The Magazine Man
I am waiting for the magazine man. From the little I know about him, he has no particular schedule. Thus, the odds of my running into him are slim. I wait anyway. It is November in Glasgow and, therefore, raining. Compared to the lows we get back in Michigan, the temperature is mild. Yet there’s a perseverance to this dampness and the companion darkness that soaks into my bones, clings hard, until I’m buckled into my seat on the flight home.
On this street corner, at the top of one small hill and the foot of another larger one, I’m surrounded by four-story stone tenements. If I crane my neck back far enough, I can see the light from my grandmother’s window, a vertical crack of yellow where the curtains gap, above the sink. It’s the same window she kept watch from when my brothers and I came to her flat for lunch, walking from our school a half block away. Now, her cataract-addled eyes likely couldn’t pick me out in the dimming light. Still, I take a step back, press myself against the black iron railing of her building’s garden flat, and wait.
Upstairs, my grandmother is making supper – or tea, as they call it here. Every night, she cooks for herself, even if it’s something small – a chicken thigh, a bowl of vegetable soup, a plate of salad. All of this, she makes from scratch, her thin, crooked fingers laboring over a cutting board, coaxing a single, long carrot in half, then again, then again.
“Your uncle brings me those frozen meals from Marks & Spencer from time to time,” she said before I left. She lifted her cutting board and ushered the carrots into a little saucepan of water. “But I like to make my meals. Have to keep my fingers moving.”
She steadied herself on the counter, smiled at me and rolled her eyes. “Have to fill the time.” I can’t fathom all the time my grandmother has to fill.
The magazine man waits for my grandmother and all the other old people who live around here. He sees her walking up from Dumbarton Road, cane in hand, swimming in her tan parka, the smallest size they make, her purse clutched to her chest. He stands against the side of the red sandstone church, a block from her front door, then falls in step as she walks past.
“Excuse me, missus,” he says. My grandmother nods, her eyes on the pavement.
“Do you have any magazines or old books to give away?” he asks, slowing his pace, tempering his eagerness to match her gait. “It’s for charity.”
My grandmother doesn’t look up. She sees only his large feet, encased in scuffed black shoes, the sole separating at the toes. The pavement beneath them is charcoal-gray speckled with dirty white dots, like tiny pieces of chewed gum.
“No,” my grandmother says. “Sorry.” She is unfailingly polite, but she quickens her pace.
“It’s for charity,” the magazine man says again. “I tell you what. I can follow you up to your flat and get them, if you like.”
“No thank you,” my grandmother says, in the voice she means to be firm. “Thank you very much.”
“Why don’t I follow you inside while you take a look and just see?”
She says: “Have a good day now. Goodbye.”
She walks a few doors past her own, waits until his feet fall away from view, until she can feel the wind return to the spot he occupied. She retraces her steps and climbs the stairs to the front door of her tenement. She looks around to make sure the man is gone before she puts her key in the lock.
I’ve been making these annual pilgrimages to Glasgow for four years now, since my mother’s death. We moved to the States when I was eleven and since then, my mother made the trip back here on her own, assuming the role of dutiful daughter. My father stayed behind, saying he’d seen enough of Glasgow growing up to last him a lifetime. There wasn’t enough money to bring the rest of us. Now, my mother is gone and my brothers have spouses, children and careers, all inflexible. So it is up to me. I’m the one who comes back. I am all the right things: single, only intermittently employed, a girl. This, this matter of holding together families, it’s women’s work.
The magazine man has tried this trick before, two or three times that my grandmother can recall.
“I know I’m old,” she tells me, “but I wasn’t born yesterday.”
We drink weak and milky tea from mismatched mugs, a single, economical spoonful of sugar. She opens an ancient biscuit tin and puts four fingers of shortbread on a plate. I offer to help, but she waves her hand at me. She doesn’t want anyone in her things. Two years ago, the tenement association replaced the gas heaters with central heating in every unit but hers. She sees nothing wrong with her gas fireplace. It gets the job done.
She places the plate on the tea trolley and wheels it across the brown floral carpet. As a child, I ran toy cars along the stalks and leaves in the pattern. Now, we sit on either side of the gas fireplace and try to think of things to say to each other. She wants to talk about my mother, her daughter. I want not to. My feet, propped on the tile fireplace surround, are warm. It gets the job done.
My grandmother is 93 and every day she dresses in a slip, skirt, tights, blouse and a cardigan. She puts on a necklace and sometimes a pin. She powders her face with makeup a shade too dark, which gathers in the wrinkled crevices of her thin skin.
“I can’t remember, dear,” she says, when I ask what her parents’ first names were. “So long ago.”
I have started asking her these sorts of questions when I come. Who were her parents, my great-grandparents? What was her childhood like? These are things I forgot to ask my mother, things I might need to know. Gathering this information seems urgent these days but half answers and evasion are what we’re left with, because my grandmother was not close to her mother, my mother was not close to hers, nor I to mine. This is what we have between us, my grandmother and I – three generations of failed expectations and unrealized hopes. It binds surprisingly strongly across the gap.
If the magazine man knew my grandmother, he wouldn’t bother trying. She holds on to nothing. He’ll never case her apartment with his ruse. She devours the paperbacks my uncle brings her, then passes each one to the National Health Service worker who comes twice weekly to stock the fridge, help her bathe, do the wash. The only magazine my grandmother has is the free TV guide that comes with the Sunday Herald and that, too, makes a swift exit from the flat, tucked into the trash bin the minute the new one arrives.
Throughout my grandmother’s flat there are the photographs I’ve sent her of my nieces and nephews, her great-grandchildren. The rest of her memories fit in a shoebox I can sometimes convince her to fish out. She has just one photograph left of her ex-husband, my grandfather. It’s a black and white shot, taken from ten feet away. He could be any handsome man from a time gone by, white shirt sleeves rolled up, his hand raised to shade his squinting eyes. He was a con man, given increasingly to drinking, hitting, leaving. I never met him.
When I ask my grandmother if she ever loved him, she looks at the photograph for a moment, then says, “It’s a thin line.” She picks at invisible lint from her wool skirt, which I recognized from another photo she showed me earlier, which was taken nearly 20 years ago. “A very thin line, Ivy.”
Ivy was my mother’s name.
What my grandmother can remember most of all is the Blitz. She can recount every moment from the time sirens began just before 9 pm on March 13, 1941. She remembers when the windows shattered in their house, forcing her family to move to a school gymnasium for refuge. The Luftwaffe swept the bank of the river Clyde that night, dropping incendiary devices that would burn for days, leaving little in their wake.
The next night, they came back and did it again.
My grandmother worked at the Singer Sewing Machine Factory, repurposed to produce the machinery needed to wage world war. She was 19 years old, working in the office, handing out pay packets to the men at week’s end, never making eye contact.
The Germans hoped the incendiary bombs would light the way for the real explosives they’d drop hours later, but providence was with them on the night they bombed the factory. The lumber yard was full and it went up like a matchbox, starting a blaze that devoured at every house, every church, every school in its widespread path.
Before I leave my grandmother’s flat, I ask her what the magazine man looks like, if he is white or black or Asian.
“What do you mean by Asian?”
“Is he Chinese? Or Indian?”
“Oh, no, dear,” she says. “Nothing like that.”
No one else is as foolish as I am now, standing out here on the street, well past dinner time. Behind heavy curtains, families are no doubt filling hot water bottles to tuck near the foot of their children’s beds. This is not the kind of night for venturing out.
To the left of where I stand is the back gate to the primary school I attended. I can see the side of the gymnasium and the roof of the building that was once the cafeteria, where we lined up to eat dry roast beef and hard scoops of mashed potato from turquoise plastic plates, followed by strange, warm desserts stuffed with raisins and drowned in watery custard.
I can see a figure, a man, walking up from Dumbarton Road, a shopping bag tucked under one arm, hands stuffed in his pockets. He’s tall, wearing a knit cap. There’s something about the way he’s walking, like he’s hungry. There isn’t anyone else around and so, in some way, it makes sense to me that this could be the magazine man. And if he is? I realize I haven’t thought about it until this moment, but what will I say if it’s him? What I will say to the magazine man?
A few days after the bombing, my grandmother’s parents sent her back to their neighborhood to assess the damage. She and another girl from Clyde Bank walked miles in the clothes they’d slept in. A volunteer guard stopped them before they reached her street.
“I had the key to the house,” she told me. “And the guard said, there’s nothing left, there’s nothing to get. It’s all gone. Everything.”
My grandmother took a sip of tea. “And I held up my hand and said, ‘But I brought my key,” she says.
“My key! Can you imagine?” She shook her head.
“The stupidity,” she said.
The man gets closer. It’s too dark to make out his face. As he approaches me, he looks up, looks me squarely in the eye.
“Evening,” he says, and I wonder if this is how it starts. I take a breath, and start to speak, but the man strolls past. He eyes me a little strangely, hanging out, as I am, seemingly without purpose, on a now-dark street in Glasgow. He turns the corner, heading towards the university and Byres Road.
If it were him, the magazine man, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t try his game on me. I’m not an old woman. I’m not vulnerable and bent by life. I’m a strange woman standing in the street at night as though she’s trying to face down something invisible. I’m not the one you’d ask. But still. I look at my watch, back up at my grandmother’s window and down the street again. My flight home leaves in less than nine hours; the taxi will be at my hotel in seven. I settle into the railing and wait.