Life in bits
I picked up a photo of Billy Quinn the other day. Don’t ask me where I got it. He’s handsome. I don’t remember him being handsome. I never remember him being young. I stuck it in a locked drawer for its own safety. He’ll be rattling to get out. He was always that cheeky way on the drink, but he could be funny. Trains were public property so he didn’t believe in paying fares. ‘Fuck them,’ he’d said. ‘Whit they goin’ to dae to me?’ His daft laugh bubbling up like the woolly bobble on a kid’s hat.
There was a rough tribe at Billy’s funeral. We’re kin through the old-style Kings of Ireland and the short-circuitry of drink. We reminisced with a few beers. The last time I saw him was at the checkout in the Dalmuir Co-op, near the chilled drink’s cabinet. He was no longer entertaining. His hair had grown backwards from soft brown baby’s curls to baldness. He didn’t bother wearing his teeth; he’d shrunk to the size of a woman’s cagoule and his skin was no longer a stained lived-in yellow, but the colour of Shanks’s best porcelain. He smelled like a dead man.
Falling into a coffin took a lifetime. I don’t think Billy Quinn or Jas Sweeney came to my brother Stephen’s funeral. One followed the other. Stephen, Jas, Billy. Well, Jas just disappeared. I heard he was in Ireland. Then he turned up dead, as some people do.
Billy and Jas knew my brother better when he’d carved a whole new identity out for himself as SEV, the military leader and self-proclaimed best fighter in St Andrew’s Secondary school. The S was a variant of the Nazi SS insignia ﻛﻛEv! The lightning bolt appeared in thick red marker pen on the back cover of my blue Math jotter; on the front of his three Mud albums— Sturm und Drang —it was daubed in blue paint, on the orange-red facing-brick wall of the Chinkies at Parkhall shops, an Anarchist-type jagged circle round it, incomplete, a step too high on the cobbled lane, setting it off from an advertisement for a short-lived group called ‘BOWIE YA BASS’, which nobody much was allowed in, apart from ﻛﻛEv, Billy, and Jas. It was a riotous proclamation on the khaki-green metallic double-doors of a rival gang, the Scouts —with an added reminder ‘FUCK THE QUEEN’.
Jas was the acknowledged troubadour of ‘BOWIE YA BASS’ legend. He knew the first two lines of every Rebel song ever penned since Jesus was a Fenian lad. At the height of his fame he acquired a penny whistle. One toot, and a call of ‘order-order,’ at New Year’s gathering in his Da, Sporter’s, two-bedroom house, and his smoky peat-coloured eyes would fill with the far away light of the Christmas tree. He’d shed a tear, take a quick spill of Tennents, and drone like a washing machine on half-cycle for the word-stained cause of liberty. Girls, or even women, with breasts poking indiscreetly through their blouses, cut through the wax of fag smoke to pat or squeeze his shoulder and kiss his cheek. And everyone acquired the bottled froth of Irish brogue, would speak in tongues and say things like ‘that was grand son. Grand!’
He was the first to make the jump from the uniform of blue denim to the black beret and shimmy and shake of ankle hugging, bullet-proof, leather coat. He’d the natural hair that buttoned down to that kind of disorder. Black Irish wire which could be shaped like ebony into the frame of a feather-cut that hung and glided, didn’t crash into Stephen’s curled wood shavings, or worse marked with the dog-eared curse of a Cow’s lick, and short-back-and-sides, girls would gawk at and snigger.
I was a football virgin until the boys took me in hand, my first visit to Paradise for the Celtic and Rangers game. Binmen were out on strike and the soldiers were in clearing up the rubble. We were an occupied nation. In the battles against Rangers, when on active war footing, the beret was off and the hard hat was on. Stephen was an apprentice joiner at that time. Jas was an apprentice brickie and Billy had a full-time job being Billy. My brother presented me with his white hard hat, painted with curved bands of green and yellow, and I’d an Irish tricolour on my head. Armed with green and white scarf and squeezed in, rocking, beside the lads in the back seats of the Dalmuir Emerald Celtic supporter’s bus, I was made a man and handed a can of Tennents to sup. They’d a bottle of Eldorado in hand, quick-acting fuel for the glorious fight.
We’d lost my brother somewhere in a scrap in the Somme of the communal toilets at half-time when it was a sober 0-0 and I was terrified I’d get separated from the others.
Parlane scored for the Huns in the second-half and the thunder of sky-blue jumping and falling was a bayonet to the guts. Wilson equalised a few minutes later and we hit an emerald rapture that would never end, but the result was a come down for us. Although nobody said anything, I’d the poxing luck of being a fucking jinx and we’d drew.
Empty wine bottles were recycled, shelled from the Jungle section of Parkhead, over the struts of metal fence, where the Orange bastards in their livery of red, white and royal blue, fucked the Pope and the IRA too. The hard hat I wore was also designed for friendly fire from those non-BOWIE YA BASSERS, levitating higher up the terrace, sniping googly-eyed with gum-elastic arms, trying to hit the jackpot and scud it into the departing John Gregg, or the pity-prize of hitting the police milling around the track.
We were running out of ammo. Billy kicked the scrunch of polybags at our feet, searching for a lager can, the righteous twin to the Eldorado bottle, which gave the day bulk. Jas used the sway of the crowd and the prophylactic of a fifty-pence to rip and enlarge the virgin aluminium ring-pull, lessening the likelihood of peeing on his hand, or the wee man with the sticky-up ginger hair standing and shouting and bawling in front of us. I was up next. Peeing into a can I found tricky as Jinky Johnstone’s feet. I was nervous and my stomach had marbles rattling in it; I couldn’t do it right. Billy added froth. Before we went for the bus, Jas let me do the honours. ‘Fuck it into them,’ he said. No longer any mockery in drinking cheap Kestrel the spume of the make-do Molotov cocktail sailed over the fence, splashed and hit home.