“When your grasp has exceeded your reach
And you put all your faith
In a figure of speech
You’ve heard all the answers
But the questions remain
Grab a hold of that fistful of rain”
Fistful of Rain
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Table of Contents
Alloa Writers Group are planning to produce a series of anthologies – this small collection is a pioneer project – so don’t be too critical!
Alloa Writers’ Group can be reached at
From village, city and school they came
Lawyers, clerks and labourers – in khaki all the same
Sons, husbands, fathers joking to conceal their fear
Bidding adieu to everything they hold dear
To fight and die in a foreign field – why?
Known only unto God!
Families busy themselves with daily life
But worry cuts them like a butcher’s knife!
Every rumour desperately shared
How is he? And where?
Known only unto God!
Fresh ploughed fields greet another spring
Where shrapnel flew, a lark sings.
In a manicured grave, a young boy at journey’s end
At peace now, beside his friends
They sleep together under a foreign sod
Known only unto God!
It was a perfect crisp late October day. At 3 o’clock, my mother collected me from the school gate and we walked homewards through autumnal air perfumed with burning wood and fireworks. She regaled me with reminiscences from her own, seemingly distant, childhood. The highlights seemed to consist largely of conkers, bonfires and kicking over piles of leaves. Inwardly, I thanked God for TV, but I smiled politely at her tales.
We reached home. My mother fumbled in her handbag for her keys. Then her trench coat pocket. Nothing. No keys. We looked through the window, and could see them blinking and smirking on the coffee table. She sat on the front door step and swore. It was the first time I had heard my mother swear. I was impressed. She had a similar vocabulary to my father, but a vastly superior delivery. She cursed the school, Yale locks, the inventor of Yale locks and his offspring for several generations. She invoked ancient spirits to interrupt their sleep, rain to ruin their holidays and drought to wreck their lawn. Eventually she ran out of inspiration, and sat there fuming, her head in her hands. At least it wasn’t my fault. “If only I could trust you to come home yourself, this wouldn’t have happened.” Oh well.
Then I remembered, “Mrs Robertson has a key!” Our next door neighbour had been given a spare key following a previous incident. I remembered seeing her placing it carefully in her kitchen drawer. We went to her door and rang her bell. Nothing. “She must be out,” I ventured, getting an angry look in response. “Dad, will he have a key?” Another angry look. It was getting cold, but I didn’t dare mention it.
Mr Pettigrew came along the road. He was a retired policeman who now collected Life Assurance money. It looked a good job as it seemed to consist of sitting on couches, gossiping, drinking tea and eating Battenberg cake. My mother explained our problem.
He had the practical common sense of a former beat policeman. He examined both houses, front and rear. “Mrs Robertson has a window open upstairs. Have you a ladder?” There was small step ladder in the shed. Not nearly long enough. Then the fish van arrived. After some negotiation, it was parked hard against Mrs Robertson’s house, and Mr Pettigrew climbed nervously on top with the ladder. It was just high enough. He reached the window and started to clamber in. It was an ancient sash window with a vicious temperament. At the crucial moment it snapped shut, holding him firmly in its jaws. His legs wiggled like someone demonstrating the leg part of the breast stroke. When he finally stopped struggling, his trousers descended, revealing a fetching pair of salmon pink boxer shorts.
It was at this point a police car, no doubt looking for a quiet spot to hide, crept into the street. The policemen reluctantly put on their hats and official faces. “What’s all this then?” The fish van man explained. The police looked dubious until my mother confirmed the story. The fire brigade was called and arrived promptly with clanging bells. A number of neighbours and passers by assembled to watch the free show and offer fatuous advice. An ice cream van, cruising for custom, had stopped and was doing a roaring trade.
Then Mrs Robertson came round the corner. She took in the scene. The policemen and the fire engine. The spectators. A pair of white legs like pipe cleaners dangling from her bedroom window. “What’s happening here?” she demanded. My mother explained.
Mrs Robertson sat on her front door step and laughed and laughed wiping tears from her eyes with a corner of her peenie. “I just went to the shop for sugar and got talking to old Mrs Flannigan” She looked around at the assembled group. “Did you not think to try the door?” I did. It was unlocked, and swung open.
It was a long passage from the goldfields of the Yukon to the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay. The ship was crowded with a hundred failed prospectors and a thousand shattered dreams. It stank of sweat and despair. On the way, I made two resolutions: firstly never to prospect again and secondly to enjoy a glass of decent beer when I returned to San Francisco. There was still money to be made in the Yukon – but not in prospecting. That was for fools. It was in supplying food and clothes and tools. But it needed money to start.
I made good on my second resolution as soon as I could. I was soon in a harbour side bar with a beer slipping down my throat, with all my worldly possessions in a canvas bag at my feet. As I drank, I heard some music outside. The barman shrugged his shoulders. “Salvation Army – they’re trying to stop all fun!”
I finished my drink to the accompaniment of the cheerful brass music with words predicting hell and eternal damnation for sinners.
When I left, the band was being attacked by a hired group of local toughs who were reclaiming the street for Satan. The band fled – but one young lady dropped her case and her trumpet fell onto the ground. I helped her with the trumpet but the catch of the case was broken. By now the rest of the band had fled. There were tears in her eyes. I went to help her. “Let me accompany you home. Maybe I can fix your case.”
She lived with her mother and sister in a distant area of town. As we walked, she started to talk. Her father had been a drinker – which led to his early death, his family’s poverty and her espousal of the Salvationist cause. I told her my own tale – emphasizing the bad hand fate had dealt me and glossing over some of my own contributing misdeeds.
“I’m a stranger to this town, Miss Adams. Are there places other than saloons where one can go for refreshment?” That was a lie. I knew the city well – I had lived there for several years – but not under my current name. My new full beard and a degree of caution helped to avoid recognition.
She laughed lightly – she was getting more relaxed. “Oh yes, there are some tea rooms and coffee houses. Very respectable.”
“This may be bold, Miss Adams. But would you accompany me to one of those establishments? It would be wonderful to have a guide to the city.”
I could see she was already considering me as a project. A soul to save. “Do you know Union Square?” I nodded. “We can meet there tomorrow at noon, Mr Johnstone.”
One night, a week or so later, over a cup of weak tea, I told her of my financial plight. “I worked for a year to raise funds for my Klondyke trip. It all went on my passage and supplies. I have been looking for a job – but there are a lot of us in the same position.” I put on my best sad face.
“Oh, Alan. I didn’t realise. But I have friends who might be able to help.” I changed my face to hopeful. She got me a job in the Salvation Army office, transferring names and figures from one dusty ledger to another. Boring work – but it paid the rent. And it gave me an insight into how the Salvation Army finances worked. And an idea grew.
The new Opera House was opening. Its opening night was to be a fund raising concert for local charities. The Salvation Army was heavily involved. I managed to get myself the job of assisting old Arnold, the treasurer – we had to take the money from the Opera House to the bank where it would be placed in their walk in safe over night.
I convinced the organisers that the money would be best transported in a simple gig – with just the treasurer and I guarding it “The more guards – the more people think there is something worth stealing.” I tapped my nose in a knowing way.
On the night of the concert, while everyone else was inside enjoying the music, we loaded the money into a trunk, then onto the gig. The night was chilly, and the familiar Bay fog was rolling in. I got Arnold a cup of hot chocolate, his favourite. He smiled and guzzled it down. It was laced with a strong sleeping draught I had obtained from a pharmacist in Chinatown. He yawned and sat back sleepily on the gig. I climbed up and grabbed the reins. We went – not to the bank – but to a back alley, to meet a rogue I’d known for years. I swapped the trunk of money for a smaller amount in notes. I shaved off my beard and changed into a new suit of clothes and adopted a new identity. I walked down to the pier where a ship was getting ready to leave for the Yukon. On board there was a load of equipment I had ordered from a local supplier. On the pier, I met the merchant and paid him with a fistful of notes.
Of course, a lot of ships leave San Francisco every day, some heading north, some south, others going west to Japan. And trains heading east. So I was safe.
A year later I returned to San Francisco, this time as a wealthy man in a first class cabin. I enquired discretely about Miss Adams. It seems she had married a young clergyman and gone east. I made a major donation to the Salvation Army. They do help raise sinners up from the gutter to make a better life for themselves.
Husband, father and supporter of Alloa Athletic.