The Greatest Treasure
Charlie Reid zipped his coat up against the biting winter wind as he walked along Argyll Street. Despite the bitterly cold wind the street was crowded with shoppers rushing here and there beneath the gaudy Christmas lights. As he walked, he thought back to his childhood and how his mum used to walk him and his sister and brother all the way from Springburn to see the Christmas lights in the city centre. Christmas was exciting then even if they didn’t get much in the way of gifts. He smiled as he remembered being utterly elated the year he got his first Celtic shirt. He was nine years old and opened the present containing the centenary home kit with the Celtic cross badge on the breast. He almost cried as he hugged his mum; she was struggling to bring up Charlie, his sister Angie and his big brother Paul on her own and he knew she’d have saved and gone without to make their Christmas special. He wore that shirt till it was utterly worn out and even then he wouldn’t part with it and wore it to bed. As these thoughts filled his head he reached Glasgow cross and crossed the street to the Tollbooth Bar.
He scanned the faces filling the well know pub until he saw Paul in the corner with a couple of his cronies. For a moment he looked at his brother as he drank and talked to his associates. The boy he grew up with, so full of laughter and fun was long gone. In his place stood a man approaching 40 who might have been 10 or even 15 years older. His shock of black hair was now mostly grey and his face bore the marks of numerous confrontations he’d had in his life. A thick scar above his right eye gave him a mean and dangerous look which wasn’t entirely undeserved. Charlie knew how Paul made his money and how the poison he dealt in ruined lives and blighted communities. He was still his brother though.
In that long moment as he regarded him, he recalled their younger days. Playing football in the streets, running through Sitehill cemetery as they played their boyhood games and of course walking all the way to Celtic Park to watch the Celts play. Paul hated losing at anything and that led to the odd scrap with Charlie when they were kids. As the younger of the two, Charlie usually got the worst of it. He remembered one sunny day when they and some of the Shamrock boys from the Garngad were returning from a Celtic and Rangers game and blundered into a hostile group of Rangers fans under those ugly tower blocks which once stood off the Gallowgate. The fight which followed was brutal and Charlie saw for the first time the utterly ruthless side of his brother who flew at the enemy with a frightening ferociousness. The sound of Police sirens had broken up the fight but Paul had to be dragged off his immediate opponent and they made their escape.
As they grew up Charlie noticed his brother’s competitive nature eventually giving way to a burning resentment of their relative poverty. He’d take what he wanted in life and this led to trouble with the Police as he got involved in various petty crimes. The local bad guys soon saw his potential and he graduated in time into being ‘one worth a watching’ as he heard someone once say of him.
Their contacts had lessened as they grew to manhood and their lives diverged. Charlie worked hard to support his own family while Paul drifted in and out of their lives. They’d bump into each other at family events now and then. Paul arriving in his garish big car and splashing the cash, seemingly oblivious to the disdain some of the family now felt for him. It was common knowledge how he made his money and he was treated with a mixture of coldness, subdued contempt and even fear. It was strange for Charlie to see that all the material things Paul now possessed hadn’t made him happy. People made their choices in life and for good or ill had to live with them.
He pushed his way through the crowded pub towards his brother. Charlie saw him coming and smiled a little before ordering his cronies to give him five minutes. As they walked away Paul locked his eyes on his brother’s, ‘Alright Charlie boy, long time no see, what brings you down to this neck of the woods?’ Charlie nodded, ‘How ye doing Paul? Can we talk somewhere a bit quieter?’ Paul’s eyes narrowed a little; Charlie usually had something serious to say when he made such a request ‘Aye, the car’s around the corner.’ He signalled he’d be back in five minutes to his friends and they exited the noisy Bar and headed out into the chill of a dark winter’s night. ‘You’ve got that serious look on your face bro,’ Paul said as he guided Charlie into his white BMW. He turned the key and warm air began to flow into the car. Paul turned down the music which came on as he started the engine. Charlie smiled a little to hear Glen Daly’s unmistakable tones sing, ‘and the Glasgow Celtic will be there….’ Not many gangsters listened to that, he thought to himself.
Paul looked at his brother as they sat in the dark car, the green lights of the dashboard casting shadows on his face, ‘So what’s it all about bro?’ Charlie sat in the dark car and told his brother in a calm and monotone voice that their mother was dying and she wanted to see them both before her time was up. Paul listened, his tough face showing no emotion, ‘How long?’ he asked in a quiet voice, ‘A few weeks at most, Paul. She went in with stomach pains and they found the cancer. It’s too far gone to treat. She’s home now and the nurse comes every day but when the time come she’ll go tae the Marie Curie place up in Stobhill.’ Paul shook his head slowly, ‘Life’s a bastard, Charlie, an utter bastard.’ With that he eased the car into gear and they headed for their childhood home.
Charlie’s sister Angie opened the door to them, her face tired and sad. She embraced Charlie, ’She’s in the room.’ She embraced Paul too though in silence as if she had nothing to say to him. The two brothers entered the room where their mother lay on the double bed, her head propped up by pillows. An icon of Jesus, hands outstretched showing the marks of his crucifixion adorned the wall above the bed, his all-seeing eyes watching them. Charlie approached her and leaning over gave her a gentle hug, ‘Hi Ma, how have you been today?’ Paul sat on the bed too, He took her hand and looked at her but words wouldn’t come. ‘Ah boys,‘ she said in a weak voice, ‘I’m glad you could come. I want to talk to you both before I go.’ They brothers sat and listened to her outline what she wanted to happen when she was gone. She had thought it all through; her funeral arrangements, the hymns, which possessions to give to her friends at the church, even where the cat was going. She then pushed herself up on the bed a little and looked at Paul and Charlie. ‘I want you two and Angie to be there for each other no matter what. Family is the greatest treasure we get in life, don’t drift apart.’ She looked at Paul and squeezed his hand weakly, ‘Promise me son, promise me you’ll stop doing the things you do which hurt people.’ Paul was taken aback by this request. He knew what she meant and was momentarily lost for words. He seemed to be thinking for a moment before looking into her eyes and slowly nodding his head.
In the months following the passing of their mother the brothers tried to meet up more often. Charlie even got Paul to come to the odd Celtic game. They had a long chat in a quiet city centre bar after one such game. ‘You don’t just retire wi a pension from my line of business,’ Paul had said, ‘but it’s time I got out anyway. They’re like fuckin’ wolves, Charlie, always some young buck looking tae take over.’ He explained how he’d been taking a step back, handing things over to others. He’d be out of it soon enough. He’d be true to his promise to his mother. Charlie was pleased, Paul had been hardened by his life, his heart slowly setting like concrete, but there was a glimmer of hope he could get his brother back.
Charlie switched the conversation to happier memories. ‘Remember when we went tae Stuttgart in the Seville year? You thought you were getting aff wi a burd in that pub?’ Paul laughed, ‘Aye, turned out she was a fuckin he!’ Charlie continued, ‘Easy mistake to make, he was gorgeous, even I thought he was a wumin!’ Paul nodded, ‘Aye but I winched the face aff him! Their laughter filled the void of years when they had hardly communicated. Paul said through a rare smile, ‘Then there was you telling yer work you were aff sick and getting the sack when you were spotted on the front page of the Daily Record going mad in Porto when Larsson scored the winner!’ Charlie laughed at that memory too, ‘Boss was a pure tadger, the bastard had the picture cut oot and on the notice board when I got back! Circled my heed wi a felt pen! I was glad tae see the back of that place anyway.’ They shared such memories for a few happy hours before heading back to their very different lives.
There was a chance that Paul would be able to escape the world he had inhabited for so long and Charlie was going to be there to help him whenever he could. They had promised their mother to be there for each other and they would honour that promise. Whatever the future held they’d try to be a family again. What was it she had said? ‘Family is the greatest treasure we get in life.’ He had learned that she was right.