Swan Song

Author: Hugh Robinson

Date: 1996

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 4 Spring 1996

Oor oul school stood where the four roads met, aboot a mile an a hauf ootside Donaghadee. It had only yin room min ye, but sure yin room was big enough tae houl the hale lot o us. We weren’y very big onyway.

I niver liked school. An I couldn’y be bothered wi them oul fellas that toul us the schooldays were the best days o oor lives. It was aa richt for them tae tak. They didn’y hae eccers tae ivery nicht o the week. But noo, lukkin back ower the years, maybe they were richt. We did hae some times at the oul place, scunnin for marlies and swopin ciggie-cards and raidin orchards on our way hame fae school after fishin for spricks in the wee burn that trickled alangside the road. I wonder if the wee burn is still there? And if the stickle-backs and tad-poles are as big as they used tae be?

There was only yin maister at oor school. Mr Warden was his name. But we jist ca’ed him “Oul Wardie”.

He was a queer fish, oul Wardie. A wee skitter o a man wi horn-rimmed glasses an a hooked nose, he didn’y enjoy the best o health. He leeved in the big hoose right nixt dure tae the school, an ivery mornin he wud dander intil the play-groun through a hole in the privit hedge that divid the twa buildin’s. An he aye wore the same claithes. Winter and simmer, whatever the weather, Wardie wore yin o them big trench-coats an a hat the same as Humphrey Bogart wore in the pictures. He was niver withoot them. Niver.

Noo, mony a mornin Wardie wouldn’y weigh in. Niver turned up. We wud be rakin aboot the playgroun scunnin for marlies or kickin an oul fitba, when Wardie’s wife come strugglin though the slap in the hedge, lukkin like somethin oot o Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook in her white starched apron an mop cap.

“Now children,” she wud say, in a wee timid voice ye wouldn’y hae heerd behin a tram ticket, “now children, there will be no school today. Mr Warden is indisposed.”

An that was that. We jist went hame. Hared it awa up the loanen as hard as we cud go tae gie a haun at bringin in the praties or cuttin the corn. Wee Eddie McMillan couldn’y rin very fast, but he had the guid sense tae keep goin an he generally got awa wi the rest o us.

Yin thing puzzled me aboot these episodes when Wardie didn’y appear. I couldn’y ken where this disposed place was that Wardie kept goin intil, an what he was daein there when he was supposed tae be larnin us tae read an write in the class-room. I tackled big Alfie Crawford the pig-daler’s son aboot it when Mrs Warden come intil the play-groun again wi the guid news that oul Wardie was indisposed. Alfie was bigger than me. He was nearly ten year oul. If onybody knew the answer, it wud be him.

“Alfie,” says I as we quit for breath after anither successful getaway alang the kesh fae the school, “where is this disposed place oul Wardie keeps goin intil?”

Alfie laughed an pulled a plump blackberry from the briars hangin ower the hedge and tossed it intae his mooth. “Are ye ignorent althegither, McCrory?”, said he as he chowed the blackberry and scoured the hedges for mair. “He disn’ny gan onywhere. It means he’s no weel. He’s got a hangover. He was oot on the tear last nicht again. My da seen him comin oot o Kennedy’s pub at claesin time, hardly fit tae bite his finger. He was fu.”

So that was it. Oul Wardie’s a secret drinker. Or thinks he is. An ivery time after that when Wardie was indisposed I cud jist see him lyin in bed wi the big trench coat an Bogie hat an the Andrews Liver salts an the heidache pooders beside him.

But I niver felt sorry for him. Niver. Hingover or no hingover. He was a cruel man, oul Wardie, an he kept a big cane hangin ower the blackboord tae punish wrang-daers, and sometimes tae punish them that had deen nithin wrang a’ ta. Mony a rap I got wi it, an a because I didn’y ken what 2x+3x+4x was. I coudn’y understand algebra. Cud you? But Wardie niver give up tryin tae hammer it intae me, withoot tae much reward for his efforts. But I coudn’y dae it. I cud make an attempt at hunnerweights an staines an puns. But no the algebra. The x’s an the y’s were too much for me.

But Wardie’s wee son cud dae them, nae bither a’ ta! A regular wee squealer Cecil was, a sleekit wee blirt that lukked ivery inch the part. He was the same age as me, but nice an neat an tidy, jist like a school-maister’s son. His jet-black hair was always shaded an combed back, an he peered at us through a thick pair o glesses. An there was aye a sneer on his bake. Cecil was Wardie’s right haun man, an he toul iverything. On iverybody.

Yin day in late simmer Wardie decided tae tak us aa oot gardenin. In his garden of course. Ta’k aboot chape labour! We kenned it was jist an excuse for him tae get the oul garden dug over an the weeds pulled oot. For nithin. But we didn’y care. Onything was better than algebra.

We clattered oor way doon the front steps, gouldrin an coddin as we shoved oor way through the slap in the hedge intae the garden. The garden was nithin mair than a parcel o weeds wi an odd marigold fightin for survival roon the edges.

Wardie wasn’y lang in gettin us organized. He pulled oot twa or three spades an pit the biggest o the boys tae the diggin an the rest o us tae the pullin o the weeds.

It wasn’y lang tae the black-birds an thrushes were in amang oor feet, feedin on the worms we were turnin up. Noo, Wardie had appointed wee Cecil charge-haun, wi instructions tae report ony wrang-daein, no matter hoo muckle, tae him. Even so, I wud say there was mair wrestlin an cloddin o staines an actin the eejit went on that day than ony diggin or weedin. But the threat o wee Cecil was aye there. So we had tae watch oor step.

I bluffed my way aboot the garden as best I cud, yankin up the odd lump o chickweek an lettin on I was jist as busy as the rest o them, An then, suddenly, I come on this leek. I cud hardly believe it. Full grown it was, as thick as your wrist, an hoo oul Wardie’s wife had missed it, I’ll niver know. It wud hae made a pot o broth on its ain. It was a stoater.

Noo, I had wrought a bit o a garden at my ain hoose, in a wee bit o groun jist fornent the hen-hoose. But I couldn’y even get a scallion through. No even a scallion. An noo here was this leek, full grew, an aboot tae be bucked oot wi the weeds. A leek like that growin in my garden wud quarely help the luk o my vegetable plot.

I lukked aboot me tae see if ony-body else had seen the leek. But they were aa tae busy tae be takin ony notice o the leek, or me ither. I bent doon an grabbed houl o the leek an pulled as hard as I cud. An up it came, as aisey as ye like. Nae bother a’ ta.

I shoved the leek up m’ genzie an went on pullin chick-weed jist as if nithin had happened. I couldn’y wait tae get hame an git the leek planted in my garden.

Then, fae oot o naewhere, there was this tap on my shou’der. I lukked roon an gazed intil the sneerin face o wee Cecil an his oul da. The lang airm o the law had caught up wi me.

“What were you going to do with it,” demanded Wardie, his gub richt up til mine an his breath reekin o stale whuskey.

“What am I gan tae dae wi what?” says I, lettin on I didn’y ken what he was talkin aboot.

“With that there,” bawled Wardie, stickin his haun up my genzie an pullin the leek doon for the hale class tae see. “What were you going to do with my leek?”

There was nae doot aboot it. I had been caught rid-haunded an my gub went the colour o a beet-root as wee Cecil started tae snigger an giggle an incite the hale school intae a riot o laughter at my expense.

“You intended to steal my leek. Didn’t you M‘Crory!” snarled Wardie, his oul face screwed up like a dried turnip. “And if it hadn’t been for my wee son Cecil noting your despicable action you would have stolen it. Wouldn’t you, M’Crory?”

I niver answered. There was nae point, even if I didn’y think takin an oul leek that was goin tae be chucked oot a job for the local constabulary.

“I thought so!” roared Wardie. “You’re a common wee thief! Aren’t you, M’Crory. And we all know what happens to thieves. Don’t we,


“Oh, ay, sir,” agreed my oul school-mates. “We all know what happens to thieves.” Fine pals they were.

“Cecil,” chirped Wardie to the boy wonder, “be a good wee boy and nip back to the class-room and get my cane.”

Wee Cecil bounded away like a spring rabbit an was back in aboot twa seconds wi the cane.

“Thank you my boy,” beamed Wardie. He tuk the cane in his twa hauns an bent it dible tae impress me wi the suppleness o it. The mair supple, the mair pain.

Wardie’s cane was very, very, supple. I thought I was goin tae be sick with pain as Wardie delivered me six slaps o the highest order, no tae mention a clout on the heid for no houlin my haun up high enough. He left me on my knees in amang the chick-weed, houlin my injured hauns and injured pride while wee Cecil laughed an giggled.

But I niver cried. I wanted tae. But I wudn’y. I wouldn’y gie them the pleasure. I jist tholed it as best I cud.

Well, autumn come an went an give way til the first frosts o winter. An it was a hard winter that year. But roon aboot Christmas time Wardie was gettin indisposed mair an mair often. An after Hogmanay it was even better. He was niver aboot the place a’ ta.

Yin coul January mornin we were kickin an oul fitba aboot the play-groun, killin time to see if Wardie was gan tae weigh in. Wee Cecil was rakin aboot on this brand new bike his da had gien him for Christmas. He was the only boy in the school that iver owned a new bike, an right enough, it wasn’y bad. Och it had brakes an a bell an iverything ye cud think off, an wee Cecil wasn’y hauf showin it off tae us boys. He zoomed in an oot between us, ringin the bell an makin “vroom” “vroom” noises, lettin on tae knock us doon. He skimmed me twa or three times, an he nearly couped me on mair than yin occasion.

“Richt, Cecil m’ boy,” says I tae mesel. Yince mair. Jist you dae that yince mair, an you’re for it.” An he dis. In he comes again fae the far corner o the playgroun, headin straight for me an goin faster an faster as he got claeser an claeser.

Weel, I waited tae he was nearly on top o me so he wudn’y hae time tae change course. Then I grabbed m’ schoolbeg by the straps an swung it roon m’ heid an caught him fair in the gub as he come flyin in. He hut the groun like a felled pig an lay in the muck screechin an squealin somethin terrible wi the bike ower the top o him. I thought I had him killed. But I give him anither dunt onyway. I reckoned I owed him yin for the leek.

An noo it was wee Cecil’s turn tae hae the hale school jeerin an laughin at him as he rolled aboot in the gutters, gettin his nice clathes a dirty an his brand new Hercules lyin wi the front forks pushed intae the back wheel. It was the best fun we had for a lang, lang time.

But it didn’y last lang. Suddenly, fae naewhere, Wardie was on the scene. I wasn’y sure if he had seen me knockin wee Cecil off the bike or no. But if luks cud kill, I was a deed man.

Then Wardie did a very strange thing. He jist picked wee Cecil up by the scruff o the neck wi yin haun an the remains o the Hercules wi the ither an dragged the pair o them through the hedge an intae the hoose. An we jist went on playin fitba. If I had kenned I was goin tae get away wi it as easy as that I wud hae clobbered wee Cecil lang ago.

Wardie came back in aboot five minutes. On his ain. An he niver even lukked at me. He rung the school bell an herded us aa intae the class-room and called the roll.

Wardie made the last scratch wi the pen in the roll-book and screwed the top on tae his ain bottle o ink. Then he ris tae his feet an plunnered aboot in the corner cupboard tae he foun a big printed sheet wi the tonic solfa on it. He slung it ower the blackboord.

“Right now," he smiled. “We’re going to have some singing lessons.”

We lukked at him, wonderin if he was richt in the heid. We couldn’y sing. Nane o us. But Wardie picked up the cane an pointed it at me.

“You, M‘Crory! Up to the front!”

I lukked at Wardie, wonderin if the demon drink had driven him clean mad. But the cane was only an inch fae my nose. I ris fae m’ sate an ambled up beside Wardie an the tonic solfa.

“Right M’Crory,” growled Wardie, tappin the tonic solfa wi his cane. “It’s all very easy. All you have to do is sing doh, ray, me, fah, soh, la, tee, doh.”

I shook my head. I wasn’y gan tae sing an make an eejit o mysel. An oul Wardie kenned it.

“Sing, M’Crory!” he roared as he tapped the tonic-solfa wi the cane an hut me a crack on the heid wi his free haun. “Sing! Doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh!”

I clenched my teeth an shook m’ head as I got ready for the nixt clout. “I’m no singin” I toul him.

“So,” wispered Wardie. “So. You’re not going to sing. Well, hold out your hand and we’ll let the cane sing for you.”

An Wardie let the cane sing on my haun. I can still hear the wumph of it as it raised welts across my fingers. Six times on each haun. It was the worst threshin I had iver got an I wanted tae cry. But I wudn’y. I tholed it ivery mornin for three weeks. Every mornin Wardie wud hae me up tae the front.

“Sing, M‘Crory!” he wud roar.

“I’m no singin” I wud answer.

“Hold out your hand, M‘Crory!” bawled Wardie, an away we’d go again. An all because I wudn’y sing. Weel, that’s what it was supposed to be for. But I knew what it was really for.

It was for knockin wee Cecil on his mooth an nose an wreckin his brand new Hercules. That’s what it was really for.

Hooever, time changes iverything. When I got to the age o fourteen I left the oul place o learnin, no very much the wiser, an still nae better at the singin.

I got a job up in Belfast, in Thompson’s Flour Mill. I got the train ivery mornin fae the station in Donaghadee an it left me off fornent the mill. You dinny gat mony o them oul steam trains knockin aboot nooadays. But I can still smell the reek an the cinders, even after aa these years.

Yin winter nicht, no lae lang after Christmas, I was makin my way to the station tae get the train hame. It was a wild nicht. The win was blawin in fae the Lagan an drivin sleet an snaw richt intil the station.

I shook the snaw fae m’ cap an kicked it fae m’ boots as I apened the carriage dure. It was warm an cosy an empty, except for yin oul cratur in a trench coat an a hat like Humphrey Bogart used to wear, lyin sleepin in the far corner. An you dinny need me tae tell you who it was.

You’re richt. It was oul Wardie, drunk as a lord an sleepin it off. his mooth openin an claesin in time wi his snores. The carriage was reekin wi the smell o whuskey an beer. I thought aboot takin anither carriage. But I didn’y. I hadn’y seen Wardie for years, so I thought I wud travel wi him, jist for oul times sake.

I stepped intae the carriage an claesed the dure quietly. I didn’y want tae waken Wardie in case he wud ask me tae sing again. I sat doon in the sate opposite him an watched him snorin an gruntin, mindin aa the terrible hammerins he had give me at the school.

Suddenly, the carriage lights give a bit o a flicker, the oul engine got up a bit o steam, an wi a toot on the whustle we’re on oor way tae Donaghadee. The sudden lurch wok Wardie up. He grunted as his eyes flickered open an stared at me. But he didn’y recognize me. He gien anither grunt, then drapped his heid an went back tae sleep.

When we got tae Dundonald Wardie was still in the land o dreams. An by the time we got tae Newtownards he was snorin like a trooper. We rattled awa on intae the nicht an the snaw, through Ballyfotherley an Cannyreagh, an finally intae Donaghadee.

Noo, this was my stop. An it was Wardie’s tae, for the oul train was at the end o the line. An I did think aboot wakenin him. I did. But sure it wud hae been a shame tae wake him, noo he was sleepin sae peacefully.

I lifted m’ lunch-box an ris to m’ feet as quiet as I cud. I apened the dure an then tuk yin last luk at oul Wardie, sleepin like a baby, as harmless a cratur as you wud see onywhere. There wasn’y a sound as I stepped oot intae the snaw and claesed the dure.

It was freezin coul. But I stood an watched the engine bein un-hooked at the buffer end o the train an a new engine hooked on tae the front, ready for the haul back tae Belfast. I watched, feared Wardie micht wake up an get off. But he didn’y.

An there it was. I stood on the platform in the snaw an sleet an win as Wardie rolled awa back tae the big smoke. Noo, whether he woke up in Newton, or whether he went he hale way back tae Belfast, I niver did fin oot. But I had a funny feelin he wud be indisposed the nixt day an there wud be a lot o happy weans pittin as much distance as they cud between theirsels an the oul school.

An I’ll tell you somethin else. As I stood an watched the train pull Wardie intil the nicht, I was singin. At the top o my voice.

It’s funny. Hoo ye can sing. When ye hae got somethin tae sing aboot.

Hugh Robinson

• • • • •


Big Hoose fowks an raggit fowks baith gets plucks.

A licht-heeled mither maks a sweir dochter.

Ye hae sut yer time, like monies a guid guss.



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