It was to Scotland that I turned my sights. I had never visited there, but my mother was Scottish, in origin, if not inclination, and my stepfather - also a Scot - resided near Helensburgh. I rather suspect that, in going north, I nurtured some romantic notion of discovering my Caledonian heritage. Perhaps it might be considered callous to undertake such an apparently carefree, touristic trip so soon after one's close relative has passed away, but please understand that neither my mind nor my heart were carefree. Fresh air was what I craved: fresh air and distraction, to escape the odour of hothouse funeral flowers, and to purge my mind of bad memories.
As you may remember, the first Glasgow International Exhibition was staged in the year '88. For several months, the newspapers had talked of little else, and it occurred to me that some solace might be found in a sojourn to the magnificent spectacle that was said to bestraddle both banks of the River Kelvin. Thus, in the second week of May, having closed up my aunt's little house in Clerkenwell, I took the train to Scotland. Travelling alone held no fears for me. I was thirty-five years old, and quite accustomed to making my own way in the world. Of course, in those days, the very idea of going hither and thither, unaccompanied, would have been viewed by many as unbecoming, or as a symptom of lowliness or poverty - which was not, in fact, the case. I was young, independent and modern, and although I was deeply affected by the death of Aunt Miriam, I certainly never saw myself as helpless, which is why I always took advantage of my own vigour. Admittedly, one had to be careful: gazing neither left nor right, and never (Heaven forfend!) looking any man, gentle or otherwise, in the eye.
The journey from the south seemed never ending, and dusk was falling as we approached our destination, the train rattling on through the landscape of hills and fields, with the sound of cinders pelting the roof of the carriage. We passed village after village - some fringed by heaps of waste, others by stagnant pools - then more fields, blanched in the smoke from our engine. Soon, the fields disappeared, swallowed by the night and the lamp-lit suburbs. At last, our speed slackened; the buildings shot up higher on each side, plunging us into darkness, and my travelling companions began to gather their belongings, as the train rumbled, canting from side to side, out onto a bridge. When the gloom lifted, I glimpsed, through silvery girders, a stretch of copper-coloured water: the Clyde. The river teemed with vessels and, all along the quays, lights were blinking, whilst, above us, the reflected glow of countless furnaces turned the clouds sulphurous yellow.
That summer, the Exhibition in Glasgow was to create an influx of visitors from all over the world. By chance, my arrival was well timed: early enough in the year to secure half-decent lodgings, yet just a few days after the brouhaha of the opening ceremony with its crowds (large, enthusiastic) and royal visit (dumpy, indifferent). Once I had settled into my accommodation - two rooms in the attic floor of a terraced house not far from the West End Park - I spent a moderately distracting week strolling around the exhibits: the Fine Art and Sculpture Rooms in the Eastern Palace; the thrilling assault to the senses, both aural and nasal, in the Dynamo Shed; the Queen's Jubilee gifts (dull but, presumably, for those that need it, terribly reassuring); a reproduction of the Bishop's Palace which, upon investigation with the tip of my umbrella, revealed itself to be made entirely of painted canvas; and - my favourite, illicit haunt - Howell's tobacco kiosk with its wondrous international selection of cigarettes: Piccadilly Puffs; Shantung Silks; Dinard Dainties; Tiffy Loos! Oh, how I longed to stretch out on one of those divans up in the lounge and partake of nicotinic delights! However, this was many years ago; the world was a less tolerant place than it is now, and thus I had to content myself with ladylike forays to the front counter 'on behalf of my father' to purchase little darlings that I would later enjoy in private.
Excerpted from Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. Copyright © 2012 by Jane Harris. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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