Can you remember the first time your work was published in print? I don’t, but I have the proof. This is a photograph of a story poem that I wrote in 1984. At the time I appear to be a compassionate twelve year old, it’s good to see that the issues that bothered me then, still concern me today. But, current affairs aside, I wonder how excited I was at seeing my words in print. I wonder if I showed the publication to all of my friends and family. I wonder if I called myself a writer?
I doubt it
I knew when I was twelve year old that I wanted to become a writer. I knew it when I left school and began working in a frozen food shop for £24.50 a week on a YTS, I even knew it when I fell into the role of retail manager and somehow survived the role for twenty years. And throughout that time, even though I spent my happiest hours writing, I was never a writer, not a real one that is. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and began to see pieces of my writing appeared in magazines and newspapers. Yet when ever I introduced myself to someone, I was Eilidh, the retail manager, writing was just a hobby.
When is a writer a writer?
I began calling myself a writer half way through my undergraduate degree at Stirling University. That’s not to say I was comfortable with it. In fact, I would say it under my breath, quickly, and would try to hide my scarlet face. It felt uncomfortable, I felt like a fraud. By this time though, I had managed my way around an essay or two, I was getting decent grades and my reading had increased ten-fold. And as my confidence grew, I began to publish more. The writing itself was mediocre, the publications were small, but I was being published and more importantly – read.
I published a 42,000 word novella in 2014, (under a different name). It was a piece of work I had written many years before, and that was reflected in the writing style. Never the less, I sold over 1000 copies and made a small, very small amount of money. But I was still embarrassed to tell people that I was a writer, and even more so, published. Online was easier though, I marketed my book like hell. I went full on hard sell, talking to strangers, engaging with people who I couldn’t see, and hiding the fact that deep down inside I was terrified of the person I was becoming, the person I always wanted to be, I just wasn’t sure exactly who she was though.
In 2016, I began a Masters in Creative Writing. The course was okay, but it was the legitimacy I felt while doing the course that finally gave the confidence to say, ‘I am a writer,’ still, however, very quietly.
It was probably the year after graduating from university that I began to discover the answer to my question –When is a writer a writer? I was still working part time in the retail sector, but for a charity, and actually using my managerial skills to do some good. When I wasn’t at work, I was reading or writing, or at least thinking about writing. I began to send more and more of my work off to magazines, zines and competitions. I got plenty of rejections, but a small proportion was published and my confidence grew. I began to really enjoy my craft, I enjoyed putting new skills into practice and writing at my own pace. I felt connected to the work I was producing, passionate and I looked forward to it. I had read so many writing tips about when to write, how long I should spend writing, do I need to write daily, how do I find inspiration? I read articles on how to combat writers block, I was even told writers block doesn’t exist. And although all opinions are legitimate, they are only legitimate to the person writing them. In the end, I decided that the only advice I should listen to, is my own.
When I stopped putting pressure on myself to write a particular way, or at a particular time, or for that matter, act in a way that I thought a writer might act, I found I could just write. For me, and this is my opinion, a writer is a writer when they connect to their work, when they allow the writing to be part of them and them a part of the writing.
When I look back at the The Tramp, I see Eilidh the twelve year old writer, she is the writer I have been striving to become for all these years, connected, compassionate, self determined and confident, it just took me a while to find her again.
We whaur raking for treasure this efternuin, Doun the back of the bing, The bit where ma Ma kin see us, Frae ower the kitchen sink. And well–
Buried doun beneath some foosty plastic bags- Fou of someone else’s ‘sexy’ Tennent’s Extra cans, We fund four wheels of a Silvercross pram.
We brought them hame and dunked them in a puddle by the kerb, The drain gunk cleaned the rust up, they whaur looking quite superb. Then Willie,
Willie wis having a muck aroond – Spinning the wheels, and ripping them Roond and roond and roond, Until the cauld muck spat Intae the plumes That our laughing made.
Oh, and then!
Willie chored a fence post frae oot the back eh Mr Bain’s While I was shottie.
‘But it was Ian that made the bogie!’
And it was the best boggie the Fruit-and-Nut scheme had ever seen. A pure dr-eeam. He made the seat frae a scullery chair, And drilled it tae a widden frame- Remember? The fence post that Willie chored frae the back eh Mr Bain’s?
Then Willie – he bagged first go.
So he pulled the boggie up the hill. Right oot the top of the street – and wow! There I wis, racing him doun the hill like Seb Co Aboot to cross the line – And claim ma gold,
When Willies orange helmet slipped – or so am told And the next thing I kent- Am lying On the kerb – Oot cold And wi a skint knee.
And Willie – Well – He wis flying oor ma heed and As you ken I was lying there – half deid But the blooming bogie – Well It didnae even ken tae stop, It smashed into the back Of Mr Law’s New – fancy – Ford –
‘But is no oor fault officer – Ian never put any breaks on it. ‘
This poem is featured in the Lies, Dreaming Podcast #11 named Treasure. Click here to hear me read this poem.
This is my family, or part of it. That’s me on the left in my pink and white gingham dress, smiling because I don’t care that the elastic around the sleeve irritates my arms and the neckline strangles me. My socks are brilliant white, the proper wool ones that you steep in a sink of boiling water for hours until a thick film of soap powder floats in clumps on the surface. John has matching socks. He’s my little brother, he is three years old in this picture making me six. John doesn’t look as happy as I do, perhaps because Mum cut the sleeves of his favourite red jumper and made it into a t-shirt; he cried for hours afterwards. John and I are both wearing shiny patent leather shoes, good ones from Clarks. We often went there to get our feet measured. They put your foot into a strange wooden contraption and then the shop person slid a bar down the front of it until it touched your toes, it always tickled. Right in the middle of us is my Mum, she looks happy. Mum must be thirty-one years old in this picture; I don’t remember her being this young though. Look at how tanned we are. You can almost see the white line at the top of John’s arm were the sun couldn’t quite reach. The little dog to the left of me is Prince or at least I think so, it might be Ben, my Auntie Annie’s dog. We had a dog called Prince but Dad gave him to the local police man. I’m not even sure why he gave him away, I think I was sad about it but I don’t remember.
The sky looks grey above our heads but this is an old picture and the summer had been wonderful. I was on my first long holiday from school and Mum took us to King George V Park. We’d been visiting Granny who lived behind the park. We’d have come in from the back gates. I know this because we are far away from the church tower; you can see it above Mum’s head looking like a giant green pencil. It’s the parish church, built in 1845 and the cornerstone of Bonnyrigg; this is where I went to Sunday school. The big old chimney at the far left belonged to a coal mine, it’s gone now. I can still remember the smell of the smoke. They stacked the coal up in huge black pyramids in the yard.
My big sister Marion is missing from this picture, Marion would have been ten. Going by low the angle that the picture is taken from, my sister may have been the photographer.
We all look happy. Except John that is. John is biting his nails. Maybe because Mum is about to feed his chocolate bar to the dog. Maybe because Dad isn’t there. This is likely why Mum isn’t wearing her wedding ring and looks full of life. For me? I’m smiling because I have two adhesive tattoos on my arm, a tiny glimpse of the person I was to become.
The following short story was published by McStorytellers – Pop along to their page and check out some of their other work.
‘Don’t You Read The Papers?’
‘Hiya Jeanie, how was work the day?’ Wullie slouched in the middle of the sofa wrapped up in a double duvet and yesterday’s Herald. The blanket of fag reek that rested above his head scattered when she bent down and kissed him on his jaggy cheek.
‘No the best,’ she replied. She pulled back the curtains and opened the window then walked into the kitchen. ‘I’ll tell ye about it after I put these messages away.’
The kitchen was a shit- tip. It was even worse than the shit-tip she had left at half-five that morning; last night’s dinner dishes sat in a basin of stinking cauld water with fat blobs of gravy and grease floating on the surface; soggy teabags lay piled in a heap at the side of the sink leaving a brown trail running along the grooves of the draining board. The toast crumbs were new though. They gathered in a thick sticky line on the worktop beside an open tub of Stork, a knife stuck in its shiny yellow spread. Jeanie dropped the message bags on the floor then ran her hand through her hair. She took a deep breath, held it, and then slowly puffed her cheeks out in a sigh. She kicked her shoes into the corner of the kitchen and they landed on a pile of dirty bath towels by the washing machine. Teeth clenched, she flicked the button on the kettle.
‘I’m sorry Jean I’m stopping your overtime. From this week until the foreseeable future you’ll only be required to work your contracted hours.’
Jeanie shuffled her bum on the chair and the PVC groaned. Mr Sanderson raised his eyebrows and Jeanie blushed.
‘It was the seat,’ she said.
‘Of course it was,’ his face went red and he frowned.
He looked at his desk and began fidgeting with a pile of application forms. There was a yellow post-it note stuck to the one on top. It read PENDING. He chewed the end of a ballpoint pen and scraped at a patch of angry skin at the side of his nose.
‘As I was saying,’ he continued, rolling dry skin between his fingers, ‘Head office has cut the overtime, the store has overspent on the budget, and I’m left with no choice.’
‘But I’m only contracted eight hours a week, how am I meant tae manage on eight hours, ye ken Wullies no working.’
‘I’m sorry Jean; it’s out of my hands.’
She stared at him, unblinking. Pompous prick, sitting there playing grown-ups in his dads suit. Who is he to call the shots when folk can barely earn enough to eat.
He swivelled his chair around to face the computer behind him.
‘That’ll be all Jean. After your shift today, you won’t be needed until Saturday.’
She stared at the back of his head and gritted her teeth. He picked up the phone. The meeting was over.
Back in the bakery she loaded a tray with part baked white rolls, onion batons, tiger rolls, and pumpkin bread. Twenty-five years she had worked for the Co-op and never had single day of sick. She hoisted the thick heavy metal tray up into the hot oven and slid it into the grooves; she set the timer, then slammed the door shut. Twenty-five years and she had always been the one to get the overtime. The heat whooshed onto her already burning face. He’d regret this, she was the only one who knew how tae work in all the departments in the shop. Seventeen minutes until the rolls baked. She splashed her face with cauld water and leaned over the industrial sink. Him, he’s no been in the door five minutes and he’s up head office’s arse, who does he think he is, swanning aboot the shop like he’s the big man, like he kens it aw.
After the final bake of the day, she cleaned out the oven, clattered the trays in the sink and scrubbed them with a soapy scourer. She washed the worktops and filled out her paperwork so that the Monday staff would have a proper stock count. Then she brushed and mopped the floor and set up a tray for the following morning’s bake. She hung up her apron and clocked out. Passing Mr Sanderson on her way out of the stockroom, she flipped open her phone and glared at the screen.
‘Finishing sharp today are we Jean?’ he asked but she continued walking by without acknowledging him.
‘Pompous little shit,’ she mumbled under her breath.
At the front of the shop, she picked up a metal basket and marched over to the produce section. The aisles were busy and the checkout supervisor was calling all available staff to the checkouts. Available staff, that was a joke, there were no available staff; they were all on the bloody checkouts. The reduced section was rammed packed full; someone would be getting his arse kicked for over-ordering. She picked up some cheap salad, tatties, tomatoes, oranges, and apples then crossed the aisle to the meat section. Score, another full reduced section. The brilliant thing about finishing at three o’clock was that any stock dated for the following day was marked down at half past two. She filled her basket wi mince and pork chops, meatballs and breaded fish cakes, all stuff she knew she could freeze.
‘You could at least leave some for the customers,’ Mr Sanderson had crept up behind her and was staring into her basket. He leant into the fridge and rearranged the remaining meat.
‘It’s cheap Mr Sanderson, and I am a customer. Anyway it’s about aw I can afford seeing as ma hours have been cut.’
‘I’m sure you’re not the only one who is struggling Jean.’
He turned his back and strode away, his keys jangling on the loop of his oversized trousers.
She separated the meat and fish into individual freezer bags, labelled them, and organised them into the little freezer box at the top of the fridge which was empty, apart from four frosty garden peas. At least they wouldn’t starve while this overtime ban was on. They would have to skimp on the heating for a wee while though and Wullie would have to have another go at his e-cigarette but they’d survive – just. At least they had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, no like some of they wee African bairns that you see on the telly. She put the towels into the washing machine and washed the dishes, put the lid on the Stork margarine and wiped the work-tops. Order restored for now. Pouring two cups of tea, she set the teabags aside to use later.
‘Here’s a fresh cup for you Wullie, have you been over the front door the day?’
Wullie pulled the duvet up to his chin, scattering ash onto the cream carpet.
‘Nah, what’s the point. Did you bring me fags?’
‘We cannae afford them. You can have the rest of ma baccy,’ she pulled a pouch of Amber Leaf from her jacket pocket and put it on the side of the sofa where he sat.
‘I’ll no manage on that,’ he said.
‘You’re gonnae have tae. I’ve just had ma hours cut, nae bloody overtime.’
‘Aw for fuck sake’, Wullie replied and reached for the Amber Leaf.
‘I’ve worked aw the hours that God sends in that place, aw the bloody hours and now I’m only needed on a Saturday and Sunday. It’s because of that bloody bonus system. He’ll be rolling in it if the shop meets target and what do we get? Nothing, no even a bloody thanks for lining his pockets.’
Wullie opened his mouth to speak, but Jeanie hadn’t finished.
‘He must be on thirty grand a year that laddie, probably more in fact. Thirty grand a year and living up yonder in them new houses in Brommieknowe. If it wasnae for you being off work Wullie, I’d tell them where tae shove it. Twenty-five years Wullie, twenty-five years. And…’ she took a deep breath.
‘Hold the bus Jeanie,’ Wullie interrupted. ‘The laddie is only trying tae do his job and I dinnae imagine it’s all that easy. Poor bastard is nearly bauld and he’s only twenty-two. Give him a break eh.’ He sat up straight, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. ‘Thirty grand isnae exactly rich ken, no under the fucking Tories. He threw the Herald into her lap. ‘Don’t you read the papers Jeanie? The country’s fucked.’
Jeanie sat silently seething. Wullie spent too much time wi his head in the newspapers these days. Ever since that goddamn referendum, all he cares about is the bloody SNP. It’s SNP this and SNP that, bloody Scottish Nose Pickers. She didn’t see what all fuss was about. Before aw that nonsense her and Wullie used to go line dancing up at the Poltonhall Miner’s Club on a Saturday night, he was even good at it and didnae care if she couldnae get her steps right; they would laugh about it over a chippy and a cup of tea when they got home. Now she had tae go wi Brenda Carmichael who was too bloody smart for her own good; she had the full get-up, cowboy hat and boots to match. Brenda didn’t do chippy food though, Brenda did Weight Watcher’s on a Sunday and didnae eat all weekend. Jeanie had kept up wi the dancing though, she enjoyed the music, and it got her out of the house for a wee while. Wullie said there was no point in it anymore. He didnae seem tae care, no about the dancing, no about her, no about anything except the SNP. In fact he didnae care if it she’d have tae spend the next month worrying about topping up the electricity card because his face was stuck in a bloody newspaper all day while she kept things ticking over.
It was a forty-minute uphill walk to Gorebridge. Jeanie wore her white Hi-Techs over a pair of a pair of American tan tights. The trainers felt nice and comfy, they were wide and didn’t make her feet sweat as much as her shoes did. She looked down at her navy pleated skirt that swished from left to right as she walked, quickly to the beat of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart. She played the music at full pelt on her mobile phone to distract from the ache in her varicose veins and the nervous feeling in her belly. Wullie had smiled at her for the first time in ages that morning.
‘Dinnae worry Jeanie, you’re doing the right thing.’
The main road took her up through Nitten and round by the auld miner’s cottages. She dodged in and out of grey recycling tubs that were arranged neatly against the auld brick walls. The tubs spewed the week’s rubbish; empty pizza boxes, crisp bags, Carlsberg cans and cheap red wine bottles. She boaked when she saw a dog licking the inside of a fousty chicken soup tin. Some of the tubs were so full that squashed beer cans had fallen onto the pavement and lay there ignored. Bloody disgrace. She slowed outside of the mining museum and nodded her head to the tall black tower with it’s big motionless red wheel that stood alone, like a dusty ornament, in the heart of the village. Jeanie remembered her dad coming home from the pit in his orange and black overalls and grey bunnet, his soft face blackened from the coal dust, and his eyes, two bright aquamarine gems. She remembered how quickly that soft black face had turned white. She upped her pace again as Any Man of Mine by Shania Twain accompanied her over the main road and up the steep hill. Overgrown fields passed her on the left and a buckled Co-op trolley lay abandoned in some jaggy nettles. Mr Sanderson would have a fit if he knew one of his precious trolleys had been stolen. He might even end up missing his target if he had tae order a new one. Tough titty. Up ahead she could see the high-rise flats of Gorebridge, they stood grey and morbid against the blue sky.
The food bank was in a sad brown looking parish church at the end of a row of shops. The windows of the shops were shuttered and had dark doorways that smelled of piss. It would have been hard to tell if the shops were open except for a group of young lassies piled out of the middle one and passed a can of Monster between them. One of the girls wolf whistled at Jeanie as she walked by. Jeanie turned off her music, put her mobile phone into her handbag and quickly zipped it up. She stared straight ahead, feeling her heart palpitate. There was already a queue outside of the foodbank and it was only ten to twelve. Jeanie hung her head, she didn’t like to stare. The shame. It was the bairns that clung quietly on the arms of their mothers that got her. The silence outside that church was eerie. She walked past the line of faces that looked at the ground and stood at the front. No-one stopped her.
‘I’ll be open in aboot ten minutes everyone, thanks for coming.’
A young man stood in the doorway; he had long brown hair that was scraped back into what looked like a grannie bun, which sat on top of his head. His face was decorated with an assortment of hoops and studs and when he smiled, his eyes smiled too. Jeanie caught a flash of her dad in those shiny blue eyes and she immediately relaxed. He wore a dark green tabard over an orange hoody and a lanyard around his neck that said ‘Volunteer. I’m here to help.’ The name Bennie was written neatly across the bottom in black marker pen.
‘You’ll need tae wait your turn,’ he said. ‘Some of these people have been waiting outside since before I arrived.’
‘I’m not here for food son, I’m here tae volunteer, I was told tae start the day,’ she laughed. ‘Couldnae spend another day in the house wi that man of mine moaning about the state of the country so I thought I’d dae my bit. I’m Jeanie’
‘Aw hiya Jeanie, thank you so much for coming, I’m snowed under the now,’ he held out his hand but Jeanie pulled him into an awkward cuddle.
‘It’s nae bother son,’ she patted him on the back, released him, then followed him intae the church.
It was cooler inside of the church than it was outside. The small frosted glass windows didn’t let in much daylight and the single strip light on the ceiling was left switched off. The little room that Jeanie was ushered into was closed off from the main part of the building by a big silver padlock. It was clean and tidy though. The dark wooden floor was polished and shiny and the air smelled of Dettol. A grey metal dustbin sat in the corner of the room beside a folded up wheelchair. Jeanie saw a large desk with cardboard boxes stacked up against the wall at the back of the room. The walls were decorated with posters; NHS nutritional advice, Trussell Trust posters with smiling volunteers wearing matching tabards, and a Gorebridge Parish Church poster:Here for you Because of Jesus. Jeanie shook her head from side to side then followed Bennie through tae the little back area behind the desk and hid her handbag under a pile of blankets. Bennie gave her a green tabard that he took from a coat hook on the door. She slipped it over her head and smoothed out the creases.
‘Was all this food donated?’ she asked as her eyes moved around the small room, which was filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes and tins and colourful packets.
‘It sure is,’ Bennie replied. ‘It’s not enough though.’
Once the doors were open, it was all go. Lines of people made their way to the front counter as Bennie hurried back and forth with identical parcels, each containing cereal, pasta, tinned meat and fish, tinned vegetables, sugar, UHT milk, a little dessert, and a small bar of chocolate. Each parcel was exchanged for a food voucher.
‘Ye get all sorts comin in here eh?’ she said to Benny, ‘I thought it would aw have been homeless folk and junkies, no folk like you and me, mibbie our Wullie was right after all.’
Benny nodded, ‘Yeah, hard times Jeanie.’ Before long the parcels were running out so Bennie was making them to demand. People had to stand a little longer and the queue was still stretched to outside the church. Jeanie stepped out from behind the counter.
‘And what’s your name?’ she squatted beside a little blonde haired girl who was tugging at her dad’s hand.
‘Wendy,’ she replied, ‘what’s your name?’
‘I’m Jeanie, here’s a wee lolly for you.’ She handed her a little sugar lolly-pop from a jar that she had found behind the counter.
‘Thanks,’ the girl’s father nodded his head to Jeanie.
At half past three, they had a quiet spell where Jeanie had a turn in the back making up parcels. She opened several boxes at once and placed one item from each of the numbered shelves into each box. Once she had four completed boxes, she sealed them shut with sticky tape, stuck a green label on their side and initialled them. She then called Bennie who came through and carried them to the front where he stacked them up behind the counter.
‘That’s nearly four o’clock Jeanie, I’ll be locking up in a minute so just finish that parcel that you’re working on and get yourself ready.’
Bennie handed over the final parcel of the day. He took the voucher, initialled it and put it on top of the large pile already beneath the counter. He walked to the door, wishing the man a good afternoon.
‘Hold on, I forgot tae put the bars of chocolate intae the parcels,’ Jeanie ran out from the back area and up to the man who was exiting the church.
‘Excuse me sir,’ she put her hand on his pale thin arm and felt the muscle tense, ‘I forgot tae put this in your parcel.’