I woke up with a mouth like a dead budgie. The skylight window let in a little pale light streaked with falling rain — this was Greenock after all. I could still taste the whisky from last night

A cheap whisky. Fitted me to a T. Yessir, I was growing cheaper by the day and looking forward to my first signing on at the Buroo. Joining the long line of chancers to grace the windswept corner where they gathered in a shamefaced, barefaced clump.

My father pointed them out to me once. "See ye never end up there," he said, but he was dead now; soon after my mother, both of them martyrs — one to the Wild Woodbine, the other to Capstan Extra Strength.

I levered myself up, winced as I put inadvertent weight on a fragile ankle bone and then my eye was caught by a picture in a frame on the small rickety table that stood by my single bed.

A young boy in a football strip. Face alive, full of hope, black-and-white or you would have seen the blue-and-white hoops. Greenock Morton. Not that I ever played for them but a trial was on the cards; John Brodie, left-sided, cutting down the wing for the Juniors. I could run, oh I could run like the wind, but now I just broke it.

What was the name of that full-back? Tommy Boag, Bellahouston. He wasn't about to be diddled by some skinamalinkie kid. So he put the boot in. Hard. I don't suppose it was his intention to destroy my ankle but when the bone stuck through the sock like a graveyard relic, it was no longer a matter of intent. 

Some of the other players spewed up at the sight but Boag looked down with a face like stone. "I warned ye," he said. I didn't remember the warning; it must have been during the kick-in. I was 17.

I still wore pyjamas, which I counted as a remnant of civilisation, not yet the scabby y-fronts, the Aertex vest in bed; they were in a heap on the floor. I still had class; I wore pyjamas.

On the peg of the bedroom door there was a yellow dressing-gown, a good colour for the boiled egg yolk should a shaking hand not make it to the dry lips with the bendy spoon. But from where I was to where it waited seemed a long way.

Everything seems a long way.

A pounding invaded these gladsome thoughts. At first I thought it was the blood celebrating it still had a few open conduits within which to operate, but then realised it was the front door. I lived at the top of the tenement, the attic rooms — a long way up. I looked at the clock. I had remembered to wind it last night, another mark of the valiant fight 'gainst disintegration. It said ten o'clock. Who would come a'knocking at this unearthly hour?

I put on the dressing-gown, fluffed out the imitation velvet collar and opened the door. It was Jimmy Lapsley, the barman from the Willow Bar that occupied the bottom left of the tenement. He was a good-hearted soul with an excitable nature and pop-eyes.

"There's a man wants tae see you," he spluttered, false teeth jerking askew.

"What's his moniker?"

Jimmy hesitated. "He didnae say."

"Can he not come up?"

"He's too fat."

That made sense. I nodded. It was decent of Jimmy to come all this way but he had been a great friend and partner to my father who was domino champion of the Willow till cancer played him a double six. Jimmy had not touched a tile since as a mark of respect and had a soft spot for me. It was painful to see the hope die a little in his eyes as the years went by.

"I'll be down directly. Tell him I just need to buff up my kidneys."


"I'll be down directly, Jimmy. Thanks."

When I entered the pub it was empty — as it should be at this time of the day — but Jimmy had set up a big mug of tea at a table in the snug where, indeed, he had not lied, a fat man sat at table sipping from another mug. He wore a Dublin Bookie's hat and had a friendly open face like a fresh scone. Frank Carlin. No wonder Jimmy hadn't mentioned the name. I'd have gone most definitely back to bed.

"You're looking grand, John,'" Frank averred in a soft Irish lilt. "Despite, ye know?"


"Getting fired. Drunk. Shooting off at the mouth. Falling out with your employer, calling him I believe, a dirty capitalist bastard who was a shit-faced parasite on the dreams of the poor and other insults that were lost in the general clamour."

"A manky lickspittle," contributed Jimmy who was polishing the glasses with some vim. "I had tae look it up."

"It's Dickens. Part anyway. Uriah Heep," I muttered.

But they were both right. Two nights ago in this very bar, I had, under the influence of the aforesaid cheap whisky, lost connection to that part of myself which counsels not to unleash the rancid anger burning in the tender breast and told my runt of a boss Donny Dunlop that he could stick his job where the monkey stuck his nuts. It had of course been building up for a long time — the little bastard resented the splinters of intelligence still undefiled in the depths of his lowly cashier as he took in the betting slips at the grilled window. 

He could sense I despised him almost as much as I did myself and hated the fact that I never tried to cheat him out of money. With the amount of coin and cash going mostly in and rarely out, I could have — but I didn't. Honesty is my one small triumph and it has got me absolutely nowhere in life. Nowhere. As it did two nights ago. 

Donny had been boasting what mugs they all were, the working men who laid their intricate three cross doubles and accumulators that crumbled so often to dust, and how he pissed himself with laughter at the hope in their eyes. And how when they won that was fine because it hooked them in even deeper. That was when I lost contact with wisdom and said hello to the raging demon.

My father was a Clydeside Communist and I believe some of Karl Marx might even have been swirled in with the eruption.

A momentary elation, the Good Angel kicking the Bad Yin in the Luciferian knackers and then? As the man said. Fired. On the batter last night. Broke this morning. A sorry state.

Frank took out a surprisingly dainty handkerchief and wafted it under his nostrils like a priest with a holy wafer, before delicately blowing his nose. Jimmy took this as a signal and dis-appeared down to the other side of the long bar where the mirrors behind the various optics and bottles reflected his lanky, sallow frame.

Various pictures hung on the wall of some of the former Morton greats, Tommy Orr being my favourite, a lanky decent horse-faced man with a pile-driving right boot, though he'd once missed a penalty for Scotland with that same trusty peg according to my father.

Other frames contained the motley collection of stiffs that sat with arms folded and a fixed grin on their face, sides without number or knowledge. The Willow was a dubious shrine to the broken dreams of Morton fans through the ages.

My arms were also folded. Frank Carlin was a menace and a Pape to boot. An old and chaste boyfriend of my then devoutly Catholic mother before she met my Protestant Communist father and reneged on the Holy Order — every time he came into my life I got into trouble.

But now I was already in it. Trouble. Frank smiled as if he sensed my predicament, leant forward and said, "I have a proposition for you, John. I need a guardian angel."

"Someone finally want to kill you?"

"Not for me. And I will pay the price."

He took a bulging wallet out of his immaculate inside pocket. Frank was a snappy dresser, his camelhair coat positively shone in the dingy surroundings of the Willow but I wasn't looking at the coat. I was looking at two five-pound notes, crisp and identical. To a T.

And so it happened that I found myself on a bitter cold Saturday afternoon watching a game at Broomhill Park near the top of our Greenockian uplands. It boasted two pitches and the balls, hoofed hopefully or thumped by a berserk wing back, sailed from the lower to higher field or vice versa. This often meant one game had no balls and the other had two, which might put the odd person in mind of a wartime song but did nothing to improve the quality of the gemme. The other possibility was the leather sphere being hammered out of the ground down the slope onto Drumfrochar Road where it might be flattened by a rare passing bus or stolen by the imps of that thoroughfare.

Brass-monkey weather, my ankle was aching from the long climb, and it was a terrible game.

Well, not completely terrible and here was the reason for my shivering presence. Billy Gourlay playing for a works team — Hastie's, to be precise, where my father had spent all his life from leaving school. A shipyard engineer, he biled his can of tea and did his job.

This boy was class, I could tell that in the first five minutes. He was ostensibly in the midfield but tiring of the ball being constantly fired over his head, collected it from a shy-in, ghosted past three Neanderthals down the wing then laid a cross precisely onto the centre-forward's head — from where it skittered off for a goal kick.

Billy had a fresh open face and blue choirboy eyes - not the usual Greenock physiognomy by a long shout - and hardly broke sweat for the rest of the game which Hastie's finally managed to win two-nil. One scored by the boy himself and the other a stonewall penalty where his legs were cawed from under him. A foul not even the baldy-heidit cross-eyed bastard of a referee (something both sets of supporters might agree on) could miss. Big Neil Forsyth who used to be my father's apprentice, thumped the ball home. Neil was lethal with a dead ball; it was just when it moved he had a problem.

Game over, I wandered up to Neilly who was wolfing into a gigantic doorstep sandwich, two more clutched in his meaty fist. His big red face split in a smile when he saw me, and he patted his ample belly in a friendly bear-like fashion. I had once seen Neil clear a pub in no time flat when someone had made a derogatory remark about his beloved Teddy Bears, the Glasgow Rangers, so I allowed him to slap me on the back and tried not to fall forwards onto my face.

"Ye want a tightener," he asked, waving the bread. "Spam fritters."

Spam was dead meat that lay in square tins like an unexploded mine and the only thing that might cause more harm to the recipient stomach was to deep fry it in batter.

"My mammy packed them," said Neil. "Good breid as well."

'I'll pass, Neilly," I replied. "But you may convey a wee message for me."

So it fell out that Billy Gourlay and I gazed across a plate of hot peas at each other in the nearest Tally café in Ann Street, Lugosi's. The name was really Rebecci's but the striking resemblance between the lugubrious owner and Bela Lugosi, the brooding Dracula who terrified virgins with his strange vowel sounds, had given rise to the nickname.

Billy was a puzzle. The note I had sent mentioned Frank Carlin and the boy had emerged from the changing rooms, hair plastered flat, nodded at me and said. "I'm starvin' hungry."

So far he had added nothing more but was on his second plate of peas.

I waited. He added a dollop more vinegar, cleaned his plate with a slice of bread and looked up at me with a total lack of curiosity.

"Uncle Frank worries too much," he stated flatly. "Ever since he got me that job in Hastie's."


"Office boy."

"How long since?"

"Three months but I'm no stayin' put. Jist till I'm 16."

"And then what?"

His lips quirked in a sly secret smile. "Whit do you think?"

Follow the dream. We all want to follow the dream. He had the talent no doubt, I could see it even in that clogging match. Balance, the most precious gift to a fitba' player. Billy rarely lost it. God grant he never came up against a full-back like Boag. But he had balance, ballast, back straight head always up. Looking for an opening.

It was up now. Eyes blue. Waiting. Yet there was something behind them. What was it? I have a strange intuitive side that does not help me avoid dangerous tackles but senses dark secrets. What was Billy's?

"Frank wants me to keep tabs on you for a wee while," I said. "He must have a reason but neglected to inform me."

Billy nodded. Unsurprised. "It'll be tae the final."


"The Works Cup Final." For a moment an expression of pride almost peeped through on his face. "Hastie's have never got there."

Undeniably true. My father forever lamented the fact that Hastie's, relatively small fry among the bigger factories like Scott's, Lithgow's and Kinkaid's, had not a net but a jam jar to cast into a minuscule pool of talent and the jar therefore came up with two or three shilpit minnows, easy prey for the sharp-toothed sticklebacks.

"Hey!" Lugosi shouted and brought me out of my piscine reverie, "Ye want mair tea?" Billy and I both nodded. A slight frown crossed the boy's hitherto untroubled countenance.

"Frank's no' my uncle. He's a Pape for starters. But he keeps pigeons."

I was lost now. The tea arrived. "Pigeons?"

"His doo hoose is jist beside my dad's. They're pally."

The idea of an immaculate Frank Carlin, keeping doos and getting covered with scabby pigeon excrement was a hard one to follow but, as the Irish say, every cripple has his own way of walkin'. Though something was beginning to percolate in the back of my head. "Do nothing for nothing," could well be inscribed on Frank's tombstone — behind that affable façade was a mind sharp as a Gillette Extra — what was unfolding cheek to cheek?

"Next Saturday," said Billy. "The final."


"Lithgow's. We'll gub them."

"It'll be the first time."

For a moment our eyes met and there was a flicker of unease in his gaze before Billy sniffed and stood up. I did the same. He was almost as tall as me, square in the shoulders and automatically shuffled left and right as if bamboozling an opponent before making for the door. He didn't offer to pay, talent never does.

I asked him in my guardian angel capacity where he was headed that evening and was told that it was an evening in with his Grandpa, listening to Perry Mason on the wireless.

The boy slid out of the door and I passed one of my crisp new fivers over to Lugosi then retired to the wooden booth where Billy and I had been ensconced, waited for the change and reflected on events so far.

Everybody was hiding something that's for sure; I could smell it in the air to go with the peas and vinegar. Frank definitely, Billy not a kick in the arse behind him — and why had Frank picked on me to nursemaid the boy? Because he was once a sweetheart of my undoubtedly chaste mother?

Then I remembered a remark he had passed to me not all that long ago when he had breezed into the Willow Bar late night to find me reading a Black Mask magazine with some difficulty through the fag smoke and whisky fumes.

"Your father was a wizard at the dominoes," he had remarked gravely. "What are you good at, John?"

At the time that stuck in my craw. It was still lodged there. Now he had bought me for two fivers. Easy meat. Like the spam.

Lugosi banged down the change plus four single notes, then lurched off to hone up his fangs for the night as I poked at the bottom of my teacup. The leaves were supposed to predict coming attractions. Mine had huddled together in the form of a spindly arrow. It was pointed straight back at me.

Night fell. I did not leave Ann Street because Billie Gourlay lived not three blocks up from Lugosi's. I waited in a close opposite with a packet of spangles for company. No desire to light up a cigarette, not after watching both of your parents wither from the fell hand of cancer; my mother had vanished like a conjuring trick but my father lingered on, face swollen from the medication, intelligence still lurking in the dimmed eyes. He left me a note with a single sentence.

"Don't be a mug," it said.

Wise words but wasted. After the injury, then the year of the double coffins, I went to hell and couldn't hold down a job. Or a woman. The Limping God. Ha ha. I made my own bitter brew and swallowed it down. Then I ended up behind a grille. Story so far.

Now I waited. No one listens with their grandsire to Perry Mason on a Saturday because he and Della Street solve their cases on a Wednesday evening, so tell it to the birds.

Sure enough about nine o'clock Billy slipped out of his close and made his way down the street, keeping to the shadows. I stuck in another spangle and followed.

Then I hit a problem when my quarry slid into a snazzy dark blue Triumph Herald parked unobtrusively down a side street. I recognised the car and the woman inside who wrapped her arms round Billy like a hungry octopus and near devoured him in a long open-mouthed kiss. More anaconda than octopus.

Then she snapped back as if fearing disclosure and the car jolted into a rampant roar then sped off for parts unknown. Leaving me standing like a tumshie.

I had some excuse — who would have predicted that the internal combustion engine might take a hand? Plus the fact that I knew the car. And the driver.

As previously mentioned, a Triumph Herald. And the woman? Mamie Dunlop, wife of my ex-employer Donnie. When she walked in the bookies, pencil stubs quivered in the hand. 

Blonde, red-lipped, hot as a pancake and better shaped.

Who had just disappeared with Billy Gourlay. Not to practise penalty kicks.

Things were getting interesting.

To be continued…