Life is governed by luck for the most part. A few are born with it in good measure and seldom seem dismayed by harsh reality, while others make a wretched beginning and continue in that vein until they grow weary and abandon hope.
Most people spend their lives drifting between good luck and bad, believing the bad to be a test of faith or destiny, and accepting the good as their just reward.
Sometimes though, what seems like fortune’s kindly smile is a mask that conceals the beginnings of a pernicious spiral. But then, life is also about choices, and the decisions you make while not even seeming to be decisions can sometimes result in unthinkable consequences.
The ten-pound note appeared as if by magic. A breath of air from the open door lifted it from under the chocolate display and chased it across the counter. It teetered on the edge then fluttered to the floor and came to rest beside the feet of seventeen-year-old Jamie McCarthy.
Jamie glanced around. Had anyone noticed? A fat, middle-aged man in soiled overalls stood in front of the magazine rack, thumbing through the latest issue of Playboy. Near the window, a freckle-faced schoolgirl stood on tiptoe peering into the freezer, trying to decide which ice cream to buy. Neither paid him any attention. His eyes flicked to the elderly shopkeeper. He, too, was busy, making silly clucking noises over a baby held up by its adoring mother.
He crouched down, seized the note, and stuffed it into his trouser pocket.
When he looked up, the shopkeeper was peering at him over his glasses. “What do you want, lad?”
A drum pounded in his head, and for a second, he couldn’t remember why he was there. It came back to him in a rush, and he blurted out, “A packet of Senior Service, the Daily Record, and the latest Rave magazine, please, and I’d like a quarter of Black Jacks.” Even though his face was burning, he forced himself to meet the shopkeeper’s searing gaze.
The old man measured out the sweets on his scales and regarded Jamie through narrowed eyes. Not many boys around here were so bashful. “A quarter pound of Black Jacks, right,” he said, twisting closed the paper bag and sliding it across the counter. He plucked the cigarettes from the shelf behind him and picked out two publications from the stacks on the bench. “Do you need a bag?”
Jamie nodded and thrust a crumpled ten-shilling note at the man.
McIntyre handed him his purchases and some coins, then turned his attention to the girl who was still searching for ice cream. “Can I help you there, lass?”
Checking his change, Jamie hurried outside. His heart soared, and he longed to jump into the air and pump his fist. He was desperate to look at the ten-pound-note and make sure it was real, but he didn’t dare until he was in a safe place. And it wasn’t safe here.
Jamie had learned the hard way to keep his head down if he didn’t want to attract trouble. He slung the shopping bag over his shoulder and stretched out his hands. One pinkie was fatter than the other thanks to Archie Stewart, who’d ordered his pals to hold him down while he banged Jamie’s fingers with a brick. Jamie was five years old at the time, but the injury was still visible as a constant reminder that Archie was capable of anything.
He pushed the memory away and scrunched the banknote in his pocket. Feels genuine, all right, but it might only be a quid. He risked pulling out a corner to make sure.
His mind whirled—he was rich!
Now he could afford that second-hand guitar he’d been pestering his parents to buy him for months. He imagined the brown music box nestling under his arm as he stroked the strings melodically. But they’ll want to know where the money came from, won’t they? They’d never believe he’d managed to save up ten pounds. Reluctantly, he abandoned the idea of the guitar, and the Chelsea boots he was keen on. There was no point in thinking about a new pair of ice-skates, either. He wouldn’t be able to explain having any of those things. Really, there wasn’t a lot he could buy without inviting unwelcome questions. Then he saw the poster affixed to the streetlamp. The fair was in town. Perfect!
As he turned onto Craigielea Drive, the evening sun cast long shadows over the brooding tenements, and his mood plummeted. He’d been in dreamland. What was the point of wishing and hoping when this was his reality? He felt the buildings press in on him; the grey verandas with their shabby shirts and tattered trousers hanging lifeless in the still air; the coal smoke oozing sullenly from soot-blackened chimney pots high above; and the wild grasses and weeds crawling from untended gardens, spreading their long green tendrils across the footpath.
Children played on the road like urchins from a Dickens tale, wearing hand-me-downs too big for them or fit only for the rag man. Girls chanted “Blue Bells, Cockle Shells,” leaping from square to square, oblivious to everything except the rough chalk marks of their hopscotch.
Jamie trapped a wayward ball and kicked it back to some lads playing three aside with goalposts marked on the road by tin cans and jackets. Some toddlers whisked past him peddling tricycles, their bare knees angled outwards, backs hunched over handlebars, and bells and hooters clanging.
They might be poor, he thought, but these kids hadn’t known life any different. They were happy. He knew that would change by the time they reached their teens. He’d seen it happen. A few kids, like Gordon Greenlaw, who played left-back for St. Mirren, would escape their surroundings and make their way in the world; but most would stay, imprisoned here forever.
He vowed not to let that happen to him.
Jamie had lived most of his seventeen years in a council-owned tenement flat on the outskirts of Glasgow. Like most kids in the area, he’d left school as soon as he turned fifteen, and he’d taken on unskilled, poorly paid work at local factories and building sites. It wasn’t long before the excitement of bringing home a weekly wage faded, and he came to the realization he needed to be qualified in something if he wanted his life to change.
Now, in August 1965, he’d completed his first year at Joseph Banks College, where he was studying for a Civil Engineering certificate. This fact alone marked him as different from other youths in the area and―like an albino lacking camouflage―made him an easy target for predators.
Outside number five, a train of baby carriages was parked. These were being watched over by elder sisters who shook plastic rattles and replaced spurned dummy teats trying to soothe the restless occupants. Jamie recognized the red-haired Brannigan twins, blankets askew, bootees discarded, and legs kicking furiously. The McPhees and the Camerons were there too, as was the latest addition to the brood of seven belonging to his next-door neighbors. Where on earth do they all sleep? The Kelly family lived in a three-bedroom flat just as he did.
No doubt, the babies’ mothers would be at their weekly get-together, enjoying cups of sweet tea, biscuits, and a generous helping of gossip. The street gangs didn’t bother parents or young children much, which was no surprise to him, given the gangs often included brothers, sons, and other family members.
He sighed. They live in a different world.
Jamie scanned the street ahead, looking for any thugs who might be hanging around. Archie Stewart wasn’t the only one to give a wide berth to, but he was the worst. Jamie’s crushed finger was only one memento of Stewart’s malevolence. As bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the scar he would carry for life left by a flashing blade that lopped off his earlobe during a dispute a couple of years back.
He’d been speed skating and came off the ice too quickly, landing on Archie’s foot. Even though he apologized, Stewart was furious. So, he and his mates waited outside the ice-rink until Jamie left and then challenged him. Jamie would never forget that night. He’d run until his lungs were bursting, but it didn’t matter because eventually they’d caught up and cornered him. The blood splashing down his neck onto his shirt had shocked him, and he’d gone to the emergency room to have the wound stitched.
Jamie fingered the scar as he made his way along Craigielea Drive. His mum hadn’t been too happy at the time, but at least he’d had the good sense not to clype on Archie, blaming it instead on “some hooligan from Glasgow.”
He spotted Archie and his two cronies, Neil Kennedy and Johnny Coyle, leaning over the first-floor balcony, three blocks down. Half-a-dozen teenage girls, dressed in preposterously high-heeled shoes and pink miniskirts, were gathered on the pavement below. In the center, wearing a yellow silk sash with “Bride to be” emblazoned across it, Gina Courtney was braced on either side by her friends.
“Hey, Archie, do you want a ride?” The question met with shrieks of laughter from the other girls.
Two years older than Jamie, Archie was six feet tall, with a heavy muscular frame, blond crew-cut hair, and cold grey eyes. There was a dangerous look about him that encouraged others to cross to the opposite side of the road if they saw him coming.
Jamie had read somewhere that girls found this evil-macho look sexy, but he couldn’t understand why—surely Archie’s vile temper would put any girl off? He was curious, but he didn’t want Archie to spot him as he passed by, just in case he decided to make trouble. So, he stood behind a parked truck, out of Archie’s line of sight, and watched. He’d move on when the excitement was over, and it was safe.
Archie appeared mildly amused. His lip curled, and he flicked his cigarette butt at the girls. They scattered, screaming, but quickly regrouped.
Neil Kennedy, a tall skinny eighteen-year-old, with mousey brown hair and a sour, pinched expression on his face, looked down on the girls. “Nick off, pisspots. You’re all steaming. What are you doing getting plastered this early in the day?”
Jamie thought that a bit rich. It was a known fact that Kennedy carried a half-bottle of cheap port in his jacket pocket wherever he went.
The last of the trio was the least attractive; short and fat with greasy fair hair, his red face was covered in adolescent pimples. He spat in the general direction of the girls, but his spittle fell short. “Stupid bitches. You’d better scram before I come down there and sort you out, tossers!”
Gina’s elder sister, Moira, her red locks swirling to and fro, weaved to the front of the pack and wagged her finger at him. “You’re the tosser, Johnny Coyle! You don’t have the guts to take on even one of us. Not that anybody would want you to.” She mimed putting her fingers down her throat and gagging.
The bride-to-be whooped and lifted the front of her skirt to display a pair of frilly white knickers. Her friends cheered her on, then linked arms and kicked their legs in a can-can, chanting, “We want Archie. We want Archie!”
Jamie appreciated the show. The girls were only teasing Archie. They knew there was no chance he would take them up on their offer, but if he did, they’d be out of there in a flash.
Some of the neighbors had gathered and were laughing at the antics of Gina and her friends. Archie glowered at the onlookers, his face flushing darkly. Jamie wasn’t at all surprised when he leaned over the balcony and shouted in a voice shrill with loathing, “I wouldn’t put my dick near any of you lot, especially you Moira Courtney—you’ve all got the pox. I feel sorry for the poor bastard who has to marry that slut sister of yours. Up the duff, are you, Gina? Your boyfriend doesn’t know what he’s let himself in for, poor sod. Probably thinks he’s the father. Does he know you’ve been fucked by every guy in the neighborhood?”
Kennedy and Coyle hooted at their leader’s wit.
The girls’ exuberance vanished, and Gina wailed.
The redhead tugged at her sister’s arm and glowered up at the veranda. “Jeezus, Archie, we only wanted a bit of fun. You’re such a rotten mongrel—why do you have to ruin everything?”
Jamie felt some sympathy for Gina and her pals, but he was none the wiser after the exchange. Why did they bother? They must know what Archie’s like. He guessed maybe Neil was right and the girls’ common sense had vanished with their alcohol consumption.
The bystanders dispersed, joking and laughing or muttering and shaking their heads. Jamie peeked around the truck. Archie and his pals were still on the balcony, intent on taunting the girls as they made their escape. When one spectator walked in his direction, he realized with a shock what was going to happen.
The man pulled open the door of the truck, hauled himself in, switched on the ignition, and drove off down the road in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Jamie felt suddenly naked. He glanced towards the balcony then quickly looked away and forced his legs to move.
Kennedy nudged Archie and pointed towards Jamie.
Archie leaned over the balcony and shouted, “Hey, McCarthy, who are you staring at? You’d be the one prick this side of Glasgow that hasn’t been up Gina Courtney. Go on, help yourself.” He gestured at the girls. “This lot are right up your street.”
Jamie pretended not to hear. Keeping his head lowered, he fixed his eyes on the road, and ignored his conscience crying “coward.” He knew Archie wouldn’t need much provocation. The fact he’d witnessed the exchange might be enough to set him off, and heaven help him if Archie thought he’d been laughing at him. At this point, it was asking for trouble to even glance in Archie’s direction.
Jamie was tempted to make a run for it but knew this would spell disaster. He sucked in his stomach and continued walking at a steady pace until, with a sigh of relief, he reached the safety of number twenty-three Craigielea Drive.