Shuggie Bain

Douglas Stuart


That summer, when it finally came, was close and damp. For a nocturnal man, the days had felt too long. The long daylight was like an inconsiderate guest, the northern gloam reluctant to leave. Big Shug always found the summer days hardest to sleep through. The sun brightened the thick curtains till they were a vibrating violet, and the children were always noisiest when they were happiest, the door going constantly with mouthy teenagers from other flats and women in strappy sandals traipsing the hall carpet, clacking pink feet and pink gums at all hours.

As night finally fell, Big Shug pulled his black hackney round in a small tight circle. It spun like a fat dog chasing its tail and headed out of the Sighthill estate. Seeing the lights of Glasgow, he relaxed back into the seat, and for the first time that day his shoulders fell from around his ears. For the next eight hours the city was his, and he had plans for it.

He wiped the window and got a good look in the wing mirror. Smiling to himself, he thought how smashing he looked: white shirt, black suit, black tie. It was a bit much for work, Agnes had said, but then she said altogether too much these days. As the smile travelled through his body he wondered whether taxi driving was in his blood. Between him and his brother Rascal it was practically a family business. His father would have enjoyed it too, had the shipbuilding not killed him.

Shug pulled up at the lights under the shadow of the Royal Infirmary and watched a gaggle of nurses smoke a crafty fag. He watched them rub their pink arms in the cold night air and shelf their tits over tight-folded arms. They smoked without using their hands, afeart of losing any body heat. He smiled slowly and watched himself react in the mirror. Night shift definitely suited him best.

He liked to roam alone in the darkness, getting a good look at the underbelly. Out came the characters shellacked by the grey city, years of drink and rain and hope holding them in place. His living was made by moving people, but his favourite pastime was watching them.

The thin driver’s window made a sharp slicing sound as he slid it down and lit a cigarette. The wind came rushing in, and his long strands of thin hair danced like beach grass in the breeze. He hated going bald, hated getting old; it made everything hard work. He adjusted the mirror lower so that he couldn’t see the reflection of his bare head. He found his long, thick moustache and sat absent-mindedly stroking it, like a favourite pet. Under it his spare chin wobbled. He tilted the mirror back up.

The Glasgow streets were shiny with rain and street lights. The infirmary nurses didn’t linger, flicking half-smoked fags into the puddles and tottering back inside. Shug sighed and turned the taxi past Townhead and pointed down towards the city centre. He liked the drive from Sighthill, it was like a descent into the heart of the Victorian darkness. The closer you got to the river, the lowest part of the city, the more the real Glasgow opened up to you. There were hidden nightclubs tucked under shadowy railway arches, and blacked-out windowless pubs where old men and women sat on sunny days in a sweaty, pungent purgatory. It was down near the river that the skinny, nervous-faced women sold themselves to men in polished estate cars, and sometimes it was here that the polis would later find chopped up bits of them in black bin bags. The north bank of the Clyde housed the city mortuary, and it seemed fitting that all the lost souls were floating in that direction, so as to be no trouble when their time blessedly came.

Pulling past the station, Shug was glad the rank there was full of taxis and empty of punters. Tourists were dull, talkative, and freaking cheap. They’d be an eternity lugging massive cases into the back and then would sit there steaming up the taxi in squeaky Pac-a-Macs. Those ugly tight-arsed bastards could shove their ten-pence tips. He gave a snide toot to the boys and drove on lower towards the river.

Rain was the natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial. Its effect on the taxi business was negligible. It was a problem because it was mostly inescapable and the constant dampness was pervasive, so fares might as well sit damp on a bus as damp in the back of an expensive taxi. On the other hand, rain meant that the young lassies from the dancing all wanted to take a taxi home so as not to ruin their stiff hair or their sharp shoes. For that Shug was in favour of the endless rain.

He pulled up Hope Street and sat at the rank. It shouldn’t be long. Only two or three of the old boys were sat there, waiting for a hire. From here it was a short stoat from the dancing on Sauchiehall Street or a frozen trot for the working girls pitched out on Blythswood Square. Either way, it was a good spot for an interesting night.

Shug sat smoking in the dreich and listened to the crackle of the CB radio. The lady dispatcher announced fares up in Possil and runs to be had down in the Trongate. Joanie Micklewhite was the only voice on the radio, and every night he listened to her hold this repetitive circular monologue asking for help, waiting for answers, giving orders, and bluffing any backchat. Always only half a conversation, like she was talking to herself or talking, it seemed, only to him. He liked the peaceful sound of her voice. He took a comfort from it.

He finished his cigarette and watched young couples huddle together as they left the late picture. The drivers in front slowly started to pull fares and rattle off into the night. Alone at the head of the rank, he watched a group of young lassies dribble chips on to the street as they had a fight over how they should get home. It looked like they’d get in the taxi, but no, the fat practical one wanted to wait for the night bus. Leave her, he thought, let her get wet. The prettiest, most guttered one was still stumbling towards him. Shug practiced his smile in the half-light.

Shuggie Bain