The Limping God (Part Two)
His football career ended by injury, John Brodie's life is going nowhere until he is sucked into the world of crime.
Story so far. I, John Brodie, washed-out, weak-ankled, boozed-up, ex-Junior footballer had been hired as guardian angel to a young talent, Billy Gourlay. This enigmatic boy was the great hope for Hastie's Works team in next Saturday's final. He was last seen by me wrapped in the warm embrace of a bookie's wife in a blue Triumph Herald.
To wit, one Mamie Dunlop, wife of Donny, poison dwarf and nasty specimen, my former employer with whom it was safe to say I was not on good terms. My present commander, Frank Carlin — an affable, untrustworthy Irish smoothie — had offered me the angel brief and two fivers. Being a man who drank and read too much I took them like a shot.
It was now Monday morning and we were sitting in the Willow Bar, over mugs of tea that the bartender Jimmy Lapsley had once more rustled up from the goodness of his heart. The smell of stale beer and whisky still hung in the air. It was nippy but Frank was sweating. One thing I must mention is that mendacity was rife in this whole affair. Rife as potted heid.
Frank Carlin didn't do panic as a rule but he was close this moment. He patted a damp brow with a delicate hankie and pursed his dry lips. "I'll tell you the fallings out of it all," he muttered. "It is a well-known fact that I keep pigeons. My father did before and it roots me to the earth."
How pigeons connected Frank to the earth since they spent most of the time dropping bird shit on the populace of Greenock from the dank heavens was beyond me, but I said nothing and sooked at my tea.
"On Sunday night after the holy Sabbath day," Frank continued, "I was scattering seed and scouring out the doo-house when came a knock at the cage-door. It was Billy's father, Tommy. He spoke through the chicken-wire. The boy never came back Saturday night. Nor it would seem Sunday. I rang my mate in Hastie's office and he's not turned up this very morning."
"Office boy. You got him that job," I said.
"Ye remember that much," replied Frank grimly.
"Billy done this before?"
"With a pal maybe but not for so long and always left a note."
He suddenly hit his open palm down on the table and Jimmy, who was polishing a framed photo of Greenock Morton FC's latest bunch of misfits, ducked as if shot at.
"Where the hell is he?"
"Beats me." I sooked on. "How come you're so worried?"
Frank tried to look innocent, aggrieved and compassionate at one and the same time. It gave him the appearance of a man with a bad ulcer. "I'm his uncle."
"Not by blood."
"Friends of the family. Uncle Frank, that's me. Pure concern!"
Jimmy began to whistle a few bars of some latest hit, The Tennessee Waltz — some sad song of betrayed masculine trust and flighty females. The bar telephone rang and he answered it as Frank drew further breath.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Finish my tea."
He stood up and gathered his camel-haired coat around him like a prelate. "I paid you good money. See you earn same. Find the boy. Pure concern!"
With that he swept out to avoid the look of disbelief in my eye. Frank had fingers in many pies; rumoured to be a big gambler, a real lady's man despite a stolid local wife and progeny to boot, plus an import-export business where the cargo might alter shape if bound for Ireland.
I hadn't mentioned Mamie's Saturday night clinch with Billy because I felt my employer was dissembling somewhat — just an instinct but that's all I have left these days.
One thing had surprised me about the weekend though. I hadn't had a drink and I'd spent Sunday walking the hills above Greenock where the old railway lines used to be. Lost in memories. My parents had walked these hills, arm in arm. I have a picture taken with the Kodak box camera. A small photo and out of focus, but they look happy. The sun was shining and I was so proud to be their son as I keeked through the viewfinder. Lost in memories.
I reached down to rub a throbbing ankle: old football injuries never die and it still flared up at unaccustomed usage; Jimmy banged down the phone and ambled over, pop-eyes agleam.
"Guess whit?" he announced. "My mammy jist clocked in." He had bought the old biddy a phone and being the gossip of this pendant world, she used it to lethal effect. "Murder polis," Jimmy carried on. "Mamie Dunlop's in hospital. Car accident. Women drivers, eh?"
The Greenock Royal Infirmary was where my father died, Capstan Extra Strength tracking him down like the Hound of the Baskervilles. I had mixed memories of the place because as I'd trailed miserably to and fro till the old man muttered that for God's sake brighten up it was him dying not me, a pretty dark-haired nurse had taken pity on my plight. Rosalind Connor her name, green eyes, a wicked humour and black stockings to raise Lazarus. The legs inside them, that is. When we finally parted company, she said, "You read too many Russian books, John."
True enough. Dostoyevsky does not lend himself to foreplay and though she might drink me under the table, Rosalind didn't need whisky for a crutch. So she gazed upon me one day as 'twere someone she could not cure, put on her black stockings and moved to another shift.
Now she was a junior matron looking at me again, same eyes, same wicked glint. "Are you in love, John?"
"Not yet," I replied. "But I need to see the woman. Life and death, you know?"
Rosalind laughed and moved a little closer, her starched uniform made a cracking sound like far-off bones. "Ye still on the booze?"
"Down to a steady torrent."
She pulled back slightly, poker-faced, and jerked her head. I followed. That was the deal.
It was a private room, the blinds drawn. Mamie was sat up in the bed as I slid in. A magazine of some sort lay on her lap with a horse on the cover. Not a racehorse though, a show pony leaping over a fence. She turned it over and signalled to the side table where a bottle of Lucozade was waiting. I poured her out a glass and it fizzed with healthy promise.
As she sipped through puffy lips, I tried not to gawk too obviously at both black eyes and the swollen nose — normally she would put the bookie's smoke-filled den in a flutter of lust but now she looked like a beat-up bulldog.
"Walk into a door?" I asked.
"My hand slipped. Accidents will happen."
The wry smile turned to a grimace of pain at the effort and she looked at me appraisingly through slit hazel eyes. Mamie might have been, I had sometimes wondered, fond of me — women often are at the beginning — and even in this bruised condition she gave off a sexual come-hither quality that could rouse the nearest caveman. I put my club firmly to the side and shot for the truth instead.
"I saw you Saturday night with Billy Gourlay. You seemed… on friendly terms."
Mamie's battered face revealed little. "He's jist a boy."
"Now you're hammered and he hasn't come home."
She shook her head. "He's no' the violent type." Then oddly a tear squeezed out from the swollen eyelids and found its course down her cheek. "Told anybody ye saw us?"
"How come you were on hand?"
"I was paid to be the boy's guardian angel. Frank Carlin. Two fivers."
A twisted smile was the response, and then she snapped her eyes open best she could. "It was an accident," she muttered. "If ye don't believe me, look at the state o' the vehicle."
I nodded. Silence. Then a sharp rap at the door indicated from Rosalind that a Doctor's visit might be imminent. As I walked away, Mamie closed off the exchange.
"He's jist a boy," she said. But as I closed the door she mumbled something that sounded very like... dirty wee bastard... of course it most possibly would be her midget in wedlock, Donny Dunlop, to whom she was referring — but you never can tell.
White's Garage was tucked away in the cul-de-sac of Bruce Street not too far from the Willow Bar in what appeared to be a large corrugated iron shed but inside was tidy as a soldier's grave. That fitted the owner, Geordie White, ex-Boys' Brigade, born to serve.
He had a sharp, sleekit face with pale skin and slatey eyes that never looked direct; George had come in now and then to the bookie's but rarely put on a line and spent most of the time laughing compliantly at Donny's lousy jokes. I figured the damaged car would probably be stationed there and, as the Irish say, not often you're wrong but you're right this time.
Luckily the bold boy and his mechanics were swarming over a white Jaguar when I strolled through the open doors of the archway with Doris Day belting out Secret Love on the radio, so I was able to examine the Triumph Herald stuck forlornly in the corner at my leisure. It had a big dent at the front where the radiator was stove in but, strangely enough, no attendant gouges or scrapes.
As I was pondering this on my haunches, footsteps approached and into my line of vision came the immaculately shined toecaps of a pair of heavy working shoes, laces in a double-knot. I straightened up with some difficulty to almost meet Geordie's shifty gaze.
"I'm looking for a second-hand vehicle," I said. "Is this for sale?"
"Very funny," he replied. "It's Mamie's car as well you know. Been in a fracas."
"Women drivers," I remarked sagely. "Still — she paid a price, eh? The car got off light."
George squinted while his Boys' Brigade brain put two and two together . "Ye seen her?"
"Photo in the Greenock Telegraph," I lied nonchalantly. "Where did it happen?"
"The Lyle Hill. Took a corner too fast. Straight intae a hedge."
"A hedge gave her two keekers, a fat nose and lips like flying saucers?"
"There was a post behind it."
"Was she alone?"
"Definitely," he said like a dutiful NCO. "Donny was working late." He squinted again to indicate intelligence at work. "Whit're you doing here anyway, Brodie?"
"I told you. Looking for a vehicle to purchase," I responded making quickly for the door with the errant thought that the Lyle Hill was a notorious winching spot strewn over which were more French letters than Cragburn Dance Hall on a Saturday night.
"The polis are happy enough," George called suddenly as if I had asked him a question.
"The police are always happy, Mister White," I said stepping across the threshold. "It's to do with their innocent nature."
I pressed the button and four pennies rattled down into the coffin of the telephone box at the Orangefield, just opposite the chip shop and past St Patrick's where my mother used to genuflect to Father Scanlon in the good old days. A note to ring Frank had been left at the Willow Bar but I had been in no rush to do so — questions in the mind, slow the feet. Had Mamie taken a header into the steering wheel or met with more human contact? If so — whose fist? There was some dark purpose behind all this or might it be I read too many Black Mask magazines?
I had an image of a dark sludgy stretch of water with various large sharp-toothed fish, pike perhaps, lurking in the depths, circling each other but not yet breaking surface. Not yet.
It was a typical Greenock day, rain dripping down the panes of the box and I was reminded of the single tear shed by Mamie Dunlop. Crying for herself, or someone else? A squawking voice sounded in my ear but not a message from the inner depths, just Frank Carlin. I could hear what sounded like a cacophony of children in the background as he bawled out to someone called Cathy and then a distant door slam signalled silence. Possibly shut the poor little buggers in the coal-bunker.
"Good news and bad," said the bold fellow. "Good. Billy Gourlay's back in the bosom of his family, safe as houses and returned to work this lunchtime."
"Where was he?"
"With a pal, he says and will say no more. He rules the roost in that home."
"Talent often does."
Silence ensued. The phone began complaining and I slammed in another four pennies. Frank coughed as if handing out a cue of sorts.
"And the bad news?" I asked, watching a man come out of the fish shop, deliberately open up his wrapped offering and allow the rain to mix with the vinegar therein. Simple pleasures unite the human race.
Frank coughed again as the man outside tucked into his sodden chips. "The bad news is you're off the case. To be truthful John you're a sad apology for a guardian angel and a waste of money. It was only out of pity for your poor dear departed mother that I doled out the two fivers."
"You keep my mother out of it," I said tightly, an unexpected rage rising in my head like a red mist.
"All right, all right," was the tinny response. "But you're off the case."
"You hear what happened to Mamie Dunlop?"
"I did indeed. But accidents will happen. See you around, John."
The phone disconnected leaving me with my rage and an echo in the mind.
As a factory hooter sounded the men poured out of Hasties like a horde of oily insects; it being a Monday night most were headed home and not for the pubs, though there was a shared feeling of being let off the leash into open, if dank, air. Big Neilly, who was shoving among the mass like a good-natured grizzly, waved over and then growled as one of the apprentices nicked the bunnet from his head and made off like a whippet pursued by the ursine avenger. A roar of laughter rose up and the lined faces of older men softened a touch as they cheered the boy on. I remembered meeting my father when he used to saunter out, a part of yet somehow separate from the heaving mass and a strange lost feeling echoed in my heart, but then I saw Billy's mop of hair in the crowd.
Office suit, neat black shoes, head down dribbling a tennis ball through the forest of legs and skilfully resisting efforts to prise it from him. Though the workmen jostled and poked out their big boots, there was an innate respect — as I said, the boy had class. Someone bumped him from behind and the ball scooted forward to be trapped by my one good foot.
Billy stopped. The men passed on, a few greetings thrown my way by my dad's former workmates. As the flow thinned out, I carefully passed the ball back to him so that he could flip it up to catch in hand and then stow it away in his pocket.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were a tanner ba' merchant," I said. "Small fry. Not for the big time. Lose your nerve."
A damp sniff was the response but as he made to move past, I blocked him off like a dogged defender. "Show me your hands," I requested.
He held them out. No bruising, no contusions. Another move. Another block. "I saw you with Mamie Dunlop on Saturday night."
Billy froze. No body swerve. "Dinnae know whit you mean, eh?"
"I thought she was going to swallow you whole, is what I mean. Now she looks like 10 rounds with Sugar Ray. What happened, Billy?"
He bit his lip, shook his head then suddenly bolted past me up Kilblain Street, running as if the devil was on his trail till he reached the top where he turned to bawl through the mirk.
"You're nothing. A big keech. Everybody says. A chanty man. A fucking has-been!!"
Then he vanished, leaving the childlike insults to hover in the mist while above a sea-gull screeched as if to mock my investigative efforts. A fleeting white shape in the grey sky.
The rest of the week passed by in a blur due to the fact that I recommenced my hand to mouth relationship with John Barleycorn. Jimmy Lapsley looked on with mournful eyes as I poured the last of Frank's money down my throat, winced as it hit an empty stomach, but persevered till the feelings of pain were numbed. Still there, but dead to the world.
It wasn't just the case, I had an attendant lifetime to drown. So many voices in my head, swarming like soldier ants, each with its own wounding sting. And the seductive dark taste of the bitter bane drew me in like an addict. Oh, it was a fine caper.
I sat in the corner of the Willow Bar hunched over Crime and Punishment thinking how clear the writing seemed when drunk but in the morning, the sense had somehow slipped away.
Things do slip away — life is a greasy business.
This was on Thursday night, late and an immaculately conditioned fingernail flicked at the book cover with a snap. I recognised the digit and did not look up. The snap was repeated and for the sake of Fyodor D, I raised my eyes.
Donny Dunlop towered over me, all five feet but I was seated and getting up might have its difficulties. "Let me buy ye a drink, John," he smiled, little pointy teeth edging through the thin lips. "Ye look thirsty. Like a fuckin' dromedary." Laughter greeted the statement but not from me; he always had three goons at his back like a cut-price Jimmy Cagney.
"M'all right," I muttered from the drunken depths of Saint Petersburg. "M'okay."
"Ye don't look it." Donny raised his voice. "Jimmy! A double for John here. Black Label. Best in the house, don't want to poison the boy."
Jimmy hesitated but then like a good barman, poured out and slid it up the counter where one of the goons picked up, brought it to the table and planked the glass right in front of me.
"Drink up," said Donny. "Ye must be dry as a bone."
The pub had gone quiet, gazes lowered; no-one likes to see a man humiliated unless it's safe to do so — in a movie maybe but not before your very eyes. I hesitated but what would be the harm? The searing contempt in Donny's eyes would fade with the passing years and perhaps he wished to kiss and make up, offer me my job back — in fact it struck me suddenly, why did he want to make this effort in any case? Why? But while this was going on in my mind, on the other hand as it were, my fingers were inching towards the heavy glass.
Donny ran his own fingers through the immaculate coiffure piled up on the side of his head in a startling ginger quiff to add some much needed height, and one of his dry lizard-like eyes drooped in an encouraging wink.
As the whisky was lifted I caught sight of myself in one of the grainy mirrors that framed the bar. A man of indeterminate features, who might once have been a contender, blinked a slack-jawed acknowledgement of approaching self-debasement and then bowed his head towards the glass. But at the last moment his wrist turned and liquor splashed out onto the table spurting all over a small man, perhaps an innocent bystander.
I looked up into Donny's puce face, the quiff electric with rage at the stains below on the blazer and flannels, and smiled vaguely.
"Sorry," I mumbled. "Must be the drink. Accidents will happen, eh?"
One of the goons made a move forward but Donny raised his hand a notch and the man was still. Just as well. He was built like a shipyard crane.
"You'll be sorry for that," Donny hissed quietly. "Very sorry. You can bet on it."
And yet I sensed something behind his eyes, perhaps the reason he had baited me. He was worried. It was as if everybody in this game thought I knew more than I did. I had a twisted realisation that this might even include myself, laughed suddenly, beckoned Donny a little closer so I could smell the polo mints he sucked on a daily basis, and whispered, "It's a dangerous game Donny and I know what's going on – but don't worry – your secret's safe with me. Saturday will come – and all will be revealed, eh?"
Then I laughed again and he left abruptly. No one else had heard the exchange, I could have been pleading forgiveness as far as they knew. The pub went back about its business then Jimmy Lapsley slammed something down on the table. I peered down at what transpired to represent itself as a meat pie. The crust looked invincible.
"Been on the shelf three days," said Jimmy dourly. "Fit for a king."
Her lips were still puffy but the eyes concealed behind large sunglasses — in Greenock a wasted gesture, hiding behind an umbrella might have better passed without comment. The nose was a little thick but almost back to normal.
Mamie Dunlop. She rapped on the door at eleven Friday morning and I had fallen out of bed, donned the yellow dressing gown and stumbled to the summons, hungover, unshaven, full of misplaced hope that it might be Rosalind Connor, post night-shift and full of beans, it being her delightful habit when we were thrown together.
Instead of Rosalind's sharp odour of hospital carbolic, however, it was the allure of some French midnight fragrance emanating from the bruised but mysterious form presented. The damaged glamour and the peekaboo blonde hair falling over one eye put me in mind of Veronica Lake.
But this was Greenock and it was Mamie. No doubt. A pocket Venus risen from the sick-bed. She looked somewhat disdainfully at the piles of books scattered around like so many prehistoric rock formations, put one hand on her hip and ran a tongue over the aforesaid swollen chops.
Oddly Donny had not mentioned her the previous night and neither had I. Perhaps that was the reason she had made an appearance. Or perhaps I was shooting in the dark.
Anyway, hip outflung, tongue on the move, Mamie was the embodiment of black and blue temptation. "How would ye like tae nail that wee bastard?" she enquired.
I pulled the velvet collar up to disguise an eleven o'clock shadow and asked a question that had been running in my mind. "Did he punch your lights out?"
She smiled brokenly. "He put on the gloves first. Kid gloves. A nice khaki colour."
I nodded. That explained the lack of ancillary abrasion on Donny's hand that I had noted last night as he flicked at Crime and Punishment. "Was Billy there?"
Mamie shook her head whether in denial or to indicate the end of this line of enquiry was not clear as she moved in closer and her perfume wreathed around me like a noose. Our bodies were not quite touching but you couldn't have got a roll-up in there especially the upper half where her pointed bra strained like a dog on a leash. She then brushed her leg against the nether reaches of the yellow dressing gown and giggled.
"Is that a torpedo in your pocket or are ye jist glad to see me?"
Burns once remarked that a standing cock has no conscience. But I had seen Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket was my watchword.
"What do you want, Mamie?" I managed from a dry throat.
She laid her mouth against an equally aroused ear and let out a little hot breath before the soft words followed.
At the back o' White's Garage, a wee room. A filing cabinet. Where he hides everything. A' the crooked deals, John. You could nail him.
"Why should I?"
When you father died – know whit he said – Donny?
I shook my head. But I didn't feel good. Poison ivy.
He said. Donny. He said. A waste of space. Like his son. Cancer's too good for him. Scum o' the earth — dirty communist bastard.
Her hazel eyes darkened. "Whit do I want?" she repeated. "The same as you."
Then she turned and left — only the scent remained. Jasmine, vanilla and a faint trail of musk.
I stood there like stone.
Somewhere in the distance, came the sound of an ambulance bell. As it faded, the deep chime of the Orangefield Church clock tower tolled out a doleful Protestant warning against excess emotion.
To be continued…