Rough Scan
SHORTLY efter my faither's funeral my mither gaed up to Enterkin, closed up the cottage, and brocht my grandmither doon to Thornhill to bide wi' us. I wad raither she hadna dune sae, as on the few occasions I had been taen up to veesit her she had shown nae great likin' for my company, and a' for what reason I couldna understaun'.
I had aye dune her biddin', and, as my faither had tell't me, I had showed her a' the respect and reverence that I could, but she wad hae nane o' me. Beyond comin' to the door and tellin' me my denner was ready, or that I wad hae to come in an' get dressed to gang hame wi' my mither, she never spoke to me.
I often used to envy a boy at the schule when he was tellin' me o' the fairins his grandmither gied him on a Thornhill fair day, or o' the jeely pieces, or mebbe bawbees he got frae her, unbeknown to his mither. I never got ocht frae my grandmitber, binna a daud aside the heid when, as a bairn, I had stravaiged ower far up the auld Kirkbride brae, or, as a boy, shooed Airchie Macmillan's jeuks into the water o' Nith. I could hae dune fine wi' a kindly disposed auld grannie, for since I mind I had aye the feelin' that my mither was keepin' me at airm's length, as yin micht say.
Unlike ither boys, I had nae sweet recollections o' bein' bushed to sleep on my mither's knee, or kissed and cuddled afore I was put in my bed. This I mebbe wudna hae minded sae much, if I had had a grannie's knee to rin to. But I never had, and I missed a lot.
Weel, as I was sayin', my grandmither cam' to stey wi' us, and her comin' made an awfu' difference in the hoose to me. She didna gang oot much-juist sat at the fireside, wi' her face turned to the lum, and every noo and again takin' a blaa o' a short, black cutty pipe, which she keepit at the back o' the hud. The airmchair my faither used to sit in was ower high and strecht up for her, so her ain was brocbt frae Enterkin, and my faither's was put away in the back room, of which I was glad, for, when she was sittin' in it, she seemed to profane it, and break every yin o' the Ten Commandments.
Her face was very wninlded and yellow, and she had wee black een away ben in her face, which seemed to me to skinkle like a cat's in the dark. She had lost a' her teeth, but her gums were by-ordinar hard, and, I'm tellin' ye, it was gey cheuch feedin' she couldna mak' short wark o'. She had a guid word o' naebody. A' fouk were rogues and takin' the better o' her, and for a' my faither had keepit her and her hoose gaun she wudna gie him credit for a kindly thocht or a kindly deed. It turned oot that he wadna alloo her to veesit oor hoose, and, when I had had some experience o' her society, I really didna wonder at my faither's decision in this.
Efter she cam' to us I hadna the pleesure o' oor ain fireside. If I sat doon she wad look at me witboot speakin', and peer sae pointedly wi' her wee black een that I had juist to rise and gang away oot. I heard her aince tellin' my mither that I didna tak' efter her side o' the hoose, and that I was a chip o' the auld block. And my mither said, "Ay, that is so, but it canna be helped." And I gaed oot at the back door happy and prood that I was "a chip o' the auld block."
I was ta'en away frae the schule at this time, much to the Maister's and my ain regret, but the breed-winner was gane, and as I was a big boy for my years and able to dae something for mysel', I was sent to gether tatties at the Templand. Dod, that was a cauld job. It was frosty weather, wi' a snell wind blaain', and mony a time o' mornin's hae I run a' the road frae Thornhill to the Cample to keep mysel' warm. But I was gled and thankfu' I could dae something to help my mitber, and cauld haun' s and nippin' feet and often a sam empty stomach were forgotten in my pride that I was o' some service to her. Ninepence a day wasna very much, but it was steady-steady at least for a forenicht-and then when the tatties were a' pitted I was keepet on sixpence a day for tendin' turnip sheep. I had set my mind on a tred, hooever, and I assure you I was terribly pleased when this cam' my wey.
Ae day I was sent up to Gabriel Shankland's joiner shop for a bag o' shavin's. They were kind o' scarce that day, and when I was dookin' here and there aroon' the benches and scrappin' aboot 'roon' Gabriel's feet for nice big splinters, says he to me, "You're growin' a big boy, Robbie. Hae ye nae notion o' the joinerin'? If ye hae, tell your mither when ye gang bame that I'll tak' ye on as an apprentice."
I had never thocht o' takin' to the saw and plane, my mind raither ran in the stane and lime line, but I gied my mither Gabriel's message, and, withoot in ony wey bein' consulted, I faun mysel' the next week in the joiner's shop wi' a pair o' lang breeks on and an apron tied roon' my waist.
In ordinary circumstances the ootfit o' tools wad hae been a consideration to my mither, for there was little o' money to come and gang on, but yin o' her britbers had been a joiner afore be dee'd, and his kist bad lang lain on oor stable laft, so that it cam' in very handy; indeed, I micht say it was the fact o' the tools bein' at haun' that settled the maitter sae speedily.
The warkshop was through an open entry and at the back o' Gabriel's dwellin'-boose. It had an earthen flaer, but covered to sic a depth wi' sawdust, and tap-dressed, as it were, wi' shavin's, that it was juist as if ye were walkin' on a nice saft carpet. The windas were big and a' glazed wi' lang strips o gless, a' different in length, and each peen over-lappin' the ither, and the dust and spider webs that covered them was by-ordinar. There was nae ceilin', but on the tap o', and across, the joists were planks o' wudd o' different kinds and in a' lengths, which were used for extra particeelar jobs.
Rab Gaw, the auld apprentice, had the tap bench, Gabriel worked at the middle ane, and I was set to the yin at the end, next to the laythe shop and beside a wee gable winda. Through this winda I could see a grunstane, which turned oot the bane o' my existence, for Gabriel was aye at the grind, and between caain' it roon and keepin' it watt wi' watter oot o' an auld teapot I was fairly scunnered lookin' at it. Beside the grunstane was a stalk o' broad planks leanin' on their edges on a cross beam o' fir, aboot, mebbe, twal' feet frae the grun'. This was, and is yet, caa'd a joiner's cuddy, and mony a game at hidin'-seek I had played roon' Gabriel's lang afore I ever had ony idea that I wad hae ocht to do wi' it, in what yin micht caa' an official capacity.
There was nae signboard aither abune the workshop door on at the mooth o' the entry, but on a' his bills and accoonts was the heidin', "Gabriel Shankland, Joiner and Undertaker."
There were but twae in the same line in the toon, and the opposition was a spiel-the-waa' kind o' a budy caa'd Peter Gled, but locally kenned by the nickname o' Whuttenick. Gabriel and Whutterick, bein' in opposition, werena on speakin' terms, and were very jealous o' yin anither. If onything, I think Gabriel got mair coffins to mak' than Whuttenick, for, on the whole, he was a mair likeable man, had been langer in business, was on the Toon Cooncil, and, what was mair in his favour, was maist attentive to, and sympathetic wi', onybody in time o' trubble and illness.
Gabriel's wife, Nanny Davison-a' mairret women in Thornhill in thae days were caa'd by their maiden names-was even mair attentive in this respect, and mony a box, as she caa'd it, was she the means o' bringin' to Gabriel's shop.
Ae day, when I had been mebbe six months at the tred, I was sent into the hoose to help her to caa the mangle. Dod, it was a caa, caa on. If it wasna the grunstane it was the laythe, and if it wasna the laythe it was the mangle. What I wanted was an axe in my haun' to split on knock doon somebody or something. But Gabriel had his ain idea o' what an apprentice had to be put to, and an axe wasna yin o' the tools to be used. Weel, as I was sayin', I was sent to caa the mangle for Nanny, and she took the opportunity o' giein' me a bit o' advice aboot my wark generally, but particeelarly aboot my behaviour at kistins and interments, and I mind o' her, amang ither things, tellin' me to keep my b'lo' jaw hingin' as much as possible, and to try an' cultivate a waesome look. Said she, "Your face, man, is juist like a wee newton-pippin aipple; it's faur owen cheery. Next year, when Rab Gaw's time's oot, ye'll hae to gang oot wi' the maister, to baith coffinin's and burials, and I'm thinkin' ye'll hae to look mair demurer afore ye can dae that, as the noo you're mair like a kirn than a kistin. Faith, mind ye, Robbie, it taks us to hae everything up to the nines, and we need to pit oor best fit forcmost thae days, for 'Whutterick's' playin' the very deevil wi' the tred. He's tryin' every dodge imaginable, and cuttin' prices is no the warst o' them. Afore Andra Dawson slippit away he was little aff the doorstep, speerin' hoo he was keepin' and axin' if he could dae ocht to help them. But I had seen, lang afore he had, that death was in the cup. Yin has to be gleg e'ed when it's yin's breed and butter, and afore he lay doon I had sterted to ca', in a neebourly wey. I keepit it up to the very end, and, Robbie, my boy, I nicket it, 'at did I, and a peyin' burial it was too, for Gabriel got kist, hearse, and grave to look efter. Keep caain', man; ye can baith caa and listen."
The callous kind o' wey she talked aboot deid fouk and deein' struck me as bein' unnatural. Wi' my faither's death fresh on my mind, I couldna unnerstaun' it, and I often wunnered if ever she had lost a near and dear freen, and if warm saut tears could come oot o' thae hard, steely een.
Gabriel was a man o' moods. Some days he was awfu' nice and cheery, and at ither times he was juist the reverse. When tred was quate he got quite doon in the mooth, and used to gang aboot the shop, or dae what little wark he had on haun', singin' to an awfu' waesome kirk tune-
="God is our refuge and our strength,
==In straits a present aid;
=Therefore, although the earth remove,
==We will not be afraid."
He had twae big front teeth, staunin' their lane, and every time he cam' to a particeelar note he made a queer kind o' a whustlin' soon', which was terribly divertin'. And then when somebody wad come in wi' a lang face and speakin' low, Gabriel wad strechten oot his shooders, wipe his mooth wi' his apron as if to wipe dull care away, and then, wi' a hingin' heid, gang away in for his black coat and his strechtin' board.
You'll mebbe think this is a lee, but it's as fac' as death. When he was makin' a coffin he aye was singin' cheerily to himsel'. And what think ye the tune was? "Bonnie Dundee." Juist think o' that, noo! Fancy a man makin' a coffin and singin' that! Ay, and, man, d'ye ken, when he was the length o' fixin' the linin', it cam' to be really divertin'. He had his tacks laid oot in a raw aiang the bottom, every tack as near as possible opposite the place it was gaun into. Lang practice wi' the hammer had made him quick and guid at it, for he could caa' in twae tacks wi' every line, yin at the middle and anither at the end. It was like this: -
"Come fill up my cup (chap), come fill up my can (chap),
Come saddle my horses (chap), and call out my men (chap);
Unhook the west port (chap), and let us go free (chap),
For it's up wi' the bonnets (chap) o' Bonnie Dundee (chap)."
It was positeevely uncanny at times, and often, I declare, I had to lauch to keep mysel' frae greetin'.
Some times-very, very seldom I'll alloo-Gabriel was in the habit o' takin' juist ten draps mair than was guid for him. And when he was that wey, and wantin' mair, he never wad send oot for it. Na! na! But he wad gether a wheen lengths o' clean pine and get them aneath his oxter, and away he wad make up the street for the pubhic-hoose, juist as if he had a job on haun' inside. If he hadna the bundle o' sticks, he used to staun' a wee at the ootside door, tak' oot his fit-rule and measure it a' ower, as if he was gaun to repair it, and then he wad disappear inside wi' his fit-rule in his mooth and a notebook and pencil in his haun'. Nanny, at thae times, used to watch him ticht, but he had a wonderfu' inventive genius, and aye managed his point when the tid was on him.
Sometimes he wad bring a wee bottle wi' him in his pooch, and when he gaed away into the laythe shop and steekit the door, Rab Gaw wad wink at me and nod to the door, and pit his haun' to his mooth as if he were dninkin' oot o' a gless.
I sune got to ken Gabriel's wee bit weys, and ae day when Gaw was away at Cample-brig fixin' a skiftin' roon' the lobby, and I was in ablow my bench seekin' for a gallows-button that had come off my breeks, Gabriel cam' in, and, efter lookin' roon' the shop and seein' naebody, he lauched to himsel', and, walkin' raither unsteadily into the wee shop, he steekit the door. I got quately alang on my haun's and knees to the partition between the twae shops, and through a hole I had made a day or twae before, I saw him, sittin' on a box, wi' the bottle in his haun'. He was speakin' to himsel', and I hears him say: "Gabriel Shanklan', you're a deevil, a perfect oot and oot deevil; that's what ye are. But it disna happen often. No, not at all. And what aboot it, ony wey? Whae has ony business wi' ye? That's what I wad like to ken. Nanny?-Weel, yes, Nanny, that's true eneuch. But ye've been a guid man to her-better than the feck o' men. That is so, Gabriel, and here's to ye," and he sampled the mutchkin bottle. "Ay, Gabriel, ye've been a gemm yin. What! been a gemm yin? Ye mean, ye are a gemm yin. Faith, ye're no dune yet. Na, na! And, losh! hoo mony hae tried to knock ye doon? Ay, ay! that is so. 'Whutterick! 'Whut-,'" and here Gabriel smiled and shook his heid frae side to side. "Whutterick's nae use. He couldna bury a moudie dacently. What a coffin he made for Tammy Toosie! There were nae bonnie lines aboot it. It was juist like an orange box. A' weel, Whutterick, your lang hinner-en' 'll come some day, an' I'll no bury ye. Ye can gang to Penpont for me; that can ye, noo, imphm.- But, Gabriel, ye've dune weel. Ye've been a hard-workin' man a' your days.- That is so-that is in-dis-put-able. That's a guid word, Gabriel, and spoken like a man. And, Gabriel, a leetle re-lax-ation is per-miss-ible, quite." And here he watt his lips again. "Mair than that, Gabriel, your tred de-mands a leetle o' something to enliven it. That also is true-true, oh King! And ye can afford it, and you're richt to tak' it. Noo, if Nanny had haen ony weans-ah! that's it, if Nanny had had a family, hoo different it wad hae been. Hoo dis it come aboot that my quiver is emp'y, and me a-" Here I knocked against an auld cupboard door, and Gabriel hurriedly got up and, wi' a hammer he had lyin' handy, began to caa, caa on the bench beside him. Then he emptied the bottle, as if unwillin' to run any risks, and, efter a wheen mair knocks, he cam' oot. But I was off by this time, and was busy soopin' Nanny's back door flags. "Come here," he cried. "Dod, boy, you've a face like a turnip lantern. D'ye ca' that learnin' the joinerin'? Come here at aince and gie's a turn o' the grunstane," and then I knew I was in for a sair back and a blistered haun'.
Man, man! I wish I had time to tell ye o' a' the ploys I had wi' Gabriel. I think I could mak' as lang a story as The Pilgrim's Progress. Sometimes there were misfits. Gabriel wad blame Gaw, and Gaw wad blame Gabriel, and there wad be the awfu'est thoomin' o' notebook leaves and cryin' oot o' lengths frae heid to tae, and frae shooder to shooder. Odd, man, I was gled when I got away frae it a', altho' the means o' my escape were, as yin micht say, on the tragic side.
Ae windy day Gabriel, puir body, was takin' doon some boards frae his cuddy, and a thickish yin fell and struck him on the back o' his held. He took to his bed on the Monday, and was a' bye wi' this world's concerns on the Setterday.
His twae nephews cam' hame frae Glesca to cairry on the business, and as yin o' them had a boy aboot my age he wanted to put to the tred, I was put away to mak' room for him. And, as I say, gled I was, for tho' I liket hoose joinerin' weel eneuch, the coffin makin' wasna to my mind, and, try as I micht, I could never get my b'low jaw to stey doon.
And then the turnin' point o' my life cam'. Twae or three days efter I had taen off my apron, John M'Andra, the mason, met me on the back road, and says he to me, "Robbie, what wey are ye no' at your wark?" So I tell't him hoo it cam' aboot that I left the joiner's shop; and says he, "Dod, you're the very boy I'm on the lookoot for. What say ye to the mason tred? If ye like I'll tak' ye on on Monday." I tell't him he had better spier at my mither, which he did, and the maitter was settled there and then.
On lookin' back, I can see the haun' o' Providence in this, as it not only gied me my hert's desire, but it was the introduction, as yin micht say, to a tred it has always been my proodest boast to say I belanged to, and yin which I hae ever striven at a' times to be a credit to.
Little did I think that mornin', when I met John M'Andra on the back road, that the time wad come when I, like him, wad be a maister mason, an employer o' labour wi' a bank book o' my ain and a signhoard at my yaird gate wi' my name sae big that "he who runneth may read."