Unless otherwise stated all written material on this website is © Marilyn Grunwald 2023
Excerpt from TALES FROM MY YELLOW ROOM which is now available at Amazon at bit.ly/49sBwaA
After living on the Gask estate for about a year, we returned to the Brax farm.
Some lighter memories of Mam are the shirt, the motorbike, and the swarthy onion seller stories. Our clothes were always hung on the line to dry. In the winter, they usually froze and looked like cardboard cutouts, and the drying was “finished” by hanging them on two back-to-back kitchen chairs.
I loved “breaking” them up as they thawed.
These chairs were used in a similar fashion when she and my older sisters made marmalade or strawberry jam in the summer. A clean cheesecloth was stretched between them so that the liquid from the boiled fruit would seep through. The process included sterilizing jars which took days to complete.
I was barred from the kitchen during this process. One windy Spring Day, Mam stormed in through the back door of the Brax cottage. She was livid because a sheep in the pasture next to our clothesline had managed to catch Dad’s shirttail as it waved in the wind, and the animal enjoyed a good chew. Of course, Jock and I thought it was really funny.
Even funnier to us kids was the incident with Dad’s motorbike and sidecar. We went off somewhere, probably on a Saturday shopping trip to Arbroath. Jock and I were in the sidecar and Mam was riding on the back of the bike. Suddenly Dad stopped; we thought the bike had broken down. Mam had fallen off!
She saw the humor in this incident because she hadn’t been hurt and there was no need to do or buy anything, whereas Dad’s otherwise fine, now tailless shirt, would have to be replaced.
We had new clothes once a year for school - and only because we were growing, and the age gap with our older siblings was too great for hand-me-downs. Adults got something new for a wedding or similar special occasion. A family can only do so much on ￡10 a week.
Dad handed Mam his brown wage packet every Friday; she gave him back enough for his fags, (cigarettes) a pint, and the football pool, which benefitted medical research for children born with disabilities.
Occasionally, door-to-door salesmen came to our front door trying to sell us exotic trinkets, less common vegetables, and bolts of cloth. Apparently, they were from the Continent, or North Africa, and very persuasive.
When she saw them approaching, Mam would make me hide with her beneath the window of the living room. I sat beside the pedal of her mother’s Singer sewing machine, which abutted a huge floor planter.
This was the same planter that produced beautiful tulips of all colors from the bulbs buried in its dark rich soil, which I enjoyed mixing with my hands.
We stayed hidden until the seller left. She was worried about being forced into buying something we didn’t need and then having to explain it to Dad. Also, for whatever reason, we were always suspicious of people who used our front door.
I also remember watching Woman’s Hour with her during school vacations and enjoying afternoon shows like Bill & Ben, the Flowerpot Men, and their friend the “Little Weed.” The Woodentops was another favorite.
The Romper Room broadcast from Aberdeen by Grampian television appeared a few years later; Miss Anne never saw “Marilyn” in her magic mirror.
An occasional special treat was a six-penny bar of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate from the traveling grocery truck, a common sight in the Scottish countryside. These days, I often have a square or two of chocolate, 70% cocoa, which is somewhat diabetic-friendly and stirs those old memories.
Our only indoor pets were budgies or budgerigars, small versions of the Parakeet breed of bird. We had different colors over the years: yellow, green, and blue. I was okay with them in their cage, and I was able to change their food and water.
I was less thrilled when they were allowed to fly around the living room. They terrified me when they landed on my head and scratched at my scalp. My brother and Dad thought it was funny, but it annoyed Mam. She was protective of me, not always condoning their boyish ways.
She was one of the few protectors in my life. She and a couple of my teachers gave me hope; showing me that I might not always be tormented.
Jock looked after rabbits feeding them used tea leaves. Replacing them for a while when they would escape from their simple hutch. At one farm behind our cottage, there was a pigsty. We fed the pig slop, leftovers that had outlived human consumption, and broken or misshapen biscuits (cookies) that we got free from a factory and often intercepted. Guess who else got to eat some of those custard creams?
The pig was the closest we ever got to a sex talk. While Mam was feeding the animal, I asked her “What’s the difference between a man and a woman pig?” Without even looking up she said, “Same as us.”
I have no memory of playing with either the pig or the rabbits. They, nor the birds, were ever named. I do remember, however, some meals of rabbit, hare, and partridge. Our ham and eggs were specifically ham and not bacon.
While the National Health Service covered dental work, Dad had a better idea!
Whether in Scotland or America, Dads always have a better idea.
String, not much thicker than dental floss, wrapped around the loose tooth with the other end of it around the open doorknob.
Slam the door shut!
That night the Tooth Fairy brought me a shiny silver six-pence piece.
In late 2021, my youngest grandson, Alexander, started losing baby teeth. These days the tooth fairy is much more generous, dropping off $5.00 or more per tooth.
Somewhere around this time, Sandy and his wife Lena, and their two kids Alan and Lena left for Australia. They traveled by boat; it cost £10 per person and took about six weeks. The Australian government was anxious to have as many workers as possible from the United Kingdom.
It was our family’s habit to listen to the radio on Sunday afternoons. A popular music request show “Family Favorites” and Spike Milligan and the “Goon Show” were always enjoyed.
One Sunday, August 5th, 1962, one of the shows was interrupted with a news flash; Marilyn Monroe had died the previous evening in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
I felt my hair stand on end - my namesake, dead!
Late in the evening of Sunday, November 19, 1962, Mam complained of being dizzy and short of breath, and she was perspiring heavily. This had happened twice in the past year. This time an ambulance came, and she was admitted to Arbroath Infirmary.
Dad visited her early each morning before going to work. One of my sisters had come to help; the adults knew the likely outcome. As was the custom then, no one told me of the severity of the situation.
After nearly a week, Mam succumbed in the early hours of Thursday, November 22, 1962.
I was sitting by the fire in Dad’s chair. A brown leather straight-backed cushioned seat type that had seen better days.
He came in the back door and spoke briefly to my sister who, her back to me, was making porridge. I couldn’t hear what he had said to her, but instinctively I knew it was something important.
He then stepped into the living room.
Dad was standing on his heels. The only other time I saw him do that was when he came home on a Friday or Saturday night from the pub.*
Staring off into the distance, careful not to make eye contact, all he said was “Well, Mam’s away.”
My verbal response was something like “Oh”!
My immediate thought was that I still had one parent left. To this day, I do not understand that thought. Can children be that mercenary?
I said nothing out loud. I also do not recall us ever speaking about her after that.
I have never cried for her. In the years since I have cried about all the things that happened that might not have if there was a permanent mother's presence. Even if I was unaware, that was often the true source of my problems.
I was allowed to stay home from school that day. Dad had to still feed the cattle, of course.
As I reminisce, I realize I never have missed her or the others…really. I guess that might require real therapy, and not be solved by just writing this book.
Despite that mother-daughter relationship missing from my life, I can cherish witnessing how close my daughter and granddaughter are and thank God for their bond.
When I was fourteen, I attempted to express some grief and to let “someone in” regarding being motherless.
Our class was given a project requiring a poem or lyrics for a song. I wrote an emotional version of “Honey, I Miss You,” made popular by Bobby Goldsboro. I replaced the word “Honey” with “Mommy.”
The teacher took it from me, looked at it for a moment, and, saying nothing, locked it in his lectern. I was crushed and close to tears. I thought it was brilliant. Of course, now I realize the young student teacher was not equipped to say anything.
*It occurs to me that Dad and his mates may have had a little snifter in memory of Mam.
The first draft of Chapter 1 of FiSH aND ChIPS Wrapped in Fivers. Published in Spring 2024
© Marilyn Grunwald
“Keep yer willy in yer drawers!” Lizzy Slocombe yelled, desperately trying to stifle her son, Ataw, who defiantly ignored her. He turned on his heels toward the social worker and the copper.
“What the hell do you two fuckers want?”
Looking down at her Steve Madden scrunched leather boots, and fumbling for the right words, Suzy McMartin meekly uttered, “I’m worried about you and your nephew since Sam gets oot Friday.”
Detective Damian Potter didn’t respond to Ataw’s question. He knew damn well why he was there. He believed Ataw still had information he withheld on the initial investigation of Patrick Slocombe’s grizzly demise.
Ataw stretched, showing his full five foot nine inches, and sighed in exasperation.
“Mither, get inside. You two, get lost!”
With these words, Potter and McMartin walked away.
Ataw and Lizzy disappear inside the side door of his home, followed by others attending the meeting to discuss the future of the Fleet gang.
Gathered on an early summer evening in Ataw’s well-appointed three-story home in Broughty Ferry were the leaders of the Huns, Shams, Lochee, and, of course, the Fleet; Ataw’s people. The Fleet was resurrected by his dad, Patrick, from their 1970’s heyday. Since his murder, the leadership has been vacant.
“Okay, let’s get this cèilidh started,” yelled Ataw.
Laughter rose up at the idea that this was a musical celebration. The twenty or so people in the basement soon fell silent as he reminded everyone that after his dad’s passing in March, there was a need for a new chief of the Fleet.
He also hoped that Fleet would become the head of the syndicate of all the Dundeed gangs; reviving the 70s Boys of Scottish Hellraisers or BOSH.
“I was his son and his lieutenant. I knew his every move and, more importantly, I know his future plans for the Fleet and for BOSH.”
“Why wiz the copper here?” Ataw was interrupted.
“Dinae worry about him. He’s just fishing, but his rod isnae long enough.”
“And that young woman, sir?” Young MacKenzie Norton asked his youthful inquisitiveness on point.
As Ataw was about to answer, Lizzy butted in …
“Let's get back to the business of selecting a new leader. And, before we go crowning my wee boy here the greatest mobster since Al Capone, I need to remind you that I also had the ear of Patrick Slocombe.”
Snickering, a wiseacre sitting in the back uttered, “Probably his tadger and bawbags as well.”
Ignoring the miscreant, Lizzy continued.
“Also, while I love my son, as hard as he makes it sometimes remember Ataw has a brother, Sam. He’s coming home from the clink any day now. As it happens, he has no interest in leadership. But have no doubt, we are a family - we are three votes here for whatever we do!
“How’d we know what Patrick wanted,” Jim Bruell, one of the older gang members asked.
“Well,” Lizzy said, turning her chair to face him, “you all know it is impossible for us to put such things in writing; otherwise, he would ‘ave.”
A chant of “Vote, vote, vote” arose in the room.
“Okay, okay. How do we do this fairly? Ataw said, trying to calm the crowd.
Truthfully, Ataw didn’t care about fairness, he just wanted things settled, so he could take over and put his plan in motion. A project that, at this moment, included dealing with Mither once and for all, and maybe Sam too.
When his dad was ambushed and killed, perhaps by a person close to someone in this room, he went, simultaneously, into shock and future planning mode.
The interesting thing about Ataw and Sam was their very middle-class upbringing, attending the best schools, being captain of their sport, swimming for Sam, and cricket for Ataw. Both boys were forever mistaken for members of the other team when they competed internationally. They favored their Dad and his dark, swarthy looks.
While Ataw reiterated things Lizzy already knew, her mind wandered to a conversation she had with Suzy McMartin earlier that day . . .
. . . Lizzy Slocombe, who was seemingly engaged in what the social worker was saying, shifted forward in her manual wheelchair.
The 70-year-old Slocombe and 40-year-old McMartin were looking out at the well-manicured lawn, abutting a circular driveway. One corner of the driveway was obscured by a Gorse Bush.
Lizzy’s mid-century home was typically Scottish middle-class in style and décor. This included the heavyweight damask drapes and the ever-present china cabinet placed in the far-left corner of the living room.
Passersby peeking in the sweeping bay windows might mistake them for mother and daughter. Despite the harsh realities of the words, the conversation appeared cordial.
McMartin was wearing a floral mid-length skirt complimented by a well-cared-for classic denim jacket. This was her preferred style and work uniform. Lizzy, conversely, enjoyed wearing dresses for every occasion. Today, she was swathed in lavender and white. The lavender greatly complimented her white hair and dark blue eyes. She preferred roomy clothing; all the easier to hide her … legs.
They were discussing Lizzy’s and Patrick’s ties to the gang activity of the 1970s, when the Fleet, the stuff of Dundee street gang legend, was in full swing.
Suzy was just a wee bairn when her dad was killed in a gang fight where Patrick had been the instigator. Suzy knew this when she was appointed as Sam’s prison release supervisor, but she had her reasons for keeping the case.
The catastrophe caused between Fleet and the equally heinous Hulltoon Huns still raises the hairs on the necks of everyone who remembers the incident or has been told the story . . .
Lizzy came back to the present just in time to hear Ataw answering questions about how the tussle for the leadership, was going to turn out.
After allowing for individual discussion Ataw gathered everyone together again and made suggestions on how to handle the vote.
“Arm wrestle yer Mither for it” One wag suggested.
Another gangster suggested just drawing lots because the leader wannabees are all the same.
Ultimately, it was decided to allow Norton to be the temporary administrative leader of the Fleet since he had no interest in the permanent position. Further, he was not on friendly terms with any of the most likely candidates.
Some of the relationships, whether friendly or otherwise, went back decades, to when their Dads and Uncles were working at one of Dundee’s three J’s; Jute, Jam, or Journalism.
Tay Spinners was the last jute spinning factory in Europe, and it was hanging by a thread. At least twenty of the eighty people employed there were former gang members or related to current gangsters.
The tides were turning, however, and educated people like Ataw were running a very different gang with different endgames than those retiring from the jute mill.
Most of the jute deliveries to Dundee from Bangladesh came via the Banglar Urmi, often much delayed on her meandering voyage from Chittagong via Monglar, Calcutta, and her last port of call, Tripoli, Libya.
The journalism was still ticking along thanks to DC Thompson, who had published all of Scotland's major periodicals and comics. It was the Scottish home of Dennis the Menace located in the Courier Building, on the west side of Albert Square.
There is still some manufacturing of Jam, or more correctly Marmalade within the city. After endless back and forth on the process, it was decided that only the leadership candidates and gang leaders, no lieutenants or members, would meet at a neutral place in two weeks.
Everyone reluctantly agreed to the arrangement.
The chit-chat as everyone left seemed to favor Ataw, but the gangsters also conceded it was impossible to tell how it would turn out.
Lizzy and Ataw had one common goal that superseded their wish for control, and that was who murdered Patrick Slocombe? Who benefitted? It wasn’t a helpful clue that he thought it was an inside job - that just made all his other decisions more difficult.
Wearily climbing up the three flights of stairs to the bedroom, Ataw was glad that this meeting had been at his home, and he didn’t have to drive anywhere.
He had been particularly taken with this house when he bought it five years ago because the three-story aspect helped him keep his business and private life separate - there was even an outside entrance where friends or coworkers could walk down steps to the basement, thereby completely avoiding the house's main rooms.
The basement had a simple kitchen set up, a pool table, a toilet, and even a comfy couch useful for any kind of overnight needs. His wife was asleep. These days, his feelings for her were complicated. He still loved her but found life simpler when he was with his compatriots, one in particular.
His wife disliked Lizzy even more than he did but really didn’t like Ataw’s consulting business either.
Drifting off to sleep he was trying to figure out how to handle the vote, and how he could suss out Damian Potter; something was “off” with that copper.