The Harrowed Garden
The last thing I remember my sister saying was that man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.
We were travelling north on our summer holiday. It was August. The sun was high in the blue sky, with only a few wisps of cloud. It was a nice change; it had rained all the previous week as we had prepared to drive from Glasgow to Inverness. Now we were heading up the side of Loch Lomond, my Dad singing along to the Eighties classics on the stereo.
I was gazing out over the fish scale water while Jo was practising her manifesto on me for when she got back to primary school. Most girls want to grow up to be a princess. Jo wanted to be the leader of the revolution.
The car swerved. We were tossed to one side and then back again.
My Dad swore, excusing his erratic driving.
Mum turned around in her seat and looked at us. “Don't listen to your father's language,” she said. “Everything is fine, nothing to worry about.”
“Sorry,” Dad said.
Until then I hadn't even considered anything to be wrong. Jo continued her recital from the top.
Again Dad swerved to avoid something. This time we hit something soft. Dad swore again. Mum was too shocked to scold him. We came to a sudden halt but our seat belts held us tight.
Loosening my belt, I sat up to look over Dad's shoulder. A large mass of earth flowed over the road as though someone had spilt a giant chocolate milkshake. It started to push the car toward the loch. The mud rose up the passenger side and our sideways movement increased as the cliff edge approached. Only the crash barrier stood in the way of a long plummet down.
Inside the car, Mum was trying to keep us calm, while Dad tried to call the police. It seemed fun to me, and Jo carried on reciting her Communist mantra, a socialist ward against evil.
The car was soon wedged against the barrier and I took off my seatbelt so that I could kneel on the back seat and get a better look. Behind us, several other cars were also trapped.
Metal complained in a high-pitched squeal as the pressure of the earth squeezed our car into the barrier. Rocks, plants and mud formed a wall along the passenger side of the car. I could see a worm wiggling behind my sister's head and I was about to bring this to her attention when the windows behind her and Mum shattered. Wet earth flooded into the car covering us in thick, sticky mud. The blue sky turned brown.
I struggled to breathe, entombed in the earth. I heard the metal protest weaken and felt a sickening tumble in my stomach as the car was finally pushed over the edge.
I awoke, alone, in the glare of a sterile room in a hospital. My left leg and arm were broken and plastered. Somehow, I was still alive.
A doctor came to check on me after a few hours of fussing nurses.
“How are you?” he said.
I wasn't convinced he cared. “I'm okay. How did I get here?”
“You were found on the edge of a mudslide at the foot of a cliff. I guess you must have fallen out of the car at some point,” said the doctor.
The theory was that I had been carried along, an errant boulder in a brown glacier, with the other flotsam, before being spewed out, a broken whale on a beach. In what must be a first, not wearing my seatbelt in a car saved my life.
“You're lucky,” the doctor said. “I'm afraid your family didn't make it.”
I discovered that my parents and my sister drowned, if you can drown in mud and stones. Either that or they were crushed to a pulp within the fist of nature. I felt strangely calm about it. The medication helped. The newspaper pictures, that I dug up some time later, showed that the car had been completely crushed, the husk from a scrap-heap recycling machine.
As the weeks went by and I passed the time playing games with other kids in the ward a suspicion began to creep up on me. No one had come to see me. Not one relative. Had they forgotten about me? Had I meant so little to them? As I had gotten older the presents and cards had dried up.
“What about Uncle James?” I asked the nurse. “He lives in Sunderland.” She just shook her head and gave me a flat smile. I was getting used to this look.
I tried to remember someone, anyone, that I had some vague recollection of meeting, perhaps at a wedding. There was probably a distant cousin out there somewhere, but my immediate family had all died.
This was presenting a bigger problem than I realised. Behind the scenes, nurses and doctors struggled to decide what to do with me. So long as I remained in the hospital with my limbs wrapped in plaster the decision could be delayed.
A committee of Glasgow City Council, that usually decided the fate of children who had committed crimes, resolved the matter.
“I just want to go home,” I said to the committee, crowded into a beige conference room, all of whom had perfected that hollow smile. I had grown to recognise the early signs even before it dawned, a distant look in the eye, an attempt to convey humanity while trying not to get the shit that comes with it on your shoe.
“We can't let you do that, you're too young,” said a grey woman, called Edith. “You need a guardian to look after your concerns, until we can find a living relative of yours.” Living was said in such a way as to imply I had personally gone out of my way to kill all my known family and cause this inconvenience to myself, and thus the committee, who would therefore find a suitable means of redressing this slight. I was guilty of survival and for this I was to be punished. “A foster family will be found and your family home and assets will be managed on your behalf by the Council,” Edith said.
I was left behind in this awful world. My family had gone on to a better place. Why was I being punished? What had I done to deserve this? I wanted to scream, but I swallowed it down and my anger sat in my belly, black and warm.
My first foster home was not as bad as I had expected. Looking back I did the Montgomery family a severe disservice; they genuinely tried to care for me. However, I didn't wish to be cared for.
“This is Fiona and Alan,” said Edith.
They were wholesome people, slightly overweight, with matching Aran sweaters and warm smiles. I think they even had similar styled blonde hair.
Fiona and Alan lived in a large townhouse in the West End, just near the Botanic Gardens. There was a girl, Jeanette, who they were also fostering and their own kids, twins, Barbara and Robert. We were all close in age, Jeanette was the eldest at 14, Barbara and Robert were 13, like me.
Jeanette had been taken away from her junkie mother, who had been living in a squat in Possil with her boyfriend. One of them anyway. When the boyfriend managed to kill himself by falling off the roof and becoming impaled on some fence railings, the ambulance, police and social services all showed up, and Jeanette was taken away. So she said.
I thought she spoke rather too well, and knew a little too much, to have spent as long out of school as she claimed. But I liked her. She talked to me like I was a human being, and I think she was the first girl I fancied, so I probably gave her the benefit of the doubt. We used to have a laugh together, two bedraggled cats rescued from the bag in the canal, usually at the twin's expense.
Barbara and Robert were a little freaky. Not only were they identical, but they were some strange morphed amalgamation of their parents. This left the impression of two parents with two miniature replicas. Like their parents, they were as good as gold, always did the right thing and looked out for other people. You know – mowed lawns and helped grannies with their shopping. This wholesomeness was the problem. The family weren't god-botherers. They just had a simple community ideal at heart. Perhaps some of it rubbed off on me, but not so you'd notice it at the time.
Jeanette and I couldn't help but take the piss. We'd go from feigning injury, in order to get the twins to do our share of work on the weekly rota, to mercilessly teasing them for their good manners and proper ways. Of course there was a rota. Alan organised it for months at a time, full of equal shares of work-units.
I still don't understand how I slipped so fast from being such a well-behaved child, not too different to the twins, to their co-tormentor. Maybe the black bile in the bottom of my stomach leaked out into my brain, tainting me. Maybe I was always like this and just needed the opportunity for my true nature to reveal itself. After all, they weren't my real parents.
It got to the point where I just wanted to trash my room as no more than an antidote to the sheer banal niceness of living in the Montgomery household. I wanted someone to shout at me for being badly behaved. I didn't want to be reasoned with. I wanted something to help externalise the pent up anger and injustice. Instead, I was smothered with kindness.
So Jeanette and I formed an escape committee.
The first time was quite easy. No one was expecting it. And why should they? For all my internal rebellion, on the surface I had been cooperative, if a little cruel sometimes. As a consequence there were no barriers, locked doors or nightly checks I was still in bed. I was trusted.
The night was late November. It was starting to get cooler, but the nip in the air that used to start almost on the first of October hadn't shown itself yet. Nevertheless, I was wrapped up warm. Jeanette seemed to think her fake snakeskin cowboy boots, fishnet tights, and a miniskirt were a good idea.
“What you wearing that for?”
“What are you? My Dad?” Jeanette said.
“I just don't think that's the most practical thing you could wear.”
“I don't have time to go back and get changed now,” she said.
“Okay. Let's go then.”
It was midnight. Being Wednesday, a school night, everyone was tucked up in bed. To be sure, we had stayed up late the night before and not heard anyone so much as murmur.
The backdoor was locked, but the key stuck out of the lock. It was begging us to turn it. I hesitated too long.
“Scared?” Jeanette said.
“Then unlock the door. Let's go.”
I reached out and turned the key. I grasped the handle and bent it down. I pulled the door open. The cold night air hit us.
“Jesus,” Jeanette said. “It's cold out there.”
“Told you,” I said.
“I'll be alright,” she said. “We going or not?”
I stepped over the threshold, a small step for mankind and a giant leap for a boy.
Jeanette swung the door shut and locked it in one swift movement. I spun round to see her, through the window, stifling her giggles. I caught a glimpse of my cracked face reflected in the glass. Triumph turned to the deep disappointment of betrayal.
“Open the door,” I said.
“You wanted to run away. You have now. Go on. It's either that or wake the whole house.”
She didn't actually expect me to run. I decided to turn the tables on her. Adjusting the small backpack slung over my shoulder, I walked off into the night.
Climbing over the larch-lap fence at the bottom of the garden, I thought I saw Jeanette open the kitchen door. Then I was gone.
It was a long walk to the Southside from the West End. Down Byres Road it was busy with people coming out of pubs. I drifted along Dumbarton Road towards the Kelvin Hall. No one noticed a thirteen year old out on the streets. No sirens rang out and no police cars glided by on patrol.
I was beginning to feel the relief of freedom. I was my own man again, go where I wanted to, do what I pleased. Each cold breath was a victory.
Walking down along the River Kelvin, I followed it to the Clyde, passing under the railway and finding the Expressway blocking my progress. A car whipped past me, barely slowing for the roundabout. For a little thrill I decided to just run across the road.
Putting my backpack tight across both shoulders, I readied myself to run. I lowered myself, not quite into a sprinter's start, but ready to cut through the wind. A large truck rumbled by and I caught the slipstream. As the rush of air filled the gap I leapt forward, careering through to the roundabout and clambering up its short steep slope. One rush done, another ahead, giddy on adrenalin, I staggered to the other side of the roundabout. I could see a large lorry coming towards me, and readied myself again. The cab rushed past, the driver turning to see me standing, king of my hill. The trailer swung behind; again the air sucked at me and pulled me in. I leapt down the incline and onto the road. A horn shattered me awake from my trance and the car, obscured by the trailer, squealed and swerved.
I dashed out of the way, and made it to the other side. The car took my position as king of the roundabout. Without looking back, I ran towards the towering Ziggurats that lined the waterfront.
My legs nearly gave out as the shock hit me, my mouth, already tasting metallic, was dry and I almost threw up my dinner. Cold sweat stuck my t-shirt to my back. I slung down and cowered in a doorway. Ten minutes later, I regained my composure. Each cold breath was a victory.
I crossed over the footbridge, by the SECC, to the BBC building. I had lost track of time. My phone was switched off in case someone called, or worse, tracked me down. It was, despite my exertion, starting to get cold, and I was less certain of how to get home from here.
Along the waterfront I passed large studios, gleaming glass offices, and more buildings that would have been at home in fabled Babylon. I found myself at a cinema and leisure complex, hulking beneath the Kingston Bridge.
Coming over the river had proved fairly easy, but I had no idea where to go. I had hung the keys to my family home around my neck, a talisman against further misfortune. I took them out and held the keys in the flat of my hand. I hoped they would act like a compass and lead me in the right direction. I felt a tug towards the southwest, and chose to follow this instinct, tucking the keys, now cold, back beside my skin.
I wandered round a small industrial estate on Paisley Road West and under another part of the motorway, finally trudging up Shields Road, past the Underground. I found my way to Pollokshields and began to recognise the wide streets and the large detached sandstone houses on the right hand side of the road. The houses on the left appeared to be a warren of tenements, typical of most of Glasgow. I was pretty sure I lived round here, somewhere.
At the top of Shields Road, once leafy trees were beginning to look threadbare, their precious gold cast to the floor, forming dunes for me to trudge through with satisfaction.
It seemed to me, lost and yet so close to home, that I had forgotten where I had lived, only a few months before. Like the past had gone away already, my family faded from sight and so from mind. I began to get angry with myself; I was determined not to forget them. But I didn't even have a photograph or piece of video to remember them with. Everything was locked up in my home. And now even that seemed elusive and out of reach.
Deep within the anger a small sliver of recollection rose up, and I knew I had to turn right, and then, like some urban fairy tale, there would be a castle with minarets, and I lived near there. And sure enough, after another twenty minutes or so along the winding road, crossing at traffic lights, I finally saw the red sandstone castle, a hotel. And a few feet up the hill was the red sandstone home in which I lived, the upper half of a much larger building.
I traversed the gravel driveway with caution; crunching too loudly might wake the neighbours. The Naughties were an elderly couple, swimming around even in half of one of these buildings, but they also seemed incredibly alert to any infraction me or my sister could make of the rules of who owned what in the garden.
The staircase on the side of the house was one last barrier to climb. I had been walking for hours and now, as I slowed down, my legs felt weak and cold. Weary, I climbed the stairs, taking them one at a time, as old as the Naughties.
I removed my keys once more from beneath the warm layers and fumbled them into the locks, first the Yale, then the Chubb. The door swung open and I knew, like a raider of tombs, I had moments to leap inside and shut down the traps that lay in wait. Sliding into the hall, I opened the cupboard and reaching up I stabbed out the code, just as the beeps reached a high pitch of panic. The alarm went back to sleep and I paused for a few minutes, fearing the Naughties had heard me. They always complained that we sounded like an elephant herd overhead.