Sunday, 24 June 2012

Our Aunty Sheila

Aunty Sheila and me.

It's OK, don't adjust your apparatus, this is just a long overdue diversion. I know this isn't 1992, but we'll catch up later. It just seems the right time to more than mention Aunty Sheila.
 Our wee cousin Elaine Rose in Australia has managed to correctly date a lot of photographs and some disjointed memories floating around in my head.

So, I'll start by telling you about my Aunty Sheila.
It's really hard to know where to begin with Sheila ! OK, let's start with the photo at the top. This is me on a visit back to Glasgow where I was born, from Wolverhampton, where we now lived with my Father's family. Sheila was the oldest of my Mother's two sisters.
To put you fully in the picture, Mimsie's Father died when she was very young, and her Mother, my Gran Sinclair, remarried and had two girls, Sheila then Rena.
This photo was taken, I'm almost certain, outside the cafe in Lorne Street where Sheila and her cronies hung out. Sheila doted on me and spoiled me rotten. This was in the days when just about everything was rationed. But she would gladly give up her coupons to get stuff for me.  I actually have a memory of a couple of years later, in the same cafe, being stuffed with ice cream and sweeties and being given money to put in the juke box. And being as sick as a dog when I got home ! Sheila used to show me off to her pals like a pet puppy. She used to say to me "Go on, talk that nice English way !"  She was fair tickled that she had a wee nephew that didn't talk with a Glasgow accent. Sheila spoke good Glasgow Scots in all it's richness, but she used to mimic accents and have us in stitches laughing. My main memory of that time is that she was so full of life and fun !  It was her and Rena who introduced me to "The Ranch" or more correctly the Imperial Cinema at Paisley Road Toll. This is now, rather aptly, the Grand Old Opry. It got the name "The Ranch" because most of the movies shown were Hollywood westerns. It's no wonder Glasgow folk of a certain age are not in the least fazed by the United States, it's all just so familiar to them ! But it wasn't just the movies, it was the singing too ! In those days, if there was any more than two or three people together, they would start a sing-song. Everybody sang ! Whether they could sing or not, was neither here nor there. Sheila, and Rena later, would hear a song on the radio or the juke box and decide that was their song. So they would spend ages learning the words and tune and practice almost non stop. I remember Sheila discovering the Kitty Allen version of "Little things mean a Lot " and trying all sorts of ways to get a similar effect to Kitty Allen's recording. (I thought it was Doris Day, but Sandra corrected me, shows she's got a better ear than me !) Singing in the toilet sounded good but nobody could really hear her, so she had the brainwave of singing into a cup. This was fine and worked well, but it had to be a particular bone china cup of my Gran's, not just any old tea cup. She was devastated when this cup got broken, it was as if someone had cut her throat ! She even accused Rena of breaking it deliberately out of jealousy !

Aunty Rena, Mimsie and Aunty Sheila outside 22 Rutland Crescent just after the War.

When my Gran Sinclair was alive, the radio was on all the time. "It's a fine cheery thing, the wireless " Gran always said "But I aye liked Winston Churchill during the war, an' I'll greet for a month when he dies !" Sadly, Churchill outlived my Gran by nearly ten years. Quite soon before Gran died, Sheila had married John Gill,and I've always had the impression that it was not an approved marriage. I was too young to know the details but I used to hear certain older family members muttering about "Catholics", whatever they were ? I do remember that my Gran loved John Gill like a son in the short time she had with him. John Gill was heart-broken when she died and this was the first time I'd ever known a grown man to weep !

Sheila and Johnny's Wedding
Uncle Johnny had served in the Korean War and had been in Africa during the Mau-Mau uprising and he was one of these guys who was a born soldier although he was actually a very sensitive man. Many's the time I can remember him breaking down helplessly in tears while trying to sing Jolson's "Sonny Boy " Most folk mocked him mercilessly, especially Sheila !  But later in my life I used to wonder if there was any significance in this ? 
So, soon after my Gran's death he re-enlisted with the Black Watch and next thing we knew Sheila and him were off to Berlin.
At first, we all missed Sheila, but then the letters came. Sheila was a natural story teller, she should have been a writer ! I remember Dave and I sitting listening to Mimsie reading out Sheila's letters. Can anyone remember being helpless with laughter, just listening to a letter being read ? That was the effect Sheila's letters had on us !
This was Berlin before the Wall went up, but there was the Russian sector, the American sector and the British and French sectors. She didn't have much time for the American sector because everything was wildly expensive and "full of bloody yanks !" But she loved the Russian sector because she got to meet tragically poor Berliners who all had a story to tell, and Sheila loved a story ! In her married quarters, she had a maid, Annaleis, who was a good bit older than her. She used to write to us that she was so busy cleaning and tidying up before Annaleis came, because she couldn't ask her to do this for her. " Och, I couldn't do that, it would be like asking Mammy to do the housework. And the poor soul has had such a hard time o' it with the war and that !" So Annaleis was actually more of a coffee morning guest than a housemaid. But she taught Sheila German and told her a lot about what the war was like from the other side. So we all got stories like these and the time she got arrested by the Russians and rescued by the Americans "while those useless English chinless wonders just hung aboot scratchin' their heads !"

Sheila in Berlin 1957 with drawing of Gran Sinclair.
And the parcels ! One birthday she sent us Water Pistols. In Glasgow, then, you got a water pistol with a wee rubber bulb that held a spoonful of water if it was lucky. With the Water Pistols Sheila sent us,  Dave and I ruled the back courts! They held about a litre of water and we could soak someone in the street from a third storey window. Mimsie hated them, and knew Sheila had sent them to us because she knew we'd love them and that Mimsie couldn't stop us using them, after all they were a birthday present ! We used to think " If this is an example of how the Germans make water pistols, how the hell didn't they win the war ?"

John Gill in Berlin 1957 proud as punch of his stripes
After the Berlin tour was up, she was a bit homesick for Glasgow. Personally, I think it was the bond Sheila and Mimsie had . She moved into a flat in the next close to us in Preston Street where my cousins Raymond  and Russell were born. Uncle Johnny was stationed in Stirling, then Edinburgh but got weekend passes to Glasgow.
This period was one of the happiest parts of my childhood. Sheila was all for anything modern, especially if it was entertaining, so she was one of the first in our family to get a television set. Black and white, only two channels, and it closed down at 11pm with the National Anthem ! Mimsie pretended that it was not for us, we would go blind watching it and our brains would turn to mush ( she was probably right there ! ) , but the truth was, we just couldn't afford it. But Sheila, somehow or other, could. So it became the communal telly and Dave and I can well remember Saturday evenings with the TV guide pinned to the wall marked when we would change channels, and Mimsie making up a basket of hot bacon rolls and other stuff to bring up to Sheila's flat. We would watch, Gunsmoke, or Laramie,  then some quiz show, then it was time for Dave and I to run down to the cafe for a bowl of ice cream and a couple of bottles of ginger and then back to settle down to the late night movie. But with Sheila there it was real audience participation stuff ! Some of her comments were classic. Bette Davis was "a torn-faced besom !" and Lord Laurence Olivier was described as being " a bloody English snob that couldn't act his way out of a wet paper poke !" Of course movies like Mrs Miniver had Sheila and Mimsie in floods of tears...and loving every minute of it !

About 1960 Sheila, Raymond and baby Russell moved in to married quarters in Edinburgh. Uncle Johnny was by now transferred to the Army Pay Corps. 
Now Sheila could be bitingly scathing and she took no prisoners if the mood was on her ! I remember her talking about Uncle Johnny and his transfer. " The pen's mightier than the sword, is it ? Just as well, because he's rubbish with a sword ! Mind that time he was on guard duty, and the prisoners beat him up and locked him up in his own jail ? " This of course was an incident that had happened years ago and that Johnny would have much rather forgotten. Not much chance with Sheila !

For Dave and I, Aunty Sheila and Uncle Johnny were like the Aunt and Uncle books were written about. Dave and I would spend whole holidays in Edinburgh and we loved every single minute of it. Sheila would say " I just heard those big feet clumpin' up the path, so I put the frying pan on and got the fags out, because I knew it would be you two ! Right, get that eaten, and here's a tin o' Johnny's beer for you big yin, and here's a fag for you wee yin !"

I was twelve and Dave was nine !

Sheila read voraciously. Elaine Rose tells me that when Sheila lived in Sinclair Drive, beside the library, there was hardly a book in there that she hadn't read. I remember her telling Dave and I the whole story of "War and Peace" in an evening and the two of us were engrossed ! She had an amazing talent for that, it was the same with movies. Many years later I went to see "South Pacific" in the cinema and remembering the scenes and songs as if I'd seen them before, so good was Sheila's description !
And Johnny was the best uncle a wee boy could ever dream of having. He was a soldier and he was as smart as hell ! But he would teach us how to bull our shoes like army boots and how to make our beds with the covers so tight you could bounce a coin from them. And he would take us into the barracks and into the sergeants' mess  where we got taught snooker, poker and how to strip and rebuild bren guns. We got taken to Edinburgh Castle where he was stationed and where the army was excavating cellars to house computers for the Pay Corps. It was just fantastic to walk into Edinburgh Castle with the soldier who had actually raised the flag on the top turret above the Crown Jewels of Scotland. " Aye, but mind he got punishment duty, because the wind blew his tammie off his head and sent it flying over Princess Street ! That's what he got for trying to look so smart !" Yes, Sheila had no time for even a hint of pomposity.

My cousins Russell, Mark and Elaine Rose were born in Edinburgh and just as I was turning into a teenager Johnny and Sheila were posted to Singapore.

Singapore 1965

Sheila's health was never really robust and I also think she'd never got over losing her mother so young. Gran Sinclair was only forty five when she died !  Her temperament too, never really suited army life.  Later in life, I got the impression that Sheila felt trapped in a role that just wasn't for her. Johnny was a career soldier but the duty of a regimental wife was never going to be Sheila's. Who knows if their lives  would have been different if they'd had older relatives to guide them. After all, they were both really young and neither had parents to help out. I think that Sheila was experiencing a form of severe stress when she was in Singapore and was probably close to a breakdown. The Army Medical Corps in those days didn't really know what to do with wives then so they just put her on military strength tranquillisers and then more drugs to combat the side effects but never managed to cure what was really wrong with her.
And of course by this time drinks were fashionable, almost compulsory ! What a combination, drink and drugs !

The letters still came but they were never quite as good as the Berlin letters. Mimsie gradually stopped reading them to us and I'm sure she used to worry over them.

The next time we saw Sheila was on her return from Singapore. We had moved to a bigger flat in Battlefield. By our standards it was vast, three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom, plenty of room for four adults, two teenagers and five kids ! What were they thinking of ? OK, Mimsie only expected to put Sheila and her family up for a couple of weeks until the Army sorted out Married Quarters for them, but two weeks turned into six months !! Mimsie's attitude was "They're family, I'll sleep in the close rather than let them be homeless! "  And of course nobody questioned the authorities in those days. As it turned, out the army had lost the file and weren't aware of the situation until eventually questions were asked. We were all a bit shocked in the change in Sheila in just a couple of years. Well sure, there was a bit of a celebration at seeing them again, and a lot of drink sloshing about. But the celebration went on, and on, and "why not let's just get in the mood for Christmas ?" and then "let's make up for the Hogmanays we've not shared !" then " why don't we celebrate Burns' Night and Mimsie's birthday while we're at it ?" 
I don't think a single day passed during those six months when Sheila never had a drink. Years later we asked ourselves "Why didn't we say or do something then ? " The answer is, we were nearly all as bad !

Anyway, just after Easter, Johnny got his new posting, Germany !
It was another couple of years before we saw Sheila again and she wasn't looking much better. By now she had a hand bag full of prescribed drugs, but as she said herself, " Ach, they just give me anything to get rid of me, I probably know more about these drugs than those doctors do !"
Her and Mimsie were talking one day and she told her that in Singapore she'd often given Johnny a bit of a showing up in the Sergeants Mess. She said they blamed it on the drink but she admitted that she knew what she was doing. "Oh, Sheila, you shouldn't have done that ! Poor Johnny !" said Mimsie.
"Ach, I know, I know " she replied. " I couldn't help it !"

Singapore 1965. Sheila's cut herself out of the photo, maybe tells us something ?

Sheila and Mimsie, both in their different ways, had that damned, stiff-necked Scotch pride. Acknowledging that they'd been wrong about something just never occurred to them, either of them !

But there were still flashes of the old Sheila when you got her talking. 
I don't know if many people knew this, but Sheila had an extraordinary gift, or curse perhaps ?  She had the power of Psychokinesis and perhaps more ?
Don't believe me ? Ask Sandra and Dave, they witnessed it !
Now, I find it hard to write about this, because I haven't a clue what it was. It seemed to start after her mother, our Gran Sinclair, died. Gran Sinclair had a reputation of being able to read cups and tell peoples fortunes, but she was always reluctant to do it and used to say that she felt queer for days after it. We used to put it down to her frail health, she'd had rheumatic fever as a child and it'd left her with a weakened heart.

Aunty Rena, Donald Sinclair and Aunty Sheila

 Old Boaby, Donald Sinclair, Sheila and Rena's father, also had a bit of a talent for reading tea leaves in a cup. The story goes, that the last time he was asked to do it, he looked into someone's cup for a few moments then smashed the cup in the fireplace. "Whit on earth did ye dae that for, ye auld fool ?" He stood up, walked out the kitchen and never said a word about it, and never read a cup again in his life.
A week later, the person whose cup he looked at dropped dead in the street ! This was Donald McLeod, Aunt Isa's husband.
The whole thing seemed to be a sort of Highland spae wife tradition, and it was never really spoken about openly. 
But Sheila, one day, almost certainly still grieving for her mother, said that  she was sort of compelled to speak to her dead Mother ? The details I don't know, remember, all this stuff was not for weans!
Later, she found that by resting her hands on a table and putting herself into a receptive frame of mind, she could lift the table completely off the floor and float it about the room. 
Now this was witnessed ! Not by me unfortunately, but by Sandra and Dave, who were scared shitless ! And loads of other folk too of course. What good came out of it I'll never know. Occasionally I would ask Sheila about this talent she had and curiously, she was kind of guarded when she answered me. She did tell me that it left her exhausted for days afterwards and she couldn't just switch it on or off, but she would get a sort of sensation that she was going to be able to do it. I think she realised that she didn't know what it was, and she herself never accepted the traditional spae wife explanation, although that was what she told other people when they asked her. Sheila was smart and she was clever but she had no formal education in stuff like this. Actually, even now, who does ?
Cranks and "Men in Black" ?  I think it was a truly incredible gift she had. I regret bitterly that I wasn't smart, or brave enough to ask her more about it.  But I don't think it made her happy....apart from perhaps one time; in Germany, she had a friend in an advanced state of pregnancy. Well, she told Sheila that she was going back to UK to have the child. Soon after that, Sheila begged her not to go as she just knew that it would end in tragedy. And sure enough the poor woman went into labour early and if she'd taken the planned trip the baby and herself would not have survived. I didn't know this until Elaine Rose told me very recently. I also didn't know how much Sheila told Elaine Rose about her talent/curse.  Sheila did tell her that her mother warned her not to have anything to do with it, and Elaine Rose was not to get involved with it either. Elaine Rose told me about one time her brother Raymond and his wife Maxine wanted to do a bit of spirit pestering and reluctantly Elaine Rose got roped in. Well, nothing happened of any significance, until Elaine Rose went up to visit Sheila the next day. 
" I know what you were doing last night ! I thought I told you not to  do anything like that ? "
"But how did you know ?" asked Elaine Rose.

" My Mother told me !"

Make of this what you will !

Then, as I was becoming an adult, I seemed to lose touch with my Aunty Sheila. She and Johnny and the kids were posted to Germany, then to Portsmouth, I think ? Then to  Freckleton near Preston as Johnny's Army career was coming to an end. 
I think by then their marriage was really over, but like most people of their generation they kept up the image of being together "for the kids!"

Aunty Sheila in Battlefield Gardens

In the mid seventies, they moved to East Kilbride and we started to see more of them again. By this time Sandra and I were married and had Lucy. We would see them at Mimsie's  the occasional weekend but these had degenerated into drunken debacles. It was like a competition to see who could get comatose the quickest. Very sad for all of them !

One of the saddest things was when Sheila, Johnny, Mimsie, Beaupa and Sandra , Lucy and me took a boating holiday on the Caledonian Canal. It should have been a great holiday, we'd never done anything like this before, but , for me, it was overshadowed by realising that I was watching my dear Aunt and Uncle splitting up.

Sandra, Sheila, Mimsie, Beau-Pa, Lucy and Johnny at Fort Augustus.

Well, within five years the family had broken up completely. The kids were all married and left home and Sheila had taken up with a curious old man she'd met when they were stationed in Freckleton. John Harrison always used to say that if Sheila wanted to drink he would be only too happy to get it for her. He absolutely doted on her and would have sold the shirt off his back for her. He took a drink like most men of his generation, but he wasn't a drinker. And he was so old ! Although it might have looked like Sheila just tolerated him because he bought her drink and didn't criticise her, I think she was genuinely fond of him. He was definitely of a past generation. I wish I could have got to know him better, I could probably learned a lot from him.
Mimsie became a bit scunnered with the drinking, but Beau-Pa liked a drink. Beau-pas problem was that after a couple of drinks he thought he was twenty one again, but he wasn't, and he just couldn't hold drink like he could when he was a young man! So many a weekend, he would go over to Sheila and John's flat in Sinclair Drive and drink himself almost comatose. When that happened, none of them had the wits left to phone a taxi, but they always managed to phone Sandra to scrounge a lift, even at 2.30 in the morning. Sandra didn't drink but they knew if they'd asked me I would probably have had a few drinks and I wasn't going to drive. So it was poor Sandra who got lumbered with the "drunk run"! One time, she had managed to bundle Beau-Pa down the stairs and into the car but when they got to Minard, Beau-Pa fell out the car and lay on his back gazing at the stars.
 " Just look at those stars, gel !"
"I'll bloody stars you, you old drunk ! Wait till Bella gets you, you'll be seeing more than stars...."
At this, Mimsie appeared at the door and Beau-Pa was dragged upstairs to get his tongue-lashing and then the cold shoulder treatment.
I don't know why she bothered ?

Johnny had taken up with a woman in East Kilbride and I always got the impression that he felt that there was now a barrier between him and us. Not as far as I was concerned ! But we saw less and less of Johnny until it was as if he just faded out of our lives. I can't blame him, he was trying to settle himself into a new family and I'm sure that wasn't easy !

Just after Beau-Pa died and Mimsie kind of went to pieces, Mimsie and Sheila stopped seeing each other. I didn't know until much later what was said or  what had really caused it. Apparently, Mimsie, Sheila and Rena were together at some do or other and Sheila got in a bit of a state and she and Mimsie disagreed about something fairly trivial. " I can't deal with Sheila when she's like this, Sandra, can you just take me home?"
But the next week Rena told her that Sheila had said "Och, just let her go, she's only a half sister anyway !"
 Mimsie was in a very bad way and that really hurt her deeply. But Sheila too was going through a bad time And I don't think she was ever aware of having said this ! Drink can let things slip off your tongue that you don't mean ! Neither of them were behaving the way everyone else expected them to. 
So they drifted apart.
And we couldn't stop it.
Damned Scotch pride !

At first Sheila just wasn't mentioned, but before too long it was "I wonder what Sheila would say about that ?" or "Remember the way Sheila used to tell that story ?"  And soon it was never a day passing without her name being mentioned. Even the daft sort of spae-wife stuff, like when a door banged shut unexpectedly, " Oh ! that's Sheila letting us know !"
Mimsie's cousin Greta became a regular weekend guest at Minard. She was someone of Mimsie's generation, but, no disrespect intended, she wasn't Sheila ! Mind you, I'll always be grateful to Greta for just being there for Mimsie when there were times we just couldn't cope.

I often have a wee nagging doubt in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, I could have done more to get them back together. But I just smother it by remembering how hard things were for us at the time just keeping a roof over our heads! And I thought that if I didn't say much, that they would sort it out between themselves because they'd never fallen out like this before.
It was a pretty awkward time for Sandra and I, because Sandra's firm was Sheila and old John Harrison's landlord and when Alec Getty, Rena's husband, came in to pay the rent he would always speak civilly to Sandra and kind of let her know what was happening to Sheila. So should we have passed more of this on to Mimsie ? I don't know !

About six years later we got a message that Sheila was in the Victoria Hospital very gravely ill. There wasn't a moment's hesitation from Mimsie. "Ronald, can you take me there now ? Right now !". 
That was the last time I saw my Aunty Sheila in life. She knew me, and more importantly she knew Mimsie even through all the drugs she was on. It's a strange thing to say, but on her deathbed she looked better than I'd seen her for years. It was as if all her worries and frustrations had left her in peace and we'd got back the Sheila of old. 
So they were reconciled in Sheila's last few days.
I know that for the rest of Mimsie's life, she was so glad they got together one last time.

I don't have the words to tell you the emotions that writing this has brought up. I'm not good at that .

My Aunty Sheila.

So, there you are, this is our Aunty Sheila. Our lives would all have  been poorer without her in it.

Normal (ha!) service will be resumed in 1992.