OFFSKI

By Donald McKenzie

Night, night, sleep tight


Dinnae let the bedbugs bite


Jist squeeze em tight


An’ they’ll no bite anither night


When ah wis very young ma faither thought this wis an amusin’ rhyme tae chant when he wis tryin’ tae get me settled doon an’ aff tae sleep. It wisnae. It wis a worry. We lived in a cul-de-sac in the aulder part o’ the toon; a gulag which any right-thinkin’ person wid want tae escape fae, especially if bugs wur aboot. It hud grown wi’ the rise o’ factories an’ wi’ mair ships usin’ the docks. The smell o’ the chemicals fae the plastic works an’ the refinery used tae hing in the air like poison gas. Fifteen fit above sea level. As a joke we cawed the toon the silver city oan the mud b’ the metropolis oan the hill. Ah kin remember when wan factory decided tae expand. They drove a 250-fit pile intae the sludge tae find bedrock fur foundations. It disappeart. As an adolescent ah wis sinkin’ annaw. Hud tae get oot o’ there.


Ma folks hud aspirations when it came tae housin’; firstly livin’ wi’ in-laws, then they hud a wee flat above a pub (wi’ ma entrance intae the world happnin’ in a room above the bar), a wan bedroom flat in an auld miner’s row, a three bedroom Cooncil hoose in a terrace an’ then an exchange tae a bigger hoose that even hud a dining room an’ there wis a garden tae the front an’ back, wi’ a large garage an’ a shed annaw. The wood yairds wurnae that far awa’, an’ in late summer ye couldnae get tae sleep at night furra noise o’ feral cats in there, screamin’ like bairns. Furra while ma faither kept canaries an’ finches in wee cages in the shed. This hobby enabled him tae attend bird fancier’s meetings whaur he could get drunk, but this wis a short-lived pastime wance ma mither cottoned oan. Ah felt sorry fur the caged birds but wisnae really allowed tae go near them - only if ma faither wis present - although ah could see them if ah wis tae peer through the shed’s wee windae.


Ah held a sparra wance; picked it up fae the lawn whaur ah rescued it fae a cat that hud caught it an’ hud it pinned tae the grund. Its eyes wur shut but ah could feel its hert racing as ah clasped it in ma haund an’ realisin’ it wis still alive ah reached up an’ pit it oan the edge o’ the shed roof. Ah watched it as it perched there furra few seconds, waitin’ fur its eyes tae open, tae hear it chirrup, tae see it spread its wings an’ fly tae freedom. But it didnae. It jist suddenly keeled o’er an’ dropped deid wi’oot a sound like a shuttlecock ontae the grund. Wi’ distain ah tossed its boady back tae the cat. The cat grabbed the bird in its mooth, hesitated furra moment an’ looked back up at me, an’ then ran aff. Nae thanks there, then.


There are long blank periods in ma memory o’ livin’ in that hoose. Ah believe post-traumatic stress syndrome is whit they caw it nooadays. Drinkin’ being the reason. Ma faither’s. Ah think ah kin understaund wan element o’ whit war must be like huvin’ read aboot the experience o’ sodgers in the first war describin’ the periods between battles; the time wi’ high anxiety when nuthin’s happnin’, an’ then instantly sensing when an offensive’s aboot tae start, an’ the shots ring oot, an’ then the haund tae haund. The slappin’, the scratchin’, the screamin’. The wounds, the bruises, the greetin’. Livin’ wi’ a binge boozer in the hoose kin be a bit like that. Onyways, wan day in 1970 ah wiz lyin’ in bed lookin’ at ma Che Guevara poster an’ thinkin’ aboot what ma faither hud come oot wi’ earlier.


‘Ah’ll speak tae the bank manager,’ he says. ‘See if ah kin get ye an interview cos ah think thur lookin’ fur clerks.’


So that wis it. The trigger. Me a clerk? Ah’m thinkin’ - nae way - ah want tae be an artist.


‘Aye, right son. That’s no’ a proper joab,’ wis the response tae that wan.


Ah rebelled. Jist left and went tae Glasgow. Thoat ah wid get a portfolio th’gither an’ apply tae art school. Stayed wi’ a few mates tae begin wi’ who wur at uni until ah goat a wee bedsit. Ah wis daft enough tae dae this in the winter. Longest three months o’ ma life that. Kin ye imagine? Four poond ninety a week fae the Broo.


It wisnae that far awa fae Christmas when it wis snawin’ an’ ah wis stervin’ an freezin’ an’ the door goes. It wis ma faither. Ah wis also stupit enough tae wunder how he traced me but there he wis. Ah hud hud it b’ then an’ went hame wi’ him; via a roadhouse right enough whaur ah sat in the car while he went in furra a couple o’ pints. He did get himsel sorted oot eventually but of course that’s no how ye see it at the time.


An’ is it no strange the things ye remember even fae awmost half a century ago? When ah opened the flat door an’ saw him the first thing he hud said wis, ‘Kin ye no come hame son? Thur’s nae livin’ wi’ yer mither.’


Like - it wis ma faut.


family, personal rebellion