The day my wife died, 15 February 2003, turned out to be an exceptional day of winter sunshine. It was a day to enjoy the harmless pleasures of self-congratulation: sit in the conservatory, admire the garden and decide we hadn’t done too badly with our lives. We’d been married a long time. That morning, though, Eileen had a different idea.
‘I want you to go on the demonstration,’ she said.
I knew at once what she was talking about. The previous day’s papers had been full of them, demonstrations all over the world, and today Glasgow was having its very own.
‘What’s it got to do with us?’ I wondered. ‘Let them all get on with it.’
‘I’d go myself,’ she said, ‘if I was able.’
She was in bed, on her lap the breakfast tray I’d brought up to her. We’d spent the previous afternoon in the park at Rouken Glen. We’d walked hand in hand, though normally she didn’t like holding hands in public. Maybe we’d walked too far, but the weather had been fine that day, too. Today she was tired.
‘It’s not the kind of thing we do,’ I said. ‘What do we care about politics?’
‘It’s time we cared. When you think there are boys now giving the Nazi salute – even in Russia! – it breaks my heart. Have they no memory?’ She stared at me. ‘What is there to smile at in that?’
‘Something just came into my head. Tony, my best friend at school, his wee brother ate a banana with its skin on. Just after the war. He’d never seen one before. The things you remember, eh?’
‘You’re a silly man,’ she said.
‘But I made you smile. I don’t want you brooding on ancient history and stuff like that.’ Concentration camps again in Europe. Skeletons behind barbed wire again. Maybe even butchers with tears in their eyes listening to Brahms. ‘Not on a day like this. We could walk round the garden with a glass of wine after lunch.’
‘Oh, the garden,’ she said sardonically.
I smiled at her. ‘We’re a nation of two.’
‘There are worse countries to be.’
Her hair was white and she had wrinkles on her face, but sometimes when I looked at her I didn’t just see her as a young woman, I saw the girl she must have been long before we met. She had surprised me and I was moved and impressed. She was almost ninety, but her heart was younger than mine for she still cared about the world.
‘Do you ever think of August and Beate?’ she asked.
I was startled. In all these years, we had never spoken of them.
‘Hardly ever,’ I said.
It wasn’t a lie, though for a long time it would have been.
‘That night we ran away from them, I shouldn’t have stopped you from seeing,’ she said.
‘Whatever it was they were doing, God help them, we could probably watch worse now on television,’ I said. ‘Nothing’s censored now.’ I wanted to make her smile, change the subject, anything but this talk of the past.
‘I know you’ve thought about it,’ she said.
‘Not for a long time.’
‘It would have been better to see what happened that night. Maybe if you had, that would have been the end of it. You’d have thought less about it if you’d seen.’
That she could make me feel guilty was ridiculous. I wasn’t a child caught masturbating, the pink balloon of an adult’s face above bedclothes thrown back.
Managing a smile, I asked, ‘Is that why I am to go and demonstrate?’
‘Please,’ she said quietly. She knew I was angry. I couldn’t hide anything from her.
‘If it means that much to you, I’ll go,’ I said. ‘Even if I have to go alone.’
‘I’ll be with you in spirit,’ she said.
The sunshine was bad luck for Tony Blair, the prime minister. By the time I got to Glasgow Green, where the peace march was scheduled to start, a great crowd was already assembling. Some people like crowds. I’m not fond of them, not even on the pavements of Argyle Street or Sauchiehall Street in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, though I’d kept Eileen company in the days when she enjoyed the bustle.
It was a good-natured crowd. Sunshine does that. It makes you feel good, brightening the colours of women’s coats, burnishing the stone of the old buildings, warm on your cheek or the back of your neck. Feeling good about themselves, too, that makes people happy; all of them sure that they were doing the right thing, which as it happened I didn’t feel certain about at all.
‘Coming along was my wife’s idea,’ I told Tom and Margaret, a couple I’d just met. The three of us had exchanged names in a kind of holiday mood. ‘She feels strongly that going to war is wrong.’
They both spoke at once.
He asked, ‘So how do you feel about it?’
She asked, ‘Your wife isn’t here? I hope she’s not ill?’
To her, I said, ‘Oh, no, no. She keeps good health, but the walk would be too much for her.’
She gave me a shrewd look. At a guess, she and her husband and I were all about the same age, somewhere in the late sixties. All presumably, as I’d claimed for my wife, in good health; all able to walk the few miles from the rallying point to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, outside which the demonstration would be held, while inside the Scottish Labour Party was holding its spring conference.
Now the crowd was drifting steadily forward. We filled two paths and the police were letting people through to join the procession first from one path, then the other. When they let us through, I looked at my watch and it was quarter past eleven. Walking along in the sunshine, I felt caught up in something bigger than myself. It was strange to feel safe in the middle of such a crowd. On the way, Tom – for the three of us had stayed together – suggested that we should turn aside to buy something to eat. It was foolish but none of us had thought of what to do for our lunch. Margaret spotted a café and we went in and bought filled rolls and I bought lemonade; they had brought a bottle of water with them, though they hadn’t any food.
By the time we got to the gates of the Centre, it was just before two o’clock. We found a place on a grass bank above the car park. The crowd had been gathered into two of the car parks in front of the Centre; there were plenty of other parks for cars. I looked from the building ahead, its roofs folded one on top of the other like the scales on an armadillo, to the tower behind us that led down into the walkway under the Clyde. We shared the last of the rolls – cheese and pickle, coronation chicken, ham and tomato – and sipped lemonade out of the bottle.
‘Look,’ Tom said, ‘they’ve got sound equipment after all.’
I said it was what I’d have expected, two big speakers, set up one on either side of the platform.
‘Thing is,’ Margaret said, ‘Labour refused to let them use a PA system.’
‘How could they do that? What has the Labour Party to do with the car parks?’
‘The council owns the SECC,’ Tom said.
He waited till the penny dropped, and then grinned. The Labour Party has run Glasgow for ever, it seems.
‘Well, they must have changed their mind,’ I said. ‘You can see the speakers.’
‘Or had it changed for them,’ Margaret said. ‘There was a demonstration a week ago, and they were told that not to have a PA system wouldn’t be safe.’
‘We got a leaflet about it,’ Tom said, ‘from CND a week ago.’
‘CND?’ I said.
‘Ageing hippies, that’s us,’ Tom said. ‘I know.’
Across the murmur of the crowd, the sound system carried the voice of a man who’d been introduced as a councillor. ‘I’ve just been told the police estimate there are twenty-seven thousand people here. Well, all I can say is, the Glasgow police cannae count!’
‘Right enough,’ Tom said. ‘Comparing this with the big football crowds they used to get, I’d say there was three times that. Maybe more.’
After that we listened for a while to the voices booming from the little figures on the platform. John Swinney, leader of the SNP, talked about the need for a UN resolution; a man from the TUC spoke, and then the leader of the Fire Brigades Union. Like the preacher and sin, all of them it seemed were against going to war in Iraq. After about an hour, the voices got fainter, as if the address system was using batteries and they were running down. By the time it got to Tommy Sheridan, the Socialist leader, you couldn’t make out what he was saying, though even at a distance you could tell he cared, which made me envy him. Nice to feel that anything mattered that much.
By this time, it was about three o’clock and Margaret said her back was sore with standing. There didn’t seem anything to stay for, though as we left people were still streaming into the car parks. It was good to be strolling along on a fine afternoon, it still felt like being part of a crowd. Somewhere up ahead there was a guy with a trombone and every so often he gave us a tune.
‘Pity about the Jericho Rumpus,’ Tom said.
‘Is that what he’s playing?’
‘The guy with the trombone.’
Tom smiled reluctantly. It was Margaret who realised I wasn’t trying to be funny. Truth is, I’m tone-deaf; I was willing to believe anything.
‘Everybody was supposed to bring something to make a noise,’ she said. ‘Pans, drums, whatever. The rumpus would start up about half past one and the idea was that Blair would hear it inside the hall while he was speaking.’
‘Except that he changed the time. They got his speech before they’d digested their ham and eggs, and by eleven in the morning he was on his way back to London.’
By the time we’d walked all the way into Argyle Street it was after four o’clock. With all that fresh air, they were hungry and decided to go into the café in Woolworth’s for something to eat before they caught the bus home to East Kilbride. I don’t know why I went with them. I was hungry, of course, from the fresh air, but I wasn’t all that far from home. Truth is, I’d enjoyed the excitement of the day, the bustle. We led a quiet life, Eileen and I.
They got fish and chips and a pot of tea. I was tempted but I stuck to coffee and a piece of cake.
When we were settled at a table, Tom said, ‘You know what I was thinking as we were coming back along the road there?’ He shook his head. ‘I was thinking, we never learn. From Aldermaston on, doesn’t matter how big the crowd is, the government does what it wants.’
‘That’s no excuse for not trying,’ Margaret said.
‘Maybe it’s time to hang up our boots,’ Tom said. ‘Leave it to the younger folk.’
‘Anything for an argument. You know fine it’ll always be worth trying for the children’s sake,’ his wife said. I realised from the sharing quality of her smile that she assumed I had children, too. I didn’t correct her.
‘Maybe human beings are too stupid to worry about.’
‘That’s a terrible thing to say!’
‘And there’s no sauce,’ Tom said. He got up and went back to the counter.
‘He’s a worrier,’ Margaret said. ‘If it wasn’t this, it would be global warming. Sitting brooding’s no good for you. You have to get out and do something. Isn’t that right?’
‘To be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve ever been on any kind of march,’ I told her. ‘I’m not what you’d call a political animal. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my wife.’
‘It’s often the way. It’s natural for a woman to care more than a man.’
I wasn’t sure how true that was, but didn’t feel strongly enough to argue about it.
Tom came back with a bottle of tomato sauce. He banged the bottom of it a couple of times to put some on the edge of his plate.
‘Harry says he’s never been on a demonstration before,’ his wife told him.
‘It’s amazing how many people are the same,’ he said. ‘First-timers like you. I’ve been puzzling my head to think why. Why do people care so much about whether or not we go to war with Iraq? I’m not talking about the usual suspects like Margaret and me.’ Abstractedly, he took his wife by the hand, a public gesture of affection which seemed to startle her. ‘Or the ones who’d turn out for anything as long as it was anti-American. But we’re being told there are a million people on the streets down in London and millions more in France and Germany and Italy and all over the world. Why is that? Do you know what I think? It’s the millennium.’
‘It can’t just be that going to war is wrong?’ his wife said.
‘That, of course,’ he said with a touch of impatience. ‘But the sheer scale of all that’s been happening.’ He shook his head again. ‘No, I think people wanted things to be different with the end of the Cold War. We’d all been frightened for so long: waiting for the end of the world. And then the Berlin Wall came down and just for a year or two everything looked better. I think all of this’
– he waved a hand as if the crowded pavements outside were part of the same great demonstration – ‘is pure disappointment. It’s saying, I know we can’t stop the madness, but we can tell history we didn’t like where we were going. It’s one way of saying sorry to the future.’ ‘To the children,’ his wife said.
Their sincerity made me uncomfortable. ‘Time for me to be getting off home,’ I said. ‘The wife’ll be wanting to know how it all went.’
‘Tell her it was worth it,’ Margaret said.
It wasn’t often now that I travelled on a bus, and so I enjoyed sitting on the top deck on the way home. I watched the tenements fall behind and saw the tall blocks of the high-rises in the distance, and remembered my boyhood in a room and kitchen and later in one of the houses in the schemes they’d built after the war to decant the poor out of their poverty; the excitement of having an inside lavatory and a bathroom and a garden at the back. And now I was going home to a house, bought after we got up the courage to come back to Glasgow, with a wall at the side that enclosed a garage and a yard behind it and a hedge and a lawn and another hedge and a garden of roses right at the end. We’d lived there ever since, happily, oh, ideally happily, though we had acquired from that terrible time with August and Beate a habit of holding our breath and we continued to hold it even when there was no need, as if only by keeping still would we be safe. And so all the causes and the politics and what people marched and demonstrated about had passed us by, and it only occurred to me as late as this that it might have been for my sake, not hers.
Quarter of an hour later I was stretched on the floor beside her. She must have got up to tidy the tray away. A plate and a broken cup were by the wall where they had been thrown from her as she fell. All day she must have been alone there while the crowds were gathering, while the speeches were being made, while I walked in the sun. I clasped her hand with its poor bent fingers and waited as if she might open her eyes, though I knew she never would or ever could again. The curtain was drawn still against the morning and in that shadowy light all the days I had lived became one as I lay bereft.
MY LIFE AS A MAN. Copyright © 2006 by Frederic Lindsay. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.