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Authors: Meg Henderson

Chasing Angels

BOOK: Chasing Angels
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Praise for Meg Henderson’s novels:

THE HOLY CITY

‘A hugely absorbing story. Henderson brings the horror and pain of wartime experiences vividly to life with vigorous humour, commonsense wisdom and vitality.’

Observer

BLOODY MARY

‘A novel full of the rich detail of domestic lives, told with humour and sharpness.’

Scotland on Sunday

CHASING ANGELS

‘Henderson writes from a position of uncompromising humanity. A strong, atmospheric writer with gifts of insight, she has a sharp and tarry black humour, so while she
attacks the objects of her wrath, she leavens the battle with a running current of dark and infectious wit.’

Glasgow Sunday Herald

Also by Meg Henderson

FINDING PEGGY: A GLASGOW CHILDHOOD

THE HOLY CITY

BLOODY MARY

DAISY’S WARS

THE LAST WANDERER

SECOND SIGHT

A SCENT OF BLUEBELLS

This ebook edition published in 2012 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road
Edinburgh
EH9 1QS
www.birlinn.co.uk

First published in 2000 by Flamingo, an imprint of Harper
CollinsPublishers

Copyright © Meg Henderson 2000 and 2012

The moral right of Meg Henderson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-192-7

Version 1.0

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I find the older I get the bolshier I get too, so this may very well be my last ever batch of acknowledgements in a book. There are those, however, who supplied factual
information, like Lillias Grant and her fine body of women at the National Trust for Scotland’s Glenfinnan Monument Centre, who gave of their time, and unbeknown to at least one of them, her
personality. And the Barras people deserve a mention, the vast army of Pearsons who contributed snippets here and there, and the Barras Enterprise Trust. Most of it, though, the streets, the
stories and characters I remember from childhood expeditions to the Barras on a Sunday afternoon, a ritual for many Glasgow children of the time. And there was no particular Father Frank McCabe: he
didn’t exist. He is an amalgam of all the priests I ever knew. Parts of his personality can be traced back to the many tyrants who tried to impose themselves, unwanted and uninvited on my
childhood, so I suppose it’s only fair that they should now take a bow. At a public appearance years ago I was ambushed by a coven of rabid nuns complaining that in an earlier book I had used
the real names of the nuns who scarred the schooldays of many children, my own included. I pointed out then that those women had enjoyed a great deal of power – which they abused – over
little swine like me and the price they had to pay for that power was the risk that one of the little swine would grow up to be a big swine who one day might tell the world about them and name
them. However, I enjoyed the Battle of the Rabid Nuns so much that I thought I’d go for the priests this time.

Contents

Questions About Angels

Chasing Angels

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

Questions About Angels

Of all the questions you might want to ask

about angels, the only one you ever hear

is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time

besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin

or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth

or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?

Do they swing like children from the hinges

of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?

Do they sit alone in a little garden changing colours?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,

their diet of unfiltered divine light?

What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall

these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud would he leave a hole

in a river and would the hole float along endlessly

filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?

If an angel delivered the mail would he arrive

in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume

the appearance of the regular mailman and

whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.

The only question you ever hear is about

the little dance floor on the head of a pin

where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions,

billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse

into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:

one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,

a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful

eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over

to glance at his watch because she has been dancing

forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

Billy Collins

from his collection
Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes

Chasing Angels

The entrance to the Barras Market, and to generations of Glaswegians especially, gateway to exotica. There’s not much you can’t get there, from candyfloss to snake
oil and beyond. For me as a child the real delight was in watching the people, like Chief Abadu and Cockney Jock, and my now famous one-legged Uncle Hughie, who lived in nearby Stevenston
Street.

1

She had never much liked her brother, that was what it amounted to. In her hand was a snap of the two of them, taken many years ago when she was a child. She turned it over and
saw her mother’s small, careful handwriting: ‘Peter and Kathleen,’ it said, ‘1956.’ She traced the letters with her finger, listening to Lily’s voice in her head
as she did so. Funny how deeply touching someone’s handwriting was when they’d gone, she thought, a link more personal and lasting than anything else she could imagine. No chance of
that with her father then; she doubted if Old Con’s fingers had ever been free of a glass or a bottle long enough to learn to write. She tried to control the smile flickering around the
corners of her mouth. She didn’t understand why, but she had been laughing a lot in the last few days, and she was beginning to wonder if it was perhaps getting out of control. She looked
again at the studio-posed photo of herself aged three and her fourteen-year-old brother. The child Kathleen was sitting in a wicker chair, her best dress decorously arranged around her, and that
peculiar ribbon bow Lily always tied in her hair that made her look as though she had a budgie sitting on her head. She looked at Peter, standing well to the side and looking uncomfortable, as
though he didn’t want to be there; how significant was that? The distance between the two frozen images was almost palpable, she thought, even on a piece of paper. And it wasn’t caused
by the eleven-year age difference; they would have disliked each other even if they had been twins.

She disliked everything about him. The way he whistled ‘Pedro the Fisherman’ as he came up the stairs, in the sure and certain knowledge that whoever heard it would
rush to the door to let him in, which, of course, they always did. Who else but Peter would have his own theme song? There was a sureness, an arrogance about him that made you either adore him or
loathe him. He always knew everything better than anyone else, and he didn’t hesitate to tell them so; Peter Kelly was the arbiter of the universe, and what Peter Kelly said went. That was
the odd thing, other people were only too happy to accept his version of their lives, grateful even. Even if they were older and more battle-scarred in life, they accepted that Peter was more
knowledgeable than they were themselves, and they revered him for it, honoured almost that he had taken the trouble to involve himself in their humble little existences. For Kathy, though, it had
always been like the King’s New Clothes, and she was the boy who had noticed he was naked; her brother had never fooled her for an instant, and she sensed that he knew it too. Watching him,
listening as he pontificated, she felt his unease at her scrutiny, almost to the point where he couldn’t stop himself glancing at her from the corner of his eye, knowing what was in her mind
and wondering if she would put her thoughts into words. His sarcasm could be cruel, but it never made any impression on her, even when she was a child and he an adult. There was that one time, that
defining moment, when he had seen through him. As a child she had loved reading and writing little stories, and she was good at art during her schooldays, so naturally Peter had to find a way of
putting her down. ‘You are,’ he once said scathingly to her, ‘interested only in yourself. All your pastimes are solitary, which proves that you have no interest in other
people.’ And even as she listened to him declaiming from on high, the thoughts that sprang into her mind weren’t of hurt or anger, she felt no impulse to argue her corner. Instead, she
suddenly thought,
‘He’s jealous! The great Peter Kelly is jealous of his wee sister!’
He didn’t return her smile in response, but then he knew why she was smiling.
‘What an arse!’
she thought, her usual insult towards her brother, and everyone else who annoyed her, come to that. Lily used to chide her for it, but it wasn’t as bad as
some of the things you heard on the streets every day, it was quite ladylike in fact. ‘Ye shouldnae call yer brother that, Kathy!’ Lily would say. ‘But he
is
an
arse!’ Kathy would repeat joyously. Blood may well be thicker than water, but it wasn’t glue, certainly not in their case, and the fact remained that she had never really warmed to him
and, in truth, a truth furthermore that bothered her not at all, he had never really warmed to her.

She was sitting on the floor of her father’s home in Stevenston Street, sifting through the detritus of the life Old Con had shared with her mother and beyond, sorting
through the papers and family photos, deciding which she would keep. It had been a feature of her nature since her teens, this need to tidy up, to tie off every loose end. Even when whoever held
the other end wasn’t bothered or wasn’t there to be bothered, when arguments were gone and forgotten, to Kathy there was always something more to say, a final comment to
really
finish it off, and only then could she file it away in one of the many compartments of her mind. The tendency had been there already, of course. ‘It doesn’t matter!’ Lily would
say. ‘Let it be!’ She smiled, thinking of the number of times she had heard that, and still she couldn’t do it. It wasn’t as if she wanted to pursue things to the bitter
end, it wasn’t really something she could control, that was what even Lily never understood, and after Lily had, well, when Lily was no longer there, the tendency had taken a real grip. She
could never forget anything, unfinished business of any kind worried her. It was how she coped, how she stayed in control, which was why she was here, she thought, looking around Con’s house,
going through the meagre goods and chattels of a dead man. There was little in the entire house she wanted, and that was a fact, maybe because she had never lived here, apart from these last
months, and she didn’t see that as living, more like boarding or just passing through. Even so the usual nightmares had gathered in intensity while she had been here. Since the day she had
left, all those years ago, she had been constantly waiting for a giant hand to reach down from the sky and drag her back to the East End of Glasgow where she had grown up, and where so many of her
worst memories lay in wait for her, not to mention the recurring nightmare that was rooted here. That was how she thought of it, as though her life in Glasgow wasn’t so much in the past as
dormant, waiting for her to stray near enough to lay claim to her once again. Her life in these streets lay some twenty years or more in the past, but it was as though she couldn’t believe
that her escape was permanent; the hand was ever-present, ever hovering above her, just waiting for an opportunity. In those black dreams she was always back here, and even though she would protest
throughout that she didn’t belong here, whoever was directing the dream would ignore her, till she woke, sobbing and drenched in sweat, in her cottage all those miles and years away, her legs
twisting the bedclothes in a desperate attempt to get away.

BOOK: Chasing Angels
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