“What kind of work did your old man do?” he asked abruptly.
“Did,” I said.
“Well, what line of work was he in before he went to his reward?” Connor persisted.
“Docker,” I replied.
“That’s what I’m trying to explain to you,” Connor said. “What guys who’re hauling iron ore and wheat sacks from the holds of ships, selling stamps in the Post Office, putting up scaffolding on buildings, emptying bins, the kind of stuff normal people deal with every day, don’t understand is that to bad people like me normality is different. To us, robberies, smuggling, fencing stolen goods: the odd beating now and again, like cutting some guy’s ear off, are just normal things that guys like us do. This is the way we live. It’s what we want that counts. We don’t resign ourselves to anything. So if getting what we want, when we want it, means we’ll do anything we have to do to get it, including bursting kneecaps and Achilles tendons, or nailing a debtor’s hands to a wooden floor, well fine then, that’s what it takes. And we do it.”
I gasped and stirred uneasily in my chair.
Connor made a motion with both hands. He mimed carelessly tossing an invisible object over his left shoulder. This indicated that his little lecture was over and done with. Looking down at me with a smug expression on his face he nodded his head once. He said, “That should do it for today, kiddo. Now do you understand?”
As I collected my writing materials I reflected on a thing I’d never realized before. The guys who really made their mark in the underworld always start from scratch, and rise up through the ranks until they get to head their own organization. “When did you take over Plantation, Mister Connor?” I asked.
He reverted to demotic Glaswegian. “Aboot five years ago,” he said. “When Ah wiz sure o’ two things: that Ah wiz ready for promotion and that the guys who wurr runnin’ the place couldnae run a ménage. The basic thing wiz Jim McDonald was concentratin’ oan lendin’ tae the dockers doon at the Control oan the Govan Road. Big Ramsey fae Scotland Street wiz mainly operatin’ in Kinning Park and Harry Garvie fae Ibrox didnae hiv the manpower tae make an impression in the Plant.”
“So?” I queried.
“So,” Connor said, gazing at me and smiling, “the Plantation wiz ready furr pluckin’. It wiz ripe. So, Ah jist came in, set up an office in this wee single end, engaged muscle like Big Dan and Rab, and took o’er the district.”
“Just like that,” I said.
“In a way,” he said reflectively in a more or less standard accent. “I keep the peace here. What I stand for in this slum is order. If you as a normal citizen believe there’s always going to be crime, irrespective of the police, then what you want is assurance that if you tolerate a certain amount of criminal behaviour, you won’t be harmed. I give the people here that assurance. And my word is good.. Let me spell it out for you, son. If you’re not a cannibal round here, you’re lunch.”
Connor had begun his recital of his beliefs almost apologetically, speaking so low that I had to lean forward to hear. After a few minutes, his voice changed, grew stronger, more animated, and, when this happened, his face seemed to change too. His face became a light show of shifting emotions, a kaleidoscope of different faces. There was something hypnotic about the performance Was he trying to weave a spell?
I knew in my gut it would be pointless to argue, or even refer to Christian values like turning the other cheek or loving your neighbour as yourself.
I left the single end, closing the door behind me.