‘Put your false teeth in,’ I said, ‘maybe then they’ll believe in you and believe in your prophecies more’.
Old Joe had taken up a position between the bus stop and the triangular roof of the clock tower, which offered him some shelter from the drifting rain. It was firm underfoot so he was less likely to stumble and fall as he frequently did when preaching to the alkies on the footpath at Dalmuir canal. Most people in the square gave him a wide berth. His clothes were clean enough. Tweed jacket, red tie slightly awry, dress trousers and shiny shoes. And his grey hair was presentable, thinning back to a monk’s crown, but his face was sickly, the colour of polystyrene, and his chest more convex that curved, his body falling into himself. Up close he stunk of decay and ammonia.
I only caught the tail end of what he was saying, but I recognised the biblical verse and allusions, ‘And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go you out to meet him’.
He had a tendency to spit and mumble because of the teeth and because he was naturally shy, which he tried to compensate for by waving his arms about and startling passerbys in the way you scattered pigeons. The commuters at the bus stop turned their heads, and watched him with mild interest, in the same way they viewed something on the telly. Nobody was listening, apart from me.
Old Joe gave in. The gaps between his utterances grew longer and he started listing to the left with his bad leg. He squinted at me standing at his elbow for approval with pale watery-green eyes.
‘You can quote the bible until your eyes fall out,’ I said. ‘But you won’t find what you’re looking for.’
‘I’m no’ that bothered,’ said Old Joe. ‘It’s no’ up to me. Better if they don’t believe me, then they’ll be dragged down to a burning pit of fire.’ That sparked his anger. ‘And whose fault will that be?’
A 58 Double-decker bus, its brakes squealing pulled up at the bus stop and took away Old Joe’s audience which settled him a bit.
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. He let me stick my arm through his and lead him away from the square. We tottered along past Dalmuir Library, stopping for a breather and trying to look in past shut blinds at all the accumulated years of learning on the shelves.
‘Suit yourself,’ Old Joe said to no one in particular, smacking his thin lips together as if he was eating crisps, and starting a conversation with himself. ‘I’ll need to stop smokin’. It’s ruinin’ my throat.’ He bent at the midriff in a coughing fit to prove his point.
I patted his back when he’d straightened up, wiped at the corners of his mouth with a hanky. ‘Aye, it does that,’ I said.
His neck shot out and he wrestled his arm from mine. ‘How do yeh know?’
I caught up with him standing lost at the edge of the pavement looking across the road. The rain came on a bit heavier. Old Joe was shivering inside his jacket as if he was on a spring. ‘Is there were I stay?’ he asked, his mouth hanging open, nodding his head towards Macintosh’s Bar.
‘You used to, but sometimes you went somewhere else for a change of clothing.’ He seemed to have forgotten his question, and let me take his arm again.
‘You’ll be burning in a blazing pit of fire,’ he said as I guided him across the road to the safety of the pavement on the other side.
‘I’m sure I will,’ I said.
He tilted his head to look up at me. ‘You’ve got a strange way about you,’ he said. ‘You’re not one of those atheists are you? That believe in nothing.’
‘Not exactly,’ I said. We passed a black Hackney with its engine idling outside the bar.
‘Where are we goin’?’
He almost fell. I grabbed at his arm, plopping him upright against the sandstone wall. ‘What makes you prophesize?’ I asked as he got his breathe back.
He took a time answering. We turned away from the pub, took a back lane past the tenements, stumbled on, until we got to the high flats at Dalmuir Station.
‘I don’t,’ he finally said.
‘That’s God talkin’. No me. I just listen in.’
‘Oh, well, tell Him he’s got a fine professional voice and ask him if he’s sponsored by any funeral parlours.’
His face screwed up, but he didn’t try and pull away from me. ‘You takin’ the piss?’
‘A bit,’ I admitted. ‘Just wondered if the devil had a wee pointed beard?’
Old Joe reared up at that and tried to wrestle me to the ground. ‘God will not be mocked,’ he shouted. Then he got out of breathe and slumped against my shoulder.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I get carried away.’
‘You’re forgiven.’ Old Joe did that wiggly finger benediction thing, casting a sprinkling of benediction in the rain, and into my face.
‘Cheers,’ I said. ‘You can never be forgiven enough.’
He lent me his elbow as we traced a path towards the Cressie Stairs, and he warbled, ‘I Wonder as I Wander’.
We stood at the bottom step and wonder if we’re going to make it up. I grip the handrail for both of us.
He decided to have a breather. ‘Ah was in the war, you know.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘How’d you know?’ He pulls away from me, starts backtracking, walking towards the station. ‘Think you’re a big guy?’
I don’t try and stop him. Walk beside him until he was tuckered out. ‘I know about the tank you blew up. The soldier squealing inside like a little pig, until he too died.’
‘I know about the German soldier you shot in the stomach as he waved a hanky and tried to surrender to you.’
‘I know about how you left your mates to die in a hole in the ground—and they did die—and you had to go back and retrieve your rifle.’
Old Joe leaned, shrunken against the brick wall at the train station. ‘That wasn’t my fault,’ he said, with a renewed vigour in his voice. I never seen it. Poof. And they were gone.’
‘But you’d some inkling and left them to their fate?’
‘Things like that happen in a war,’ he whispered. ‘I never thought it would become like it was.’ He became lost in himself, before rising up again in renewed glory. ‘Florence is such a beautiful city. Have you even seen Michelangelo’s statue of David?’
‘Yes,’ I said, a weary tone entering my own voice. ‘I’ve seen many marvels and many of the men that created them.’
Old Joe wasn’t listening. ‘I never saw it either. There were too many museums and too many statutes for any one man to be interested in, but I did know somebody that saw it. You got a fag?’ he asked.
‘You don’t smoke,’ I reminded him.
He patted and caressed his cheek and the whiskery down of his chin. ‘That’s right.’ His voice gained leverage. ‘What was that artist that made bronze drawers?’ He chuckled. ‘We saw them thought we could melt them down for the scrappie to take’.
‘Lorenzo Ghiberti,’ I said, correcting him, ‘They were bronze doors, not drawers. And it took him a lifetime to make the Gates of Paradise.’
‘Aye,’ he said, ‘they were shut when I got there.’ He sneaked a look at me. ‘You think they might be open now?’
‘They might well be,’ I said. ‘They might well be. But you weren’t much interested in them when you were there?’
Old Joe slipped down the wall, and sat on the pavement, his eyes narrowing as he looked up at me. ‘We had to keep on our toes, you know whit I mean?’
I nodded. ‘I do indeed.’
‘The Italians weren’t what they’re like now,’ he said. ‘They were a dirty, dirty people. All that crap about them flinging flowers as we passed through their villages and towns. Men were grabbing you and trying to sell you their daughters.’
‘They were starving.’
‘Dirty, dirty people. Whores. Every girl willing to open their legs for a fag butt.’
‘But you weren’t interested in their daughters were you?’
Old Joe sniffed and swallowed. ‘Who are you?’
‘You were interested in little boys,’ I said.
‘Not so young,’ he said. ‘Sly boys. They were always at you for something. And they mature early in the hot sun. Not like here, namby-pamby sons of sluts that bruise too easily, and are always whining for their mums.’
‘Plucked and fucked and innocence stolen.’ I helped Old Joe to his feet and locked his arm in mine. ‘Forbidden fruit.’
‘Where are we goin’?’ asked Old Joe.