Monday, 9 November 2015

The Pied Piper of Mandalay Street

                                             My grandparents/father's house Greenock, Scotland 1941
My Grandmother remembered him as a small man which, next to her, meant someone around five feet tall. Yet, as a kid, I can still see him smiling in our front window as he passed us on the way to the corner shop which means he had to be taller. To all of us he was, and always will be, one giant of a man and not just Freddy Stalwart from number thirty-two; he will always live on in our hearts as the Pied Piper of Mandalay Street.

The first time I met Freddy he had only moved to Mandalay after his family had been bombed out over in the east side. He was older than me, probably eighteen or nineteen at the time, with a wide face you could take to. His hair was short cropped and I guess he was going into the army any day soon. I watched as he walked up towards the railway viaduct and rolled a cigarette at the same time. When he approached the viaduct, he stood under the biggest arch and by means of looking up and sideways he seemed to be positioning himself. I smiled over at him and he waved back. He looked at his watch and a few seconds later a train passed over, not just any train but the one transporting the American troops from the port to the city. He waved up with both arms crossing over each other and immediately the American soldiers threw cigarettes and sweets from the windows. Freddy signalled his thanks with his two thumbs up and some voice from above called ‘see you on the way back, buddy’.

“I think it’s a good luck thing with the boys” he said and he seemed satisfied with that.

You’d think I’d remember after all these years how exactly tall he was but I don’t, I just remember him being like the big brother I never had. He told me he couldn’t fight in the war as his leg had been crushed by a tractor, it was then I noticed he walked with a slight limp which he tried to hide by walking like Gary Cooper. I guess that sounds stupid now but that’s how it felt.

On the way back to number thirty two, he pushed what was left of his sweets and cigarettes through the letter boxes of the houses he passed. Some doors opened but the occupants were always late as Freddy was too far down the street to hear the shouts of ‘thanks’. There were some down Mandalay Street that saw his kindness as a weakness and one that should be exploited. 

“How come you’ve given number twenty-six a pack of cigs and left me out? No one smokes in that house”

Freddy would just apologise, smile then wander on - he never really took it to heart. 

One day there were bags and suitcases being enthusiastically thrown out the door of number thirty-two, followed by Freddy’s mother marching purposefully into the street. She jumped on to a waiting horse and cart that was being driven by a rag and bone man and she promptly rode into the sunset. It seems his mother had never been happy in that house and wanted to take her chances with her old neighbours. Their place had been relatively untouched and she didn’t need to be asked twice when they offered her a room in their attic. Freddy’s father was still overseas which left Freddy the sole occupant of number thirty-two. 

To make ends meet he got a job driving a single-decker bus from Albert Street to the north end of town, even with his bad leg he was still a better driver than most. His cheery disposition and his smile were always a winner with the passengers and he’d break into a George Formby song just to lift their spirits, especially if there had been a raid the night before. He was known as Freddy the Bus and everyone knew and liked him. 

On a Saturday evening, if he wasn’t working, he enjoyed a dance in the hall. This was a half constructed building at the bottom end of Mandalay Street, its completion having been halted by the war. Locally it had been known as the ‘broken hut’ but the gaping hole in the roof had resulted in its new name, the Skylight Club. Many a time, a dance was interrupted by the sudden downpour of rain and of course they weren’t allowed to use it during the hours of darkness as this would provide a beacon of welcome for the Luftwaffe. 

When they could, they held the Sunday school in the hall and I remember Andrew Cassidy, my best pal at the time, shouting that the hole was there so God could keep an eye on us. We never felt comfortable on a Sunday morning after that. 

Mandalay Street managed to survive from day to day as most of the bombing was over by the shipyards and towards the east side of town, Then one week, when there had been no raids for several days, we all got together and threw a party for the children. Some of us dressed as clowns, some came to the hall in their uniforms and looked ever so smart but the highlight was Freddy and his George Formby songs. Every one joined in and it seemed to cheer us up. 

Freddy and I were walking home and joking when the incendiary bombs hit the far end of the street. One had started a fire in the middle of the road and was being dealt with, when someone shouted that the Skylight Club was on fire. I don’t know how much difference a roof would have made but it seems the bomb dropped through the hole on a small parachute. 

By the time we got back to the Skylight, some parents and their children were staggering out with blackened faces and coughing. Some of the older ones attempted to start a line of buckets and water but it didn’t do much good as the hall was burning fast. 

Freddy ran straight into the building and returned with two small children over his shoulders.

“I can hear the others; they’re trapped by the smoke” 

By our reckoning some twenty of the children and parents were still stuck in one corner of the room but the smoke was so dense that neither they, nor the rescuers cold locate where they were. That was when Freddy came up with an idea. He ran home and fetched his father’s old bagpipes and returned with them slung over his shoulder.

“Can you play them?” I asked.

“Not a chance” he joked, then Freddy entered the burning hall making the biggest racket I’ve ever heard, but it worked. Nearly all of them made it out by following Freddy’s pipes. 

“Anyone left in there?” asked Freddy when we’d counted eighteen.

“My mother and my sister” said the small shivering girl. 

Freddy ran back into the building, it was the last time I saw him.

After the war, when the hall was rebuilt of brick, it was named The Freddy Stalwart Building.

His father’s bagpipes still hang from the wall.

bobby stevenson 2015 

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