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The focus of these pieces (some of them a few paragraphs long), rendered in the frank, ferocious style for which Kelman has been rightly acclaimed, never shifts far from the working poor or the unemployed in Glasgow. Young or old, male or female, all of Kelman's characters are scarred both by poverty and by the inner frailties that poverty and violence give rise to. These wounds are often only incompletely perceived by the protagonists. "No Long the Warehouseman" describes a man who has ended up on the dole for reasons he can't explain to himself, let alone to his wife. In "By the Burn," a father finds that memories of his daughter's violent death make it impossible for him to go on with his life. "A Situation" gives an extended view of a young salesman rendered all but immobile by feelings of inadequacy in his job and by guilt at having had sex with his fiancée's sister. These frailties also drive some characters to escape in fantasy, as in "O Jesus, Here Come the Dwarfs," in which a potato-picker finds himself befriending, then defending, a group of little people; it's likely, we come to realize, that the whole incident occurred entirely in the man's frantic imagination. Common to these portraits of the downtrodden and the self-defeated are a dark hilarity and a lyricism that underscores each bleak encounter, slashing through with razor-sharp emphasis.
Giving a crisp measure of the author's vision, these are tales that further demonstrate Kelman's angry, distinctive voice and his unsettling vision of modern life.
An old pub near the Angel
Charles wakened at 9.30 A.M. and wasted no time in dressing. Good God it's about time for spring surely. Colder than it was yesterday though and I'll have to wash and shave today. Must. The face has yellow lines. I can't wear socks either. Impossibility. People notice smells though they say nothing.
Think I will do a moonlight tonight, I mean five weeks' rent—he has cause for complaint. Humanity. A touch of humanity is required. He has fourteen tenants paying around 3.00 [pounds sterling] each for those poxy wee rooms surely he can afford to let me off paying once in a while. Man I've even been known to clean my room on occasion with no thought of rent reduction.
Still he did take me for a meal last night. Collapsed if he hadn't. Imagine that bloody hotel porter knocking me back from their staff canteen. Where's your uniform? Are you a washer-up? These people depress me. What's the difference, one meal more or less. You'd think they were paying for the actual grub themselves. Old Ahmed though—what can I say—after the bollicking he gives me for not even trying to get a job and some bread together, who expects him to come back half an hour later saying, "Okay you Scotch dosser, come and eat." No, nothing to be said apart from "Fancy a pint first Ahmed?" Yes, he has too many good points. Suppose I could give him a week's money. Depends on what they give me though. Anyway.
Charles left the house and made his way towards the Labour Exchange up near Pentonville Road. It was a twenty-five minute walk but one he didn't mind at all as he normallyreceived six and a half quid for his trouble, later on, from the N.A.B.
Yes, spring is definitely around the corner man. Look at that briefcase with the sports jacket and cavalry twills. Already. Very daring. Must be a traveler. Best part of the day this—seeing all the workers, office and site and the new middle-class tradesmen, yes, all going about their business. It pleases me.
Can't say I'm in the mood for long waits though. Jesus Christ I forgot a book. Man man what do I do now? Borrow newspapers? Stare at people's necks and make goo goos at their children. Good God! the money's going to be well earned today.
Charles stopped outside the Easy Eats Cafe and breathed in deeply. This fellow must be the best cook in London, without any doubt at all. My my my. Every time I pass this place it's the same, smells like bacon and eggs and succulent sausages with toast and tea. Never mind never mind soon be there.
Charles arrived at the Labour Exchange and entered door C to take up position in the queue under D. Well, I can imagine it this morning, "Yes Mr. Donald there is some back money owing to you. Would you sign here for 43.68? [pounds sterling]" I'd smile politely, "Oh yes thank you, I had been beginning to wonder if it'd ever come through. Yes. Thank you. Good day." Then I'd creep out the door and run like the clappers before they discovered the error. God love us! What's this? Can't be somebody farting in a Labour Exchange surely! Bloody Irish, don't understand them at all. Think they delight in embarrassing the English just. Everybody kids on they didn't hear. But surely they can smell it?
Charles stepped out the queue and tapped the culprit on the shoulder. "Hey Mick that's a hell of a smell to make in a public place you know."
"Ah bejasus," he sighed, "it's that bloody Guinness Jock. Sure I can't help it at all."
"Terrible stuff for the guts right enough."
"Ah but it's better than that English water they sell here. Bitter!" He shook his head. "It's a penance to drink it altogether."
"Aye. You been waiting long?"
"Not at all." He shook his head again and spat on the floor, wiping it dry beneath his boot. "Want a smoke?"
"What you going on about. Here." He took out a packet of Woodies and passed it to Charles. "Take a couple Jock—I've plenty there and I'll be getting a few bob this morning."
Charles accepted, sticking one behind his ear. He said, "You been over long?"
"Ah too long Jock, too long." He gave a short laugh. "Still skint." He struck a match off the floor and they lighted the cigarettes. "Aye, if I'd been buying that Guinness in shares instead of pints I'd be worth a fortune and that's a fact—the hell with it."
"Heh, you're next Mick."
The Irishman went to the counter and received the signing-on card from the young girl clerk. He signed and was handed his pay slip then he walked over to the cashier where he was soon receiving the money, and he vanished. Charles followed the man who was next in line and was astonished to receive a pay slip. Normally he got a B1 form for the N.A.B. He asked the girl whether he would still be getting it. She smiled. "Not this week anyway Mr. Donald."
Charles strode to the money counter and stole a quick look at the pay slip. Good God! He looked again. He studied it. "God love us," he said loudly.
23.82 [pounds sterling]. Jesus. Oh you good thing. Nearly twenty-four quid. Man man that must be near eighteen back pay! What can one say God? Mere words are useless.
He passed the slip under the grill to the older woman with the fancy spectacles. Once he had signed at the right place she counted and passed him the bundle of notes and coins.
"My sincere thanks madam," he said.
The cashier smiled. "That makes a change."
"You have a wonderful smile," continued Charles, folding the wad "I shall certainly call back here again. Good morning."
"Good morning." The cashier watched him back off towards the exit.
He closed the door. Yes, maybe chances there if I followed it through. A bit old right enough. Maybe she just pities me. With that smile she gave me! Impossible.
He walked up Pentonville Road and decided to go for a pint rather than a breakfast. Half past eleven. Not too early.
"Pint of bitter and eh—give me ..." Charles stared at the miserable gantry, "just give me one of your good whiskies eh!"
The ancient bartender peered at him for a moment then bent down behind the bar to produce a dusty bottle of Dimple Haig. "How's this eh?"
"Aye," replied Charles, "that's fine. How much is it?"
"Seven bob," muttered the bartender rubbing his ear thoughtfully.
"Well give me twenty Players as well and that's that."
The bartender passed over the cigarettes and grabbed the pound note, mumbling to himself. Very friendly old bastard. Must hate Scotsmen or something. He brought back the change and moved around the counter tidying up. "Hoy!" called Charles after a time. "Any grub?"
"What's that?" cried the bartender, left hand at his ear.
"Food, have you any food?"
"What d'you want, eh?"
"Depends. What've you got?"
"Don't know." He thought for a moment. "Potato crisps?"
"No chance," said Charles. "Is that it?"
"Shepherd's pie? The missus makes it," he added with a strange smile.
Wonder why he's smiling like that. Poisoned or something?
"Homemade eh ..." Charles nodded. "Aye, I'll have some of that."
"Yes, now for heaven sake." He shook his head.
"Okay okay, just take a seat a minute, I'll go and tell her eh?" He shuffled away. As he passed through the door in the partition he glanced back at Charles who gave him a wave.
Kind of quiet place this. Wonder when it gets busy. Strange I'm the only customer at nearly twelve o'clock on a Thursday morning. The ancient bartender returned and cried, "'Bout ten fifteen minutes eh?" Charles nodded. The other resumed wiping some glasses.
Man man who would've thought of me getting paid back money like that. Brilliant. Let me see. 11.50 A.M. By rights I should still be sitting in the second interview queue at the N.A.B. The fat woman's kids'll be rolling on the floor and she'll be reading the Evening Standard dog-section. Yes, I'll be missed. They'll think I've gone to Scotland. Or maybe been lifted by the busies. No, won't have to go back there for a while. Thank Christ for that.
A huge woman appeared from behind the partition holding a great plateful of steaming shepherd's pie. "One shepherd's pie!" she shouted. Her chins trembled and her breasts rested on her knees as she bent to plonk it down in the center of Charles' table.
"This looks wonderful," he said, sniffing at it. He smiled up at her. "Madam, you've excelled yourself. How much do you ask for this delicious fare?"
"Fourteen pee." She pointed to her husband. "He'll give you the condiments. Just shout, he's deaf occasionally."
"Many thanks," replied Charles, placing thirty pence on her tray. "Please have a drink on me."
"Ta son," she said and toddled back through to the kitchen.
Charles ate rapidly. He thoroughly enjoyed the meal. "Hoy!" he called, "Hoy!"
The bartender was standing, elbows propped on the counter, staring up at the blank television screen. "Hoy!" shouted Charles, getting out of his seat. He walked to the bar.
"Yeh yeh, yeh! What's up eh?"
"Another pint of bitter. And have one yourself."
"Jesus what's up here at all. Listen man get me a pint of bitter please and have one with me, eh! How's that. Eh?"
"Fine son, I'll have a half. Nice weather eh ..." The ancient fellow was showing distinct signs of energy while pulling the beer taps. "Pity about the Fulham though eh! Yeh, they'll be back, they'll be back." He took a lengthy swig at his half pint, eyes closed, a slow stream trickling down his partly shaven chin and winding its way round the Adam's apple on down beneath his frayed shirt collar. "Yeh," he said, "Poor old Chelsea." And he finished the rest of the drink.
"What about the old Jags though eh? I mean that's even worse than the Fulham surely!"
"What's that Jock?"
"The Thistle man, the old Patrick Thistle, they were relegated last season."
"Ah, Scotch team eh! Don't pay much heed."
"Yeh, you're right and all. Not much good up there."
"Bloody Celtic and Rangers, "he shook his head in disgust. "Get them in here sometimes. And the bloody Irish. Mostly go down Kings Cross they do. Bloody trouble they cause eh?"
"Give us another of these Dimples."
"Yeh." He smiled awkwardly. "Like them do you?" He pursed his lips.
Charles got it and returned to his table near the wall, and sat quietly for about five minutes. "Hoy!" he shouted.
The bartender had regained his former position beneath the television set. He gave no indication of having heard.
The old fellow jumped and turned angrily. "What's up then? What's this bleeding hoy all the time eh?"
"Well you're a bit deaf for Christ sake."
"No need to bloody scream like that though."
"Alright alright, sorry. Look, I'm just going to go out for a paper a minute. Keep your eye on my drink eh?"
The bartender began muttering then started to polish glasses.
Charles had to visit three newsagents before obtaining a copy of the Sporting Life. Nothing else could possibly do with all that back money lying about. When he returned to the pub he noticed another customer sitting at a table facing him, just at the corner of the room. She was around ninety years of age.
"Morning," called Charles. "Good morning missus."
The old lady was sucking her gums and smiled across at him, then she looked up at the bartender. "Goshtorafokelch," she said.
The bartender looked from her to Charles and back again before replying, "Yeh, I'll say eh?"
Bejasus thank God I've got a paper to read. This must be an old folk's home in disguise. He quickly swallowed the remains of the whisky and then the remains of the beer. "Hoy!" he shouted. "What time is it? I mean is that the right time there or what?"
The bartender frowned. "Must be after twelve I reckon eh?"
Charles got up and carried the empties across. "Think I'll be going," he said.
"You please yourself," he muttered. "Going to another shop are you eh?"
"No, it's not that man, I've just got to go home, get a bath and that."
"Will you be back then eh?"
"Well, not today. Maybe tonight though, but if not I'll definitely be back sometime."
"Ah—who cares eh?" The bartender poured himself a gin then said, "Want a short do you eh?"
"Another short, one of them." He pointed at the dusty Dimple Haig. "Bleeding thing's been there for years," he said and poured a fair-sized measure out. "Yeh, glad to get rid of it eh?"
Charles took the tumbler and looked at it. The bartender watched him drink some and asked, "You really like it then eh Jock?"
"Aye, it's a good whisky."
The barman opened a bottle of sweet stout and pushed it across to him. "You pass that down to her," he said.
"Right you are." Charles walked over to the corner and put it down next to the old woman's glass. "Here you are missus, the landlord sent it."
She looked up and glanced at him with a smile and a nod of the head. "Patsorpooter," was what she said.
"Aye," Charles grinned. "Fine." He went back to the bar to finish the whisky. "Okay then," he said, "that's me, I'll be off. And I'll be back in again, don't worry about that."
"Hm." The bartender polished the counter. He moved on to another part of it.
"Listen," called Charles, "I'll be back."
The ancient fellow was now polishing a large glass and seemed unable to hear for the noise of the cloth on it.
"I'll see yous later!" shouted Charles hopelessly.
He collected the newspaper and cigarettes from the table and made for the door. Christ this is really terrible. Can't understand what it's all about. Maybe ... No, I haven't a clue. Sooner I'm out the better.
He stopped at where the old lady was sitting. "Cheerio missus, I'll be in next week sometime. Okay?"
She wiped a speck of foam from the tip of her nose. "Deef!" she cried, "deef." And she burst into laughter. Charles had a quick look round for the bartender but he must have gone through the partition door, so he left immediately.
|Foreword: Letter to My Editor||9|
|He knew him well||11|
|An old pub near the Angel||14|
|Nice to be Nice||21|
|Remember Young Cecil||28|
|No longer the warehouseman||38|
|learning the Story||44|
|Away in Airdrie||45|
|Not not while the giro||67|
|In a betting shop to the rear of Shaftesbury Avenue||93|
|O jesus, here come the dwarfs||99|
|A Nightboilerman's notes||116|
|The one with the dog||130|
|Forgetting to mention Allende||132|
|The Small Family||139|
|Half an hour before he died||143|
|The Red Cockatoos||144|
|Dum vivimus, vivamus||148|
|Greyhound for Breakfast||154|
|A walk in the park||187|
|A woman and two men||235|
|Lassies are trained that way||238|
|by the burn||258|