The Limping God (Part Three)
His football career ended by injury, John Brodie's life is going nowhere until he is sucked into the world of crime
The 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 of Hastie's Works team in next Saturday's final. He was seen by me wrapped in the warm embrace of a bookie's wife in a blue Triumph Herald. Mamie Dunlop, the wife, had been beaten up by her husband Donny and this presented as an accident. Billy was scared out of his wits. I had been put on the case by an Irish gambler Frank Carlin who had just as quickly taken me off again. Mamie had recovered, was apparently seeking vengeance and had pointed me towards a premises owned by a friend of Donny's where all proof of his nefarious deeds were concealed in a certain filing cabinet. I was after Donny — he had insulted the memory of my dead father. I wanted to take him down.
The security to White's Garage had proved surprisingly feeble, the hasp of a rusty padlock springing easily and the old blunt chisel I had brought prising open the lock with such ease that I almost fell into the damned place.
The door jammed back shut to give some semblance of normality to any passing outside eye, I fumbled for the light switch and activated a single bare bulb high above. Luckily the windows were blacked out so nothing would give me away. So why was my heart pounding?
The afternoon conversation I had with Bob Adamson, once a centre-back in the same school team now a sergeant in the force for law and order, did not lessen the anxiety level.
Donny Dunlop had connections, said Bob. Hoodlums. Hard men. The polis knew he was into crime, robbery and violent assault for starters but proving it was another matter. He pursed his lips and shook his head — if I was thinking of poking into Donny's affairs, I'd better buy a Sherman tank. Or a suit of armour.
Here I was with neither. As I moved forwards I noticed that the Triumph Herald was still waiting for a panel beater — the neatness of the radiator dent now explained by Mamie as a cover up for a different kind of beating. In the world of working men someone who hit a woman was the lowest scum — old fashioned maybe but that was the deal. Of course Mamie could be lying and possibly Donny's eyes had filled with tears when he heard of my father's demise but for some reason I believed her at least on that one. The raw anger had not faded — the pain was deep — and for once it wasn't directed totally at myself.
Another small door led into a back room as I pushed it open and the light above spilled in enough to reveal an array of filing cabinets like standing like tombstones. As I hesitated a voice sounded from behind me.
"Take your pick, eh?' said Donny Dunlop.
The thought that I should have known better echoed in my mind as I turned to see the poison dwarf himself plus three goons. They must have concealed themselves in one of the other alcoves and now appeared in all their glory.
I still held the blunt chisel but prospects of transmutation into Excalibur disappeared when one of the goons lashed out with a long stick and jolted it from my hand. My knuckles crunched in the blow and as I lurched over with the pain, Donny grinned like a rat.
"Not so clever now, John — eh?" Then he waved a lordly hand at the three squat-faced bruisers to command, "All yours boys, any way ye like."
I avoided the first kick with a nimble sway of the hips but forgot to allow for the second punch, which took me deep in the guts and doubled me over to get a knee in the face that I part blocked but it still sent me sprawling onto my back. The men pinioned my hands and feet and Donny approached fitting on a neat pair of kid gloves.
"Led by your dick, my friend," he said.
"At least I have one to point the way."
For a moment Donny's eyes narrowed, then he grinned again.
"By the time we're done," he announced pleasantly enough, "you will not see the match tomorrow, no more smart comments, balls kicked to buggery and if you're lucky end up on a fish lorry for Stranraer. They can leave you in the sewer pipes."
He looked down. "Now which was the bad foot? Left I think." Donny sighted carefully. "By the way Mamie did tell one thing true. Your father belonged in the cludgie. I would have dumped on him and then pulled the plug."
Having got that off his chest he crunched down on the weak ankle with all his weight, grinding the high sharp heel of his boot into the fragile bone. The pain was excruciating and I let out a scream then somehow managed to wrench myself free to end up crouching like a dog against the metal cabinets. But there was no way out.
"There's nothing in them anyway," Donny laughed. "Just Geordie White's tax receipts."
From my hands and knees I could see them lining up like a firing squad. "Why d'you want Hastie's to lose?" I gasped. "Why are you doing all this?"
"None of your fuckin' business," came the response, then Donny worked his mouth till he got enough saliva to spit over me. "Now the fun begins," said he. "Now the fun really begins."
I scrabbled at my inside pocket and pulled out a small metal object, put it to my lips and blew. Donny initially flinched at the shrill blast then he and the goons chortled happily.
"What will that accomplish, John? Ye looking for a fucking sheepdog?" Donny asked.
"It's a referee's whistle," I gasped, agony shooting through me from the splintered bone. "I borrowed it. Usually signifies — start of hostilities."
A boot crashed open the outside door and three huge bodies stumbled inside like so many bad-tempered bears. Neilly Forsythe with his two brothers Shug and Jaffa. Neil was the brain of the family, the other two were bricklayers with hands the size of hods and granite knuckles. It may have been the spam fritter diet the family enjoyed but they made the goons look like pipe cleaners.
"Mamie was inviting," I said, a cold sweat pouring down my face. "But I was taught, in respect of the fair sex, always to take precautions. In case I got into trouble. So I brought some friends."
To tell truth, it wasn't much of a fight. They were minced. The Forsyth brothers almost absent-mindedly battered the goons like a fish supper. I managed to lever myself up in time to see Jaffa hit one so hard he lifted the man clean off the floor to the detriment of his jaw.
As the thugs huddled together in a broken heap, a white-faced Donny ran for the door and disappeared as if the hounds of hell were on his trail. We could have chased, hauled him back, lit matches under his immaculate fingernails, ripped the badge off his blazer and tortured the truth out of him, but why lower yourself to the level of the beast? See what tomorrow will bring.
I nodded solemn thanks to the other two giants, ignored the rabble on the floor and addressed myself to Neil.
"You better get to bed," I commanded. "You have a cup final on your plate. Hastie's need you at the back — you have a winger to kick in the air."
"Whit was it all about anyhows?" he asked.
Keep it simple. "He insulted my dad," I replied.
"That's no' decent,' said Neil. "If you canny keep decent — whit the hell's the prospect in life?"
Broomhill Park. Swirling wind, stinging rain. The lower pitch had a high fence to keep the ball on the park and an improvised stand had been set on the higher. A big crowd and Hastie's were getting pulverised by the enemy.
All parties on the scene, present. Donny with a new squad of goons on the opposite side of the pitch with Mamie huddling into him as if he were man of the moment. No sign of Geordie White, after what happened in his garage he would be keeping his head down. Frank Carlin further along on my side, camel-haired coat glistening with water, his hat drooping forlornly over the plump face as he watched Lithgows' nuggety little team run rings round their shipwrecked opponents.
Hastie played in Glasgow Rangers blue, the others in an orange that glowed in the sleety downpour like a twelfth of July parade — no religious divide then but so far the game resembled a massacre of the innocents.
Well into the second half and by some miracle, Hastie's were only two goals to the bad. Also down to 10 men as the centre-back had ricked a calf-muscle in a desperate lunge and Big Neilly had been drafted into that position. In fact it suited him fine, less ground to cover and he was playing a blinder, but the rest were chasing shadows. As the puddles formed on the pitch, they slid and skidded like seals at the circus.
Billy Gourlay was the worst player on the park — a phantom in midfield — avoiding the ball as if it had the pox. The Hastie's supporters screamed abuse at him, the side, the referee, the weather, the skittering seagulls that landed insolently onto the pitch, especially at the Lithgow's end which was untouched since they'd kicked off for the second half — but it made no difference. Their team was defeated, a look of shame on every man's face as he realised that they were beat. Slathered in mud, still chasing but beat. Humiliated. I know that feeling. To the bones.
Donny's teeth gleamed triumphantly across and I longed to be on that pitch running down the wing but what a bad joke. I had to take the bus to get here and my ankle was still in agony from last night's pounding. A heavy hand landed on my shoulder, followed by one on the other side. It was Jaffa and Shug their big faces solemn with gloom.
"This is fuckin' terrible," they announced in unison and then Jaffa continued solo. "Can ye no' do something John? Neil says you're dead clever. Like your dad. Neil says."
My attention switched away from the game and I had a sudden memory of a family Hogmanay when the neighbours came round and after my mother had jigged into Frankie and Johnnie and I followed with Sixteen Tons, the sentiments of which my father totally approved, he then launched into The March of the Cameron Men, a lugubrious ballad of highland warriors following a totally lost cause. He was tone deaf, no sense of rhythm but he sang it to the end. Every verse an affront to the ear. But he sang it to the end. No mercy.
A shout brought me back to see the ball, leaden with mud, hurtling in my direction as the Lithgow's defence disdainfully repelled one of Hastie's sporadic attacks. I instinctively stuck out a foot — the wrong one as it happened — to trap the ball and suffer agony at one and the same time. I bent over painfully to pick it up and when I straightened I was looking into Billy's eyes.
"Gie's the ball," he said.
"No," I replied. "You don't deserve it."
The silence that followed was probably seconds but seemed an eternity. I gathered up what pitiful strength I had available and leant in, wiping the dirty ball down the front of his strip — it was clean because he'd done bugger all and the mark was left all the way down his front.
There were a few shouts but the majority of the crowd had fallen quiet as if they realised something was happening.
Billy held my stare but only just. I made my play.
I don't exactly know what happened that night Billy but you've been running ever since and maybe you even think you're a wee bit in love. A bad combination. You betray yourself, you'll never forget it. You betray the game, that's even worse. She doesn't care for you Billy — you're just a performing monkey. She'll go which way the wind blows.
In the silence a shrill laugh sounded; Billy turned and I looked past to see Mamie slide her arms round Donny's neck and stick what seemed a considerable tongue down his throat. His quiff quivered and his face registered sublime satisfaction.
Billy grabbed the ball, threw to a teammate who promptly lost it and the game lurched into the morass once more. Lithgow's hit the bar and Big Neilly booted it desperately out into unknown territory. Billy had somehow appeared in the centre-forward slot, the rightful occupant hirpling on the wing. Gourlay took the ball down and in the one motion swung a lazy foot like a golfer chipping a ball greenwards. It sailed in a graceful arc and looped over the goalie like a falling star into the top right-hand corner. Goal! The orange hordes uttered a strange mangled sound of incomprehension and the Hastie's lads howled approval.
Ten minutes to go, two-one and it should really be six-one but God is good even if your father's a communist — Lithgow's had another shot that the Hastie's goalie somehow clawed away and our right-back in a moment of delusion actually passed the ball. It reached Billy who hitched one shoulder, then went the other way and for some reason half the Lithgow's defence went with the shoulder.
He bore down on goal tracked by the centre- and right-backs but managed to poke the ball between them and wriggle after it. The goalie came rushing out and there was a sickening thud as they collided but the ball went on its merry way over the virgin goal area of Lithgows and then it slunk almost apologetically over the line.
Two goals — all in the mix but the cheers were muted. Billy was stock still on the ground with a crowd of players and the ref, Sammy Workman peering down. Sammy was one of the best in the division, handsome as an Italian film star, always dressed in black, hair neatly parted and a first aid expert. He announced the boy was winded — give him a breather. Sure enough Billy slowly got his feet amid relieved Hastie's cheers and walked back for the kick-off with a big smear of red running down from a gashed cheekbone.
"He's been blooded," said Shug wisely. "They dae it wi' foxes."
Then it was a few minutes to go and we were in trouble because if it went to extra-time, Hastie's were buggered. The team were out on their feet, a man down and the fag smokers especially, which meant most, were coughing up nicotine remnants whereas Lithgow's had hardly broken sweat.
Billy wriggled to the by-line and was thumped unceremoniously over the line with the ball. As he prepared to take the corner, I turned and called to Neilly who normally had a nosebleed if he crossed the half-way line unless it was to take a penalty.
"Forsythe!" I shouted in a voice that for a moment was uncannily like my father's. "Ye've biled yer can long enough, get up there and make a name for yourself!"
Neil's face turned purple and he began lumbering like a mudslide from his own penalty area until he reached the dizzy heights of the halfway line, then he ploughed on like a behemoth with the crowd beginning to chant his name.
Sammy Workman turned round, grinned and then blew the whistle to signal Billy. Neilly actually began to growl like a bear — a fearsome noise and sight as he charged into the penalty area. Billy sighted like a surveyor and swung that deadly right foot. Over came the heavy missile. Neil hadn't the puff to jump. He just stood there, the ball banged him on the head and flew into the net the opposite way to where he was facing.
Bedlam. Final whistle. Pitch invasion. No one tried to hoist Neil up, even in their delirium. I looked over. Donny was gone. Down to the side, Frank similarly vanished — hell mend them, neither was a football man. Shug and Jaffa lifted me onto their shoulders and Neilly waved like a berserk. I didn't deserve to be up there but was not about to argue with two happy bricklayers.
Way off to the side, Billy was standing alone. Our eyes met, he spat some blood out that had seeped into his mouth, and nodded. I nodded back. Talent. The boy had talent. Game over.
A lot can happen in a week.
Donny Dunlop went bust. A pile of money had been bet on Hastie's to win, one large wager in particular, and he had been so confident that the odds offered were more than generous. Not only that but it turned out that he had broken the sacred rule of bookmaking. Never gamble on cuddies or cards. Fancied himself as a poker shark and was in big to some heavy Glasgow casinos — they had come to collect and Donny was absented in the twinkling of an eye. My own bet for a destination was the Sewer Pipes of Stranraer. A song I'm sure I heard once in a folk club.
As fate would have it, all his house and fiscal possessions were in Mamie's name for tax reasons and so she was sitting pretty. I would like to have seen the moment when the goonless, helpless, bankrupted Donny pleaded with her to sell it all up to settle the debt and she pointed silently at her still faintly discoloured eyes.
As for me, I was just getting off Jimmy Lapsley's borrowed scooter on the Lyle Hill having waited in the dark till Mamie emerged from the awfy nice house in Ardgowan Street, got into the renovated Triumph Herald and sped off to the upper reaches.
She stopped at a secluded part of the park where the trees leafy dripping branches hid many a tryst and a shadowy figure appeared to slide in beside her.
I waited while the owls hooted and the drenching rain soaked me through, and then walked softly to the car to rap upon the window.
"Can I see your licence, if you don't mind?" I announced in my best policeman tones. The window slowly wound down and I shone my pocket torch in to reveal the startled faces of Mamie Dunlop and Frank Carlin.
A smudge of lipstick at the side of his mouth but no doubt it would rub off. All things do in time.
I was now sitting in the back of the Herald, sucking happily on a spangle while in the manner of Marlowe I laid out the disreputable deeds committed by the two sick faces I could see in the windscreen mirror. This is how I read the cards.
Frankie and Mamie were lovers. In it up to their necks. A devious plan was hatched.
Frank laid a heavy bet with Donny Dunlop on Hastie's winning the cup; of course not in his own name, through trusted friends let's say. Eagerly accepted because Hastie's had no chance. But our Irish friend played a flanker — he wangled Billy Gourlay into the factory office because he knew that with the boy's talent anything was possible. So far so good.
Mamie decided to keep the boy sweet by the generous offer of her charms but perhaps grew more fond of that body swerve of Billy's than Frank had warranted.
Donny noticed that Hastie's were sailing through the preliminary rounds, saw Billy in action on the pitch and also noted that his wife had a glow on her face that had little to do with Max Factor. He had her tailed and caught up with them not far from this very spot perhaps, took them back to White's Garage, smacked Mamie around and put the fear of god into Billy by threatening to chib her face to mince if the boy didn't do what he was told. So far so good.
But Mamie was a resourceful girl. When she saw Billy talk to me during the match and him turn round, she screeched with laughter, did the anaconda on Donny, figuring it might tip the scales but even then she'd swing both ways. If her husband won, she'd be stuck with the horrible little creep but there'd be other times, other plans. If Frank won, she'd be in the position she now commanded.
That is — in clover. Along with Mr Carlin who was gambolling in the same papilionaceous pasturage.
And as for me? Frank hired me as insurance to keep an eye on Billy and I proved to be both a spanner in the works and a useful contrivance. When I was getting too close for comfort Mamie was happy to contrive with Donny to set me up and take me out of commission.
Because whoever was going to lose, it was never going to be Mrs Dunlop. The only thing out of her control was when Donny caught her out and beat her up. But she knew his tongue was still hanging out for her — it didn't take long to make the midget dance once more.
When I finished there was silence. Mamie's face was like the Sphinx but Frank swallowed hard. "How did you figure it all out?" he asked.
"It was the only story that made any sense," I answered. "After I visited Mamie in hospital she rang you. One was to let you know what had happened and she could still pull it off, the other was to get me off the case. You both used the same phrase, 'accidents will happen'; it got me thinking."
"You were a menace, John," said Mamie quietly.
I looked at Frank who had a strange shifty expression on his face.
"Please don't tell me you're going to leave the happy home to set up with the blonde bombshell, here?" I muttered. "Please don't."
He wouldn't meet my eye in the mirror and glanced away.
"She'll spit you out like a lemon pip, Frank."
His head did not turn. I shook mine and gazed into Mamie's hazel eyes. "What is it you really want?" I asked quietly.
Mamie gave that serious consideration. "I like horses," she said finally. "Ponies. Show jumping. I could breed them."
"Frank can clean out the stables," I answered. A bubble of laughter had been percolating for some time and I suddenly let it out in a loud guffaw.
"What a palaver, eh?" I announced and leant forward to hook Frank's wallet from the inside pocket, extract two fivers and flip it back to him. "My resignation fee."
"But I took you off the case," he protested.
"Yes. But I didn't agree at the time. Now, I do."
Mamie shrugged. They were in the clear, nothing could be proved. Other than the mishap when she was found with Billy, she had run the game from start to finish. The girl had brains and no scruples; perhaps a soft spot for the cuddies but other than that, she was lethal.
I opened the car door and prepared to depart the scene — they both turned round to look at me and I felt a weird surge of compassion. Frank looked lost at sea and Mamie as if she'd won everything and nothing at the same time. Now they were stuck with each other.
"I was very fond of your mother," Frank said, with a Catholic desperation.
"Light a candle for her Frank," I replied. "And make your confession to Father Scanlon, he's a betting man. I'm sure he'll understand."
And then I left. I could have berated them over the myriad lies told, the fact that I nearly got my head kicked in and my ankle was shooting shafts of pain on an hourly basis but in a strange way, I was grateful for the corruption. It got me out of bed.
As I hauled myself up the stairs towards the attic room, Jimmy Lapsley's smile kept coming in to my mind. I had returned the scooter to him at the Willow Bar and told him to put my name down as his partner for the next domino tournament. He almost bought me a drink but then thought better and slid me a shandy instead. But he couldn't keep a daft grin off his face.
It doesn't take much to make folk happy; it's just maintaining the damn thing that is a problem. It takes stamina. Like a run from midfield — no guarantee the ball will come your way, it all depends on luck.
As I reached the landing, listing slightly to compensate for the dud ligaments, there was a note pinned to the door. Perhaps the offer of another case? No. Even better. The fair hand of Rosalind Connor, her spiky handwriting like a left jab.
I come off the night shift at 10 tomorrow morning. You better be fit for purpose.
A lightning calculation. Wind the alarm clock. Up at seven, general tidy-up, hide the Russian books, don the one white shirt missed so far by the moths, out for bacon and eggs courtesy of Frank's fivers, soft rolls from Auld's the Bakers, start the fry-up at precisely 9.45, the girl would be looking after ill people all night in the hospital and ravenous as hell. Scour out the pot, best quality leaf-tea — play it cool. Let sophistication be my byword.
I could feel a foolish smirk creeping over my phizog and tried to rectify matters. I had just survived beatings, triumphed over violent adversity, won a football match, solved a case — I would play it cool.
A picture of my parents walking in the hills came into my head, my father with that familiar half-smile on his face swiping at the daisies with an old piece of stick and my mother with a daft pink beret, always askew, and a checked two-piece suit that was loud enough to scare a flock of crows.
I felt some kind of moisture in my eye but Greenock is full of moisture.
Deep breath. Key in the lock. Rosalind's note in the top pocket. In I go. Close the door behind.
And that was me — gone.