Our car, a Volkswagen Beetle, was fairly going along, so zippily in fact that twice within a minute we’d overtaken the same hobbling greybeard. “You're fond of first gear, aren't you, Eddie?” I said to the driver, and old father time lolling there on the rear cushions like a musical coffin tinkled out a series of chimes which I suppose is as near to human laughter as any mechanical contrivance can get. Eddie, my brother’n-law, made one of his hrrrumphing noises. Wouldn’t it be a pity if after a lifetime of hairshirting, hymnifying, and hallelujaing, St. Pete slammed the pearly portal in Eddie’s face just because on a few occasions he’d indulged in the odd hrrrumph?
It had stopped snowing but now and then bright flurries of the stuff fell from humpy window ledges where maybe a bird had newly settled. Pigeons, beaten to a fine lead by hunger, flickered amongst the rusted girders of the railway bridge. Over there, still standing but only just, was the Brandon Snooker Hall. Dampness had laid a green baize on its bricked up windows: mosstalgia. Where were they now, those gallus geometricians whose wordless lectures on the properties and projections of the moving sphere had us leaning on the smoke in awe: Cuts Colquhoun, Spider Sampson, Skinner Murphy, gone, all of them potted by time, the fastest cue in town. Fires fuelled by wooden beams burned in cleared sites. Rubble was being trucked from busted gable ends, and demolishers worked in a fume of dust and smoke. You would’ve thought that the Ruskies had finally lobbed over one of their big megaton jobs: streets wiped out, landscapes pulverised. On a gutted site near a fire that drizzled sparks on him a greybeard sat in a lopsided armchair, placidly smoking his pipe. I nudged Eddie, and pointed to the old guy. He spared the greybeard a cold glance then returned his attention to the windscreen through which could be seen advancing streets shorn of their pavements by the snow, and of their buildings by the Hammer. It’s inaccurate to call them streets anymore for they looked like a series of bleak airstrips.
Most of the Gorbals had been levelled by now. Housing Planners had taken up their slum-erasers and rubbed out most of the people who’d lived there. Some original specks still clung to the redevelopment blueprints but these would be blown away shortly. In Scobie Street for instance some commercial concerns continued to function: there was Nelly Kemp’s fag’n paper shop: Joe Fidducci’s barbering joint; the Salty Dog Saloon (my local watering hole); and Snug Wylie’s public lavatory (Men Only) which stood out in the middle of the street almost directly opposite the Planet Cinema. The movie house was bracketed by the defunct O’Leary's betting shop and the derelict Blue Pacific Cafe, mention of which is made in local bard John Scobie’s ‘Ode To A Flea Ranch’ where he describes the cinema as being “A crackit planet betwixt the deil and the deep blue sea...”
As the car continued on its way the bulky typewriter lodged in my lap dug deeper and deeper grooves into my thighs. Eddie Carlyle just sat there, his gloved hands on the gloved steering wheel. Bugs of melted snow glistened on his dark sombre overcoat and his tight shirt collar, as hard as cuttle bone, creaked with his every neck movement. Eddie reminded me of yon defensive guy in Chekhov’s ‘Man in a Shell’. Even his after-shave lotion had a camphorish pong to it, which is appropriate for someone who’d mothballed his life , who’d deprived himself of pleasure down here all the better to enjoy it in the sweet bye and bye.
The Beetle crawled into the crevice of a sidestreet. To our left shuttered warehouses and abandoned workshops began to pass, while on our right a pad-locked Adventure Playground could be seen. Within it on a sagging gallows a piebald tyre hung in a perfect lack of motion.
We came now to a thoroughfare that blitzed the senses with its sudden buzz and uproar. Here there were many shops doing business: fruitshops, fishmongers; banks, dairies, butchers. Above these thronged premises there were dental surgeries which shared their common stairs with tenanted flats from between the curtains of which faces could now be glimpsed. On the pavements, shoppers’ feet churned the slush to a fine black mud. It was as if Cumberland Street had returned in all of its com- mercial glory. But, alas, it hadn’t. This was in fact Crown Street, what remained of it, a barrier already collapsing before the Hammer’s onslaught. There’d be no gainsaying it - soon from the sky there would fall a hard pelting of slates.
I pointed to a battered-looking shop on an equally battered corner where old election posters hung in a dismal rash of unfulfilled promises (come back Alice Cullen - we need you now!). Eddie brought the car to a crackling halt in the gutter. He switched off the engine. Bright sparks of snow drifted by. In a shop window an xmas tree stood bathed in its sentimental fires. Cradling a huge Teddy Bear, swathed in a polythene wrapping, a man lurched past. He was doing the Boozer’s Bolero - three steps forward on tippytoes, two back heavily on heels. Potent stuff this xmas spirit. Eddie, being such a switched-off cat, made a nipple of his mouth and milked titsing noises from it.
A real Paradise put-down is Eddie. Imagine arriving up there, sporting your new wings and your ‘Be a Harp Hotshot in Just Two Weeks!’ booklet, only to find the place stiff with Eddies!
I raised the typewriter from my lap a little and MacDougall, (the self-raising flower) who’d obviously been beset by castration fears pulsed with gratitude as my manly blood revisited him. ‘He lives! Praise the Lord - he lives!’ C’mon, now, show some respect. A most poignant moment in my life has arrived. I patted my old Imperial Fictionmaster. Sorry, pal, hate doing this but I need the bread. I wasn’t coming the con either. The jingling mitt of xmas had me by the throat. “C’mon, you tight bastard, buy your wife a decent pressy for a change. How many wee bottles of Eau de Cologne d’you think a woman needs?” Aye, mucho in needo I was.
“We’ve still the pram, remember,” Eddie said.
We’ve-still-the-pram-remember ... Now, where’s that coming from? What can it mean? Just a mess in a dixie, is that it? No, not at all. What we have here is a variation on those egghead puzzles where you’re required to identify a concealed geometrical shape by co-ordinating the variant spaces. There’s no lid-of-the-box solution here, everything’s down to the manipulator’s geometrical know-how. In other words, you’ve got to be hep with your heptahedrons, octohedrons, rhombahedrons, and all those other hedron cats. Likewise, to interlock the voids in Eddie’s remark depends on a shared pool of familial knowledge. Given this info, everything soon clicks into place. Thus, we’ve-still-the-pram-remember, unpacks to read: “We’d best step on it for we’ve still got that pram to uplift!” What pram? The one being offered to Rhona and myself by Rhona’s sister, Phyllis, and her husband Jack, too, of course. I was to uplift it from their place this very afternoon. At the moment Rhona is in a maternity hospital, prematurely, as it happens, due to an elevated blood pressure condition…Decoding of message complete - ends.
“C’mon,” Eddie now urged, “move yourself!”
It’s amazing how contact with his Nazi steering wheel - gloved or not - turns Eddie into an insufferable little Volkswagenfuhrer. It’s like he’s hooked a jump-lead into a super ego-booster. Exauto, of course, he lives a vapid existence, snailing along at the heels of his mother Letitia Dalrymple, Carlyle. When he’s not doing this then he’s slaving away in a textile warehouse in the despatch room of which he prepares for consignment parcels of cambric, organdie, buckram, tarlatan, and stenter book.
“Right,” I responded, “get your arse roon here and haud the door. This thing’s a ton weight.”
Bugged by my tone, not to mention my language, he snapped. This could’ve waited. I’m not a flipping taxi service. You do realise that I’d get” - “ - time from your work? Aye, I think you mentioned it a couple hunner times.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Anyway, I don’t see what all this hurry-hurry’s about: Rhona’s no due tae February.”
He caught me adrift at the nets with a moralistic backhand volley. “It’d never cross your mind of course, that since her hyster - her operation, Phyllis might get depressed by the very sight of that pram.”
His shirt collar crackled, at least I think it was his collar though it might well’ve been his indignant soul stretching its astral muscles. How godalmighty powerful he looked all of a sudden - like a thrush unzipping a worm. Jeez, look at the manly flexing of those throat sinews, and that chin sprouting from nowhere. To think that before he’d got into this kinderwagen he’d been a mere bachelor of twathood, a comma in a Scott novel.
“Heavy, man”, he mimicked me. “What’s that supposed to mean. Why can’t you speak normally instead of... of...” Normal words failed him. I got a zen buzz: ‘Man who rides on Beetle should refrain from stamping his foot...’
“Eddie,” I said, “get the door, will you - before my bastardn legs drop off!”
The shop was crammed floor-to-ceiling with junk, every nook and cranny had been utilised to accommodate the domestic fall-out which had resulted from that most disastrous of community explosions - the dinging doon of the Gorbals. Leaving in their wake the chattels of an outmoded way of living, whole tribes of Tenementers had gone off to the Reservations of Castlemilk and Toryglen, or like the bulk of those who’d remained had old wirelesses, wind-up gramophones, dusty piles of records, 78’s, EP’s, and LP’s, twelve inch tellies, wally dugs, wag-at-the-box cameras, and speckled photographs scattered as far and wide as no doubt were the people they depicted, cartons stuffed with picture postcards, old music sheets, and books, hundreds and hundreds of books, every domestic prop you could think of, aye, and including not one but at least a half a dozen kitchen sinks.
Into this shop too, like so many stale pizzas, had tumbled wall plaques which showed every sentimentalised rural scene imaginable. Ours had been ‘The Watermill’ though its stream had been diverted after Da Clay’d vented his spleen on it with a flying boot (a great spleen-venter was my old man). The leader of the ‘Ducks in Flight’ had winged on for many a year with a broken neck caused by, who else?, Vic Rudge when he’d taken a potshot at it with his Webley air pistol. Those selfsame ducks might very well be here, as might also my old bike, a royal blue’n white Argyle with a wee kiltie on the handlebar stalk. With some rummaging I might even be able to howk out those stookie ornaments Ma Clay’d been so fond of: Boy With Cherries, for instance. Poor bugger he was always getting his conk knocked off before he’d a chance to sample the fruit. ‘Tantalus’ I’d nick- named him, being at that time a raggedy-arsed kid who mainlined on book print.
“Don't put it there - you'll scratch it!”
The typewriter, about to mate with its dim reflection on a dust-streaked table was hastily transferred to the lid of a travel-weary trunk. The shop’s owner a crabbit wee nyaff came over now and, looking aggrieved rubbed a finger across the table’s stourie surface. If I’d scratched it I’d make good the damage, he warned me, which was really rich considering the tabletop already had more scrapes and blemishes on it than there were on my Jimmie Rodgers record collection. Muttering under his breath he fixed his querulous glance on me. “You, is it? And what rubbish are you trying to unload this time?”
The old yap bent to give the machine the once-over. He poked at it with a finger, mainly in the area of the ribbon spools but never once pressed a key which was about as nutty as buying an auto solely on the design of its ashtrays. He straightened. When he spoke his voice was loused up with catarrh and a crack ran through all of his words.
“What's this, then?”
When I told’m he snapped. “Aye, I didnae think it was for sweepin car-pets! But what’m I apposed to do wae it?” Again I told’m. “Buy it? he squawked.
“I thought maybe you wanted it rebuilt.”
“It’s a fine auld machine,” I assured him, then slipped in a quick commercial which glossed over the typewriter’s crucial lack of the letter I. “I’ll give you a wee demo if you like.” Adjusting the creased sheet of paper I knelt beside the chest and briskly typed: “The fast brown dog jumps over the lazy fox... Now’s the hour to come to the help of the party...”
“There, how’s that?”
He shrugged his skinny shoulders. “Hanged if I know. Havnae got on ma readin specs.” He tugged now from his pants pocket a hankie, so clatty it would’ve been the talk of the steamie. Raising the pestilent rag he proceeded to empty his brains into it. When the messy job was done and his sight had been partially restored he looked cross to find me still there. “Better chance of sellin a cracked chantie. Who’d want a typewriter aroon these parts?”
What a question! A blizzard of authors was sweeping through Glasgow To get into the boozers you’d to plod through drills of Hemmingways and Mailers. Kerouacs, by the dozen, could be found lipping the Lanny on Glesca Green. Myraids of Ginsbergs were to be heard howling mantras down empty night tunnels.
“I thught maybe a ten-spot,” I said, as in the classical manner I assumed the stance of the black-belted Haggler.
“Ten bob for that rubbish! You’re off your trolley, sonny.”
My Haggle-Master wouldn't be chuffed with me. Recklessly, I’d exposed myself to the Haggler’s prime foe - the non-Haggler. Mindless of tradition, ignorant of the rules of engagement, the subtle testing of balance until the fulcrum of compromise had been attained, the auld bugger’d simply waded in and fetched me a boot in the cheenies. Turning now he peered into the backshop gloom then shouted, “Alice, come ben a minute.”
After a few moments a peely-wally lassie of around 14, a comic in one hand, a half-gnawed apple in the other, slouched into our presence. She wore a skimpy mauve dress and a nasty line in facial acne. There was a blue slyness to the eyes that slid from me to my ‘fine example of British craftsmanship…’
“What d’you want, Gramps?” she asked through a gobful of mushed apple.
“You say you get typing at school? Right, have a bash at this thing, then.”
She wasn’t overkeen (me less so) but Gramps insisted. The girl sighed then placed the half-chewed apple on Biffo the Bear and kneeled before the machine. Very self-consciously she adjusted her skinny fingers on the guide keys. I leaned over her. “If it helps just copy what I've typed.” But with a nervous gulp she began to rap out something entirely different:
Of all the f shes n the sea the merma d s the one for me.
She tried again with, of course, identical results. Next, with a glance up at me, she struck a rapid tattoo on the I key: the amputated leg kicked impotently.
“Well?” her grandfather queried.
The girl rose. “It’s alright, I suppose, considering its age.” Her mouth sappy once more with pulped apple she turned mocking blue eyes on me. “A pound,” the junkman offered.
“A fiver, surely.”
“Four pounds, then?”
“Two, no more.”
I sighed. “Okay, but it’s daylight robbery.”
The old man, still grumbling under his breath, creaked off into the backshop where presumably he stashed his loot. His granddaughter grinned at me then, pausing only to spit out an appleseed, said: “You'd better give me five bob or I’ll tell’m...”
Underway again, if beetling along at walking pace could be called that, I’d to grin to myself at the recollection of Little Nell and her Grandfather. Smart kids around these days, real bright buttons. The background of the High Court seemed to have jammed but with a supreme heave the sceneshifters got it on the move and replaced it with the solemn backdrop of the City Mortuary. We came, appropriately enough, to a dead halt beside it.
“What's that ticking noise?” Eddie asked.
I glanced over my shoulder. The Grandfather clock lay as before on the rear seat, its white face glimmering and a long-ago midnight or noon caught in its clasped hands - the embalmer’s touch. It was a gonner all right, had well’n truly popped its cogs. Family tradition has it that it stopped short, never to go again, the very night its maker, Granda Gibson, took a turn for the better and was soon on his way to a sprightly recovery in the Victoria Infirmary.
Eddie was shaking his head. “You surely don’t imagine that it’s coming from that thing?”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
“Grow up. A box of junk, that’s all it amounts to. Mother won’t let it in the house. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Eddie, bravely, and completely without an anaesthetic, studied his own reflection in the rear-view mirror. He plucked at his fat overlip, drawing it up to examine one of his yellowish incisors. They looked like old piano keys, his choppers did. Mercifully, he dropped the lid on them. “I’ll tell you why not - because that chiming orange box is riddled with dry rot. If it’s ticking then it can only be deathwatch beetle.”
“Agreed. And the same goes for some of that other junk you’ve foisted on us. Take that wardrobe for a start –“
“Dartholes. How many times have I –“
“Who’d hang a dartboard on a wardrobe?”
“We didnae. Some of my pals were hellish aimers. Take Potsie Green for starters: compared wi him Mr McGoo had six/six vision. I'll tell you another thing - Bless you!”
“I wasn’t sneezing, I was going shhhhh...”
“Shut up. I can still hear it.”
His gaze swivelled suspiciously in my direction then homed in on the bump in my Marine Combat jacket. “What’ve you got in there?”
From beneath the jacket I produced an alarm clock. It was a blue malevolent looking job, the destroyer of a thousand sleeps: the thing had leapt unasked onto my person as I’d left the shop.
“Vicious looking bugger, eh? A double-action rouser. If you don’t hit the rug after the first bell it pishes on you.”
“For any favour!” A look of sufferance creased his lugubrious face. What was it with this creep? Wasn’t this proof positive that I was going to change my ways? Hadn’t I dumped the very machine that’d threatened to turn his sister’s life into a fiction? Not only that, I’d replaced it with a clock - the symbol of regularity and responsibility. Come Monday next I fully intended to cease being Dr Munn’s catspaw in his attempt to sabotage the National Health Service system by choking it with paper, lots and lots of paper: sick lines by the shovelful, first, intermediary, then with much reluctance, final certificates; rambling letters to hospital consultants about rambling patients; x-rays which often not only failed to match the afflicted part but also the afflicted patient; and overprescribing on a scale so mega it must’ve been keeping at least a couple of pill barons in pink caddies.
My illness - a nomadic back pain (the malingerer’s mate) eluded Dr Munn’s perfunctory attempts to pin it down but the Health Board, really concerned about my welfare, summoned me to the cave of their resident shaman, a Dr. Sword, who while he was no great shakes with a scalpel was blessed with a magic fountain pen which in about as long as it takes to write ‘Fit for work’ could ‘cure’ even the most tenacious illnesses on-the-spot. His steely gaze had soon focussed on the source of my ailment. “About as classic a case of self-induced narcolepsy as I’ve come across,” he told his assistant, a Dr. Butler (this duo became the infamous ‘Sword ‘n Buckler’, the very utterance of whose names sent forboding shivers through the sub world of means testees, tribunalees, and appeals panelees).
The first painlets of my affliction were sown the day I'd been doing some mental grazing in my dictionary and came across the word ‘sabbatical’. It seems that there’s this racket pros and parsons are into which allows them to sod off from the state galley for a year or so. This is so that their mental and physical batteries can be recharged while they enjoy a little exotic nookying, surfing, or hand-gliding. Fair enough. Nowt wrong with that. But worra about the Wurkers? Nuffink doing; they were to remain unsabbied. Bloody liberty. Was I, the son of a dead Clydesider going to stand for it? No way, comrade! So, with the aid of that rascally old anarchist, Doc Munn, who willingly covered my trail with sick lines, I sabbied forth from my workplace (at that time I was a fireman on the railways) to give my braincogs a good airing.
Instead of indulging in some mild eccentricity like, for instance, trying to construct an atomic mousetrap, or to design a navel-fluff remover for blind persons, I decided to fulfil a long-cherished ambition - the writing of a novel. And, why not? I’d writing talent, bags of it. Hadn’t my English teacher, Mr Ironsides, said so? No, as a matter of fact he hadn’t. Ironsides saw himself in the role of a literary shepherd. He’d stand on the mound of his ego, ever-vigilant to preserve us from grammatical howlers. Using specialised signals, he’d send his dogs into the heart of a paragraph to snap at the heels of wooly adjectives, or to sniff out elipses and split infinitives, before urging them to drive the word-flocks into tight, pedantic pens where the casualty rate from suffocation was often high. Ironsides deprecated what he called my ‘lone wolfishness’ and he harped on about my vulgarities in matters of style: “I asked for an essay, boy - not a bill poster hoarding”.
At last the traffic lamp close by the mortuary - the red nearest the dead - gave us the go-ahead and the snow-mottled traffic with a grinding of gears began to surge towards Glasgow Cross. From the verdigrised rim of the alarm clock a tiny bug, a molecule on legs, had emerged. I studied it as it began an epic journey from twelve to six, its polar opposite. A time beastie? No. Time-beetle, then? Nope. How about a clockroach? Bingo! Aye a clockroach, a wee time-beastie that lives in a 9 to 5 universe. I felt chuffed. It seemed that I was still on the Muses mailing list. I glanced from the window as the V.W. chuntered up the High Street, the vestigial spine of ancient Glasgow. In a shop window a nude male mannequin was to be seen staring up at a silvery tree from the branches of which handbags and gloves dangled like mutated fruits. I must sort that away for the future use of. Aye, despite the loss of my I-less pal (I could still feel its tactile phantom pressuring my thighs) I would soldier on at the writing game. Those nerds who urged me to be sensible and not to strain my working class braincells beyond their inherited capacity, hadn’t they heard of a jotter’n pen - the only tools required by a writer? A tannery jotter with all the arithmetic tables printed on the back cover, not forgetting yon stotting word - advoirdupois! ‘Said the yard to the mile - will you be gone furlong?’ ‘A gramme of arsenic is a killergramme…’ … ‘Open your jotters and leaving a margin begin’: There was once this deep sea diver who found a tenement building on the floor of the ocean. He went through one of its closes and came out into a backcourt where the calm corpses of housewives with carpet beaters in their hands floated around. Also to be seen was King Neptune having forty winks in a lopsided armchair.
Swinging to’n fro on the windscreen was a tiny plastic skeleton one of those keyring curios. Eddie had probably hung it there to remind him of his mortality though one glance at his corpsy face in the mirror would’ve sufficed.
The car braked as another traffic lamp ripened.