Black smoke fae the ferry’s funnels billows up intae the grey sky. A sharp cramp shoots through ma body, and ah take a deep breath o the salty air, remindin masel that any lassie who hus a big family will go tae Heaven. Ah focus ma eyes oan the skyline, oan hame. Grey and broon dots clustered at the bottom o green and yella hills. Fae there, the ferry would look like a huge, black dragon, belchin smoke and steam. Ah shut ma eyes, fillin ma lungs wi mair o the sea air. They open suddenly as the ferry bounces ower a wave, but ah know better than tae grab the haundrail, dirtied broon by seagull shite and feathers. Mammy always said that fur every daft Jeannie there wis a daft Johnny, and fur aw Donald hus a problem wi the drink, he’s naught but guid tae me and oor lassies.
‘Cannae wait till oor son gets here, Donald,’ ah say wi a haun oan ma belly.
‘As lang as the wean’s healthy.’
Donald takes ma haun, warmin it instantly. He’s gat thick, black, curly hair and a clean-shaven face wi rare cheekbones. Ah couldnae believe ma eyes the nicht ah saw him at the dancin. If ye hudnae known better, ye’d huv thocht he’d walked straicht oot o a picture and no the yards.
‘Ah’ve heard boys are easier tae rear than lassies,’ ah say.
‘It’d be nice tae huv a wean tae play fitbaw wi,’ Donald replies. ‘Ah cannae lie.’
‘Here’s hopin yer son turns oot tae be a Celtic supporter an aw.’
Donald laughs. ‘Ah should bloody well hope so.’
Oor lassies look like porcelain dolls. Sandra hus Donald’s black hair and ma crystal blue eyes. Cathy’s gat ma eyes and licht broon hair. Ah’ve always hud a soft spot fur hur because she’s ma spittin image. They’re wearin dark blue jaikets wi shiny gold buttons. Their hair is like straw hangin oot o midden bins noo ah’m too far gone tae brush it properly. But wance ah’m back tae masel, there willnae be a curl oot o place.
Sandra wan Thistlegate’s ‘Most Bonnie Baby’ competition. Ah couldnae enter Cathy. She’s gorgeous, but only a hat makes hur look like anythin other than a baby elephant. Even then, ah cannae resist tuckin hur ears intae its folds. She’d be ma absolute double if she didnae huv a touch o Dumbo aboot hur.
‘Mammy!’ Sandra says, tuggin oan ma coat and pointin at a decrepit seagull. ‘Mammy! That poor wee burd’s gat a stump insteid o a foot!’
‘Could that happen tae the baby?’ Cathy asks.
‘Maybe we could call him Stumpy!’ Sandra jokes.
‘He’ll be gettin named efter wan o the disciples,’ ah snap.
‘Come oan, ye two,’ Donald says. ‘Let’s gie yer mammy some peace.’
Ah smile. He bends doon, takes the lassies’ hauns, walks them tae the side o the ferry and picks them up so they kin huv a look at the waves. Cathy squeals wi delight.
Whether ye come by land, sea or sky, ye know ye’re in Thistlegate when the yards come intae focus. The orange and green tram trundles alang the cobblestones, past the tenements, taeward the Clyde. The cranes are so tall they look like they’re touchin the sky.
Ah shut ma eyes. Sweat is drippin oantae ma jaicket. Ah unbutton it so the sea air kin cool me doon. It’s like huvin a heater attached tae ma body.
God must be smilin oan me. A wind that would take a dug aff a bone howls across the Clyde. Fur the first time this day, ah feel like ma auld self again. The lassie who wants naught mair than tae be a star – a star like Doris Day, dressed up tae the nines oan a rickety carriage singin aboot the black hills o Dakota.
A cramp shoots through ma doonstairs, and ah open ma eyes. It sharpens. Ah jump taeward the haundrail tae stoap masel bucklin. It’s nae picnic expectin. Ah’ve been gettin warnin cramps fur days noo, so know ah’ll be meetin ma son soon.
A sticky feelin oan ma hauns makes me realise they’re covered in warm seagull shite. Ma nostrils close involuntarily.
‘Fur puck’s sake,’ ah say, rubbin the shite back oantae the ferry.
Donald turns, puts the lassies doon and rushes ower wi a tissue. Ma lip curls as ah wipe the worst o the white and broon sludge aff.
There isnae much in ma haunbag apart fae tissues, ma purse and a bottle o Barr’s tae keep me goin. Ah take oot the bottle, unscrew the metal cap, and gulp.
‘Daddy, is the baby comin?’ Sandra whispers.
‘No, no, yer mammy jist needs tae put hur feet up when we get hame, which means ye two need tae be guid wee lassies.’
‘Yer brother’s gaun’ae be some character,’ ah say.
The bottle wis supposed tae last aw day, God knows me and Donald dinnae huv money tae burn, but ah finish it quicker than an alky gettin their first drink in months. Sommat is drippin oantae the deck. Ah huvnae pished masel since ah wis a wean.
Everythin is silenced. Donald’s eyes grow so big ah think they’re gaun’ae pop oot o their sockets. He micht as well shite himsel here and noo. The lassies’ hauns turn reid wi the amount o pressure he’s puttin oan them.
Wance the shock passes, Donald does whit any guid man would. He rushes ower and tells the lassies tae be oan their best behaviour. They nod and follow us intae the passenger area. They willnae be so keen oan playin mammies wi their dolls efter this. Mind ye, Sandra’s five year aulder than Cathy. She’s already growin oot o it.
Ah’m daein ma best no tae scream until ah huv tae. The first wumman tae clock ma reid face and bump rushes tae get help.
‘Dinnae worry, missus!’ she says. There’s a look o excitement oan hur face that kin only belong tae a wumman. ‘Ma sister hud hur wean oan a tram, and she’d nae bother!’
Ah open ma mouth tae smile, but moan insteid. It’s Baltic. Naeb’dy wants tae sit close tae the door. The first seats we clock are empty. Donald sits me doon. The lassies plonk their arses opposite us, legs danglin.
Ah look oot the four square windaes and doon the water. Mair water gushes oot o me at the soond o the tannoy.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, a passenger has gone into labour,’ the captain says. ‘Can anyone with medical knowledge make their way into the port seating area immediately.’
Noo it’s Donald’s haun’s turn tae go reid. It must be uncomfortable, but he doesnae flinch, even when his fingers turn purple.
Ah look up. The passengers are rushin oot the other door faster than folk bolted durin the Blitz. Thank God they’ve a bit o respect aboot them. Ah take a deep breath.
‘Yer wee brother isnae waitin fur anywan,’ ah say.
The lassies look mair excited than they’ve ever done oan Christmas mornin.
‘It’s awricht,’ Donald says. ‘If there’s any wumman who kin dae this, it’s ye. Sandra and Cathy cleared the way.’
‘It’s no a puckin slipway, Donald!’
The door bursts open. A flustered lookin man in a suit flings his briefcase oantae the flair. Donald’s skin turns fae a ghostly white tae a human colour.
‘Hello, my name’s Doctor Lowry,’ he says, openin his briefcase and pullin oot a stethoscope. ‘I’ll make sure baby’s delivered safely.’
He looks at Sandra and Cathy, watchin wide-eyed in silence.
‘Oh good. Baby’s not your first,’ he says, poppin the stethoscope intae his ears. ‘Do you have any idea how long it’s been between your contractions?’
‘Son, ah’m aboot tae pop oot ma third wean oan a ferry and thocht ma husband wis gaun’ae cut the cord wi a puckin Stanley knife!’
Ah gesture fur Donald tae leave wi the lassies. It’s nae place fur a man who’s no a professional. The doactor takes aff his jaiket and swings it oantae the seat. He asks if ah kin move masel oantae it. Ah shake ma heid. He lifts ma legs.
‘Ah’d nae bother wi ma lassies,’ ah say, takin a deep breath. ‘Trust ma son tae come oan the Clyde.’
‘We’re going to have to start counting how long there is between your contractions. Mrs…’ he pauses.
‘Brennan,’ ah say, tryin and failin no tae scream.
‘Mrs Brennan, I’m counting that as one, two, three…’
The doactor micht huv been willin tae sacrifice his jaicket, but ah’m no willin tae sacrifice mine. Ah move, so the bottom o it isnae quite under ma arse.
Ma guid jaicket is the best hing ah’ve ever owned. Most coats would be hangin by a thread efter ten year, but it looks as guid as new. It hud cost me six weeks’ wages – wages ah thocht would be the best investment o ma life. The green jaicket’s mink collar shines as much as it did the day ah walked oot o Copland and Lye in it. But they dae say a pretty face suits the dish-cloot.
The only hing ah’ve ever wanted in life is tae be a star. Lassies like me wurnae encouraged tae dream and ah gat wan chance – auditionin fur The Showgirl and the Sailor. Ah wis naive enough tae think ah’d mair magic in ma eyes than Lizzie Black.
She’d wis lang gone by the nicht o the Blitz, and ah wis expectin. Back in 1941, the air raid siren went aff every nicht as regular as clockwork, and until then, they’d aw been false alarms. But awbody wi mair than two brain cells tae rub taegether knew that Thistlegate wis a prime target fur the Jerries because o the yards. It wis only a matter o time.
‘It’s a bomber’s moon the nicht,’ Donald said. ‘They willnae miss.’
Ah wis daein the dishes while he hud a rare dram. It wis his birthday. Ah wis only a few month gone, but ah wis already showin.
‘Will ye be awricht oan yer ain fur a wee while, Jeannie?’ Donald said. ‘Ah’m goin oot tae investigate.’
‘Yer goin tae the pub,’ ah said. ‘It’s fine.’
He didnae object.
Ah put ma feet up next tae the fire. But it wasnae lang before ah hud tae go tae the toilet. Again. Ma bladder wis like a sieve. If ah hudnae been desperate, ah’d huv clocked the clouds o smoke puffin oot o Singer’s factory as ah scuttled across the concrete.
Ah slammed the privy door wi a bang. Pee shot oot o me. The relief ah felt wis cut by a deafinin bang. If it hudnae been fur the water hittin ma arse, ah’d huv fainted there and then. The privy shook fae underneath me. The bombs sounded like poles bangin against the walls.
There wis another bang. Ah fell heidfirst oantae the groond. The sky wis full o white lichts and dust wis rainin doon. Ma eyes rolled tae the back o ma heid.
Their lids stirred in the mornin licht – the only licht that ever made me question God. A fireman wis standin ower me. He rolled me oantae a stretcher. Ah shouldnae question, ah tellt masel. At the Royal, ah gret at the sicht o reid and broon blood.
That wis the first o three miscarriages. The thocht makes me grateful fur the pain ah’m in. Ah cannae understand why God would let a wean come intae the world and aw o a sudden take them oot again. It does naught tae ease the pain though, and ah’ve nae idea hoo ah’m still conscious. Nae wonder Mammy calls it the pains o Hell.
The doactor looks at his watch. ‘OK, Mrs Brennan. That’s two minutes between your contractions.’
Ah shake ma heid. He makes his way tae the bottom o ma skirt.
‘I’m going to have to check how far down baby is,’ the doactor says.
The only man who’s meant tae see me doon there is Donald, but beggars cannae be choosers. The doactor tells me ah’m a few inches dilated.
The metal seat vibrates wi the roarin o the ferry’s engines. Ah look up. Lang white lichts run alang the ceilin. Ah fix ma eyes oan them. The pain is overhwelmin but no enough tae conk me oot. A distraction is a distraction. Ah dinnae huv it in me tae pray.
Ah imagine whit Lizzie’s daein richt noo. She’ll either be oan set, learnin hur lines or livin the life we’d dreamed o taegether.
The next contraction stings mair than when ah picked up Daddy’s razor as a wean, cuttin ma haun tae the bone.
‘OK, Mrs Brennan, that’s a minute between your contractions. Hold off pushing a little longer, and baby will be with us in no time.’
Ah cannae remember bein in so much pain wi ma lassies. It wis a case o bein uncomfortable fur a guid few hour then it wis ower.
The ferry is a quick enough journey, but ah kin feel ma son movin further doon, bringin waves o pain wi him. There is nae way he’s waitin until we’re back oan dry land. If bein born at sea is an omen, ma son will huv a rare life. Maybe he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps and become a richt high-flyer in the yards.
‘That’s baby crowning,’ the doactor says, smilin.
‘Ye kin see his heid?’ ah say, face scrunchin up in pain.
‘Yes, Mrs Brennan!’
Jesus tellt Simon, Peter and Andrew tae put doon their nets and become fishers o men. Ah’m gaun’ae call ma son efter a disciple. Ah prefer Clark efter Clark Gable, but it’s a daft notion noo. Ah huv tae honour God’s plan fur me.
A comfortable life wi a guid man and weans is never gaun’ae be enough fur me, but ah should huv realised by noo that there’s a reason why that’s the most lassies roond here hope fur.
The next contraction is the worst yet. It’s time tae push.
‘Perfect, Mrs Brennan. You’re doing brilliantly.’
The only explanation fur ma dream wis that ah wis meant tae help Lizzie achieve it. But as much as ah should huv known better, ah set a glimmer o hope oan it happenin until the day Donald first raised a haun tae me.
If ye’d swatched us in those days, ye’d huv thocht we wur both destined fur mair. Ye hud tae be a real tomboy tae wear trousers, but the best o style wis the best o style. Ah drew ma eyebroos oan in whitever shape wis aw the rage in Hollywood. Lizzie did the same. Ah put ma broon hair intae the ticht curls that fell doon ower ma shoulders. Lizzie wore hur dark broon hair in a poodle cut. Ye’d huv thocht we wur never oot the hairdresser.
Ah hudnae been so far away gien birth tae either o ma lassies.
‘Baby’s head is almost born!’ the doactor says.
Ah shut ma eyes, pushin wi every ounce o strength ah’ve left. As the pain lessens, the doactor’s eyes widen.
‘One more push Mrs Brennan and baby will be here!’
Ah pant mair than a dog in a butcher’s shoap as ah prepare tae gie the wean the biggest push ah kin. Ah wince, gatherin aw the strength ah huv left. Sommat’s comin oot o me. Ah’ve nae idea if it’s blood, pish, water or the wean.
‘That’s it, Mrs Brennan! Baby’s head is born!’
The baby cries so hard ah jolt, giein him the final push he needs. He’s gat some pair o lungs. Ma body relaxes in an instant. Ma son’s born.
The doactor wraps the wean up in his jaicket, and ma heid flops back.
‘Congratulations,’ the doactor says. ‘You’ve got another beautiful baby girl.’
Ma heart sinks. ‘Another lassie?’
The door swings open. Ah turn ma heid. The doactor haunds the wean tae Donald.
‘Another lassie,’ ah repeat.
Donald smiles. Ah catch a glimpse o the wean’s face. She’s gat blue eyes and rosy cheeks like Sandra and Cathy and Donald’s black hair. This world is a test – a test tae see if ye are worthy o the next life. Dreams o daein mair arenae part o God’s plan. No fur wummen anyway. Whit happened tae Lizzie wis a fluke, and ah wis richt tae let go o ma dream. Donald nudges me wi his elbow.
‘Jean,’ Donald says. ‘We kin always try again.’
Ah force a smile. That’s another sausage aff ma plate. Ma eyes tell him there’s nae way we’re tryin again. Ah’m too auld, and we kin barely afford four mouths tae feed.
‘It’s a girl!’ a voice shoots fae ootside. People begin tae cheer.
‘So whit we callin hur?’ Donald asks, beamin.
‘Stella Marie,’ ah say. ‘Star o the sea.’
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