Another Perthshire Writer
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My name is Colin and I drive a cab. I suppose this makes me Colin the cabbie, which not only describes what I do but is also nicely alliterative. The thing is I’m not an ordinary cabbie – I’m a virtual cabbie.
It’s good being a virtual cabbie because it let’s me ply my trade in any part of the country – or the world - I want, I don’t have a wife and family to get in the way of my comings and goings, I can suspend disbelief whenever I choose, speak whatever language I need and I can tells tales of the trade and stories about the punters without the tedious need to actually hear or witness their words and deeds. Good eh?
How often have you got into a cab and noticed – really noticed - the driver? Not often I’ll warrant. Cab drivers are a bit like wallpaper – you might notice their absence but their presence seldom registers.
This night I was parked up in a side street with the flag down doing a bit of people watching.
I could see the road outside the Raj Dulal quite clearly. It was black and glistening but the rain was now just a fine mist. The lunatic kaleidoscope of a busy Glasgow Friday evening enveloped the couple as they stood slightly apart at the kerb side in that indefinable attitude of togetherness and separateness that invariably indicated that they are firmly joined together in holy deadlock – otherwise known as being married.
I watched him shrug his shoulders inside his overcoat and look intently in both directions as if to will a taxi from the chorus of honking horns and swishing tyres.
No welcoming amber light came to his rescue though and, catching his breath, he turned and said in a low and, despite himself, slightly tremulous voice. ‘What d’you think then? Wait for a taxi or try for a bus?’ He laughed uncertainly, voice trailing off, leaving the question hanging.
She was looking away from him though and made no response. Perhaps she hadn’t heard him. Oh yes she had. She was tapping her foot in that way she has that says yes I heard you but you’ll have to work a lot harder than that.
He swallowed. 'Maybe – maybe we could just walk.'' Oh sod it, I could hear him think . I’m babbling and I said I wouldn’t do that again. I never learn. Maybe the whole thing was my fault. Am I being unreasonable? Ten minutes ago I was sure that I was absolutely in the right. Christ now I’m babbling inside my head.
She’s now looking at him with that unmistakable mixture of affection, pity and frustration that tells him that if he wants to get out of this he’s going to have to pay the price. Yes - of course they’re married.
Time to get the poor sod off the hook. I put the flag up and pull in beside them.
Talk to you soon.
I woke to the rumble of opening gates. The van lurched forward and a familiar world beckoned me into Reception. I took a deep breath and savoured the smells – sharp disinfectant and stale humanity. Some things never change.
I was already planning for tomorrow. I fancied having a look at the current OU brochure – or maybe I’d just look up some old pals and do the OU thing later in the week – I’ve got bags of time.
A few short weeks ago it was all so different. Seven in the morning and there I was at the silent hatchway listening to the fading echo of my footsteps on the stone flags and looking blankly at a grey face. It looked blankly back – from a million miles away.
Nodding slightly he pushed some papers at me. ‘There, there and there,’ he muttered, ubiquitous key chain jingling as he shifted on his stool. I leaned on the counter and scrawled my name three times. I’ve got a sort of grudging respect for these guys. In their own way they’re honest – honourable even. They never try to change me. They’re content to contain me in this echoing mausoleum and pragmatic enough to look the other way when it counts. In turn I’ve never caused them grief - never seen the point – there are other ways of being me.
It’s different with the cons though. Nemo me impune lacessit - the words behind the judge’s head. No one provokes me with impunity. What does it really mean? Get your retaliation in first, fast, and hard - that’s what it really means. Teach the bastards respect – and it’s always worked for me. Maybe they see something in my face – or my eyes. Some have fancied their chances – but none more than once.
There were no sentimental words of farewell. A younger one - ex military from the look of him - checked my ticket, opened the wicket gate and I was back in the world for the first time in ten years.
Two hours later I stepped off the Megabus and tabbed the half mile to where I was going. Good to get some proper exercise – got to keep fit in my business. Not that I’ve any intention of going back to it – my decision, not theirs.
The sign read 'Criminal Justice Team.'' A receptionist behind a glass screen looked up and smiled. 'Millar,' I said. 'Here to see a Mrs Nisbett.'
She glanced at a list. 'Right Mr Millar just take a seat will you?'' In the waiting area I automatically noted the position of the CCTV camera and sat opposite a skinny teenager wearing a Celtic top and baggy jeans showing half his arse. He was reading a Hello magazine – lips moving. I know the type - the kind of moronic master criminal who steals homing pigeons. He lifted his narrow whey face and looked at me from deep set mud coloured eyes. 'Got a fag pal?'
'Don’t use them.'
'What you about then?'
I said nothing. 'Just out eh? Parole?' I looked out the window – at a yard full of nothing. 'I’m on an ASBO – but the cops have set me up for nicking stuff out of Boots so I’ll maybe get probation this time. Hope so - don’t fancy the slammer at my age – but folk laugh at you if you’ve just got an ASBO eh?'
I heard my name called.
She was officialdom alright. About eight months gone – but officialdom just the same and, like always, I’ve got to make sure she doesn’t reach me. I like the challenge. Experts have tried it – trying to change my thoughts to fit their mould. I’ve never let it happen but sometimes I’ve played along, like with the shrink who got me my first OU course. She thought she’d won – I knew better.
The Nisbett spent a few minutes reading my file – there’s a lot to read. Then she looked at me thoughtfully and I think she read my mind. 'Watch my lips Mr Millar. You’re forty seven years old and you’ve got away with as much as you’ve been caught for – yes? But you’ve still spent over twenty years of your life locked up. The truth is I’ve got little to offer you. For the next five years you’re on licence and I reckon that if you want to stay on the out you’ll do it without my help. If you don’t want to stay out you’ll go back inside – it’s down to you. I see that you got yourself some qualifications through the system. I suggest you use them.' She smiled. I hadn’t expected this. I’d been looking forward to the usual mind games and now I felt sort of disappointed – angry even.
She read me the terms of my licence and handed me a list of reporting times.
That was it and suddenly I was back in the waiting area. As I passed the Hello kid I shielded the camera with my body and grabbed a handful of green and white hoops. Putting my face close enough to smell his unwashed hair I hissed. 'You know what they say about ASBOs son? They’re like piles – sooner or later every arsehole gets one.' I laughed – he looked stunned. I opened my hand and he slumped in a boneless bundle. As I made my way to the hostel I thought briefly about what I’d done – and where I’d done it. Then I smiled. Sod it – it made me feel better so it must have been worth it.
The hostel was the kind of place that made me long for yesterday. At least behind my door I only had to endure my own thoughts, smells and nightmares. Here I had to work round everyone else’s and I didn’t like it. One guy tried the High Noon thing but a session in the bin recess put his nose out of joint – literally. Everyone got the message.
The Job Centre was something else. It’s only real function was to unlock the Benefits cupboard and the staff had no idea what to do with me. One of them even told me that a City and Guilds in bricklaying would have been more useful than my OU modules in psychology, art history and creative writing. The fact that he was right didn’t stop me from wanting to rip half his face off.
The next few weeks passed without any major problem. Then, on a routine visit to the Nisbett this new world I was cautiously exploring exploded in my face.
When I went in the receptionist looked up. 'Oh Mr Millar,' she beamed. 'Mrs Nisbett isn’t here. She had a little girl on Tuesday and won’t be back for a while. You have Mr Adair now. Just take a seat and he’ll see you as soon as he can.'
I sat in the waiting area, brow furrowed. It couldn’t be – could it? He was in Child and Family – not Criminal Justice. Ten minutes later all doubts were removed as I sat across the desk from a man who looked as stunned as I felt.
I have a lifetime of keeping my feelings off my face but as I stared at him memories of our last meeting rushed into my head from where they had been hiding all these years.
We were facing each other across a table in the agents’ room – a bit like today. I was a year into my sentence and he was doing a report on my application to the court to see my twelve year old son Sean. I’d never actually seen Sean but they had kept moving me around so I couldn’t keep in touch – could I? At the end of the day though he was still mine and I had a right to see him. I would be here for a while and he could be brought on visits and we’d get to know each other.
What could be simpler? I thought Adair would hear my side of things and understand but he kept coming up with weasel words that made it all my fault and giving me a load of social work bollocks about Sean’s right to self determination, bonding and attachment. I argued the toss but he wouldn’t listen. Then he played his trump card. Sean had said he didn’t know me and didn’t want to. Peter Burt was the only dad he’d known – and he was Sean Burt now – not Millar.
I sat in silence for a moment then I put on my expressionless face and said slowly and deliberately. 'Adair – you and that bitch have poisoned my boy’s mind against me. You’ve put these ideas into his head. I want to see him – I need to see him - and hear all this for myself. So you’d better arrange a visit for me – and soon - right?'
He sat back po-faced, folded his arms and said in a low but firm voice. 'I’m sorry Mr Millar – I can’t do that – and it’s only fair to tell you that following my investigation I’ll be recommending no contact between you and Sean.'
I looked at him without expression. My temples suddenly began to throb. Then I was over the table landing punches on his terrified face. We rolled onto the floor and I felt his nose crunch. Blood spouted over us and then bells were clanging and uniforms were piling in.
It had earned me an extra year – the system doesn’t take kindly to that sort of thing. The case fizzled out, I duly moved on and the whole thing crept away to some distant recess in my mind – or so I thought.
I dragged my mind back to the here and now. We were still staring at each other. I shifted in my chair – and Adair flinched, hands spread defensively. I laughed. 'Not to worry Mr Adair – that’s all well behind us. I’m not the same guy.' Not true – but self preservation speaks louder then truth – it’s expected of you and it makes them feel good.
He cleared his throat. 'I... I... don’t doubt that Mr Millar.' He went on breathlessly, words coming in a rush. 'After... well after that time I moved from Children to Criminal Justice. It was a bit d... difficult for me – after what, you know... happened.'
'Yes – I can see that.' I tried to inject a note of sympathy but it was hard. The man was a prat – simple as that. I wondered what could be in it for me if I were to say I was sorry - but it didn’t seem worth it.
There was some more in the same vein and I unctuously agreed that it would be more comfortable for both of us if I was allocated a different worker. This obviously meant something to him – I didn’t give a toss one way or another.
As I walked back a germ of an idea wormed its way into my mind. It was a crazy idea and I kept driving it away. It persisted though and next morning it was still there gnawing away and excavating long buried thoughts. It plagued me all day and eventually it got the better of me.
Next morning I walked to the Sunrise estate, where they used to stay - and found that it had been demolished and the high rise flats replaced by cottage type houses. I went into the post office and spun the woman there a fairy tale about wanting to trace some relatives who used to stay in Sunrise – not entirely untrue.
'Difficult son,' she said shaking her head doubtfully, 'some folk were decanted to the new houses but some went to other parts of the city. Tell you what though – you’re welcome to look through the voter’s roll – it’s fairly up to date. It’s over there.'
I got the book down and began to flick through it. I wasn’t very hopeful – especially when I found a whole page of Burts. Then my heart lurched. There it was - a Peter Burt and an Eleanor Burt. That was her first name alright – maybe she’d got married.
Half an hour later I was sitting in a bookie’s almost opposite the address, pretending to study form. It was raining but I could see anyone approaching from either direction.
I had been peering through the rain streaked windows for what seemed like hours – when I saw her. She was hurrying along, head bent against the driving rain, pushing a baby buggy covered in that clear bubble thing they use nowadays.
I watched her enter the house. Thoughts whirled around in my head. I had no feelings for Eleanor – probably never had – but she held the key to me and Sean. I seldom had difficulty in making up my mind – to me the shortest distance between two points is usually a straight line – but today I felt a bit uncertain. Then my legs made the decision for me and suddenly my finger was hard against the doorbell.
The door opened and Eleanor recoiled as she saw who it was. 'You,' she stammered, 'I didn’t know you were out.'
She seemed stunned. I looked at her for a moment. Apart from crows feet around her eyes and a thickening round the middle time had been a lot kinder to her than it had been to me. I said nothing – mainly because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eventually Eleanor stood aside – still looking shaken - and without waiting for an invitation I went past her into a small living room.
The room smelled warm and lived in. I wasn’t used to such comfort and as I perched on the edge of a sofa I felt uneasy and uncertain. Eleanor remained standing.
'What the hell do you want?'
I felt my resolve returning and got to my feet. 'I think you know what I want. I want what I wanted years ago – what you refused me and what got me an extra year.'
'You mean Sean?' A note of incredulity in her voice. 'You really are something else.' Her eyes narrowed and her voice rose. 'You ignore the poor little bugger for virtually the whole of his childhood. Then you’ve the nerve to go to the court. Then you assault the social worker and then you ignore Sean for the next nine years.' She paused for breath. I said nothing. 'We never missed you – and now I’ve got a new family.' She gestured towards the buggy. 'That social worker man – Adair - he told you the truth. Sean wanted nothing to do with you back then and let me tell you that he never wavered from that – or from the fact that my Peter has been the only father he’s ever known – or needed.'
'And I was supposed to just accept that from Adair and curl up in my cell like good little con, right?'
'Yes..yes..because it was the truth.'
'I didn’t hear it from Sean though did I?' I roared, stabbing my finger at her in time with the words, 'and I’ll tell you what Eleanor – I still want to hear it from him.'
The words hung between us like poison gas.
'You never change do you? The world you live in has always been a dangerous place where we all have to follow your rules – but you’re the only one who knows what the bloody rules are. Well welcome to the real world - where the rest of us live.' She stopped and breathed heavily as if at the end of a race.
I folded my arms and said coldly. 'Where is he?'
She sat on the arm of a chair and looked at me for a moment. Then her lips twitched and she started to laugh – at first softly – then more loudly, a tinge of hysteria nibbling round the edges. Then she stood up abruptly and left the room. A few minutes later she came back and thrust a photograph album into my hands. Our eyes met and I saw the anger in her face – but no fear. 'The last page,' she hissed through clenched teeth.
Slowly I turned to the page. A pinprick of pain at the back of my head blossomed into a fireball that threatened to explode my skull.
'You want to know where he is? I’ll tell you exactly where he is. You go to the road end and get a number seven bus. You get off at Friar’s Corner and you go through the big gates opposite. The north west corner is where you’ll find my boy – in the special bit dedicated to the Iraq war dead. Now get the hell out of my house and out of my life.'
I left the house without a word and walked trance like for miles and hours. Gradually my headache subsided to a dull ache as I struggled with my growing sense of anger and an overwhelming feeling of injustice. Someone had to carry the blame for these empty, bitter years.
Suddenly I was looking up at the sign that said 'Criminal Justice Team' and I knew exactly who this was and what I had to do.
The waistcoat sat just inside the front doors of successive apartments and houses and over time it became a sort of talisman. Jennifer insisted that they all had to pat it on the way out and on the way in and even though the children teased their fey Scottish mother both of them - and Gene - religiously observed this ritual – until that bright September morning.
Earlier Jennifer had moved the waistcoat to the kitchen to brush it and to clean the buttons. She and Gene had had a little spat that morning. He wanted them to meet the children for lunch but she insisted on waiting in case the freezer repair man called. By the time the waistcoat was back in its place Gene had left, without either a goodbye kiss or patting the waistcoat.
Every morning since her return to London she had lifted it out of the drawer, had her private moment and then replaced it in its tissue lined box. This was her ritual – one not to be shared -.a time of quietly whispered memories.
Today was different though. This time she placed it carefully on the bed, smoothed the creases and set to with the metal polish. As she polished she chatted – but inside her head – where she had lived since the day and where no one could hear her. Families are meant to be everlasting but in reality they’re fragile and easily shattered and are swept away like leaves in an autumn gale – as if they’d never been. It’s not fair said the voice in her head – not fair.
Jennifer stopped polishing and stared out the window with unseeing eyes. As she knew it would her life went into rewind and memories flooded back. She was a brand new – and pregnant - GI bride again at a time when it was just Gene and her in their second floor walk up in brash, busy Brooklyn. She smiled - a far cry from grim, grey Edinburgh - food rationing and disapproving drizzle.
She had done the grocery shopping and had cleaned and polished everything in the apartment until it gleamed. Feeling a bit bored her eyes roamed over her little domain and it occurred to her that there was one area she had neither visited nor cleaned. Who knows what might be up there. According to Mr Sipowicz, the building super, this had been a family house built before the turn of the century – ancient in American terms.
Standing on a chair she hauled herself through the attic hatch into a cobwebby space full of musty smells. It was all a bit of a disappointment really. Some long forgotten articles had mouldered into dust; some had been eaten by mice, some seemed to have no purpose at all and most of the books and papers were no longer readable. She was just about to give up when her eye caught something that looked to be worth a closer look.
Sweating and dirt streaked Jennifer laid her trophy out on the kitchen table. Mice had feasted on it, mildew had taken its toll and the colours had faded. Gradually however it dawned on her that this was a waistcoat – and a very fancy one. She also recognised the Gieves and Hawkes of St James label and wondered how it had got from there to here – and what stories it could tell.
'Hope you don’t expect me to wear that honey,' grinned Gene once he had recovered from the shock of learning that his pregnant wife had been clambering around the attic.
'No love – not even an American would have the nerve for that. It’s interesting though and just for fun I’m going to clean it up and maybe fix the chewed bits. Incidentally you might want to get some mouse traps for the attic.'
A few weeks later Jennifer stood back and eyed her handiwork. It had come up quite well, she thought. It was hardly in pristine condition – nothing could fully restore the colour of the silk lined peacock blue brocade. The Chinese pagoda and dragon motifs were recognisable though and the gold embroidery and buttons had responded to metal polish and tender loving care as had the remnants of the silver wire tassels.
That had been a long time ago – and in another country. Returning to the here and now Jennifer completed the cleaning and carefully folded the waistcoat and replaced it in its cardboard box but this time instead of returning it to the drawer she secured it with tape and left the house with the box in a carrier bag and carrying her suitcase.
As her footsteps took her towards the city her head filled with a jumble of thoughts – mostly unconnected. She tried to sort them out into some sort of sensible sequence but every time she got close they slipped away and sat in the wings, watching. All she knew was that she couldn’t go on blaming herself – or superstitious beliefs – for past events.
Every so often Gene’s face would appear – in a bus window near Hyde Park - on an escalator in Marble Arch tube station. On one occasion she turned sharply as she recognised Pat in a crowd of young office workers at a snack bar on the embankment and Angie stood with police colleagues at the entrance to Downing Street. Is this supposed to be telling me something she wondered? Other fragmented memories chased each other around the arches of her memory but Jennifer couldn’t hold onto them. Her face felt hot and she clutched the box ever more tightly.
It wasn’t all jumbled though. In a sudden flash of diamond sharp clarity Jennifer managed to capture the idea that perhaps the years could dull the razor’s edge of loss and eventually turn deep cuts into bruises. Maybe even these could fade – given time. She felt pleased but a little guilty at this thought and vaguely wondered where it had come from and what it meant.
Suddenly she stopped and looked up to find herself outside the St James premises of Gieves and Hawkes. It came to her then. We all have to come home. Whoever we are and wherever we’ve been, in the end we’ve all got to come home.
In a sudden movement Jennifer placed the box in the open doorway then quickly withdrew a small card from her bag and placed it on the box.
In remembrance, Gene, Pat and Angie Taylor, Twin Towers, 11 September 2001.
She stood for a moment, head bowed, then turned on her heel and walked briskly towards Kings Cross station and the Edinburgh train.