Fighting 200 Spanish soldiers - and Smelly Nellie
Francis had just come back from the Saturday Matinee at the Olympia cinema in Bridgeton Cross. The film was The Sign of Zorro, starring Guy Williams. This was new to Francis, and his fertile imagination lost no time in creating scenarios that would help him play out his fantasies.
And now as Fearless Francis, he was fighting for his life against overwhelming odds. He imagined that he was Zorro and that a hundred Spanish soldiers were backing him up the stairs towards the first floor landing of his close, lashing at him with their swords. He thrust at them with his own imaginary sword, occasionally kicking a soldier in the chest, making him fall back against the others and push dozens of soldiers down the stairs. Those brave enough to face Fearless Francis had to first climb over the bodies of their comrades, only to meet the same inevitable fate.
These old Glasgow tenement buildings had no indoor toilets or baths. A communal lavatory on a landing between each floor was shared by the occupants of 3 apartments of that floor. On each landing was a window which looked out into the backcourt. The window frame on this particular old landing had long gone, leaving an open space where a window should be.
He reached the landing and pressed his back against the lavatory door. Aha! Another hundred soldiers coming down the stairs from the first floor! He grabbed a dead soldier’s sword - now he had a sword in each hand. Letting out a blood-curdling scream and shouting, “Intae them!”, he lunged first to the left, then to the right; dispatching many more soldiers.
Nellie Boak opened the door of the lavatory and stepped out, to be greeted by the daft wee boy who was visiting his granny and grandad who lived in the apartment on the ground floor. Francis was flapping his arms about like a demented goose and doing a jig on the landing.
“Beat it, ya daft wee bam - you’re aff yoor heid, dae you know that?”, she shouted.
Francis stuck his tongue out at Nellie, who swiftly responded by skelping him on his right ear.
“Did you dae that?”, she said, pointing at the lavatory, the door still ajar.
Francis was reluctant to step any closer. Smelly Nellie had just come out of there. Poor Nellie had that unfortunate nickname because a smell did indeed emanate from her; a smell hard to recognise because it was masked by her cheap perfume. Nonetheless the smell was still vaguely unpleasant.
Nellie had only two things going for her that could be called attractive; her hourglass figure and her long straight black hair, which she groomed constantly. A young man following behind the 22-year-old Nellie in the street would be forgiven for quickening his pace in an effort catch a glimpse of the girl with the gorgeous figure and hair. But his ardour would quickly leave him when he saw Nellie’s face. Francis’s mother was once overheard to comment that it looked as if Nellie was hit on the face with a shovel at an early age. Nellie had a flat nose, yellow buck teeth and greasy skin. And of course - the smell.
So now Francis was expected to step closer to the lavatory that Smelly Nellie had just vacated. But rather than run the risk of getting another skelp, he stepped forward and looked inside.
Lumps of excrement were stuck to the wall behind the toilet pan, halfway between the pan and the cistern; some of the excrement sticking to the cistern pipe itself.
“Well - wiz that you?”
“Naw it wiznae!”, Francis shouted.
Mr Black was just coming up the stairs. He lived in an apartment on the first floor. Nellie and her mother lived in the single room in the middle; Mr & Mrs Black had the ‘room & kitchen’ to the right.
“Whit’s the score here?”, asked Mr Black, on reaching the landing.
“This wee numpty”, said Nellie pointing to Francis, “has flung his jobbies against the lavvy wall.”
“Naw Ah didnae!” Francis was very close to tears now.
“Haud oan”, said Mr Black looking at the mess on the lavatory wall, “furst of aw, dopey here diznae hiv a key tae this lavvy and it looks tae me as if the jobbies were flung frae a po - see the pee stains oan the wall?”
Only two families on the first floor used a po (chamber pot) for their children, or “weans” - the Blacks, and the Hendersons in the apartment facing them.
“Aye well, it wiz wan o' yoos oan the landing then. That auld bag doonstairs iznae looking efter any weans except dafty here”, said Nellie.
“Haw you! That’s ma granny you’re talking aboot!”, said Francis, facing up to Nellie.
“Shut yer face ya wee nyaff - dinnae be cheeky tae adults!”, Mr Black said, skelping Francis’s right ear, which was beginning to turn pink.
This was too much for Francis, and he ran downstairs, crying. He wasn’t going to tell his granny because he had begun to realise that she wasn’t up to bickering with neighbours anymore. So he went into the corner of the backcourt and cried for a little while, hoping that no one would see him.
Meanwhile, the debate was getting heated on the first floor landing as to who the culprit was.
“Aye, it’s the Phantom Jobby Flinger right enough!”, said Mr Black, pleased with himself for creating that description. Well Ah don’t think it’s funny", said Nelllie, “It must be wan o' yoos that has weans in the hoose - that’s aw Ah’m saying.”
Both Mrs Black and Mrs Henderson cleaned the lavatory wall to keep the peace and to prevent any further friction, but no one would admit to being the Phantom Jobby Flinger.
Weeks later, Francis saw the ultimate toy in a newsagent’s window - a black plastic sword and a mask, stuck onto a piece of cardboard showing a coloured drawing of Zorro – and he had saved up enough pocket money to buy it!
Clutching his new toy, he ran from the newsagent’s shop as fast as he could, until he reached Orr Street, and finally neared his own backcourt. The tenements in front of the backcourt were long gone, and as he crossed the vacant ground, he looked up at the frameless window on the first floor landing just in time to see wee Senga coming down the stairs to the landing.
Senga Black was the oldest daughter, age 12. She resented having to take the po to the lavatory every time her wee sister filled it.
Wee Senga was in a bad mood and on occasions like this just emptied the po as quickly as she could, to save her flushing the toilet. She unlocked the lavatory door, opened it wide and flung the contents of the po at the lavatory wall with as much force as she could muster.
Smelly Nellie had just stood up and had turned to flush the toilet, when the po contents hit the back of her head. The parts that missed moved on to hit the lavatory wall with a squishing sound. Her habit of not using the bolt on the inside of the door had finally got her into trouble.
Francis watched as Nellie screamed abuse at wee Senga and pushed her against the opposite wall, smacking the helpless wee girl a few times on the head. Both Nellie and wee Senga were screaming now.
More screams ensued as Mrs Black came out of the apartment and saw Nellie hitting her wee girl. Mrs Black was a heavy built lady, and screaming, “Ah’m gonnay kill ye!”, she leaped halfway down the stairs on top of Nellie, causing Nellie to nearly fall out of the window. Luckily, there was no glass, but Nellie was on her back, almost horizontal, hanging on for dear life by the calves of her legs, which stopped her from falling to the ground.
But for Nellie, worse was to come. Shouting abuse at her, Mrs Black punched her on the mouth each time she tried to right herself. Each blow sent her back into the same position. The only positive aspect to all this was that each time Mrs Black sent her back with a punch, another bit of excrement fell from Nellie’s hair.
By this time, many windows of the tenement were opened and the tenants got their cushions out to lean on their windowsills and enjoy the entertainment. Not many tenants could actually see what was happening, but they could certainly hear the commotion. Francis’s granny was hard of hearing, so her window was not open and she was oblivious of what was happening on the landing above her.
Nellie’s mother and Mr Black came down to the landing, and after much shoving and shouting, things started to calm down. Nellie was hoisted up to the correct position, still screaming, but Mr Black calmed her down. He was well respected and everyone agreed with him that they should go into Nellie’s house and discuss what happened while she cleaned up, away from prying neighbours.
Eventually the noise abated, and only muffled shouts could be heard from the first floor. In all the excitement Francis had forgotten all about his new toy.
But now he eagerly opened the packaging and removed the sword and the mask from the cardboard. He put the mask on; a perfect fit. The sword was black, shaped more like a foil fencing sword rather than a sabre. The ‘blade’ was made of black rubber and wasn’t very rigid, but as far as Francis was concerned, this was the business.
And now as Fearless Francis, he would dual to the death with Zantor, his arch enemy. Zantor had many guises during the course of Francis’s adventures, but today Zantor was the second swordsman in the world, Fearless Francis being the first, of course. Francis had had just seen an older film called The Mark Of Zorro a few days ago at the Scotia cinema in Millerston Street (affectionately known as The Flea Pit). The film starred Tyrone Power, with Basil Rathbone as Captain Pasquale. Rathbone’s striking features stuck in the wee boy’s young mind so much so that Zantor now had the face of Rathbone.
Fearless Francis jumped over imaginary tables and chairs in the tenement backcourt and battled fiercely with Zantor. Now he was using sound effects to enhance his daydreams.
The two blades clashed together - KISH! KISH! KISH! KISH!
Zantor/Rathbone was no match for this 7-year-old boy. Fearless Francis relentlessly tormented him and on two occasions flicked the sword from Zantor’s hand, each time allowing Zantor to pick the sword up.
KISH! KISH! KISH!
He continued his assault on the unfortunate Zantor.
Zantor was being pushed against the brick wall and it was only a matter of time before Fearless Francis ran him through.
“And now it’s time to finish with you Zantor!”
KISH! KISH! KISH!
Fearless Francis swung his blade violently from left to right and back again, parrying Zantor’s increasingly desperate attacks.
KISH! KISH! KISH! - CRACK!!
A real crack; the final swish saw the blade hit the brick wall and snap off at the hilt.
Francis looked at the handle of the sword, and then looked down at the blade laying on the ground. He was devastated. And then the laughter started. The neighbours were still ‘hingin oot their windaes’ after the earlier commotion and had watched the antics of Francis from start to finish.
One neighbour shouted down that he was an eejit; others just shook their heads and muttered, “He’s aff his heid.” He picked up the blade and went in the close, then knocked on the door of his home. It took a lot of knocking, but eventually his granny opened the door. He told her that the new sword he’d just bought was broken. His granny was so angry with him, she skelped his right ear for wasting his money in the first place. He had earned that money going for ‘messages’ (groceries) for some elderly neighbours and was saving up for Christmas.
Francis was crying and she realised that he was still a wee boy, with a head full of nonsense. It was bad enough he’d broken the toy he was so desperate to have, but he didn’t have many toys anyway. Granny give him a cuddle and told him to get washed at the sink - she’d would make him his favourite pudding - Creamola custard.
He went to the sink, took off the Zorro mask, and washed his face and hands. Soon, the delightful aroma of hot custard filled the kitchen. He felt a lot better.
But Francis wished people would stop skelping his ears.
© Wishart Frankfield
Fearless FrancisZorro vs Captain Pasquale
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