Friday, 18 July 2014

Fools' Gold

Fools' Gold
Big Archie Campbell wasn’t a man to be trifled with and wee Joe was literally shaking at the thought of having to deliver the bad news to him. ‘Why did I ever get involved wi a thug like that yin?’ he mumbled to himself as he hurried up Abercromby Street in the direction of the Gallowgate towards his Da’s house. If anyone could help him it was the old fella. He entered the close of the decrepit tenement building and climbed the worn stairs, which smelled vaguely of urine but he had grown up here and even the smell was reassuringly familiar to him. He stopped at his father’s door on the second floor and drew a deep breath before knocking gently. ‘Come in’ he heard his old man call in his familiar voice. Joe pushed the door open and headed towards the living room where the old fella sat on an ancient armchair watching horse racing on his small TV. ‘Aw right Da? You’ll need tae stop leaving the door unlocked.’ His old man’s face wrinkled into a smile, ‘Nothing worth stealing in here Joe.’ Joe sat on the couch opposite his Dad and studied him for a second. His illness had taken its toll and the man who was once so vigorous and strong now looked thin, grey and old. Joe recalled as a child having to run to keep up with his dad as he marched along the familiar streets of the east end. Now however, that strong physique, a result of years of hard labour in a fibre board factory, had been undermined by the microscopic fibres he had breathed in every day. His lungs were ruined and walking ten metres was now an effort for him. The grey haired old man regarded him, ‘Got my last fiver on this race, second favourite. Six tae wan.’ Joe nodded, a sinking feeling in his stomach, he had inherited his father’s love of gambling and that was the root of his current predicament.

The race finished with his old man grunting in the general direction of the TV, ‘Ach, three legged feckin donkey!’ Joe sighed, ‘Nae luck Da,’ His father shook his head before using the remote to turn the TV off and turned to look at his son, ‘Horses have been cruel tae me recently, I’m starting tae think that gem’s fixed.’ Joe nodded before cutting to the chase, ‘I’ve got a problem Da and I need yer advice.’ His old man could see a worried look on his son’s face and sat forward in his chair, ‘Whit’s the problem son?’ Joe outlined in a shaky voice how he’d got involved with local heavy Archie Campbell and one of his many illegal schemes. Campbell’s mules went to Belgium regularly on the Ferry and returned with thousands of cheap cigarettes and packs of rolling tobacco. Joe was one of the small fish who took a few hundred packets around the area to sell and had built up a regular clientele. He’d receive £500 worth of tobacco from Campbell in a battered holdall every two weeks and be expected to return the empty bag along with £400 in cash to Campbell. It left Joe with £100 profit for a couple of days legwork and this arrangement worked well for a few months. His problem occurred when he met a regular client in the Wee Man’s Pub and after completing the transaction was tipped off in whispered, conspiratorial tones about a horse which was a certainty at Lingfield that day. It was a strong favourite and as Joe enjoyed a few pints in the pub the thought of more easy money nagged away at him. He headed along the Gallowgate and entered the bookies, which was already busy and glancing at the bank of TVs on the wall above his head and noticed that ‘Fools' Gold’ was even money favourite with the next best horse at 5 to 1. He quickly wrote out the line and paused at the box marked ‘Stake.’ He wrote ‘£50’ and paused again before exhaling and adding a second zero. It now read £500. Joe had placed all of the cigarette money on the horse thinking to himself that Campbell’s money was safe on such a strong favourite. 10 minutes later he stood staring blankly at the screen as the result of a photo finish informed him that ‘Fools' Gold’ had, by a nose, finished second. Campbell required his money later that day and Joe had just lost it all.

His father listened to this tale in silence and when Joe stopped speaking he frowned at him. ‘Campbell is a grade A thug, Joe, you should never have got involved with a man like him. His Da wiz the same when I was your age, bullyin’ bastard, runs in the family.’ Joe nodded, his eyes fixed on his dirty and rather worn shoes. ‘Son,’ his father went on. ‘I’ll be honest wi ye, I’m skint and I’ve nae idea how we can raise £400.’ Joe and his da discussed every avenue open to them to raise the money and none seemed likely. Joe spoke in the voice of a man realising he has no way out of his predicament, ‘Campbell has eyes everywhere. He’ll know I gambled the money by noo. Wee Peter bumped him for £100 last month and got ripped for his trouble. It might be worse than that for £400,’ His father notice Joe’s voice shaking with what might have been apprehension or perhaps fear and tried to calm him. ‘Lie low Joe, head o’er tae yer Auntie June’s place in Maryhill till we get this sorted.’ His father advised, ‘I’ll see what I can dae. Stay here tonight and head over in the morning.’ Joe spent a sleepless night on his father’s couch, his dreams haunted by Campbell and the retribution he’d surely mete out. Such men ruled by fear and any compassion might be mistaken for weakness. Joe could expect no mercy.

The following morning Joe was up early and headed down Abercromby Street towards London Road and a bus out of the area. Halfway down the street he heard a familiar laugh and his heart jumped in his chest. 100 yards away and heading straight for him was Campbell and one of his more Neanderthal acolytes. Joe froze. Campbell hadn’t seen him yet, had he? In a split second Joe darted to his left and up the stairs of St Mary’s church. He pushed the heavy doors and let himself in, it was the first time he’d set foot in the place in years. There were a few people dotted here and there in the church and he tried hard to still his nervous breathing. He sat a few rows from the back near a man who sat, eyes closed, deep in prayer. Joe was literally shaking, if Campbell had spotted him then there was no place to hide. At least he might hesitate to get rough in a church especially with witnesses around. He clasped his hands together to stop them shaking. He hadn’t been this scared in his life. Campbell was a bad man who would surely hurt him? ‘Fuck sake, Joe’ he breathed to himself, ‘get a grip.’ His quiet curse must have been slightly audible in the stillness of the church because the man praying a couple of yards from him slowly straightened up and sat back in the pew. Joe looked away, avoiding eye contact, slightly embarrassed at having used bad language in a church. The man didn’t turn to look at him but said in quiet, almost gentle tones, ‘Something troubling you son?’ Joe glanced briefly at him before staring straight ahead and pondering his next move. What did he have to lose telling a stranger of his woes? He exhaled before replying in a whisper, ‘Eh….aye, I owe a bad man money. That’s aw, sorry I disturbed ye.’ The man, still not looking at Joe, replied, ‘What’s his name?’  Joe, a little surprised at the question, muttered quietly, ‘Archie Campbell, no a man tae  have  efter ye.’ The man nodded slowly as if he'd heard of Campbell. Joe breathed in nervously his mind whirling, a couple of minutes had passed since he had seen Campbell outside. He’d be gone by now or waiting outside for him. Joe muttered ‘Sorry tae have bothered ye, Pal’ to the man and stumbled out of the pew and walked towards the church door. He glanced nervously out the door onto a quiet and deserted Abercromby Street. Campbell, it seemed, had gone.

Joe stayed at his aunt’s in Maryhill for the next week and by borrowing and scrimping managed to gather together £120. He decided to offer it to Campbell as a down payment on what he owed and work off his debt by selling the illegal tobacco for free. Surely even an ignorant thug like Campbell could see the sense in that? He’d no doubt add interest for the delay and maybe give Joe a slap but as far as Joe could see that would be better than living in the fearful purgatory he found himself in. Campbell would find him sooner or later so he’d best get it over with. He headed back to the east end on the bus, getting off at the stop beside Campbell’s usual watering hole by the old Meat Market. Looking a lot more composed than he was feeling, he pushed the door and entered. He soon spotted Campbell at the bottom of the bar, five or six of his cronies laughing at his jokes and hanging on his every word. He was an intimidating man in every sense. He stood around six feet tall with powerful shoulders and a hawk like face marked with a cruel scar which curved under his left cheek and onto his neck. Joe walked up to the group his heart pounding, ‘Aw right Archie, can I have a word?’ Campbell slowly drained his whisky glass before responding, ‘Joe, just the man I’ve been looking for.’ Campbell looked at his cronies and flicked his head towards the other end of the bar, ‘fuck off.’ They lifted their drinks in silence and headed along the bar out of earshot. Campbell then turned his shark’s eyes to Joe who felt like a moth before a flame, ‘ Joe, our business is wan which requires a bit of tact. You’ve been a good wee earner for me but I’m gonny tell ye this wance and wance only. Ye deliver yer dues in person and ye don’t send any third parties wi the cash, dae ye understand me?’  Joe was utterly bemused but before he could respond Campbell went on, ‘I’ll drop this month’s tobacco aff tonight as usual and ye can square me up in a fortnight. Now off ye go.’ Joe wandered from the pub in a daze. Which third party had paid his debt? It had to be his old man there was no one else? He walked as fast as he could along the Gallowgate feeling a great weight had been lifted from him. He sprinted up the stairs to his da’s house and entered without knocking. He grinned at his Dad, ‘Cheers Da, yer a feckin star!’  He went to hug his father but stopped short seeing the mystified look on his face. ‘Ye paid Campbell for me? Where did ye get the money?’ His father looked at him, ‘Joe, I tried tae raise the cash but there was no way I could. I didnae pay Campbell a bean and I’ve no idea wit yer on aboot.’ Joe slumped onto his father’s threadbare couch, ‘If you didnae pay him, who did?’

The following Sunday morning Joe was heading down Abercromby street to inform Campbell that his next tobacco run would be his last. There was no shortage of poor folk willing to risk jail for a few quid and he’d give the new guy a list of his customers. He’d tell Campbell he was worried the cops were following him and he’d be glad to get Joe off his payroll. As he reached St Mary’s church the crowd leaving Mass spilled out onto the street. Joe waited for them to pass and noticed the man he’d spoken to briefly when he’d ducked in out of Campbell’s way the week before. The man was chatting to old and young alike and was obviously a popular man around the parish. As the crowd thinned out Joe squeezed past,. As he did so the man smiled at him, ‘Campbell off yer back now, son?’ Joe stopped, unsure of what to say and before he could respond someone else engaged the man in conversation. Joe watched him then walk towards a car and then ease away from the kerb and head down towards the London Road. Then it hit Joe: He paid the money! A guy he had met for ten seconds had paid his debt and saved him from God knows what. It had to have been him. Joe turned to a grey haired man who was closing the front gates of the church over. ‘Excuse me.’ The man looked at him, ‘Aye son, whit can I dae for ye?’ Joe responded, ‘The guy in the silver car there who wis talking tae every-wan. Who is he?’ The old man smiled, ‘I thought everybody knew him? That’s Tommy… Tommy Burns.’  

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