Span of Life
Haldane Burn has its source high in the Auchencarroch Hills, on moorland which was known to the Covenanters. It runs alongside the course of an old disused railway line and through wooded gullies until it reaches the playing park which was, before my time, farmland. Flowing under the main road in Jamestown, the burn eventually winds its way to a quiet confluence with the River Leven, thence to the Clyde and eventually out into the deep blue sea.
There were certain teachers at my old secondary school who, by way of a dire warning, occasionally and rather thoughtlessly, said that if some of us didn’t attend more to our studies we’d end up “sweeping the streets”. This was intended to exemplify absolute social and financial failure.
* * *
Alex Dennett is one of the happiest men I know – if one can go by conversation and appearance. Consistently cheerful and unfailingly pleasant. Alex sweeps the streets. Almost any given day Alex can be seen in his bright orange jacket pushing his cart along the streets of the town, brush in hand and with a smile and a friendly word for all. Alex is an intelligent and well-read man, and I don’t doubt for one moment that he could have succeeded in some other line of work, but he seems genuinely to be content “working from home” and keeping the community clean. Anyway, a few days ago I met Alex in the manner described.
“Hello Billy. Have your ears been burning?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “A certain gentleman’s been asking for you, not half an hour ago.”
Naturally I was curious. Vanity being what it is, I rather hoped it had something to do with one of my books.
Alex continued – “I first noticed him eyeing me up from the other side of the street. Then I bumped into him at the cash-point. It was Robert Heron!”
This I had not expected.
“D’you mean the Robert Heron that used to live next door to my Gran?”
“The very one.” replied Alex.
Robert Heron had been a great childhood pal, until he moved with his family to Cumbernauld. This would have been around 1960, when I’d have been seven or eight years old. His dad had gone to work in the Burroughs factory there. So, in effect, neither Alex nor I had seen or heard anything of Robert Heron for literally half a century.
“He’s working as a spark along the road there, where they’re building the new health centre.”
How had Robert recognised Alex after all those years? Well, Alex’s just got that kind of face.
* * *
It was only when I set out to write this wee story that I began to realise just how significant Haldane Burn had been in my childhood. In the first place it was situated midway between Jamestown Parish Church and my Gran’s and Aunt’s house at the bottom of Cook Road, just next to the Haldane School. The church was where I was baptized and schooled as a Christian. To this day I retain the belief – however irrational – that God lives in the steeple of Jamestown Parish Church. It has that kind of sacredness for me. My Gran’s house was my second home from birth until my Aunt died in 1999, when I was 45 years old. Not only was it my second home, it was my most consistent home, my actual homes having been in Clyde Street, Dumbarton, Bridge Street in Alexandria, McColl Avenue, Tullichewan and Beaton Road in Balloch. More than that though, my Gran was already an old lady when I was born. Throughout my childhood she was expected to die at any time. In fact, every time a new suit was bought for me my mother used to say it would have to be something suitable for Gran’s funeral. Actually, the old lady died aged 92, when I was in my thirties. But because of this alleged nearness to her Maker, my Gran’s bedroom, with its aura of peace and dignity (and the large, seldom remarked upon, sepia tone portrait of my great grandmother – Mary Ann Williamson), seemed like an annexe of Heaven. So there we were, two places which were at once of this world and of another, with a very down to earth Haldane Park stretched out between them.
I spent a lot of time on Sundays and on holidays at Gran’s house and playing in the park. Indeed, I have many and varied – but mostly happy – memories of the place. But first, a word or two about the geography. It is of some quarter of a square mile, bounded to the north by Haldane School and its grounds, to the east by Talbot Road, to the south by Woodburn Avenue, and to the west by Davidson Road. In other words, a large field next to a school and otherwise surrounded by housing. The burn cut diagonally through it, flowing from the south-east corner to the north-west, effectively making it two separate play areas. The half which was to the north-east was the one in which was situated the chute, roundabout, rocker and swings. It was in this section that most of our play, naturally, took place, with many a little drama being played out there. Mostly these adventures were flavoured with the recent television enjoyment of westerns like Rawhide and Bonanza, or detectives such as 77 Sunset Strip or Dangerman.
I have countless childhood memories of Haldane Park, but a few may be brought to mind. During one long summer holiday, I would be taken up to Gran’s house early in the morning by my mother, she having to go to work in a nearby village shop. After breakfast I would take my “baggie net” and jam jar and spend happy hours wading up and down the shallows of the burn in wellington boots, seeking to catch minnows or whatever other small fish strayed into my little net. On slippery boulders, over mossy causeways, avoiding rusted tin cans and mangled bicycles, every wobbly step a challenge. I can still hear the stoney chuckle and smell the woody tang of the water. Solitary bliss.
From the park one could see the church steeple to the south, and far to the north there were the gently rounded hills which surrounded the southern stretch of Loch Lomond. I recall riding on the rocker, fancying that I was a Viking at the prow of a longship, cresting wave upon wave on my way to distant Glen Finlas.
There was a certain moment which for some inexplicable reason is etched into my memory. Some of us had got hold of little cardboard tubes which were used, something in the manner of peashooters, to blow tiny polythene parachutes into the wind. From the topmost of the sharp metal steps of the chute, David Streeter – a boy just a few years older than myself – blew his parachute and watched as a particularly satisfying current of wind carried it off for a rare old distance in the direction of the burn.
“That nearly went all the way to the deep blue sea.” said David absurdly but unforgettably.
(That is precisely why I have used that very phrase just a few passages back in this narrative. Literature is like that – it can make a monument out of a moment.)
There was a lengthy spell when I used to leave my home in Alexandria on a Sunday morning and walk alone up the long mile of the Jamestown Road to attend the church service. I’d have been around nine or ten at this stage. Anyway, once or twice I was unintentionally late for the start of the service. On these occasions I’d find the church door closed, so I’d just go and play in the park, pretending later that I’d been to church. It got to the stage that I was deliberately avoiding the service and enjoying the freedom of an hour in the park instead. One Sunday I arrived at my Gran’s house having carefully timed it so it would appear I’d been at church. I was always well turned out on a Sunday and Gran shrewdly observed that my highly polished best shoes were caked with mud which would most likely have come from the park. The game was up. Shamefaced confessions were made, and I don’t recall there being any punishment other than a stern talking to. An expression of the disappointment of that tall, bony and coolly dignified Matriarch was effective enough. I walk in the shadow of guilt to this day.
* * *
One experience I shared with my father was that, as boys, we both fell into the Haldane Burn.
* * *
My own experience – as I recall it at this distance of fifty-odd years – was that I was playing beside the burn with a few other children and somehow I fell in. Simple as that. How deep was the water? How strong was the current? Was there any real danger of drowning?
The burn was at most only a few yards wide, and at its deepest just a few feet. On the occasion, I don’t believe it was a powerful torrent, but I genuinely believe that there was an outside chance I could have drowned as a result of panic. However, in the event, I was pulled from the water by Robert Heron (remember him?). Possibly other hands assisted but at the time I believed that Robert had saved my life. Indeed, there is a sense in which something of that belief lingers yet.
Why there were pupils attending the adjacent primary school at a time when I and my group of friends were free to be playing I cannot now say, but that’s how it was. So I was carried – by ankles and wrists, like some slaughtered beast – through the gate and into the playground, with a throng of attendant weans joyfully singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”, which, oddly enough, seemed not at all inappropriate at the time.
Dripping wet and badly shaken I was handed over to the school janitor, who, in turn, delivered me to the nearby door of my Gran’s house. Aunt Cathie took over and I was comforted, warmed and given dry clothing. Robert, who remained in attendance, was given enthusiastic and grateful credit for his lifesaving role.
* * *
My Dad’s experience – the actual circumstances of his immersion, as it were, I was never told, or do not recall. They are, anyhow, irrelevant.
During the Second World War my father was serving aboard the Royal Naval aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal when it was torpedoed. He spent some hours adrift, floating in the Mediterranean in a lifejacket. I’ve often wondered if the experience reminded him of the time he fell into the Haldane Burn, but it never occurred to me to ask him while he was alive.
* * *
On the third finger of my right hand I’m wearing my Gran’s gold wedding ring. She and my grandfather were married in a house just a short distance from where I am writing this. That was a hundred years ago.
I imagine there’s a very good chance that she was wearing that ring on the occasion of my father’s conception.
On my right wrist I’m wearing a gold watch with Roman numerals. My Dad was wearing it when he died.
In some strange, symbolic way, these few inches, from finger to wrist, may be thought of as a representation of the span of his life.
* * *
Well, in the course of these few days, I’ve not encountered Robert Heron. I suppose I could walk through the town to the site where they’re building the new health centre and enquire after him, but I feel a bit self-conscious about that. It doesn’t feel quite appropriate… I leave it to fate. I guess, though, that if I don’t meet him sometime over the next few weeks, I never will again in this life… the life that he saved.