The Bird Flies High: Prologue

Saturday nights were the worst. Without the inhibition of having to get up for their work the next morning, the men who thought the solution to life’s problems could be found at the bottom of a bottle could start early and finish late. It began with bonhomie and snatches of song and a desire to call the whole world their friend: particularly those other men who lived and worked with them in the warren of streets and lanes clustered around Glasgow’s cathedral and High Street.

At the top of that sloping part of the city’s oldest thoroughfare known for centuries as the Bell o’ the Brae lay the Drygate, home to Josephine Collins and her family. Tucked in behind Duke Street Prison and the local brewery, the south side of the short street had been sacrificed to the expansion of the gaol. Its north side lay under the shadow of the Necropolis, the sprawling Victorian cemetery on the hill above St Mungo’s great church.

Josie knew, because her teacher at the Ladywell School had told her so, that the Drygate had once been a very posh place indeed. In the old days, so Miss French had said, canons of the cathedral and well-off citizens of Glasgow had lived there in pleasant townhouses. Now those townhouses had been subdivided too many times, into tiny, overcrowded tenement homes in a permanent state of poor repair. The back courts were full of dirty puddles and broken glass, and rubbish and rusty old prams on which the children played. Some folk tried to keep their closes and stairs swept and washed. Others had given up the unequal struggle.

Humble or grand, tenement dwellers throughout Glasgow always called their homes houses, never flats. Each back court had its midden, a place to dump ashes from the fire and household refuse. The scaffies lifted it once a week, but whilst it lay there rotting and waiting for the dustmen, it inevitably attracted rats. Sleek and glistening and looking better fed than many of the local children, they slithered up from the Molendinar burn to scavenge in the closes.

The Molendinar had once been a tumbling and sparkling stream, full of fish and clean water. That was why Saint Mungo had chosen to found his religious settlement on its banks all those hundreds of years ago. Where it wasn’t culverted, the burn was now little more than an open sewer. It stank to high heaven in the summer, which didn’t stop the local children playing in it.

Josie and her younger sister Rachel were forever dragging their wee half-brother Charlie away from its mucky banks. He always howled in protest, too young to understand that they and their mother Dorothy were only concerned about the dangers the filthy stream might pose to his health.

Once, coming home from school in the winter when it was dark, Josie and Rachel had experienced the icy terror of a rat sliding over their feet on its way through the close. Although the leerie had already been on his nightly rounds, the flickering gas wall light which gave some illumination to the entrance passageway had served only to make the experience more frightening. Seeing the creature slink away into the shadows was a picture which refused to leave Josie’s head.

Now the two sisters always made sure they each picked up a stone somewhere on the short journey home from school. Then they could fling the pebbles through the close to startle anything which might be lurking in the gloom before speeding to the door of their ground-floor home as though the hounds of hell were snapping at their heels.

They shared that home, small though it was, with their mother and Charlie, their stepfather Arthur Collins and his two almost grown-up sons. Somehow Josie could never quite manage to think of Billy and young Arthur as her brothers. She also hated her stepfather for insisting she and Rachel take his surname. Just because their real father had died in the Great War didn’t mean they had stopped being his daughters. As far as Josie was concerned, their name was still Shaw but she had learned the painful way to keep that point of view to herself.

Like many of the local men, the three Collins males worked in the nearby brewery. Like some of them, they were a wee bit too fond of its product.

Aye, Saturday nights were the worst.


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