SANDY LIFE WITH HAROLD STRACHAN
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?