TILL BIRNAM WOOD REMOVE TO DUNSINANE

PROLOGUE

Breaking her promise, Ailie took the underpass. It was, on balance, a perfectly safe time of day.

– It’s only six weeks, she reminded herself sternly; it’s only six weeks.

She kept her head up and her gaze resolutely fixed on the far end of the concrete tunnel, conscientiously ignoring all those coming and going on either side of her.

– That’s only thirty days. So… eight periods a day, not all of which will be class contact…Let’s say they give me, um, five a day, that would be….a hundred and fifty periods.

She was through the underpass and officially in Springburn. It felt no different from Hyndland.

– Is that right? she resumed – five a day, five days a week…yes. A hundred and fifty, forty-minute long periods. Shit.

It was quite a hike up the Atlas Road, and her new shoes were pinching her little toes. She turned off at the Job Centre as instructed, and noted the poorly clad gathering on the pavement outside: her first sighting of the fabled deprivation.

The school itself had recently been re-named, part of an optimistic attempt to re-invent this blighted and forsaken northern part of the city. No-one, however, thought of it as anything but the Big Albert.

Still discernible below the general air of dilapidation were the same good bones as every other Victorian school building in Glasgow. A sturdy two-storey red sandstone facade was held in parenthesis by the GIRLS and BOYS entrances and was stamped at regular intervals by a generous fenestration attesting to bright and airy classrooms. The original playground would have been a generous size, but had been carved up by the apparently ad hoc addition of four or five Portacabin – stye huts. These, Ailie knew, had been hastily erected when the school leaving age was raised to sixteen and Scottish schools burst at the seams. In the leafier areas, they had been replaced in the intervening decades with smart red brick annexes but, well, this was Springburn.

A few desultory bodies were already hanging around in the damp morning air but, through lethargy or indifference, they showed no interest as she passed them by and Ailie, heart rate up, made it all the way to the school office without mishap.

– Springburn, the Headmaster intoned: proud heritage-close knit-economic decline-urban regeneration-added value-challenging times.

Impatiently, the Principal Teacher bustled her along to the English Base.

– Right, she said, nodding Ailie into a safely unspoken-for staffroom chair – right, so this is your timetable. Mr Cameron’s first year class just starting “Smith”. Second years, that’s Miss MacIntosh’s lot – thematic study, nearly done. She’ll keep you right on that. No third year class. You’re with 4/1, they’re a smart bunch, doing “Mockingbird”. Check with Miss McKenna what she’ll want from you. She paused. – So that just leaves the fifth year non-certificate class.

An alarm bell went off in Ailie’s head.

– All boys. My class. I was thinking: Macbeth.

Relief threw a blanket over the alarm bell, and let itself out in what Ailie hoped was a conspiratorial, collegiate sort of chuckle.

Mrs Rennie gave her a sharp look. – I’m not joking, she elucidated, unnecessarily. – Witches, bitches, blood and gore. Those boys’ll love it. Welcome to Springburn.

ACT 1 SCENE 1

She knew it helped that she was female and petite, and in fact she was grateful that the fifth year non-certs were all male because she had already learned there was nothing more complicated than a disaffected sixteen year old female. She smiled brightly and held back the books.

– Well, she began – As Mrs Rennie said, I’m Miss Scott, and I’m going to be with you for the next six weeks.

Some ironic clapping and cheering, a lone foot stomper, and a couple of half-hearted wolf-whistles.

Ailie knew not to pick a battle she couldn’t win, and so she carried on as if she had their rapt attention.

– Mrs Rennie has asked me to do a play with you –

– WHIT? A shrill voice feigned incredulity. HEAR THAT, BOYS? MRS RENNIE WAANTS HUR TAE PLAY WI US!!

Raucous, filthy laughter, then, THATS PURE DURTY. SHE’S A DURTY –

– NOW NOW BOBBY – the interjection was a widely inaccurate yet instantly recognisable imitation of the Principal Teacher – REMEMBER THE ONE WORD WE WILL NOT HAVE IN THIS CLASS.

More guffawing. Ailie came round to the front of the teacher’s desk and sat on it, smiling and waiting. Guffaws gave way to sniggers and then, miraculously, to a restless near-silence. The big boy at the back took his feet off his desk and watched her. Still she sat, still smiling, not quite sure how to proceed. The chair-swingers stopped swinging.

– A play, she resumed. Now, tell me – you, at the back, yes, what’s your name?
– Sean.  A beat, then, – Miss.
– Sean. Tell me, Sean, what you expect to find in a play.

Sean’s classmates turned in glee to watch him struggle between the facetious and the honest response.

– Dunno, he responded, honestly.

Ailie launched into her brief explanation of the origins of theatre as popular entertainment, much like soap operas, and there followed a surprisingly animated discussion along the lines of:

ADMITTIT – YOU LOVE NEIGHBOURS, YA BIG PANSY
HOORYOUCALLIN A PANSY?
YOU WATCH CORONATION STREET WI’ YER GRANNY, YA WEE PRICK
YOOZ HUVNY EVEN GOAT A TELLY, SO SHUTTIT

– Whit dae you watch, Miss? ventured Alan at the front.

– Actually, Ailie told them,  – I don’t have a TV.

Cries of consternation all round.

– Anyway, Ailie continued, doggedly. – This play we’re going to do. You may find it a bit, well, disturbing.

Their interest was piqued.   She kept up the deadpan. – You know, there’s a lot of knife violence. And the supernatural, curses and witches and stuff.

– ‘zit set in Springburn? quipped the little blond one at the window: Joe.

When the bell rang, Ailie was positioned at the door. Alan at the front led the charge, but was obliged to stop short of the exit on account of the diminutive female form blocking it. They bumped into one another behind him, a line of surprised dominoes.

ACT ONE SCENE TWO

They had affected neither contempt nor hilarity but greeted the books with a certain puzzlement: Ailie had had to explain that women’s parts were played by men in Shakespeare’s day.

– Aw, Miss, grinned Ginger Johnny, – gonny make they three at the back the witches? They’d be dead good at it. Cos therr maws ur a buncha witches!

AW AYE? WELL, YOUR MAW’S A RIGHT HOOR

ACT ONE SCENE THREE

Miss? See if ye waant a telly? Ma uncle kin get ye wan…

No-one wanted to be Lady Macbeth, so Ailie agreed to read the part to begin with:

smear the sleeping grooms with blood
There was a moment’s awed silence, then a clamour of reaction.

– Haw, Joe. Lady Macbeth your aunty, haha?
– Lady Macbeth is fuckin gallus by the way.
– Wee Cheesy’s maw should dae that – tae that bastart she’s merried tae!

– Who would like to read Lady Macbeth next? asked Ailie.

Fifteen hands shot up.

– ‘Slike gang wars round here, innit? Sean appealed to his classmates for corroboration. Slow, sage nodding. He explained for Ailie. – Gettin some poor twat tae dae yur durty wurk fur ye. Framin folk that trusted ye. Comin the c-

– NOW NOW SEAN, came the faithful rebuke. – REMEMBER THE ONE WORD WE WILL NOT HAVE IN THIS CLASS.

– Right, thank you, Sean. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

ACT TWO SCENE 1

They were waiting for her in the corridor, jostling each other, slapping at each other and picking at one another’s clothing like primates. The October rain was relentless.

– Afternoon, boys, she greeted them with her professional good cheer. – Shame the weather’s changed, eh?

 – So fair and foul a day I have not seen, replied Fat Hughie. Ailie suppressed the urge to turn around and hug him.

There was the customary debate over whose turn it was to be Lady Macbeth. When Ailie talked them through the banqueting scene, there was further competition for Banquo, growing only more heated upon the revelation that he would have nothing to say.

– Make it me, Miss! Please please – Ahm pure brilliant at no speakin! Little Joe was on his feet, the better to be seen and heard above his larger peers.

The casting of Banquo proved fertile discursive ground and in the end it was reluctantly decided that Joe was perfectly suitable.

Haw, Miss – if Joe’s gonny be Banquo can Ah be Macbeth today?

Ailie was startled by the normally reticent Big Al’s request but he quickly provided his rationale:

– Cos that wee spaz hus the goriest locks Ahv ever seen! Look attim – fell intae a panna bleach!

– Ya fuckin ignoramus, came Joe’s arch ripost.  – Gory means fuckin bloody, as in caked wi blood.

– Aye right. But anyway, glad Ah took the chance tae stick the heid on ye.

General good-natured partisan commotion, finally self-quelling.

They read through the scene, Ailie filling in for them and paraphrasing when the words and syntax were too hard.

– Gentlemen, said Ailie softly, because that way they shut up and listened, – is it true that Macbeth “stuck the heid” on Banquo?

A clamour of correction, through which Ailie indicated that Ginger Johnny be spokesman.

– Naw, Miss. Fur wan thing, he didnae dae it himsel and fur another Banquo wiz actually stabbed. Twenty times, added Johnny solemnly. – On his heid.

– He’s a fuckin coward, Miss, proferred Big Al, clearly moved by the experience of playing the eponymous character.  – And PLUS, he’s got grasses all over the shop. Cos he even admits it – a servant fed in aw they big hooses.

– Fee’d, ya wanker, said Fat Hughie.  – As in, paid. Not fed, as in food. So he’s payin them to spy an tell him wotswot. Like that tosser Malky McCutcheon! He’d grass up anybody tae the polis, hah!

They were still giving Macbeth and Malky McCutcheon a verbal doing when the bell rang.

– Gentlemen, smiled Ailie – Stand not upon the order of your going

ACT TWO SCENE TWO

She realised shortly after the banqueting scene that she had stopped counting down the days. She also realised she had accepted that the colour of Springburn was orange. Nothing to do with ancient entrenched sectarianism, just a fact of life. The girls were sunbed orange; the streetlighting was orange; the food in the school canteen (ventured into once only) was orange. No, not pure orange: burnt amber; titian; the exact hue, in fact, of Irn Bru.

Attendance at the Big Albert had maintained its historic standing of well above the national average.

– Don’t get all starry-eyed about that, advised Mrs Rennie. – It’s the same at Albert Primary. Nothing to do with the perceived value of education, and everything to do with guaranteed warmth and one square meal a day – spam fritter and chips though it may be.

– These kids, she went on, bringing Ailie a cup of scalding black coffee,  – used to have their whole lives mapped out for them. They’d come to school until they could leave, and then they’d go to work at St Rollox. Now…she sighed, – now they come to school to get warm and get fed and they know there’s going to be no work for them; half their parents are on the dole and in the pub.

– Why have you stayed all these years? asked Ailie.  – Doesn’t it get you down? How do you keep going? What’s the secret?

Mrs Rennie gave her a slow smile. – Love the kids, she said.

ACT TWO SCENE THREE

– Oh dear me. Ailie surveyed the empty chairs with dismay. – Where is everyone today?

– Heavy weekend, Miss, said Bobby confidentially. They wur at a party an Ah believe they had a wee bit too mucha the insane root that takes the reason prisoner. Know whit Ah mean?

ACT THREE SCENE ONE

– Blood will have blood…know whit that reminds me of? Alan looked round the group (they had re-arranged the seating  by now) with a somewhat pugilistic keenness of enquiry.

– Ah hope yur no aboot tae say somethin gross, Alan, warned Sean.

– Naw, naw…Alan looked offended.  – Blood will have blood…it’s like the Young Team and the Toys innit? Revenge attacks an that?

Ailie passed the gang graffiti twice daily, bold spray-painted monochromatic and curiously incongruous bubble writing.

– Yes, but there’s more to it than that, she pointed out. – Remember the importance of superstition…

– Aw, right enuff! That first bit wi the witches! Ginger Johnny was pleased with himself.  – That stuff aboot Birnam wood an that!

ACT THREE SCENE TWO

Ailie met Stevie, standing outside the Headmaster’s office.

– Detention, he explained. Five exxes on ma behaviour card.

He leant his forehead against the window, fogging it up with his breath. She followed his gaze to the adjacent scrubland.

– Is that where they’re going to build the annexe?  That wasteland? she asked him.

– Aye, he sighed, wiping clear the condensation with his worn cuff, – that is the blasted heath.

ACT THREE SCENE THREE

– Of course I knew, said Mrs Rennie. – But don’t get any ideas about organising a trip.

The Citizens Theatre was performing an all-male production of Macbeth.

– Why d’you say that? Sometimes Ailie just didn’t get Mrs Rennie.

– Because, Ailie, those boys wouldn’t be seen dead going anywhere on a school trip. Never mind the theatre. What you do is, you casually mention it, and that it’s fifty pence for people in full time education. If you go, or plan to go, you could mention that too, of course.

Ailie mentioned it, and she went when she said she would. She didn’t catch a glimpse of any of her boys.

ACT FOUR

They went wild for the sleepwalking scene: it made up for their disappointment that the nobles had buggered off to ask the English for help.

Out damned spot! That should be your motto, Al, ya plooky git!  Much jeering.

– Says you,ya dug, was Al’s cheery reaction. – An we aw know how come aw the perfumes of Arabia willnae sweeten your little hand, Bobby ma friend… Al made an obscene up and down gesture with his clenched fist.

Your wife and babes savagely slaughtered, read Sean. – Aw naw. Now, that really is out of order. That is just takin things too far.

ACT FIVE

Macbeth’s soliloquy was declared too sentimental, though not in so many words:

Whits he on aboot?
Whitta fanny
Twaaaat

There was a collective shudder of revulsion at the thought of Macduff being from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, and the dead butcher received a cheer so resounding it brought Mr Cameron in to remonstrate about the noise.

– I have the top section next door, boys, and they are in the middle of a textual analysis.

– Poor bastarts, sympathised Bobby.

EPILOGUE

Ailie returned to the English Base from her assessment meeting with the Headmaster. The room was empty, apart from Mrs Rennie who turned and smiled at her from the window.

– Come and see this, she urged.  – Hurry!

The window looked on to the scrubland, where she thought she could just make out little blond Joe and Ginger Johnny.

– It’s the non-certs, Mrs Rennie murmured.
– What, all of them? Ailie squinted through the grubby glass.

Mrs Rennie nodded. – All of them.  Look, quick!

She looked. There they were, her poor players, carrying before them what threadbare foliage the scrub would yield, and inching, as a moving grove, towards the Dunsinane of the hoardings.  That sentimental twat Macbeth was right:  this life is a tale told by an idiot.  And there it was in all its chaotic fate-defying fervour, the sound and fury of disenfranchised adolescence, strutting and fretting its hour upon the stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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