“At whit point did we chuck it last Saturday?” Jackie (The Hat) Connor said. He stopped pacing the floor of the single end and seemed to address the question in the direction of the easy chair where I sat, pencil at the ready, with my notebook open on the wooden table in front of me. He raised his right arm clad in a butter-yellow leather safari jacket in a theatrical gesture. “Oh, aye, the rotten life ma auld man hid,” he said. “How Ah made a vow tae make stacks o’ dough, whatever it took, wiz that no’ it?” He threw himself down lengthwise on the sofa, taking care to pluck the creases of his chocolate brown gabardine trousers as he settled into a comfortable position.
“Mmmmmm,” I hummed as my pencil flew across the page. I had now changed tack. Rather than express my impressions in laconic telegraphese, I had decided to take dictation. Having spent the best part of Sunday amplifying the cryptic notes I’d taken on Saturday, I now reckoned I’d be as well trying to reproduce on paper what he actually said. As a well-deserved break from my literary labours, I attended the Rev. Tommy Murchison’s six o’ clock Gaelic service in St Columba’s Church of Scotland in Copland Road. The minister’s text was Paul’s epistle to Titus Chapter 1, Verse 15, To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.’ Gulp! The sprezzatura of the tenement teuchters, particularly in their singing, returned them briefly to the simplicity and innocence of an old world. This contrasted strikingly with the complex, dark and violent new world revealed to me the day before in the rhetoric of Jackie (The Hat) Connor.
“Yeah,” he murmured reflectively that Monday morning in the single end. “Ah became a kind o’ sawn-off hoodlum at a very early age. Like everybody who’s in the position Ah’m in today, Ah hid tae learn how tae dae things. Ma education wiz in the gutters o’ the Gallowgate, where the best lessons’re learned.”
“Who were your teachers and what lessons did you learn?” I asked.
“Started aff goin’ on wee missions furr Jimmy McMahon.”
“What kind of ‘missions’?” I enquired.
“Och, ye know,” he explained dismissively. “Bit o’ light shopliftin’ up the toon in Woolworth’s and Lewis’s: stealin’ crates o’ beer fae lorries parked ootside pubs . . .wee bit o’housebreakin’ when we knew naebody wiz in the hoose. We’d jemmy the electric and gas meters and take a’ the two bob bits. If the worst came tae the worst, we’d steal washing aff the dryin’ lines in the backcourts and sell the shirts, knickers and troosers tae the stall keepers doon at Paddy’s Market. We wurr never idle.”
“Was that all you did?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. “We learned how tae break intae motors wi’ wire coat hangers and how tae hot-wire say, a Riley or an Armstrong Sidley, that some other gang leader or bookie wiz wantin’.”
This low-level criminality was, I imagined, what all novice gangsters had to learn. “Was violence ever involved?” I enquired.
“Oh, nearly a’ the time,” Connor replied airily. “No’ by me – Ah wiz too wee – but ye could watch the big boys when they went oan the demand. They’d hiv a machete up against some guy’s throat – maybe he owed McMahon money or a favour or somethin’ – and they’d look the man right in the eyes while the guy’s pleadin’ wi’ them, and they’d convince him that they widnae hesitate tae rip his coupon furr him. The secret of these razor-slashers and chib men wiz they made the guy they wurr bracin’ see that if he didnae pay, he’wiz gonnae get hurt. ‘Hey,’ they’d say, ‘ you want yer nose cut aff and furr us tae ram it doon yer throat? That whit ye want, ya bam?’”
Here in Plantation a chill wind was blowing from the east.