ST. JOHN’S

“How long did you spend in St John’s, Mister Connor?” I asked

“A week.”

“You mean you were sentenced to a week’s incarceration in this ‘Home’?” I squeaked incredulously.

“Nah,” he replied shortly. His face showed signs of exasperation. He took a deep breath before launching into a long explanation. “It wiz like, ” he said, “Lady Luck wiz oan ma side. They made me work furr a week in that place. Ah’ll show ye the only pay slip Ah ever received in a’ ma life.” He pulled a shiny, fat wallet of dark Italian leather from his back trouser pocket and rifled through the banknotes until he came across what he was looking for – a crumpled, much fingered sheet of paper with the bold type legend at the top: ST JOHN’S HOME FOR WAYWARD BOYS, OXFORD. Below the heading and date, ‘4th September 1936, the words ‘Ten shillings to the bearer, John Connor, the sum of Ten Shillings for services rendered” were scrawled in ink. I examined the sole piece of evidence that Connor had ever been gainfully employed, and concluded it was kosher. Smiling, Connor carefully folded what was clearly a precious document to him and put it back in the flashy wallet.

“What services did you . . . um, render, Mister Connor?” I asked.

“Och,” he said with a dismissive flutter of his fingers, “Ah jist tobered up the other residents.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“Jist making sure,” he said with a leer, “the other kids stayed in line and didnae get ideas above their station. Batterin’ them furr cheekin’ the staff, smokin’ in the lavvies, no’ clearin’ up their dishes at meal times . . . stuff like that. Ye see, first aff, Ah picked the lock oan the kitchen door. Second aff, Ah choarried the cook’s big, sharp carvin’ knife. Ah stuck the chibb intae the back o’ ma ‘winners and losers’.

“Where?” I said.

“Ma ‘winners and losers’ – troosers,” he explained curtly.

I had noticed a significant pattern to Connor’s speech patterns. When he was adopting the insouciant pose of a seen-and-done-everything important figure in the under world, he peppered his narrative with raw, careless thieves’ cant and Glaswegian rhyming slang. The Catholic chapel became the ‘piney’, short for ‘pineapple’. The ‘uncle’ was an abbreviated form of ‘Uncle Ned’ which meant ‘bed’. On the other hand, when he wanted to impress the listener with the importance of what he was saying, his default dialect was grammatically correct, slightly modified Lowland Scottish.

“So,” Connor explained. “That wiz me tooled up again. When the matron saw how good Ah wiz at makin’ the other boys obey the rules, she offered me the job. Ten years o’ age, Ah ruled St John’s.”

“How long did you hold that job, Mister Connor?” I asked.

“A week,” he replied.

Something did not add up here.

“What I don’t understand, Mister Connor, sir,” I ventured timidly. “Why was your sentence so lenient? I mean, a week’s not very long, is it?”

He put the palms of his hands flat on his thighs, arched his back and threw his head back, laughing throatily, as if he’d heard some very good news.

“As soon as the auld vicar in charge o’ the place cashed ma pay check,” he said, “Ah went up the touchline.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means Ah trapped . . . scarpered . . . ran away,” he said.

“But . . . but . . . How was that possible?” I stammered.

“A doddle, sonny,” he replied,. “I jist strolled up tae the auld janitor behind the desk at Reception. Ah wiz singin’ like a wee lintie in my boy soprano voice as I sauntered towards the Main Door ’I Belong to Glasgow’ wiz getting’ laldie when I leaned over the desk tae wish the auld yin a good evening. I jist applied McMahon’s Law tae the situation.”

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