Please note: this piece contains descriptions of loss some readers may find upsetting.
In the summer of 1935 in Kinning Park, the heat is intense, and the weather is what the locals will refer to as “Taps aff” in the future. James aged seven, lives in Sussex Street with his ma, da and wee brother Freddy. Their home is a “single end”, a room and kitchen on the third floor of a three-storey tenement sandstone building. There is no indoor plumbing, several families reside on each landing, and there is one toilet per landing for everyone to use. Children are provided with a free set of clothes from “The Parish”, once a year, but these are kept for school and church. The local Church is well-attended by all children because the hungry youngsters are given corned beef sandwiches and milk when the hymns are over. Although famed the world over for its shipbuilding industry, the area around the river Clyde is overcrowded with working-class families and immigrants who have come in search of work and shelter. It is “The Depression”. Money is too tight to mention, and for people living in the squalid conditions in Kinning Park, it is a fight for survival.
The day’s job done, the workers gone, the abandoned and dormant crane stands proudly looking out over the mighty river. The monolith stretches high into the heavens, standing stark against a bright blue cloudless sky.
James and his Kinning Park pals, who attend Heather Street Primary School, are small and scrawny, but brave of heart. In their naivety, they fear nothing and no one. Not even the police or threats of jail. They nickname their local polis (police officer) ‘P.C. Kettle Belly,’ and they thumb their noses at him as they scale high buildings in search of unattended food or ‘lucks,’ that they can eat or sell.
On the evening of their latest adventure – location, Marine Street docks on the banks of the Clyde – Peter and Eddie McEndoe are first to arrive. Tubby Rankin, who is still chewing the remains of his supper – a piece and jam – follows close on their heels. James is next, accompanied by the Bain brothers: Tommy, Wullie, Sandy and Jimmy. Last, but not least, is the honorary member of the group, John Weir – who attends a different school – and he is the only one “lucky” enough to be wearing footwear.
In awe of the power that the huge edifice exudes, the gang stand in contemplation of the crane, admiring it; their heads back and jaws slack.
Ripe for a challenge as always, Peter is first to scale it. Breathless when he gets to the top – his small heart pumping with adrenaline – he waves. He launches himself off and the boys cheer and jump around, but when he lands with a thump, on the huge pile of sand, sitting to one side, his loyal friends laugh their head off over his howls.
Tommy, Wullie, Sandy and Jimmy clamber up next. Once on top, they inch forward, then pause uncertainly at the edge. Urged into action by the jeering and name-calling – over what the others consider their “cowardliness” – they jump off shouting “Geronimo!” When the Bains land in a tangled heap of arms and legs, tears of laughter from their pals begin to flow; the fortuitous flood washing some of the grime of the day from their small faces.
Tubby is hesitant when the others urge him to climb. When he refuses, claiming to feel sick, they give him a right sherrockin (a dressing down), and James steps up to take his turn.
Last, to climb the crane and aided by the grip on the soles of his sturdy wellies, John is at the top in no time. He raises his arms in triumph, and in imitation of his hero, Tarzan, he lets out a loud yodel, and when he leaps off; sailing through the air, there is much cheering from below.
Shocked when waves of freezing water soak him, Peter is further annoyed by the hilarity this causes. Ready to do battle, he spins with his fists raised. His complaints that his mother will kill him fall on deaf ears. He deflates and laughs when his pals remind him, he will be dry in no time.
Interrupted by shouts of “Help!”, the pals are shocked to realise John has missed the pile of sand and is now in the river. An excellent swimmer, but in trouble, he flails about, trying to keep his head above the water.
Urged into action, Tommy, Wullie, Sandy and Jimmy yell as they run along the dock in search of an adult. Tubby and James shout to John, urging him to catch onto a piece of wood they find by the quayside, but he is unable to get to it. Peter and Eddie scream John’s name as they throw one end of a rope they have managed to find into the water, but by then there are only bubbles floating on the surface.
When the Bain brothers return at a gallop with P.C. Kettle Belly and his colleague, they find James, Tubby, Peter, and Eddie huddled together watching the water, as though John might suddenly spring up any moment.
A few days later James and his ma and da visit John’s family home to pay their respects. There is a small coffin in the middle of the room, which is raised on two trestles; with the lid set to one side. The rest of the Heather Street gang arrive with their parents, and the room is silent, and the adults sombre, as they sip cups of tea.
The children are quiet for a while, but all changes when a couple of youngsters begin to run around the room. Encouraged when no one puts a stop to their behaviour, James, Tubby, Eddie, Peter, and the Bain brothers join in. The boys laugh as they chase each other around and under John’s coffin, and the chastisement James expects any moment from John’s parents does not come.