Our Nelson

Credit: 
Alan Dimmick
Anne Donovan

The tar stuck tae the soles of wur shoes it was that hot. The march went on for miles, couldnae see the endy it.
    Yer da was behind me. His daft pal kept makin stupit jokes, but he was dead quiet.
    Too busy lookin at that red hair of yours. Doon tae her waist so it was. Glintin in the sun.

    Ah’ve heard it a million times, story of how they met.  Ah smile, tune oot.

Nelson was like an uncle or a cousin who lived far away, wanny the family.  Any time his name was mentioned, the TV was turnt up; Mammy cut photies and articles oot the paper, kept them in a folder. The stories were endless - how they’d went on the marches tae free him, rummled through oranges and grapefruits in the shops tae make sure they didnae come fae South Africa. Ma folks knew the words of Nkosi Sikelel’ i Afrika better than Auld Lang Syne
    And their best story was the day he came.
    
It was chuckin it. Kinda rain you think is gonnae wear itsel oot, cannae last. But it did.  
    We were there dead early, got right tae the front, just at the barriers.
    Drookit, so we were. You couldnae put up an umbrella it was that crowded.     
    Waited two hours for him.
    Would of waited forever.
    He was that close, just yards away. 
    Mind the singin?     
    And when he started dancin? Magic. 
    Second best day of my life, son.  Apart frae havin you.
    Thanks, Ma.

There’s a photie of them on that day, framed on the unit in the livin room, pride of place among the family weddings, christenings and first communions. Efter he’d left the square they wandered aboot, in a dwam, my da said, nae clue where they were gaun; a journalist asked them for their thoughts and a photographer snapped them for the paper. 
    Ah tellt him, says ma da. We were the first city tae make him a free man, when he was still in thon jail. Hauf the time they act like a bunch a eejits in the council, but we should be proud of Glasgow for daein that.  They never printed it but. Never even put wur names in.
    Ma smiles. Still, they published the photie
    They look that young, haudin haunds in the rain, hair plastered tae their heids, their eyes shinin. It had just started tae dry up and the grey streets glistered.
    Like a monsoon it was.
    But efter the rain, the rainbow nation

Ma and Da got engaged that day. 
    Ah was too feart tae ask her afore, says ma da. Scared of gettin tied doon, ah guess. But somehow, efter that day, ah knew it was the right thing for us.  He gied me the courage.
    There’s a lot of talk like this, aboot the things that matter, since ma da’s been sick. It’s like he’s tryin tae cram it all in.  
    They werenae sure at first but they operated on him a month ago and noo there’s nae doubt. Ma’s tryin tae get him hospice care but they have tae get his lung drained afore he can leave the ward. She’s there every visitin; her work’s been great, gied her the time. Ah’m there too, except when ah’ve got a class at the uni.
    
The day efter Nelson’s passing, Ma’s brought the papers, and Da flicks through the pictures, gets me tae read oot some of the articles, smiles at the quotes.
There’s a bit aboot Glasgow, how they named a street efter him.
    That caused a right stushie, says ma mammy. 
    They’re havin a gatherin for him there at five o’clock the night.
    Ma and Da look at each other. 
    It’s four noo, son, he says, his voice a hoarse whisper. You could make it easy. Pay wur respects.
    Ah want tae stay here wi you.
    Last few days they’ve been flexible wi the visitin; Ma and me stay on till they come round wi the meals, grab a bite in the cafe then back to the ward.
    A cough racks his thin body; Ma gies him tissues, strokes his back. When he recovers, he squeezes ma haund. Dae it fur me, son

It’s a bitter night, cauld dampness seepin through yer bones. They’ve set up a kinda tent thing and are playin African music as the crowd gathers. Some folk are wavin scarves and dancin but maist are sombre. Then a guy talks aboot Nelson, and all he done - the same stories ah’ve heard fae ma folks. He’s a good guy, the speaker, fought against apartheid since the sixties. 
    Viva Mandela!
    Viva!
we shout.
    It’s even caulder noo.  The crowd has thickened, we’re closer thegether, a mixed ragbag of ages and colours; folk smart fae offices or trauchled wi Christmas parcels. There’s shuffln aboot on the wee stage and somebody else is talkin. Then another. Too much talkin. Ah thought we’d be silent, light candles, remember him. Ah’m gettin twitchy noo. Ah turn, start tryin tae fight ma way back through the huddle of folk when ma phone goes, as ah knew it would and the text is frae ma mammy, as ah knew it would be.
    
Ah staund at the bus stop, think on all the times the three of us had been thegether. Why was ah at this haund-knitted gatherin insteidy wi my da?  I should of just stayed in the hospital, ah should of been there. 
    Ah get on the bus, climb up the stair and sit in the front seat lookin out at the dreich night. The rain had smeared the windaes and they gleamed in the streetlights. Ah minded the picture of my folks on that second best day of their lives. 
    Dae it fur me, son. 

 

Anne Donovan is the author of the short story collection, Hieroglyphics and Other Stories and the novels Being Emily, Buddha Da, all published by Canongate. Her new novel, Gone With The Leaves, will be published by Canongate in April 2014.
    

 

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