snapshot of a lonely man
Matthew Gold woke with a start at four o’clock on the morning of the 11th March. His body was bathed in a cold sweat and his heart was beating rapidly.
There were three pages missing. The last three pages. The pages that made sense of the story. The pages where all the questions were answered and the mystery was solved. The pages that tidied things up, brought everything to a satisfactory conclusion. Even worse, try as he might, he couldn’t for the life of him remember a sentence or even a single word that was on those missing pages.
He fumbled for the switch on the bedside lamp, pushed the duvet aside and sat up slowly on the edge of the bed, shivering and cursing the nightmare that had disturbed his rest yet again. He’d had that same dream so many times over the last twenty years. And every time it left him with a knot in his stomach that meant there would be no more sleep that night.
He half-sighed and half-moaned, a mix of irritation and resignation, as he struggled into his dressing gown and headed downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. At least the house was warm. His house was always warm. The darkness and chill of the long winter nights had troubled him since childhood, and he did everything he could to protect himself against the rigours of the British weather. It was a relief to him that these days his money allowed him to escape the cold, and he made sure that he took a couple of breaks and headed somewhere south to sunnier and warmer climes at this time of year.
He stood, leaning on the solid oak worktop of the island that sat in the middle of his expensively built but tastefully understated kitchen, and waited for the kettle to boil. The simple functional lines of the Shaker-style units, discreetly illuminated by the carefully recessed and perfectly positioned lighting, satisfied his lifelong desire for well-defined form and a clear sense of order. And the array of integrated, top-of-the-range appliances answered his need, bordering on obsession, for everything to be finished to perfection.
He allowed the kettle to go off the boil and stand for exactly seven seconds before pouring the water over the loose Earl Grey tea that he’d carefully measured into the porcelain teapot decorated with an embossed butterfly pattern. After half a minute, he stirred the contents of the pot, replacing the lid precisely so as to make as little noise as possible. A further thirty seconds passed before it was time to pour the tea into the cup. And the final act in this well-rehearsed ceremony was to cut a narrow wedge from a lemon that he took from the otherwise empty stainless-steel free-standing fridge and let it slip gently from his fingers into the tea. Only then did he allow himself the pleasure of putting the cup to his lips and taking the first sip. It was the culmination of a ritual he had practised several times a day for nearly forty years.
He prided himself in always making the perfect cup of tea at any time of day or night. In truth, despite the £50,000 he’d spent in having the kitchen designed and fitted, making tea was just about the extent of his cooking skills. He’d never actually made a proper meal in his life. Every gadget and every utensil, apart from the kettle, toaster and microwave, was in pristine condition simply because it had hardly ever been used.
If anyone else had been admitted to this sanctuary, they would surely have thought it odd that a man who knew nothing of the culinary arts had invested so extravagantly in a custom-built kitchen that would have been the envy of a professional chef. But, apart from the occasional repair man who answered Matthew Gold’s call to put some piece of domestic equipment right, nobody had ever been admitted to the kitchen. Or, indeed, to any other part of his home. His neighbours knew little of the owner of what a local estate agent’s brochure had gushingly described as ‘an immaculately presented six-bedroom house nestling at the end of a private no through road in one of Wilmound’s most exclusive and desirable neighbourhoods’.
In the nearly two decades he’d lived there he’d never exchanged more than a cursory greeting with anyone as he took his regular evening walk to the restaurant in the town centre where he always ate dinner at a table reserved for him in the corner by the window. Once, when there had been a power cut that had left the entire street in darkness for four or five hours, a well-meaning resident had called to ask if he was alright. The curt nod of the head and the seemingly ungrateful manner with which their enquiry was greeted was enough to ensure that no one ever called on him again. On the rare occasions when he would figure in their conversations, the common consensus was that ‘the man’s a mystery’. And that was just as he wanted it to be. He’d no need to be understood or accepted by others. He’d learned how to be alone. Loneliness, he’d discovered through long experience, was something that could be suppressed. To give into it would be weakness and would leave him vulnerable. And that was a mistake he was determined never to make again.
He sipped slowly from his bone china cup, savouring the aroma of the bergamot oil that gave his tea its distinctive flavour and that always conjured up in him a longing for warmer climes and sunnier days. He might have sat like this for another hour thinking of nothing in particular, had he not glanced at the clock on the wall opposite him. Its glowing red digital lettering told him not only that the time was 5.15, but also that the date was 11.03.17. The 11th of March! His 70th birthday. Matthew Gold was not a man who was given either to celebrating anniversaries or reminiscing on the past. He saw little point in looking back to less comfortable times. But in the quietness of the early morning he couldn’t help but reflect on what a cold start to life it had been and how far he’d come. Or what a strange and sometimes unpleasant journey it had turned out to be.
glimpses of a difficult childhood
The vicious winter that rampaged across England in the first couple of months of 1947 encamped itself south of the border until the second week of March before ruthlessly invading the west of Scotland and dumping the heaviest fall of snow that anyone alive could remember. The Lanarkshire coal-mining town of Bellmill was right in the firing line. The occupants of the long parallel lines of back-to-back, single-storey, two-roomed miners’ houses – known to everyone locally as ‘the rows’ – felt the full force of the blast. The gas lighting, which provided inadequate illumination at the best of times, flickered and faded completely as the temperature plummeted and the pipes that should have carried the gas froze. The coal fires that burned in the grates brought some warmth and strategically placed candles alleviated the gloom a little, but neither was a match for the cold draughts that rattled the doors and windows and penetrated into every part of the small brick-built dwellings.
It was in the house at the very end of the row and most exposed to the elements – 121 Pit Road – that, after a long and painful labour, Sarah Gold gave birth to her son at exactly three minutes past five on Tuesday morning 11th March. Her mother, Maggie, watched with arms folded and without betraying the slightest trace of emotion, as the midwife reached across the recessed ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bed that was separated only by a flimsy curtain from the rest of the room where the family lived their everyday lives. She lifted the tiny new-born baby and placed him gently in Sarah’s arms. The young woman, who was barely seventeen years old, held her child for less than a minute. She had already stopped breathing when the midwife took the infant from her and laid him carefully beside his still and lifeless mother.
Ma Buchan, as she was known to generations of women in the town, had delivered hundreds of babies in her nearly forty years as a midwife. But she’d never got used to the sight of a woman, especially one as young and thin as this one, dying in childbirth. She wiped a tear from her eye with the back of her hand and turned to the woman who stood impassively behind her.
‘Mrs Gold, yer wee lassie’s gone. I’m so sorry. She didnae ha’e the strength to deal wi’ such a hard labour. But she’s left ye a bonnie grandson. He’ll need a’ the love and care ye can gi’e him.’
Maggie Gold appeared unmoved either by the scene she had just witnessed or by the midwife’s expression of sympathy. The severity of her religious convictions was matched only by her certainty that for some reason God had chosen to place her below what should have been her proper station in life. She had concluded that the divine purpose in this seeming misalignment could only be so that her words and bearing should be a constant rebuke to her less spiritually enlightened neighbours. Consequently, her answer was delivered with a clipped precision and a careful avoidance of the Lanarkshire dialect, which she saw as just another symptom of the dire spiritual condition of those around her.
‘It’s for the best,’ she said, her arms still folded and her face expressionless. ‘It’s the Lord’s will. My daughter broke God’s commandment and brought shame on her father and me. We must accept the fact that God has judged her unworthy of raising the child she has borne out of wedlock. We can only hope and pray that in her last moments she repented and found forgiveness for her lust and sin.’
Ma Buchan looked with disbelief at the woman who’d pronounced such a harsh judgement on her own daughter. Her first instinct was to say nothing, but she couldn’t contain her indignation at what she’d just heard.
‘Oh, Mrs Gold, she was only a wean hersel’. I’m no’ religious like you an’ I ken you’re far wiser than me in these things. But I hope God will unnerstaun’ the mistake yer daughter made an’ take her intae heaven. Or He’s no’ a God I want to believe in.’
‘What you or I want to believe in is beside the point,’ Maggie Gold replied brusquely. ‘God’s ways are always just and right. He can’t and won’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, whatever excuses we try to make. Now I’ll thank you to do what needs to be done here.’
It was plain to Ma Buchan that no purpose would be served by further discussion on either the sovereign righteousness of God or the sinful frailties of humanity, and she kept the rest of her thoughts to herself as she set about her work. She summoned a neighbour to attend to the child while she dealt with the laying out of the young woman’s body with a quiet competence and a dignified sensitivity that came from years of living close to birth and death. Maggie Gold busied herself by bringing kettles from the tiny adjoining scullery and placing them on the hob over the fire to ensure an adequate supply of hot water.
Such was Matthew Gold’s entry into the world. The tasks that had to be done absorbed the attention of the women in the room and there were neither tears to lament the life that had just ended nor smiles to celebrate the life that had just begun. Only the slowly breaking dawn acknowledged his birth. And its cold, grey light seemed only to presage the struggle that awaited him.
By the time Jimmy Gold arrived home just after seven o’clock, the midwife had gone and the house was silent. He pushed open the door that led straight from the street into the scullery where his wife was busy, just as she was every morning when he got home from working night shift in Number Three Pit. He looked at her questioningly. She said nothing, but shook her head and nodded towards the bed in the adjoining room where their daughter Sarah was lying under the ‘laying out’ sheet that every family in the street kept ready for those moments when death – a regular visitor in that time and place – had to be reckoned with. The short, stocky miner was no stranger to loss and bereavement, but the sight was enough to bring him to his knees. He half-staggered across the room, buried his head in the bed and shed bitter tears for the loss of his daughter.
He had been crying for several minutes when he became aware of his wife standing behind him. She made no physical contact with him and offered no words of solace.
‘Now we’ve got to raise her bastard son,’ she said.
Jimmy Gold turned his head slowly and caught sight of the rudimentary home-made crib that a sympathetic neighbour had brought on hearing of the birth and into which the midwife had placed the baby. In the wave of grief that had overwhelmed him he’d assumed that mother and child had died together. Now he pulled himself to his feet, a powerful resolution displacing the sense of desolation that had forced him to his knees. He walked the few paces across the room and lifted the baby out of his makeshift bed. To his wife’s annoyance the coal dust on his clothes left black smudges on the sheet wrapped around the child. He ignored her protests.
‘Aye, we’ve lost Sarah. If only she’d been able tae trust us and tell us sooner what had happened to her, we might ha’e been able to support her more. And she might ha’e been stronger. I think it was the shame that broke her heart.’
His wife was about to dispute his assessment of what had happened. But for once he would not be silenced.
‘God knows, Maggie, I’ve gi’en intae you too often an’ I’ve held ma tongue for the last twenty-five years just tryin’ to keep the peace. But I’ll ha’e ma say noo though it’s too late to help Sarah. If you’d listened to the lassie rather than layin’ down the law to her an’ if I’d been stronger and more of a father tae her, then maybe she’d never ha’e ended up pregnant. But I promise ye, I’ll make sure we take care of this boy and raise him right.’
Nothing more was said. Maggie Gold turned away and continued with her chores while he filled a large basin from the single cold tap and topped it up with warm water from the kettle that had been heating on the stove. Taking care not to spill a drop, he carried it out of the scullery and across the room where he set it down on the floor in front of the fire. Then he retraced his steps, closing the scullery door as he always did to ensure that his wife would not be offended by the sight of her husband washing. Only then did he strip off completely and wash himself vigorously as the tears continued to run down his face.
Matthew Gold felt himself being hoisted onto Grampa’s shoulders and carried through the crowd making their way from the old wooden stand at Murray Park. It was a familiar sensation he’d come to love. The five or six hundred people spilling out of the ground just before five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon were in high spirits, having witnessed Bellmill Rangers defeat their bitter local rivals to progress to the next round of the annual County Cup competition. But no one in that joyful procession of men was happier than the four-year-old boy who surveyed the scene from his vantage point above their heads. It wasn’t the ninety minutes spent watching twenty-two men running up and down a football pitch that accounted for the pleasure he felt. His attention, as it always did, had started to wander shortly after the kick-off, allowing him to escape into the world of his vivid childhood imagination, only to return to reality in a burst of excited anticipation at the delights that always awaited him at the end of a match. The blast of the referee’s whistle and the roar of the jubilant spectators signalled that the real fun of the afternoon was just beginning.
They made their way through the narrow side streets and back into the long, broad Main Street that ran through the town. The good-natured banter of the little group of men grew ever louder as they approached The Rabbie Burns, the pub to which they always headed to slake their thirsts after the hard work of offering their vociferous advice to the players who wore the claret and amber colours of the ’Gers. But Matthew knew that this would be one of the occasions when his grandfather would not be joining his pals at the bar. He also knew by heart how the conversation of the adults below him would go at this point.
‘Ye’ll no’ be comin’ in, Jimmy, I’m sure. It’ll be on to the Tally’s for you an’ the wee fella?’
Tam Dornan always spoke for the group and Jimmy Gold always made the same reply.
‘Aye, ye’re right enough. Matty loves to go to Verricchia’s, so it’ll be a cup of tea for me today. But you boys enjoy your pint.’
That was the point at which the boy felt the sauntering steps of the man on whose shoulders he sat, now released from the restraints of ambling with his cronies, change to the broad, determined strides of someone with a mission in mind and no time to waste. Matthew put his arms round his grandfather’s neck and held on tightly, his excitement growing with every step. It took less than five minutes to reach their destination, but for Matthew it seemed like an eternity before Grampa lifted him from his shoulders, high above his head, lowered him gently to the ground, and led him into the realm of mystery and magic that was revealed as they walked hand in hand through the ornate glass doors in front of which he’d just landed.
Verricchia’s Ice Cream Parlour was the place he loved more than anywhere else on earth. Even before the dessert for which Mr Verricchia and his establishment were justly famous in the town arrived on the table, it was the ultimate sensory experience for a boy born into an age of post-war austerity and raised in a home where the matriarch regarded innocent pleasure and sin as interchangeable terms: the miracle of electric lighting, the secluded luxury of the booths with their dark-wood benches covered in plush red velvet cushions, the marble-topped tables that could cool sweaty hands in seconds, the sound of the gramophone in the corner playing the popular hits of the day that invited the listener to enter a different and more glamorous world. It was strange and wonderful and it conjured up within him longings that he could not put into words but that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Matthew curled up with his legs tucked beneath him, watching and listening intently while his grampa went to the counter and ordered a pot of tea and a sandwich for himself and an ‘ice cream sundae for my boy’. He liked it when Grampa called him ‘my boy’. He was old enough to know that his mother had died and that Jimmy and Maggie Gold were his grandparents. But Grampa loomed so large in his life that it had never occurred to him that anything was missing or even to ask about his father. He was Grampa’s boy and that was enough.
Mr Verricchia carried the tray to their table and chatted enthusiastically as he placed the items on the marble surface. His broken English, liberally sprinkled with Lanarkshire colloquialisms and delivered in his exotic-sounding Italian accent, fascinated Matthew, who assumed that their host came from a land of unbroken sunshine in which every room in every house looked just like the ice cream parlour. He thought that it must be a wonderful country in which to live and wondered why Mr Verricchia had left it to come to Bellmill. The good-natured proprietor ruffled his hair and invited his young customer to eat.
‘Now sonny boy, I make the special ice cream for you. So enjoy.’
‘And what do you say to Mr Verricchia?’ Grampa asked, looking straight at him and pronouncing every word of his question slowly and deliberately.
Matthew took a deep, unhurried breath before he spoke, just as Grampa had taught him.
‘Th-th-th-thank you, M-M-Mmmmister Vvverricchia.’
Grampa smiled approvingly and Mr Verricchia patted his head again.
‘Well done, Matthew,’ he said as he headed back behind the counter. ‘Maybe one day I learn to speak English as good as you.’
What followed were moments of exquisite pleasure for Matthew. Getting his long spoon into the tall sundae glass was a task he performed with mixed success, but his childish efforts were a great source of amusement to them both. As usual he managed to get almost as much of its contents on to the table as in his mouth and Grampa made him laugh by suggesting that the random shapes formed by the spills looked like some people they knew. At times like this, Matthew’s stammer almost disappeared and the conversation flowed back and forward between boy and man. Matthew wished that they could stay there forever. But all too soon he’d eaten his ice cream and Grampa’s teapot was empty. They said goodbye to Mr Verricchia, went back through the enchanted doors by which they’d entered, and returned to the ordinary world they’d left just half an hour earlier.
They walked home slowly, neither of them wanting to arrive sooner than they needed to. As they crossed under the railway bridge and ‘the rows’ came into view, Matthew nodded his agreement at Grampa’s reminder that, this being Saturday evening and Grandma having already begun to prepare her heart and mind for the disciplines and exercises of the Lord’s Day tomorrow, it would be better that they didn’t trouble her with the details of what they’d been doing. In fact, the advice was unnecessary. For the little boy knew in his heart, though he couldn’t understand why it always happened, that his stammer would return with a paralysing intensity the minute they crossed the threshold of 121 Pit Road.
The thirty members of Class Two at Bellmill Primary School were sorry when they were told that their regular teacher, Mrs Evans, was ill and wouldn’t be in that day. They all liked Mrs Evans and Mrs Evans liked all of them. Their disappointment at the absence of their favourite teacher was all the greater when they learned that Mrs Evans’ place would be taken by Miss Prinn who, as far as any of them could tell, didn’t seem to like children at all. And even before the register for the day had been taken, their disappointment had already given way to a nervous fascination as they watched the scene playing out before them.
It had taken Miss Prinn only the briefest of glances on entering the classroom to spot something and someone that displeased her. And now she was growing ever more impatient with the pupil she’d immediately summoned to stand in front of her desk.
‘Undo your scarf, boy – now! It’s warm enough in school without all that clothing. Why, oh why, do mothers send their children to school looking like they’re heading to the North Pole?’
Matthew Gold struggled to do as he was told, but it was proving to be an impossible task. His grandmother had sent him to school that morning with his thick brown woollen scarf criss-crossed over his body with both ends pinned together at the back. Try as he might, he couldn’t make his five-year-old fingers, still numb from the cold outside, undo or even locate the safety pin that held the ends together behind his back. Miss Prinn’s meagre store of patience was exhausted. She got up and strode from behind her desk.
‘Here, I’ll do it for you,’ she muttered, shaking her head in despair and spinning the object of her ire around. ‘And tell your mother not to dress you like that again.’
For the rest of his life he wished that he’d said nothing, just kept quiet and not tried to correct her mistake. But it was an instinctive reaction from a little boy who found it hard to understand why adults could get things so wrong and be so unkind at the same time.
‘P-p-p-please, Mmmmmiss P-P-Prinn. It wwwas mmmy g-g-g-grandmother. Mmmy mmmother’s d-d-d…’
He got no further with his sentence. Miss Prinn bent down until her face was only inches away from his. The veins in her nose stood out and her face became a shade of reddish-purple he’d never seen before.
‘Don’t be impudent, boy. What’s your name?’
He was angry with himself when he realised that he was in a trap from which there was no escape. With the help of Grampa he’d learned to take deep breaths and get through most words and phrases eventually without it taking forever and without his stammer conquering him completely. But saying his name – saying it in front of lots of people, especially when he was nervous and anxious – was the thing he dreaded above everything else, the thing that could leave him powerless to utter a sound. Mrs Evans understood that. She would have been kind. She wouldn’t have done this to him. But this wasn’t Mrs Evans. This was Miss Prinn, who just kept staring at him and breathing the nasty smell of stale tobacco and mints into his face.
‘Well, has the cat got your tongue, boy? Or are you Johnny No-Name? What’s your name? We’re not moving until you tell me.’
‘M-m-m-m…’ The more he tried to speak, the less sound that actually came out. He could see that Miss Prinn was willing to wait for as long as it took. His heart was starting to beat uncontrollably and his mouth was dry. It felt as if the whole world had stopped.
‘Please, Miss Prinn, his name’s Matthew Gold. He’s got a stutter.’
Tommy Laird had a more developed sense of justice and a louder voice than most of his classmates and Matthew was relieved to hear him speak up on his behalf. At last it would all stop and he could go back to his place and sit down.
Miss Prinn, however, wasn’t used to having her authority thwarted by a child, whatever impediment hindered him from obeying her instructions. This had become a battle of wills, one that she refused to lose.
‘There you are then, Matthew Gold. We’ve helped you. One of your classmates has said your name and I’ve just repeated it for you. So now try again, a little harder. Let’s hear you say it…’
Matthew tried to speak. He tried really hard. But something was happening to him. Something he couldn’t quite understand. He felt sick and dizzy and hot and damp. He could hear someone call out, ‘Miss, Matthew’s wet himself,’ and there was the sound of embarrassed giggling. After that he was only vaguely aware of losing his balance and slipping to the floor. He remembered nothing more until he woke up in the school nurse’s office, waiting for his grandmother to come and take him home.