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A flurry of memories

It was snowing the day he took me to see our new house for the first time.

Michael Tierney in the back garden of his parents' Bishopbriggs home. Its grassy expanse was like Hampden for the Tierney childrenPhotograph: Colin Mearns
Michael Tierney in the back garden of his parents' Bishopbriggs home. Its grassy expanse was like Hampden for the Tierney childrenPhotograph: Colin Mearns

I was a slip of a boy with arms you could wrap your thumb and fingers around. My hand was in his and he smiled at me and then up at the large building in front of us. The smile didn't leave his face for ages and it would stay with me for years. He rubbed the grey stone with the edge of his thumb, holding the weight of the building like Atlas held the celestial sphere.

The snow fell on our faces.

I stuck out my tongue and caught the delicate, embossed wetness of each snowflake. We did it together. They were just like communion wafers at Sunday Mass, he said. No snowflakes were ever the same, he said, as he tried to catch some more in his hands to show me their distinct faces before they disappeared into his palm for ever. I rocked back on my heels and tried to catch them with my eyelashes. I caught some and they melted over me. Blinking and blinking, I could see oceans of falling white ghosts. There was always something about snow, said my father. It never failed to stop him in his tracks.

Earlier, he'd collected me from St Peter's Primary, in Partick, before driving us across to the other side of the city to Bishopbriggs where the streets and houses were large and the trees held snow on wide branches without much of a fuss. We drove in his old grey car with the sagging and cracked leather seats, as cracked as an old clay pot. I watched, mesmerised, my face pressed to the window while the white city drifted by in a blur. I drew wet faces on the glass.

"Still don't know how we got it," he said, quietly. "Borrowed God knows how many tenners over the past few months. Didn't think I'd a chance." He sounded like he was talking to my mother, but she was back in the flat. It was just my father and me. I liked it that way.

He shoogled his heavy blue coat and the snow dropped from his shoulders and his arms. He tilted his head up again while I craned my neck. This was our new house. It looked like a giant, post-war ocean liner towering above us. I pressed my nose into him. He smelled of Benson & Hedges, oil and biscuits. "What a house, my boy. What a house." Apart from the church near Gardner Street where we still lived it was the biggest building I had ever seen close up.

Behind us a robin scratched at a tree root, searching for dead leaves and moss. "Those wee robins will sleep anywhere," he said.

"Under the car bonnet or in my old shoes. If you can sleep anywhere you'll be fine, eh? I tell you something, we're fine now." He bent down in the snow-covered grass in the front garden and pushed aside the top layer with his shiny, black Sunday shoes until he could see the green that lay dormant beneath.

"See, Michael. The snow preserves it all just now. It's like a freezer looking after the food. Protects it from the top down. In summer this grass will be perfect. You'll be playing out the back with the children. I'll get you a new ball too. You can play with Iain, and Mark when he's bigger. The girls too." He recovered the bare patch of grass and cupped his hands before lighting up a cigarette. He talked as he smoked.

"You can play like Kenny or Jinky or Bertie," he said.

Bertie Auld was one of his favourite Celtic players, he said. He was from Maryhill too and as tough as a rock-solid middleweight.

Black-haired, good-natured and matador handsome, Auld had first joined Celtic in March 1955 from Maryhill Harp. After the signing he returned home, with his father, on the back of a coal lorry.

He had received a signing-on fee of £20 and the young Auld, who had three brothers and two sisters, offered the money to his mother and she promised him a huge treat as a reward.

Auld shared his single bed with the brothers.

Later that night, in desperate anticipation, he asked his mother what his treat was going to be. "What end of the bed do ye want tae sleep on?" came the answer.

My father always laughed at that. '"What end of the bed do you want?' Brilliant. Just like you lot." He liked Auld because he had been raised with a smile and old-time politeness by parents who would always struggle for money but not love.

"You can learn to play football out the back, like Bertie in Maryhill," he said.

I shivered.

My father loved the winter and the snow. There was something plaintive about it, he said, but I was too young to know what he meant. I'm freezing, I said, and he just laughed before holding both my cold hands, which my mother had covered in woolly mittens, in his. Stamp your feet, son. The snow fell into the neck of my wellington boots.

"Can we go now, dad?" "Not yet. Won't be long." The snow was in his hands. Snowfall always made everything new.

A mute landscape of potential. A blank white of possibility. But the snow, he also warned, could freeze a man to certain death.

There was a girl at my primary school who'd come from Australia with her parents for only a short time, and she'd never seen snow.

The teachers said she was nervous but she wasn't, not for one minute. Now I remembered her face in the playground when she was allowed outside and she was so happy she almost cried. I didn't know her name and probably never would but that never really mattered. What mattered was the delight on her face when she looked up to the sky and let the snow fall on her as I had done with my father only a few moments earlier.

She had red hair and wore a grey duffel coat. A cardigan too. She had probably never known it so cold before in her life but she didn't care. The memory of the sun in Australia had gone and was replaced by the cold and the ice of Glasgow in winter. Some of the boys annoyed her by pulling and tugging her hair and she would shout back at them in her strange, exotic accent. Even then I loved everything about her.

When the snow came she stood by herself in the middle of the playground, her hands out wide catching the flakes, and then she twirled around, laughing. We never spoke, at least I don't remember speaking, but almost 40 years later, I still remember her as if it was yesterday. Some things were not supposed to leave you. They could change over time. You could add new dimensions but the basic picture remained the same.

That's the way it was with my father that day.

He was as happy as a red-haired child in snow.

The house was a tall, detached stone structure built over a hundred years ago by people, he said, with more money than sense, but he was glad they had. Bishopbriggs had a bowling club, a rugby club and golf clubs. It had a big library too. A train line ran through it to a neat station. It was a far cry from the top-floor tenement where the Tierneys all lived, at that time seven siblings, and my parents, in a two-bedroomed flat. My mother wanted more space because we were growing but she worried about leaving the flat where my father had built fitted wardrobes and a fitted kitchen for her, and besides the children were settled there too.

He wanted to give us more.

BISHOPBROGGS was part of the historic parish of Cadder that boasted a fine history, it seemed, with lands granted by a pale King William the Lion to Jocelin, a Cistercian monk and the ruddycheeked Bishop of Glasgow. But these things meant nothing to my father. They were simply the names of old thieves. They must have been, he said. Behind every fortune there was a crime and don't be forgetting that now.

He would say things like, aye, they remember the names of the kings who owned the land but no one remembers the names, or the blood, of the poor men and women who worked it.

I learned later that Bishopbriggs had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, near South Crosshill Road and near the library, and a pane of glass had shattered in Kenmure Church, but my father said that was a long, long time ago and we shouldn't worry about the old Germans now. It was the British, he said, who were for the watching.

If they told you one thing you'd be better off believing the other.

He said it's the moneymen you need to watch out for too and no mistake about that at all.

If you shook the hands of moneymen, you'd have to count your fingers when you let go. The moneymen could do what they wanted and the poor people could sing for their supper. If you wanted the truth, just shake on the Bible. That's where poor people kept their pound notes.

All he really wanted was a house big enough to keep his children from straying into bother. My father said some people thought we were moving upmarket and forgetting our roots but that was nonsense. We could never forget our roots even if we lived in a castle and he told us his stories every day just in case we forgot.

Some people called it Spam Valley because they said that if you lived there it was only because you could afford the house and nothing else. A big house and no food. Just Spam. You were buying the house only for show. You were showing off but you never had two bob to rub together. You were lifting your skirt to show a bit of ankle. You would be eating Spam for the rest of your days.

My father said he owned the house now.

It belonged to him and my mother. They might have to wash their faces in cold water for the next 10 years but it was theirs. The bank or the building society didn't have a penny of the place. He'd paid for it with every last coin he had, and he'd to sweat hard for it, and my mother too, and people could say what they liked. Some of them thought that he'd taken on too much work but that's what God gave you two hands for.

He touched the stonework again. "It's ours. It's your mum's. I'll fix it up for her if it's the last thing I do." And there was nothing wrong with Spam anyway because, sure, his mother and his father and his uncles and aunties all ate it. His father probably ate it in France, he said. He would have punched open his tin can of Spam with his pocketknife, with the rest of the soldiers, while they sat in the fields or at a farmhouse table.

But he didn't talk much about him. My grandfather was a ghost.

My mother said it was taboo. I didn't know what that was either, but she raised her eyebrows when she said it so it must have been something.

My grandfather was long dead but my father never let him go and he kept him alive like a thousand fat candles. It was hard, said my mother, because he was only a baby at the time. He grew up without him but he kept him alive in his imagination. That's what you do with the dead. Sometimes you did it with the living as well.

And anyway, people should stop being so pass-remarkable about poor folk trying to get ahead. What if it was Spam Valley? They could all just take a run and jump. They could all jump in the Clyde.

They could take a long walk off a short pier, he said. They could away and boil their heads.

We should all help each other instead of laughing at each other and then we would all be a lot better off.

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