In the stygian gloom of the lobby after Andy had turned off his lighter, I had ample time to consider that this was a situation involving mortal peril. These guys whom I was about to meet had adopted a credo that was perhaps a trifle rich for my core sense of empathy for others. They believed that if you are not a cannibal, you’re lunch.
I hear the short, soft purr of a key being inserted into a Yale lock, a click, and the creak of a door opening. Suddenly there is light. The single end has a Coleman lamp flaring in the top left-hand corner of a box, ten by fourteen feet. Four men are standing about, smoking and conversing quietly. Three of them are in their mid to late twenties, though one young lad, maybe two or three years older than myself, comes over and shakes my hand while grinning fixedly. This former kitchen contains a fireplace, cooker and a double bed recess in the left hand side of the room. A badly stained carpet of indeterminable colour covers a floor littered with cigarette ends. On it sit three rickety chairs, a table with a grubby, grey cover and a beat-up old leather sofa. The strangest item in the place is a punch bag suspended by a chain from the roof and secured to the floor by another one. It is hard to believe that this confined space accommodated families of upwards of six members. A communal toilet on each of the three landings in the tenement served each of the single ends.
A sudden movement breaks my reverie. The curtains that seal off the recessed bed part with a screech to reveal Jackie Connor dressed in red sateen boxing shorts, white singlet with red piping at the neck and armpits. He stands still for a full ten seconds holding his gloved fists in classic, orthodox pose, left glove protecting his jaw line, right fist cocked for jabbing. It is at this moment I get an inkling of the man’s powerful appeal. His broad, rather swarthy face shows a permanent expression of readiness to inflict damage. His slanted green eyes are dull, dead even, beneath arched black eyebrows. His hair, a blond so ashy that it is impossible to tell how grey it may be turning, is pulled back in a short ponytail secured by a rubber band. He leaps from the bed and lands softly on the floor. His grace and undeniable charisma is drawing me to his dangerous flame. He begins to attack the bag with fast rat-a-tat punches.
I remember my own boxing days not so long ago in St Anthony’s in Govan and I reckon Jackie is the real thing. “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” I shout.
Connor lets go a mighty right hand that causes the chains to rattle. He drops his hands and looks at me for a long time before saying, “Who urr ye, wee man?” “Whit urr ye daein’ here?”
“You asked me to come down to Plantation to meet you,” I inform him in a quivering voice. “Larry’s Cecil Salon, remember?”
“Ah forgot,” he says, and I know the truth is not in him. He’s pretending to be a hopeless victim of memory loss. He seizes the opportunity to entertain the members of his gang. “That’s how ye know ye’re getting’ auld.” He turned and turned his arms out in appeal. “Isn’t that right, troops? A sure sign ye’re getting’ on a bit, ye start forgettin’ things. Next thing yous’ll hear aboot me is that I fell in the lavvy and broke ma hip. Is that no’ right?”
Someone in the room – it may be the young fellow – titters and soon everyone is laughing at the ludicrous notion that Jackie (The Hat) Connor is anywhere near approaching senility.
Too late, I realize he’s keeping me off balance. I’ll have to apply a thick coat of flattery.