things young girls enjoy, like going to the pictures or the dancing.”

“But I don't want any of that,” Meg said. “I just want to stay here with you and Archie. I can work, I can help out more, as soon as I'm old enough I can work behind the bar.”

Meg looked desperately first at Mrs McClaren, then at Father Aiden.

“Please, we can make a home for Archie here,” Meg said. “We can clear out that old box room as a bedroom for Archie when he gets too old to share my room. Please, please, don't take my baby.”

Some secret signal seemed to pass between Mrs McClaren and Father Aiden that Meg couldn't quite fathom. Mrs McClaren got up and put an arm round Meg. The Father came over and patted Meg's hand.

“Well, that's that settled then,” Mrs McClaren said and went back down to the pub to finish putting away last night's glasses. Father Aiden sat with Meg in silence till the sky outside the kitchen window turned black. Then he got up leaned over and kissed Meg on the forehead and said

“Bless you and thank you, my child.”

No, Meg couldn't fathom that man at all. What was he thanking her for?

Yes, Meg didn't need Irvine Welsh or a couple of boys from Auchtermuchty to tell her how she felt about Leith. It was Leith where Meg first learned what love meant.

Author's Notes
1. A version of this short story appears in The Sun Breaks Through: An anthology of writing from members of the Ripple Project Write On Group.

Copyright © 2013 Lindsay Oliver


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One thought on “I Love Leith

  1. This could be the start of a novel about Archie’s life. Perhaps he grows up to do something extraordinary. I really enjoyed this.

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