1st couple of chapters of my 'tartan noir' novel Glasgow, Like A Stranger, now available on kindle,here:
1./ And there it was, suddenly, swelling out of the blackness below the plane, a phosphorescent octopus unfurling its tentacles in an oil-dark ocean, reaching Ted’s way for a multiple handshake – or a dragging down, a drowning, a slow devouring in depths darker yet.
“The Big G, sweetheart,” said Pamela, leaning from her own seat for a better peek through the window at his side. “You’re home… almost.”
And big it was, Glasgow, shifting its outline instant by instant, expanding until its million, billion, pocks of light filled the space beneath the plane in every direction in which his head could angle, streetlamp amber glowings punctuated with silvers, yellows, the occasional neon pink or blue: a field of fire with a little ice stirred in. Home indeed, he supposed, even after all these years away.
Soon the sprawl sorted itself into geometries: the rectangles and semi-circles of housing estates; the little squares of factories and warehouses; straight lines and circlings of road and motorway, speckled with soldier ant cars. A dark curl of river snaking among the bright lights like a cobra scaling a Christmas tree.
Tower blocks, tennis courts, sandstone tenements, office blocks, a graveyard on a hill, a scrapyard, a sewage farm, a broader uncoiling of blackest water, shipyard cranes skeletal against the glare of life elsewhere, quaysides converted to ritzy housing developments or reduced to puddled wastelands; then a blur of grass and dark runway, stabs of light marking out the space.
The undercarriage bumped to earth. The plane rattled and reversed its thrust. Ted Gillman, a frequent flyer, was always convinced at such moments the plane was going to hurtle into the terminal building, killing him and doing all manner of damage to everyone else.
As usual, it did not. Not even on this landing.
The belt on the baggage carousel was composed of metal plates, curved at their outer ends and layered atop one another. Ted thought, as they clanked into motion, of some torture device from the days of the Scottish witch-finders: something for slicing confessions from peasant women or papists. Then suitcases, holdalls, rucksacks, a set of golf clubs, a battered-looking box marked 'Fragile', came trundling along the belt from behind the curtain of grey strips, cutting aside the fancy.
"I hope Magda herself comes," Pamela was saying. "If it’s anyone else, I won’t have the faintest idea who to look for."
"They’ll hold up one of those signs." said Ted. "You’ll feel like Barbra Streisand. Or Lulu, at the very least. - There..."
He picked a large black suitcase off the carousel.
"Is it over there we go?" asked Pamela. "Ted? You remember?
"Last time I was here," replied Ted, "they were still flying in on hot air balloons. - Damnit. Bet you the other bag’s still at Gatwick."
Pamela resisted the obvious, loving, dig at a man who had fought his way clear of a
to wind up one of 's
premier league criminal lawyers, yet who still treated life as a trap about to
slam shut on his ankle. London
"There she is!" Pamela cried.
Ted glanced in the direction in which Pamela had begun waving. At the other side of the baggage hall, by the entrance to the main concourse, a tall guarded smile of a woman dressed in elegant blacks was waving back.
"Have you got the other....?" began Pamela.
"Just about to fly back and get it now, darling," Ted answered.
"There it is..." muttered Ted.
"You don’t mind if I -..."
"Not at all," he assured Pamela. "You’re the big news here."
"Okay, come right over. Magda’s more fond of you than you think."
"Shame on me for ever doubting the fact.”
Pamela hurried away. Ted dragged their large holdall off the belt. He started after Pamela, lumbering case and holdall at either side of him.
Ahead, Pamela and Magda had locked in an embrace. Ted admired in his wife that ease of hugging and cheek-kissing. Her parents had been Ladbroke Grove hippies and he supposed that an ideal grounding for membership of the
professional classes forty years later. He came from a world so very different,
a world suddenly only twenty minutes away. London
"HEYYYYYY!!!!" called someone behind him and the case and holdall seemed abruptly filled with rocks heavy as those they sowed in the belly of the big bad wolf. A presence sped across the space at his back; he awaited an arresting hand on his shoulder.
The presence hurried by. Some young guy with his frizzy blonde hair in a pony tail was sprinting from the carousel to the arms of a girlfriend in a short tie-dyed dress, purple fishnets and Doc Martens. She shrieked as he caught her in his arms, whirling her off the ground, her long straight hair swinging, Scottish in its red hue as a breeze across a loch.
Got away with it yet again, you lucky bastard, Ted mused, heaving the baggage on to where Pamela was beckoning him.
2./ Magda's car sped up the ramp ascending from the airport to the motorway. Ted, in the back seat, glanced out at dark, nondescript buildings that meant nothing to his memory.
"Anyway, Ted, you are wicked," said Magda, the mix of
Eastern Europe and Glaswegian in her accent an
appropriate soundtrack for his disorientation.
"Am I?" frowned Ted.
"Yes! A son of Glasgow and you’ve never once brought Pamela up to see what a true cultural hotbed looks like."
"Mm," he said, "never got round to it somehow."
"You’ve been away - what? - twenty years?"
"Oh, I’ve driven up a few times since then. Just briefly. Discreetly."
"You don't miss the old place?"
"Oh, I...." Tower blocks lined the top of a hill in the distance. Another set of blocks, closer to the road, had strips of green neon descending their faces, making them look like Martian war machines. A sign on the side of the
whisky factory welcomed visitors to the city. An immense car showroom showed
off its shiny wares on several glass-fronted floors. A radio mast glowered its
red lights at the nearby flight-lanes. "I carry a little bit of it with me
"You'll have a chance to renew the acquaintance."
"No?" asked Magda.
"I’m not really here at all," said Ted.
Magda turned uncertainly towards Pamela, in the passenger seat. Pamela flinched a shadowy smile, no more confident of smoothing her husband's rougher social edges than at any other point in the fifteen years of their marriage.
"Just providing my celebrated wife with a little arm candy," Ted went on. "You know, like some blonde at the Oscars."
"This a serious conference, Ted," said Magda. "On very serious issues. And Pamela is going to make a very serious impression."
"Oh shucks," grinned Pamela, "I’ll maybe throw in a joke or two."
Magda looked round at her, unamused. Pamela's smile receded. What for Pamela was a matter of intellectual concepts of liberty and justice - and with which one could be a little capricious occasionally, as with any set of ideas - was to Magda a weight of scarrings scarcely healed or healable.
"Well, I’m sure you're going to make a difference," said Magda. "There on the back seat, Ted.... I have today’s Herald. Check page nine."
Ted lifted the folded broadsheet, opened it out, leafing through the pages.
"They wrote a good article," Magda said. "And put the spotlight on tomorrow's big speaker."
"Oh God," said Pamela, "I hope it’s not that usual photograph."
Ted reached page nine, scanning to a headline halfway down: " ‘CONFRONTING YESTERDAY’S CRIMES’ HEADS AGENDA AT HUMAN RIGHTS CONFERENCE". At the bottom corner of the article, a small official-looking photograph of Pamela boxed in her dark-haired, thoughtful beauty, a politic mix of seriousness and approachability fixed on those features Ted had so often seen reckless with laughter. It was the usual photograph.
His thumb-tip settled on the caption below, pinning down the words in the flickering light from the motorway's central reservation: “A VOICE FOR THE DEAD: International human rights lawyer and author PAMELA FRANKLAND-GILLMAN will deliver speech.”
A voice for the dead... - Christ, he thought, the gothic sanctimony of newspapermen. He looked out the window again, all his dead
moments threatening to sing in his face from the light-studded darkness. Glasgow
They left the motorway at the
exit and, after a few anonymous
roads lined with warehouses and billboards, he beheld, looming around him,
those streets which had lined the last twenty years of his dreams and memories,
suddenly solid as ghosts in a Greek myth that had lapped a little blood. Kinning Park
Red sandstone stretched every which way, the tenements sandblasted into looking younger than in his days among them, when the city still wore the sooty rags of its slow industrial death. Lights glowed behind the windows, figures flitting in and out of sight, life seeming to have got along quite normally without him all these years.
Magda steered into a brighter, busier street. Pollokshaws Road, of course - then up Alison Street, with its grocers shops, laundrette and one fenced in corner of the playground of his old primary school. From there, they turned into the once-great thoroughfare of
A very 'southside' thoroughfare, this: bakers shops specialising in cheap cakes and sausage rolls, TV rental shops whose windows were plastered with declarations of closings-down, betting shops with windows full of agonised greyhounds, Indian restaurants, a florists or two, a barbers and a couple of blue-rinsy hairdressers, several chemists, far more charity shops than used to be there, a latter-day spate of cheque cashers, mobile phone unlockers and legal aid law practices, plentiful glimpses of chip and kebab shops in the side streets; even now, no hint of an organic delicatessen or vegetarian cafe, no art gallery or bookshop beyond a display of dog-eared paperbacks in the window of Oxfam: small shops, some the same as had stood there twenty-two years ago, others that had probably popped up in the last couple of months and would vanish as quickly.
The south-side was the city's secretive aspect, a mystery to all other Glaswegians on the rare occasions when it crossed their minds at all. It made no open show of its desperations, as the east end had been known to do; it did not preen itself on its sophistication and style as the west end unfailingly did. No, the soo’-side withdrew into its own company and invited no guests. It buried any dreams, any bright colours in those dreams, deep behind its stonework, hoping they would discreetly starve to death, solving any upset they presented. It was very much Ted's corner of the city.
Ahead, at the end of the street, past the pink neon sign that had been reminding the street "CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS" since Ted's childhood, Queen's Park loomed. By night its slopes and trees stood transformed, beyond the towering gates, to an oily void bordered high and low by tree-tops of a November starkness, a void that might as easily - Ted used to be fond of thinking - have been taken for one of the trackless densities of
The car eased to a stop outside the grand terrace of Queen's Drive. This directly faced the fence of the park, a block of tenements sculpted for the Victorian haute bourgeoisie rather than for the sooty-faced gaggle of the surrounding streets. In Ted's days thereabouts, the buildings had grown sooty-faced themselves, derelict and half-collapsed, propped with wooden buttresses and maggoted with drunks and junkies. Now they spread above him with the magnificence of an ostentatious wedding cake, regentrified like so many of the city's previous fallings by the wayside. They had looked like haunted houses not so long ago; now, as Ted climbed out of the car and moved to lift the luggage from the boot, he was the one feeling like a ghost.
"There, you see?" said Magda. "You have the great outdoors right across the road."
"Lovely in the daylight, I’m sure," mused Pamela.
"We thought it would mean something to you, Ted," smiled Magda, "being back in your own neck of the woods."
"You haven't gone to all this trouble just for me, I hope."
"Well, Pamela did mention your connections with the area. And we did have this place available."
Ted looked towards Pamela. She smiled. He did not. Why had they gone to all this bother when it was her visit far more than his? He felt cornered by their goodwill.
"This isn't quite what I’m used to hereabouts," he muttered.
Slamming the car boot and turning from it to pick up the luggage, he stopped, having glimpsed - or having thought he did - some flicker of movement behind the park railings, some tiny darkness against the vaster one.
"Ted-?" asked Pamela, she and Magda halfway up the steps to the building's front door. He grabbed the luggage and hastened after them.
Behind the fence, a hand in fingerless gloves reached into a pocket, pulled out the photograph of Pamela torn from the Herald. An eye glinted from the depths of a dark cotton hood, comparing the image to the figure passing through the doorway on the street's far side.
So this was what he had found for himself out in the big wide world. What treasures a man could lie his way to if he could nail the right mask tight enough about his face. What was a holier-than-thou cow like Lady Pamela going to howl when hubby got his mask ripped off and twenty years of pus and lies spurted out? It was funny, sort of, to think of, but only the damp November breeze in the branches bothered to laugh.
Want to know what happens next? Get the book!
Want to know what happens next? Get the book!