The final adventure of John Brodie, injured footballer turned private eye
It may have been Socrates who compared marriage to a penalty kick. And he wasn’t far wrong. There is an inanimate object shortly to become animate – that is the ball. Coming in at a rush is a dead-eyed marksman, nerveless, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, with a clear goal in mind. On the actual line is the custodian, a jittery presence, fumble-fingered, and plaintive as a lost lamb.
The bride is the shooter, the goalie the groom, and the ball? I suppose that’s the event itself but I’d have to ask Socrates.
My name is John Brodie, my bride-to-be is Rosalind Connor, now a matron at the Royal Hospital in Greenock, Scotland, where the rain has found a deep and abiding home for itself, and I’m wondering how to get out of a present predicament.
This is not the marriage. Like many a limping private investigator, I have had my share of dangerous times and come out relatively unscathed – no – the present predicament is lying in an old air raid shelter in the neglected and barren back green of a tenement in East Stewart Street, tied up by brute force and a length of thick rope that could restrain a bull elephant (which I am not), being dripped on by various leaks from a roof that during the war was supposed to keep out the Luftwaffe’s bombs, and waiting for the return of a life-taker with an axe.
Of course it’s all to do with football – is not everything?
As the man says, it all started when… and before when… and, how far back do you want me to go?
The Willow Bar was quiet with some streaky mid-morning rain pattering gently against the front windows, which had thick whorls in the square leaded glass to prevent any suspicious housewife from keeking in to find out if their nearest and dearest was on the batter.
Jimmy Lapsley, the barman, a stalwart of the Boys Brigade and shortly in his immense pride to be made lieutenant commanding officer of the Orangefield Battalion, was polishing the beer glasses and generally making the place shipshape as I sat with a cup of weak tea before me and pondered existence while various teams from various periods of Morton football club folded their arms and grinned down at me from the walls – a triumph of hope over experience.
Our pub was a shrine to the Greenock team. Jimmy never missed a home game although I went but rarely. It was painful to watch – we were mediocre even for the second division and there was always an ache of a different kind for me.
I had been a junior player of some promise, with a trial in prospect for Morton before a tackle that would have impressed a Sherman Tank shattered my leg and ankle bones. I then gave way to the dark forces that are never far distant from the barely functioning Scot and hit the bottle. How I was saved from all encompassing self-sabotage and destruction is another story.
But saved I was and intended to remain so – now I had too much to lose. Hence the cup of weak tea. I also had a book in front of me, not open at the racing pages – I have standards. At the moment I am reading Albert Camus’s The Outsider. That’s because I used to be a winger. Albert was a goalie.
The door burst open and a female figure was silhouetted in the grey outside light of what passes for springtime round here – it was my beloved Rosalind, with those black nurse’s stockings below her coat that have spawned so many idle fancies in the mind of man.
Usually after night shift at the Royal she went straight to her scratcher while I stayed out of the way with Albert, but for some reason this morning the girl had deviated.
“I think we should tie the knot,” said she, emerald eyes agleam, jet-black hair glistening with the dismal rain. She had the collar of her raincoat turned up, a sign that things were on the move.
“I’m not into that kind of thing,” I replied in some panic. “The Marquis de Sade can raffle himself.”
“Marriage. Is what I mean. You tumshie.”
A glass tumbler fell from Jimmy’s hands and in the silence, we three being the only folk in the place, reverberated against the wooden counter until the noise disappeared; no doubt it still echoes far off into eternity but in the Willow Bar eternity can also go raffle itself.
“I checked at the Registry Office. Once we sign the forms it’s in the blink of an eye.”
“What forms? What blink?”
She whipped out some papers from an inner pocket of her coat.
I nodded. Sphinx-like, deadpan gumshoe Philip Marlowe has nothing on me.
“I’m away to my bed. A girl needs her beauty sleep and I’m not getting any younger.”
With that she was out the door, not far to go for I lived just above the bar. Was it my imagination or had the grins on the faces of the teams above me become broader like Bugs Bunny?
“W-w-would you like a drink, John?” asked Jimmy.
“A strong tea. Three sugars.”
“You only take two.”
Jimmy began making a powerful pot of tea. His Adam’s apple, always a barometer of the finer feelings within, was dancing about like an inside forward. As he poured in the hot water, the door shot open again and Rosalind, with a nippy wee smile, pointed a finger straight at him.
“You can be best man.”
When a woman cries it’s a hard thing to thole, especially somebody as sweet natured as Annie O’Hara who had been like a surrogate auntie to me and one of the last remaining family connections left on the planet. My mother was gone (ambushed by the Wild Woodbine), my father was gone, a Clydeside Communist, too intelligent for an engineering factory but not clever enough to stop smoking Capstan Extra Strength. Cancer beat Karl Marx with no extra time involved.
“Och, he’s such a wild boy but he means no harm.”
“When did he skedaddle?”
“Yesterday, jist after his scraps. Best bones frae Melville’s the butcher. The postman chapped at the door with a parcel for the neighbours and when I opened up, off like a shot out a gun!”
“He howled, the postman shouted. He doesnae admire shouting, ran for his life.”
She wiped at her face with a large hankie. I remembered her doing the same to me when I had lost one of the many back-green fights.
The wild boy in question?
A poodle. Not a lap dog, however, a large bumbling good-natured mutt called Pepe.
“Because he’s full o’ pep!” Annie beamed this as the creature jumped up to head-butt me in the solar plexus. “I found him in the Dog’s Home. They found him in the streets. Not even a collar and covered in big dirty bruises. If you raised your voice, his belly to the ground. How could folk be so cruel?”
Possibly a reason might have been that the dog chewed everything that moved and anything that didn’t, one item being my last decent pair of hush puppies – but that cavil aside he was the apple of Annie’s eye and missing from the scene.
“I looked all day and all night,” Annie’s eyes were tearing up again and I felt as if it was all my fault somehow, but then I’ve felt like that since birth. “I even phoned the Home because he has a proper collar now, with his name and address wi’ a reward for the finder. And asked all the wee children tae keep their eyes peeled, but nothing. You’re my last hope, John. It’s your chosen profession!”
Since my previous cases had involved a football betting scam, an attempt to sell Morton’s stadium of Cappielow to developers, the theft of a cup winner’s medals, all of which I had become accidentally involved in and all to do with the beautiful game, the finding of Pepe might have seemed a bit of a stretch, but I had set myself up as a private eye and one of my minor cases had concerned the double death of Ming the Merciless, a killer cat, and Joey the budgie, its victim.
Therefore any criminal activity to do with animals or pursuit of a leather sphere would seem to be my territory, and I loved my Aunt Annie. Her round cheerful face, with the now slightly faded china blue eyes, had pulled me through many a childhood trauma and now it was payback.
Besides, the wedding was looming, Rosalind had one of her nursie pals as bridesmaid, Ella Donnachie whose ribald tales of the bizarre objects found in various orifices – one a referee’s whistle plus chain – would certainly enliven the wedding table; Rosalind would have a forbidding family delegation there as well, most of whom got right up her nose but blood will out.
I had Jimmy Lapsley in new officer’s uniform, plus big Neil Forsyth who had been apprentice engineer to my father but other than that was sorely unrepresented save for Annie. To have her there in floods of tears would put a right damper on proceedings.
So, I took the case. Asked Annie one question. And wandered into a nest of vipers.
The question asked was – where had Pepe been found originally by the Dog’s Home folk?
Animals in the main are like players in a team. They always stick to what they know. For instance ask a full-back to play centre-forward and you will see blind panic settle on those craggy features. Ask a wee bandy-legged inside-forward to play centre-half and he will show a hitherto unknown turn of speed as he heads for the exit.
If the dog had taken a wander to itself, then the odds were that it would head back to where was once home sweet home, the streets of the East End of Greenock. In this case it was East Stewart Street where the dog had been found shivering, hungry and bearing evidence of being maltreated.
So that’s where I started. A small street, near to the docks, nothing to pick it out from its fellows save the small matter of every window in the place had a flag or some mildewed bunting hanging from the sill. Two colours. Green and Dark Blue. They met neatly in the middle where the respective tenements came to a juddering halt. There was a narrow alley that ran between them; all the windows had been bricked up on both sides so that it looked like a fortress of some kind.
Then it hit me. Idiot. How could I have let this slip my mind? Every Spring Equinox when Druids did their stuff at Stonehenge and pagans covered themselves in woad to celebrate the rebirth of the land, East Stewart Street had, for some reason, their To the Death game of football.
Well, hardly recognisable as a game. Eleven hard men from Green and Blue (no prizes for guessing which were the teams represented) lined up against each other in that narrow alley.
At one end the Catholic contingent, the manky Papes, cheered on their team and at the other the blue nose bastards Protestant gathering did the same.
The ball was a thick pigskin sphere with a hide like a Rhino and had never been dunted out of shape in the near 25 years this ritual had been enacted. No one know why it had started but each contest left a trail of broken bones and smashed teeth that in millenniums to come some planetary archaeologist from a far-flung galaxy (the earth by now being inhabited solely by ants and resembling a giant termite nest) would puzzle over these relics and wonder if it was some sort of religious burial ground. Like Socrates, they would not be far wrong.
The premise was simple, similar to the Charge of the Light Brigade with just about as much intelligence involved. The rock-hard pigskin ball was placed precisely in the centre of the arena; both teams lined up at each end and on a given signal, for some reason the banging together of two metal dustbin lids, they lurched like berserkers into battle.
The object was to project the ball over a thick chalk scrape drawn on each side. This was called the Crossing of the Line. A somewhat literal description but as soon as it happened the bloody tide arrested and what was left of the combatants could then be scraped from the street stones.
This affray might last all day, starting at nine in the morning so that the Papes had time to pray for victory at the chapel and the Proddies bow their proud heads before a granite statue of John Knox.
If darkness fell without result, torches were lit and the whole thing got spooky. I avoid it like the plague, it’s not so much the hammering dealt and received, it’s the hatred underneath. This leads to physical mayhem that makes Rangers v Celtic seem like a Sunday School picnic. Kicking, punching, head-butting if gainfully employed are all allowed – the only thing barred is eye-gouging.
And weapons. The one sop to civilisation is a lack of lethal accoutrements. Knuckle-dusters, chibs and machetes were frowned upon as cissy adjuncts. Likewise lead pipes and shillelaghs.
And in observance of the great game itself, the pigskin was only to be propelled by the boot or the clenched fist. No running with the ball underarm like a namby-pamby rugby man. Also the ball was not allowed to go above head height. That would be a foul. A free-kick. To join all the other kicks.
While all this passed through my mind, I had been scouting like Tonto would for the Lone Ranger in the late afternoon drizzle, without success. Pepe was not to be seen and as I made a mental note to ask the early-morning milkman – for no one knows more about a street and area than the man on the wee milk cart – I came upon three unprepossessing specimens who came upon me.
Wolfie Burns, the axeman, with his two sons, Dirk and Spud. Delicate flowers the three. The sons were hulking brutes who occasionally worked as labourers and towered over their father, but Wolfie had a low centre of gravity like Bobby Shearer the Rangers right-back and his solid, chunky form could move at speed, to cut you down like a tree.
His favoured weapon was that of an axe and he was rumoured to be a life-taker who had escaped sentence and Barlinnie Prison’s gallows rope by the fact that a young police officer had wiped the implement’s handle clean from Wolfie’s fingerprints in a tidy-minded moment of aberration.
Case abandoned. Game over.
That was the rumour. This was the man. The same age my father would have been. They knew each other and did not get on, Wolfie having the born instincts of a fascist thug.
My father described him so to his face in the Willow Bar at a domino tournament, my dad being a champion exponent and Wolfie fancying his chances. He got double-sixed and shown the door. Mind you, that may have been because he was out of territory – now, he was in it and I was the intruder.
“Whit d’ye want here, Brodie? Wine moppers are no’ welcome.”
The sons sniggered and I flushed a little. During the bad detritus days I had lost my way and spent too much time in the gutter – thank God my old man did not live to see it.
“I’m looking for a dog,” I replied.
“Try the Chinky place.”
More hilarity. A Chinese restaurant had just opened in West Blackhall Street, Mungo’s Sea Palace – other than Italian cafés that served hot peas with vinegar, Greenock had been immune to foreign cuisine. Mungo himself, though occidental by appearance, had a broad local accent and Dog Chow Mein was not in the menu.
“A big poodle,” I continued. “Sandy coloured. Answers to the name of Pepe. I don’t know what he used to be called.”
For a moment I thought to catch a flicker of something between the brothers but then Wolfie put his far from attractive face into mine.
“Ra morra is the big day. Ye bring us bad luck. Bugger off.”
I took the hint but as I passed by, Spud stuck out a foot to trip and Dirk shoved, so that I went sprawling on my hands and knees. A shaft of pain shot up my ankle and as I levered myself up, I found a firm hand gripping me under the elbow.
“These stones are full of danger,” said a voice. Ian Johnson. A young lad I knew from my occasional sorties up the Broomhill Park to watch the amateurs. He was a small neat-featured youth, a clever inside-right and he ushered me away before I took an unwise swing at Spud.
Ian worked in the local Clydesdale and North of Scotland Bank, his father Charlie had a trimmed moustache and a barber’s shop. This passed for aristocracy in East Stewart Street.
A few cheap catcalls followed but Ian was sacrosanct – in the mayhem of To the Death as injury depleted the massed ranks (no subs allowed) he came into his own. His slim figure slipped through the swirling limbs and last year – in record short time – he had delicately at knee height chipped the heavy, rain-drenched pigskin ball to land on the line and over to win the day for the Proddies.
The overall score was 12 games all. Indeed tomorrow would be a momentous day. Gun fight at the OK Corral. High Noon with nary a Quaker in sight.
He took me to the bridge as it were, waved me across the alley and I entered the Vatican headquarters. Patrick Feeney himself out from the mouth of a close to meet me. He worked early morning shift as a postman and, as usual, was immaculate as a conception.
A cool nod from Patrick who had also come off worst with my father, a theological discussion fuelled by too many pints of Guinness ending in epithets such as antichrist and religiousdunderheid.
I asked the same question re Pepe – Patrick had a past memory of perhaps seeing the dog a long while ago but nothing recent. Mind you, the back greens of East Stewart Street were a rabbit warren of hidey-holes and anything was possible.
He had a more pleasant aspect than Wolfie but to my mind there wasn’t a fag paper between them. Both fanatics and both hell-bent on grinding the other’s face into the gravel of defeat. Both fuelled by the hatred of history.
He had no sons to kick the ball, only a daughter, Senga – that is a backward Agnes – who was a tall gawky girl that I sometimes saw up the Broomie watching the games, so there may have been more to her than meets the eye.
She came out to join us. Had at least an inch or two on me, a big beaky nose, worked as an usherette in the local fleapit cinema The Pavilion and were you an unkind person, which I am not, you might have said she would not have been hotly pursued down Lover’s Lane but who can tell where Cupid’s arrows fall?
Look at myself. Who would believe that a beauty like Rosalind would throw the marital lasso over my undeserving head?
Senga also had an independent gleam in her eye just like Rosalind and moreover passed me some information re the past of Pepe.
“I remember that dog,” she announced. “Poor soul.”
My Aunt Annie’s very words. I warmed to the girl. But then her next words set up a very different feeling.
“No wonder he ran away. Treated so bad.”
“By whom?” I asked pedantically.
“Spud Burns. I saw him up the back green, hitting the poor beast with a big stick. It never even had a name. He just called it bastard.”
The tide of blood in my eyes must have shown for both Feeneys, stepped back a little. I left soon after – no point in going back to face out Spud. No wonder the brothers had that sneaky look. If the dog had any sense, of course, it would never have come back this way but dogs are not noted for their common sense. If it got lost, it might sniff the way back.
When the dog first arrived at Annie’s it had cowered away from me. A man. Now I knew why. Annie’s love had transformed the poor soul. Love is like that.
So is a punch in the jaw.
Anyway, after a long time in the nearby streets and even a trip down to the docks, I got back footsore and empty handed – not looking forward to seeing Aunt Annie in the morning.
Had my stag night out at Mungo’s with Big Neil Forsythe who had asked for rice plus chips and was wending a sweet and sour way back to my close past the Willow when Jimmy who had an uncanny ability to see through the whorled glass, rushed out to meet me. He had not been able to get the night off and therefore had missed the wild orgy at the Sea Palace.
It was nine o’clock at night, the place would be heaving but Jimmy had left his station at the bar so it must be important. He also stuttered slightly when inner pressure such as might burst a tyre got past his Boy’s Brigade training.
“John! Somebody w-w-waiting for you.”
“Rosalind’s on her hen night,” I muttered – indeed she was whooping it up in Gourock at the Lorne Hotel with a gaggle of nurses – God help any barman under 80 – would spend the night with Ella and then get ready to be a radiant bride in the afternoon. “Who else could there be?”
“In the Snug,” replied Jimmy. “Asked for privacy. B-b-best place I could find.”
He shot back inside and I followed, taking a wee door on the right, which led to the Snug. This small room of the bar catered for females – no woman worth her salt would be found in the Public Bar and the Saloon simply did not exist – the other advantage would be that of secrecy for all that was visible from the Public side would be the sight of a hand lifting a glass.
Secrecy it was – for the man waiting for me in the room, sitting quietly at the table against the wooden partition, a half of shandy set before him, face white and set with worried determination, was my rescuer from not that long ago – Ian Johnson.
“If I’m found out,” he said, “they’ll kill me.”
So I never did get home that night.
The story Ian told was that Wolfie gave an inspiring talk to the assembled team on this Friday night, Saturday being the Big Day, a Big Day all over if you include me tying the proverbial knot though Wolfie did not mention this for some reason. The talk mostly consisted of how they were to boot the ball towards the other line and knock over the defenders like so many Papish ninepins.
When a mild objection was made that in fact the greatest attribute of their opponents was the defence and the winner last year was because Tombie Paton, their hefty ex-altar boy tower of strength had slipped some pigeon droppings and given Ian the sliver of a chance, Wolfie grinned and said it was to be all out attack.
Ian made the point that it might be better to absorb their offence first and then hit them on the break but this was disregarded. Death or glory.
Everyone had then sloped off to get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow was another day but Ian had forgotten his scarf and being neat-minded by nature had returned to the cellar team HQ where they had gathered, to reclaim the relic since it was a present from his mother for his birthday and she would not be happy if he lost it. It was lambswool plaid, grey and white, not a trace of blue or green, his mother had no time for all this nonsense, anyhow it had slipped down behind one of the benches and as he fished it out?
“I heard Wolfie talking to Spud and Dirk in the wee room next door. Fix it so they would win. Cut the Pope’s throat. Wolfie likes the sound of his own voice.”
“Fix it – how?”
Jimmy’s hand appeared and slid a plate of ginger biscuits plus a cup of tea over the Snug counter. Not fragrant jasmine tea so recently imbibed at the Sea Palace but it hit the spot as I gulped it down and scoffed some biscuits – all while waiting for an answer. Ian’s face was twisted as if this was killing him.
“The pitch. Fix the pitch. Watch them fall to hell, he said.”
“There is no pitch – it’s just stone!”
Indeed East Stewart Street is still composed of old fashioned stone bricks. No doubt the council would tarmacadam the surface in the fullness of time but for the moment – progress could wait. You can waterlog a pitch and Cappielow Park often resembled a hippo’s mud bath where opponents indeed slithered to their doom but stone was, by its nature, a harder non-porous proposition.
“Wolfie said. Midnight. When everybody’s asleep. Do it then.”
“I don’t know!”
A lot of questions were occurring to me and none of them were comforting. This boy was in conflict – but what was causing it? I thought I better hazard the obvious question.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
His fingers twitched around the shandy glass.
“I don’t think it’s fair.”
“Fair? You lot have been at each other’s throats since the Battle of the Boyne – what’s fair got to do with it?”
“I don’t want to cheat folk.”
Highly commendable but I sensed something behind all this altruism. Indeed Ian was putting himself on the line. If word of a betrayal reached Wolfie’s ears he would chop down hard. What was driving the boy? Moral probity? That gets you nowhere in Greenock.
And then the other question, even less comforting.
“Why bring it to me? I don’t even live in your street.”
“This is the point. You’re on the outside.”
“Never mind. What am I supposed to do?”
“You could watch. And if you see – tell Patrick Feeney.”
“You do it.”
“That’s not possible, John!”
That much was true. It would be like a betrayal. Ian’s name would be mud for evermore. Even if it uncovered a dirty deed, he would never be forgiven. I suppose it made sense of a sort that I would be used as a go-between but –
“This is none of my business.”
Ian’s face fell and he nodded sadly.
“You’re right. Sorry. It was just a hope.”
John Brodie. The Court of the Last Resort. Now I was feeling guilty. And I kept remembering Senga’s words about Spud beating the dog. A dog I had yet to find while Annie sat in her wee room, twisting her hankie and putting all her trust in me. What use am I when all is said and done?
For what said Socrates? The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
“All right, I’ll do it,” I muttered. “But I want a free haircut every month from your father.”
Ian’s young face lit up with relief.
“I’ll make sure. Definitely!”
“Now buzz off before I change my mind.”
Off he buzzed, leaving me with the ginger biscuits. I bit into a couple more and shoved the rest in my coat pocket. It could be a long haul. A bachelor boy no more and my final night banjaxed already.
And yet a thought niggled at me. I had a feeling that Ian Johnson was concealing something – a hidden motive.
A burst of noise from the public bar as the dominoes cracked down like gunshots on the table. My dad never did so. He just laid them down like pallbearers would a coffin.
I wondered how Rosalind was faring at the Lorne Hotel. Dancing on the table perhaps – well – here I come – ready or not. Just like the kids’ game.
The problem was – is it Hide and Seek or Blind Man’s Buff?
Midnight in East Stewart Street is not like Paris in the springtime. The rain had at least stopped but it was bitter cold and not pre-honeymoon weather.
I had been waiting for a miserable half an hour, having got there early as recommended by the handbook ¬¬– Stake-outs and How to Accomplish Same – would give it another 30 minutes and then, to hell with the handbook, I, like the bride, needed my beauty sleep.
There was a certain perverse satisfaction to this. Had I not, as requested, shown willing, and fulfilled my noble profession? On second thoughts, make it 25 minutes – no need to get too exalted.
Then I heard a scraping noise and all such comforting thoughts went up in smoke. Two figures in the street. The gas lamps that were the pride and joy of the Town Council, those that still functioned, outlined Wolfie and one of his malignant sons.
The scraping was caused by a metal barrel that they trundled swiftly up the street towards the Catholic stronghold. That very swiftness tipped the wink that they were up to quite a lot of no good.
I moved closer to the action. Risky, but nothing ventured nothing gained. I watched as they carefully tilted the barrel and a clear coloured liquid emerged, thick and oily, it settled over the street stones like a broody hen. It seemed to be absorbed or disappear and there was a moment when Dirk, for I could see him now, slipped on the liquid. Wolfie hissed a warning at him and without being Sherlock Holmes I got the picture.
They were priming the pitch – not with mud but oil. If they drove in from the start the other team would find no purchase for their footing. There would be no proof of their chicanery, blame it on the wet stones, blame it on William of Orange, but there would be little trace of the unctuous liquid.
I was the spanner in the works, however. If I got to Feeney in time he could have the surface scrubbed raw and the game would be even.
Though one thing chipped at me. Where was Spud in all this?
I got an answer of sorts when something crashed on my head and I went out for the count.
So it turned out that Wolfie who was not so stupid as he was cabbage-looking, had stationed his ugly offspring up by the Catholic enclave to be on guard lest someone wander out at an inappropriate moment and when I had moved in, so, after due deliberation, did Spud.
He then picked up a damp piece of wood and laid me flat. At least the implement was soggy, otherwise it might have really hurt.
I woke up, trussed like a turkey, in the aforesaid air-raid shelter, to find Wolfie and his brood looking down at me.
“I havenae the time tae deal with this now,” said Wolfie pedantically. “I am a busy man.”
“Uhuh,” I managed to utter for my head was doing a good imitation of splitting apart like Luther from Pope. “Busy cheating. Win at all costs, eh?”
“Aye. And that is the reason, once it’s all over. That I chop you tae pieces.”
There was nothing in his face to indicate he might be kidding. Spud had retreated into the shadows but Dirk did not fancy being witness to dismemberment.
‘”Could ye not just beat him up, daddy? Really bad.”
This small mercy was not on the menu. Wolfie shook his head.
“He saw. He can tell. I would lose face.”
This seemed a somewhat flimsy reason for chopping another human being to bits and Dirk to his credit, persisted.
“How about if hammer in, kick our fill, so he cannae even walk, then stick him on a fish lorry tae Stranraer? That would be good fun.”
This time Wolfie nodded.
“That might work. If he died on the way, they could just throw him out the lorry.”
Dirk beamed in triumph and I managed to restrain myself from shouting agreement. A rock and a hard place had nothing on this one.
“C’mon. Need tae get our sleep. Big day tomorrow.”
On that litany they prepared to depart but first Wolfie stuffed a dirty rag into my mouth. It had been used to wipe the oil and was not a pleasant taste.
“Naebody ever comes here, this is our back green, but just in case.”
Then he suddenly lifted the axe and crashed it down on a thick piece of wood just beside my head. It split in two, the force driving splinters into my face.
“That’s you,” Wolfie announced. “I’ll give ye the battering of your life.”
“You’re dead brilliant, daddy,” said Dirk.
And on that note of filial adulation, they left. Spud paused to spit back at me but I had him figured out by now. A bully like his father but a coward as well. Defenceless dogs and tied-up investigators were just his cup of tea.
However, much good all this figuring out would do me on a fish lorry to Stranraer.
The Bard writes, “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” Sadly my sleeve was still ravelled after a fitful slumber. Light was seeping in from the open entrance of the shelter, the gang hadn’t even bothered to cover it over so confident were they that no one would invade the territory.
This was a fine mess I had got myself into and for the literal life of me I couldn’t see a way out. My mind was full of doom-ridden images, Rosalind sitting bereft in the Registry Office, the hammering my helpless body was about to receive, all those glassy-eyed cod looking at me, gutted and filleted already but the heads left on as a macabre tribute to the nation’s love of fish and chips.
What would Socrates do? Or Albert?
And then – there was a scratching noise at the mouth of the shelter. A soft high-pitched whine like a lost soul. Silence. I scratched my feet together over the shale. Silence. Another scratch, another whine and then a large shaggy head poked inside.
Pepe. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. I was right for once; he had come back to a place he knew. Not a good memory but all he had at this point.
The dog padded over and sniffed at me cautiously. He would recognise my scent from Annie’s but we were by no means bosom buddies. Still, I might remind him of better times.
He sniffed again and looked at me with doleful eyes. I need to at least get the gag out of my mouth and remembered that one of Pepe’s simple-minded pastimes was tug of war. I wrenched my head round to present him with the wadded gag and made a soft growling noise in my throat.
Pepe tugged at a loose piece of the material. I growled and pulled back. He growled and tugged, I pulled back. He tugged I pulled, I pulled he tugged.
And out it came like a rotten tooth.
“Pepe,” I said. “You’re a good boy.”
That made him happy. But I still had the problem of getting free from the thick rope. I felt this illogical onrush of hope while I recalled that Pepe’s other trick was chewing. The dog would munch through anything, as fair amount of Annie’s furniture bore witness.
How to get him in action? My mind was working clear for once – there had to be an answer. He let out a short yip and I tried to shush him. If they came back I was dead in the water. The poor bugger would be hungry though.
Ginger biscuits! Last night in the Willow Bar I shoved them into my pocket. Crumbled by now but that was even better. While Pepe held his head to the side enquiringly, I managed to get a hand free to delve into my coat pocket.
I rubbed, as best I could, the crumbs over the rope, and held out my hands. He sniffed hungrily, nibbled, then hovered up the crumbs – now was the moment of truth. If the dog got distracted by anything and moved off I was on the lorry to oblivion.
But Pepe loved to chew and he had got a taste for that thick rope. He set a slow deliberate pace, for this was his mantra. I chew therefore I am.
I lay back and let him get on with it, making a mental note that the biggest bone from Melville the butchers would be heading his way.
I wasn’t sure exactly about time but the start of the contest would not be far away. I needed to do at least one important thing before then. Luckily they had not bothered to empty my pockets for money – I suppose they thought they could do that later, so I had enough loose change for what was needed. A ping! as one of the strands of rope parted.
“Good boy, Pepe,” I muttered. “What a player.”
He growled happily and settled in to the task before him.
From Wolfie’s point of view it could hardly go better. His men at the throats of the opposition who stumbled and cursed as they fought to keep footing on the treacherous surface below. The only drawback was a lack of form from his star striker; Ian Johnson could have slid though on a couple of occasions but had failed to do so. Never mind, the Papes were hemmed in and it was only a matter of time.
Then out of the corner of an eye, he caught sight of a lanky unkempt figure that had appeared from nowhere, with a large shaggy dog that had a piece of thick rope as a lead, with an improvised collar.
His jaw dropped, I smiled across and slowly drew a finger across my throat. But then another slip from the defence and Ian Johnson was left on the goal line, the ugly pigskin ball at his feet and no one near him.
Wolfie could still win! Then it would be all too late, he could deny everything.
But the boy made no move. His teammates, especially Spud and Dirk, screamed at him, yet he made no move. Time stood still as they say. Dirk made a run at it but Tombie Paton stood in his way and shunted him backwards.
Everyone was screaming. Ian was paralysed. Then another scream, higher-pitched, eerie like a weird sister and a female figure holding a large serrated knife, ran towards Ian with the implement upraised.
Senga Feeney, eyes wild, mouth distorted, nostrils flaring on the beaky nose. Was this martyrdom she sought?
Not quite. She brought down the bread knife with phenomenal force, the sharp point cutting in to the pigskin leather, and the ancient artefact collapsed like a dud pancake.
Game over. Senga then linked hands with Ian and together they faced the assembled forces of their forefathers – now I knew why Ian had been so driven. He was in love. Romeo and Juliet in East Stewart Street – mind you, the star-crossed lovers had some very dubious offside decisions given against them.
Anyhow – it was time to weigh in.
“The game was fixed,” I called in the silence. “I saw Wolfie and his boys oil up the stones on your side, Feeney. That’s why your men fell over.”
“Liar! I’ll kill ye!”
“Be my guest.”
I moved into the centre of the arena, passing Pepe’s rough lead over to Senga who immediately started fussing over the dog – big heart, that girl.
Wolfie grinned malevolently and signaled his sons plus a number of cronies to face me out, this would be easy – he could still deny everything.
Then as they all looked past me their faces changed. Three giant forms like leviathans rising from the vasty deep, had formed ranks behind me, almost blotting out the miserable light of mid-morning.
It wasn’t so much that Big Neil Forsyth and his brothers, Shug and Jaffa, were violent, that would be a given, it was the casual way they dished it out that terrified the hard men.
And so they went to work. The opposition were batted aside like so many cream buns and only Wolfie was left, near frothing at the mouth as he rushed at them. Neil took the axe from his hand, broke the shaft, threw the pieces up in the slates and put the axe blade neatly away into a large inside pocket of his coat.
“Find somewhere safe for this,” he announced cheerfully. “The Salvation Army, maybe?”
Wolfie was by his time spread-eagled on the oily ground.
“You need tae be thinking about your pension, Wolfie. It’s getting tae that time.”
With that thoughtful remark, Neil beckoned, Spud whose face had a doughy complexion like the root vegetable itself. I stepped out to face him.
“You beat up a defenceless dog, who would have loved you if you gave it the chance.”
His mouth opened and closed but no sound emerged. So I made a sound for him and smacked Spud right in the chops. Down he went to join his father and his brother.
Then I walked back to the young lovers. “You set me up,” I accused Ian.
‘Just looking for help,” he muttered. I turned to Senga. “And you? With the knife? You’ve seen too many Bette Davis movies!”
“She’s my favourite film star.”
“She’s a menace. And so are you!”
Back to Ian. “You’re father owes me a lot of haircuts!”
“Ye better pick one up, quick, John,” advised Neal. “You could do with a spit and polish before the wedding.”
That made sense. I sent Pepe up to Aunt Annie with Shug and Jaffa, the dog was happy enough, and Charlie Johnson was as good as his son’s word, whisked me off to his shop and gave me the full treatment, hair washed, neat trim, close shave – I felt like a new man. But the old one had one more thing to say to Patrick Feeney.
“You could have had a death on your conscience,” said I. ‘Hope you’re proud of yourself.”
I left him in his papal kingdom – who knows what was going through his mind.
The ceremony at the Registry Office went tickety-boo. The wee woman registrar was calm and collected, Jimmy produced the ring, I slipped it onto Rosalind’s finger, Ella though mightily hungover held up her end, vows were exchanged, I got a smacker of a kiss, we were pronounced man and wife and then we all got into a bus that Doc Connors, Rosalind’s dad, had hired and it took us to the Greenock Yacht Club where a room had been booked with a long table and various posh wee finger sandwiches.
I would have preferred a room at the Co-op but it was the father of the bride made the call. A few long-winded speeches, relatives expounding about Rosalind’s beauty etc, she gave a charming response in which orifices were not mentioned, Jimmy managed not to stutter and finally it was my turn. No mention of psychopaths with axe handles, I just promised that I would look after her till death do us part; that may have a bit nearer the mark than most folk realised.
She knew I meant it, though, and squeezed my hand under the table. Another speech from Doc and then it was all over bar the shouting,
All my lot were up at the top of the table, Annie in tears of joy, Pepe munching his way through a big bone, Jimmy and Neil keeping an eye on the old woman to make sure that no one came out with anything snobby at the risk of a thick ear. The other two brothers had gone home – the Greenock Yacht club had one too many blazers for Shug and Jaffa.
Rosalind was giggling with Ella and as I watched fondly, I became aware of Doc beside me. He had never liked me and the feeling was mutual.
He slammed a full glass of whisky in front of me. “There you are, John,” he announced breezily. “Hair o’ the dog, eh?”
He knew fine well I had cut back the booze until it was near non-existent and that’s the way I wanted to keep it. I pushed the glass away with a forefinger.
“You refuse my kind offer?”
He and Rosalind didn’t get on all that well so I had nothing to lose. I leant forward. “Think about it, Doc,” I said with a winning smile. “You’re not so much losing a daughter, as gaining an ulcer.”
That night I was as happy as any man had any right to be. Rosalind was dozing on my bony shoulder as excerpts from the evening played through my mind. Ella had managed to subvert the tight-arsed disc jockey and get us some tunes we could dance to – not exactly jungle music but Doris Day – “Once I had a Secret Love” – that got us started.
Ella grabbed Jimmy up onto the floor and he acquitted himself not too badly in a military two-step sort of fashion.
“What was your stag night like?” Rosalind mumbled from married depths.
“Listen,” I said. “I thought you were going to organise us a honeymoon?”
“This is it. Niagara Falls above the Willow Bar.”
“Oh. Right. Fair enough.”
She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed.
“It’s a nice wee place you’ve got here John but – one day we may have to think about expansion.”
Rosalind closed one eye in a wicked wink, hooked her hand round the back of my neck and pulled me down into the joys of love.