‘But best of all it is dead silent: no sound of greetin’ weans, no shouting staff, no screaming- drunk Mummy. The only sounds in here are the ticking of the grandfather clock, guitar music and the occasional sound of a record, ‘Fleur de Cactus’ by the Singing Nun.’

Juano Diaz has made a name for himself as a photographer and visual artist, and his debut Slum Boy is an unforgettable memoir about the struggle for self-love and self-acceptance in late-20th century Scotland – guaranteed to break your heart and piece it back together again. In this extract, we meet young John – the name Juano’s mother used for him – as a brief encounter awakens his artistic spirit.


Extract taken from Slum Boy
By Juano Diaz
Published by Brazen


Barefoot and in tears I stand in the back garden, gripping the chain-link fence and peering through at the street ahead. My heart is broken because today is Sister Pauline’s day off and I know that Scary Man will be arriving to do the night shift later. Morag, who has been playing close by, walks over. 

What’s wrong? she asks, placing her tiny, freckled hand on my arm.  

I want Sister Pauline, I wail.  

She’s not here today. Do you want me to get Maria?  

I shake my head and wipe my snot and tears along the sleeve of my sweater.  

I can get under there! I say, composing myself as I crouch down and point to a tiny gap under the fence. Morag crouches down beside me and we investigate the space.  

With our bare hands, we begin to claw and scrape at the dirt until the gap is big enough, then like a soldier I wriggle through on my stomach.  

Wait for me, Morag squeals. I stand up straight on the other side, dusting myself down. The little girl crawls under the fence after me, her dress riding up as she wriggles in the dirt. We giggle with delight, filthy from the soil.  

Hand in hand, we run out of the front grounds and down the street in the direction of Sister Pauline’s villa. We make it halfway when an old man in a flat cap stops us, grabbing at my arm with his wrinkly hand.  

Hey! Where are you two going? the old man wheezes.  

I point back to the children’s home.  

We live there, but we are going to see our mummy, I lie. 

The old man laughs and hands me ten pence from his pocket. My mouth gapes open at the sight of the coin.  

I never got any money, Morag sulks, letting go of my hand.  

I’m telling, she sings, sticking out her tongue, and she takes off, running back up the street to the children’s home. I continue and run around the corner.  

Sister Pauline lives in a villa owned by the Daughters of Charity and run by the Archdiocese of Glasgow. She has taken me here a few times before for a quick visit: a game of Mousetrap or to listen to her records while we draw pictures together, angels from her stories and flowers. The villa is like a fairy-tale castle. Its huge stone pillars stand strong to welcome me into the doorway.  

I clamber up to her door and knock. The door opens and Sister Pauline smiles.  

Hello, John, she says, sticking her head out to look around. Her smile drops when she realises I am alone.  

Where are your shoes? she asks, looking down at my dirty feet.  

Maria said I could come and live with you! I smile.  

Is that so? she replies, nodding her head. Well, you better come in then 

I run past her and stand in the entrance hall. The floors are polished hardwood, and it’s full of antiques. To my right is a big room clad with mahogany wall panels. In the hallway stands a wonderful grandfather clock. Ahead is the big staircase that has a carved wooden cherub adorning the top of the banister.  

But best of all it is dead silent: no sound of greetin’ weans, no shouting staff, no screaming- drunk Mummy. The only sounds in here are the ticking of the grandfather clock, guitar music and the occasional sound of a record, ‘Fleur de Cactus’ by the Singing Nun.  

Sister Pauline takes my hand and leads me to my favourite room.  

You wait in here 

The huge music room has a big high ceiling. Light floods in from a tall bay window, and musical instruments stand like regal figures all around me – a cello, guitars and an electric organ.  

A huge artist’s easel stands close to the window, holding a small unfinished pastel drawing of a single yellow flower. I push my finger into the loose pastel dust that has collected in a small pile on the wooden easel frame. Behind me is a brown upright piano. I walk over and lift the lid. My fingers press the keys, leaving yellow pastel dust on the white ivory. I delight in the crisp, sharp sound that vibrates around me in the room.  

Standing on the piano stool, I look at the brown wooden metronome that sits on top. With a flick of my finger, I start the hand going, TICK, TICK, TICK, TICK. Lifting it down, I lie on my belly with my chin resting in my muddy hands. I listen to the ticking and watch the hypnotic hand bounce back and forth. The sun streams into the room, bathing me in light, and dust particles settle in the rays around the metronome, like a tiny snowstorm. I breathe deep and slow. At this moment I feel an intense calm, a feeling of blissful love, as if an angel from one of Sister Pauline’s stories has danced from the pages of her Bible. I can see Sister Pauline through the doorway talking on the telephone; she looks at me with a warm smile as she talks to the staff from the children’s home. I tune my ears into the conversation. 

Yes, Maria, he’s here. He is safe. Oh, ten minutes ago. That is no problem. We will see you tomorrow morning then. OK. Bye.  

Sister Pauline hangs up the phone and shakes her head at me, and I smile.  

I never did get to live with Sister Pauline, and after spending the night, cuddled up in bed under heavy knitted blankets, I was returned to the chaos of the children’s home. 


Slum Boy by Juano Diaz is published by Brazen, priced £20.

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