The River Flows On: Prologue 1996

‘Grandma Kate! Grandma Kate! Look – there it is! Down the river! Hurry up, Grandma!’ Michael’s young voice was high with excitement, his Canadian accent pronounced.

She, Michael,’ Kate corrected gently. ‘A ship is always a she.’

She smiled at the boy. The sun was warm today and the wind coming off the Clyde a soft one, but her bones were getting old. Michael had scampered down from the car, but she’d followed at a more sedate pace. It wasn’t a long journey – down the Boulevard, over the Erskine Bridge and then across to the West Ferry Road at Bishopton – but long enough for her to stiffen up.

She joined the boy at the water’s edge. One hand up to shade his eyes, he was peering down the river towards Greenock where the tugs were bringing the liner in to lie at anchor.

‘Oh, Grandma Kate, she’s lovely, isn’t she?’

Her eyes on the ship, Kate smiled to herself. He was a quick learner, this little great-grandson of hers. How strange to think that his grandmother, her own daughter Grace, had once run and played at her side as Michael did now. Funny how the years disappeared while you were busy doing other things.

Kate shaded her own eyes, the better to see. Even at this distance the liner looked big, her smooth and majestic lines not dwarfed by the magnificent backdrop of the hills and the Firth of Clyde, but somehow looking just right against them.

‘Aye, Michael, she’s a bonnie ship. It’s grand to see her back in the river of her birth.’ She heard the sudden huskiness in her voice and wondered if the child had caught it. You’re an old fool, Kate Cameron, she told herself, greeting over a ship. She blinked her eyes to get rid of the tears.

There was a voice in her head. ‘It’s just a big lump o’ iron and metal and wood.’ That had been Pearl, scornfully tossing her golden curls. But Pearl had been wrong. A ship was much more than just a big lump of iron and metal and wood – much more.

A ship was the dream in someone’s head, painstakingly set down on paper so that she could take shape under hundreds of skilled pairs of hands. A ship was the grimy sheen of sweat on your husband’s brow when he trudged wearily into the house at the end of the day; a ship was the calluses on your father’s fine-boned hands, the legacy of hammering red-hot rivets into metal for hour after hour; a ship was the pride in men’s eyes when they saw her launched. And there had been pride in Kate’s eyes also, for she too had played her part.

No, it wasn’t so daft to cry over a ship, and there had been tears a-plenty back then. What was it the old folks used to say? It was tears that made the Clyde?

Michael was concentrating on the ship. ‘Why do they call her the Queen Elizabeth II, Grandma? Was there a Queen Elizabeth I?’

‘Oh, yes.’ She was glad of his eager questions, recalling her to the present. ‘Although we just called her the Queen Elizabeth. She was a fine ship too, Michael. I was there when she was launched – in 1938, just before the Second World War broke out.’

Michael had turned to look at Kate. Young as he was, he seemed always to be interested in his great-grandmother’s stories.

‘What was the launch like, Grandma?’

‘Och, it was grand. Real exciting. When she hit the water, she caused this huge wave,’ Kate lifted a hand to illustrate the size of it, ‘and everyone standing on the other bank of the river to watch the launch got soaked.’

Michael laughed in delight. Kate laughed with him, remembering another occasion. She would tell him that story later.

‘And before the first Queen Elizabeth, there was the Queen Mary – and she was the finest ship of all – the pride of the Clyde.’ Her ship, she thought, the Queen Mary would always be her ship. Hers and Robbie’s. She smiled down into the child’s upturned face. His lips pursed in concentration, he was nodding in agreement with her.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘My dad told me all about her. She’s in California now, and one day we’re going to go and visit her. He says that my great-grandpa helped build her.’

Kate smiled, both at the North American twang in that ‘grandpa’ and the note of pride she heard in the young voice.

‘Your great-grandpa and your two great-great-grandpas and your Uncle Davie all helped build ships on the Clyde. Now, isn’t that something?’

‘Gee.’ He exhaled a long breath. It lifted the lock of fair hair which had fallen forward onto his forehead. ‘Say, Grandma, maybe I could build ships when I grow up.’

Kate smiled sadly. ‘No, Michael, I don’t think so. There’s hardly a shipyard left on the river now. When I was wee—’

‘The age I am now?’

‘The age you are now,’ Kate agreed. ‘When I was wee, the river was lined with shipyards.’ She turned, lifting her arm to indicate the Erskine Bridge behind them. ‘From right up in Glasgow way upriver from the bridge there, down through Govan and Yoker and Clydebank and Dalmuir, along to Dumbarton over there on the other bank—’

He was following her pointing arm. ‘Where that big rock is?’

‘Yes, where that big rock is,’ Kate moved her arm round, pointing downriver in the direction of the QE2, ‘and then down to Port Glasgow and Greenock. The whole place was full of men building ships. There must have been over a hundred yards, and now there’s only two or three left.’ She dropped her arm and looked down at the boy. ‘No, young man, whatever you do when you grow up, it won’t be building ships. Those days are gone.’

She smiled at him and reached out to stroke his cheek. His young skin was soft and smooth, like the bloom on a peach. And whatever you do become, she said silently to herself, I’ll not be here to see it.

‘What is that rock over there?’ he asked. Kate turned him around to look at it, resting her hands lightly on his shoulders.

‘That’s Dumbarton Rock. It was a stronghold of the Ancient Britons. That’s what Dumbarton means – the fortress of the Britons. Can you see the castle on the top of it?’

Michael nodded.

‘When Mary Queen of Scots was a wee girl, she sailed for France from Dumbarton Castle. She was only five years old – two years younger than you – and she had to leave her home and her mother behind.’


‘Because her father the King had died, and there was civil war in Scotland. It was too dangerous for her to stay, so she had to go to her relatives in France. That would have been in a sailing ship, of course.’

‘Smaller than the QE2?

‘Much, much smaller.’

Michael swivelled round to face her. ‘Did Mary Queen of Scots ever come back to Scotland?’

‘Oh yes, but not till she was grown up. And what happened to her after that is a story for another day.’

‘I like your stories, Grandma Kate.’

Kate cupped his face lightly in her hands. ‘My father told me most of them,’ she said.

‘And now you tell them to me,’ replied the boy.

‘That’s right,’ said Kate, studying his serious little face. It’s funny, she thought, how the very young can sometimes see things so clearly.

‘What was it like, Grandma?’ he went on. ‘When all the men were building ships?’

She took her hands from his face. ‘Noisy,’ she said. ‘Very noisy.’

‘But the river’s quiet now,’ said the child, looking out at it, flowing serenely past them.

‘Aye,’ Kate said, ‘the river’s quiet now.’

She patted the child’s fair curls and turned to look out over the river towards Dumbarton Rock. The breeze lifted her own hair. She had a good head of it but it was white now, not the shining chestnut it had once been. His nut-brown maiden. How often had Robbie called her that?

She could hear his voice, low-pitched and mellow, with a rumble of laughter in it. That brought a fresh prickle of tears to her eyes. You’re a daft bisom, Kate Cameron, he would have said. She squeezed her eyes tight shut and he was there, clear as ever in her mind’s eye. He’d had a good head of hair himself, much darker than Kate’s – almost black. It had a habit of flopping onto his forehead, the darkness emphasizing his pale skin. When she remembered him like this, she could see that characteristic toss of the head to get the hair out of his eyes, and the slow smile lighting up his grey eyes, the slow smile that was reserved just for her…

‘Grandma Kate?’ Michael, puzzled, was pulling on her skirt.

Blinking back the tears, she smiled down at the child. She was a daft bisom, standing here dreaming of days that were gone. It had all happened such a long time ago. You’ve been alive a long, long time, Kate Cameron, she thought. And this child, tugging at your skirts and looking up at you out of very blue eyes, was just starting on that journey.

And while his days and years stretched out before him in a smooth, sunlit path winding up the hill and out of sight, you were coming down that same hill, your own days counted. Would he remember his Grandma Kate in the golden summers to come, the ones she herself would not see? Would he tell his children and grandchildren about her, as she had told him about those who had gone on before? She took a deep breath. She must enjoy him while he was here … while she was here.

‘Come on then,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to give me a hand. I’m getting old and stiff, Michael.’

The child extended his hand to her, his face grave, taking the responsibility of helping her back to the car very seriously. Kate felt her breath catch in her throat. There was an unexpected grace about the gesture. It was those blue eyes – and the way he had held out his hand. It recalled another time and another place …

Far too much emotion for one day, thought Kate. First the great ship, then Robbie, then that. She smiled down at the boy. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘that after we’ve had a good look at the QE2, we might ask the driver to take us on round the coast to Largs.’

Michael’s gravity vanished. It was like the sun coming out. ‘Nardini’s?’ he asked. The famous ice-cream parlour had become a recognised treat of his yearly visits with his father to the old country.

‘Nardini’s,’ confirmed Kate. ‘And I’m having a Knickerbocker glory!’


Safely ensconced in the car once more, Kate asked the driver to leave the window open a little.

‘Are you sure, hen?’ he asked. ‘It’ll get quite blowy once we start moving.’

‘I like to feel the wind in my hair,’ she said, smiling at him as he bent solicitously over her, laying a rug across her knees as her grandson had asked him to do. Hen, indeed! Some things never changed. Thank God.

She recalled the pride in Michael’s voice when he had talked about his ‘great-grandpa’ helping to build the Queen Mary. They can’t take that away from us, thought Kate – the pride of the Clyde. They can take away the shipyards and fill in the docks, but they can’t break our spirit and they can’t roll away our river.

And as long as the river flows to the sea, and as long as there are children like Michael to carry the stories on, they can’t take away that pride. As long as the river keeps flowing…

Beside her, Michael strapped himself carefully in and smiled beatifically at her before lifting his Game Boy. She smiled back, then turned to look out again at the Clyde.

All her life, the river had drawn her gaze. It had always been the magnet, the focus around which her life had revolved. The driver was right. It was blowy with the window open, but she was tough – Clyde-built, like those great ships of the past.

Kate closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall back onto the cushioned headrest. The breeze was soft and warm. She could mind the times when the wind off the river hadn’t been soft, when it had been hard and biting, cutting right through her and her thin clothes, sharp as a blow…


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