Just Nod if you Agree by Alasdair McPherson

Dumbarton Road starts at the old western gate of Glasgow, St Agnes’ or Enoch’s, and runs westwards until it peters out beyond Bowling into the maelstrom of the great Western Boulevard. Of course, poor old Dumbarton Road stutters nowadays because of the M8 urban motorway slicing through it making Glasgow look, at least for those who have not seen either, like Los Angeles with persistent rain.

The Road begins in a busy area that extends the shopping Mecca of Argyll Street through the Heilandman’s Umbrella, then opens up to cross the river Kelvin where the bleachers once laid out their linen. Past the red sandstone warmth of the Art Gallery under the benevolent gaze of the magnificence of the University, with the Kelvin Hall opposite – or Kalvin Hell for those who like their malapropisms appropriate. Beyond that is the grey bulk of the Western Infirmary, suitably gloomy.

After that you enter the man-made canyons that mark the urban villages of Partick, Whiteinch, Yoker and more. The tenements may limit the sun reaching the pavements but do little to dampen the spirits of the generations who have lived there. Further still is Clydebank and Dalmuir before the city begins to give way to the trees of Old Kilpatrick and Bowling.

You used to be able to catch a shuggly tram in Argyll Street and ride all the way to Dalmuir. Before my time, the tram line extended through the Vale of Leven, where the Kelvin bleachers settled when pollution drove them away, to Balloch. You could go from Govan, paddle in Loch Lomond, and be home in time for tea. I was told that there was once a tram fitted as an ambulance to carry patients from Dumbarton to the Western, the Victoria or even the Sufferin’ General.

In my day the trams terminated at Dalmuir and you often had to wait while the swing bridge over the Forth and Clyde canal opened to allow barges to pass. For the whole journey into Glasgow, the tram was never more than a bow shot from the Clyde although I cannot think of any places where you could actually see the river.

The tenements have mostly been refurbished and look quite stylish but in the sixties they were as built, shaken but not stirred by the ravages of the Luftwaffe. The shaking continued as the passage of every tram caused a sympathetic tremor from attic to basement. The locals got so used to this that they suffered sleep loss when a strike stopped the trams: they missed the shuggling.

At that time, my cousin Margaret moved with her husband and baby into a tenement flat in Whiteinch. It was temporary while they waited for clearance to do a ten quid flit to Australia. They had moved from Luss but Margaret had been a nurse in Glasgow so the change to city life was not expected to be traumatic.

It turned out to be a home-from-home. Just like Luss, everyone in the neighbouring Whiteinch tenements knew every other bodies business – or made up what they did not know. A stranger would have missed the signs of community spirit since there were no obvious indicators like street parties or bunting, but the women knitted wee coats or bootees for new babies while the men slipped a half-crown into the tiny fist when they passed the pram.

Weddings were a great treat with hours of speculation and a healthy betting market on just how premature the baby would be. However, the occasion the community really rallied to was a funeral. A ‘good send off’ was more than a feast of cheap whiskey and boiled ham: there was real sentiment with many a tear shed for the loss of a good neighbour.

“He was never any bother,” was the highest praise, an epitaph sometimes accorded to rowdy drunks when the spirit of not speaking ill of the dead got out of hand. This usually happened late in the proceedings and was widely believed to encourage the bereaved to open another bottle of scotch to console the maudlin mourners.

While my cousin was living there, a funeral took place that is still part of the legend of the place. The deceased was a bachelor who had worked as a clerk in one of the shipyards. He was small with undistinguished features and grey, wispy hair: he would have gone unnoticed if it had not been for a pronounced hump on his right shoulder. He never complained of his deformity although it forced him to talk to you with his head twisted round looking at you, so to speak, under his hump.

His only known relative was a cousin in Milwaukee who could not get over to the funeral but was prepared to do the right thing. Local sentiment was that it was the least he could do considering the fortune the hunch back had cached in the Savings Bank. – They knew his wage to a penny and were probably just as accurate in estimating his expenditure.

“He liked a wee flutter on the horses.”

“True, but only on the Derby and the Grand National.”

Their valuation of the estate was likely to be accurate enough to be used for probate, give or take a pound or two for interest accrued.

The undertaker was delighted to get the extra business of providing the purvey, although he knew better than to try to short-change the community. He ran into a major snag, however, when he came to lay out the body. The American cousin had specified an open-coffin service.

The deceased’s face was made up and his hair neatly combed so that it was widely agreed that he looked better than he had for twenty years.

A neighbour, who had been in in the morning to lay out the food and clean the glasses, confided in her friend:

“He has a lovely smile on his face – he’s just lyin’ there lookin’ really content.”

“He wisnae much of a smiler when he was alive; he was always scowlin’ at the kids and moanin’ about the close bein’ dirty.”

“Ah well – maybe he’s gone to a better place.”

The problem was that his head was still twisted by his hump so that his features were hidden when he was laid on his back. The undertaker tried everything he knew and even asked advice from an old friend at the Co-op Funeral Home who could come up with nothing better than to take a claw hammer to the hump to flatten it out.

Late on the eve of the interment he was no nearer a solution. Sweating at the thought of the damage his reputation would suffer, he went home for his tea leaving his son, a recent recruit to the family business, to keep vigil with the corpse who was still staring, sightless, at the rayon lining near the base of his last resting place.

It seemed a bit cheeky to smoke in the flat, so the youth went out into the back court to have a gasper; there he was inspired with a solution to the problem. He was sitting on an old sofa with the cover so split that the springs were showing. Stubbing out his cigarette he cut out a spring and took it upstairs with him. Placed with care in the base of the coffin, it held the clients head facing straight out on the world where his serene expression could be admired by the mourners. When his father arrived in the morning he announced that miracles were possible and even hinted at a bonus.

By eleven o’clock, the room was full of neighbours shuffling quietly while they waited for the minister to begin his peroration.

“Willie was a good man,” he began, standing straight in his black suit and dark gown with only the Geneva bands sparkling white at his throat to relieve the reverent gloom. His hands were clasped on the bible held against his substantial stomach and his eyes were turned to heaven.

Just at that moment a tram passed by outside and the rumble caused a sympathetic vibration in the spring supporting the head of the corpse. Those who were looking on the face of the deceased were unnerved to see him nodding in agreement with the minister’s sentiments. There was a small but distinct edging towards the door.

“Willie was a wonderful neighbour giving generously of his time to each and every one of us,” intoned the preacher, still addressing his remarks to heaven.

A second tram passing set the late lamented nodding vigorously and this time the move towards the door was quicker and more emphatic. It would not be fair to call it a stampede but there was certainly no time wasted in putting distance between mourners and the too animated body.

The minister was aware of the stir and tried to convince himself that his eulogy had, unusually, been perceived as particularly moving. He continued with another complimentary remark but looked down as he said it catching the deceased giving his smiling approval as yet another tram rumbled past.

The reverend gentleman, showing a turn of speed that few would have credited him with, turned and ran for the door, unfortunately catching his sleeve on the handle. Tugging it free he shouted:

“Let me go you humphy back’it bugger! Let me go!”

Originally from Dalmuir, Alasdair McPherson is now retired and living in exile in Lincolnshire.  He writes short stories and novels, the latest of which is Thoth: Divine Words 

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