Weekend Witness - - Stars -

BY the time my kids got to teen age we had a right old zoo in our back yard, I tell you, and amongst the big­ger beasts was this fear­some huge rooster name of Fran­cis, about the size of a small turkey. Long shim­mer­ing green tail feathers, great golden man­tle, lurid scar­let comb and spurs like a cou­ple of cav­alry sabres, that was Fran­cis, he would curse some­thing hor­rid in fowl lan­guage and leap en­raged and in vain at the pied crows perched on the gar­den wall eye­ing his chicks. His ladies and the kleinspan would clus­ter round for safety, in a sort of laager. To­wards sunset all would fol­low him about as he went ahunt­ing, one bed­time gogga per hen, cluck­ing and flut­ter­ing and point­ing his killer­beak at un­lucky prey down in the grass. The fam­ily would then be shep­herded into the hoen­der­hok for the night and I’d come and shut the door and Fran­cis would fol­low me up the back stairs and perch on Susie’s pi­ano, ruf­fle up his plum­mage and set­tle down af­ter a good crap down the French pol­ish.

But Su­san, dear heart, said we to her, you can’t just let this bloody bird shit all over such a valu­able in­stru­ment, I mean Beethoven’s own pi­ano was a Broad­wood, and we did have to scrimp and scrape to get this one for you, you know. All that parental nag we laid on the poor child. Yes, and Beethoven would have loved such a mas­cot, said she, it would go with the Em­peror Con­certo, she tick­led Fran­cis un­der the beak as he sat on the Broad­wood and he went all dreamy. In­deed she sat down and played a bit of ol’ Ear­wig and Fran­cis ruf­fled up and set­tled down to emit a low-res­o­nance sort of gur­gle. So it was and so it re­mained. At 5 am Fran­cis would open his eyes and stand tip­toe upon the pi­ano and slam his god­dam wings about and yell COCK A DOO DULL DOO!! like all Bedlam in­side our res­o­nant wood-and­iron about and all would curse him and cry Ar shur­rup! and Foot­sack Fran­cis fer Chris­sakes! and put pil­lows over their heads. All ex­cept me, that is. My job was to seize him and fling him yelling down the stairs to her­ald the bloody sunrise some­where else.

That’s how I hap­pen to be on egg pa­trol, see, seek­ing the fam­ily break­fast in se­cret gar­den nooks, and that’s how I hap­pen to no­tice Dougie on his sunrise Com­rades train­ing run. Hoosit ou Dougs! I call from the back gate, and he comes grin­ning across the road. How about a braai tonight? say I. He’s from Glas­gow, is Dougie, but get­ting rapidly S African: Och shame, says he, his cousin from home is on a big 26 000-ton bulk car­rier called the Van­cou­ver Is­land, cur­rently in har­bour, and he and his Gwen have ar­ranged to visit him on board this evening. Well why don’t all three of you come here in­stead? say I. Well ac­tu­ally, says he, he’s got his friends ready for us too, three of them in­clud­ing the first mate. Then bring the whole bloody lot, say I, and he does. Class per­sonae are all man­gled up in South Africa. Here black work­ers don’t de­clare their sen­si­bil­i­ties to white folks, only black mid­dle-class left­ies ex­plain these sen­si­bil­i­ties, and the white work­ing class scarce un­der­stands at all what its own sen­si­bil­i­ties are about. But these lads are un­com­pli­cated. They are Cly­de­side mariners from a long his­tory of sea­man­ship. Me own faether was an ar­ti­san in a Clyde ship­yard, a me­tal turner, so these men are part of my old fam­ily, in a man­ner of speak­ing. And what an ex­pe­ri­ence for this my new fam­ily, easy talk­ing, easy com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and roughly of the same gen­er­a­tion too. Young Sandy Chest­nut is but 17. This is what in Glas­gow you would call a wee harrd mon. His hands are tools at the end of his arms. What he’d use them for is any­body’s guess: lift­ing, shov­ing, wrench­ing, break­ing some­body’s face in the street, maybe, he’s got a small off-cen­tre nose to go with this last, per­haps. But cheer­ful of song and jest, and his name goes with his eyes, dark chest­nuts be­neath a level brow.

We come in­doors when the in­sects start pes­ter­ing us and drink beer and tickle Fran­cis un­der his beak and ex­change merry jokes about mu­si­cal fowls. And who plays the pi­ano, then? says the First Mate, ex­am­in­ing all the Eisteddfod cer­tifi­cates up there next to the poul­try. Susie! he ex­claims. Come on lass, give us a tune. But Susie is em­bar­rassed, not about per­form­ing for oth­ers, she’s used to that for sure, but be­cause she doesn’t know what sort of prole mu­sic these blokes would like. That’s okay, says he, play for us what YOU like then.

Well Susie’s not coy and silly, so she does. We don’t have too many chairs, see, Sandy sits on the floor next to the pi­ano, leans against the wall, arms folded on his knees. All are in­trigued to see what a 14-year-old can do. She rif­fles through her pile of sheet mu­sic and chooses the An­dante move­ment from her favourite Mozart sonata. Starts gen­tly with the sim­ple melody and as this de­vel­ops, more in­tri­cate, more em­pha­sised, I no­tice Sandy Chest­nut has his fore­head rest­ing on his folded arms and I re­alise ... you know... he is qui­etly weep­ing. I can tell by the move­ment of his shoul­ders. Pretty things he knows about, but how could he know some­thing of such pas­sion ever ex­isted? In his stark child­hood Glas­gow street-world? His mo­not­o­nous sea-world?

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