The Birmingham Story

story about gossip

My mother loved gossip, particularly when it concerned human folly or, even better, sin. I always put this down to her childhood, during which she had been brought up by joyless Victorian grandparents in accordance with the strict teachings of the Plymouth Brethren. Although she had long escaped her family’s domination, those years of harsh discipline and enforced sanctimoniousness had, I believe, left their mark in an ambiguous attitude towards the words and deeds she had been taught, in her early days, to treat as unforgivable.

When recounting the failings or misdeeds of friends and acquaintances, she always let slip, in her tone of voice or her facial expression, an underlying relish for the most unsavoury details of the narrative. This was especially true when she was able to give verbatim quotations that included unchristian vocabulary used by the sinner. It was as if wicked words, uttered from the moral high ground which she believed she held, were absolved from the usual disgrace which accompanied them, and could be wholeheartedly enjoyed for their ripe flavour.

For example, when two of her neighbours had a falling out, and one described the other as ‘nothing but an auld hoor,’ my mother repeatedly described the incident to anyone who would listen, speaking the insult aloud with a mixture of feigned disgust and genuine jubilation.

After my father died, when she lived alone, I used to visit her on Saturday mornings to take her shopping, after which she would press me to stay for lunch. I did not do this every week, but only often enough to assuage my own guilt at seeing her obvious loneliness. She would cook me something I had loved as a boy, and keep me on the premises for as long as she could by telling me stories: the latest local news, or reminiscences dating back as far as her childhood. These I had usually heard many times before.

She had a way of creeping up on a story, designed so that she did not appear to be the instigator. Rather than employing a conventional gossip’s opening such as, ‘I must tell you about Mrs So-And-So,’ or, ‘Did you hear about him that stays over the road?’ she preferred to lead off with some apparently insignificant statement which would cause you to ask for clarification or explanation.

‘Och,’ she would say, ‘You know that fine,’ and when you protested ignorance, she would sigh, as if confronted by a great burden that had fallen to her alone to bear, and would begin wearily, apparently unwilling to tell her tale.

So it was that one grim November Saturday, the sky leaden and the rain showing no sign of ever ceasing, she paused by the kitchen window while preparing a cup of tea, looked out and said, ‘It was a miserable day just like this when I saw your father off on the train to Birmingham.’

I was well aware of the role that was expected of me in this little pas de deux, and even although I was in a hurry to be gone, I could not bring myself to disappoint her.

‘I don’t think I ever heard Dad speak about Birmingham.’ I said. ‘Was he going to a football match?’ My mother liked to complain that he had been forever disappearing off to follow his beloved Motherwell F.C. and I suspected that this was where her overture was leading.

‘No. Not that time. He and your Uncle Tommy were going to bring back your Aunt Minnie.’

And I was hooked. All three of those siblings had by then passed away, my father, his young brother and the younger of his two sisters. Tommy had been renowned in the family for his physical prowess and his lack of judgement. Minnie was celebrated for her high spirits and what my father tended to call ‘her devil-may-care attitude.’ What I knew was that, in a family only too ready to criticise, my father had always harboured an affection for her, and had continued to address her as ‘my baby sister’ into their elder years.

I had to know more. ‘When was this?’

‘Sometime before The War,’ my mother answered. ‘Maybe the middle of the thirties. Your father was out of work. We hadn’t long been going out together.’

I asked her a volley of questions all at once. Why was Minnie in Birmingham? Why did she have to be brought back? Why was it necessary for the two boys to be sent?’ My mother sighed, as she used to when I was a pestering child, and continued with a feigned air of reluctance.

‘You’ll remember what a scatterbrain Minnie was. Aye carrying on, aye the joker, aye good for a laugh. Well, despite that, she was brainy at the school, and when she left it, she got a good job in the offices of the steelworks where your grandfather worked. She and your grandfather were the only ones in the house who were bringing in wages then. Remember, these were hard times. Jobs were difficult to come by. Your father was idle for two years after he finished his apprenticeship. Your Uncle Tommy never had a steady job until he joined the Army in 1940. So Minnie’s pay packet was important to the family. Then she disappeared.’ She paused for effect.

‘Minnie was a sociable lassie. She wasn’t much to look at, but the laddies liked her. Every night of the week she would be out at some organisation or other. She was in the Church Choir; she went to First Aid classes; she was a Girl Guide leader; she joined The Women’s League of Health and Beauty. She was never in the house for a minute longer than she had to be. Your father used to say that it was just as well she couldn’t play the trumpet, or she’d have been in the Salvation Army Band as well.’ A faint smile.

‘So, when one night she didn’t come home from the choir, your grandfather and the boys were out looking for her until after midnight. They thought at first that she might have been staying with one of her girl friends, and they went round the doors of everybody they could think of, where she might be. Nobody had seen her. She hadn’t been at the choir that night. Your grandfather wanted to go to the police, but your grandmother wouldn’t let him. She said that she didn’t want the whole town knowing that her daughter had stayed out all night. She believed that Minnie would come trailing home in the morning, whatever she’d been up to, and they would have it out with her then.’

As she became more involved in her tale, I couldn’t help but notice how her Scottish accent had become increasingly marked. All through my childhood, she had demanded that I speak ‘properly,’ by which she meant that I should remove as much as possible of our local accent and dialect vocabulary from my speech. It would, she believed, help me to ‘get on’. But when she was being truly herself, the speech of her own childhood broke through.

‘Minnie didn’t turn up the next morning, or the day after; none of her friends knew where she’d gone; your grandfather even went to her office, to see if she had turned up at work, but she was missing there too. He spoke to the office manager, who couldn’t suggest any reason why she should have disappeared, but as he was on his way out, one of the young typist lassies followed him into the corridor, and told him that another worker in the office had gone missing from duty as well, on the same day. She seemed to be about to reveal more, but changed her mind and ran back inside before he could ask her anything else.’

My mother’s face wore an expression of quiet knowingness as she constructed her mystery. Without apparently seeking to heighten the tension by being dramatic, or by pointing out the seriousness of the events in relation to the mores of the time, she managed to convey that, in a small town in central Scotland, Minnie’s flight was a social catastrophe for herself and her family.

I was already speculating about what might have happened, knowing that my mother would certainly be embedding clues in her storytelling, but I stayed quiet and allowed her to continue.

‘They just couldn’t make up their minds what to do. Your grandfather was head of the house in almost everything. His word was law. But your grandmother was a strong-willed woman, and the upbringing of her two daughters was her duty. No matter what the old man said, she wouldn’t let the story leak out any farther than it already had. So, for the rest of that week the arguments went on, round and round in circles, no agreement about what to do, falling out amongst themselves, weeping and shouting. Most annoyed of them all was Minnie’s older sister, Lizzie. Your father told me she announced it was her belief that Minnie had simply run away to find a more exciting life, leaving her to be, as she put it, “A skivvy around the house, a servant running at everybody’s tail, with no pay and no future.” The sisters were quite different, and really didn’t get on, but they were sisters. It was to Lizzie that the letter came the next Monday.’

She looked across at me, and I felt she was checking out my reactions, to her story so far, and to this leap forward in the narrative. I couldn’t help thinking that she had been practising the telling of this tale for years, just waiting for the right occasion. I raised my eyebrows, but didn’t say anything.

‘At first, Lizzie didn’t want to read it out, complaining that it was private correspondence, and she didn’t know who it was from; but they could all see it was Minnie’s handwriting and your grandfather said if she didn’t read it out, he would take it from her and read it himself.’

I could imagine all five of them sitting in that cramped front room, my Aunt Lizzie, never the happiest of individuals in any situation, reading her sister’s letter, doubly furious on account of Minnie’s escape and her father’s domineering behaviour.

Since my mother hadn’t been there at the time, it dawned on me that the details she was able to give must surely have come from my father, and the story was coming to me across the years like a messenger crossing a wide river on slippery stepping stones. My mother might have reason to polish the tale, to bend the truth to some purpose of her own; but then, so might my father have done when telling it to her. My attention was clasped ever more tightly as I considered the possibilities.

‘Minnie confessed, in the letter, that she’d gone away with a John Simpson, and they were going to be married. If Lizzie wanted to write to her, she should address her letter care of Poste Restante, Central Post Office, Birmingham. Lizzie informed the family that John Simpson was a senior clerk in the office where Minnie worked, and that he and her sister had been seeing each other for months. He was thirty-eight years of age and married with two young sons. Your father had to hold your grandfather back. He was going to hit Lizzie. She knew what Minnie had been up to, and yet had said nothing about it. He was wild with rage, but your grandmother said not one word for a long time, while all the others shouted or wept. Then she spoke up: “I know what’s going on. That stupid girl is with child.”’

I observed my mother closely, looking for signs of moral disapproval. If my grandmother’s speculation was accurate, this was just the kind of circumstance that would give my mother pleasure in disclosing; even more so if she had been holding it secret for all these years. Yet she remained quietly solemn, showing none of the reactions that she usually reserved for sexual scandal. I had to ask the question: ‘And was my grandmother correct?’

She was clearly unwilling to spoil the rhythm of her storytelling, for she ignored my query, and went on.

‘Everyone agreed that something had to be done. Minnie had to be rescued, saved from ruin at the hands of a bad man. No one considered that they might be in love, or that the couple might be able to make a life for themselves in a new town where nobody knew them.’

I have to admit to being astonished. This was a reaction that was completely unexpected. It seemed to be in contradiction of all her previously declared values; no disapproval, no mockery, no disgust. If anything, there seemed to be a hint of pity in her voice.

‘Anyway, your grandmother, always a practical woman, came up with a plan. Lizzie would write a letter and send it to the address Minnie had given. The runaway would surely present herself at the Birmingham Post Office to check if she had a reply. Your father and Tommy would go there and wait for Minnie to turn up. They would bring her home.’

It seemed to me to be a plan with all sorts of risks: it would be costly when money was already in short supply; the two boys would have to find accommodation, and would have to wait until Minnie appeared; what would they do if she did not turn up? Birmingham was a big city; they were unlikely to bump into her in the street. It was madness. But it had all taken place so long ago. I could remember my Aunt Minnie from my childhood. The plan must surely have been successful.

I asked, ‘Is that what happened? As simple as that? She just walked into the post office and they were there to capture her, to save her from her seducer?’

‘Not quite so simple,’ my mother said. ‘Your grandfather had to borrow money to give to the boys so that they could go on the train to Birmingham and take a room in a cheap hotel. Your father thought that he got money from the Freemasons. He was a member, and they’re famous for helping any brother Mason who’s in trouble. Your father hated every detail of it. He said Birmingham was dirty and the people there were not friendly. The room that he and Tommy shared was scruffy and uncomfortable. At first, they took turns waiting at the post office, but eventually they stayed together, trying not to look suspicious. They were constantly anxious in case someone sent for the police. At last, after more than a week, Minnie walked through the main door, arm in arm with her boyfriend.’

I couldn’t help thinking of those black and white films of the 1930s: dreary surroundings, characters trapped in their working-class lives, misery. I had seen photographs of my father at the time, in cloth cap and ill-fitting suit. I could imagine him and his young brother, weary from sleepless nights and days of waiting, unsure of the task they had been given. They were both young men, under the age of twenty-five, and had probably not considered the possibility of having to confront a mature man as part of their mission.

‘What happened?’

My mother shook her head in the way she did to indicate the inevitable presence of human folly, but without any hint of either disapproval or moral superiority.

‘It was hard to get your father to talk about it afterwards. It was as if he was ashamed. He and Tommy went forward and grabbed Minnie, one by each arm, and tried to hustle her out of the post office. Of course, John Simpson had no idea what was happening. He must have thought they were trying to kidnap her. He didn’t know that these were her brothers, and he tried to intervene, to protect her. The strange thing was, your father said, Simpson was just a wee man and didn’t look in the least like the kind that could persuade a young lassie to run away with him; neither handsome nor well-built and starting to go bald. So, your Uncle Tommy held him back while your father dragged Minnie out into the street. Tommy followed, but so did Simpson. Your Uncle Tommy knocked him over with a single punch, and they made their escape. Minnie was distraught. She was weeping and shouting for them to let her go. She shouted to poor Simpson to get the police, but he was in no state to do anything to help her. She pleaded with your father to let her go back to see that Simpson was all right. She asked them to take her to her digs to collect her clothes. She begged them not to take her home to her mother and father. She said she was terrified of what they might do. She admitted that she was expecting a child.’

I could see all this: the brothers and sister as they appeared in ancient family photographs but without the put-on smiles, wearing instead grim or tortured expressions. Passers-by staring at them, maybe pointing them out to one another. Surprising, I thought, that no one attempted to intervene. More inhibited times? Would folk be any more inclined to join in a street disturbance today? How did they manage to get her on to a train if she really didn’t want to go? My father was at heart a kindly man. My Uncle Tommy was not what you would call a man of great sensitivity. How did they cope with their traumatised sister, in the full glare of public scrutiny?

‘Anyway,’ my mother said, in a tone that seemed to suggest she was nearing the end of her narrative, ‘they got her back to Motherwell and delivered her to her parents. I didn’t see your father for more than a week after he got back. At that time, I didn’t go about his house. Your grandmother didn’t approve of your father seeing girls. I don’t think it was anything personal about me, she didn’t know me. Maybe she was worried in case he got himself into some kind of scrape, like Minnie, though she didn’t know him well enough if that was what she thought. He wasn’t that kind of man. Or maybe she was frightened that he would want to get married. She took his unemployment money off him every week, and there was always the chance that he might get a job and bring another wage into the house.’

I could only feel that there was another story, underlying the Birmingham tale, to do with my parents’ courtship, and I wondered if this would emerge as some kind of coda.

‘When I next saw your father, he was really miserable. Poor Minnie was to be kept indoors until the child was due, then she was to be sent away to somewhere for unmarried mothers. This was your grandmother, still trying to keep it all a secret, although the story had leaked out: from Minnie’s friends, who had been asked if they knew where she was, and from the people at her work. Apparently, Simpson’s wife had worked out what had happened, and was going round telling people the whole sorry tale. A month later, he came trailing back, and she took him in again. Folk said that she made his life a misery from then on.’

I was watching my mother carefully. Here was sin and human folly enough to fuel a Grand Opera, or, in my mother’s case, to provide multiple opportunities to glory in her own moral superiority. So far, she had confined herself simply to telling the story. There had even been slight indications of what might have been sadness and empathy in her version of events, though knowing her as I did (or thought I did), I was waiting for her to shift into sanctimonious mode; but she sat at the table, eyes seemingly fixed on the cup of tea before her, reliving events in her memory. Yet these were events that she had not herself witnessed, that she had experienced at second hand through hearing my father’s account.

She was drawing to a close now: ‘Minnie wasn’t allowed to set foot over the threshold during her pregnancy. The family doctor came in to see her every few weeks, and I think the Minister called just as regularly. None of her friends were allowed to visit, and if anybody else dropped in, she was sent up the stairs out of sight. All questions about her, from nosey neighbours or distant relatives, were given a vague answer – she was working away in England. When her time came, she was sent to an establishment in Fife that dealt with cases like hers. She had a wee lassie, who was taken away for adoption days after she was born. Minnie came home, and started work in an office in Glasgow. She didn’t go back to any of her old organisations, or take up with any of her old friends.’

My mother’s voice had dropped to a whisper. Her eyes were closed.

‘It was during that time that your grandfather started bringing home one of his friends from the Masonic Lodge – Willie Patterson, a man about the same age as your grandfather, with a good job and no wife. He and Minnie got married the next year. Willie was a colliery engineer, and they moved to somewhere in West Lothian. We didn’t see much of them for a long time after that.’

I could remember meeting him at my grandparents’ house, when he and Minnie turned up one day, unexpectedly. He was a big, cheerful man, and he kept up a bright, continuous mock-argument with Minnie all the time they were there. I was just about to remind my mother of this when I noticed the tears on her cheeks.

‘So somewhere, you have another cousin you never knew about, and who definitely doesn’t know about you. Minnie never found out where her daughter went, and she never had any more children. When your father finally got work and we decided that we wanted to get married, we told your grandparents. Their first response was to ask if I was expecting. When we convinced them that I wasn’t, your grandmother said we would just have to wait. Now that your father was bringing in a wage, he would have to help out with the household finances. They still owed money from that business with Minnie.’

The tears continued. I couldn’t work out whether she was crying for Minnie or the lost cousin or for herself. Or maybe just for all human kind. It even crossed my mind that this could be part of her story-telling performance. If so, it was powerful. I could feel my own reactions, in my throat and eyes.

But I also knew that this was a story that I too would tell, almost certainly with embellishments; a story of events, experienced by my father, told to my mother, retold to me, each telling coming, like a curtain of gauze, between the listener and the actuality of the events themselves. As I comforted the old woman, I was already wondering how I might, quite unintentionally of course, falsely superimpose my own thoughts and feelings on to future performances.




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