I’ve known Peter Bell (nee Clive) most of my life. Mrs Bell and Peter lived next door to me in Dickens Avenue. My mum used to nip in and out of their house, having a smoke and a blether with Mrs Bell and sometimes helping her out. Not that Mrs Bell would ever have seen it that way. I was sometimes dragooned in as, unwilling, slave labour to cut the grass and hedges and to dig the front and back gardens. I still bear the grudge. I could imagine a lot of things, but I could never imagine Mrs Bell being young. She was always old and Peter was also always old, but young too.
I taught Peter how to read from Janet and John schoolbooks I used. I was good at reading and Peter was a very quick learner. He learned that when he was learning to read he could come in and out of our house and annoy the hell out of everybody with his cheerful manner and endless questions about when you when you were born, when your birthday was and what age you’d be on your next birthday. He had a kind of preternatural talent for getting it right. He also knew everybody in the street, when they were born, when their birthday was and loved stopping them to ask them if they knew these things. Mrs Bell kept a sphinx-like eye on him.
‘That’s enough Pete,’ Mrs Bell would say. She’d tell him to go to his room. She’d allow him to listen to music, but not too loud and not for too long, before he went to bed. Peter loved military music, marching music, any kind of music really. Mrs Bell had him marching to her tune.
Pete was Mrs Bell’s world. When my older brother Stephen battered some boys for shouting that he was a Mongo, she wasn’t displeased. I’m sure the sixpence she shoved in the dumplings she baked for us had Stephen’s name on it. She knew better than most it was a hard world out there.
Peter was born, illegitimate, at the beginning of the hungry thirties when these things mattered. Disgrace was never more than a spit away. Police baton charged 50 000 demonstrators in Glasgow Green who gathered to vent their frustration at the high levels of unemployment. Sir Oswald Mosley also visited Glasgow Green to meet his fascist supporters, but was jeered and missiles flung at him by protestors who sang The Internationale. When Peter was born, Scot’s Home Rule had not long been debated in the House of Commons. Rangers won the Scottish league and Scottish Cup. England beat Scotland at rugby. Southern Hero won the Scottish Grand National at Bogside. Forty thousand tons of ocean liner, a palliative for unemployment, Cunard’s, The Queen Mary, slid into the rain lashed Clyde leaving behind in its wake the crash of steel chains. Not only was Peter born without the name of his father on his birth certificate, he had Down’s syndrome.
Miss Clive would have been under enormous pressure to give him up. The short answer is she wouldn’t and didn’t. There’s a book in there somewhere. Miss Clive worked as a crane operator during the Second World War in the shipyards to support Peter. I could imagine her doing that. Not being feart of heights, or anything much. What terrified her was Peter would end up in the one of those Dickensian institutions like Lennox Castle. She’d been to see what they were like and she was feart and for good reason. When she achieved legitimacy and married Mr Bell for a while they had safe ground under their feet.
When Mrs Bell died of cancer, provisions were made for Peter. He moved into a home in Radnor Park, near Clydebank College. Peter flourished, before getting older and finding his own place to live in a sheltered house in Dalmuir. But he liked to revisit his old haunts.
The last time I met him he was in a wheelchair, being pushed by a carer. He looked exactly the same as I remembered him. He was outside our old house in Dickens Avenue. He gripped my hand and wheezed with spittle through his false teeth. ‘Good to see you Jack.’ Then the litany started. ‘How’s Phyllis? Does she remember me?’ Peter was a bit of a ladies’ man. ‘How’s Jo?’ In reminiscing, he kept the men to last. ‘How’s Bryan?’
There was no Mrs Bell to say that was enough Pete and to send him to his room. I’ve got a little trick that helps me when I’m writing. Mainly it’s a Glasgow character, in that querulous voice, asks: What kind of arsehole are you?
Peter Bell, Peter Clive, was never an arsehole. He was an innocent and remained innocent. He didn’t want anything from you other than your company. The photo of him here is borrowed from the aptly named Golden Friendship Club. Mrs Bell would never have allowed Pete to sing. If there’s a heaven I’m sure he’ll be singing there too. It’s not often I can write, honestly, he was a good man. RIP.