Andy

“What makes you particularly grateful to Mister Connor?” I ask.
“See this vehicle you’re sittin’ in the noo?” the driver says.
“What about it?”
“Ah wiz able tae buy this from daein’ wee jobs furr Jackie,” the big man declares proudly.
“What kind of wee jobs did you do for him?” I ask.
“Nane o’ your business,” the driver snaps abruptly.
I realize that I’ve committed some kind of no-no, and I decide to lighten the conversation. “So Connor’s the gift that keeps on giving?” I say, faking a giggle.
“Definitely,” the big man assures me in a deadly serious tone. “The rest o’ oor crew will agree – we a’ get weighed in real good when we pull a stroke furr him.”
“You did okay getting this van,” I say in an attempt to flatter him.
“Good enough,” he agrees.
I bring up a subject I have been increasingly interested in. “What about lasses?” I ask.
“Whit aboot them?”
“The van should be good for picking up girls,” I suggest.
“Nah!” he snarls.
“Not good enough for picking up lasses?” I squeak incredulously.
“No good at a’ furr that,” the driver says firmly. “You go up tae Halfway there where Lourdes Convent is, ye hing aboot lang enough, ye might get an old nun jumpin’ in beside ye.” He snorts in amusement at his own fantasy. “But young, good-lookin’ burrdz?” he says sorrowfully. “Forget it – ye’ve nae chance.”
He turns the van right just past The Chevalier Bar at the junction of the Govan Road and MacLean Street. The van coasts to a halt in front of a closemouth boarded up with a ramshackle sheet of corrugated iron.
“That’s us here,” the big man announces. “Oot ye get.”
I climb down from the van and stand on the pavement looking at the scabrous facades of the soot blackened tenements around me.
The big man bustles round the front of the Albion, brushes past me, and stops in front of the corrugated iron doorway. “Follow me, kid,” he commands. He seizes the edge of the barricade with both massive hands and pulls mightily. The corrugated iron cover peels back affording an entrance to the close about twenty inches wide. The big man squeezes in sideways and beckons me to do likewise. “Building’s condemned,” he offers by way of explanation. “Only a few lobby dossers here at night. “Come on,” he shouts as he enters what used to be the hallway of a traditional ‘room and kitchen’ flat whose front door has been removed. It is very dark and holds an unpleasant smell I cannot identify. This is where the homeless, raggedy men in two coats who do not have the price of a bed in the ‘deedle’, the deedle-doddle or Model Lodging House, round the corner on the Govan Road, lay their weary heads. My guide turns to his right and stands before a scarred wooden door equipped with a paper nameplate, a letterbox and a Yale lock. He flicks a cigarette lighter into life and turns his death-head features towards me. “Listen, son,” he intones in gravelly tones. “Ca’ canny wi’ the questions in here. If ye annoy yer man, Ah’ll hiv tae punish ye, undersaun?”
“I’m not going to intrude in his personal life,” I announce prissily. “
I am lying, but it sounds all right.
Andy shrugs: whatever.

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White Van

White Van

Shortly after 5.00 P.M. the same day I am standing with my back against the broad window of Stinson’s, Naval Outfitters, on the south side of Paisley Road West at Lorne School. The traffic streaming in both directions in front of me is heavy – lorries, vans, tramcars whose metal wheels squeal on the tracks, an occasional Vauxhall or Rover car and scattering of horse-drawn carts – all make a din. To calm myself before meeting the local thug, Jackie Connor, I light a Woodbine cigarette purchased as a ‘single’ for two old pennies from Marguerite’s shop in Gower Street.

As I cup the cigarette in my right hand by my side, I imagine I present a nonchalant image to the staring passengers in the number 40 tram, which is making its clanging way to Mosspark. In truth my sartorial get up is that of a walking bruise. The schoolteacher’s leather-elbowed multi-hued Donegal tweed jacket, cavalry twill fawn trousers and clumpy brogues make me look like a displaced Uist cattle dealer. Every item of Billy Ottolini’s hand-me-downs is at least three sizes too large for me.

Suddenly, between an orange double-decker Young’s bus with the legend ‘Largs’ on the destination panel and the pavement where I stand, a mud and rust-streaked white Albion van stops abruptly. The driver, pumps the horn three times and beckons me forward. I drop my cigarette onto the pavement and stand on it before ambling over to the already open passenger door. I climb into the front passenger seat and look expectantly at the tall, gangly young man, one of Jackie Connor’s bodyguards I presume, whose massive fists are drumming impatiently on the steering wheel as he waits for a gap in the traffic. Without turning his head towards me he says, “Ye’re meetin’ the man at the single-end.”

“Have we got far to go?” I ask, hoping the journey would be a long one. I had only once previously been a passenger in a motor vehicle, and that was in Donnchadh Mhurchaidh’s lorry carrying seaweed from Clachan Beag in Grìminis, Benbecula, up to the Seaweed Factory in Boisdale, South Uist.

“Nah,” the big man grunts. The walnut-sized knuckles of his hands protrude as he turns the steering wheel to his right and enters Harvie Street. “Oor single-end’s jist doon at the fit o’ MacLean Street,” he said. “Jackie and the boys go there at least wanst a day.”

“Is that where Mister Connor stays?”

“Whit?” The giant driver has his full gaze on me now.

“Ah mean, is the single-end his home?”

The driver puts his head way back and laughs. “You hivnae been aroon’ much, or ye widnae be askin’ daft questions like that.”

“It’s just . . . you know . . . just . . . um, curiosity,” I stammer.

“Forget It, sonny,”

I tried another question. “Is he married, or is he living ‘caso’ with some girl or another guy?”

“You think he’s buckled, is that it?” the big fellow barks, a warning note in his voice.

“Wait a minute,” I plead.

“Ah’ll wait a’ night, if ye want,” the big man says.

“Ah didnae mean anythin’ bad,” I try to explain. “It’s jist that Mister Connor is a pretty interesting man. He’s very important in Plantation, isn’t he?”

“Very important tae me and a lot of other guys roon aboot here,” the driver says forcefully.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Look,” the big man says, a note of impatience entering his voice. “Jackie is The Main Man aroon’ here. We’ve a’ goat good reasons tae be gratefu’ tae him.”

Who is this man who attracts hangers-on like a regent in a medieval court and who inspires such maniacal allegiance in those drawn to him? I intend to be in orbit around him. I consider it the ultimate chic to consort with a genuine underworld type.

Fluke Shot

Fluke Shot

One way or another I had to justify this hooligan’s trust in me.   I decided to play a card I’d had up my sleeve for all of two minutes, ever since I’d seen the way the docker had left the balls.

I had adopted the orthodox position of a player intent on scoring: left foot pointing forward in the direction of travel, right foot braced at a right angle. The weird thing about my classic crouch over the cue ball which lay on the left just below the cluster of pins was that, instead of aiming at either of the two balls which lay on the right hand side of the table, the docker’s ball six inches from the top cushion and the red just above the wooden diamond, I was preparing to launch Connor’s white down the table into the bottom cushion.

“No, son, no,” someone called out. The crowd was in an uproar.

“Ah’m urrnae goin’ tae say this twiced,” another voice shouted. “You play doon the table instead o’ where the red and the spot are at the tap o’ the table, Connor’ll plunge ye..”

“Ah’m urr goin’ tae gi’e ye the same warning, son,” another voice chimed in. “Ye mess up this shot, ye’ll hiv a face fu’ o’ Mars Bars (scars) furr the rest o’yer life.”

I ignored them and proceeded to drive the cue ball with considerable force towards the bottom cushion. It zipped off the bottom into the upper left cushion. From there, it bounced against the top cushion and struck the red firmly to drive it in the direction of the skittles. Slowly, ever so slowly, the cue ball kissed the docker’s spot ball. This was a cannon worth two points. But what’s this? The red is trundling inexorably towards the two pin and after what seemed an eternity knocks it over.

Two points plus two more for the cannon brought Connor’s total to twenty-one.

Ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram – most of the audience started banging on the linoleum floor with their cues.

Jackie (The Hat) Connor emerged from the office and placed his body, leaning slightly forward, directly in front of me. Why such an extreme posture? He smiled. “Ye didnae play the safety shot, did ye?”

“No,”I said, my voice barely rising above a gasp.

“But yer crookie shot won me the game.”

Barely audible: “Aye.”

“Ye done good, pal,” Connor snorted a laugh. “Come doon tae the café next tae The Doctor’s Pub at the corner of the PR and Cornwall Street the night. Ah’ve goat a proposition furr ye – tae dae wi’ writing.”

“What will I be writing about?” I asked.

“Me,” he snapped. He detached a half dozen pound notes from the thick bundle he’d picked up from the mantelpiece and gave them to me. “That’s you weighed in, pal,” he said.. “Urr ye game?”

I could only nod rapidly in agreement. As gazed reverently at the fan of money in my right hand something clicked deep inside me. Getting paid handsomely for something I liked to do caused endorphins to launch themselves in my mind. ‘Be still, my foolish heart,’ I silently prayed. I knew that I’d be chasing this buzz for the rest of my life.

Yes! I said to everything and to all of it – Yes! Yes! Yes!

“Come doon tae Lorne School the night at seven,” Connor commanded in clipped tones. “Staun outside Stinson’s. Big Andy here’ll pick ye up in a white van. “ Abruptly he and his minders headed for the exit. In the doorway he paused and raised an admonitory finger in my direction and barked: “Be there, Bella boy!”

Substitute

Substitute

The rules of the game were the same as for billiards, with an added complication: on the centre spot on the table stood a little black skittle about four inches tall surrounded in diamond form by four blond skittles. Knocking over at least one of the blond wood pins, each of which had an ascribed value – one, two, three and four – had to be executed by a player before his aggregate total of points from orthodox billiard scoring was computed. Hit the black pin, and the game’s a bogie. First to reach 21 won, not only the game, but also a pile of greasy pound notes stacked on the mantelpiece above the gas fire that stood between the door and the counter of Larry the owner’s office. The score was 17 to 12 in favour of the younger man when, from the office, the ringing of a telephone was heard. In the silence that followed the departure of the son of the ‘wine mopper’ Larry, the owner, announced loudly, “Phone furr ye, Jackie.”

The young spiv strolled towards the office. He had almost glided through the passage made for him by the compliant spectators when he extended his cue towards me and, still with his eyes fixed on the office door said, “Dae me a favour, son. Gonnae take ma shot furr me?”

“But . . . but . . . but . . . wha’ . . .whi . . .” I stuttered in reply. I had his cue in my hand.

“Ye sound like a foreign station oan the wireless, so ye dae,” the cool one said, resolutely turning his back on me. “Ah’m allergic tae foreign stations – unless it’s Radio Luxemburg on a Sunday night.”

Whisper-laughter, whisper-laughter from his fans.

“Don’t be a hero, son,” he said softly. “Jist play a safety shot.”

“But what if I hit the black pin?” I protested weakly.

That got his attention. He turned round and spoke to me sternly. “Listen ya wee toff, and listen good. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit and extracted an ivory-backed open razor. “Ah’m gonnae tell ye how things work round here when Jackie Connor’s in charge.”

I remained silent as he flicked the razor open with his thumb and brought the wavering eight-inch gleaming blade to within a foot from my face.

“You hit the black pin,” he said slowly, “and you best hope ye’re better at running than ye urr at pool. Know whit Ah’m sayin’?”

I nodded, standing ramrod straight and determined to show no fear.

“That’s right. Ah’ll cut yer lugs aff,” he said, moving from foot to foot, his nostrils flaring. He lifted my tie from around my sternum and with a quick slash of the open blade severed the material just below the knot. As he carelessly dropped the blue and gold material at his feet he said, “Bella boy, eh? he queried as though his teeth hurt. He turned his full attention to me and I saw the deadness in his eyes and the exposed lower teeth as he snarled. “You’ll play a nice wee safety shot,” he commanded.   “School’s over. Get on with it.”

I stared defiantly at Connor and heard myself say, “Come out of your frenzy, big man.” His big hands opened and closed, his knuckles bulging.. “Be assured, I continued, “ I shall win your game for you, and you will purchase a new Bellahouston tie for me.”

Connor began to laugh, emitting a high-pitched hyena-like cackle as he   opened the office door with his shoulder.

Cue in hand, I stepped up to the table.

Cruel Patter

“Dae ye work in a circus, or dae ye always dress like a clown?” Connor asked a middle-aged man whose dress wasn’t all that different from that of the rest of the punters – scuffed black leather boots, dingy grey woollen trousers and sleeveless Fair Isle patterned pullover over a grubby grey woollen shirt. The man’s face reddened, but he remained silent.

“The only wan o’ yous that’s dressed right is that wee boy in the corner wearing the blue and gold tie,” the guy who positively owned the place added. He swept one arm out with his forefinger extended and pointed to me. I blushed and blushed some more in appropriate Little Me manner. By now I felt there was a spotlight picking me out of the crowd like a star. So I blew a smoke ring with some semblance of nonchalance.

“Whit’s the matter, Agnes?”, Connor demanded of a lanky teenager. “Dae ye fancy me? Is that it?” he fired at the youth. He turned towards his tall, thick-bodied minder. “Andy,” he commanded, “gi’e this buckled shot a skelp oan the mooth and pap him outside.”

Big Andy made a half turn and backhanded the ‘buckled shot’ with his massive clenched fist. As the victim sank to the floor his attacker threw him over his shoulder and stomped out of the salon.   Everyone heard the dull thump of a body hitting the flagstones of the sunken garden outside.

‘The Hat’ was particularly cruel to a decidedly eastern looking young man who had attempted to congratulate him after he had executed a not particularly difficult cannon. “Nice one, Jackie,” the spectator piped up.

“Whit wud you know about a nice shot, ya bam?” Jackie snapped.

“Ah wis jist trying tae tell ye that you done good,” the youth answered meekly.

“Ah know Ah done good. Ah don’t need a blin’ kid like you tae tell me,” Jackie shot the line quickdraw, like a bullet from the hip.

“Ah’m no blin’ ,” the victim protested weakly.

Jackie ‘The Hat’ stopped pacing round the table and looked at his victim with a steady gaze. “Ah’m tellin’ ye yer eyes urrnae right,” he declared slowly. “Ye’re skelly, pal. Ye see, ye’re a victim of Intoxication Disorder .”

Everyone went “Ooooooooo!” in dismay.

Intoxication Disorder? I couldn’t believe it. This working class dandy who probably hadn’t attended school after leaving Rutland Crescent Primary was standing there in the Cecil Salon spouting ‘Intoxication Disorder’ like a professor in Glasgow University Medical School.

“It’s no’ your fault, son,” our lecturer continued. “Yer maw’s a wine mopper. She’s been bevvied in every wine shop beween Govan Cross and Paisley Road Toll. If she’d stayed aff the ‘Mammy’ (a Glaswegian corruption of the Italian Mamma Mia, meaning ‘wine.) when she was pregnant, you wudnae hiv ended up wi’ slanty eyes and a flat nose.”

To be classified as a drinker of fortified British wine rather than a regular ‘half-and-a- half-pint’ toper was the most bruising insult you could deliver to anyone. Speechless, the young man just stood there for a moment with a desolate look on his face. He shook his head slowly and headed for the door.

It was clear that ‘The Hat’ had established linguistic dominance over the population of Plantation for a long time, perhaps from the age of twelve. He gave the impression that the result of the game didn’t really matter to him. The Five Pin Pool Contest was merely a forum for his strong suit, which were cruel sarcasm, insouciance and cool proclamations.

Badlands

Queen Elizabeth the Second had her big day on Tuesday the 2nd of June 1953. I had mine four days earlier. Old Lizzie – there was some debate about her title: Scots claimed she was the First of Scotland, the English identified her as the Second Elizabeth after Queen Bess – was crowned monarch of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Union of South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon in Westminster Abbey, London. I, a fourth year pupil at Bellahouston Academy, a widow’s son, and facing a trial match at a famous football club, had greatness thrust upon me upon being hailed by at least twenty drifters and grafters in the Cecil Salon Billiards Hall in the no-man’s land between Ibrox and Plantation, Glasgow, as the ‘flukiest’ player of Five Pin Pool ever to grace the green felt covering. At the time, I was making a name for myself in school. Awarded the David Orr prize for creative English writing, top Latin scholar, fastest runner in my class, I spent a lot of time practising punching for optimal effect. In my Fourth Year, I wasn’t just riding high. I . . .was . . . in . . . orbit, Jimmy!.

I think of the events of that day as being inevitably predictable. I am vaguely aware I had very little choice. Bha e an dàn dhomh, It was fated to me to be attracted to a murky pass in my life. It was undeniable that I had always been drawn to individuals who gave off an aura of excitement and danger. Jackie (‘the Hat’) Connor, whom I got to know quite well, with his wide grin and seemingly devil-may-care attitude, was absolutely incandescent with a kind of low-rent glamour.

As I entered the low ceilinged salon, a crowd of about twenty afficionados of the game of Five Pin Pool were clustered round the Number One table where a contest was taking place between a young gangster and a grizzled old (fifty something) dock labourer. The younger man (early twenties), around five ten, twelve stone perhaps, was dressed in what was known in Glasgow at the time as Brigton Yank style. His shoes were light brown suede with thick crepe soles. His sharply cut light grey mohair suit, one button single-breasted with shawl collar, was topped by a narrow-brimmed blue Borsolino felt hat. An enormous blue and white Windsor knot secured his white cotton shirt with extremely long spear point collar tabs at the neck. His hamhock fist on the beige was huge, the knuckles over-sized and discoloured. This was a man who fought often, and the hardness in his narrowed eyes told everyone that when he did fight, he fought to win.

As I took my place nearest the window and fired up a cigarette, the flash young man was saying to another young spectator, “Whit, ya wee bampot? Does yer maw know ye’re oot?” The recipient of this insult said nothing and I quickly understood that this young man with the soft hat had taken over the entire room, strutting round the table and keeping up a continuous stream of insults and ironic taunts.

I shuffled behind a scrum of spectators, determined to maintain a low profile.

Ready, Steady, Go!

My name is Norman or, in Gaelic, Tormod. I’ve been trying to get my latest English language book, A Half-Breed Looks Back, into print for almost six months now, to no avail. My poor wee manuscript is, figuratively speaking, covered in bruises from publishers poking at it with ten-foot poles. For a limited time, I’m going to post slices from various chapters in blog form. I’ll do this on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until I have evidence, one way or another, that there is measurable demand for my stuff. Please share with anyone who may be turned on by my ramblings about slum life in 50s Glasgow, undergraduate lowlights and a veteran entertainer’s return to the Hebrides.