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Shuggie Bain / (by Douglas Stuart, 2020) -

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Shuggie Bain /   (by Douglas Stuart, 2020) -

Shuggie Bain / (by Douglas Stuart, 2020) -

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Shuggie Bain / (by Douglas Stuart, 2020) -
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2020
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Douglas Stuart
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Angus King
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/ / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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17:30:40
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Shuggie Bain / :

.doc (Word) douglas_stuart_-_shuggie_bain.doc [1.01 Mb] (c: 1) .
.pdf douglas_stuart_-_shuggie_bain.pdf [2.05 Mb] (c: 1) .


: Shuggie Bain

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One The day was flat. That morning his mind had abandoned him and left his body wandering down below. The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to. Shuggie was methodical in setting up for his shift. All the pots of oily dips and spreads were decanted into clean trays. The edges were wiped free of any splashes that would go brown quickly and ruin the illusion of freshness. The sliced hams were artfully arranged with fake parsley sprigs, and the olives were turned so that the viscous juice slid like mucus over their green skins. Ann McGee had the brass neck to call in sick again that morning, leaving him with the thankless task of running his deli counter and her rotisserie stand all alone. No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days, it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams. He pushed industrial skewers through each cold, dead bird and lined them up neatly in a row. They sat there, with their stubby wings crossed over their fat little chests like so many headless babies. There was a time he would have taken pride in this orderliness. In reality, pushing the metal through the bumpy pink flesh was the easy part; the difficult part was resisting the urge to do the same to the customers. They would pore over the hot glass and study each of the carcasses in detail. They would choose only the best bird, ignorant to the fact that battery farming meant they were all identical. Shuggie would stand there, his back teeth pinching the inside of his cheek, and indulge their indecisiveness with a forced smile. Then the pantomime would really begin. _Gies three breasts, five thighs, and just wan wing the day, son._ He prayed for strength. Why did no one want a whole chicken any more? He would lift the carcass using long prongs, careful not to touch the birds with his gloved hands, and then he would dissect the parts neatly (skin intact) using catering scissors. He felt like a fool standing there against the broiler lights. His scalp was sweating under the hairnet and his hands were not quite strong enough to artfully snap the back of the chicken with the dull blades. He hunched slightly, the better to throw his back muscles behind the pressure in his wrists, and all the time he kept smiling. If he was very unlucky, the tongs would slip and the chicken would thud and slide its way across the gritty floor. He_d have to make an apologetic pretence of starting again, but he never wasted that dirty bird. When the women turned away he would put it back with its sisters under the hot yellow lights. He believed in hygiene well enough, but these little private victories stopped him from starting a riot. Most of the judgy, man-faced housewives who shopped here deserved it. The way they looked down on him flushed the back of his neck scarlet. On particularly low days he folded all types of his bodily discharge into the taramasalata. He sold an uncanny amount of that bourgeois shite. He had worked for Kilfeathers for over a year. It was never meant to be that long. It was just that he had to feed himself and pay his own dig money each week, and the supermarket was the only business that would take him. Mr Kilfeather was a parsimonious bastard; he liked to staff the shop with anyone he didn_t have to pay a full adult wage, and Shuggie found himself able to take short shifts that fit around his patchy schooling. In his dreams he always intended to move on. He had always loved to brush and play with hair; it was the only thing that made time truly fly. When he had turned sixteen he had promised himself he would go to the hairdressing college that sat south of the River Clyde. He had gathered up all of his inspiration, the sketches he had copied from the Littlewoods catalogue and pages ripped from the Sunday magazines. Then he had gone to Cardonald to see about the evening classes. At the bus stop outside the college he alighted with half a dozen eighteen-year-olds. They wore the newest, most-fashionable gear and talked with a buzzing confidence that masked their own nerves. Shuggie walked half as fast as they did. He watched them go in the front door, then he recrossed the street to catch the bus going the other way. He started at Kilfeathers the following week. Shuggie killed most of his morning break poring over the damaged tins in the discount bins. He found three small cans of Scottish salmon that were barely damaged, the labels were scuffed and marked, but the tins themselves were intact. With the last of his wages he paid for his small basket and placed the tins of fish inside his old school bag, which he locked again inside his locker. He sloped up the stairs to the staff canteen and tried to look nonchalant as he passed the table of university students who worked the easy summer shifts and spent their breaks looking self-important, surrounded with thick folders of revision notes. He fixed his gaze to the middle distance and sat down in the corner, not with, but near enough to the girls from the tills. In truth, the girls were three middle-aged Glasgow women. Ena, the ringleader, was a rake-thin, poker-faced woman with greasy hair. She had no eyebrows to speak of, but she did have a faint moustache, which seemed unfair to Shuggie. Ena was rough even for this end of Glasgow, but she was also kind and generous in the way hard-done-to people often are. Nora, the youngest of the three, wore her hair scraped tightly back and held in place with an elastic band. Her eyes, like Ena_s, were small and sharp, and at thirty-three she was a mother of five already. The last of the group was Jackie. She was different to these other two in that she very much resembled a woman. Jackie was a riotous gossip, a big, bosomy sofa of a woman. It was her that Shuggie liked best. He sat down near them and caught the ending to the saga of Jackie_s latest man. It was guaranteed that the women were always full of good-hearted patter. Twice now they had taken him along on their bingo nights, and as the women drank and howled with laughter, he sat amongst them like a teenager who couldn_t be trusted to stay home alone. He had liked the way they sat easily together. How their bulk surrounded him and the softness of their flesh pressed into his side. He liked how they fussed with him, and although he protested, how they pushed his hair from his eyes and licked their thumbs to wipe the corners of his mouth. For the women, Shuggie offered some form of male attention, and it did not matter that he was only sixteen and three months. Under the La Scala bingo tables they had each tried at least once to brush against his cock. The strokes were too long, too searching, to be truly accidental. For Ena-with-no-eyebrows it could become almost a crusade. The deeper she went into drink, the more brazen she became. With every passing graze of her ringed knuckles, she clamped her fat tongue between her teeth, and kept her eyes burning into the side of his face. When Shuggie had finally flared with embarrassment, she had tutted, and Jackie had pushed two pound notes across the table to a beaming, victorious Nora. It was a disappointment, sure, but as they drank deeper they decided it had not been a rejection exactly. Something about the boy was no right, and this was at least something they could pity. Shuggie sat in the dark listening to the unsteady snores through the tenement walls. He was trying, and failing, to ignore the lonely men who had no people of their own. The morning chill had turned his naked thighs a tartan blue, so he wrapped a thin towel around himself for warmth and chewed nervously at the corner, soothed by the way it squeaked between his teeth. He arranged the last of his supermarket wages along the table_s edge. He ordered the coins, first by worth, then by their mint and shine. The pink-faced man in the room next door creaked to life. In his narrow bed he scratched noisily at himself and sighed a prayer for the will to stand. His feet hit the floor with a thud, like bags of heavy butcher_s meat, and it sounded like an effort for him to shuffle across the small room to the doorway. He fumbled with the familiar locks and came out into the always-dark hall, blindly feeling his way, his hand sliding across the wall and falling against the outside of Shuggie_s door. The boy held his breath as the fingers ran across the beadwork. Only when he heard the plink-plink of the bathroom light cord did Shuggie move again. The old man began to cough and hauch his lungs to life. Shuggie tried not to listen as he pissed and spat gobs of phlegm into the toilet at the same time. The morning light was the colour of too-milky tea. It snuck into the bedsit like a sly ghost, crossing the carpet and inching slowly up his bare legs. Shuggie closed his eyes and tried to feel it creeping there, but there was no heat in its touch. He waited until he thought it might have covered him entirely, and then he opened his eyes again. They were staring back at him, a hundred pairs of painted eyes, all broken-hearted or lonely, just as they always were. The porcelain ballerinas with the little puppies, the Spanish girl with the dancing sailors, and the rosy-faced farm boy pulling his lazy shire horse. Shuggie had arranged the ornaments neatly along the bay window_s ledge. He had spent hours with their made-up stories. The thick-armed blacksmith amongst the angel-faced choirboys, or his favourite, the seven or so giant baby kittens smiling and menacing the lazy shepherd. At least they cheered the place up a little. The bedsit was taller than it was long, and his single bed stuck out into the middle like a divider. An old-fashioned two-seater settee, the wooden kind, whose thin cushions meant you always felt the slats in your back, was on one side. A small fridge and a double-ringed Baby Belling cooker was on the other. Except for the rumpled bedding, nothing was out of place: no stour, no yesterday_s clothes, no signs of life. Shuggie tried to calm himself as he smoothed his hand over the mismatched sheets. He thought how his mother would have hated these bedclothes, the odd colours and patterns, layered one upon the other as if he didn_t care what people would think. This mess would have hurt her pride. Someday he would save some money and buy new sheets of his own, soft and warm and all the same colour. He had been fortunate to get this room in Mrs Bakhsh_s boarding house. He was lucky the old man before him had liked his drink too much and had been jailed for it. The large bay window jutted out proudly on to Albert Drive, and Shuggie supposed at one time the room must have been the living room of a fairly grand three-bedroom flat. He had seen into some of the other rooms in the house. The kitchenette Mrs Bakhsh had turned into a bedroom still had its original checkered linoleum floor, and the three other boxier rooms still kept their original threadbare carpets. The pink-faced man lived in what must have been at one time a nursery, still with its yellow-flowered wallpaper and a happy border of laughing rabbits around the cornicing. The man_s bed, his settee, and his kitchen stove were all lined up on one wall and all touching. Shuggie had seen it once, through the crack of a half-opened door, and he was glad of his grand bay window. He had been lucky to find the Pakistanis. None of the other landlords had wanted to rent to a fifteen-year-old boy who was pretending to be one day past his sixteenth birthday. The others didn_t say it outright, but they had too many questions. They had looked up and down at his best school shirt and polished shoes suspiciously. It_s no right, their eyes had said. In the corners of their mouths he could see they thought it was a disgrace for a boy of his age to have no mammy, no people of his own. Mrs Bakhsh hadn_t cared. She looked at his school backpack and at the month_s rent he had in advance and went back to worrying about feeding her own weans. With a blue biro he had decorated that first rent envelope specially for her. Shuggie had wanted to show her he cared about being good, that he was reliable enough to put in this extra effort. So he took a piece of paper from his geography notebook and drew swirling paisley patterns on it, intertwined it around her name, and coloured in between the lines so that the peacock shapes stood out in cobalt glory. The landlady lived across the close, in an identical tenement flat, richly furnished and flushed hot with central heating. In the other, cold flat she kept five men in five bedsits for eighteen pounds and fifty pence each a week, week to week, cash only. The two men who were not being paid for by the social services had to slip the first of their wages under her door on a Friday night before they took to drinking the rest. On their knees, on her doormat, they would linger a moment over the contentment radiating from inside: bubbling pots of perfumed chicken meat, happy noises of children fighting over television channels, and the laughing sounds of fat women talking foreign words around kitchen tables. The landlady never bothered Shuggie. She never set foot in his bedsit unless the rent was late. Then she came with other thick-armed Pakistani women and knocked heavily on the doors of the men. Mostly, she visited only to hoover the windowless hallway or to wipe around the bath. Once a month she poured bleach around the toilet bowl, and from time to time, she laid a new scrap of carpet remnant around its base to soak up the piss. Shuggie leaned his face against his door and listened for the pink-faced man to finish his ablutions. In the quiet he heard him undo the snib on the bathroom door and step out into the hallway again. The boy slipped his feet into his old school shoes. Over his underpants he pulled on his parka, a noisy nylon-skinned thing that was trimmed with a matted fur hood. He zipped it closed all the way to the top, and into the large army pockets he stuffed a Kilfeathers shopping bag and two thin tea towels. There was a school jumper stuffed into the gap at the bottom of his door. As he removed it, he could smell the other men carried in on the cold draught. One of them had been smoking through the night again; another had taken fish for his supper. Shuggie opened his door and slid out into the darkness. Mrs Bakhsh had taken the single light bulb from the overhead fixture, saying the men had wasted good money by leaving it burning at all hours. Now the smell of the men lingered across the hallway like a trail of ghosts, with no breeze or light to disturb it. Years spent smoking where they slept, eating fried suppers in front of Calor gas fires, and passing summer days with windows closed. The stale smells of sweat and cum mixed with the static heat of black-and-white televisions and the sting of amber aftershave. Shuggie had begun to be able to tell the men apart. In the darkness he could follow the pink-faced man as he rose to shave his face and comb Brylcreem through his hair, and he could smell the musty overcoat of the yellow-toothed man who ate only what smelled like buttered popcorn or creamed fish. Later, when the pubs had reached closing time, Shuggie could tell as each man returned safely home again. The shared bathroom had a mottled-glass door. He snibbed the lock and stood a moment pulling on the handle, checking it had caught. Unzipping the heavy anorak, he placed it in the corner. He turned on the hot tap to feel the water, it ran a leftover lukewarm and then sputtered twice and ran colder than the River Clyde. The icy shock of it made him put his fingers in his mouth. He took up a fifty-pence piece, turning it mournfully, and pushed it into the immersion heater and watched as the little gas flame burst to life. When he turned the tap on again the water ran ice cold, and then, with a cough, jets of boiling water streamed out. He soaked the wet dishcloth, running it over his cold chest and white neck, glad for the steaming heat of it. He sank his face and head into the rare warmth, held himself there and dreamt about filling a bath to the very top. He thought about lying under the hot water far away from the smells of the other lodgers. It had been a long time since he felt thawed all the way through, all of him warm at the exact same time. Lifting his arm he ran the rag from his wrist up and over his shoulder. He tensed his arm muscle and circled his fingers around the bicep. If he really tried, he could almost wrap his whole hand around it, and if he squeezed hard, he could feel the contours of his bone. His armpit was dusted in a fine lint, like baby duck feathers. He brought his nose to it; it smelled sweet and clean and of nothing at all. He pinched the skin and squeezed, milking the soft flesh till it flushed red with frustration; he sniffed his fingers again, nothing. Scrubbing at himself harder now, he repeated under his breath, _The Scottish Premier League Results. Gers won 22, drew 14, lost 8, 58 points total. Aberdeen won 17, drew 21, lost 6, 55 points total. Motherwell won 14, drew 12, lost 10._ In the mirror his wet hair was black as coal. As he brushed it down over his face he was surprised to find it nearly to his chin. He stared and tried to find something masculine to admire in himself: the black curls, the milky skin, the high bones in his cheeks. He caught the reflection of his own eyes in the mirror. It wasn_t right. It wasn_t how real boys were built to be. He scrubbed at himself again. _Gers won 22, drew 14, lost 8, 58 points total. Aberdeen won 17, drew __ There were footsteps in the hallway then, the familiar squeak of heavy leather shoes, and then nothing. The thin door moved insistently against the hasp. Shuggie reached for the army parka and slipped his damp body inside. When he had first moved into Mrs Bakhsh_s bedsit, only one of the other tenants had paid any real notice. The pink-faced man and the yellow-toothed man had been too blind or too ruined with drink to care. But that first night, as Shuggie sat on the bed eating the buttered end of a white loaf, there had been a knock at his door. The boy stayed silent a long time before he decided to open it. The man on the other side was tall and thickly built and smelled of pine soap. In his hand he held a plastic bag with twelve tins of lager that clanged together like dulled chapel bells. With a hard paw the man introduced himself as Joseph Darling and held the bag out to the boy with a smile. Shuggie had tried to say, No, thank you, in the polite way he had been taught, but something in the man had intimidated him, and so instead Shuggie let him in. They had sat quietly together, Shuggie and his visitor, perched on the edge of the neat single bed and looking out on to the tenemented street. Protestant families were eating their dinners in front of televisions, and the charwoman who lived opposite was eating alone at her drop-leaf table. The pair drank in silence and watched the others go about their normal routines. Mr Darling kept his thick tweed coat on. The weight of him on the bed rolled Shuggie into his broad side. From the corner of his eye Shuggie watched the yellow tips of his thick fingers stab nervously at themselves. Shuggie had only taken a mouthful of the lager to be gracious, and as the man spoke to him, he could think only about the taste of the tinned ale, how sour and sad it tasted. It reminded him of things he would rather forget. Mr Darling had a considered, half-closed way to himself. Shuggie tried his best to be polite and listen as the man told him how he had been a janitor at a Protestant school that they had shut and merged with the Catholic one to save the council money. To hear him tell it, Mr Darling sounded more astounded that the Proddy weans should be running with the Catholic ones in peace than he was to find himself out of a job. _Ah jist cannae believe it!_ he had said, mostly to himself. _In ma day a person_s religion said something about them. Ye came up through the school having to fight yer way there through bus-fulls of cabbage-eating Catholic bastards. It was something to be proud of. Now any good lassie will sleep with any dirty Mick as soon as she_d lie with a dog._ Shuggie pretended to take a light tug on the beer, but mostly he let it swirl around his teeth and trickle back into the can. Mr Darling_s eyes were searching the walls for a sign. Then he stole a sideways glance at the boy and asked, suddenly unsure of his audience, _So, what school did ye used to go to?_ Shuggie knew what he was after. _I_m not really one or the other, and I_m still at the school._ It was true, he didn_t belong to either the Catholics or the Protestants, and he still did go to school, when he could afford to not be at the supermarket. _Aye? What_s your best subject then?_ The boy shrugged. It wasn_t modesty, he generally wasn_t good at anything. His attendance had been patchy at best, and so the thread of learning was difficult to follow. Mostly he went and sat quietly at the back so that the education board wouldn_t come after him for truancy. If the school knew how he lived, they would have been forced to do something about it. The man finished his second can and quickly set about his third. Shuggie felt the burn of Mr Darling_s finger against the side of his leg. The man had set his hand on the mattress, and the little finger, with its gold sovereign ring, was barely touching him. It didn_t move, or wriggle. It just sat there, and that had made it burn all the more. Now Shuggie stood in the damp bathroom holding his parka closed. Mr Darling pulled at the edge of his tweed bunnet in an old-fashioned greeting. _Ah jist chapped to see if ye were around the day?_ _Today? I don_t know. I have some messages to run._ A cloud of disappointment crossed Mr Darling_s face. _Miserable day for it._ _I know. But I said I would meet a friend._ Mr Darling sucked at his large white teeth. The man was so tall he was still straightening to his full height. Shuggie could imagine generations of Protestant weans lined up in single file and terrified in his long shadow. He could see now that the man_s face was flush, a line of drinkers sweat already on the edge of his brow. The man had been bent at the keyhole, Shuggie was sure of that now. _That_s a pity. Ah_m jist away to cash ma dole, might stop in at the Brewers Arms, then put a wee line on. But afterwards ah was hoping we could share a few cans. Mibbe watch the fitba results on the wee telly? Ah could teach ye about the English leagues?_ The man looked down on the boy, he dug his tongue into his back molars. If he played it right, the man was always good for a few pounds. But it would take too long to wait on Mr Darling to cash his unemployment; to stoat from the post office to the betting shop to the off-licence and then home, that was if he found his way home at all. Shuggie couldn_t wait that long. The boy let go of the parka then, and Mr Darling pretended not to stare as the coat gaped slightly. But the man seemed unable to help himself, and Shuggie watched as the grey light in his green eyes dipped. Shuggie could feel it burn into his pale chest as the man_s gaze slid down over his loose underwear to his bare legs, the unremarkable, white hairless things, that hung like uncut thread from the bottom of his black coat. Only then did Mr Darling smile. 1981 SIGHTHILL Two Agnes Bain pushed her toes into the carpet and leaned out as far as she could into the night air. The damp wind kissed her flushed neck and pushed down inside her dress. It felt like a stranger_s hand, a sign of living, a reminder of life. With a flick she watched her cigarette doubt fall, the glowing embers dancing sixteen floors down on to the dark forecourt. She wanted to show the city this claret velvet dress. She wanted to feel a little envy from strangers, to dance with men who held her proud and close. Mostly she wanted to take a good drink, to live a little. With a stretch of her calves, she leaned her hipbone on the window frame and let go of the ballast of her toes. Her body tipped down towards the amber city lights, and her cheeks flushed with blood. She reached her arms out to the lights, and for a brief moment she was flying. No one noticed the flying woman. She thought about tilting further then, dared herself to do it. How easy it would be to kid herself that she was flying, until it became only falling and she broke herself on the concrete below. The high-rise flat she still shared with her mother and father pressed in against her. Everything in the room behind her felt so small, so low-ceilinged and stifling, payday to Mass day, a life bought on tick, with nothing that ever felt owned outright. To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy_s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Him, her man, who when he shared her bed now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things. Agnes wanted to put her foot through it all, or to scrape it back like it was spoilt wallpaper. To get her nail under it and rip it all away. With a bored slouch, Agnes fell back into the stuffy room and felt the safety of her mammy_s carpet below her feet again. The other women hadn_t looked up. Peevishly, she scraped the needle across the record player. She clawed at her hairline and turned the volume up too loud. _Come on, please, just the one wee dance?_ _T_chut, no yet,_ spat Nan Flannigan. She was feverish and arranging silver and copper coins into neat piles. _I_m just about to pimp out the lot of ye._ Reeny Sweeny rolled her eyes and held her cards close. _Ye have one filthy mind!_ _Well, don_t say I didnae warn ye._ Nan bit the end off a slab of fried fish and sucked the grease from her lips. _When I am done taking all your menage money at these cards ye_re gonnae hiv to go home and fuck that bag o_ soup bones you call a husband for more._ _No chance!_ Reeny made a lazy sign of a cross. _I_ve been sitting on it since Lent, and I_ve got no intention of letting him get at it until next Christmas._ She pushed a fat golden chip into her mouth. _I once held aff so long I got a new colour telly in the bedroom._ The women cackled without breaking their concentration on the cards. It was sweaty and close in the front room. Agnes watched her mammy, little Lizzie, carefully studying her hand, flanked by the bulk of Nan Flannigan on one side and Reeny Sweeny on the other. The women sat thigh to thigh and tore at the last scraps of a fish supper. They were moving coins and folding cards with greasy fingers. Ann Marie Easton, the youngest amongst them, was concentrating on rolling mean-looking cigarettes of loose tobacco on her skirt. The women spilt their housekeeping money on to the low tea table and were pushing five- and ten-pence bets back and forward. It bored Agnes. There was a time before baggy cardigans and skinny husbands that she had led them all up to the dancing. As girls, they had clung to one another like a string of pearls and sang at the top of their voices all the way down Sauchiehall Street. They had been underage, but Agnes, sure of herself even at fifteen, knew she would get them in. The doormen always saw her gleaming at the back of the line and beckoned her forward, and she pulled the other girls behind her like a chain gang. They held on to the belt of her coat and muttered protest, but Agnes just smiled her best smile for the doormen, the smile she kept for men, the same one she hid from her mother. She had loved to show off her smile back then. She got her teeth from her daddy_s side and the Campbell teeth had always been weak, they were a reason for humility in an otherwise handsome face. Her own adult teeth had come in small and crooked, and even when they were new they had never been white because of the smoking and her mammy_s strong tea. At fifteen she had begged Lizzie to let her have them all taken out. The discomfort of the false teeth was nothing when compared to the movie star smile she thought they must give her. Each tooth was broad and even and as straight as Elizabeth Taylor_s. Agnes sucked at her porcelain. Now here they were, every Friday night, these same women playing cards in her mammy_s front room. There was not a single drop of make-up between them. Nobody had much of a heart to sing any more. She watched the women fight over a few pounds in copper coins and let out a bored huff. Friday card school was the one thing they looked forward to all week. It was meant to be their respite from ironing in front of the telly and heating tins of beans for ungrateful weans. Big Nan usually went home with the winnings from the kitty, except for the times when Lizzie would have a lucky-handed winning streak and got a slap for it. Big Nan couldn_t help herself. She got jumpy around money and didn_t like to lose it. Agnes had seen her mother get a black eye over ten bob. _Haw you!_ Nan was shouting at Agnes, who was engrossed with her own reflection in the window. _Ye_re bloody cheatin_!_ Agnes rolled her eyes and took a long mouthful of flat stout. It was too slow a bus for where she wanted to go. So she filled her gullet with stout and wished it was vodka. _Leave her be,_ said Lizzie. She knew that faraway look. Nan returned her gaze to her cards. _Might have known you two were in cahoots. Thieving bastards the pair o_ ye!_ _I_ve never stolen a thing in my life!_ said Lizzie. _Liar! I_ve seen ye at the end of a shift. Lumpy as porridge and heavy as oats! Stuffing your work pinny full of rolls of hospital toilet paper and bottles of dish soap._ _Do you know the price of that nonsense?_ asked Lizzie indignantly. _Aye, of course I do,_ sniffed Nan. _Because I actually pay for mine._ Agnes had been floating around the room, unable to settle. Now she nearly upended the card table with an armful of plastic shopping bags. _I bought youse a wee present,_ she said. Nan usually wouldn_t have allowed the interruption, but a gift was free and she knew better than to pass that by. She tucked her cards securely into her cleavage, and as they passed the plastic bags around, each woman drew out a small box. For a while they sat in silence contemplating the picture on the front. Lizzie spoke first, a little affronted. _A bra? What am I wanting with a bra?_ _It_s no just any bra. It_s one of those Cross Your Heart bras. It does wonders for your shape._ _Try it, Lizzie!_ said Reeny. _Auld Wullie will be at you like it_s the Fair Fortnight!_ Ann Marie took her bra from the box; it was clearly too small. _This bra isnae my size!_ _Well, I tried my best to guess. I got a couple of spare, so mind and check all of them._ Agnes was already unzipping the back of her dress. The alabaster of her shoulders was shocking against the claret of the velvet. She unhooked her old bra and her porcelain breasts slid out; she slipped herself quickly into a new bra, and her breasts lifted several centimetres. Agnes dipped and spun for the women. _A fella was selling them off the back of a lorry down Paddy_s Market. Five for twenty pound. Pure magic, eh?_ Ann Marie rummaged and found her size. She was more modest than Agnes, so turned her back to the room as she took off her cardigan and slipped off her old bra. The heaviness of her tits had left red strap welts on her shoulders. Soon all the women except for Lizzie had unfolded their dresses or unsnapped their work coveralls and were sitting in their new bras. Lizzie sat with her arms across her chest. The others, almost bare from the waist up, were running their hands along the satin straps and staring down at their own tits and cooing appreciatively. _This might be the most comfy thing I_ve ever worn,_ admitted Nan. The bra was too loose across the back and was doing its best to hoist her enormous breasts off the shelf of her belly. _Now those are the boobs I remember from when we were lassies,_ said Agnes approvingly. _Dear God, if only we had known then what we ken now, eh?_ said Reeny. _I would have let any bastard that wanted a feel play wi_ them right then and there._ Nan rolled her tongue lasciviously. _Pure shite! You were never one to keep your hand on your ha_penny anyway._ She was already keen to get back to business and was pushing coins around the table again. _Right, can we all stop looking at oorsels like a bunch of stupit lassies._ She gathered the cards back up and started shuffling the deck. The women still hadn_t drawn up their tops. Lizzie tried to quietly burst the cellophane on a new cigarette packet. The other women were hawkish, growing sick of smoking harsh rollies and picking tobacco off the ends of their tongues. Lizzie sniffed, _I thought we were smoking our own?_ But it was like eating ham hock in front of a pack of strays; they would give her no peace. She grudgingly passed around the fresh pack, and everyone lit up, enjoying the luxury of a manufactured cigarette. Nan sat back in her bra and held the smoke deep in her lungs as she closed her eyes. The air in the room grew hot and curdled again as the smoke swirled and danced with the paisley wallpaper. Now and then fresh air pulled in and out of the sixteenth-floor window, and the women blinked at the sharpness of it. Lizzie drank her cold black tea and watched as the women all descended towards the darkness in their moods. Fresh air always did this to the drunk. The light, gossipy energy was leaving the room and being replaced by something stickier and thicker. There was a new voice. _Mammy, he won_t go to sleep!_ Catherine stood in the living room doorway with a look of exasperation on her face. She held her little brother on her hip. He was becoming too big to be held like that, but Shuggie clung to her tight, and it was clear how he loved the bony comfort of her. Catherine, sour-faced for sympathy, pinched at his wrists and pried him from her. _Please. I can_t handle him any more._ The little boy ran to his mother, and Agnes swept Shuggie up into her arms. There was the static crackle of nylon pyjamas as she spun him, content at last to have someone to dance with. Catherine ignored the fact that the women were sitting, half-naked, in new bras. She searched the debris of fish suppers. She preferred the smallest brown chips, the curly skins that spent too long in the fryer and became crispy in the hot fat. Lizzie smoothed her hand across Catherine_s hip. Everything about her granddaughter seemed meagre, somehow unfeminine. At seventeen Catherine was long-limbed and boyish, with waist-length, poker-straight hair and no real curves. Fitted skirts seemed a disappointment on her. Lizzie had an absent-minded habit of rubbing her hand over her granddaughter_s hip, as if this might cause some sudden femininity to raise up. From pure routine, Catherine pushed Lizzie_s fussing hand away. _Here!_ said Lizzie. _Tell them about that smashin_ job ye_ve tain in the city._ She didn_t pause to let her granddaughter speak but instead turned to the women. _I_m that proud. Assistant to the chairman. That_s almost like being the gaffer yourself, eh?_ _Granny!_ Lizzie pointed to Agnes. _Well! That one thought she was going to get by on good looks. Thank fuck somebody_s got brains._ Lizzie crossed herself quickly. _I_ll gladly go up the confession for boasting._ _And swearing,_ said Catherine. Nan Flannigan did not look up from her cards. _Now that ye_re working, doll. First thing to do is open two bank accounts. One for when ye take a man. The other one for yersel. And never fuckin_ tell him about it, eh._ The women all murmured agreement at Nan_s wisdom. _So, no more school then, hen?_ asked Reeny. Catherine stole a sly glance at her mother. _No. No more school. We need the money._ _Aye. The state of the day_s world ye_ll be supporting any man ye do get._ The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work. Nan was growing impatient again. She rubbed her chapped hands together. _Listen, Catherine, I love ye, hen._ She sounded insincere. _When ye are our first Scottish space cadet I_ll be sure and pack ye some sandwiches for yer trip. Till then __ She motioned to the cards, then pointed to the door. _Fuck off._ Catherine slunk over to her mother and reluctantly took Shuggie from Agnes_s hip. Her little brother was fascinated by the plastic slider on his mother_s bra strap. _Is our Alexander in for the night?_ Agnes asked. _Uh-huh. I think so._ _What do you mean, you think so? Is Alexander in the bedroom or not?_ The bedroom was too small to misplace a lanky fifteen-year-old. It barely held the bunk beds for Catherine and Leek and the single bed for Shuggie. Still, Leek was a quiet soul, given to watching from the edges, capable of disappearing even when someone was talking to him. _Mammy, you know what Leek_s like. He might be._ That_s all she would say. Catherine spun on her heels, a whirling fan of chestnut hair, and as she carried Shuggie out of the room, she sank her fingernails into the soft of his thigh. More hands of cards were dealt, more menage money was lost, and Agnes kept the records on rotation even though no one was paying any mind. Predictably, coins started piling in front of Nan as the piles of the others got smaller. Agnes, with her drink in hand, began to spin alone on the carpeted floor. _Oh, oh, oh. This is my song, ladies. Get up, get up!_ Her twirling fingers implored them to their feet. The women rose one by one, the unlucky ones happy to step away from Nan_s conspicuous pile of silver. They danced happily in their new bras and old cardigans. The floor bounced under their weight. Nan spun around a shrieking Ann Marie until the two of them knocked into the edge of the low tea table. The women danced with abandon and took big mouthfuls of lager out of old tea mugs. All their movement became concentrated in the shoulders and hips, rhythmic and lusty, like the young girls they saw on television. It was a certainty that the poor skinny husbands they kept at home would be suffocated later that night. The women, smelling of vinegar and stout, would go home and climb on top of them. Giggling and sweating, yet feeling for a moment like fifteen-year-olds again in their new bras. They would strip to holey tights and unclasp their swinging tits. It would be drunk open mouths, hot red tongues, and heavy clumsy flesh. Pure Friday-night happiness. Lizzie didn_t dance. She had proclaimed herself off the drink. She and Wullie had tried to set a good example for the family. It had made her a bad Catholic to be tut-tutting at Agnes while enjoying a wee can or two herself. So she had stopped with the sweetheart stout and haufs of whisky, almost. Agnes looked over at her mammy sat with her cold mug of tea, and didn_t believe it for a minute. Sitting with a proud back, Lizzie_s eyes were still rheumy and damp-looking, her pink face clouded with a distant look. Agnes knew Wullie and Lizzie had taken to slipping out of the room when they thought no one was watching. They would get up from the dinner table on a Sunday or make one too many trips to the bathroom. In secret they would sit on the edge of their big double bed with their bedroom door closed and pull plastic bags out from underneath. Into an old mug they would pour the bevvy and drink it quickly and quietly in the dark like teenagers. They would come back to the kitchen table and clear their throats, their eyes happier and glassier, and everyone would pretend not to smell the whisky. You only had to watch her father try to eat his Sunday soup to tell if he had a drink in him or not. The record hissed to the end of the first side. Lizzie excused herself and wobbled off to the bathroom. Big Nan, thinking no one was looking, took the opportunity to peer slyly at Lizzie_s cards. Her eye caught a glint of unopened stout tins behind Wullie_s old comfy chair. _Jackpot!_ she shouted. _That auld yin has a hidden carry-oot stuck down the back o_ his chair!_ She sat down, sweaty and out of breath, and helped herself. Nan was here on business, staying a little soberer than the others. All night she had been closely counting the money on the card table, thinking about the bit of ham she could buy for Sunday_s soup and the money the weans would need for next week_s school. Now the card business was over, Nan was thirsty for the hidden stout. _Lizzie Campbell. That auld liar. She_s not aff the drink,_ said Reeny. _She_s as aff that drink as I_m aff the pies,_ said Nan, buttoning her cardigan tight over her new bra. She shouted for Lizzie_s benefit in the direction of the dark hallway. _I don_t know why I_m pals wi_ you robbing Catholic bastards anyhows!_ Nan took the stout and filled the mugs and glasses on the table; the drunker she could get them the better. Suddenly she was all business again. _So. Are we gonnae finish these cards or get the catalogue out? I_m tired o_ watching you auld wummin dance like youse are Pan_s People._ From a black leather handbag at her feet she pulled out a thick, dog-eared catalogue. Across the front cover it read Freemans, and there was a picture of a women in a lace dress and straw hat in a happy golden field somewhere far from here. She looked like her hair smelled of green apples. Nan opened the catalogue on top of the playing cards and flicked through a couple of pages. The noise of the plasticky paper was like a siren_s song. The women stopped throwing themselves around to the music and gathered around the open book, pressing greasy fingers on pictures of leather sandals and polyester nighties. They opened to a double spread of women riding bikes in pretty jersey dresses and cooed as one. At this Nan reached into her leather bag again and pulled out the handful of Bible-size payment books. There were groans all around. They were her pals, sure, but this was her job, and she had weans to feed. _Och, Nan, I_ve just no got it this week,_ said young Ann Marie, almost recoiling from the catalogue. Nan smiled and through closed teeth replied as politely as she was capable. _Aye, ye_ve fuckin_ goat it. An_ if ah have to dangle you out of the window by they fat ankles, you_ll be paying me the night._ Agnes smiled to herself and knew Ann Marie should have quit while she was ahead. But the young woman ploughed on. _It_s just that swimsuit doesnae actually fit._ _Yer arse! It fit when you goat it._ Nan searched through the grey books. She pulled the one that read _Ann Marie Easton_ in curly black biro and dropped it on the table. _It_s just my boyfriend said he_s no able to take me away on holiday anymair._ Ann Marie looked big-eyed from face to face for a trace of pity. The women couldn_t care less. The last holiday most of them had seen was a stay on the Stobhill maternity ward. _Too. Fuckin_. Bad. Pick. Better. Men. Pick. Better. Claes,_ Nan applied the pressure like she had a thousand times and went about collecting money from all the women and marking it in their books. It would be an eternity to pay off a pair of children_s school trousers or a set of bathroom towels. Five pounds a month would take years to pay off when the interest was added on top. It felt like they were renting their lives. The catalogue opened to a new page, and the women started fighting over who wanted what. Agnes was the first to lift her head at the change of pressure in the room. Shug was stood in the doorway, his thick money belt heavy in his hand. The damp wind was sucking through the room, telling Agnes that he had left the front door open, that he was not staying. Agnes stood and moved towards her husband, her dress still folded down at the waist. Too late she straightened her skirt, then she clasped her hands and tried to smile her soberest smile. He didn_t return her it. Shug simply looked through her in disgust and abruptly said, _Right, who needs a lift?_ The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell. The women started gathering their things. Nan slipped a couple of Lizzie_s hidden stouts into her bag. _Right, ladies! Next Tuesday up ma hoose,_ she barked, adding, for Shug_s benefit, _and any man who thinks he can break up ma catalogue night will get battered._ _Looking lovely as ever, Mrs Flannigan,_ said Shug, picking his thumbnail with the hackney key. Of all of the women to fuck, it would never be her. He had standards. _That_s nice of ye to say,_ replied Nan with a thin smile. _Why don_t ye shove yer arms up yer arse and gie yer insides a big hug from me._ Agnes pulled her velvet dress back over her shoulders. She stood still, her palms flat on her skirt. The women buttoned themselves into heavy coats and nodded politely to her as they squeezed uncomfortably past Shug, who still stood in the doorway. They all lowered their eyes, and Agnes watched as Shug smiled from under his moustache at each woman on her way out. He stepped aside only for the bulk of Nan. Shug was slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic. There was a directness to his gaze that did something funny to Agnes. She had once told her mother that when she met Shug he had a gleam in his eye that would make you take your clothes off if only he asked. Then she had said that he asked this a lot. Confidence was the key, she explained, for he was no oil painting and his vanity would have been sickening in a less charming man. Shug had the talent to sell it to you like it was the thing you wanted the worst. He had the Glasgow patter. He stood there, in his pressed suit and narrow tie, the leather taxi belt in his hand, and he coldly surveyed the departing women like a drover at a cattle auction. She had always known that Shug appreciated the very high and the very low of it; he saw an adventure in most women. There was something about how he could lower beautiful women, because he was never intimidated by them. He could make them laugh and feel flushed and grateful to be around him. He had a patience and a charm that could make plain women feel confident, like the loveliest thing that ever walked in flat shoes. He was a selfish animal, she knew that now, in a dirty, sexual way that aroused her against her better nature. It showed in the way he ate, how he crammed food into his mouth and licked gravy from between his knuckles without caring what anyone thought. It showed in how he devoured the women leaving the card party. These days it was showing too often. She had left her first husband to marry Shug. The first had been a Christmas Catholic, pious enough for the housing scheme but devout only to her. Agnes was better-looking than him in a way that made strange men feel hopeful for themselves and made women squint at his crotch and wonder what they had missed in Brendan McGowan. But there was nothing to miss; he was straightforward, a hard-working man with little imagination who knew how lucky he was to have Agnes and so he worshipped her. When other men went to the pub, he brought home his wages every week, the brown envelope still sealed, and handed it to her without argument. She had never respected that gesture. The contents of the envelope had never felt like enough. Big Shug Bain had seemed so shiny in comparison to the Catholic. He had been vain in the way only Protestants were allowed to be, conspicuous with his shallow wealth, flushed pink with gluttony and waste. Lizzie had always known. When Agnes had shown up on the doorstep with her two eldest and the Protestant taxi driver, she had had the instant compulsion to shut the door, but Wullie would not let her. Wullie had an optimism when it came to Agnes that Lizzie thought was a blindness. When Shug and Agnes finally got married, neither Wullie nor Lizzie went to the registry office. They said it was wrong, to marry between the faiths, to marry outside the Chapel. Really, it was Shug Bain she disliked. Lizzie had known it all along. Ann Marie was one of the last to leave, taking too long a time in gathering her cardigan and cigarettes, even though it was all there, exactly as she had dropped it when she arrived. She made to say something to Shug, but he caught her eye, and she held her tongue. Agnes watched their silent conversation. _Reeny, how you feeling, doll?_ asked Shug with a cat_s grin. Agnes turned her eyes from Ann Marie_s shadow and looked at her old friend, and her ribs broke anew. _Aye, fine thanks, Shug,_ Reeny answered awkwardly, all the while looking at Agnes. Agnes_s chest caved into her heart as Shug said, Filtered your coat, you_ll catch your death. I_ll drive you across the street._ _No. That_s too much bother._ _Nonsense._ He smiled again. _Any friend of our Agnes is a friend of mine._ _Shug, I_ll put your tea on, don_t be long,_ Agnes said, sounding more of a shrew than she wanted to. _I_m no hungry._ He quietly closed the door between them. The curtains became lifeless again. Reeny Sweeny lived at 9 Pinkston Drive in the tower block that stood shoulder to shoulder with number 16. The black hackney just needed to turn its neat pirouette, and Reeny would be home in less than a minute. Agnes sat down, lit a cigarette, and knew she would wait long hours before Shug showed his face again. She could feel the burn of Lizzie_s eyes on the side of her face. Her mother said nothing, she just glowered. It was too much to be trapped in your mother_s front room and judged by her, too much to have her be a front-row spectator to every ebb in your marriage. Agnes gathered her cigarettes and went along the short hallway to look in on her weans. The room was dark but for the focused beam of a camping torch. Leek was clutching it under his chin and drawing in a black sketchbook with a look of stillness on his face. He did not look up, and she could not see his grey eyes under the shade of his soft fringe. The room was warm and close with the breath of his sleeping siblings. Agnes folded some of the clothes that were strewn across the floor. She took the pencil from his hand and folded the book closed. _You_ll hurt your eyes, darling._ He was almost a man, far too old to kiss goodnight now, but she did so anyway and ignored it when he recoiled at the smell of heavy stout on her breath. Leek shone his torch on the single bed for her. Agnes checked on her youngest, drew the blanket tight under Shuggie_s chin. She wanted to waken him, thought about taking him to her bed, overwhelmed by a sudden need to have someone wrapped tight around her again. Shuggie_s mouth hung open in sleep, his eyelids flickering gently, too far away to be disturbed. Agnes closed the door quietly and went to her own room. She felt between the layers of the mattress and took out the familiar vodka bottle. Shaking the dregs, she poured herself a pauper_s mug, and then she sucked on the neck of the empty bottle and watched the city lights below. The first time Shug went missing after his night shift Agnes spent the dawn hours worrying the hospitals and all the drivers she knew from the taxi rank. Working through her black book, she called all of her female friends, asking casually how they were but not admitting that Shug was roaming, unable to admit to herself that he had finally done it. As the women gabbed about the routine of their lives she only listened to the noises beyond them and strained for any sounds of him in the room behind. Now she wanted to tell the women that she knew all about it. She knew about the sweaty taxi windows, his greedy hands, and how they must have panted at Shug to take them away from it all as he stuck his prick into them. It made her feel old and very alone. She wanted to tell them she understood. She knew all about its thrill, because once upon a time it had been her. Once upon a time the wind whipping off the sea had turned the front of her thighs blue with the cold, but Agnes couldn_t feel it because she had been happy. The thousand blinking lights from the promenade rained down on her, and she moved towards them with a slack mouth. She was so struck she hardly drew a breath. The black paillettes on her new dress reflected the bright lights and sent them back twinkling into the Fair Fortnight crowd till she looked as radiant as the illuminations herself. Shug lifted her and stood her on an empty bench. The lights were afire all along the waterfront for as far as her eye could travel. Every building was in competition with the next, blinking with a thousand gaudy bulbs of its own. Some were western saloon signs with galloping horses and winking cowboys, others were like the dancing girls of Las Vegas. She looked down on Shug, beaming up at her. He looked smart in his good, narrow black suit. He looked like he was somebody. _I can_t remember the last time you took me dancing,_ she said. _I can still trip the light fantastic._ He helped her gently back to the pavement and took a lingering squeeze of her soft middle. Shug could see the waterfront through her eyes, the tawdry glamour of the clubs and the adventure of the amusement halls. He wondered if this, too, would lose its shine for her. He took his suit jacket from his back and draped it over her shoulders. _Aye, the lights from Sighthill aren_t going to seem the same after this._ Agnes shivered. _Let_s not talk about home. Let_s just pretend we_ve run away._ They walked along the shimmering waterfront trying not to think of all the small, everyday things that pushed them apart, that kept them living in a high-rise flat with her mother and father snoring through the bedroom wall. Agnes watched the lights flash on and off. Shug watched the men swivel their greedy eyes to look at her and felt a sick pride burst in his chest. In the grey daylight of that morning she had seen the Blackpool seafront for the first time. Her heart had quietly broken in disappointment. Shabby buildings faced a dark, choppy ocean and a cold, stony beach where blue weans ran around in their underclothes. It was buckets and spades and pensioners in rain bonnets. It was day-tripping families from Liverpool and coachloads from Glasgow. He had meant it as a chance to be alone. She had bitten the inside of her cheek at the commonness of it all. Now, at night, she saw its draw. The true magic was in the illuminations. There wasn_t a surface that wasn_t glowing. The old trams that ran down the middle of the street were covered in lights, and the shaky wooden piers that jutted out into the brackish sea were now festooned like runways. Even the Kiss Me Quick hats blinked on and off as though demented with lust. Shug took her wrist and led her through the crowd and along the blazing promenade. Children were screaming from the waltzer ride on the pier. There was the roar and flash of the dodgem cars, the clink-clink of the manic slots. Shug kept pulling her through the crowds towards the Blackpool Tower, twisting this way and that in the habit of a taxi driver. _Darlin_, please slow down,_ she pleaded. The lights were all flying past her too quickly to drink in. She wrenched her wrist from his grasp, there was a red ring where he had gripped her. Shug was blinking and red-faced in the holiday crowd. He flushed with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. Strange men shook their heads as if they would have known how to handle this fine woman better. _You_re no starting, are you?_ Agnes rubbed at her arm. She tried to soften the frown on her face. She hooked his pinkie with hers, the gold of his Masonic ring felt cold and dead against her hand. _You were rushing me, that_s all. Just let me enjoy it. I feel like I never get out of the house._ She turned from him, back to the lights, but the magic was gone. They were cheap. Agnes sighed. _Let_s have a wee drink. It_ll take the chill off, maybe help us get back in the spirit of things._ Shug narrowed his eyes and ran his fist over his moustache like he was catching all the hard words he wanted to say to her. _Agnes. I_m begging you. Please can you take it slow the night?_ But she was already gone, over the tramlines towards the winking cowboy. _Howdy,_ said the barmaid in a thick Lancashire accent. _That_s a right purdy dress._ Agnes lifted herself up on to the swivelling plastic bar stool and crossed her ankles daintily. _A Brandy Alexander, please._ Shug turned the bar stool next to her, spun it like a top, till it was taller than hers. With a hop he pulled himself up and twisted until they were eye to eye. _A cold milk, please._ He drew two cigarettes out of a packet, and Agnes motioned for him to light one for her. The barmaid put the drinks down in front of them. The milk was in a child_s tumbler, and Shug pushed it back towards her and demanded a different glass. He slid the lit cigarette between Agnes_s lips and stroked the nape of her neck where a soft curl was escaping. She reached into her handbag and then, pushing the hair back into her crown, with a skoooosh she blasted it with sweet-smelling hairspray. Agnes took a long mouthful of the sweet drink and smacked her lips. _Elizabeth Taylor has been to Blackpool. I wonder if she likes whelks?_ Shug picked the inside of his nose with the ringed pinkie. He rolled the mucus between his thumb and forefinger. _Who doesnae?_ She spun to face him. _Maybe we should move here. It could be like this all the time._ He laughed and shook his head at her, like she was a child. _Everyday it is something different with you. I_m exhausted trying to keep up._ He traced a finger along the shiny hem of her skirt as she watched the summer crowds push by outside the bar. Ordinary folk, already in winter coats. _You know what I want? I want to play some bingo._ The warmth of the drink was in her now. She wrapped her arms around herself in a contented hug. _All these lights. I_m feeling lucky._ _Aye? I asked them to turn them on just for ye._ Fresh drinks came. Agnes fished around and pulled out the straw, the stirrer, and the two fat ice cubes. _This time I mean it. I_m going to win big. I_m going to start living. I_m going to give Sighthill a showing up. I can just feel it._ She finished the brandy in one swallow. Their rented room was at the top of a Victorian house that was set three streets back from the promenade. It was plain even for a Blackpool B and B, and it smelled like the kind of place that rented rooms to temporary lodgers, not families on holiday. Each carpeted landing had a different, settled-in musk. The place smelled of burnt toast and TV static, as if the landlady never liked to open a window. It was quiet at that hour in the morning. Agnes lay in a pile at the bottom of the carpeted stairs singing tunelessly to herself. _Ahh_m onny hew-man. Ahh_m just a wooh-man._ There were feet moving behind closed doors and old floorboards creaked overhead. Shug put his hand lightly over her mouth. _Shh. Be quiet, will ye. You_ll wake up every soul in the place._ Agnes pushed his arm away from her face, threw her arm wide, and sang louder. _Show me the stairwaa-ay ah have to cli-imb._ Lights came on in one of the rooms. Shug could see it from under the thin door. He put his hands under her arms and tried to pick her up, drag her up the carpeted stairs. The more he pulled the more easily she slid through his hands, like a boneless bag of flesh. Each time he got leverage, she would become formless and slip free. Agnes spilt back on to the stairs with a giggle and went on singing to herself. An Englishman in one of the rented rooms hissed through his closed door, _Keep it down. Before I call the poh-lice! People are trying to sleep._ To Shug he sounded like a small effeminate man, the way he dribbled out his sibilant esses. Shug would have liked him to open the door. Shug would have liked to leave a sovereign print on his face. Agnes feigned affront. _Aye, phone the police you spoilsport. I_m on my holid__ Shug clamped his hand tight over her wet mouth. She only giggled. With mischief in her eyes, she licked the inside of his palm with a fat tongue. It felt like a warm wet slab of flank mutton. It turned his stomach. Tightening his grip, he dug his ringed fingers into her cheeks till he forced her dentures apart. The smile left her eyes. Leaning his face close to hers, he hissed: _I_m only going to tell you this the once. Pick yersel up. Get yersel up they stairs._ Slowly he took his hand away from her face. There was a pink mark where he had squeezed her jaw. There was fear in her eyes, and she looked almost sober again. As he drew his hand away, the fear melted from her eyes and the demon drink came back into her face. She spat at him through the ceramic teeth. _Who the fuck do you think y__ Shug was on her before she could finish. Stepping over her, he reached backwards into her hair. The hardened hairspray cracked like chicken bones as he wound his fingers into the strands. With a tug hard enough to rip handfuls out by the roots, he started up the stairs, dragging her behind him. Agnes_s legs splayed awkwardly, she flailed like a clumsy spider as she tried to find her footing. The ripping pain stung her skull, and she wrapped her hands around his arm for purchase. Shug barely felt the sharpness of her nails as she pierced his skin. He pulled her up a stair, then he pulled her up another, and then another. The dirty carpet burnt her back, rubbed the skin from her neck, ripped the paillettes from her shiny dress. Hooking his thick arm under her chin he dragged her across the next carpeted landing. In one motion he dropped her at the door, fished out the key, turned on the bare light, and dragged her inside. Agnes lay abandoned behind the door like a ragged draught excluder. The beaded dress had worked itself up her white legs. Her hand reached to her head, feeling for where her hair had started to tear. Shug crossed the room and pulled her hand away, suddenly embarrassed at what he had done. _Stop touching at yourself. I_ve no hurt you._ She could feel the blood of her scalp on her fingers. Her ears were ringing from the bump, thump, bump of each stair. The numbness of the drink was leaving her. _Why did you do that?_ _You were making a show of me._ Shug took off his black suit jacket and laid it over the single wooden chair. He took off the black tie and wound it neatly upon itself. His face was flushed red, and it made his eyes look somehow smaller and darker. While he_d dragged her upstairs his hair had come undone from the bald patch he tried hard to conceal. The loosened strands hung by his left ear, thin and ratty-looking. There was a cluck in the back of his throat, like a switch firing, and then his hands were on her again. She felt the claw on her neck, felt it on her thigh. He used his fingers and dug into her softness, wanting to be sure he had a firm grip. As flesh separated from bone she cried out from the pain, and he hammered his sovereign ring twice into her cheek. When she was quiet again, Shug bent over and dug his nails into her shoulder and thigh and threw her on to the rented bed like a burst bin bag. He climbed on top of her. His face was a blazing shade of scarlet, his limp hair swinging free from his swollen head. It was as though he was filling with boiling blood. Using his elbows he pushed all his weight on to her arms, shoved them into the mattress until they felt like they might snap. He took the bulk of himself, all the driving weight he had gained from being so sedentary, and pushed it into her and pinned her there below him. With his right hand he reached below her dress and found the soft white parts of her. She crossed her legs below him; he felt the ankles lock one over the other. With his free hand he gripped her thighs and tried to pull the dead weight of them apart. There was no giving. The lock was tight. He dug his fingers into the soft tops of her legs, digging the nails in until he felt the skin burst, until he felt her ankles open. He pushed into her as she wept. There was no drink in her now. There was no fight in her any more. When he was done he put his face against her neck. He told her he would take her dancing in the lights again tomorrow. Three That summer, when it finally came, was close and damp. For a nocturnal man, the days had felt too long. The long daylight was like an inconsiderate guest, the northern gloam reluctant to leave. Big Shug always found the summer days hardest to sleep through. The sun brightened the thick curtains till they were a vibrating violet, and the children were always noisiest when they were happiest, the door going constantly with mouthy teenagers from other flats and women in strappy sandals traipsing the hall carpet, clacking pink feet and pink gums at all hours. As night finally fell, Big Shug pulled his black hackney round in a small tight circle. It spun like a fat dog chasing its tail and headed out of the Sighthill estate. Seeing the lights of Glasgow, he relaxed back into the seat, and for the first time that day his shoulders fell from around his ears. For the next eight hours the city was his, and he had plans for it. He wiped the window and got a good look in the wing mirror. Smiling to himself, he thought how smashing he looked: white shirt, black suit, black tie. It was a bit much for work, Agnes had said, but then she said altogether too much these days. As the smile travelled through his body he wondered whether taxi driving was in his blood. Between him and his brother Rascal it was practically a family business. His father would have enjoyed it too, had the shipbuilding not killed him. Shug pulled up at the lights under the shadow of the Royal Infirmary and watched a gaggle of nurses smoke a crafty fag. He watched them rub their pink arms in the cold night air and shelf their tits over tight-folded arms. They smoked without using their hands, afeart of losing any body heat. He smiled slowly and watched himself react in the mirror. Night shift definitely suited him best. He liked to roam alone in the darkness, getting a good look at the underbelly. Out came the characters shellacked by the grey city, years of drink and rain and hope holding them in place. His living was made by moving people, but his favourite pastime was watching them. The thin driver_s window made a sharp slicing sound as he slid it down and lit a cigarette. The wind came rushing in, and his long strands of thin hair danced like beach grass in the breeze. He hated going bald, hated getting old; it made everything hard work. He adjusted the mirror lower so that he couldn_t see the reflection of his bare head. He found his long, thick moustache and sat absent-mindedly stroking it, like a favourite pet. Under it his spare chin wobbled. He tilted the mirror back up. The Glasgow streets were shiny with rain and street lights. The infirmary nurses didn_t linger, flicking half-smoked fags into the puddles and tottering back inside. Shug sighed and turned the taxi past Townhead and pointed down towards the city centre. He liked the drive from Sighthill, it was like a descent into the heart of the Victorian darkness. The closer you got to the river, the lowest part of the city, the more the real Glasgow opened up to you. There were hidden nightclubs tucked under shadowy railway arches, and blacked-out windowless pubs where old men and women sat on sunny days in a sweaty, pungent purgatory. It was down near the river that the skinny, nervous-faced women sold themselves to men in polished estate cars, and sometimes it was here that the polis would later find chopped up bits of them in black bin bags. The north bank of the Clyde housed the city mortuary, and it seemed fitting that all the lost souls were floating in that direction, so as to be no trouble when their time blessedly came. Pulling past the station, Shug was glad the rank there was full of taxis and empty of punters. Tourists were dull, talkative, and fucking cheap. They_d be an eternity lugging massive cases into the back and then would sit there steaming up the taxi in squeaky Pac-a-Macs. Those ugly tight-arsed bastards could shove their ten-pence tips. He gave a snide toot to the boys and drove on lower towards the river. Rain was the natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial. Its effect on the taxi business was negligible. It was a problem because it was mostly inescapable and the constant dampness was pervasive, so fares might as well sit damp on a bus as damp in the back of an expensive taxi. On the other hand, rain meant that the young lassies from the dancing all wanted to take a taxi home so as not to ruin their stiff hair or their sharp shoes. For that Shug was in favour of the endless rain. He pulled up Hope Street and sat at the rank. It shouldn_t be long. Only two or three of the old boys were sat there, waiting for a hire. From here it was a short stoat from the dancing on Sauchiehall Street or a frozen trot for the working girls pitched out on Blythswood Square. Either way, it was a good spot for an interesting night. Shug sat smoking in the dreich and listened to the crackle of the CB radio. The lady dispatcher announced fares up in Possil and runs to be had down in the Trongate. Joanie Micklewhite was the only voice on the radio, and every night he listened to her hold this repetitive circular monologue asking for help, waiting for answers, giving orders, and bluffing any backchat. Always only half a conversation, like she was talking to herself or talking, it seemed, only to him. He liked the peaceful sound of her voice. He took a comfort from it. He finished his cigarette and watched young couples huddle together as they left the late picture. The drivers in front slowly started to pull fares and rattle off into the night. Alone at the head of the rank, he watched a group of young lassies dribble chips on to the street as they had a fight over how they should get home. It looked like they_d get in the taxi, but no, the fat practical one wanted to wait for the night bus. Leave her, he thought, let her get wet. The prettiest, most guttered one was still stumbling towards him. Shug practiced his smile in the half-light. He was dragged from his dirty thoughts as a set of bony knuckles rapped on the window. _Ye fur hire, pal?_ said a man_s voice. _No!_ shouted Shug, pointing in the direction of the wrecked girls. _Right, then,_ said the old man, not paying any heed. He opened the door before Shug could hit the automatic lock and pulled his small frame and voluminous coats inside. _Dae ye ken the Rangers bar on Duke Street?_ Shug sighed, _Aye, pal,_ as the pretty girl slid along the queue to the taxi behind his. He gave her a half-smile, but she paid him no mind. Ignoring the black leather seat that ran the width of the taxi, the old man pulled down a folding seat and sat directly behind Shug. This was the sign of a talker. Here we fuckin_ go, thought Shug. It was wet outside but humid inside the cab. The hackney filled with the smell of old milk. The old man sat in a yellowed shirt and a crumpled grey suit, over which he had piled a thin wool coat and on top of this had added an oversize topcoat. It gave him the look of a refugee, his tiny frame drowning in yards of Shetland wool and gabardine. On his head he wore a Harris bunnet, from the shadows of which only his red round nose protruded. The patter started almost immediately. _Did ye see the game the day, son?_ asked the milky passenger. _No,_ answered Shug, already knowing where this was headed. _Aw, ye missed a great game, a bloody great game._ The man was tutting to himself. _Who do ye support then?_ _Celtic,_ he lied. He was no Catholic, but it was the shortcut to ending the conversation. The auld man_s face crumpled like a dropped towel. _Oh, fur fuck_s sake, might_ve known ah_d get in a Pape_s taxi._ Shug watched him in the mirror and snorted under his moustache. He didn_t support Celtic; he didn_t support the Rangers either, but he was proud to be a Protestant. He would have turned his Masonic ring around, but the old man was paying no heed and moving like he was underwater. Bemused, Shug watched as the man worked himself up into a state of distracted despair, swinging from lachrymose to belligerent. He held his hands in front of him like he was pleading with God. Then he laid his arm across the back of the partition and brought his face inches from the glass separating him from Shug_s ear. Wet-lipped with the drink, he was spitting out random streams of patter, making faces like a toddler learning to talk. Big globs of wet spit misted the partition. Shug deliberately tapped the brakes, and the man_s forehead made a thunk sound as it skelped off the glass. Bunnetless but undeterred, he kept on with his rambling. Shug frowned. He_d have to give that a good wipe later. The auld Glasgow jakey was a dying breed_a traditionally benign soul that was devolving into something younger and far more sinister with the spread of drugs across the city. Shug looked in the mirror and watched the man continue his drunken solo, the conversation so low and incoherent that he could pick out only certain words like Thatcher and union and bastard. With no feelings of sympathy, he watched as the man laughed and then sobbed at intervals. The Louden Tavern sat dark and windowless, the door well recessed into the brick face of the low building. It was by design rock-proof, bottle-proof, and bomb-proof. The facade, painted with the red, white, and blue of the Glasgow Rangers, was gloriously defiant in the shadow of Parkhead, the home of Glasgow Celtic, the sporting Mecca of all Catholics. Shug told the man the fare was a pound seventy and watched him ferret in one pocket after another. All the Glasgow jakeys did this. Their Friday wages were splintered by every bar they passed till they rolled around in pockets as five and ten pence in change, the cumulative weight of the heavy small coins giving them a waddling walk and a hump. They would live on the coins for the rest of the week, taking their chances with their random findings. Even in sleep they were never to be separated from their trousers and large coats for fear their wives or children would tip them out first and buy bread and milk with the shrapnel. The man was an age looking in every pocket. Shug listened to the soft voice on the CB and tried to stay calm. By the time the jakey had paid and sailed into the dark mouth of the pub Shug was thundering back along Duke Street, trying not to miss the dancing letting out. Outside the Scala an auld dear stuck her hand out, waving it like a small bird. Shug had to stop short or run her over. He watched her climb into the back of the taxi and felt relieved when she sat square in the centre of the wide black seat. _The Parade, please._ She sniffed, wrinkled her nose, and looked scornfully at Shug. It must have smelled like someone pissed in a pot of old porridge back there. The taxi started climbing the tenemented hills of Dennistoun. Shug looked in the mirror and watched the woman, who was watching him. The Glasgow housewives always sat square in the middle, never to the side looking out of the window or on one of the fold-down seats like the lonely old men who were hungry for company. She sat as they all did, upright and rigid, like a Presbyterian queen, knees together, back straight, with her hands clasped on her lap. Her coat was pulled close around herself, her hair was set and brushed, even in the back, and her face was set tight like a mask. _It_s a wild terrible night, right enough,_ she said finally. _Aye, the radio said it would piss all week._ There was something about the woman that reminded him of his own mother, dead and gone. The raw hands and tiny frame belied the strength and power that surely ran through her. He thought of the nights his father would raise his fist on his mother. The more she took it the more he rained down on her, turning her red then blue then black. Shug thought about her at the mirror, pulling her hair over her face, pushing her make-up wider around her eyes to cover the bruises. _Ah wis just saying I don_t usually get a taxi._ She was searching for his eyes in the mirror. _Oh, aye?_ said Shug, glad to have his thoughts interrupted. _Aye, but I_ve had a wee win the night, you see. Just a wee one, mind, but it_s nice all the same._ She was rubbing her thumbnail raw. _It_ll come in right handy, you see, now that my George is out of work,_ she sighed. _Twenty. Five. Years. Out at the Dalmarnock Iron Works, and all he got was three weeks_ wages. Three weeks! I went up there maself, chapped on the big red gaffer_s door, and I telt him what he could dae with three weeks_ wages._ She opened the clasp on her small hard bag and looked inside. _Do you know what that big bastard telt me? _Mrs Brodie, your husband was lucky to get three weeks. I have some young boys wi_ their whole lives ahead o_ them and they only got paid till the end of their shift._ Made my blood absolutely boil so_in, it did. I said to him, _Well, I_ve got two grown boys at home to feed, and they cannae find any work either, so just what do you suppose I do about that?_ He looked at me and he didnae even blink when he said, _Try South Africa!__ She closed the bag. _They_ve never even been to South Lanarkshire, never mind South Africa!_ She kept rubbing her red thumb. _It_s no right. The government should dae something. Shutting down the ironworks and shipbuilding. It_ll be the miners next. Just you watch! South Africa! I never! Go all the way to South Africa so they can build cheap boats there and send them home to put more of our boys out of work? The shower of swine._ _It_s diamonds,_ Shug offered. _They go to South Africa to mine diamonds._ The woman looked as if he had contradicted her. _Well I don_t care what they mine, they could be pulling licorice out a black man_s arse for all I care. But they should be working here at home in Glasgow and eating their mammy_s cooking._ Shug put his foot on the accelerator. The city was changing; he could see it in people_s faces. Glasgow was losing its purpose, and he could see it all clearly from behind the glass. He could feel it in his takings. He had heard them say that Thatcher didn_t want honest workers any more; her future was technology and nuclear power and private health. Industrial days were over, and the bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springburn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs. Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity. Shug had watched the thinning out of the working classes from their poor neighbourhoods. Middle-class civil servants and city planners had seen it a stroke of genius to ring the city with new towns and cheaply built estates. Given a patch of grass and a view of the sky, the city_s ills were supposed to disappear. The woman sat stiff and still on the back seat. The skin was wearing off around her thumbs, and worry sat around the corners of her mouth. Only when she patted the back of her hair did Shug know she was still alive. The taxi dropped her at the mouth of her close, and she pushed a pound tip into Shug_s hand. _Here, what_s this?_ He tried to pass it back. _I_m no needin_ that._ _Gies peace!_ she shushed. _It_s just a wee bit of my winnings. I_m spreading my luck around. Luck_s the only thing that_s gonnae get us out of this mess._ Shug took the tip reluctantly. Fuck the English tourists and their bastarding Kodaks. Shug had seen it before, those with least to give always gave the most. By the time Shug got back to the city centre the last picture had let out and the city was settling in for a few hours of cold sleep. Some of the late-night clubs were banging out music, but it was suicide to sit outside them waiting for a fare because the first drunks wouldn_t be spilling out till well after midnight. Shug sighed and thought about waiting around. Maybe he_d pick up a bird who_d been left holding all the Babycham while her pals danced with some fellas. The ugliest bird usually left first. He_d driven them home before, even waited with the meter off while they got some consoling bags of crisps and chocolate biscuits from the corner Paki. If you talked nice to them they were dead nice back. He had loosened his tie and settled in for the long wait when the soft voice came over the radio. _Car thirty-one. Car thirty-one. Come in._ His heart sank. It was Agnes, it had to be. He picked up the black reciever and pressed the button on the side. _Car thirty-one here._ There was a long pause, and he waited for the news. _You_ve been requested up at Stobhill, car for Easton,_ said Joanie Micklewhite. _I_ve got a fare, and I_m taking them out to the airport. Do you no have a car closer?_ he asked. _Sorry, sunshine! You_ve been specially requested._ He could almost hear the smile. _Punter said to take your time, there was no rush._ He hadn_t thought it_d be this. Agnes surely, or even his first wife after money for their four weans, but he hadn_t thought it would be this. They weren_t there yet, surely? The drive up to the old hospital was quick this time of night. The Royal Infirmary was where the football stabbings and giro-day domestics went. Stobhill was where Glasgow was born and where Glasgow died. Now a mousy girl was stood there in the glow from the foyer, wearing a blue cleaner_s apron. She clawed at her saggy tights and wriggled them straight and flat. Her make-up had spread from the cold and the tears, and he could see the ring of burnt doubts at her feet, like she must_ve been waiting in the cold for him her whole break. Shug smiled. She was only twenty-four and already his doormat. _I didnae think you were coming,_ she said, climbing into the back of the taxi. _What did you call me out here fur?_ _I missed ye, that_s all,_ she said. _I haven_t seen ye in weeks._ She rolled her thick legs open and shut coquettishly. _You_ve no gone off o_ me, have ye?_ She grinned. Shug turned in his seat. _Who the fuck do ye think ye are, Ann Marie? I_m tryin_ to make a livin_, and ye call me across the city like I wis a dog that pissed on yer carpet._ He slammed the heel of his fist on the glass partition. _We have to be discreet. Cool like. What the fuck do you think would happen if Agnes found out, eh? I_ll tell you what would happen. She_d get a haud of you by the scruff of yer neck and drag the length of the Clyde wi_ ye for starters. When she was done dragging yer body she would drag yer good name. She_d phone yer parents every night just after they_d gone to their beds. She_d wake them up and tell them that their good wee Catholic girl was carrying on with a married man._ He paused, watching his words take effect. _Is that really what you want?_ The tears were running down her face and pooling on her apron. _But ah love ye._ Shug pulled the taxi in a sharp arc and parked in a dark corner of the empty car park. He glanced at his watch and then met her gaze again in the mirror. _Aye, well, take yer fucking knickers off then. I_ve only got five minutes._ Shug felt hungry as he headed back into the city. He was certain Ann Marie wouldn_t call the rank for him for a while. She was a nice lassie, heavy tits and eager too, but she was cramping his style. That was the problem with the young ones; they saw no reason to not expect better for themselves. She_d definitely have to go. He was just thinking of the voice on the radio when it spoke to him again. _Car thirty-one, car thirty-one, come in._ He picked up the receiver and held his breath; he was running out of luck. _Joanie?_ _Phone. Home. Now,_ came the terse reply. He pulled the hackney over at the mouth of Gordon Street, and clipping coins out of his dispenser he made a quick dash through the rain to an old red phone box. It was wet on the inside and smelled like piss. He had tried ignoring Agnes_s orders before, but that just made things more difficult. She would be insistent and get more abusive as the night wore on. The best thing to do was Phone. Home. Now. It barely rang once before it was answered. She would have been sat at the pleather phone table in the hall, just drinking and waiting and drinking. _Hell-o,_ said the voice. _Agnes, what is it?_ _Well, if it isn_t the chief hoor-master himself._ _Agnes,_ Shug sighed. _What is it this time?_ _I know,_ spat the drunken voice. _Know what?_ _Know. Everything._ _You_re no making any sense._ He shifted uncomfortably in the tight phone box. _I knoo-ow._ The voice boomed, her wet lips too close to the mouthpiece. _If you_re gonnae keep this up, I_m gonnae have to get back to work._ There was a deep sob on the end of the phone. _Agnes, you cannae phone the rank any more, I_ll get the sack. I_ll be home in a few hours, and we can talk then. OK?_ But there was no answer. _Well, do you want to know what I know? I know I love you,_ he lied. The sobbing got louder. Shug hung up. The rain and piss had soaked through his tasselled brogues. Picking up the black receiver again, he hammered it against the side of the red booth. He knocked out three panes of glass before the receiver broke, before he felt better. Back in the taxi he had to sit still for ten minutes until his knuckles would let go of the choke they had on the steering wheel. Maybe he would feel better if he ate something. He fished around under his seat for his plastic piece box. It smelled like margarine and white bread, like marriage and cramped flats. The corned beef pieces Agnes had packed turned his stomach. He dumped them into the gutter and cut up several side streets till he pulled up in front of DiRollo_s chippy, open twenty-four hours, bog-standard. DiRollo_s was popular with both cabbies and prostitutes because of the unsociable hours and the discretion of its owner. There was a big red lobster painted on the sign, but nothing as exotic on offer inside. Joe DiRollo stood behind the counter, as he seemed to do every hour of the day. At night the fluorescent light made him look deceased. A small man, hair thin and slicked back off his face, with chip grease or Brylcreem or both. Like an oily iceberg only his swollen head and shoulders were visible above the counter. The rest of his sallow bulk was squished up against the machete he kept under the counter. He greeted everyone with a phlegmy clearing of the throat and tilting of his fat head. _How ye doin_, Joe?_ asked Shug, with no genuine interest. _Aye, no so bad._ _Been busy with our fair ladies the night?_ Shug shoved his thumb in the direction of a gaunt-looking customer who, eyes closed, was swaying on her feet. _Ehhhh, they been a-cumming and a-going, you know?_ He laughed at his own joke. _No_ so good for business any more. They eat half a bag of chips, drink a ginger, that_s it! They ask to use the toilet, my own toilet, and auld Joe says, OK. He_s a nice guy, but they don_t come out for an hour, you know. They eat a half a bag of chips, and then they wash their cunts in my toilet._ Shug was eyeing the fried fish in the hot counter. _It_s the drugs. I widnae dare stick it in them any more._ _Aye, they_re dropping like flies. If the drugs are no doing them in, then some bad bastard_s choking the life out of them._ _You_ll put me aff ma whelks._ Shug pulled a tight face. _Gies a fish supper, extra salt and vinegar, would ye?_ Joe took the white paper and dropped a heaped scoop of fat chips and a big bit of golden battered fish on it. He drizzled the hot food with salt and vinegar, and Shug circled with his fingers. _Mair, Joe. Mair._ The man piled it on till it was sodden. He handed Shug his parcel. _So, you never give me an answer to my offer. You want the wee house or no?_ As well as running the chippy, Joe DiRollo was famous for grifting the Glasgow City Council. He signed up for subsidized flats under the guise of one of his many daughters. Then he rented them along, skimming an extra tenner a week over what the council originally charged him. _I_ll let you know,_ Shug said, backing out the door. _Mrs Bain, well, she_s difficult._ _I_m surprised you want to move at all. Thought you would be living like a king up there in that Sighthill sky._ _The King is fine; it_s the Queen that wants a beheading. Just hold on to that empty house of yours a while longer. There_s a lot that has to be lined up first. I want it all to go perfect._ He smiled and bit into a fat chip. By the time Shug finished the last of the whelks there was only an hour or so left on the clock. He rolled down the windows as the sun broke the top of George Square, bathing the city in a warm orange light and setting the statue of Rabbie Burns on fire. It was the best time of day, the city at peace, before it got ruined by the diurnal masses. He watched the clock in anticipation and set off early for the North Side. Driving slowly all the way to Joanie Micklewhite, he left the windows down and flicked the green air freshener with his forefinger. She would finish her shift soon, and then they could say all the things they could not over the CB radio. He pulled the taxi in tight amongst four or five others and waited for her, slumped forward in his seat, grinning like a daft boy, watching the front door like it was Christmas. Four They were both still damp and sitting on the edge of the bed when the evening street lights came on. Agnes had run Shuggie a deep bath, and then, feeling lonely, she_d climbed in beside her youngest. Lizzie would_ve had a fit if she had seen. It would have to stop soon, he was too canny for five. It was the first time he_d looked at her privates and then considered his own, like a spot-the-difference puzzle. The water had grown cold as they made a great game of filling the shampoo bottles and then soaking each other with the soapy jet. She let him scrape at the old nail polish on her toes, his care and attention feeling like a penny dropped in an empty meter. At the edge of her bed, she combed the boy_s glossy black hair, as his head lowered in concentration. He made the Matchbox car squeal through the paisley maze of bedspread, it climbed over her bare leg as easily as the Campsie hills. Without knowing what he was looking at, he traced the white scars, the memories of Shug_s fingernails, that lined the inside of her thigh. Then the car careened back to the bedspread. The tyres would scream loudly, and the boy would look up at her and smile with the self-satisfied face of his father. Agnes drew a fresh can of lager from a hidden place and gently pulled at the ring top. With a careful finger she gathered the bubbly drips and popped them into her mouth. She gave the boy the empty Tennent_s can. He had always liked the half-naked beauties photographed on the side. Shuggie was intent on this one, he hadn_t seen her before, and he liked the way her name sounded when he spelt it out slowly, just like his Granda Wullie had taught him. Shh-hee-nah. Shuggie would collect the empty cans from around the house and line up the women on the edge of the bath. He would stroke their tinny hair and make them talk to each other in imagined conversations, rambling monologues, mostly about ordering new shoes from catalogues and whoring husbands. Big Shug had caught him once. He had watched proudly as Shuggie lined up the women and spelt out each of their names phonetically. He bragged about it later down the rank. _Five years old, eh!_ he would say. _What a chip aff the auld block._ Agnes had looked on sadly, knowing what was really going on. Later that week she took Shuggie into the BHS and bought him a baby doll. Daphne was a chubby little toddler, with the tufted coif of a fifties housewife. Shuggie loved the doll. He put all his lager ladies in the bin after that. Shuggie had been watching his mother quietly. He was always watching. She had raised three of them in the same mould, every single one of her children was as observant and wary as a prison warden. _Howse aboots some light entertainment?_ he asked, mimicking some nonsense from the telly. Agnes flinched. With her painted nails she cupped his face and squeezed his dimples gently. She pushed until the boy_s bottom lip protruded. _Ab-oww-t,_ she corrected. _Ab-OU-t._ He liked the feeling of her hands on his face, and he cocked his head slightly and baited her. _Ab-ooo-t._ Agnes frowned. She took her index finger and pushed it into his mouth, hooking his lower teeth. She gently pulled his jaw open, and held it down. _There_s no need to sink to their level, Hugh. Try it again._ With her finger in his mouth, Shuggie pronounced it correctly if not clearly. It had the round, proper oww sound that she liked. Agnes nodded her approval and let go of his lip. _Dus that mean the wee mooose wisnae loose aboot the hooose?_ He was giggling before he could even finish the cheeky nonsense. Agnes hunkered down to chase him, and he squealed with happiness and terror as he raced around the bed. A pile of cassettes sat next to the alarm clock. He raked through them, scattering them to the floor until he landed on the one he was after. Shug had bought the alarm clock for her. He had saved bricks of petrol coupons, rubber-banded together, and handed them to her like they were gold bullion. The plastic button released the cassette drawer. Shuggie punched the tape in and rewound it, screaming, to the beginning. It sounded tinny and hollow on the alarm clock, but she didn_t care. The music made the room feel less empty. Shuggie stood on the bed and put his arms on her shoulders. They swayed that way for a while. She kissed his nose. He kissed her nose. As the song changed, Shuggie watched his mother clutch the can to her chest and spin around the room. Agnes screwed her eyes shut and went back to a place where she felt young and hopeful and wanted. Back to the Barrowland, where strange men would follow her hungrily across the ballroom and women would drop their eyes in jealousy. With fingers unfurling like a beautiful fan, she ran her hand over her body. Just above her hips, she touched the stubborn roll of fat she had earned from birthing her three weans. Suddenly her eyes opened, and she returned from the past, feeling rotten and stupid and lumpy. _I hate this wallpaper. I hate those curtains and that bed and that fucking lamp._ Shuggie rose to his stockinged feet on the soft bedspread. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and tried to cling to her again, but this time she pushed him away. The small flat was never quiet, the walls were too thin. There was always the drone of the big telly turned up too loud for her father. The low complaints of Catherine, with the telephone pulled into her bedroom, the cord saw-sawing the good veneer off the bottom of the door as she paced and moaned about the slights of being seventeen. There were neighbours on every side and on the sixteenth floor, the wind, always the pulsing wind, rattling against the ill-fitted windows. Agnes put her head in her hands. She listened to her parents roar with laughter at some effeminate English comedian. Her eldest two were out, who knows where. They always seemed to be gone now, ducking her kisses, rolling their eyes at everything she said. She ignored Shuggie_s light breathing, and for a moment it was like she was not nearly forty, not a married woman with three children. She was Agnes Campbell again, stuck in her bedroom, listening to her parents through the wall. _Dance for me,_ she said suddenly. _Let_s have a wee party._ She stabbed at the alarm clock, and the cassette squealed forward, the slow sad music speeding up to something happier. Shuggie lifted her lager can. He put it to his lips like it was a magical power juice. The bitter oaty flavour made him flinch, the way it tasted like fizzy ginger, milk, and porridge all at the same time. He danced for her, stepping side to side and clicking his fingers and missing every beat. When she laughed, he danced harder. He did whatever had caused her to laugh another dozen times till her smile stretched thin and false, and then he searched for the next move that would make her happy. He bounced and flung his arms out as she laughed and clapped. The happier she looked, the harder he wanted to spin and flail. The vibrating patterned wallpaper threatened to make him sick, but he kept going, punching the air and rattling his hips. Agnes threw her head back in peals of laughter, and the sadness was gone from her eyes. Shuggie snapped his fingers like a hardman and jutted his head, still missing the beat. It didn_t matter. They were both breathless from laughing when they heard it. In the hallway the front door opened and closed. It was more a sucking of wind and a contracting of space than a noise. Heavy footsteps came slowly up the carpet to the bedroom door. Agnes gathered the spent lager cans and hid them on the far side of the bed. She twisted the rings upright on her fingers and, turning expectantly to the door, she practiced her most lighthearted smile. The heavy footsteps stopped outside. Agnes and Shuggie listened to the soft chink-clink of small change in a trouser pocket. Then there was a low sigh, and the footsteps passed on down the hallway to the living room. He was home for his first tea break. It should have been a time to spend together. Now she listened to Shug say hello to her parents, his voice flat and without warmth. Agnes knew her father would have looked up, the television reflected on his glasses, and smiled. There would be a moment when Wullie would have stood and offered Shug the comfy armchair. Both men would have circled it, in an awkward game of musical chairs, until Shug put his hand on Wullie_s shoulder and lowered him back into the seat. Lizzie, stony-faced, would have stood to boil the ketttle and shivered likely, as though it was not Shug but the cold Campsie wind itself that had arrived. Agnes listened to it all through the wall. In a single sweep, she caught the creams and perfume bottles on her dresser and sent them across the room. The lamp lay broken on its side. The bare bulb glaring up at her changed her features so completely that it scared Shuggie. Everything had turned upside down so quickly. Agnes sank to the edge of the bed. Shuggie could feel her can of lager spill on to the mattress and start to soak through his socks. Burying her face in his hair, she sobbed her dry, frustrated tears; her breath was clammy against his neck. Falling back on the bed, she pulled him down beside her. As she gripped him, he could see her face was lopsided, the paint on her eyes was blurred and running away. It looked like the lager beauties sometimes did, a careless printer and a misaligned screen, and suddenly the woman was no longer whole, just a mess of different layers. Agnes reached across the mattress for her cigarettes, she lit one and sucking loudly, she coaxed the end into a blazing copper tip. She looked at the light for a moment, and her voice cracked with the poor me_s as she sang along with the cassette. Her right arm extended gracefully, and she held the glowing cigarette against the curtains. Shuggie watched as the ash started to smoulder and then gave off a grey smoke. He started to squirm as the smoke burst with a gasp into orange flame. Agnes used her free arm and pulled him tighter towards her. _Shhh. Now be a big boy for your mammy._ There was a dead calmness in her eyes. The room turned golden. The flames climbed the synthetic curtains and started rushing towards the ceiling. Dark smoke raced up as though fleeing from the greedy fire. He would have been scared, but his mother seemed completely calm, and the room was never more beautiful, as the light cast dancing shadows on the walls and the paisley wallpaper came alive, like a thousand smoky fishes. Agnes clung to him, and together they watched all this new beauty in silence. The curtains were almost gone, they dripped like ice cream on to the carpet. Some of the wallpaper that had come loose around the damp window was alight, and the plastic curtain track melted in two and swung down like a broken bridge. A large bead of bubbling curtain landed on the corner of the bed, and the smoke grew around them. Shuggie started to squirm again. He couldn_t stop coughing. A dark cough, sticky and bitter, like the time one of Lizzie_s bingo pens had burst ink into his mouth. Agnes never moved, she just closed her eyes and sang her sad song. Big Shug stood framed in the darkness of the doorway. As fresh oxygen entered the room the flames ran across the ceiling to greet him. He was on and over the bed and had the window open in an instant. With his bare hands he pushed the burning polyester out the window. He picked the largest pieces of melted magma off the floor and threw them after the flaming fabric. Suddenly he was gone again, and Shuggie cried out for his father, certain he had left them alone. When Shug returned he was swinging wet bath towels. They sprayed sour water each time they found their mark and the flames died under them. Shug turned to the bed and slapped the damp wet towels across the tangled bodies. Shuggie tried not to cry out as the whipping stung his skin. Agnes lay stiff, her eyes closed. When the last of the flames had died Shug stood with his back to his wife and son. Through stinging eyes Shuggie watched his father_s shoulders shake with anger, and when he turned around Shuggie could see that his face was flushed with the heat and his fingers were curled, scarlet and sore where he had burnt them. Lizzie and Wullie stood in the darkness of the hallway. Shug ripped his son from under Agnes_s arm and shunted him into Lizzie_s embrace. Agnes lay still and lifeless on the bed, and when Shug pinched her face in his hand, her lips parted in an odd fishlike expression. Bending down he shook her sharply and repeated her name over and over, till the corners of his mouth were filled with spit. It was no use. He looked to Lizzie, who held the boy close. Wullie ran his thick, calloused hand under his glasses, tears already running down his face. Shug looked down at his wife and her lifeless body. The room was silent. No one knew what to say. Agnes did not trust the quiet. She opened one of her eyes; its pupil was dark and wide but focused and clear. She put the mangled cigarette back between her lips. _Where the fuck have you been?_ Five The city centre was full of Orangemen. With their flutes, fife, and drums they had paraded from the cenotaph in George Square through the city to Glasgow Green. From the office window Catherine had watched the banners and sashes of the different lodges go by. At first the Protestants sang their support of King Billy, and later, after the pubs had opened, they screamed, Filtered it up ye, ya Fenian basturts,_ to some tune Catherine did not know and doubted they did either. All day policemen in reflective jackets sat on nervous horses. Now that the march was finished, young men gathered and sang sectarian songs like hateful carollers. They shouted at young girls that passed by and chased any man who wasn_t wearing the correct colours. Catherine left the office as late as she possibly could, hoping to avoid the worst of it. She stood outside the sandstone building, deeply regretting her new emerald-green coat and high-heeled suede boots. As rain clouds covered the July sun she cursed having to work the Orange Saturday. It wasn_t like she was that great with numbers, but Mr Cameron insisted she be there when he was, to answer the phones that never rang, to make the tea he never drank. It wasn_t a bad first job, her stepfather, Shug, had argued, especially for a daft lassie just out of school with her brain rotten on boys and clothes. Credit lending was boring, but she did like the way everything had to be neatly organized and squared away. She loved looking at the neat red pen at the bottom of each ledger page, tallied, undisputed, and true. In a way it was her inheritance from Agnes, this neat fastidiousness, this keen eye on what you had and what you could spend. It wasn_t a bad job, and besides, Mr Cameron had a son who was a big handsome sort, and as Catherine skulked home she let herself think about the boy. Up at the cinema Campbell Cameron had been all slithering hands, like a dirty octopus. Even his tenderest winching had felt entitled and demanding. Her granny had taken her aside once and told her that she was daft, that she should marry Seamus Kelly. Lizzie explained how she had married her good Catholic boy, and he had stood by her for over forty years, through all sorts of problems. It was easy to ignore her granny_s advice. After all, Lizzie had only had two new settees in as long as Catherine could remember, and there had to be more to marriage than chapped hands and scullery knees. Lizzie needn_t have worried about the young Cameron anyway. Catherine_s stepfather was busy pushing his own nephew, Donald Jnr, on her. When she had first seen her step-cousin, she had been secretly thrilled at the way he carried himself, how he made himself feel right at home in their small front room. Donald Jnr sat with his legs confidently open, taking more space than was his to take and talking about himself with no modesty. She liked the subtle ways he let her know that he was more important than her. It was the way that Proddy dogs always looked, like they were so loved, so well fed, the centre of their own lives. They were their mother_s pride, even in their shame or shortcomings, and Donald Jnr seemed entirely free from conscience or burden. He was golden, though in reality, he was more of a dewy translucent pink. Catherine liked to watch him eat. She was scandalized by the way he preferred lamb meat dripping to cabbage soup and the way he always expected three whole sausages in his plate of stovies. She had watched him hand his plate back to Lizzie and ask for more. So how could she tell her wee granny she felt lucky to have him? It was common knowledge that he_d winched dozens of girls while she had been sharing a bedroom with her two brothers. Donald Jnr didn_t have to pay digs in to his mother. He didn_t have to feel grateful or guilty for anything. Almost as soon as they had met, he had been trying to separate her from her virginity. Catherine had lectured him in the first Communion, and he had guffawed when she earnestly said she was waiting for marriage. He was Shug_s nephew right enough. She dug her nails deep into the palm of her hand and chastely turned him down. Secretly, she liked this rare imbalance of power, though part of her had assumed he would dump her for it. Yet somehow Donald Jnr never turned back. Instead, he spoke to his Uncle Shug, and on her seventeenth he proposed to her, his step-cousin, on the top deck of a Trongate bus in a showy scene that was more about him than it ever was about her. As the rain fell harder, Catherine started into a small trot on the high boots. There had been all kinds of lurid stories splashed in black and red across the front of the evening papers, with photo-booth pictures of young women who had been raped and murdered in the shadows of the city. The papers said they were prostitutes and published biased stories about the drug problems they had to feed. One of the young girls had been strangled and dumped in a shallow burn by the edge of the motorway. The killer had folded her abused body neatly and slipped her inside a black bin bag. She had lain there for months until some fly-tippers had burst the bag, and her purple hand slid out. In all that time no one had reported her missing. It made Wullie suck at his dentures in pity and Lizzie ask where the Chapel was in all this. Catherine had studied the newspaper photos of the dead girls with horror. Their hollow cheeks and sunken eyes were stark against the photo-booth portraits with their blanching orange background. A murdered young girl, and the best photo her family could provide was the extra copies she had done for her monthly transit pass. It wasn_t yet dark when she reached the concrete forecourt of the tower block. In the gloaming there were several young weans standing in a circle and poking something with a stick. The weans were too young to be out this late, and some had no coats or shoes on in the July rain. Something in the damp pile caught her attention, something familiar but out of place. Catherine crossed the forecourt and hoped it wasn_t a dead dog again. Someone had been rat poisoning all the Sighthill strays; they had thought that kinder than watching them writhe in heat. On the ground lay a wet heap of smouldering curtains, purple paisley that she recognized to be the same as her mother_s, burnt and still smoking. Counting in twos she found the sixteenth floor and saw that all the lights were on and the windows were flung open at this late hour. It was not a good sign. Chances were that her brother Leek wouldn_t be home. If the night had gone as she expected, he would have seen it coming at dinner and sloped off and hid. He was good at that. Being quiet nobody missed him much. But she had to find him. She couldn_t face their mother alone. There was a dark alley with the iron railings of Saint Stephen_s on the right and the chain-link fence of Springburn Pallet Works on the left. It was known as a dangerous walk; once you had started down the path there was no turning back till you reached the far end. Gangs loved it. About halfway down the alley an old drunk couple was staggering through the windblown rubbish. Catherine could hear the woman whispering dirty promises to the old man. She hurried along and then dipped down and crawled under a gap in the chain-link fence. The fence caught the back of her hair, and for a panicked moment she thought they had a hold of her. Catherine pulled, the hair ripped, and as she freed herself she fell backwards into the mud. Wet and scalped, she watched her hair hanging there like animal fur and thought about the ways she could take it out on Leek. Inside the pallet factory there were thousands of stacked cubes made up of blue shipping crates. Each cube stood around thirty feet tall and was as wide as the foundation of any tower block. The foreman had arranged them like tenemented streets, ten blocks wide by ten blocks deep, set with just enough space in between to move a little pallet truck up the aisles. She counted the way as Leek had grudgingly taught her. It would have been easy to get lost amongst the pallets in the daytime and was much easier in the dark. Spotlights mounted on the side of the warehouse cast a weak glow down the north-south lines of pallet cubes, but turn a corner and it was instantly as black as night. By the time she noticed the orange embers dancing in the dark it was too late. She tried to turn, but the wet heels of her suede boots slipped, and she slid further into the darkness. Hard hands grabbed her arms and pulled her towards the swarm of fireflies. She made to scream, but a hand closed over her mouth. She could taste the nicotine and glue that lingered on the fingers. Many hands moved on to her body, roaming and searching. There was a swishing sound of corduroy as a pair of legs moved closer behind her. The legs pressed into her, and she could feel the man through the thinness of his tight trousers. He was bloating with blood and excitement. One of the burning embers came closer and glowed ominously in front of her face. _Whit the fuck do ye want?_ it asked. _It_s goat nice tits,_ said the embers to her left. All the burning fireflies laughed and danced. _Gies a feel._ She felt a small hand, almost like a woman_s, pull at her work blouse. A silver light cut through the darkness, and Catherine felt cold metal press against the side of her face. The dirty hand over her face moved down to her throat. The silver fishing knife touched the side of her mouth and pushed inside a little. It tasted metallic, like a dirty spoon. _Celtic or Rangers?_ Catherine let out a sad whine. It was an impossible question: if she answered wrong the blade would leave her with a Glasgow smile, a scar from ear to ear, a marking for life. If she answered right she might just get raped. Many nights Catherine had sat up in bed, brushing her long hair, and watched Leek ask the same nonsense of Shuggie. Leek would straddle his baby brother with his lanky limbs and pin him to the floor. He would make two fists, holding them inches from Shuggie_s face, and would ask, _Cemetery? Or hospital?_ It was pointless. All answers gave the same result. You were going to get whatever the bad bastard on top of you wanted to give. _I_m no gonnae ask you again._ The gutting knife rattled against her teeth as it tested the inside of her cheek. A single tear escaped her left eye. Catherine thought of the gluey fingers and forced a guess. _Celtic?_ The man huffed in disappointment. _Lucky answer._ He drew the knife out slowly from between her lips; he was enjoying the terror on her face. Catherine put a finger inside her cheek, tasting the warm salty tang of blood, but the skin was still blessedly together. A bright light shone directly into her face, and she shrank back against the man behind her. _Fuck me!_ said the voice. _It_s wee Leek_s sister._ It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the torchlight; she put her hand on the tip and angled it down to the ground. The men standing around her were only boys, younger than her and probably younger than Leek. They had been smoking and waiting in the dark. With no peace at home they were waiting for someone to molest or for a chance to knife the night watchman. Her hand shot out and connected with the owner of the silver knife. She felt no better, so she made another fist and rained it down on his neck, head, and shoulders. The boy covered his head and danced away, laughing. Catherine pushed through the boys in disgust and ran the last block of pallets. She could hear feet, fast and flat, behind her. She grasped the wall of rough blue wood, and as quick as she could, she hauled herself up the stack of pallets. Behind her she felt a hand wrap around one of her new boots; it gave a quick tug, and her foot came free from its ledge. It took all of her strength to hold on to the splintery wood. She swung her boot back and heard it crack off a thick skull bone, and lifting her knee she found some purchase and scrambled up the rest of the tower. The torchlight shone up her skirt, trying to illuminate her gusset. They were taunting her, their voices pitched, ready to break, the dangerous sound of little boys coming into the intoxicating power of manhood. She pulled herself the last ten feet to the top. She wanted to lie down for a moment and catch her breath, but she forced herself to stand up and look defiantly over the side. There were five of them, pockmarked and fuzzy-faced. They were grinning up at her, as the eldest was pushing his forefinger into a donut hole he had made with his other hand. Catherine spat over the side on to them. It was a wide shower of white foam, and the boys shrieked like the children they still were and scattered like laughing rats. Standing on top of the flat pallet stack, she looked over the uniform fields of bright blue wood. The boys had made her lose count, and she hoped she had climbed the right tower. Leek could leap the eight feet or so between the stacks, but she never could. In wet boots she would slip and fall to the ground. She shuddered to think what the neds would do to her body as she lay there with a broken neck. Catherine counted four from the fence and counted five from the turning. It was right; she hadn_t lost count. Searching the top of the stack, she decided on a pallet that was about four by four in from the southeast corner. Checking over her shoulder, as she had been taught, she bent over and lifted a blue pallet free from the rest. A flickering light shone from somewhere within. Catherine put her head into the opening and hissed her brother_s name in the direction of the faint light. _Leek, Leek!_ There was no answer. She hissed again, and suddenly the flickering light was snuffed and it went dark in the hole. Rain dripped from the end of her nose as she peered closer into the void. Suddenly a white face with small pink ears shot up at her from the darkness. _Boo!_ Catherine fell backwards. If she had been closer to the edge she would have fallen over the side. She hauched a wad of spittle into Leek_s white face. _Aw, fuck_s sake!_ _Well, what the fuck did you try to scare me like that for?_ Catherine pulled her knees together and searched her red hands for blue splinters. The fear and shame flooded her then, and her face was awash in frustrated tears. Leek wiped his mouth with his jumper sleeve. He misunderstood her weeping. _Don_t start greetin_ about it. You coming in or what? You_re letting the rain in._ Catherine sulked over to the opening and climbed down into her brother_s den. Leek pulled the loose pallet closed over their heads. Inside it was as musty as an open grave and dark as a closed coffin. Catherine no sooner began the low exhale that preceded her moaning than Leek warned her, _Haud yer wheest,_ as he shuffled about in the pitch-blackness. In the farthest corner there was a clinking of metal, and the space lit up with a faint smoky light. The camping lamp threw long shadows around the cave-like space. The centre of the hollowed-out pallets was easily twice the size of their bedroom at home, but the ceiling was only about six feet high. Leek had covered the floor and the walls in old bits of discarded carpet and flattened cardboard boxes. Through the narrow hole in the top he had dragged old bits of furniture and broken kitchen chairs. The pallets had been arranged to make supporting columns, and some had been angled and covered with old rugs to make a type of hard-looking settee. On the carpeted walls were naked pictures of Page Three girls. Someone had put up a picture of Maggie Thatcher and another joker had drawn a veined cock going into her haranguing mouth. Catherine watched her brother go about making his home comfortable for her. She had known some of the older Sighthill boys who had hollowed it out a few years before. After the wildest of them had stabbed a nosy night watchman they had been left pretty much alone. It was a great place to get drunk and sniff bags of glue. Most of the younger boys just liked that it was a space free from their heavy-handed fathers. Some of the boys brought girls here and would make beds out of borrowed coats and jumpers. Slowly, as good reputations became ruined, the Sighthill girls stopped coming to the pallet den. The boy_s voices kept breaking and their hormones kept raging, so most of them skulked away in randy pursuit. The pallet house became emptier and quieter. Now Leek could often spend the entire weekend there alone. If Agnes would take a drink on a Thursday, then Leek would take some tins of beans and powdered custard from his granny_s kitchen and come here to hide. When he_d come back on a Sunday night, they would all be watching the television. Agnes would be soft and repentant, the demon drink having left her. She would make a cuddling space on the settee next to her, and he would sit close, enjoying the warm, perfumed smell of her bath. Lizzie would look at him with a distant smile and ask him if he_d been in his bed all weekend. It was good to be a quiet soul. Not that he was small. By the time he turned fifteen he was already over six feet tall. He had always been skinny, and as he grew he became even more thrifty and efficient in build. His hair, like his build, he had inherited from his long-forgotten real father. It was fine and wispy, mouse brown in colour, and hung softly over his ears and eyes. His eyes were grey and clear but always slow to show emotion. He had long perfected the art of staring through people, leaving conversations to follow his daydreams through the back of their heads and out any open window. Leek was as economical with his emotions as he was spare in build. From his real father he had inherited a gentle personality, quiet and pensive, lonesome and faraway. His only real physical concession to his mother was his nose, large and bony, too severe to be Roman. It broke the line of his soft, shy fringe and sat upon his thin face like a proud monument to his Irish Catholic ancestors. Agnes had gotten it from Wullie, and Wullie had gotten it from his own father, who had brought it from County Donegal. It left no one unscarred and overlooked no man or woman in the Campbell lineage. The den was a carpeted fort, a boy thing. It smelled like beer, glue, and semen, and Catherine did not personally see the appeal. Walking around the room, she shrank from the mess and the tins of half-eaten food. She wiped the tears from her face and sniffed. _How long have you been here today?_ _Dunno,_ he said, pulling a discarded coat from a mouldy heap in the corner. _She blootered the dregs of the christening whisky by lunchtime._ He held the dry overcoat out to her. Catherine stepped out of her good green coat and slid into the man_s Harris tweed. It smelled of lanolin and sweat, but the crispy dryness of the rough wool felt good. Leek took an old biscuit tin from the shelf above the girlie pictures and handed it to her. They sat together on the home-made sofa. He put his arm gently around her and climbed inside the coat till they had an armhole each. Catherine lifted fingerfuls of the sweet cake from the tin. She could taste the amber sugar of the syrup her granny was fond of. It made her feel better. _I haven_t eaten anything the day. There was no one to cover the phones, and Mr Cameron said he would bring me in a sandwich when he got his own lunch. But he didn_t. And, well, I didn_t like to say, or else he would know he had hurt my feelings._ _Feelings are for weaklings._ He was using the Dalek voice she hated. Catherine drew her head out of the collar and looked at him coldly. _Well, hiding is for cowards._ The long shy eyelashes fell low on his pink cheeks. Ever since he was a boy, he had been easy to hurt. She drew her arm back inside the mothy coat and wrapped it around his back; she could feel his thin ribs through his school jumper. _I_m sorry Leek. It_s terrifying coming out here to find you. I_m wet, and I was afeart, and now my new boots are ruined._ _You can_t keep anything good around here._ She pulled him to her, two years younger and already a foot taller. She buried her damp crown in the crease of his broad chin. She let herself cry quietly and tried to let the anger she felt for the neds and their fishing knife bleed out of her. _Have you been hiding here all day?_ _Aye._ His sigh ran through her. _I told you. She woke up and I could tell over the cartoons that there was a belter coming. She was shaking something terrible, so she asked me to watch the wean while she went out to the shops __ He trailed off. She knew he was staring into the distance. _Did she take a drink in a pub?_ His eyes had glazed over again. _No. I _ I don_t think so. She had the whisky, then I think she got a carry-out and battered some in the lift back up._ _Well, it is very dry up at that altitude._ Catherine licked the last of the sticky mess from her fingers and put the tin down. _Aye, she seemed fair parched,_ he said sadly. There was a long silence between them. Leek took out his top set of porcelain dentures and rubbed at his cheek as if they had been pinching. Agnes, annoyed with the constant trips to the dentist, had convinced him to have his teeth, weak and riddled with aluminum fillings, pulled for his fifteenth birthday. _Do they still hurt?_ Catherine asked, grateful that her teeth were still her own. _Aye._ He flicked the slabber from the plate and put it back in his mouth. _I_m sorry, Leek, and I_m sorry I left you the day._ She gently kissed his cheek. It was a tenderness too far. He put his hand over her face and held her away from him. Filtered off me, ya minger. Besides, don_t ever feel sorry for me. I_m done feeling bad about this shite._ Leek unbuttoned the oversize coat and stepped back out into the cold. He pulled the sleeve of his black school jumper over his knuckles and wiped his sister_s kiss from his face. Watching him, Catherine thought how Leek would have looked twelve had it not been for the large Campbell nose. She watched how his long fingers, as delicate and fine as a clockmaker_s, worried it, ran the length of it constantly, fidgeted with it, measured it, and then regretted it. He lowered his hand from his nose. _Stop gawking._ He stepped out of the lamplight into the dark side of the den. Catherine picked up a black sketchbook. Leek had been drawing again. She flicked through the pages holding intricate sketches of bikini-clad beauties sitting on top of a muscular Ferrari or astride winged wyverns. Leek_s was as good as any rock-album artwork, a beautifully rendered world of shy fantasy. The muscles and sinew and naked beauties eventually gave way to precise, ruler-drawn plans for architecture and woodwork, technical drawings for futuristic buildings and smaller, more thorough ones for record player units and one for a home-made easel. There wasn_t a minute she could remember that he didn_t have his pencil in hand. She was smiling proudly to herself when Leek emerged from the darkness and snatched the sketchbook from her. _I don_t see your fucking name on it._ He lifted his jumper and tucked the book into the waistband of his denims. _Leek, I think you are very talented._ He made a raspberry noise and disappeared back into the darkness. _I mean it. You are going to be an amazing artist, and I_m going to get married, and between us we_re both going to get the fuck out of here and away from this dump._ The hissing came from the dark. _Fuck you. I know you are going to leave me. I_ve seen you making eyes at that Orange prick. I know that you are going to leave me to deal with her on my own._ _Leek. Can you not stay in the light, where I can see you?_ _No. I like it over here._ Catherine dried her hair on the coat sleeve and thought for a moment. She pushed back against the fear the neds had left inside her. _Shame, I_m here to take all my clothes off and wrestle a giant winged snake for you._ He stepped from the darkness, shaking his head. _Dinnae bother. I prefer to draw bigger tits._ Catherine flinched, but she said, _Use that imagination of yours._ _I don_t have a pencil fine enough to render their intricate, miniatur-ey-alley-osity._ They glowered at each other with serious expressions. Catherine made the dry boak face first and pretended to throw up all over the old man_s coat. Leek copied her, until they were swimming in imagined vomit. Catherine watched her brother_s shy smile return, and she thought how it was a shame he didn_t do that often enough any more. Leek caught her searching his face. _Take a picture, why don_t ye?_ Catherine tried to soften her gaze, afraid she might send him back into the shadows. _So did Mammy look in a fighting mood or more of a maudlin mood when you left her?_ He shrugged. _She was on the phone most of the day looking for Shug. I could just tell it was gonnae end badly._ _How comes?_ _She was drinking like she wanted to get somewhere else._ _Was she loud?_ He shook his head. _More sad than loud today._ Catherine sighed. _Fuck. We_d better get back. I think there_s been some trouble._ _No way. I stole enough food to stay here the night._ He was halfway back to the dark already. _You_ll catch your death of cold._ _Guid._ _Come on, Leek. You_re a bit bloody old for a Wendy house._ It was a mean thing to say, and she knew she wouldn_t win if she continued in this way. Her brother had been gifted with legendary stubbornness; he just stared through you and floated away, leaving behind his frame to be pecked to pieces. Catherine didn_t want to face their mother alone. She did not want to walk back through the darkness without him. _Please. I came to get you. I didnae give your glue-sniffing pals a look up my skirt for nothing._ She bit her lip pitifully. _They have a fishing knife, Leek. They grabbed my tits._ Leek looked very angry then. She was always scared and secretly delighted by the sudden force of his temper. It always came quietly and brutally, and the smallest slight could turn horseplay into horsepower. _Please._ Her arms went limp by her side in a gross pantomime of helplessness. Being pathetic was not in her true nature. Leek went back into the dark corner of the cave and returned with his hooded anorak and the broken handle of a garden shovel. He turned it menacingly in his hands. He put out the smoky camping lamp, and together they climbed quietly back up the hole and out on top of the pallets. Leek slid the trapdoor shut, and they stood looking out over the glistening city below. It was beautiful. Catherine lifted her right hand and pointed into the darkness far beyond the orange city lights. _Leek. Do you see that o_er there?_ she asked. It was a line of emptiness on the horizon, black like the edge of nothing. He followed the line of her finger. _Nope._ _There!_ she said and pointed harder, as if this might help. _Look past Springburn and Dennistoun. Look past the very last scheme._ _Caff! Just because you make your arm go stiff it doesn_t help me see any better. It_s pitch-black. There_s nothing there._ _Exactly!_ She considered this before lowering her finger and turning back towards the high-rise. _That_s where I overheard Shug say we were flitting to._ Six Agnes had lain with fits of coughing and hacking most of the night. Now the morning light that was pushing in through the curtainless window would give her no peace. She could no longer ignore the wet draught that was pushing into the room and down on to her clammy body. Opening her eyes, she searched the room feebly for a solution to this nuisance. Her eyes hadn_t expected to find the black fingers of soot. She had bolted upright in a panic before she recognized the burnt bedroom as her own. Like a terrible postcard from the night before, her reflection stared back, fully dressed, with a face full of spoilt make-up. She looked at the pillow behind her and at the wet blue mess she had left there. Her gaze shifted across to Shug_s side of the bed. It hadn_t been slept in. Agnes lowered her chin back to her chest and tried to clear her blackout. The correct images wouldn_t come. Running her fingers through her black curls she felt the crispy brittleness of too much hairspray. From habit she placed her head in her hands and dug her nails sharply into the hairline, feeling the poisoned blood flush to her scalp. It felt good. The memories of the previous night started to ring like large chapel bells in her skull. Clang, here is the wean dancing on the bed. Clang, here is the flame on the curtains. Clang, here is Shug, twisting his wedding band with a face full of disappointment again. Agnes lay back in bed. She sobbed, but it was the self-pitying kind that brought no tears. She thought about holding the wean down as the flames raced up the curtain. She pushed the memory away and willed herself not to look at it again, yet the more she looked away the more it blossomed like a terrible flower. The guilt sank like dampness into her bones, and she felt rotten with the shame. She searched for a cigarette to coat her sore throat; it felt as black and sticky as tarmacadam in July. There were no cigarettes left in the room and no matches either. She had been placed under surveillance. This at least cheered her a little. Out in the hallway the house was quiet. It must have been late enough, because the door to her parents_ bedroom was open and she could see their bed was neatly made. She went into the windowless bathroom and closed the door, sitting on the toilet. She thought about taking a bath and sinking to the bottom to wait for the Lord. In the tub were two sodden bath towels, badly blackened by fire. She couldn_t bring herself to move them. Agnes wrapped her lips around the cold metal tap and gulped the fluoride-heavy water, panting and gasping like a thirsty dog. She began to wipe the ruined make-up off her face; the cotton wool came away blackened with soot stains. Opening the medicine cabinet, she searched the plastic shelves for Wullie_s medicine, something to take the edge off, but the painkillers were gone. She lifted a bottle of congealed cough syrup and took a mouthful, and then she took another. When she finally emerged into the dark hallway, she stood for a long time arranging herself. In the dark she tried on different smiles, small apologetic ones where she lowered her eyes and looked up through heavy brows with tight trembling lips. She tried some light casual smiles, like she was just back from the shops. She tried a large, toothy, beaming smile, a gallus head nod that said, So what? Fuck you. If Shug was in there, this would be the one she_d wear. Wullie and Shuggie were sitting at the round dining table eating soft eggs and soldiers. Sixty years apart, they were huddled together in the far corner like old drinking pals. Leek was upended on the settee, his bare legs up and over the back, a sketchbook in hand. When he saw his mother, he got up very quietly and passed her with a polite nod, like a stranger in the street. All the windows were thrown open, the house already scrubbed with bleach. The air was bitter and sharp. Wullie turned his head back towards his eggs when he saw her. He must have been at early Mass, his good suit was folded neatly over the kitchen chair. He sat in his undervest, his thick arms a tapestry of faded blue ink from his wrist to his shoulder meat, names and places never to be forgotten from the War, a laughing black-haired girl from Donegal, and Agnes_s own name and birthdate in proud elegant letters. _You_ve missed Mass._ Agnes tried several faces and finally decided on contrite. She heard sniffling in the kitchenette. _Is Shug here?_ she asked nervously, a grin breaking over her false face. Wullie shook his head. It had all been too ugly for him: the fight, the fire, the wean crying. He pushed his glasses up his nose and stared deeper into his eggs. _Please don_t grin, Agnes. Please don_t smirk at me like that._ Her son, God bless him, had lit up like the Blackpool illuminations when she came into the room. Shuggie_s eggy hands were outstretched towards her, a bath towel tied around his head like a turban. _Mammy, Catherine wasn_t very nice to me this morning. She said I was a sook._ Agnes picked the boy up. He wrapped himself around her sore bones, squeezed the life back into her. _Granda said I can have three empire cakes the day._ _Hugh, come back over here and finish your breakfast or there will be no cakes._ Wullie waved a thick hand at the boy, and with a sullen tut Shuggie slid down from his mother_s trunk. She felt the shaking in her bones start again. Her father shovelled a mouthful into Shuggie_s pursed lips before he spoke again. His voice was measured, but his eyes would not meet hers. _I know it_s my fault, Agnes. I know I_m the reason you are the way you are._ Agnes shifted in irritation. Not this again. Her throat was desperate for a smoke. _Hear me out. I know I spoilt you when I should have given you that belt. I know I_m sentimental, and I know I_m soft. But you have no idea. No idea what it was like._ Wullie rubbed the meat of his fist across his lips. He looked to the door of the kitchenette like there was someone offstage feeding him lines. _Fourteen of us there was. My auld ma saw none of them get what couldn_t be earned by their own hands. Not even our baby Francis, with his twisted leg. Poor wee bastard had to fight and shove like the rest of us. So when your mammy tells me I_m to be blessed with you, I prayed to let it be different. I promised that you_d never know want the way I knew want._ _Daddy, please, you don_t have to __ Where were the fucking cigarettes? He cracked his rough hands together; the sound was like booming thunder. _Am I always to be a milksop in my own house?_ He was not a man who raised his voice. Agnes buttoned her lip; even Lizzie stopped her sniffling in the kitchenette. Wullie Campbell was a man built for loading granary barges down on the Clyde. She had seen him single-handedly clear a pub of a half dozen disrespectful Liverpudlians. _Every day at a quarter past five you_d come running down that road to meet me as neat as a new pin. I asked your mammy to make sure you were clean. She used to say to me, _Wullie is all this palaver really necessary?_ But sure it was the only thing I ever asked her to do. A man needs to take pride in his family. But people don_t care about things like that any more, do they?_ Wullie_s tattooed knuckles were knitted together in anger. _It gave me that much pleasure just to be proud of you. I could tell they were jealous, hanging out of their windows with tight faces. Grown men and women, jealous of a wee shiny bit of life like you. I used to laugh when they said you_d be ruined._ _You did good, Daddy. I was happy._ _Aye? Then what have you got to be so unhappy about now?_ He sucked at his teeth and placed his hand on top of the boy_s head, the weight of it looked like it might buckle Shuggie_s neck. There were sentimental tears in Wullie_s eyes, but he was watching her coldly, like it was the first time he had seen her properly. _So tell me, Agnes. Am I to belt you?_ Agnes_s hand went to her throat, she felt like she might laugh. _Daddy! I_m thirty-nine!_ _Am I to beat this selfish devil out of you?_ He rose slowly from the table. His arms were loose at his sides, his hands massive silt buckets at the end of iron cranes. _I am tired of you coming first, Agnes. I_m tired of watching you destroy yourself and knowing it_s my fault._ Agnes took a step backwards. She wasn_t smiling any more. _It_s not your fault._ Wullie closed the living room door quietly. He drew his heavy granary belt from his wool trousers, the Meadowside Union logo was debossed into the leather, and the sheer weight of it dragged on the carpet. _Aye, mibbe it_s for the best._ Agnes held her hands out and backed slowly to the door. The gallus grin was gone from her face. As her father advanced she kept walking backwards, until she felt the living room cabinet at her back and heard the glass-eyed ornaments tinkle in warning. The boy was at her legs now, his head hidden halfway behind her denims. Wullie twisted the belt around his hands, once, twice, for a better grip. _Put that wean away from you._ She held the boy closer. Wullie folded his hand around her soft upper arm. With his other hand he separated the boy gently but surely from her leg. He led Agnes over to his chair, where he sat down and pulled her over his knee. She didn_t struggle, and no more begging words would come. _Lord Jesus Christ, I ask You to give me the strength to forgive._ The union belt came down with a loud crack on the back of her soft buttocks. Agnes did not cry out. Wullie raised his hand again. _I thank You that my burden is never more than I can bear._ Crack. _Show Agnes the many blessings of her life._ Crack. _Quiet her needs._ Crack. _Show her some peace._ There was a soft shuffle at her side, and Agnes felt her left hand be taken up. She felt the cooling of bloodless hands on the back of her clammy neck; she felt the gentle stroke of her mother. Lizzie knelt on the floor by her side. Her voice joined Wullie_s in prayer. _Lord, it is only through your forgiveness that we can forgive ourselves._ Crack. After the fire Shug had gone out on the night shift, and for the second time that week he hadn_t come back in the morning. Besides his brother, Rascal Bain, and a few boys at the taxi rank, he didn_t have many male friends. Still, Agnes knew, there was a million other places he could happily be. She sat gingerly on the edge of their bed. The backs of her legs were scalded red from Wullie_s belt, and she couldn_t concentrate as she folded Shug_s clean socks, one inside the other, matching the faded hues together exactly as he liked. Whose arms would he be in now? She felt the fight inside her begin to grow again. Could he be as close as the next tower block, with big Reeny? She had to get out, she had to show face. From the linen cupboard she picked up one of the folding deckchairs they would take to the fair-week caravan. She took out and rinsed her dentures under the warm tap. In tight denims and wearing her new black bra as a bikini top, she went out into the landing and waited for the piss-stained elevator. When she made it down the sixteen floors, she was relieved to see there were no burnt curtains lying around. Except for petrified dog shit and some faint scorch marks, the forecourt was empty. Agnes checked out back of the tower block to see if Shug_s taxi was parked there. She had caught him out like that once before. When he was supposed to be working a day shift he had been upstairs fucking some unknown wifey. His sweaty shenanigans had been separated from his family by a few feet of council-grade concrete. Agnes had ridden the Sighthill elevator all that afternoon with a mop bucket full of cold tea dregs and piss. She waited at each landing for the doors to open on him and called off the hunt only when they opened on a group of bonnie young girls who were going outside to play. The children took one look at her and fearfully refused to get in the lift with the mad-looking woman from the sixteenth floor. At first she had thought how stupid Shug was to get caught out so easily. Only later, when she confronted him, did she learn that she was the stupid one. He hadn_t been caught out. He wanted to make sure she knew all about it. Some things were not to be missed. The sun was white in the sky. The concrete was already vibrating with the morning heat. On the waste ground, Lizzie was sunbathing on an old blanket with her back against the foundation. Her floral dress was opened to the breastbone and pulled apart to make the most of that rarest of occurrences, sunshine. Her hair sat in tight baby-blue curlers and was carefully wrapped in a gingham tea towel. She was reading the day_s paper and gossiping with a clutch of old dears on the patchy grass. The other women sat in a cluster of kitchen chairs and were peeling the skin off big brown potatoes and dropping them into an old plastic bag. Agnes set her deckchair a respectful distance from her mother and her gang. Lizzie barely looked up from her paper, and Agnes knew she was being punished. She tried to settle herself casually into the warmth of the sun, but her eyes kept flitting to Lizzie, wanting only a sliver of friendship to ease the loneliness in her chest. There was new graffiti on the wall above Lizzie. It sprang like a dirty thought bubble from her curls: Don_t be Shy _ Shows Yer Pie. To Lizzie, the graffiti could have been a helpful plea to a bashful baker. Agnes knew better and couldn_t help but laugh. Lizzie scowled at her. _What do you find so funny?_ It was the first time she had spoken since the front-room chapel that morning, and Agnes took a moment to consider whether she felt like encouraging it or ruining it. _Nothing. Where_s my wee man?_ Lizzie answered as spartanly as she could. _At the bakers, getting his cake._ She went back to her paper. Agnes knew the routine. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Wullie walked with his grandson the half mile or so to the shops. It was a scant row of half-shuttered storefronts set into a shadowed recess that never seemed to catch the daylight. They had dragged families out of the old Glasgow tenements for this scheme, and it was meant to be different, futuristic, a grand improvement. But in reality the whole scheme was too brutal, too spartan, too poorly built to be any better. Shuggie would stand well behaved inside the Paki shop while his granda bought a noose of sweetheart stouts and a half-bottle of whisky, enough to carry them through Saturday night and discreetly through the Sabbath. The growing boy gave Wullie and Imran something to talk about as the bags were loaded with the alcohol. It was a routine in which neither man was allowed to acknowledge the drink moving between them, as though it would have broken the charade. Across the shadows, inside the bakery, Wullie would make small talk with the pretty girls while Shuggie greedily eyed the cakes. Shuggie always chose the same bright pink sponge pyramid, covered in red and white desiccated coconut and trimmed with a sugary sweetie on top. He would walk home very slowly in Wullie_s shadow, enjoying his spoils. Agnes looked in the direction of the shops but couldn_t see them. She rose and stood on the edge of the waste ground. In her black bra she threw her head back and stretched her arms wide to enjoy the sun_s tingle on her pale skin. She caught a sideways glance from Lizzie. There was the start of a puce bruise on her lower back. It was this that held her mother_s attention. Agnes_s ringed fingers traced the belt welt, and she winced dramatically. Lizzie stiffened proudly and hissed, _For the love of God. Cover yourself._ The women peeling potatoes exchanged a sympathetic glance that said they knew how bruises could be more plentiful than hugs in a marriage, and not just for the women. Agnes was not to be told. Irritated now, she collapsed into the deckchair again and bounced it gracelessly like it was a child_s space hopper, bouncing, bouncing, till she was sat closer to her mother. Agnes sprawled out luxuriously, her skin already poaching to a light rose colour. She reached out her foot and played with the hem of Lizzie_s yellow floral dress like a child. Lizzie lowered her newspaper and pushed Agnes_s foot away. _Stop fussing with me,_ she said. _You_ve got a cheek to show your face around me this morning._ Lizzie undid the tea towel wrapped around her curlers. She opened a plastic bag at her side and started unravelling her hair. Agnes took her mother_s pick comb and slouched in the sticky deckchair again. _My head is throbbing._ Lizzie drew out a curler and held the kirby grip between her lips. _Oh, poor you. I hope you don_t expect any sympathy._ _You should have stopped him._ Lizzie was watching Agnes out of the side of her eyes now. _M_lady, let me tell you, in forty years of marriage I have never once seen your father raise his hand in anger._ She turned to the women with the potatoes. _You know, Maigret, he_s that soft I thought he_d come back dead a week into that bloody War._ _Aye, he_s a fine man, right enough._ The potato women nodded in unison. Lizzie turned back to her daughter. _I don_t want you dragging his good name down with your own._ Agnes ran the pick through a painted tangle. _Am I that low?_ _Low?_ Lizzie scoffed. _Do you know I_ve just been sat here on my lonesome getting a wee bit of colour, and I_ve no been able to get any peace from anybody. A woman cannae even run her messages, but she_s got to cross this grass and ask me, how I_m holding up?_ _People should mind their own._ _I_m just after having Janice McCluskie drag her Mongoloid son across those weeds to me. She goes, _I_ve heard your Agnes has no been keeping that well. How_s her wee problem?__ Lizzie_s knuckles were white with indignation as she twisted a kirby grip. _I_m sat here with my dress unbuttoned down to my God_s glory and that pair of mouth-breathers gawping down at me._ _Ignore them, Mammy._ _Bastards! No keeping well? No fucking keeping well!_ Her hands clawed at the imagined offenders in front of her. Lizzie exhaled loudly, and her anger shifted to a look of tired defeat. _I don_t deserve their hand-wringing, Agnes. I_ve worked hard my whole life without a day_s rest, and for what?_ Agnes knew the next line well enough. Agnes still shook her head. _So you could have everything you ever wanted._ Lizzie seemed so far away then. Agnes had the urge to wrap her mother in her arms, beg for her forgiveness, even though she felt not a shred of remorse. _Can_t we be pals again?_ _No. It_s not as simple as that any more._ The corners of Lizzie_s mouth turned down in a mocking way. _Let_s just kiss and make up? No, I think not._ She uncurled another clump of hair. _How many women will it take, Agnes?_ Agnes bristled. _I need a cigarette._ _You need a lot of things._ Then she added, _You should have stayed married to that Catholic._ Agnes rooted around in her mother_s curler bag. She took out the Embassy packet and put two cigarettes in her mouth. She took a long draw and held the smoke inside for a long while. _Jesus can_t pay my catalogue._ Lizzie gave a fake laugh. _No. But hell will mend you._ Agnes got up then and sat on the blanket by her mother_s side. The lit cigarette was a measly peace offering, but Lizzie took it and said, _Help me take out these curls. I must look half-mental._ Agnes took her mother_s head in her hands and ran her fingers through the thinning hair. Lizzie softened slightly. _You know, your faither always used to come in on a Friday night, half past six. Every other working fella on the street would go missing. There wouldn_t be a man_s voice till Sunday afternoon, not in all of Germiston. I remember that you could hang out that window and watch them all stoat home on a Sunday teatime. All of them addled wi_ the drink._ The potato peelers were nodding in unison again. Lizzie said, _I_m no judging the men. That was just what they did in those days. If you wanted your housekeeping money you had to go dig your man out of the pub on a Friday teatime. But your faither would come singing Friday night, his wage packed in his hand and a fresh parcel under his arm. Silly fool would have been down that market on his way back from Meadowside and picked up a wee dress or a new coat for you. I never knew a man know the size of his weans, let alone go shopping for them. I used to tell him to stop it, he was spoiling you. But he would say, _What_s the harm?__ _Mammy, I can_t talk about this again._ _Honestly, I was that happy for you when you married that Brendan McGowan. He seemed like he could give you what your faither had given me. But look at you, you had to want better._ _Why shouldn_t I?_ _Better?_ Lizzie used her clenched teeth to itch the tip of her tongue. _Look where better has gotten you. Selfish article._ Agnes brushed out the last of her mother_s curls. She had to restrain herself not to give them a sly tug. _Well, seeing as you think I_m selfish then, I need to ask you for a favour._ Lizzie sniffed. _It_s a bit early in our friendship to be calling in favours._ She rubbed the lobe of Lizzie_s ear gently, manipulatively. _I need you to tell him for me. Tell him that we_re moving. Will you do that?_ _It_ll kill your faither._ _It won_t._ She shook her head. _But if I stay here I know I am going to lose him._ Lizzie turned and studied her daughter closely. She stared coldly at the flicker of hope in Agnes_s eyes. _You will believe anything, won_t you._ It wasn_t a question. _We just need a fresh start. Shug says it might make everything better. It_s only a wee place, but it_s got its own garden and its own front door and everything._ Lizzie waved her cigarette airily. _Oh, la-di-dah! Your very own front door. Tell me: How many locks do you suppose this front door is going to need to keep that wandering bastard at home?_ Agnes scratched the skin around her wedding band. _I_ve never had my own front door._ The women were silent a long while after that. Lizzie spoke first. _So, where is it then? This front door of your own._ _I_m not sure. It_s way out on the Eastern Road. It used to be rented by an Italian chippy or somebody Shug knows. He said it was very green. He said it was quiet. Good for my nerves._ _Will you have your own washing line?_ _I would think so._ Agnes rolled on to her knees. She knew how to beg for what she wanted. _Listen, we_re pals again, right? I need you to tell my daddy for me._ _Your timing is beautiful. After this morning_s nonsense?_ Lizzie pulled her chin into her chest and made a long, low clown mouth. _If you leave he_ll blame himself to his dying day._ _He won_t._ Lizzie began rebuttoning her summer dress. The buttons were lining up wrong, and it was testing her patience. _Mark my words. Shug Bain is only interested in Shug Bain. He_s going to take you out there to the middle of nowhere and finish you for good._ _He won_t._ Wullie and Shuggie came lumbering across the forecourt then. Lizzie saw them first. _Look at the state of that. A walking advert for soap powder._ By the time Agnes looked up, the last of the Eiffel Tower was being licked from between the boy_s chubby fingers. She couldn_t help but smile at her father, the giant with his shirt tails untucked, like a schoolboy shirking his uniform. They walked slowly, swinging between them the Daphne dolly that Shuggie treasured so much. _If you cannae make Shug do right by you, at least make him do right by the boy._ Lizzie narrowed her eyes at her grandson, at his blond dolly. _You_ll be needing that nipped in the bud. It_s no right._ Seven Agnes followed Shug_s red leather cases as they migrated around the flat. They had shown up out of nowhere, earlier in the week, with no price tags and the faint look of having been gently used. Shug had neatly folded all of his clothes, setting socks within shoes and rolling underwear into tidy jam rolls, before packing everything thoughtfully inside. Often, during the week, he would open one of the red cases and study the contents closely, as though memorizing the inventory, then close and lock it securely again. Agnes could see the cases were half-empty, that there was still valuable space inside. Several times she left small piles of the children_s clothes near them and then watched with bubbling jealousy as the cases up and moved to the other side of the room, still with nothing belonging to her or the children placed inside. On the day of the flit he had set the red cases by the bedroom door. Agnes worried the suitcase lock with her nail. She wondered why she hadn_t seen the new house herself. Shug had come home with the idea after one of his night shifts spent talking to a Masonic pal who owned a chippy in the city centre. A council flat in a two-up two-down that he said had its own front door. Shug signed for it there and then with all the casualness of buying a raffle ticket. Agnes wrapped the last of her glass ornaments in newsprint and lined up her old green brocade cases next to Shug_s. She intermixed them, rearranged them, but no matter what she did there was a sense that they didn_t belong together any more. In the luggage tag that hung from her case was a handwriting she barely recognized now. It was the happy, confident loops of a much younger her, running away from her first husband for a promise of a life that was worth living. Her fingers traced the forgotten name: Agnes McGowan, Bellfield Street, Glasgow. When Leek was still in nappies, Agnes had run away. On the night she finally left she had packed the green cases full of new clothes, showy, impractical things she had bought on the last of Brendan McGowan_s tick and had kept hidden for the past long year. Before she ran away she had scrubbed their tenement flat one last time. She knew the news would bring in the neighbours. With beady eyes they would pour in to offer condolences to her man, hoping to gnash their gums at her uppity ways. She wouldn_t dare give them the pleasure of thinking her slatternly too. On the plush hall carpet she had tamped a loose corner with her toe, pushing it back in place, and she was sad to hear the crunch of carpet tacks grip the wood once again. Earlier in the day she had tried to lift it. She had broken two good wedding spoons and bloodied her fingers before sitting back in frustrated tears. As the mascara ran down her face she had wondered if maybe she should stay on, just a little longer, just till she had gotten good use out of that new Axminster. She hadn_t tried to take everything, but that carpet was new, and she had enjoyed how the old wife across the close blanched every time she saw it. It was the kind of hall carpet that you left your front door open for, the beautiful thick kind that you wanted all the neighbours to see. She had nagged and nagged until she got it installed, wall-to-wall, Templeton_s Double Axminster, but the tingly feeling hadn_t lasted this time, not even half as long as she had expected it to. Living with the Catholic, in the ground-floor flat, all she could see was a wall of grey soot-covered tenements across the street. The night she ran away, Agnes had watched the lights go out, one by one, good, hard-working folk getting an early night for an early start. Outside in the rain was the purring hum of the hackney engine. She could not help but feel some excitement, and inside her, underneath the doubt, was a rising thrill. Over the back of the sofa lay two miniature effigies; studies in neat melton and soft velvet and uncomfortable shoes of patent leather with gaudy silver buckles. She woke her sleeping toddlers. Catherine looked like a drunken old man, her sleepy eyelids opening and closing in big distressed gulps. As Agnes kissed them awake, there was a low scratch on the tenement door. She crept out to the hallway. The door opened with a low whine, and a man_s round, tanned face twitched anxiously in the bright tenement light. Shug moved impatiently from one foot to the other, ready it seemed to run at any moment. _You_re late!_ Agnes hissed. The smell of sour stout on her breath made him swallow his half-smile. _I don_t fucking believe it._ _What do you expect?_ she hissed. _My nerves are shot waiting for you._ Agnes pulled the door open and passed the heavy cases to Shug. They bulged at the zippers and tinkled happily, as if they were full of Christmas ornaments. _Is that it?_ Agnes stared at the deep, swirling carpet and sighed. _Aye. That_s it._ With the cases in hand the man shuffled into the street. Agnes had turned then and looked back into the flat. She went to the mirror in the hall and ran her fingers through her hair; the black curls bounced and folded back on themselves tightly. She ran a line of fresh red lipstick across her mouth. Not bad for twenty-six, she thought. Twenty-six years of sleep. In the children_s bedroom she finished making the beds and put the dirty pyjamas into the pocket of her mink coat. Without negotiation she gave them each a single toy to bring and led them out into the hallway. Stopping in front of the big bedroom door, she turned to them. She looked at the lovely carpet and in a low voice urged, _Right, no matter what, no crying, all right?_ The shiny heads nodded. _When we go in there, do you think you can give me a big, big happy smile?_ She found the bedroom switch through habit. It flicked on with a click, and the dark burst with bright, unflattering light. The room was small and tight, dominated by a rococo-style bed that was much too large. The boy happily called out, _Daddy!_ and the messy hump in the royal bed stirred. Brendan McGowan sat up in shock, blinking at the Victorian carollers stood at the foot of his bed. His mouth went slack. Agnes pulled the collar up on her mink coat in a grand gesture. It was a coat he had bought for her on tick, an unneccesary extravagance that he had hoped would make her happy and hold her at peace from want, if just for a while. _Right. Thanks for everything, then._ It was coming out wrong. _I_m away,_ she said, in a clumsy understatement, like a maid who had finished her chores and was leaving for the day. The sleeping man could only blink as his waving family filed out of the room. He heard the front door close gently and the heavy hum of a diesel engine. Then they were gone. As they roared away that night, the black hackney taxi sounded solid and heavy as a tank. Agnes sat on the long leather banquette flanked by her warm babies. The four drove in silence through the wet and shiny Glasgow streets. Shug_s eyes kept glancing in the mirror, flitting over the faces of the sleeping children and tightening slightly. _Where are we going, then?_ he asked after a while. There was a long pause. _Why were you late?_ asked Agnes from behind the collar of her coat. Shug didn_t answer. _Did you have second thoughts?_ He stopped looking in the mirror. _Of course I did._ Agnes brought her leather-gloved hands up to her face. _Jesus Christ._ _Well, didn_t you?_ _Did it look as if I did?_ she replied, her voice higher than she would have liked. The streets of the East End were empty. The last pubs were closed, and decent families were tucked in together from the cold. The hackney pulled along the Gallowgate and drove on through the market. Agnes had never seen it empty before; it was usually full of people buying their messages or new curtains, nice bits of meat or fish for a Friday. Now it was a graveyard of empty tables and fruit boxes. _Where are we going to go?_ _I left mine at home, you know._ He was glowering at her in the mirror. _We agreed. We said a fresh start._ Agnes felt the hot heads of her children burrowing into her side. _Yes, well, it_s not that easy._ _Aye, but you said._ _Yes, well._ Agnes fixed her eyes out the window. She could feel him still staring in the mirror. She wished he would watch the road. _I couldn_t do it._ The man looked at the children in their Sunday finest, old-fashioned clothes worn for the first time, expensive clothes bought for a midnight escape. He thought about all their clothes neatly folded in the cases. _Aye, but you didnae even try, did ye?_ She fixed her eyes on the back of his head. _We can_t all be as heartless as you, Shug._ He had tapped the brakes as his body spasmed in anger. All four of them lurched forward, and the children started to gripe. _An_ you fuckin_ ask me why I wis late?_ Bits of spit landed, gleaming, on the rear-view mirror. _Why I wis fuckin_ late wis because I had to say goodbye to fo-wer greetin_ fuckin_ weans._ He drew the back of his hand across his wet lips. _Never mind a wife that threatened to gas the lot of them. Telt me if I left her that she would put the oven on and not light the ignition._ The taxi screamed off again. They drove in silence, watching empty night buses grumble by and dark windows on cold houses. When he spoke again he was quieter. _Have you ever tried to walk to the front door with your bastarding family stuck into you like fish hooks, eh? Do you know how long it takes to peel four screaming weans off your leg? To kick them back down the hall and shut the door on their wee fingers?_ His eyes were cold in the mirror. _No, you don_t know what it_s like. You just tell muggins here to come get ye. You sally out with suitcases like we were off to Millport for the day._ She was sobering up. She stared silently out the window, trying not to think of the trail of fatherless children and the childrenless father they were leaving in their wake. In her mind it looked like a trail of viscous, salty tears being dragged along behind the black hack. The excitement had left her by then. When they had passed under the iron railway bridge at Trongate for the third time, the sun was starting to rise and the fresh fish vans were being unloaded at the market. Agnes stared at the women crowded at the bus stop, the early-shift charwomen getting ready to clean the big city-centre offices. _We could go to my mammy_s new flat,_ she had mumbled finally. _Just till we find a place of our own._ All these years later, Agnes didn_t want to think about that night because it made her feel like a fool. Now she had packed the Catholic_s suitcases again. These brocade cases that were now carrying her away were the same ones that had brought her here to her mother_s. She looked down on the green cases and ripped the old McGowan label in two. After Agnes had left the Catholic, Brendan McGowan had tried to do the right thing by her. Even after she had stolen away in the night, he had hounded her to her mother_s and made promises of what he would change to have her back. Agnes had stood there, in the shadow of the tower block, with her arms folded, as her husband offered to rearrange himself so completely into whatever she wanted that he would not have been recognized by his own mother. When it was clear she wouldn_t take him back, he had asked the parish father to talk with Wullie and Lizzie and guilt her into returning. Agnes would not be told. She would not go back to a life she knew the edges of. For the next three years Brendan McGowan had sent his money every Thursday and taken the children every second Saturday. The last thing Catherine remembered about her real father was sitting in Castellani_s caf? as Brendan wiped vanilla ice cream from Leek_s face. Agnes had dressed them both deliberately in the best clothes they owned, and an older lady, with pearls about her neck and ears, had complimented Brendan on their neatness and good manners. The woman leaned down to Catherine_s height and asked the pretty girl what her name was. Clear as a Cathedral bell, the little girl had replied, _Catherine Bain._ Brendan McGowan had excused himself from the table then. He had wound between the clusters of happy families towards the bathroom, and then he had turned and gone out into the street. Catherine didn_t know how long they had been sitting there alone, but Leek had eaten his ice cream and then hers and was dipping his finger into the melted dregs at the bottom of the shell-shaped glass. The good Catholic had done all he could to hold his restless wife. She had run from him, and he had lowered his pride and asked for her back. She had divorced him, and he had lowered his pride again and had taken any time he could with his children as sacred. Then she had given them the Protestant_s name, and like lambs who had wandered from their field, they were sprayed with the indelible keel marks of another. Agnes had found his limit. Now, thirteen years on, Leek and Catherine could not have picked him out if they met him in a crowd. Agnes had to restrain herself from picking at the brocade handle. She had packed her questions and doubts into the Catholic_s cases again and cheerlessly carried them to the taxi. To look at it now, the black hackney felt like a hearse. Wullie wouldn_t speak to her as he helped carry the children_s clothes down in the rusted lift. Lizzie stood over the big soup pot in the kitchen and wrung her chapped hands on her apron. As Agnes watched her mammy stir, she could see the gas wasn_t on. Leek and Catherine had sat up in their beds at night talking about the ominous pull of this new life. Agnes could hear the low mumble of their worries through the wall. Lizzie had come to her earlier in the week and said the children had asked to stay on with her. She pleaded with Agnes to let Leek finish school and let Catherine be close to the factoring office. The day of the flit, Agnes had noticed how Leek had been gone the whole morning, slunk off with his pencils and secret books to some hidey-hole or other. Catherine had quieted her trembling lip and dutifully helped her mother pack. All morning Lizzie hugged Shuggie close and whispered prayers for safe return into his pale neck. Agnes watched Leek, when he thought no one was looking, plead to his granny again; she heard him say that he would be good, that he would behave. Agnes was glad when Lizzie rebuffed him gently. _No, Alexander, your home is with your mammy._ As the rain started to come down, the last things to be loaded were Shug_s two red leather suitcases. Only when they were stowed in place did Agnes admit to herself that it was time to go. Lizzie and Wullie stood in the rain looking as grey and stiff as the tower block behind them. Their goodbyes had been casual and distant. Lizzie wouldn_t have them make a scene in public. A crack in the facade might open a rift, and Agnes had no idea what would flood forth from that. So instead they kept busy, fussing about kettles and clean towels. Agnes sat on the back bench of the taxi with Shuggie packed between her knees. Leek and Catherine sat tight on either side, wedged amongst the boxes, their thighs pressed close to hers. She had ironed all their outfits, taking time to starch Catherine_s work shirt, picking out Shuggie_s blazer from the catalogue. She had bleached her dentures, and her hair was freshly dyed, a shade darker than black, closer to the saddest navy. That morning she had tilted her head forward and asked Catherine what she thought of her new mascara. The mascara looked too heavy for her eyelids, like she was on the edge of sudden sleep. Now, as the taxi pulled out into the main road, Agnes made a show of looking back and waving mournfully through the rear window with a long, heavy blink. She thought it was a cinematic touch, like she was the star of her own matinee. The hackney chugged up the Springburn Road and was past the empty Saint Rollox railworks before she turned back around in her seat. She ran through the hollow reasoning why she was going along with Shug_s plan, but as she tried to fortify herself with this rosary, it seemed like the stupid fancies a love-daft lassie half her age might have. Agnes rubbed the pads of her fingertips as she counted off her foolishness: The chance to decorate and keep her very own home. A garden for the weans. Peace and quiet for the sake of their marriage. She dug deeper. There was a chance that things would be different, she hoped, once she got him farther away from his women. The windows grew foggy, and Shuggie drew a sad face in the condensation. With a flick of his thumb, Leek altered it to look like a swollen cock and then slumped down in his seat. Agnes drew her ringed hand over the drawing and saw through the clear glass that they were passing the big blue gas containers behind Provanmill, the guards at the northeastern gate of Glasgow. They drove for a very long time in silence. Eventually the taxi chugged to a stop at some lights, and Shug opened the glass partition to tell them they were nearly there. He closed the glass again, and Agnes wondered whether it was from habit or something truer. She remembered when he had been courting her, how he would keep the glass open and try to charm her with his easy patter. He would lean back and rap his Masonic ring on the divider, a faint line on his left hand where his wedding ring should be. The air would be thick with his tangy pine aftershave and hair pomade. On weekday afternoons the taxi would smell of the sweaty stink of them, the glass misty from their lovemaking. She thought of the happy hours parked under the Anderston overpass, happy hours before they really truly knew one another. Agnes looked at the grassy front gardens of the low bungalows and tried to feel excited again, but it was like trying to make a fire with wet wood. There had been a line where the houses had imperceptibly passed from council to bought. Shug slid the separating window open with a swish. _Look at they gardens, huh!_ The houses were beautiful, with roses and carnations and smiling ornaments behind double-glazed windows. They pulled farther along, and the houses rose above them in a raised cul-de-sac, a manicured hump elevated above the noise of the road. Each private house had a garden, which had a drive, which had a car and sometimes even two. Agnes looked at Shug_s eyes in the mirror; he had been watching her. The look felt as close to love as she could remember. _If you like this, then just wait. Joe_s said it_s like a happy little village. A real family sort of place where everybody knows everybody else. Nicest place you could hope to live._ Leek and Catherine shared a snide sideways glance. Agnes wrapped a hand around one of each of their knees and squeezed a firm warning. Shug shouted over the sound of the diesel engine, straining over his shoulder to be heard. _It_s next to a big colliery and all the men work up at yon coal mine. The wages are good enough that the women don_t even need to go out of the house for work. Joe said all their children went to the same school. Good for our Shuggie, get him out of the sky, have some boys his own age to play with._ His eyes were flashing happily in the mirror, he looked pleased with all his planning. Agnes watched him stroke at his moustache. _It turns out there_s no pubs out here. It_s bone dry, except for the Miners Club._ _What, not a single one?_ Agnes sat forward. _None. You need to be a miner or miner_s wife to get into that club._ Agnes could feel the sweat rise on her back. _What are you meant to do for fun?_ But Shug wasn_t listening. _This is it!_ he shouted, pointing in excitement to a turning on the road. The taxi tilted as Agnes and the children leaned over to see the turning that would take them to their new life. On the corner sat an empty petrol station. It had a wide forecourt but only one pump for petrol and one for diesel. Shug slowed the taxi and turned into the street beside it. Agnes rooted around in her leather bag. There was a jangle of bingo pens and mint tins as she took out a lipstick and pulled a fresh line of blood red around her mouth. With her hand already to her mouth, she surreptitiously slipped a blue pill between her teeth, and with a single crunch she broke it in two and swallowed it dry. Only Catherine noticed. Catherine watched her pout her lips and wipe carefully at the side of her lip line. Then Agnes reached over and adjusted the buckle on her high black heels, and with her long painted nails, she smoothed her wool skirt and picked at the oose migrating downwards from the front of her pink angora jumper. Catherine narrowed her eyes. _How come you aren_t dressed for flitting?_ _Well, there is flitting and then there is moving house._ Agnes spat on her comb and dragged it through Shuggie_s hair. He squirmed, but she held his shoulders and kept combing until the hair sat in neat rows and she could see the clean pink lines of his scalp. _Pfft. How do I look?_ asked Leek, rumpling his hair over his face. His big toe was bursting the seam of his white trainers, a dirty sock starting to poke out. Agnes sighed. _If anyone asks, you are with the movers._ They slid the windows all the way down, and the taxi filled with a rushing breeze that carried the scent of fresh-cut grass and wild bluebells. Underneath the bright green tones was the dark brown of untended fields, mounds of cow dirt, and the dark places at the bottom of wet trees. The beaded sleeves on Agnes_s pink angora jumper danced in the wind, and she twinkled like a rabbit dipped in rhinestones. Shuggie reached up and ran his fingers through the glass beads. His mother_s mouth was set in a wide white smile, her teeth not touching, like someone was taking her photo. She would have looked happy if her eyes hadn_t kept anxiously flitting back to Shug_s eyes in the rear-view mirror. Shuggie sat playing with her sleeves and watched as her back molars came together and slowly started to grind back and forth. The road narrowed again, and the last of the manicured gardens dropped away for good. There was a spit of dead yew trees and then flat, open marshland sprang up on both sides. Small brown hillocks and clumps of brush and gorse broke the endless emptiness. Dirty copper burns snaked through the open fields, and the wild brown grass grew right up on either side of the enclosing fences, trying to reclaim the rutted track, the Pit Road. The road itself was covered with a settled layer of charcoal dust, and the taxi pulled lines through it as though it were the photo negative of fresh snow. The taxi shuddered around a lazy bend. In the distance lay a sea of huge black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of all life. They filled the line of the horizon, and beyond them was nothing, like it was the very edge of the earth. The burnt hills glinted when they were struck with sunlight, and the wind blew black wispy puffs from the tops like they were giant piles of unhoovered stour. Soon the greenish, brownish air filled with a dark tangy smell, metallic and sharp, like licking the end of a spent battery. They curved around another corner, and the broken fence ended at a large car park. At the back of the car park sat a high brick wall with an old iron gate set into it, held tight with a heavy padlock and chain. The guard_s booth at the side was tilting at a funny angle, and a thick layer of weedy grass grew on its roof. The mine was shut. Someone had painted Fuck the Tories on the plywood barrier. It looked like it was closed for good. Opposite the gates was a low concrete building. Dozens of men were spilling out of its windowless structure and stood in dark clumps on the Pit Road. At first it looked like they were leaving chapel, but as the diesel engine roared nearer, they turned as if they were one. The miners stopped their talking and squinted to get a good look. They all wore the same black donkey jackets and were holding large amber pints and sucking on stubby doubts. The miners had scrubbed faces and pink hands that looked free of work. It seemed wrong, these men being the only clean thing for miles. Reluctantly, the miners parted and let the taxi go by. Leek watched them as they were watching him. His stomach sank. The men all had his mother_s eyes. The housing scheme spread out suddenly before them. Ahead, the thin dusty road ended abruptly into the side of a low brown hill. Each of the three or four little streets that made up the scheme branched horizontally off this main road. Low-roofed houses, square and squat, huddled in neat rows. Each house had exactly the same amount of patchy garden, and each garden was dissected by the identical criss-crossing of white washing lines and grey washing poles. The scheme was surrounded by the peaty marshland, and to the east the land had been turned inside out, blackened and slagged in the search for coal. _Is that it?_ she asked. Shug couldn_t answer. From the roundness in his shoulders she could see his own heart had sunk. Agnes_s back teeth were powder. As they drove towards the little hill, they passed a plain-looking Catholic chapel and a huddled group of women still with their housecoats on. Shug searched the street signs and turned the taxi a sharp right. The street was a uniform line of modest four-in-a-block houses. Four families lived in one squat block. They were the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen. The windows were big but thin-looking, letting the heat out and letting the chill in. Up and down the street, black puffs of coal smoke came out of chimneys, the houses were incurably cold even on a mild summer_s day. Shug stopped the taxi a few houses down. He leaned over the steering wheel to get a clear look at the building. There were hardly any cars parked on the street, and the ones that were looked like they were not in working condition. While Shug was distracted, Agnes rummaged around in her black leather bag. _You three keep your mouths shut,_ she hissed. She lowered her head into the cavernous bag and tilted it slightly to her face. The children watched the muscles in her throat pulse as she took several long slugs from the can of warm lager she had hidden there. Agnes drew her head from the bag; the lager had washed the lipstick off her top lip, and she blinked once, very slowly, under the layers of wasted mascara. _What a shitehole,_ she slurred. _And to think I dressed up nice for this?_ 1982 PITHEAD Eight By the time the back doors on the Albion van were open, there were people standing in the middle of the road openly staring. They held wet tea towels and bits of half-finished ironing, things they hadn_t bothered to put down in order to come and look. Families came out from the low houses and settled down on their front steps as if there was something good on telly. A tribe of sooty weans, led by a trouseless boy, crossed the dusty street and stood in a semicircle around Agnes. She politely said hello to the children, who stared back at her, rings of a red saucy dinner still around their mouths. The tight formation of the miners_ houses meant the front doors faced one another, each building separated by a low fence and a thin strip of grass. The front doors opposite Agnes_s were all thrown open, and women stood watching, a half dozen children milling about each one, all with the same face. It was like the photo of her Granny Campbell and her Irish dozen that Wullie had once shown her. Agnes, standing on her stoop, smiled across the low fence and waved, her beaded rabbit sleeves glinting in the light. _Hello._ She politely addressed the general congregation. _Ye movin_ in?_ said a woman from the door beyond her own. The woman_s blond hair curled back on dark brown roots. It made her look like she had on a child_s wig. _Yes._ _All of yeese?_ asked the woman. _Yes. My family and I,_ corrected Agnes. She introduced herself and held out her hand. The woman scratched at her root line. Agnes wondered whether the woman spoke only in questions, when she finally answered. _Ah_m Bridie Donnelly. Ah_ve lived upstairs for twenty-nine years. Ah_ve had fifteen downstairs neighbours in aw that time._ Agnes felt all the Donnelly eyes on her. A skinny girl with dark round eyes brought a tray of mismatched tea mugs through the door. Everyone took one. They didn_t draw their eyes from Agnes as they supped. Bridie nodded over the fence. _That there is Noreen Donnelly, ma cousin. But no ma blood, ye understand._ A grey-coloured woman rolled her tongue in her head and nodded sharply. Bridie Donnelly went on: _That lassie is Jinty McClinchy. Ma cousin. She is ma blood._ A child-size woman next door to Noreen took a long drag on a short doubt. Her eyes narrowed from the smoke, and right enough she looked like Bridie in a headscarf. They all looked like Bridie, even the boys, only they looked less masculine. From out of the side of her eye, Agnes could feel another woman crossing the dusty street. The woman stopped and talked to the semicircle of raggedy children; she nodded like they had given her grave news and marched on through the front gate to the new house. Agnes had no escape. Behind her Leek came sullenly out of the house for his next load. _Is that your man?_ said the newly arrived woman without introduction. The meat of her face was a taut as a leathered skull. Her eyes were deep pockets in her head, and her hair was a rich wild brown but thinning, like the coat of an uncombed cat. She stood in bagged-out stretch pants, the stirrups stuffed into men_s house slippers. Agnes stumbled over the absurdity of the question. There were twenty-odd years between her and Leek. _No. That_s my middle wean. Sixteen in the spring._ _Oh! In the spring is it._ The woman considered this for a minute and then jabbed a sharp finger out at the vegetable van. _Is that there your man?_ Agnes looked at a mover struggling with the old television she had tried to wrap for discretion in a bed sheet. _No, he_s a friend of a friend who_s lending a hand._ The woman thought on this. She sucked her gaunt cheeks into her skull head. Agnes made a half wave and a half turn to leave. _What_s that on your sleeves?_ asked the thin woman. Agnes looked down and cradled her fluffy arms protectively, like they were kittens. The rhinestones shook nervously. _They_re just wee beads._ Shona Donnelly, the tea girl, exhaled slowly. _Oh! Missus, I think they_re lovel__ The thin woman interrupted her. _Do ye even have a man?_ The front door opened again, and Shuggie came out on to the top step. Without addressing the women he turned to his mother and put his hands on his hips; he thrust a foot forward and said as clear as Agnes had ever heard him speak, _We need to talk. I really do not think I can live here. It smells like cabbages and batteries. It_s simply unpossible._ The heads of the audience turned one to another in shock. It was like a dozen faces looking at their own likenesses in the mirror. _Wid ye get a load o_ that. Liberace is moving in!_ screamed one of the women. The women and children howled as one, high squeaky laughs and throaty coughs full of catarrh. _Oh! I do hope the piano will fit in the parlour._ _Well, it_s so nice to meet you all,_ said Agnes with a thin grimace. She clutched Shuggie to her hip as she turned to leave. _Oh, dinnae be like that. It_s nice to meet you an_ all, hen,_ wheezed Bridie, her hard face softening around the eyes from the good howling. _We_re all like family here. We just don_t get that many new faces._ The skull-faced woman took a step closer to Agnes. _Aye, well. We_ll get on just fine._ She sucked as though a piece of meat was stuck between her teeth. _Just as long as ye keep yer fancy sleeves away from our fuckin_ men._ For the rest of the afternoon Shuggie walked the edge of the new scheme while the men unpacked the moving van. Women in tight leggings dragged kitchen chairs to their windows and sat watching, empty-faced, as box after box was unloaded. They had taken to greeting the boy with extravagant waves, doffing imaginary caps and then cackling to themselves. In his new outfit he walked to the far end of the street. There was nothing out there. The street stopped at the edge of the peatbogs like it had given up. Dark pools of boggy water sat still and deep and scary-looking. Great forests of brown reeds shot up out of the grass and were slowly inching over the scheme, intent on taking it back from the miners. Shuggie watched shoeless children playing in the stour. From the edge of a clutch of council bushes he pretended he was cataloguing some small red flowers, studying each for its size, while he waited for the children to ask him to join them. They were riding bikes in circles round each other and ignoring him. He popped the white berries between his fingers, trying to look casually disinterested, and then he tried to wipe the shine off his good shoes with the sticky juice. The miners_ tackety boots made sparks on the tarmac. The men slowly started drifting one by one along the empty road. There was no colliery whistle now; still the men were pushed along by the muscle memory of a dead routine, heading home at finishing time with nothing being finished, only a belly full of ale and a back cowed with worry. Their donkey jackets were clean and their boots were still shiny as they jerked along the road. Shuggie stepped back as they passed, their heads lowered like those of tired black mules. Without a word, each man collected a handful of thin children, who followed obediently, like reverential shadows. Agnes stood behind the front door and closed the large glass draught door ahead of her. She couldn_t think. In the small pocket between the two doors she finished the can that she_d secreted in the bottom of her bag. She pressed her face against the wall, cold and soothing; the stone was thick and damp, and she could tell it would be slow to heat up. She stood in the hiding place for a long while before she walked the length of the hallway, past two small bedrooms. Catherine was standing in the middle of the first, moving neither here nor there. The wild miners_ weans were resting their elbows on the outside ledge and looking in the bedroom window at her like it was a zoo. Dumbfounded, she could only stare back. The wood-framed windows were poorly fitted, and the chipped glazing putty warned of cold nights and wet walls. Agnes could hear the weans talking as clearly as if they were in the room with her. Leek had found the other room. He had opened the bag that kept his drawing supplies and was lying on the bare floor drawing a charcoal picture of the black hills. He took the edge of the pastel and drew the figures of the dark-jacketed men who had watched them as they arrived. They lined the mound of the hills like trees with no leaves. She watched her son, jealous of his talent to disappear, to float away and leave them all behind. There were no more bedrooms after that. The third that they had been promised was clearly the living room, and as she retraced her steps, two and then three times, she knew all the children would need to be put together in one single room again. Shug was standing at the end of the hallway looking blankly at her. His comb-over had been dancing in the wind, and he caught the waving strands and with a lick of spittle tried to smooth it back down over his head. He stepped back inside the open kitchenette and motioned for her to follow. The kitchen had a large clothes pulley hanging from the ceiling that looked like a torture rack. At the far end hung a set of miner_s working clothes, neatly arranged to dry, from socks to white underwear to a blue polyester work shirt, all stiff with age. Would the man who they belonged to ever be back from the mines? Maybe they had the wrong house after all. The facing of the chipboard cabinets was peeling in places, and Shug stood working his pinkie finger under one of the laminates. Behind him, in the corner above the cooker, sprawled a vine of black mould. Without looking at her he simply said, _I can_t stay._ At first she barely looked up. She had thought he meant only to go out on a shift and make money. He did that often, came home from a shift only to stand up again and announce he was heading back out. He had never been a man given to sitting at home. _What time would you like your dinner?_ she asked, already worrying about chip pans and bread knives. _I don_t want your dinners any more. Don_t you get it?_ He was shaking his head. _This is it. I can_t stay any more. I can_t stay with you. All your wanting. All that drinking._ It was then she saw that the brocade cases were settled amongst the packing boxes but the red cases were not. She must have had a look of profound confusion on her face, because Shug met her eyes and was nodding slowly, like you did when a child swallowed medicine, goading it on, waiting for the ick of it to reach the gut. Agnes looked away. She didn_t want to understand. She didn_t want his medicine. She stopped looking for the chip pan, started rearranging the beads on her jumper so that the shiny, faceted sides were uniform and facing outward, stalling for time, unsure of what to do now. _This is it,_ he said again. There was a single chair in the room, a broken-backed kitchen chair, covered in paint splashes and used for reaching high cabinets. Agnes closed the kitchen door quietly; out in the hallway the children were already complaining, aware now that there were not enough bedrooms. She put the broken chair in front of the closed door and sat down. _Why am I not enough for you?_ Shug blinked like he could not believe what he was hearing. He shook his head, and as he spoke he prodded himself in the chest. _No, m_lady. Why was I not enough?_ _I_ve never so much as looked at another man._ _That_s no what I meant._ He rubbed at his eyes like he was tired. _Why did you no love me enough to stay off the drink, eh? I buy you the best of gear, I work all the hours God sent._ He stared at the wall, not at it but through it. _I even thought, maybe if I gave you a wean of my own, but no. Even that wasn_t enough to keep you still._ Taking her roughly by the elbow, he tried to lift her from the seat. Agnes shook herself free and sat back down like she was in a peaceful protest. She was in the dangerous in-between place. Enough drink to feel combative but not enough to be unreasonable yet. A few mouthfuls more and she would become destructive, mean-mouthed, spiteful. He stared at her as if he were reading the weather coming down from the glen. He took hold of her and tried to shift her again, before the great rainclouds inside her burst. She wrenched herself from his grasp, sat down again, and drew herself to her full height. She regarded him coldly for a long while. She could still not believe what was happening. _No. Not good enough. This doesn_t happen to women like me. I mean look at me. Look at you._ _You_re embarrassing yourself._ He pulled on the front of her jumper. Shug moved her by force then. She did not cry out as he took her by the hair and pulled her to the floor. Agnes pressed herself against the bottom of the kitchen door as though she could keep him inside forever. He slammed the door into the back of her head, like she was only a loose corner of carpet. As he stepped over her, his right brogue caught the underside of her chin, splitting the pearl-white skin clean open. _Please, I love you. I do,_ she said. _Aye, I know that._ By the time the hackney had turned on the Pit Road, her children were in the hallway and Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor. The red leather cases never made it into the miner_s house. Shug did not come back to see her for several days, and when he did he didn_t have the cases with him. He had taken them to Joanie Micklewhite_s and slid them into the space she had cleared for him under her bed. Agnes did not know that at first. Shug simply reappeared one night, gently kissed the gash on her chin, and laid her down on the fold-out settee in the living room. Shug started coming in during his night shifts and using her in this way. He waited until the small hours, when the children would be in bed, then he whistled nonchalantly up the hallway in freshly pressed shirts. As she undressed him she could tell his underwear was clean and boil-washed by another woman. When they were done, he would lie there for a moment until Agnes wrapped her arms around him, and then he would stand up and leave. If she cooked for him, he would maybe stay a little longer. If she started in on him with question or complaint, he would leave, and he would stay away for several nights in punishment. After he_d gone, Agnes would lie on the fold-out settee because she could not take to their bed without him. She lay awake the rest of the night staring at the ceiling while the boys slept in their bedroom next door. All that first autumn Catherine would climb on to the mattress with her mother, and they would lie there together under the damp and the growing mould. _Why don_t we just go back to Sighthill?_ Catherine would whisper. But Agnes couldn_t explain through the hurt. She knew he would never come back if she returned to her mother_s. She was to stay where she was dropped. She was to take any little kindness he would give. Eventually Guy Fawkes Night arrived, and the air was thick with bonfire wood and burning tyres. Leek and Catherine stood at the window and watched home-made pyres burn across the boggy blackness. Weans launched fireworks at each other like they were whistling missiles. It seemed like rare fun. The television was still half-unwrapped from its bed sheet and placed on the floor in the corner, not yet a full commitment. Catherine sank into the settee, her wet hair wrapped in a turban towel. It_d be the late news and then another night of listening to her mother weep in the dark. Agnes waited in the back, in the kitchen. With the lights turned off, it was the room with the best view of the Pit Road. Every night she watched for the hackney and got her hopes up with the approaching hum of any diesel engine. She_d been drinking all the day away, but it wasn_t helping any. She walked between the window and her stash below the kitchen sink. From the click of the latch, the children could count the times she opened the cabinet and snuck a drink. _Mammy, what_s for eating?_ Leek shouted from the settee. Agnes stopped picking at the scab on her chin. She looked at the pot on the electric cooker. _I could heat you some of this soup._ _The one with the peas in it?_ Leek asked. _Yes._ _Well, not if it_s got peas in it,_ said Leek, a little hurt that his fifteen-year war against green vegetables went unnoticed. _Uh, hullo, its pea soup, ya big dafty!_ mocked Catherine. Leek dug his foot into her side and pulled the towel off her head, ripping some of her hair along with it. He threw it in the far corner for spite. Get it up ye, he mouthed silently. They had agreed, without ever discussing it outright, to tread as lightly as they could around their mother. Catherine stood up to fetch the towel from the other side of the room. She had held on to her virginity as Lizzie had warned her to, so now it wouldn_t be long till she was married to Donald Jnr, and then she wouldn_t have to share a bedroom with either her brother or her mother in this cold damp. The thought alone stopped her from leaving; she was on her way out anyway. Catherine rewrapped her hair and flicked her brother the finger. She went through to check on her mother. Agnes was distractedly circling the kitchen like a toy train; every so often she stopped and opened the cabinet under the sink, filled a mug from a container within a plastic bag, and took a long drink. Catherine nudged the cabinet door open with her toe; with relief she saw it was not bleach Agnes had been pouring into the mug. Catherine wrinkled her nose at the congealed soup pot. _Mammy, how about phoning in a wee Chinese?_ _Guid idea!_ Leek chimed in from the other room. Catherine had said only Chinese, but Agnes had heard Shug. She had the strange power to tie anything back to him these days. Her eyes came into sharp focus. _I could phone the rank and see if Shug_s coming round the night?_ she offered brightly. _Mibbe he_ll bring a Chinese over?_ Catherine groaned. Agnes had been warned not to phone the rank any more. Shug had added it to the long list of things she had to stop if she ever wanted him home. It was his emotional ransom. Perhaps though, if he knew the children were hungry, he_d come over and things would be OK for a few hours. She could fix herself up nice, and maybe he would spend the whole night with her on the fold-out settee. Agnes took a mouthful from her mug and thought through her script: sound normal, sober, non-committal; keep it easy and smile down the phone. It hadn_t worked any night before, she didn_t know why, but she wanted badly to try again. Agnes sat at the little pleather phone table and lit a cigarette for her nerves. When she finished dialling she turned her engagement ring back around, as though the person on the other end could see. The gold of her wedding band had turned a dirty-looking yellow. A woman_s voice on the phone answered with an annoyed crackle. _Northside Taxis!_ It was Joanie Micklewhite. Agnes knew her only casually. _Hello, Joanie, is that you? It_s Mrs Bain._ _Oh, hullo, hen. Whit can I do ye for?_ Joanie sounded flat, like when you turn the corner and run into someone you_d rather never see again. _Can you get a message out to Shug, to please phone home,_ Agnes said. She wondered then whether Joanie knew he had left her. She wondered who at the rank knew he wasn_t sleeping in her bed. _Let me try. Can you haud on, hen?_ The phone went quiet as Joanie put the line on hold and tried to contact Shug_s taxi over the big CB radio. It took an eternity before Joanie came back on the line. _Ye still there?_ She caught Agnes mid-puff. Agnes exhaled the smoke above her head. _Still holding! Did you get through to him?_ Joanie paused slightly, and Agnes stiffened for rejection. _Aye. He said he_d give you a phone in a while._ Agnes brightened up, something like hope caught in her chest, and she looked forward to seeing him, her own husband. She thought about the velvet dress she would wear for him; she wondered if she had time to shave her legs. Then Joanie added, _Agnes. I know he hasn_t told you everything, hen._ She stuttered on: _I _ I just wanted you to know that when you do find out, I_d never meant for anything like this to happen. I have seven weans of my own. And, well, I_m sorry._ The last of the bonfires were dying by the time Shug arrived. The children were in bed, sullen and hungry. Agnes couldn_t touch any of the Chinese. She watched his hair fall from his bald head as he shovelled great mouthfuls into his gullet. Through all this he hadn_t lost his appetite, and that killed her. Agnes rubbed at her temples and sat amongst all the unpacked unpacking. There were still no red cases. _Does she keep a nice house?_ _No_ really,_ he said, without looking up. Agnes drank as much lager as she could in one go, before she needed to lower the can to take another breath. When she was done she asked, _So, is she good-looking?_ _I told you on the phone. I don_t want to fuckin_ talk about her._ He ripped a slice of white bread in two. _Let me eat my dinner in peace. I didnae drive out here to fight._ Agnes was quiet for a long time, thinking carefully about what to say next. Her left hand worried her knife. She was caught between wanting to start a fight and stab him and wanting him to stay a little longer. When she spoke again she tried to keep her voice even and calm. She found it helped not to look at him. _It_s not going to happen is it? Our new start?_ Shug stopped chewing. He shrugged. _This is a new start Agnes. I couldn_t cope anymair._ She cupped her hands over her face. The polish on her nails was bright, as if still wet. _Why the fuck did you bring me here?_ Shug pushed his plate away. His moustache was heavy with a congealing pink sauce. _I had to see._ _Had to see what?_ she asked, her voice cracking in anger. _I thought this is what you wanted._ _I had to see if you would actually come._ Agnes took hold of the neck of his jumper then. Shug picked up his money belt and kissed her with a forceful tongue. He had to squeeze all the small bones in her hands to get her to release him. She had loved him, and he had needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn_t do to leave pieces of her for another man to collect and repair later. Nine Agnes had to sink three whole lager cans before she could go out the front door. A group of women stood in a cluster by the fence, their arms folded like car bumpers. It was like they had been waiting there since she had moved in four months prior. The cold didn_t seem to bother them. The ground was littered with cigarette doubts, and there were dirty tea mugs stacked on the fence posts. They stopped talking and turned as one when she came out the front door. Holding her head high, Agnes made sure the clicks of her black heels were sharp and clear on the pavement. She smiled haughtily at the women in their leggings and slippers. She passed them by, heading up the road to the Miners Club, to forgetfulness. The women looked on silently. She was almost out of earshot before one of them spoke. _We_ve no had a falling out already, have we?_ said Bridie. Her streaked hair was still unbrushed, her thick trunk wrapped in men_s jogging pants and a housecoat. Agnes didn_t turn around. _What gave you that idea?_ _Ye_ve no invited us to yer party. Are we no pals?_ _What party?_ Agnes half-turned. _Well, where else are ye gaun dressed aw nice like that?_ _The Miners Club. I wanted to see what you lot did for fun._ The women all looked one to another. They twisted at their Saint Christopher_s medallions nervously. _Don_t be botherin_ about that,_ Bridie said. _The men don_t like it when we show our faces up there. Stay here with us, and we_ll hae a wee welcome drink to oorsels._ Bridie drew a large, clear bottle from behind one of the fence posts. She tossed the contents of her tea mug into the street and shook the vodka bottle. _Why don_t ye come over here and tell us all about yersel?_ Agnes stepped closer and watched the bitter liquid eat the ring of tea scum. She held her hand up in moderation as the pure vodka neared the top and gave a prim giggle. Bridie glanced at her sideways and filled the mug to the very top. _Gies peace. Ah cannae have ye thinking we_re cheap._ Agnes took the mug with a polite thanks. The women ran their eyes up and down their new neighbour: the strappy heels, the hard-set hair, the beautiful fur coat. Agnes glanced up and down the empty road and let them drink it all in. The nights were gathering in again. The street lights were on, and a gang of collarless dogs wandered from stank to stank, sniffing the rotten drains. One pissed, and the others took their turns and marked the same spot. She turned back to the women, and they were smiling hungrily at her. _Well, cheers then._ She chinked the tea mug against theirs. Someone took a pouch of rolling tobacco out and passed it around. Jinty licked some fag papers and tenderly poured a thin line of golden tobacco in. _Put that away!_ said Agnes, seeing a chance to repay them for the vodka. She reached into the deep pockets and pulled a pack of Kensitas out of the mink coat. Bridie looked at the glossy gold packet, at the gold-plated lighter. _Jeezo. It_s like the Queen of England has moved in._ _It makes a right difference when you don_t have to pick the baccy off your teeth,_ Jinty agreed. The women took one each and lit the cigarettes. They all took long greedy draws and savoured the taste in silence. They held the cigarettes between the thumb and forefinger, as if gripping a pea-shooter. They studied Agnes, her painted nails dancing in front of her face like so many red ladybugs. Between delicate fingers, she took light shallow puffs as they sucked their cheeks thin. Then she lifted her other hand and took deep greedy mouthfuls from the mug. _Where ye frae then?_ asked Jinty, reaching out to touch her emerald earrings. _Originally? Germiston. But I suppose you could say all over the East End. I_ve moved a fair bit._ _All ower the East End, eh?_ echoed Bridie, nodding sagely. _A Good Catholic wummin then. What brings ye out here to our wee scheme?_ Agnes faltered. _My man heard it was a nice place to live, safe for my weans._ She paused. _Good Neighbours._ _Aye,_ said Bridie, with a laugh. _It_s no Butlin_s, but that sounds like the good auld days. That mine has been dying for years. There_s hardly nae work there for naebody anymair. Every year we_ve got mair men sat at home, wanking in the daylight._ _There_s a couple who_ve still got jobs. Mainly filling in the holes to make sure no kiddies fall in,_ added Noreen. _Don_t want any mair accidents, see._ _Accidents?_ asked Agnes. _Aye, it_s always been a gassy seam. They used to have to pump the methane out just to work it. Mind, the men knew this; they knew what they were working against and respected it best they could, but one day it just fell in on the poor souls. Pure collapsed. There was an explosion that burnt them all up. Left some weans wi_ no daddies._ Jinty was still staring at Agnes_s earrings. _It made a lot of lonely women._ They turned and looked at the house that belonged to the woman with the skull face. Bridie sighed. _Don_t worry about Colleen McAvennie. Her bark_s worse than her bite._ _Is she your cousin as well?_ _Oh, aye, but no blood, ye see. She_s just protective of her Jamesy. Used to be he was a good-looking fella. He was a big burly banksman; used to ferry them up and down in a cage lift in that shaft. Got burnt in that mine, took the skin all off his shoulder and the side of his neck. Red as a July sunburn._ The women bowed their heads, almost as a sign of respect. _A fine-looking man nonetheless._ _Anyways, where did yer man go off tae wi_ them fancy red cases?_ asked Jinty suddenly. _He_s a taxi driver; sometimes he needs to take his stuff with him,_ she lied. It was thin. _He works the night shift._ Jinty sucked at her teeth. She laid a sympathetic hand on Agnes_s. _We wurnae born yesterday, hen. He looked to me like he was leaving for longer than that._ Bridie waved her cigarette at Jinty. _Och, never mind her. Don_t sink to her level. All we are saying is, we_ve aw got men and we_ve aw got men trouble._ The women puffed on their fags in empathy. Noreen looked worried. _How you gonnae feed yersel if he disnae come back?_ Money was always on her mind, her heart was gnawed with the worry. _I don_t know._ The women looked from one to another. Bridie spoke first. _We_ll have to get ye on benefits. Ye can go up the office on Monday morning. Ye_ll have to tell them ye_re needing disability allowance, otherwise they_ll have ye up the dole every Thursday._ _Will they sign me on to disability?_ _Ah widnae worry, hen. They_ll take one look at yer address and give it to you easy. Look at this place._ Bridie waved her hand into the empty street. _It_s no like there are any new jobs coming here. Disability is the only club we_ve got, and Monday is club day._ Agnes lifted the vodka mug again and stared down into the faint clouds. The tea must have been very milky. Bridie topped it up to the brim with a smile. _Aye, ah took ye for a drinker._ She drew on her fag. _Aye, the minute ah saw ye, ah spotted it. They thought you were the big I Am, all done up in sequins, like some big dolly bird from the city. But ah could see through it. Ah could see the sadness, and ah knew ye had to be a big drinker._ The women nodded and cawed, _Aye,_ like a murder of crows. Agnes froze with the mug on her lips. _Do ye drink anything and everything?_ asked Bridie. _Pardon?_ said Agnes, lowering the mug. _Is it a very bad problem ye_ve goat?_ clarified Bridie. _I don_t have a problem._ _Look, hen. Ye_re standing out here drinking vodka in the middle of the street. Ye_ll have no problem signing on the disability looking like that._ _You have a mug of vodka as well._ Agnes was affronted. Their mouths turned downwards unkindly as they tilted their mugs towards her in the orange street light. The filmy whiteness of milky tea showed in each one. _No, hen, we_re drinking piss-cold tea,_ scolded Bridie. _It_s only ye who_s neckin_ vodka like it was tap water._ Agnes_s face smarted red. The women smiled pityingly through tight lips. The pupils of their eyes, hooded by their lids, looked black in the orange street light. Agnes looked into the mug and threw the rest of the vodka down the back of her throat. Bridie held up her hand. _Listen. One day at a time and aw that shite. Ah_ve had a wee problem maself. Six weans and a husband out of work? You better believe ah drank._ She squashed the finished cigarette doubt into the dust with a sandalled toe. _It was the blackouts that did me in though. Ah couldn_t take that first five minutes of every day waking up and wondering who said what to who and what bastard ah_d had a fight wi_. Ye_d go into the kitchen scratching for a cup of tea, and they all look at ye side-a-ways. Then ye_d look around and one of them would have a black eye. Then ye_d go to the mirror and ye_d have one an_ all._ The women all nodded in empathy. Nobody laughed. Jinty added, _I_ve stood up at Dolan_s shop talking about Dallas with women ah_d dragged along the street by the hair the night afore._ She curled her hands into fists, her thin body animated by the scandal. Then she pointed at skull face_s house across the road. _Do ye a_member the time Colleen felt Isa was making eyes at Big Jamesy?_ Bridie tutted. _That was a nonsense. They_re blood. Everybody always forgets that._ _Well, there was no telling Colleen about that._ Jinty turned to Agnes. _Now oor Colleen disnae take a drink. She_s right close to the Baby Jesus, takes him everywhere in her heart. But this one Monday morning, she took a drink, a right good hammering. She_s gone up the post office and done in her Monday Book, spent every fuckin_ penny and swilled it down her neck. Her weans were greetin_ and starvin_, and she drank every drop. She gets a plastic bag and goes up and down that road scoopin_ up dog shite. White ones, black ones, runny and hard, near fills the bag to the top. She took this bag of dog shite and staggers up the road there._ Jinty pointed towards the slag hills. _She puts on a yellow marigold glove and she starts throwin_. Ah mean absolutely covers the front of Isa_s house. She was throwin_ that shite and screamin_ for Big Jamesy to come out there and face her like a man._ _What happened?_ Agnes asked. _Aye, ah_m getting to it._ Jinty slung a sly look over her shoulder to Colleen_s gate. _She showers the place in dog shite, you could smell it for miles. It goes on the windows, sticks to the pebble-dash. Drenched. Lord knows ah_m no a big fan of Isa_her man took early redundancy from the Pit, and she spent it at the bingo and won a pretty penny_bu-ut I do not condone throwing shite in the street like a savage._ Bridie took up the tale. _Anyway, turns out Big Jamesy wisnae diddling Isa. He was working. Working! Of all the things to be doing. He got himself a part-time job hauling scrap and couldnae tell anyone for fear they_d shop him to the disability._ Jinty kissed her Saint Christopher. _Here Colleen thought he was at it, and the man was out trying to make a bit of extra money._ _Thank God for blackouts._ Bridie crossed herself solemnly. _Look. Ah know why ye drink, hen. It_s hard to cope sometimes. Ah steer clear of the drink, but ah still need a couple of these every day._ She took a baby_s aspirin bottle out of her pocket. _Bridie_s little pals._ _Aspirin?_ asked Agnes. _Naw!_ Bridie licked her top lip, she leaned in closer. _Valium. If you want just try a couple. A wee taste that_s all. If you want more, I_ll look after ye. Special price._ Bridie pushed down and unscrewed the lid of the small plastic bottle with a smile. She tipped two into Agnes_s palm like they were sweeties. _Here, just try it, and welcome to Pithead._ Ten His mother was nowhere to be found. He cupped the bone-white tooth in his hand; the little incisor floated in a pool of spittle and blood, and he was sure he might die. Was this what happened now that he was seven? He was afraid to probe his teeth with his tongue should they all come loose. He needed to find her to ask. But his mother was gone. Shuggie stood with his face against the rusty metal gate and watched a pack of pit dogs roam by. Five male dogs harassed a small black female dog. They made a high yipping noise as they prowled past, and Shuggie pushed his lips between the fence slats and sang along with them, yip yip yip. He listened to the dog_s song, and it was as if they were calling him outside. He wasn_t allowed out the front gate without telling her, but then she wasn_t here. Keeping his plimsolls planted firmly inside, he stuck his head out and looked left and then looked right. He played a game of holding his breath and then darting out and darting back, all the while stealing glances up and down the short road to try to see her. She wasn_t there. The pack of dogs called him out of the gate. Shuggie picked up his dirty blond dolly and tossed her out on to the pavement. Daphne landed with a raspy crack and made a snow angel in the dust. He leapt out and grabbed her, darting back inside like a little bony fish, closing the gate with a loud metal clang. He looked over his shoulder, no one came to the window and no one came to Bridie Donnelly_s window. There was no one watching. She wasn_t there. Shuggie opened the gate again and followed the dogs. There was a clutch of women standing in men_s slippers on the corner. They had been talking animatedly about something, but he saw how they lowered their voices as he approached. One of them turned and curtsied towards him. Trying to look casual, like he didn_t care, he made a show of dancing along the dusty road past the chapel on the hill. He made a great game of kicking plumes of dust into the sky and danced farther and farther from home. He came to the Catholic school and watched children play at their morning break. He stood in the shade of a horse chestnut tree and wondered why he wasn_t in school himself. There hadn_t been cartoons on that morning, so it hadn_t been Saturday, he knew that much, but she hadn_t laid his clothes out like she sometimes did, so he hadn_t gone, and she hadn_t said anything. The boys were mercilessly kicking a bladder into the corner of the playground, and they saw him before he noticed them watching. _What_s that ye_ve got?_ shouted the smaller of the brown brothers, the sons of the skull-faced woman, Colleen McAvennie. Shuggie instinctively hid the Daphne doll behind his back. _Hello,_ said Shuggie with a polite wave. He mimicked the swishing curtsy of the miner_s wife and gracefully extended his left leg out behind himself. Open-mouthed, they peered through the peeling railings and drew their eyes up and down the length of him. _How come ye_re no in school?_ asked Gerbil, the younger one, picking flakes of green paint from the iron. _I don_t know,_ Shuggie admitted with a shrug. The boys were only a few years older than him but were already thick-built and brown from summers spent outside, exploring marshes and throwing cats into the Pit_s quarries. He had seen them easily move heavy loads of their father_s scrap from the back of his lorry. Francis McAvennie narrowed his dark eyes and said, _It_s a_cos your mammy is an auld alky._ He watched Shuggie_s face to see the sting of the words. Gerbil McAvennie put a flake of iron paint between his lips. _How come ye don_t have a daddy?_ His voice was already deep like a man_s. _I d-do,_ Shuggie stuttered. Gerbil smiled. _Where is he then?_ This Shuggie didn_t know. He had heard he was a whoremaster and that he was raising another woman_s weans while he fucked every bastarding thing that sat in the back of his taxi. But it didn_t seem right to admit this. _He_s on night shift. Making money for our holidays._ The break bell went, and Father Barry came out to line up the playing children. Gerbil reached his hand through the fence, his long fingers snatching at Shuggie_s doll. Francis gurgled like a happy baby and joined in the game till they were both grabbing wildly. Shuggie stepped back into the shade of the horse chestnut tree. _I_m telling Father Barry on ye! Ye should be in school,_ they screamed. Clutching Daphne to his chest, Shuggie turned on his heels and ran away as quickly as he could. He was out of breath by the time he came across the Miners Club, but he could still hear the McAvennie boys calling out for Father Barry. The club was run-down and empty-looking. Shuggie pulled himself up and hung from the bars on the windows. Then he idled around the forecourt, where spent lager kegs bled out puddles of flat ale. The dirty lager mixed with petrol and made lochans of shining rainbows. Shuggie knelt down and pushed Daphne_s blond hair into the iridescent puddle. When he took her out, the shiny yellow hair had turned the colour of night, and he tutted. Where were the beautiful rainbow colours? He pushed her down again and held her under the surface longer this time. Her eyes automatically closed, like she was sleeping, but she was smiling so he knew she was OK. When he lifted the doll out of the puddle, the black liquid rolled off her face and down on to her white woollen dress. Her cheap yellow hair had turned matte black. He stared at it and realized that for a minute he had forgotten about his mother. Daphne smelled funny. For a while he weaved in and out of the lager puddles. He peered out on to the road, and when he was absolutely sure Father Barry was not looking for him he darted across the road and into the mouth of a wooded lane he had not seen before. The lane backed a row of older-looking miners_ cottages that were joined at the back with a communal garden. At the near edge of the garden sat a large brick bin shed. It was flat and rectangular, with no windows and a dark opening, where a painted green door now hung open and broken. At the side of the bin shed lay a washing machine, the kind used in hospitals or government buildings, solid and big as a wardrobe. It was too heavy for the bin men to take away, so it lay rusting next to the shed, and fat lazy flies dipped in and out of its shadow. Inside the machine sat a boy, with his legs above his head, curled around the drum like a broken-backed cat. _Want a spin in my carnival ride?_ Shuggie was startled to find him in there. The boy swung inside the drum and rocked in semicircles, in one second his feet were above his head, the next his head were above his feet. _Look, it_s dead fun!_ he coaxed. Shuggie held Daphne out to him and offered her up for first go. The boy uncurled from inside the drum, pushing out his long brown legs, like a spider through a keyhole. He arched his body out backwards; straightening, he was almost as tall as the metal machine. He was a good year older than Shuggie, at least eight or nine, starting the long stretch already. _Hiya. Ma name_s Johnny. Ma maw calls us Bonny Johnny._ he said with a tight smile. _It_s supposed to be like a wrestler_s name, but I think it_s pure shite._ He slapped his own forearm like the wrestlers on television did before a fight. He chopped at the empty air. _Whit_s your name, wee man?_ _Hugh Bain,_ he said in a shy voice. _Shuggie._ The boy was watching him, peering through half-lidded eyes the same way Shuggie had seen the miners_ children squint when he raised his hand in class. It was a blend of disbelief and disdain. He had often seen his granny look at his father this way. Shuggie turned his left kneecap inwards. Then Johnny smiled. His face changed so quickly it made Shuggie take a step back. It was like a flick of a light switch, and his face brightened like a bare bulb in an empty room. _Is that a dolly ye_ve got, Shuggie?_ The boy was using his name like he had known him a long while. Without waiting for an answer he added, _Are ye a wee girl?_ He stepped into the long grass, flattening it as he came. Shuggie shook his head again. _If ye_re no_ a wee girl then ye must be a wee poof._ He tightened his smile. His voice was low and sweet, like he was talking to a puppy. _Ye_re no_ a wee poof, are ye?_ Shuggie didn_t know what a poof was, but he knew it was bad. Catherine called Leek it when she wanted to hurt his feelings. _Do ye no_ know what a poofter is, wee man? A poof is a boy who does dirty things with other boys._ Johnny was up against Shuggie now, nearly double his height. _A poof is a boy who wants to be a wee girl._ Bonny Johnny was a dirty white colour, like he had been steeped in tea. He had sepia skin and honey-coloured hair and eyes like amber lager. When Johnny smiled he had all his big boy teeth already. Shuggie worried the gap in his own smile with his tongue. Johnny snatched the doll from him and tossed her into the drum. _See! She wants a ride._ Johnny pressed himself into Shuggie_s back, put his arms around his waist and lifted him up into the mouth of the machine. Shuggie climbed up into the drum, and he felt a helping hand give him a final push as he tumbled in. Clutching Daphne, he looked back out into the daylight, his bare legs chilled by the cold metal. Johnny grabbed a raised ridge inside the drum and moved it slowly from left to right, rocking it as gently as a baby_s crib. Shuggie fell over and scrambled for ballast against the swinging, he tensed all his muscles and bared his teeth, like a scared cat. Daphne slid away, clanging around the cylinder. Johnny kept on rocking gently. _See it_s no_ that bad, is it?_ The motion came to remind Shuggie of the pirate ship ride that sat outside his grandfather_s favourite bakery. He gurgled with involuntary laughter. _Haud on,_ said Johnny. He gripped the metal ridge tighter, and bracing his body against the machine for purchase, he rocked it harder. Shuggie_s head and knees travelled in semicircles as Daphne hit the roof. The muscles on Johnny_s neck stood out as he pulled the drum round with all his might. Shuggie spun head over heels. He spun over and over, again and again, his head cracking on the metal paddles, his foot hitting him square in the back. The drum slowed and Shuggie crashed into an upside-down heap. A thick arm grabbed one of the metal bars and stopped the centrifuge. A siren wail rose in Shuggie as the pain shot down through his crown, his split knee, and his bruised shins. From behind his waterfall of tears he could see a large hand come down again and again on Johnny_s head, the boy ducking for cover to protect his face. The attacker was too tall for Shuggie to see a face, just the angry lashings of a tattooed arm, slapping the boy_s bare neck and shoulders. _Whit in the name of the wee man have ah telt ye about playing with that fuckin_ washin_ machine?_ scolded the headless torso. With his fat thumb, the man jabbed towards the drum. Filtered. That. The fuck out of there, afore ah really gie ye something to greet about._ As swiftly as the figure had arrived, it disappeared again. Johnny stood in the opening looking like a battered dog. His smile was gone, his ears were pinned down. He reached in and plucked Shuggie out of the drum. _Listen. Ye stop that greetin_, or I_ll gie you something to greet about._ Out of the drum the daylight was almost blinding. The pain in his head stole the colour from his sight. Johnny looked the boy up and down. There was blood on Shuggie_s leg from where the metal had burst the skin, and bruises were already showing on his arms and legs. Johnny whipped him around the corner through the black flies and into the cool darkness of the bin shed. It smelt sour as curdled yoghurt. In the dark, Johnny spat on his hand and rubbed it over the boy_s wet face and then down the length of his bloody leg. It made everything worse. The blood became a spittle wash, smearing further instead of wiping away. The boy grew panicked, his eyes wide in fear. He ripped a handful of large green docken leaves out of the dirt and scraped them up and down Shuggie_s leg. He scrubbed until the blood lifted off and was replaced by a thick trail of mushed green plant mucus. The chlorophyll stung the cut. Shuggie started to girn again. _Haud still you poofy wee bastard._ All the tones of his earlier friendliness were gone. Shuggie could see his father_s red hand marks blooming across Johnny_s sepia skin. It was quiet in the bin shed but for the buzz of fat bluebottles. Johnny rubbed and rubbed the little boy_s leg until his breathing calmed. His rubbing turned Shuggie from white to red to a deep green. As the panic left Johnny_s eyes, slowly the fake smile returned to his tanned face. It was very dark in the bin shed. Bonny Johnny stood up again, a wiry silhouette against the bright daylight. He handed Shuggie the pulped green leaves and then he took down his gym shorts. _Stop girning,_ he said, through his big boy teeth. _Now you rub me._ By the time Shuggie had limped back to the Miners Club the sun had nearly dried up the rainbow puddles. He_d left Daphne in the machine. He didn_t ever want to go back. As he climbed the stairs to the hallway he could hear her on the phone. _Fuck you, Joanie Micklewhite. You tell that whoremastering son of a Proddy bitch that he cannot have his cake and eat it too!_ Each filthy syllable was enunciated with the alarming clarity of the Queen_s English. _You shitty, dick-sucking bastard. You are as plain and tasteless as the arse end of a white loaf._ The receiver went down with a clang, and the bells tinkled with the impact. Shuggie reached the end of the hallway and turned the corner. His mother sat cross-legged at the little telephone table with the mug on her knee. She looked at him like he had risen from the carpet itself. She didn_t notice his missing tooth or the leg, stained with blood and spit and docken. Plastered on her face was the glassy grimace that came from under the kitchen sink. She took her earring and threw it across the room before she picked up the phone again. _Now I_m in a mood to tell your granny where to fucking go._ The house was only a stone_s throw from the bus stop, but Leek walked home very slowly. His legs were heavy from the day_s graft on the Youth Training Scheme, his insides heavy with the dread of what might lie at home. He only hoped for a peaceful hour so he could draw, but it had been a year free of peace since they had moved to the Pit. He knew Catherine would not come home again tonight. She was getting adept at sneaking around under Agnes_s nose, holding her secret life with Donald Jnr away from their disintegrating mother. Instead, Catherine blamed her boss for all manner of slave-driving and told Agnes she would be late at the office and would need to stay at her granny_s. Leek saw how his mother worried over money, how she worshipped Catherine_s weekly pittance, and so she said nothing. Leek knew Catherine really was at Donald Jnr_s, lying on the blowup mattress in his mother_s spare room and trying to keep her hand locked over her modesty until Donald finally married her. After all his years of practice, Leek was angry that it was Catherine who was disappearing first. It was still daylight, but there were harsh lights on in every room, and the curtains lay open in a shameful way. It was a very bad sign. In the front room Shuggie was idling between the net curtain and the glass. His palms and nose were pressed flat against the window, he was rocking his head back and forth in a soothing way, and no one was telling him to stop. When he saw his brother he mouthed Leek and left a grease smear on the glass. The net curtains fluttered to life. A shadow fell across the window, and Agnes appeared behind her youngest. Leek raised his hand in a half wave and put his other on the gate in a gesture that said he was coming home. Agnes smiled out at him, the too-toothy grimace that telegraphed a thousand messages. Her eyes seemed dull to him, unfixed, and instantly he knew she was gone. She disappeared again, back to the telephone table, back to the drink. Leek picked up his tool bag and turned away from the house. There was an insistent chink-chink on the glass. Shuggie_s lips were wide as he overenunciated dramatically: Where. Are. You. Going? Leek mouthed silently, To Granny_s. Shuggie tried to steady his lips. Can. I. Come? No. It_s too far. I can_t carry you. What he never told Shuggie was that he had once found his real father_s address. Brendan McGowan. It was there, in Agnes_s phone book, circled in many different colours and thicknesses of ink, as if she had gone back to it, again and again, over the years. Leek had walked to this address the winter before and had sat on the wall opposite the broad Victorian tenement. He_d watched a man come home from work, a man he didn_t recognize, but who shared the same tired stoop. A man with eyes of the same light grey. The man parked his car in front of the building and then walked past Leek on the street with nothing more than a polite nod. As the door opened, three small faces had raced down the close to greet him. Leek had watched the happy, rowdy family sit and eat at a dining table pressed against the front window. He_d watched them talk over the top of each other, the children standing defiantly upright on the dining chairs as the man laughed at their excitement. Leek had watched for a long time before he folded the address and dropped it between the slats of a storm drain. Leek picked up his tool bag and headed out of Pithead. He turned his back to Shuggie and dared not look again at the pleading face in the window. It was going to rain and it would be a long walk to Sighthill. He was tired, he had been tired for a long time now. All he wanted was a rest. Eleven Colourless daylight poured through the net curtains. It poked her in the face, and with a snort she thumped back into consciousness. Agnes opened her eyes slowly and found herself staring at the cream Artexed ceiling with its icy stalagmite texture. Her lips wouldn_t close over the sticky film on her top teeth as the dry boak rose inside her. Under her right hand she felt the slippery damask fabric of the armchair. Her fingers traced the familiar fag-burn holes. She was vaguely upright, cradling a dead phone receiver. She sat still awhile, her head tilted over the back of the chair, like an open pedal bin. She closed her eyes again and listened to her brain thump loudly. Like a tide, the blood flushed in and out, in and out of her skull. Over the ebb she could tell the house was empty. It was early, but the boy had taken himself off to school again. He had already missed too many days. Too many days sat at her feet, just waiting and watching. The school didn_t like that. Father Barry had said that the Social Work would have to be notified if he did not start having a regular attendance. Some mornings she would wake up with a fright and find Shuggie staring at her. He would be dressed, dwarfed by the bag slung over both shoulders, his face washed and his wet hair parted and brushed in the front only. She would lie there, fully dressed, trying to pull her dry lips over her teeth, while he would say, _Good morning,_ and then quietly turn and leave for school. He hadn_t wanted to leave without letting her know he would be right back afterwards. He took her pinkie in his and swore it. The house was quiet. She tilted her head forward into her hands, and the blood filled the back of her eyes. Shuggie wasn_t standing there as usual. On the table in front of her was a mug of cold tea, the top already congealed with a milky skin. Next to that a slice of white toast poked through with a clumsy knife, littered with lumps of butter too thick to spread. With a hand over her eyes she scanned the low coffee table for something to calm the shakes. She tilted mugs towards her and looked inside for a mouthful of beer. The mugs were empty. Agnes reached for a cigarette and with a sorry whimper pulled the last one out of the packet. She lit it with shaking fingers and took a long drag. Feeling no better, she got up and shuffled around the couch looking for hidden quarter bottles or half-finished cans. She stoated around the empty house, tipping out all the hiding places that might hold a forgotten drink: the laundry basket, behind the vinyl video case covers that were made to look like encyclopaedias. On her knees, she pulled all the empty grocery bags out from underneath the kitchen sink till she knelt waist-deep in a cumulus of blue and white plastic. The panic set in. From room to room she wandered, making shrieking, sucking noises of frustration through her front teeth. She had to keep stopping to spit gobbets of rising boak into sinks and old tea mugs. She dug out her big black leather bag and rifled around inside for her purse, sprang the metal clasp at the top, and opened it. Saint Jude rolled around at the bottom in a bed of fluff and grit. It was Thursday, and all the Monday and all the Tuesday benefit money was already done in. On the Monday prior, she had lain awake through the night waiting for the radio clock to turn to eight. In high heels and uneven eyeshadow she had fairly run up the Pit Road to cash what the miners_ wives called the _Monday Book._ Standing at the back of the benefit queue, her head held high, her hands shaking in her pockets, Agnes had tried to ignore the women in their thin nylon jackets that made dry swishing noises. She stood there separate and aloof, as they rattled with their smoker_s cough, grumbling with sticky phlegm. Thirty-eight pounds a week was meant to keep and feed them all. It made mothers stand in the little shop and look at pint cartons of milk like they were a luxury. Agnes cashed the Monday Book with the air of a queen. She walked directly past the milk to the front of the shop, and promptly bought twelve cans of Special Brew. She talked cheerily about the good weather they had been having, but the Indian man said nothing. She was sure the blue elephant thing hanging behind him was giving her the hairy eyeball. She reclasped her purse demurely as he slid the cold metal tins into a plastic bag. The women behind her did sums out loud, their lips moving as they counted, adding bread to oven chips to cigarettes and then, defeated, putting the bread quietly back on the shelf. Agnes slipped back out into the street, and behind the low sandstone shop, she crouched in the broken glass and popped open the first cold can. On a Tuesday morning she went back to the shop already with a drink in her. She glided up the dual carriageway, her knees dipping elegantly with each step. Agnes cashed in her Tuesday Book of eight pounds fifty in child support. Fortified by the Special Brew she told the shopkeeper that his blue elephant gave her the _heebie-jeebies._ But it was Thursday now. She looked down into the purse, empty but for Saint Jude and the oose gathering in the creases. Sad, selfish tears of the poor me_s welled in her eyes. She raked a finger through the dirty ashtray. She needed to think what to do next. The alcohol leaving her body made it hard to watch the television, so she ran a hot bath. The water would make her feel less cold, less sore. She rinsed the sweat and flatness out of her hair. She took the flannel cloth and began wiping the taste off her teeth and lay back in the scalding water and thought how she could get some money. Across her soft middle ran a deep red welt where, after she had passed out, her black tights had dug in, bruising the flesh. She stuck her finger in the welt. It ran across her spare tyre like a train track and that made her think of the Glasgow train, Paddy_s Market, which lay underneath its arches, and the pawnshop that sat there. Without drying herself she ran about the house in a wet housecoat looking for something to pawn. In the daylight everything looked cheap and worthless. She turned every Capodimonte ornament in her hands and even tried picking up the black-and-white television, but she would never be able to hump it by foot into the city. In the bedroom she considered her jewellery, all the odd pieces that were lying loose in an old penny-bank bag: the Claddagh rings her mother had given her, her granny_s locket, Catherine_s christening bangle. It took effort, but she reluctantly put the bag back in the drawer. She did a sly amble past Leek_s heavy toolbox. She nudged it with her toe. It was empty, he had taken all the tools with him to the YTS job site. He had carried it all, even the things he would surely not need. He had learned his lesson the last time she had been itching for pawn. Agnes scratched at her palm. She kicked the empty toolbox and went to Catherine_s wardrobe. She was surprised to find so little inside, it was like Catherine was a lodger who hadn_t committed to a new place. She turned a pair of high suede boots in her hand, but they had long been ruined with rain and mud. Losing hope, she opened the little linen cupboard that held the good towels. There, folded away in a bin bag, was the old-fashioned mink coat she had bought on Brendan McGowan_s good tick. She took the plastic bag out of the cupboard and pushed her hand inside to the furry pelt. It felt like pure money. Within the hour she had her hair set, the long mink coat on, and was walking up the main road the long miles to Paddy_s Market. She walked against the traffic, her head high, with a knowing smile on her face. The Pit grit pushed into her open heels as if it were beach sand. She straightened her back to look like she enjoyed letting the rushing traffic blow through her hair and tried to ignore the fine dust that rasped between her toes. Passing cars slowed at the odd sight. Her face burned with the flying grit and the shame, but she tilted her head back and walked on. She felt like she must have looked mental. Every time she neared a bus stop she lingered like she was waiting for a bus, making a grand gesture of looking up her sleeve at a watch she did not own. Then she waited until the traffic thinned a little and walked on to the next one, her head thumping, her heart burning. Four miles or so from the scheme, a bus slowed and actually stopped for her. Looking the other way she took one hand from her mink pocket and waved it away, like she was too good, as miners_ wives gawped out the window at her. By the time she reached the outskirts of the city it had started to spit. It was a light sprinkle at first that hung on the tips of the coat and glistened like hairspray. Agnes was exhausted from walking in the high heels, but as she crossed the narrow streets of her first marriage, the fear that she could meet someone she knew made her walk faster. The spit became a downpour and soon the drenched coat slapped off her bare legs like a wet dog tail. She took refuge in a tenement doorway and watched the buses push dirty waves on to the pavement. For a moment, she missed the good Catholic. Black mascara ran down her cheeks. She had a crumpled wad of toilet paper, and folding the sour boak stains into the back she wiped the lines beneath her eyes. The coat was sodden and matted in places where the water had pooled and sat. She took an ornament out of each pocket and rubbed the glass faces of the ballerinas till they were dry. Across the road sat a long grey building. On the left hand was a taxi garage of sorts, where parts of broken black hacks and minibuses lay around like dinosaur bones, and somewhere in the back a radio played. Beyond this sat a small office, and through the dirty window Agnes could see that the walls were lined with new fan belts and hubcaps, tins of grease, and bottles of engine oil. It was a heavy service garage, not for the casual motorist. There were no packaged sandwiches, no maps of things to see. A little bell rang as Agnes went inside. She was making a puddle on the floor as a man in overalls came through at the bell_s command. Red-haired, stocky, and flat-faced, his head joined directly to his body as if a neck were an unnecessary luxury. He looked up from his dirty hands, surprised to see a beautiful lady in a fur coat standing there. _I_m really very sorry to bother you,_ started Agnes, in her best Milngavie accent. _But I got caught in the rain and I wondered if you had a toilet I may use. You know. To tidy up a little._ She pointed at the wet coat. _Well __ He rubbed his stubble. _It_s no really for customers._ Agnes pulled at the coat; it shook big globs of water. _Oh, right,_ she said, her eyes falling to the dirty floor. He studied her for a minute and with a scratch of his thick arm declared, _Well, ye dinnae look like a customer either, so ah suppose that mibbe it wid be alright._ He led her through the garage. Taxis lay in states of disrepair, leaking motor oil that made the floor difficult to walk on in heels. She watched the coat drip on to the greasy cement and the water bead and run away like little tears. _Um, wait there just a minute,_ said the man. He darted nervously inside a thin red door. She heard the rrshhhh noise of canned air freshener, and he appeared a minute later with rolls of magazines and newspapers under his arm. _It_s a bit basic, but ye_ll find all ye need._ As he held the door, a blonde with big tits peeped out with a saucy wink from under his arm. Agnes went into the filthy bathroom and closed the door tight. She stood for a long while looking at the melted old hoor in the mirror. In the toilet there was no automatic dryer, so she took a handful of paper towels and started grabbing fistfuls of the wet coat, pressing the towel into it like she had spilt something on a carpet. As much as she could grab and squeeze, the coat kept giving out more and more rainwater. It took her a long time before she felt composed enough to step back out into the garage. The man was right outside the door, frozen to the spot, with two mismatched mugs. _You looked like ye could use a warm cup of tea._ _Do I look that bad?_ _Oh, naw._ She took the mug; it was only slightly oily. _I must look like a drowned rat,_ she said, in the hopes he would disagree. _Drowned mink, really._ As the man looked around for a clean seat, Agnes studied him closely. He had washed his face since she came in. There was a ring of oil round his neck and sideburns where the cloth had missed, and the front of his fair hair was still wet against his pink face. He was handsome, she thought, in a solid, Shetland pony sort of way. He pulled out a bar stool, and she noticed his left hand had only two fingers and a thumb, the other two gone like he had chewed them down when he was nervous. He met her eyes and moved the hand behind his back. _It_s a long story._ Agnes cringed, embarrassed to have been caught staring. _We_ve all got a couple of them._ _Missing fingers?_ _No,_ she laughed. _Long stories._ _Like how youse are off to pawn that coat?_ She laughed again, too sharply this time, and then she stopped. He wasn_t laughing with her now. She brought that Milngavie voice out again, the one that said, I am a woman with a rich man and a big house. _I am not off to pawn this coat. What on earth gives you that idea?_ Without hesitation the man said, _Oh, ah_ll gie ye one better. Ye_re off to pawn that coat, ye_ve walked here aw the way frae Ballieston or Rutherglen._ He looked off to the side. _No, wait! There_s a pawnshop in Rutherglen._ He went quiet for a minute. _You_ve walked here from __ he snapped the fingers of his good hand. _Pithead!_ Agnes blanched. _Am ah right?_ _No._ He paused for a minute and looked at her over the top of his cracked mug. _God, ah_m sorry, Missus. Ah mean, how fuckin_ rude of me. Ah thought ye were off to pawn that coat. Ye know, for drink money like._ Agnes lowered the mug from her cold lips. Her eyes found his. _Well, you_re wrong._ _Aye, well now, is that right?_ _Yes._ _Well, that_s for the best then, int_it?_ _Why?_ she asked, despite herself. _Cos the Gallowgate pawnshop is shut for gasworks, that_s why._ She scowled at him to see his bluff. He only raised an eyebrow. _Look, ah wisnae trying to be rude. Honest Injun. It_s just that it takes one to know one, eh?_ He held up his bad hand in testimony and wiggled his two good fingers. Agnes sat the mug down with a slosh. _Thank you for letting me use your toilet, but really I_d better go. My husband will be worried sick._ _Aye, ye do that. It_s a long walk home in the rain. Still, mibbe ye_ll find that wedding ring ye_ve lost._ Agnes had gone right off of him. She lifted her head high and pushed her black curls away from her face. _What do you want with all this?_ He turned his mouth down in disappointment. _Nothing. Well, not what youse think anyway. Look, Missus, ye just came in here in a right sorry state, and from the look o_ ye, there was a thing or two ah could easy tell._ He slowed himself slightly. _Ah could tell because ah_d been through it maself, that_s all. Don_t get your knickers in a knot. Finish your tea, won_t ye? Ah used a new teabag for that cup and everything._ Agnes took up the tea again, using it to hide her shock, to fill the silence, to stop the bubbling inside her gut. _So, have ye been to the AA yet?_ Agnes stared at him blankly. _Alcoholics Anonymous?_ He started singing, _Wan day at a time, sweet Jee-sus?_ Agnes shook her head. _Well, are ye at least willing to admit ye have a problem?_ He tilted his head like a tired schoolteacher. _Ye came in here wi_ the level-five shakes._ _I _ I was wet _ and cold._ He laughed. _Look, when ye are wet or cold yer knees knock and yer teeth chatter. Ye know, like this._ He made a cartoon impression of a frozen lunatic. _BUT! When ye are scratching around looking for a bottle of lighter fluid to drink, ye shake like this._ The man shook like a reanimated corpse. The shame rose in her again. _What would you know about it?_ _Ah know that yon mink will only get you about six bottles of vodka and mibbe a hot fish supper._ He picked at his teeth. _Well, at least my mammy_s did when I robbed it off of her. I also know that six bottles of vodka, a fish supper, and three nights spent sleeping in the gutter will gie ye septicaemia._ He waggled his half fingers again. They were quiet for a while after that. He opened a packet of cigarettes, and after taking one from the pack with his teeth, he offered the pack to Agnes. Agnes lit the cigarette and drew on it like she was famished. Her shoulders fell, and catching her breath she gazed around at the black hack graveyard. _Do you know a taxi driver named Shug Bain, by any chance?_ _Cannae say that ah do,_ said the man, studying her face. _He_s a short, fat, balding pig. Fancies himself as a Casanova._ _That could be any one of them,_ he laughed. _What rank is he wi_?_ _Northside._ _Naw, they put their motors in at yon garage on the Red Road. Probably never met him._ _Well, if you ever meet him could you fix his brakes?_ The man smiled. _For you, beautiful, absolutely._ The man finished his cigarette and went on studying Agnes. _He_s no the reason you_re headed down the plughole, is he?_ Agnes didn_t answer. He began to howl meanly: _Ah-ha, ya daft eejit. Doin_ yersel in for a man._ Her shoulders pulled up proudly again. _What if I am?_ _Do ye know what to do, if ye really want to get yer own back?_ He paused. So like a man, she thought, to have an opinion on everything. _What?_ _It_s quite easy. Ye should just get the fuck on with it._ He slapped his hands and threw them open in a wide tah-dah gesture. Filtered on wi_ yer fuckin_ life. Have a great life. Ah promise that nothing would piss the pig-faced baldy bastard off more. Guar-rant-teed._ Twelve In the end, Catherine twisted Shuggie_s wrist and dragged him down Renfield Street. The boy had stopped at nearly every corner to silently lodge a protest about how much he didn_t want to go. Without a word he would stand on his laces, and with a sleekit eye on her face he would gently let the knot unravel. _You are bloody doing that on purpose!_ seethed Catherine, bending to retie the school shoes for the fourth time in ten minutes. _Am not,_ said Shuggie with a satisfied smile. He took one of his mother_s romance novels out of his anorak pocket, and opening it, he rested it on the top of Catherine_s head as if she were a hallway table. He started to read. Catherine stood up and snatched the book from him, an angry devil boiling inside her, and she lashed the thick book across the back of her brother_s legs. She seized him by the wrist again. _If we miss this bus there won_t be another for ages, and when you start complaining, _I_m Hun-gry, I_m Thir-sty, I_m Ti-red ___ She mimicked his whine. _Well, you needn_t think I_m going to take pity._ _I don_t sound like that,_ huffed Shuggie, his legs windmilling to keep up with his sister_s stride. He twisted his arm from her grasp. She halted and spun her brother to face her. _Shuggie. I thought we were to be pals. You and me._ Her face didn_t look very friendly. He huffed, _I don_t want to be your friend._ She cupped his chin and turned his head gently back to face her; his eyes followed reluctantly. She ran her fingers through his neat parting and separated the thick black hair the way Agnes liked. The boy had grown so much over the past two years in Pithead. It was hard to describe, he had grown taller but he had also sunk somehow, like bread dough stretched much too thin. She could see he had slid deeper into himself and become more watchful and guarded. He was nearly eight now, and often he could seem so much older. _Now when we get there I want you on your best behaviour._ Catherine smiled a polite hello to an older couple passing in colourful rain cagoules. _Please, do this for me? I_m caught in the middle of a big, big mess, and I_m only asking for a little help._ She looked at his small face, his lips pursed, he looked like a stubborn old wummin. She let her hands fall defeated to her side. _OK, you win. As always. But I want you to know that if you do tell Mammy where I took you today, she will die. Do you hear me? Die!_ Under sullen lids, his eyes swung back to meet her face. _How?_ _Shuggie, if you tell her she will take more and more drink, and she won_t ever be able to stop._ Catherine stood up and unclipped her coin purse; it was cognac-coloured with a painted camel and had been given to her mother by Wullie once. She counted out enough silver coins for two bus fares. _She will drink so much she will wash all the goodness out of her heart. T_chut. If she does that, I don_t think Leek will ever speak to you again._ She closed the old leather purse shut with a satisfied click, and her face brightened. _Oh, look! Here comes the bus._ They sucked on soor plooms and pressed their noses against the front window of the top deck. The bus swung across the river, and Catherine pointed at the bones of the Clyde, the cranes that were out of work for good. She told him about how Donald Jnr had been let go from the shipbuilders, how he wanted to go to Africa for work. _Say a prayer for me, Shuggie __ she pleaded. _I have a long list. I will add you,_ he lisped, his cheek bloated with the sour sweetie. Catherine could believe her brother had been praying his very hardest for lots of things. She picked the raw skin around her thumb and worried again that she was doing the wrong thing. Since Shug had left her mother, she had told herself that it was not her fault. It rarely worked, but the selfish part of her would not be dissuaded. It wasn_t fair: just because her mother had lost her man, why should she give up hers? When they got off the bus, they passed rows of identical brown houses, all with fenced-in gardens in the front. None of the houses had any flowers. Catherine walked up a narrow path and through a heavy brown door without knocking. She stepped on to a stranger_s hall carpet and waved at her brother to follow. Shuggie had never seen this house before; he was suddenly scared at how familiar it all was to Catherine. The house was warm, like there were plenty of coins in the meter, and it smelled rich and sweet with the scent of roasted potatoes and meat gravy. Catherine sat on the carpeted stairs that ran to a second floor. She unzipped his anorak and hung it on the banister. Shuggie could hear televisions roar different channels from different rooms. The Old Firm match was on in the front parlour, and cartoons were honking and tweeting from somewhere upstairs. Catherine fixed his tie and kissed his cold cheek. _Best behaviour, right?_ She led him through to the back of the house, where a warm dining room was connected by a serving hatch to a thin kitchenette. As they came in, six or seven adults Shuggie didn_t know turned at once and smiled. Catherine dropped her brother_s hand and went to a man who looked like Donny Osmond. She kissed him lightly on the mouth. _We were wondering where you had gotten to,_ said the man, rubbing the back of his fingers gently over her cold cheeks. _You should try dragging him through a packed town centre._ She turned to her brother, who was standing in the doorway. _Shuggie, don_t just stand there, come over here and say hello to your Uncle Rascal._ Shuggie stepped into the dining room, the heat and the smell of roast ham made him feel light-headed. He wrapped one arm around Catherine_s legs as she introduced him to the adults who were huddled around a sliding door, smoking cigarettes and making a great show of blowing smoke carefully out into the back garden. He didn_t recall most of their names as soon as they were said. She turned him towards an armchair in the corner. _This is your Uncle Rascal._ She gave the boy a light push. Shuggie held out a polite hand and shook the man_s paw. So vague was his memory of his father that for a moment he thought the man could be him. There were the same ruddy flushed cheeks and a thick, manicured half-moon of a moustache. The man looked like a photo Shuggie had seen once, hidden underneath his mother_s underthings in a drawer, but instead this man still had a thick head of hair, which was dyed a gravy brown but real and thick and all his own. Rascal pumped the boy_s arm till it hurt. _Been too long, wee man! Terrible situation that it is._ The man smiled. There were happy stars in his eyes. Catherine introduced him to the Donny Osmond who had kissed her. _This is Donald. You remember, don_t you? Well, Donald and I are getting married._ The boy glanced up at her. _Will I get cake?_ The man stepped forward and shook Shuggie_s hand. He looked like he had brushed his brown hair from the underside, so that it curved like the cap on a shiny button mushroom. He was pink and thick and friendly-looking. He pumped the boy_s hand too. _I see it. I can. I can see the resemblance now,_ he roared. _I_m sorry there are no more big boats for you to hammer,_ said Shuggie earnestly. _No bother, wee man,_ said Donald. _Will you come visit us when we live in Africa?_ Catherine scowled at Donald as she lifted her brother and nearly pushed him whole through the serving hatch into the kitchenette. There was a mess of bubbling pots, and a deep-fat fryer full of roast potatoes was crackling in the corner. Catherine introduced him to Donald_s mother, his Auntie Peggy. Everything about her was small and pointed, from the happy corners of her eyes to the pink tips of her ears. Catherine whispered into Shuggie_s ear, and the boy repeated: _Thank you. For. Having me. To dinner. Auntie. Peggy._ _So, where is he?_ asked Catherine, lowering her brother. _I_ve lied and lied and dragged this boy through the town for him. Are you to tell me he_s not showed up?_ Shuggie felt a flick on the back of his bare neck, a thick flat fingernail welt like the ones Gerbil McAvennie gave when Father Barry was not looking. _Oww!_ _Don_t stand there with your back to me, son._ The man in the black suit filled the doorway, not in height but in breadth. Shuggie eyed him with caution. There again was the thick moustache and the quick eyes from the photograph. This man was flushed-looking, his head pink and scrubbed clean under long thin strands of brown hair that were combed over the top. His nose was small and delicate, not like the Campbell bone, and his brows were straight and dark and hid the darting of his clear eyes. Shuggie watched him and wanted to touch his own face, to feel it and see whether he had the same rosy round cheeks, the same thick hair on his lip. Behind the man was a woman, waiting to be introduced, her hands clasped demurely across her front. Shug twisted the ring on his pinkie finger. _Are you not going to give your old man a hug?_ Shuggie had not seen his father in a long time. Anytime Shug had come to the Pit he had made sure the children were in bed first. Shuggie held on to his sister_s leg. Catherine spoke for her brother. _Shug, he_s shy. And no wonder with you flicking at the wean like that._ _It_s the Bain code. Hit them afore they hit you._ He crouched, and Shuggie could hear the heavy swing and clash of many silver coins in his pocket. _I like your tie, very dashing. Are you breaking hearts yet and taking after your old man?_ There was movement behind him as the woman who had been waiting came through. _I swear, travelling on an Old Firm day is a bad idea,_ the woman said. She was worn-out looking, the sides of her eyes puckered as she pulled a tight, reluctant smile. She was shorter than his father, which made her very short. Her hair was clipped close to her head, and Shuggie could see the grey untended roots throughout. She wore a simple V-neck jumper with a large Pringle lion on the chest, and under that she wore a pair of women_s trousers. She looked like one of the dinner ladies at school when they smoked by the bins after lunchtime. Catherine stepped forward without a smile. _It_s nice to meet you, Joanie._ She didn_t look like she meant it. They shook hands, then collided in a clumsy, nervous embrace. Shuggie_s head nearly snapped on his neck, and his lips must have been hanging open because Catherine pulled her quit it face. His father, still crouched, never took his eyes from his son_s and was smiling like he was enjoying himself. Shuggie pulled on Catherine_s blouse. She leaned over, and he cupped a hand over her ear. _Caff, that_s bad Joanie. You are not supposed to like her. That_s the hoor who stole my daddy._ _Say hello to your new mother,_ baited Shug, still grinning. _Go on, give your new mammy a hug._ _No. Some of us know what side our bread is buttered on,_ said Shuggie, leaving the safety of the traitor_s leg. He didn_t know where he had heard that before, probably from her, screaming at her phone table. _Pfft. You_re gonnae need a new mammy, Shuggie. That old one you_ve got is for the knacker_s yard._ Shug stood up with a click of the knee and a wince. _Or the Eastern Hotel, more like._ Joanie waved a small hello to the boy. She held out a paper shopping bag. _You never mind him, son. Sometimes I swear his heart is as empty as a Fenian_s cupboard on a Thursday._ She came forward with the shopping bag, it looked very heavy. _Listen, you don_t have to call me anything but Joanie._ She peered into the bag. _Our Stephanie has outgrown these, but they are so new-looking I hadn_t the heart to throw them out. Would you like them?_ He shook his head no, but his lips said, _What are they?_ She came closer and set the bag between them like she was feeding a cautious beast. Then Joanie the Hoor took two steps back. _Ye_ll just have to look and see._ His father came out of the kitchenette with a tall glass of milk, there was already a rich line of cream on his bristles. He leaned against the wall and watched the boy hug the safety of the corner. Shuggie wanted to step away from the bag, wanted to pretend like he wasn_t interested, but it was calling to him, and he found himself stepping towards it. He tapped the bottom of the bag with his toe and it was heavy. He used a finger to push it open. At the bottom were eight bright yellow wheels. His eyes were wide as saucers as he took out the first roller boot. _I still don_t know why we couldn_t have given him Andrew_s old bladder fitba,_ said Shug to Joanie. They were a bumblebee-yellow suede with white stripes and white laces. The laces were fed through a dozen holes, and the boots went up nearly to his knee. He loved them. _What do you say to Joanie?_ prodded Catherine. He wanted to pretend he did not care. He wanted to put the boots back in the bag and tell Catherine that they had to leave. He felt like a traitor. He was no better than his sister. Auntie Peggy_s high voice came out of the kitchen hatch. _Shug. You_ll never believe what the Prodigal has gone and done._ Shug smirked at his nephew and then smirked at Catherine in a way that made her want to fold her hands over her chest, over her belly. Donald Jnr spoke first. _No! It_s no that, Uncle Shug. I_ve got an offer of work, good high-paying work where I get to be lord and master over four dozen men._ Shug finished the last of his milk. _But I was looking forward to seeing you on that rank._ _You might see him on the Renfrew Street rank yet,_ said Catherine, as she helped Shuggie into the new boots. She turned her head, spoke to Donald Jnr over the small bones of her shoulder. _I have a career of my own, you know. I can_t just up sticks and follow you around like a shadow._ Shug watched her try to master his nephew and laughed. _Donnie Boy! You thought you were on to a sure thing, but look how the Catholics are revolting._ Donald Jnr turned to his uncle. _It_s a good job in the palladium mines. Out in Transvaal, I think it_s called. They telt us they will take nearly all the Govan riveters, fly us out there, find us somewhere to live. Even give us a month in advance. Yasssss! Soooth Efrika. Boyeee._ _Youse gonnae be a Kaffir master!_ said Shug, his bottom lip stuck out in genuine pride. _Don_t use that horrible word in front of the boy,_ Catherine said. She helped her brother on to his feet and turned him towards the door. _Go play in the hall. Make sure and shut that door behind you._ They watched him go, his arms stretched out for balance, his fingers splayed upwards like pretty bird wings. Shuggie pushed off each step into a gliding graceful swoosh, but each boot embedded soon enough into the deep pile carpet. They watched him clomp out into the hallway, his face split from ear to ear in a smile. Shug sucked his teeth in disappointment. _I don_t think that boy is mine._ Shuggie lowered his arms. He stopped gliding across the carpet. Suddenly he could feel just how heavy the old roller boots really were. Shug turned to Catherine and asked, _What do ye think she_ll say when she hears I_ve seen him?_ Catherine looked at Shuggie, she could see the scalding in his cheeks. _Oh no. We can_t ever say he_s been here._ A mean smile broke over Shug_s face. He spoke in the pushing voice that bullies in school used when they wanted to see a fight. _Go on. Let him tell her._ With a shove, Catherine closed the door between them. Shuggie could hear his father roar with laughter. He heard Catherine ask, _Why on earth did you ask me to bring him if you are going to be such a bloody bully?_ Shuggie spent the afternoon wearing lines in the hall carpet, trying as hard as he could to ruin it. He listened to the adults fight about something he thought was called Joanna_s Bird that lived in the south of Africa. He heard Catherine say she would be settled there by Christmas. He wondered what black people were like and why they needed Donald Jnr to make them work better. He wondered why his big sister had to go off and leave him.

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2010) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The
  • Mans Search for Meaning /     (by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946) -   Mans Search for Meaning /
  • Mulan /  (Disney, 2012)    Mulan / (Disney, 2012)
  • Tales of mystery and imagination /     (by Edgar Allan Poe, 1993) -    Tales of mystery and

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