fingerNew Year

Sammy showed his mother his school socks. The heel was at his instep. His mother hmmmed and asked him to put his shoes on. They suddenly looked alright. “Wear them until people can see that they´re too small and then we´ll get you some new ones”. Sammy had grown to be a shade taller than his big brother, Richard, and could no longer be dressed in his hand me downs. Fortunately for Richard, Sammy never got so tall that his hand me downs went to Richard. Richard would have been black affronted. As it was, with two kids more or less the same size, their mother had to pay almost twice as much in clothes as she would have had Sammy followed the family pattern and been small. Sammy´s clothes occasionally got handed down to Sara, the odd jumper or trousers, but being a girl most clothes weren´t suitable. This put a lot of pressure on their mother´s purse, already stretched beyond what was reasonable. It wasn´t that they were poor, it was that Mr MacKinney was a caricature of the mean Scot and grudged every penny not spent on himself. He gave his wife an allowance that always ran out before the time was up, mainly because it wasn´t enough and partly because she was hopeless with accounts. When she complained Mr MacKinney said that he was a reasonable man and if his wife would just keep the accounts on every single item paid for for three months and do an analysis on it, he would review it and decide if she needed more or not. He knew fine well that this was way beyond her capabilities and went off smiling to buy himself a new putter, his third one. Sammy´s toes got crushed and crossed over.

Come Christmas time his mother would tell him what present to ask for. It was usually a jumper or pair of trousers. Once, when they were in the High Street buying the jumper, a white orlon Norwegian patterned one, Sammy proudly told the shop assistant that it was his Christmas present. His mother tried to shut him up and then laughed it off, telling the shop assistant that Sammy was full of strange ideas. Her voice was pitched an octave higher than usual. His grannies did their best to help and knitted jumpers for the whole family but because his grannies didn´t have any money at all and had lots of grandchildren, the jumpers were usually birthday presents, which Sammy thought was a waste of a present. Also Granny Urquhart had an unfortunate colour palette and did not know that red and mustard only go together on a hamburger.

His mother was a dab hand at the darning and mending. She had a wooden mushroom in her sewing basket often in use for darning the heels of socks and she cut worn sheets in two, reversed them and sewed them up the middle to make them last longer. Make do and mend. At one point they stooped to putting paper in Sammy´s shoes. He used to carry a stock in his schoolbag because he was forever having to change the sodden ones. He tried patching the shoes on the inside with his bicycle repair outfit but the patches never lasted very long.
Mr MacKinney´s meanness was not just with money. He couldn´t seem to stand seeing anyone having fun or being happy. He was not happy himself and resented it in others. He had had a very strict upbringing and raised his own children with an inflexible set of draconian rules. Bedtimes were immutable and there was a scale of bedtimes that went with the child´s age. This was strictly enforced until you were eighteen, unless you were his wife. She still had a bedtime. Three times Sammy saw “Macbeth” on the television up to the last twenty minutes because it ended at ten twenty and Sammy´s bedtime was ten o´clock and not a moment later. Even when Sammy was studying “Macbeth” for his “O” Grades he was not allowed to stay up to see the end of it. At the time Sammy thought that it was because his father loved to spoil things for them and enjoyed abusing his power. Later on he saw how his father´s feelings of inadequacy made him take refuge in inflexibility.
His grannies did what they could to soften things when possible. Sammy loved it when his granny babysat. They got to watch “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Top of the Pops” and could talk about it with their friends at playtime. Richard always pretended to his friends that he watched those programmes all the time anyway, but Sammy could never pull it off.

Mr MacKinney controlled the television, the telephone, even the amount of water you got in your weekly bath. There was a second fainter tide mark up near the top of the bath that showed he was not subject to the same restrictions as the rest of the house. When he allowed you to use the telephone at all he came and cut you off at a minute. How he relished pushing the wee black buttons down. Sammy tried to reason with him. The charge was the same for the first ten minutes as it was for the first minute so if he ended the call at one minute he was losing out on nine free minutes. He thought this logic would appeal to his father´s inherent stinginess, but his father would have none of it. He had never needed a telephone. He had organised things way in advance talking face to face with his friends, or even by letter. No last minute adjustments by telephone were necessary and no-one had ever used the telephone to have a conversation. It was for emergencies. Actually his father had never had a telephone at all until well after Sammy was born. Mr MacKinney could not adapt and was going to make damn sure no-one else did. He also had umpteen rules for the television which boiled down to, “You can watch the programmes I like and nothing else”. Fortunately his dad was a Dr Who fan, but Sammy couldn´t get too interested in the Black and White Minstrel Show and Val Doonican. Sammy did not know if it was his power over the television set or his power over them that puffed his father up as he strode across the room to turn the television off with a terminal click. He also claimed to mark the lemonade bottles so he would know if any of them sneaked a drink. He was the only one allowed lemonade in the house. And he was also the only one allowed to play his records. Fortunately he had updated his sound system every few years and so there were a couple of old gramophones Sammy and the others could use for their own records, providing they played them at a volume where you could not hear the music on the other side of the door. Sammy´s mother had no records and listened to the radio when she could.

Sammy´s mother had the worst of it. And she was stuck there. What could she do, where could she go? She had left school with no qualifications and, even if her family would have had her back, she could not face living with her father again. In many ways her father was the reason for her marriage. Marrying was a way of getting away from him and her mother had pushed hard for it. The MacKinneys were a strict Presbyterian and teetotal family. Teetotal was everything his granny wanted in a son-in-law. And in those days it was a disgrace to get divorced. A friend of the family´s did get divorced, but when it was mentioned in conversation they always stressed that May had always refused the divorce and Derek had had to wait the statutory number of years to file for divorce without her consent. Thus May could continue with her head held high. She had not given in. Sammy´s mother did leave one day, in the morning, but came back in the afternoon when she realised she had nowhere to go. She did not work; women rarely did then. She had been an office junior before her marriage but with three children and a demanding husband she had no time to work.

Sammy´s mother had a plan, though. An escape plan. Evening classes were free, a very attractive notion to her husband. Something for nothing. She started going to sewing classes. As well as getting her out the house this helped her confidence and gave her a way to make the money go further. She sewed Sara´s dresses, often from friends´ cast-off clothes or once from an old pair of curtains. She was careful not to let Sara know. After she finished advanced sewing she learnt to type and soon her husband was so used to the notion that she would go out to classes in the evening that it barely registered that she had started taking academic subjects. She passed her English “O” Grade and started studying French which she loved. When a relative died they inherited some of her houseplants and they were put on the window sill in the bay window. It was around the time everyone was talking to their plants. Some study had shown it helped them grow. Sammy´s mother decided to talk to the pink fuchsia. She sat on the window seat, hands clasped in front of her, and leaned over conspiratorially towards the fuchsia. Full of expression and intonation in a friendly, intimate style she said, “Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est. Nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont, elles sont.” Her French verb conjugation improved rapidly, although the fuchsia died. Her plan was to acquire a clutch of qualifications, enough to get into domestic science as a mature student, without the mathematics and chemistry regular students needed that she would never master. Then she would have a grant. Money that her husband had no control over. And with a qualification she could go out to work and be freed from the tyranny.

Sammy found the bedtime rule particularly irksome. Later he realised that the bedtimes had been decided by how much sleep Richard had needed at the different ages, and Sammy slept a lot less than Richard. In fact, Sammy was always awake when Richard came to bed an hour later. When they were small Sammy used to play games in bed, “tummling his wilkies” and having conversations with imaginary friends, and Richard could not sleep because of him. Reading in bed was against the rules. Getting up to play with toys out of the question and the floorboards creaked so you were always found out. You were not allowed toys in bed either, so of course Sammy made a nuisance of himself. The solution was to put Sammy to bed in his parent´s room and when they went to bed they carried Sammy through to his own bed, unless he was still awake, in which case he would walk. This gave Sammy a very fertile imagination which stood him in good stead later on. When they were older Sammy insisted on sleeping with the door open and the landing light on, feigning being scared of the dark. He would prop up his pillow and put the book he was reading where the pillow should have been. He lay on his tum and read to his heart´s content. When anyone came up the stairs he would put the pillow down and put his head atop it pretending to be asleep. That way he would get an hour´s reading before Richard came up. Once he got a torch for Christmas and used it under the bedclothes till the battery ran out. When Richard went to bed the door had to be closed and Sammy would practise the piano on the pillow and make up stories in his head till he fell asleep.

If Christmas was a low key affair, birthdays were nothing special either. You were allowed your best friend to tea and you could choose your favourite food. There was also home-made birthday cake. Parties were forbidden although you were allowed to go to other people´s parties so it did not seem to be a question of principle. New Year was all but ignored. Mr MacKinney´s one concession to New Year was to make, with a great fanfare and fuss, a batch of ginger wine. No-one ever saw the preparations and so they did not know it was just adding water to a concentrate. However, it was only available at New Year and everybody had to enjoy it. It was actually just a dark brown liquid that did not taste much of anything but had a nip to it just like ginger beer. It was offered to any first footers, but there was usually plenty left to last the rest of January. New Year resolutions were deemed acceptable. Mr MacKinney was already perfect so he did not need to make any. Richard, Sammy and Sara wrote theirs out every Hogmanay and did their best to stick to them. All that nonsense with the bells at midnight was out of the question. Just an excuse for a booze-up. Slushy sentimentality of the worst sort. One Hogmanay Mr MacKinney stayed up till five minutes to midnight watching an opera but was still in bed before midnight. A man of principle! Sammy´s mother´s opinion on New Year was not called for. It never was.

Not long after the socks discussion Sammy decided he wanted to see in the New Year. He felt it was a magical thing. The year changed and all of a sudden a whole new year lay before you unsullied, full of possibilities, full of new starts. All he had to do was to stay awake long enough. He always fell asleep late so he would only have an hour or two extra to stay awake. The problem was seeing the time. He had a watch his granny had given him for his seventh birthday. (A bible for the fifth birthday, a watch for the seventh and a jumper for all the other ones). Sammy would get up at regular intervals and cross the floor to the window, careful not to tread on any of the creaky boards. Then he would sneak round the curtain and hold his watch up at an angle where the orange streetlight would shine on it enough to see the time by. Then back to bed to keep warm. The night wore on steadily towards midnight and at a quarter to twelve, Sammy realised it was going to happen. He was going to see in the New Year. His very first. At ten to, he decided just to wait behind the curtain, even though he was getting cold. He did not want to miss the bells and the streetlight on his watch face was his only way of knowing, more or less, when midnight was. The minute hand crept round slowly. There was no second hand so it was difficult to know exactly when it was midnight, plus the watch did not keep very good time. However, soon the hands were aligned and Sammy knew he was passing into the New Year. He relished the moment. Suddenly he heard a noise. There had been someone downstairs all the time and they were coming up the stairs. And he was out of bed! He was for it! He rushed to the bed, never minding about the creaky planks. He was rumbled. There was no way they were not going to notice. He had just got under the covers when his mother appeared at his bedroom door.

“Are you awake Sammy?” Oh, dear. Caught red-handed.


His mother came in, folded him in a hug and said, “Happy New Year” and then burst into silent tears.

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