Friday, October 22, 2010

1970

Duncan felt a bit uncomfortable for another couple of minutes. He thought about Liz, but even here, just in the street outside the record shop, he couldn’t remember what she looked like. Now he could only see Maria.

But he’d got the record. It was a good omen. Killie would surely win, although with these power cuts you didn’t know for how long football would be on as the nights would start to draw in soon. It was a small price to pay though, for getting rid of that bastard Heath and the Tories. It was brilliant that those wankers couldn’t take the piss out of the working man any longer. His parents had made sacrifices, determined that he wouldn’t follow his father down the pit. They insisted that he was apprenticed, that he got a trade behind him. So Duncan had been sent to live with an aunt in Glasgow while he served his time in a machine shop in Kinning Park. Glasgow was big, brash, vibrant and violent to his small-town sensibilities, but he was easy-going and popular in the factory. His best pal at work was a guy called Matt Muir, from Govan, who was a fanatical Rangers supporter and a card-carrying communist. Everybody at his factory supported Rangers, and as a socialist he knew and was shamed by the fact that he, like his workmates, had obtained his apprenticeship through his family’s Masonic connections. His own father saw no contradiction between freemasonry and socialism, and many of the Ibrox regulars from the factory floor were active socialists, even in some cases, like Matt, card-carrying communists. — The first bastards that would get it would be those cunts in the Vatican, he’d enthusiastically explain, — right up against the wa’ wi they fuckers.

Matt kept Duncan right about the things that mattered, how to dress, what dance halls to go to, who the razor-boys were, and importantly, who their girlfriends were and who, therefore, to avoid dancing with. Then there was a trip to Edinburgh, on a night out with some mates, when they went to that Tollcross dancehall and he saw the girl in the blue dress. Every time he looked at her, it seemed that his breath was being crushed out of him. Even though Edinburgh appeared more relaxed than Glasgow, Matt claiming that razors and knives were a rarity, there had been a brawl. One burly guy had punched another man, and wanted to follow up. Duncan and Matt intervened and managed to help calm things down. Fortunately, one of the grateful benefactors of their intervention was a guy in the same company as the girl Duncan had been hypnotised by all night, but had been too shy to ask to dance. He could see Maria then, the cut of her cheekbones and her habit of lowering her eyes giving an appearance of arrogance which conversation with her quickly dispelled. It was even better, the guy he befriended was called Lenny, and he was Maria’s brother.

Maria was nominally a Catholic, though her father had an unexplained bitterness towards priests and had stopped going to church. Eventually his wife and their children followed suit. None the less, Duncan worried about his own family’s reaction to the marriage, and was moved to go down to Ayrshire to discuss it with them. Duncan’s father was a quiet and thoughtful man. Often his shyness was confused with gruffness, an impression accentuated by his size (he was well over six foot tall), which Duncan had inherited along with his straw-blonde hair. His father listened in silence to his deposition, giving the occasional nod in support. When he did speak, his tone was that of a man who felt he had been grossly misrepresented.

— Ah don’t hate Catholics, son, his father insisted, — Ah’ve nothing against anybody’s religion. It’s those swines in the Vatican, who keep people doon, keep them in ignorance so that they can keep filling thir coffers, that’s the scum ah hate. Reassured on this point, Duncan decided to keep his freemasonry from Maria’s father, who seemed to detest masons as much as he did priests. They married in the Register Office in Edinburgh’s Victoria Buildings and had a reception in the upstairs rooms of a Cowgate pub. Duncan was worried about an Orange, or even a Red speech from Matt Muir, so he asked his best pal from school back in Ayrshire, Ronnie Lambie, to do the honours. Unfortunately, Ronnie had got pretty drunk, and made an anti-Edinburgh speech, which upset some guests and later on, as the drink flowed, precipitated a fist-fight. Duncan and Maria took that as their cue to head off to the room they had booked at a Portobello guest house.

Back at the factory and back at the machine, Duncan was singing The Wonder of You, the tune spinning in a loop in his head, as metal yielded to the cutting edge of the lathe. Then the light from the huge windows above turned to shadow. Somebody was standing next to him. He clicked off the machine and looked up. Duncan didn’t really know the man. He had seen him in the canteen, and on the bus, obviously a non-smoker, always sitting downstairs. Duncan had an idea that they lived in the same scheme, the man getting off at the stop before him. The guy was about five-ten, with short brown hair and busy eyes. As Duncan recalled, he usually had a cheery, earthy demeanour, at odds with his looks: conventionally handsome enough to be accompanied by narcissism. Now, though, the man stood before him in an extreme state of agitation. Upset and anxious, he blurted — Duncan Ewart? Shop Steward?

They both acknowledged the daftness of the rhyme and smiled at each other. — I art Ewart shop steward. And you art? Duncan continued the joke. He knew this routine backwards.

But the man wasn’t laughing any longer. He gasped out breathlessly — Wullie Birrell. Ma wife … Sandra … gone intae labour … Abercrombie … eh’ll no lit ays go up tae the hoaspital … men oaf sick … the Crofton order … says that if ah walk oaf the joab ah walk oot for good … In a couple of beats, indignation managed to settle in Duncan’s chest like a bronchial tickle. He ground his teeth for a second, then spoke with quiet authority. — You git tae that hoaspital right now, Wullie. Thir’s only one man that’ll be walkin oaf this joab fir good n that’s Abercrombie. Rest assured, you’ll git a full apology fir this!

— Should ah clock oaf or no? Wullie Birrell asked, a shiver in his eye making his face twitch.

— Dinnae worry aboot that, Wullie, jist go. Get a taxi and ask the boy for the receipt and ah’ll pit it through the union.

Wullie Birrell nodded gratefully and exited in haste. He was already out the factory as Duncan put down his tools and walked slowly to the payphone in the canteen, calling the Convenor first, and then the Branch Secretary, the clanking sounds of washing pots and cutlery in his ear. Then he went directly to the Works Manager, Mr Catter, and filed a formal grievance. Catter listened calmly, but in mounting perturbation at Duncan Ewart’s complaint. The Crofton order had to go out, that was essential. And Ewart, well, he could get every man on the shop floor to walk off the job in support of this Birrell fellow. What in the name of God was that clown Abercrombie thinking about? Certainly, Catter had told him to make sure that order went out by any means necessary, and yes, he had actually used those terms, but the idiot had obviously lost all sense, all perspective.

Catter studied the tall, open-faced man opposite him. Catter had encountered hard men with an agenda in the shop steward’s role many times. They hated him, detested the firm and everything it stood for. Ewart wasn’t one of them. There was a warm glow in his eyes, a sort of calm righteousness which, when you engaged it for a while, seemed to be more about mischief and humour than anger. — There seems to have been a misunderstanding, Mr Ewart, Gatter said slowly, offering a smile which he hoped was contagious. — I’ll explain the position to Mr Abercrombie.

— Good, Duncan nodded, then added, — Much appreciated.

For his part, Duncan had quite a bit of time for Catter, who had always come across as a man of a basically fair and just disposition. When he did impose the more bizarre dictates from above, you could tell that he didn’t do it with much relish. And it couldn’t be too much fun trying to keep bampots like Abercrombie in line.

Abercrombie. What a nutter.

On his way back to the machine shop, Duncan Ewart couldn’t resist poking his head into the pen, boxed off from the factory floor, which Abercrombie called his office.

— Thanks, Tarn! Abercrombie looked up at him from the grease-paper worksheets sprawled across the desk.

— What for? he asked, trying to feign surprise, but his face reddened.

He’d been harassed, under pressure, and hadn’t been thinking straight about Birrell. And he’d played right into that Bolshie cunt Ewart’s hands. Duncan Ewart smiled gravely. — For trying to keep Wullie Birrell on the job on a Friday afternoon with the boys all itching tae down tools. A great piece of management. I’ve put it right for ye, I’ve just told him to go, he added smugly.

A pellet of hate exploded in Abercrombie’s chest, spreading to the extremities of his fingers and toes. He began to flush and shake. He couldn’t help it. That bastard Ewart: who the fuck did he think he was? — Ah run this fuckin shop floor! You bloody well mind that!

Duncan grinned in the face of Abercrombie’s outburst. — Sorry, Tarn, the cavalry’s on its way.

Abercrombie wilted at that moment, not at Duncan’s words but at the sight of a stonyfaced Catter appearing behind him, as if on cue. Worse still, he came into the small box with Convenor Bobby Affleck. Affleck was a squat bull of a man who had a bearing of intimidating ferocity when even mildly irritated. But now, Abercrombie could instantly tell, the Convenor was in a state of incandescent rage. Duncan smiled at Abercrombie and winked at Affleck before leaving and closing the door behind them. The thin plywood door proved little barrier to the sound of Affleck’s fury. Miraculously, every lathe and drill machine on the shop floor was switched off, one by one, replaced by the sound of laughter, which spilled like a rush of spring colouring across the painted grey concrete factory floor.

Irvine Welsh, Glue, 2001