Breakers’ Yard

Every other Saturday Joe left his wife, Marie, at the shops and went to spend a half hour or so with his father, Mick. Like many men of Govan, Mick had worked in the shipyards all his life, as did his father before him. Joe had tried to follow in the family tradition, but “progress” got in the way and, one by one, the giants of the ocean had closed down until all that was left were empty quaysides, empty pockets for the men who had given their lives to the ships, and call centres for those young enough to retrain. That’s where Joe earned his wage, but there were no certainties in these modern times, and just as they had stolen Glasgow’s shipyards, the new industries were being squirreled away by foreign workers too.
As a boy, Joe was a dinghy beside the giant tanker of his father. Working outside all day in the Clydeside sun and wind had bronzed Mick. His arms, garishly covered in tattoos, were as thick as the ropes that tied the mighty behemoths of the ocean to the quay and the ever present Silk Cut at his lips sent a spiral of smoke upwards through which he would wink as he caught Joe’s eye.
“Aye lad”, he’d say, “you’re gonnae be a big man like yer faither some day”
Joe was tall and broad like his dad, but he felt that he’d never be as big a man as hid dad ever was. What boy would? Even now, with Mick old and at the mercy of the terrible disease that had robbed him of his vitality, Joe never felt he could measure up to his Da.
The nursing home was a converted “Big Hoose”. Joe rung the bell and stood back to wait. He always had to wait for the door to be answered. He was never sure if the staff was just too busy or if they just didn’t want the interruption of a visitor in their routine.
After a few minutes, a young girl peepied through the glass at him. The intercom buzzed into life.
“Whit’re ye wantin’?” she asked.
“Ah’m here tae see ma faither, Mick McLennan” Joe replied.
A fumble of locks followed and the door swung open on a wind of stale urine and old sweat.
“Ye’ll sign the book”, Joe was told as he entered.
“Aye, ah know. Is ma Da in his room?”
“Naw. He’s in the conservatory wi’ the rest o’ them”. The door slammed shut and the young girl reapplied the locks. “Dae ye know where that is?”
“Aye, nae bother sweetheart”. Joe made his way down the dark corridor that led to the conservatory, his feet sticking to the carpet.
As he passed by some of the rooms, moans and cries snaked out like siren calls, ready to trap him should he poke his head around the doors. Joe shivered. “Man”, he thought, “I hate this place”.

The conservatory was awash with light and blisteringly hot. Limp budgies plaintively tweeted from a cage in one corner of the room whilst an old woman, head bent low onto her chest, swaying from side to side like a rowboat in a storm, roughly rattled their cage. Along each side of the long walls were a variety of chairs, all high-backed and plastic coated, all occupied by the empty vessels of men and women, once so full of life.
Joe scanned the sea of faces, looking for Mick. He saw Hannah, the old woman who had once been a Sunday School teacher in the local church, Tommy the ex-policeman who still thought he should be out patrolling his beat, Eric who had been abandoned by his wife years ago and continued to search for her up and down the empty corridors of the home. Once, his father would have stood out, a head taller than all the others there and at least twice as full of vigour and zest. In here, he was just another spent man.
Joe had to look twice to make sure that the figure at the end of the row was, indeed, Mick.
Mick’s face was barnacled with stubble, and pink drool had dribbled out the corner of his mouth and onto his jumper, turning it the colour of old rust. His trousers had a dark stain at the crotch and his hands pulled at them in discomfort.

“Da”, said Joe.
He started to walk towards him, concern for his father blinding him to old Eric who had drifted out in front of him. Joe stumbled and almost knocked Eric over.
“Ya bassard! Ya bassard!”, Eric shouted, tears rolling down his greasy face.
“Eric, sorry auld guy! Ah didn’ae mean it!” Joe tried to help Eric up, unwilling to take his eyes from his father.
“Somebody, fur God’s sake, help me!” Joe cried.
A middle-aged woman in blue nurses’ uniform appeared at his side.
“Come Eric, back to seat. Now!!” she shouted into Eric’s ear. Joe couldn’t identify her accent: certainly not from Glasgow. Or Scotland. Another industry, pick-pocketed away from us, he thought and made his way down to his father.
“Whit happened tae ma faither?” Joe asked the foreign nurse.
“He have illness”, she said, and went to turn away.
“Aye, but whit kind of illness?” Joe said sharply, whilst taking Mick’s hand.
“In head. Like…..”.
“Ah’ve no idea whit yur talkin’ aboot, ya bluddy foreigner. Whit’s wrang wi’ ma faither?”
“Mr. McLennan!!” a stern female voice cut in. “There is no need to shout at my nurses! Mara, you can go now”.
“Mr. McLennan, your father suffered a stroke last Tuesday. Surely you knew that?”
“Naw!”, Joe spat. “Ah bluddy didnae”.
“But Doctor Melville called you, he let you know? I was sure he said he would call you….”
Joe eyed the senior nurse angrily, noting the name on her badge, Jean. “Do ah look like ah’ve been telt?”
Flustered now, Jean explained how Mick had become ill early on Tuesday afternoon. It was very difficult with these dementia patients, she said, to tell if they were ill or not. They behave so irrationally that it can be hard to spot the symptoms of a stroke for quite some time. The doctor had come, given him something and made him comfortable.
“Comfortable? Does he look comfortable?” Joe pointed to his father’s trousers.
“That must just have happened Mr. McLennan. We are very busy here you know, we have lots of patients to look after and we have to give our time to all of them. Perhaps if you want more personalised care for you father you would consider looking after him at home?”
Joe looked at him boots. He knew that would never be an option. Marie would never stand for it. It would upset the kids, she’d say. Better they remember Mick as he used to be. Joe knew she was probably right.

He stayed with his father for a few minutes more, stroking his hand and telling him about the family and his work. But the light that used to shine in Mick’s eyes had gone, the wink replaced by a twitch, the rope-like arms now hung like threads and his tattoos had shrunk with the man.
Joe left, signing out quickly.
The next Sunday, Joe read in the paper that almost every ship at the end of its seafaring life ended up at a breaker’s yard in India where they were pulled up onto the beach and left to rust and decay until someone got around to cutting up the hull and scrapping the metal. Joe knew you could stay in Govan for that.

©Nettie Thomson 2009

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