When the Lights Come on Again: Chapter 1

The disappointment was so bitter she could almost taste it.

It knocked her off balance, made her ignore the warning signs she was usually so good at reading: her mother’s white face and anxiously clasped hands, her brother’s silence. Eddie normally had plenty to say for himself.

The expression on her father’s face should have been warning enough. William MacMillan was frowning, his dark eyebrows drawn together, his mouth a grim and rigid line. That alone should have stopped her in her tracks. Only it didn’t.

‘You opened my letter?’

Liz was so angry she could hardly get the words out. All of her careful control, won at such cost over the years of her childhood, shattered in that moment.

‘How dare you open a letter addressed to me!’

She thought her father was going to explode. Nevertheless, she took a quick little breath and refused to lower her eyes under the glower he was directing at her over the remains of her birthday tea. Her mother and Eddie, occupying the other two sides of the square table, had gone very still.

Holding her father’s angry gaze took an enormous effort. In her lap, out of his sight, Liz curled her fingers round the overhang of the white damask tablecloth and gripped hard. She wasn’t going to back down this time – however hard it was. This was too important.

‘How dare I?’ he demanded. Making a fist of his right hand, he brought it down on the table with a thump. The force of the blow rattled the cups and saucers and shook the plate which held what was left of the cake her mother had baked for her birthday.

‘Because I’m your father, my girl, and while you’re under my roof, I’ve got a right to know what you’re doing!’

‘Well, I might not be under your roof for much longer!’ Liz flung at him. ‘If the Preliminary Training School accepts me I’ll have to stay in the nurses’ home!’

There was a silence. It was broken only by the noise of a blackbird chirping in the back garden and the distant hum of the traffic up on Dumbarton Road. Her father locked eyes with her once more.

‘If you think you’re going for that interview, you’ve got another think coming, my girl.’

Then he really let rip. Her place was at home with her family. He hadn’t paid good money for her to train as a shorthand-typist when she left school for her to throw it all up. And for what? To work as a skivvy in uniform, cleaning up other folk’s messes and getting paid a pittance for it?

He went on and on. How were they to put her brother through university without her contribution to the family finances? His bursary only stretched so far. Eddie shifted uncomfortably in his chair and studied his feet at that one.

‘And who do you think is going to help your mother in the house if you’re not here?’ her father thundered. ‘I’m not having you swanning off to some nurses’ home – having a high old time with girls who’re no better than they should be—’

Liz couldn’t take any more. She rose from the table so quickly that her chair fell back on to the floor, hitting the linoleum with a loud whack. Her mother, Sadie, leapt up from her own seat and righted it. Her father stayed where he was, glaring up at their daughter. His eyes were cold, but his nostrils flared with the effort of mastering his anger. He wasn’t used to having any member of his family question his decisions.

‘Where do you think you’re going, young lady?’

‘Up the road to my grandfather’s,’ Liz flung back. ‘I suppose that’s allowed!’ She had never openly defied him before, but the depth of her disappointment was giving her a courage she hadn’t known she possessed – even if it was making her heart beat faster and the blood pound in her ears. Was there a medical term for that? If William MacMillan had his way, Liz was never going to find out.

She took a step away from the table. Her mother, who’d been hovering nervously behind her, moved away to stand by her own chair. Miserably aware of the distress this confrontation was causing her, Liz knew nevertheless that right now she had to get out of the house before she said something she would really regret.

‘I’m going up to Radnor Street,’ she said, consciously lowering her voice. She’d not get anywhere by shouting and stamping her feet. Not that tantrums of that sort had ever been tolerated in the MacMillan household anyway.

Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to calm down. She was eighteen years old now. A young lady. She should act like one.

‘Grandad’s expecting me,’ she said.

‘It’s that old bugger who’s put half these daft ideas into your head!’ her father shouted. He flung an angry glance at his son, sitting opposite him at the table. ‘And in your brother’s head too!’

Sadie swallowed. She was clearly forcing herself to speak.

‘William, it’s no’ right that you should speak about your father like that…’

Her husband turned his implacable gaze on her. Sadie’s voice trailed off, her eyes dropped and she sank into her chair. Liz, seeing how her mother seemed almost to grow physically smaller under the onslaught of her husband’s disapproval, felt the old familiar anger boil up inside her. It was rare for her mother to contradict her husband, and she only ever did it in defence of others, never of herself.

‘I’m going,’ said Liz, her voice rough-edged. ‘I’ll see you all later.’

She ran from the room, grabbing her coat from the dark oak hatstand in the hall with one hand and opening the front door with the other. Once she was out, she was safe. He would never dream of making a scene in the street. Perish the thought that the neighbours, many of them his fellow managers in the shipyard, should know there were any problems in the MacMillan family. Although – unless they were stone deaf – the Crawfords who lived next door would have heard at least some of the argument.

Her brother caught up with her on Dumbarton Road, grabbing her by the elbow as she went to step off the pavement

‘Liz, slow down. You’ll get a stitch. Or run over by a tram.’

He was trying to make her laugh, but she was in no mood for that. She whirled round to face him, her eyes big and filled with hurt.

‘Thanks for standing up for me back there, Eddie.’

He dropped her arm and let his breath out on a sigh of exasperation.

‘Liz, you know that I agree with him on this one. You will be a skivvy if you become a nurse. Another working-class lassie being exploited. Doing the dirty work for the bosses and the bourgeoisie.’

‘Och, Eddie! Don’t talk at me! I’m not one of your political meetings!’ Quick tears of anger and frustration sprang into Liz’s eyes.

‘Och, Lizzie, I’m sorry. Don’t cry.’

He laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. Then he lifted it and ran it through the unruly waves of his hair, dark brown like her own. Since he had gone up to Glasgow University two years before, he had adopted a bohemian appearance to go with his enthusiasm for radical ideas and radical politics.

He had let his dark hair grow over his collar and he wore soft and unstarched shirts, usually without a tie. Recently he had taken to sporting a floppy black scarf, loosely knotted at the neck. Their grandfather muttered darkly about the days when ‘men were men and pansies were flowers’. That made Liz laugh. In his own quiet way, Eddie was a very masculine man.

Indeed, striding along hatless, with his tousled hair blowing in the breeze, wearing the loose black coat he had bought during his first term at the Uni, Liz thought he cut rather a romantic figure. That opinion was obviously shared by one of Eddie’s old friends from school. Spying him across Kilbowie Road last week the lad had shouted, ‘Hey, Lord Byron, are you gonnae write us a wee poem?’ Eddie, characteristically, had grinned and waved back, not a bit put out.

His father approved neither of his politics nor of his appearance, but he had been persuaded to tolerate both for one simple reason. Eddie was doing extremely well at university – a star pupil in both his chosen subjects of history and politics.

‘Ma gave me a bit of your birthday cake to take up to Grandad.’ He raised one hand to indicate the brown paper bag he held. ‘Come on, let’s get over the road.’ He took Liz’s elbow with his free hand, guiding her across.

‘Look at it this way,’ he said, when, with the ease born of long practice, they had snaked their way between a slow-moving tram, a horse-drawn lorry and two private cars and reached the safety of the other pavement. ‘In a few years’ time you’ll probably get married and settle down.’ He shot her a sideways grin as they walked along. ‘If Father and I consider there’s anybody good enough to deserve you.’

Liz lifted her shoulders in a gesture of irritation. When were men ever going to take women seriously? Thinking about her brother’s attachment to radical ideas, something else occurred to her. She stopped dead on the corner of Kilbowie Road, forcing him to come to a halt too. The light of battle shone in her eyes as she turned to face him.

‘Edward MacMillan, you’re a right hypocrite! I thought you didn’t believe in marriage – that you were all for this Free Love that you talk about.’

‘Not when it applies to my wee sister, I’m not,’ he growled. With shameless inconsistency, he compounded the offence.

‘Any fellow who tries anything on with you will have to answer to me.’

Exasperated with him, Liz tried a different tack. ‘You want to change things, Eddie, don’t you? Try to improve life for everybody?’

Quiet for once, he waited for her to formulate her thoughts. She was taking her time about it, not finding it easy to put her most deeply felt and cherished hopes into words.

‘I want to change things too,’ she said slowly. ‘Only not in the same way as you do.’ She laid a hand on his arm and looked up into his face. ‘You’re going to do it through getting involved in politics and becoming a teacher, and that’s great. I don’t begrudge you your chance. I really don’t. I’m going to be so proud of you when you graduate from the Uni. I’ll be there cheering you on.’

‘Don’t think I don’t appreciate it,’ he said, his voice gruff with emotion. ‘I do.’ He tweaked her nose and grinned. ‘Not that I would tell you that, wee sister.’ His smile faded. Liz was looking at him with a very serious look on her face. ‘But?’ he suggested.

‘There’s so much that’s wrong with the world, isn’t there?’

Eddie nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. They had discussed it often enough. Their own family’s position might be a lot more solid since their father’s promotion to manager, but anyone who had grown up in Clydebank knew what was wrong with the world: the constant threat – and reality – of unemployment; damp, overcrowded houses; the illnesses bred of poverty, ignorance and bad working and living conditions.

‘I want my chance too,’ Liz said passionately. ‘To change things. To do some good in the world.’

Eddie sighed heavily. ‘Och, Liz… why would you want to be shut up in a nurses’ home being bossed about by some dragon of a matron when you could be doing a job that would give you some fun – and a better wage – for a few years?’

‘Like at Murray’s?’

‘Like at Murray’s,’ Eddie repeated, with the confident air of a man who had just won an argument by reasoned debate and discussion.

He hadn’t caught the dryness in her voice, but then why should he have? She’d never told him about the problems she had with Eric Mitchell – hadn’t dared to, for fear of him getting himself into trouble by rushing helter-skelter to his wee sister’s rescue.

Given what he had said about anyone trying anything on with her, she was more convinced than ever her decision to keep that particular worry to herself had been the right one. If she told Eddie, he’d go straight up to the shipping office in the Broomielaw in Glasgow where she worked and punch Eric Mitchell in the mouth – and what a stushie that would cause. He could get suspended from the University if he pulled a stunt like that. She’d been on the point of telling him several times, desperately wanting to share the burden, but she couldn’t risk it.

She lifted her head and saw Tam Simpson, one of their grandfather’s neighbours. A small man, he was bustling down Kilbowie Road towards them, heading for the pub on the corner where she and Eddie were standing.

‘The old man’s waiting for youse two!’ he said cheerfully, touching his bunnet – his flat cap – to Liz. ‘I’m just away for a wee refreshment!’

Once he had disappeared into the pub, Eddie cocked his head to one side.

‘Can we stay up the road till the pub pours him out on to the pavement, do you think?’ he murmured. ‘Then we could listen to that charming old Clydebank ritual of Mrs Simpson’s welcome home to her husband.’

Liz grimaced at the irony in Eddie’s voice. You didn’t have to be near a pub to know when it was closing time in Clydebank. Not if you lived within shouting distance of the Simpsons. They had a flat in the same tenement in Radnor Street as Liz and Eddie’s grandfather. Liz and Eddie themselves had been born and brought up in the same building until their father’s promotion had brought about a move to the neat little row of terraced houses close to the River Clyde where they now lived.

A few minutes after the pubs called time, Nan Simpson would throw up the sash window of her top-floor flat. Then, when her errant husband hove into view, she would start berating him. The volume and severity of the insults, as well as the coarseness of the swear words, increased the closer he got to home.

After he had negotiated the difficult task of locating the entrance close – as folk said, that must be like trying to thread a needle in the dark – Tam always took a zigzag course up to his own flat, stoating up the stairs, bouncing first off one wall and then the other. Eddie likened his precarious ascent to a tennis ball flying back and forth over a net.

‘Aye, I know. It’s funny, isn’t it?’ Liz took her brother’s arm as they started walking again. ‘Funny peculiar, I mean. Not funny ha-ha. D’you mind how it used to perplex Granny?’

Eddie nodded.

‘I can see her shaking her head now.’ He raised the pitch of his voice, putting on a Highland accent in affectionate mimicry. ‘ “A decent respectable God-fearing body the rest of the week, but at closing time on a Saturday night she’s got a mouth on her like a sailor.’ ”

‘She’s got provocation, mind,’ said Liz. ‘Six children to bring up and a husband who’d spend all of his wages on drink if she didn’t get to them first. People laugh at folk like Tam Simpson, but it’s not funny at all.’

‘No,’ agreed Eddie. ‘It’s not. On the other hand,’ he went on, ‘at least he doesn’t bounce his wife’s head off the wall when he gets home. There’s plenty as do.’

‘And she’s supposed to be grateful for that?’ asked Liz, her voice rising in indignation.

‘No,’ said Eddie consideringly. ‘That’s not what I meant. I think it’s…’ He paused, searching for the right word. ‘I think it’s despicable for a man to behave that way. In either of those ways.’

They walked in silence for a few moments, passing the entrance to Singer railway station. It was named for the sewing-machine factory which occupied a vast area to their left. The complex of buildings was dominated by an imposing clock tower, a landmark in Clydebank and for miles around.

Eddie was obviously still thinking about Tam Simpson.

‘I don’t know though, Liz. Maybe you can understand why people reach for the bottle. I suppose it blots out all their problems – for a wee while, at least. Men like Tam Simpson have to worry all the time about when they’re next going to be laid off, how they’re going to feed their wives and children when that happens.’

‘Don’t you see, Eddie,’ said Liz eagerly, ‘that’s one of the reasons I want to go in for nursing – it’s all tied up together. It has to do with what you want to fight for – jobs and decent houses and good wages and better health and all those sorts of things.’

She turned to him in her enthusiasm. The quick movement blew a strand of brown hair across her face, and she tucked it impatiently behind one ear. ‘But it’s about education too – health education for a start. I mean, people needn’t have such big families. There is such a thing as birth control – but there need to be doctors and nurses who can tell folk about it.’

Edward MacMillan, revolutionary and free thinker, blushed to the roots of his hair. Liz guessed he wasn’t too happy about discussing the controversial subject of birth control with his kid sister, but he did his manful best to control his embarrassment. They were children of the twentieth century, after all.

‘That’s what’s wrong with all your Free Love theories,’ Liz added. ‘It’s the woman who ends up paying the price.’

Eddie’s only response to that statement was a noncommittal grunt. Liz had a shrewd suspicion – given added weight by that betraying blush – that her brother’s theories on Free Love were exactly that – theories. He might dress unconventionally, but in other ways he could be surprisingly shy – especially when it came to the opposite sex. Not unlike his sister, she thought wryly. Although what she’d had to put up with from Eric Mitchell over the past two years might possibly have something to do with that…

They turned the corner into Radnor Street.

‘Ah!’ said Eddie. ‘Here we are at last!’ There was just a little too much relief in his voice.


Peter MacMillan swung open the heavy door to his ground-floor home. His craggy face lit up when he saw Liz and Eddie standing in the close.

‘Come in, come in,’ he said, ‘I’ll lead the way.’

Out of sight of their grandfather, Eddie winked at Liz. Peter always spoke about leading the way, as though he were conducting you into some palatial dwelling, full of rooms and corridors in which you might very well get lost without him to guide you safely through.

His two-room apartment was actually tiny. A minuscule lobby led to a small bedroom-cum-parlour looking out over the back court, and to an even smaller kitchen at the front. This was the room where he spent most of his time and to which he was conveying Liz and Eddie now. It was smaller than the corresponding rooms on the floors above because the space for the entrance close to the tenement had been taken out of it. Yet Granny had given birth to six children here, four boys and two girls.

Both of the girls had died young – of scarlet fever, which had nearly taken Liz herself as a child. With no effective treatment for infectious illnesses, there weren’t many families who escaped that sort of loss. Liz and Eddie’s wee brother George had died of it.

Her father’s eldest brother had fallen in the Great War. Of the three boys who had survived, only William was still in Clydebank. Bruce was in the Merchant Navy and dropped in and out of their lives erratically, turning up on the doorstep every two or three years with an armful of exotic presents. Bob had emigrated to Canada when he was eighteen, married and settled down in Ontario. Unlike Bruce, he was a faithful correspondent, his long letters about his life and family out there eagerly awaited by his parents. It wasn’t the same as having him round the corner, though, as Granny used to sigh.

The relationship between Peter MacMillan and his youngest son was a fraught one. Since Granny’s death it had become nonexistent. There had been a furious argument the morning of the funeral, although Liz and Eddie had heard only the aftermath of that: slammed doors and angry footsteps.

After the church service, William MacMillan had helped his father, Eddie and friends of the family lower his mother into the earth. Then, walking out of the cemetery, he had announced that he would not be attending the purvey, or funeral tea. In a carrying voice, he had said that as far as he was concerned, both of his parents were now dead.

Liz had never forgotten the look which passed between her father and grandfather that day – shuttered bitterness on one face, hurt on the other. Now William MacMillan was quite capable of passing his own father in the street without a word. She’d seen him do it.

She had no idea what the argument had been about. She had summoned up the courage to ask her grandfather once, but he had shaken his head, such a sad look on his face that she hadn’t ever had the heart to pose the question again.

Whatever it was, she knew that it caused both her grandfather and her gentle mother a great deal of distress. But that wasn’t something, she thought bitterly, likely to keep her father awake at night.

Having conducted his young guests safely into his inner sanctum, Peter MacMillan gave them the usual command.

‘Sit yourselves down. I’ll make the tea.’

Liz chose a chair as far as possible from the black range which filled most of one wall. Being so small, the kitchen could get as hot as a blast furnace. Eddie made a face at her at being forced to sit close to the heat.

‘My birthday treat,’ she murmured to him. ‘Take your coat off and stop moaning.’

They both looked up brightly as their grandfather approached. Not for all the tea in China would they have hurt his feelings by complaining about the heat, which he himself didn’t seem to notice. He had a package in his hand.

‘Well, hen,’ he said to Liz, holding it out to her. ‘Happy birthday, and many more of them.’

The parcel was small, but solid. He had wrapped it in the newspaper – the Glasgow Herald – which he read avidly from cover to cover each morning. With the interested eyes of the menfolk on her, Liz unwrapped her gift. Then she burst into tears. He had given her a pocket nurses’ dictionary.


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