Authors: Gordon Brown
I once stumbled on a funeral leaving a ‘Red
Ringer’ and I made the mistake of asking who had died. The woman spat in my
I was no fool. I knew what was going on.
Within the first week of my new job I was more than aware I was collecting
money for a loan shark. The abuse I received left me in no doubt. But ‘the
Nose’ would simply tell me to grin and bear it and point out that I was really
doing them a service, providing a source of cash when people were most in need.
In his mind it was his way of serving the community. I adopted the same
attitude and put my head down and worked hard.
Six months into my new life ‘the Nose’
asked if I would like to up my wages. Do cats lick their balls was my reply and
so I was introduced to Sammy Dall.
Sammy was a small weedy man who never
looked you in the eye. He was given the job of instructing me in the finer
details of acquiring new clients - for which I would receive a percentage of
It was a reflection on the state of the
economy that I earned ten pounds within two days of starting my new role. It
was easy money. Sammy was a great teacher, and a past master at drawing in
punters and fleecing them. After a couple of weeks I was given a pitch near
some local shops and business boomed.
Did I feel remorse at what I did? Not really.
Most of the people were only into ‘the Nose’ for small amounts and, although
the interest rate was crippling, it was survivable.
By then I was no longer collecting door to
door. People came to me to pay up and if they didn’t I simply added them to the
‘Red Ring’ list, and someone else sorted it out.
The down side was that it was a cold job in
winter. There were days when I would have loved to use the local café as a
meeting place but my clients didn’t want others to know their business. So I
stood in the cold behind the City Bakeries, breathing in the smell of baking
bread while my feet froze solid.
I had been three years with ‘the Nose’ when
I was first lifted by the police. Things were motoring along nicely. I would
never be rich but, having acquired a car and, better still a license - obtained
with the help of a two hundred quid bribe to a bent driving examiner, I was now
mobile and I was a lot better off than most on my street.
My incarceration was a direct result of my
love for beer. The Lame Duck had opened my eyes to the wonders of McEwan’s
Export and then to the joys of Grant’s whisky. After that there was no looking
back. I took to them both like an alcoholic duck to a pond full of ethanol.
With my wallet never short of a five pound
note, I could indulge my liking for alcohol in a manner that my mates could
only achieve through the cheap stuff from the off license or the dreaded home
made hooch that some of their fathers made.
It was a wet Tuesday evening when the
police felt my collar. Life seemed full of wet Tuesday evenings. It’s a
thing. Rain and Tuesdays. I had been in the Lame
Duck. Why not? It was far warmer than my mother’s flat? Central heating was
still a wonder of the future to my family, and the pub came with the built in warmth
I was six sheets to the wind and should
have been in a good mood. But I was in a shit mood. I’m not a violent drunk but
on that night I had been in a boilermaker of an argument with Michael who,
smashed out of his face, had accused me of being gay. To cap it he had done so
in front of the regular church going assembled congregation of the Lame Duck by
calling me a poof. Political correctness, like central heating, was also a
thing of the future.
To be fair to Michael the evidence was quite
damning in his eyes. I’d had no girlfriend since school. And even then it had
been little more than a peck on the cheek from Mandy McCulloch. I openly
shunned the frequent stag nights if strippers were involved and a recent
attempt to set me up with Michael’s youngest sister had been a disaster - I had
ended the evening by calling her a frigid, ugly cow. To add cream to the cake I
had done this in front of Michael.
Despite, in my opinion, my description of
his sibling being perfectly accurate, Michael had challenged my sexuality,
subjected me to a verbal battering in the extreme and I had stormed out of the
pub looking for something to hit.
Unfortunately, on that particular cold wet
Tuesday night, I chose to hit an off duty policeman, who, with great aplomb
and very little effort,
arm locked me and marched me to the local police station. Appearing
at the sheriff court the next morning, I
was fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace.
I kept all this from my mum. She needed
more grief like a hole in her skull. My father’s heart had given out on the
Christmas Eve of 1972 and my mother was terminally ill with cancer.
I spent most nights back then either drunk
as a skunk in the Lame Duck or up at the hospital. By the time I was arrested my
mother’s life revolved around the diamorphine they were feeding into her drip.
The money from the loan sharking had gone to providing the best care that could
be bought back then. It still wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. At
least she spent her last few days in the comfort of a private room.
My altercation with the local constabulary
did not go down well with ‘the Nose’. Despite my best efforts, word of my
arrest got back to him and he was pissed off. He liked his workers to keep a
clean slate. The less interest we generated from the authorities the better. I
was now tarnished and ‘the Nose’ was angry, but he wasn’t stupid. I was good at
my job. As such I was kept on but my wages were cut and, when I tried to
protest I lost a tooth and gained six stitches for my efforts.
Eleven eight and six seconds.
On the day my mum died I was freezing my knackers off
behind the City Bakeries. ‘the Nose’ found out at ten in the morning but didn’t
send anyone to tell me until after three - hence ensuring that I had collected
the day’s takings.
The funeral was small and depressing. I paid for the
best of coffins and a do at the Partick Halls. There were twelve of us in a
space built for hundreds. The following day I handed back the keys to the hovel
that had been my home since birth and, with the help of ‘the Nose’, obtained a
deposit on a small flat off Hyndland Rd in Glasgow’s west end.
I had stepped on to the property ladder.
Six months later ‘the Nose’ joined my mother in
He died in a fire.
As I stood outside the shell of his house a policeman,
with the hint of a smile, told me that ‘the Nose’ was no more. What the
policeman didn’t tell me was that ‘the Nose’ had, prior to being burnt alive,
been divested of both hands, his genitals and a large proportion of his face.
‘the Nose’ had been in debt to people far uglier than
himself for more cash than he could ever pay back. There’s irony in there
‘the Nose’ had met his match and I was out of a job.
The next few months were hard. As soon as word got
round that ‘the Nose’ was history a range of suitors came to call on my
customers. I was on my own and my competition came with a heavy mob attached. I
tried to keep some of the customers but in the end I lost them all. The new
boys on the block simply wiped a percentage of ‘the Nose’s’ slate clean and
they were suddenly heroes. I was booted off my patch and fell back on what
little savings I had.
In the scheme of things my next move could have been
smarter but I was badly missing spare change in my pocket and, when Michael
gave me the name of another contact I went along for the ride.
This time it wasn’t loan sharking. It was lower than
I was a look out.
My first job was keeping watch for a local gang on the
back lot of an old disused bus station. I was there to ensure that the gang
could carry out their various escapades without fear of being caught. It was
down to me to give them the few vital seconds to make good an escape when the
law, or other interested bodies made an unexpected appearance.
For my pains I would catch a pay packet of three
quid for the job. I moved into ‘look out’ land and, on a good week, I could
pull in six jobs. It kept me in beer and fags.
It was then that I discovered I had more than a small
gift for breaking and entering. It wasn’t something I had ever tried but it was
something that I would excel at.
I stumbled upon my talent when Jimmy Call, the leader
of my new gang, turned his attention to the local betting shop and the safe
that squatted in the premise’s back room.
Rumours had abounded for years about the amount of
money that lay in that little grey treasure trove. The fact that it had sat
untouched for more than ten years was down to the evil bastard who owned the
bookies - one Malcolm Smillie, a man of little compassion.
Jimmy hatched a plan to do over the shop and make off
with the safe. It was a crazy plan from the start. At its best it would
seriously hack off Malcolm and at worst we would all end up in the canal wearing
the latest in heavyweight body bags. But Jimmy was short on the smarts, cased
the joint for over a week and announced that the back door was the weak point -
everyone knew weak points were not the issue but this passed him by.
On the day of the job, Andy Hall, the gang’s break-in
wizard, was caught stealing a car and was out of the equation. Jimmy decided to
go in anyway and I was roped in to help cart the safe away while Jimmy’s wee
brother, John, took on the look out duties.
I stood back and watched as Jimmy tried to use the
lock pick that Andy had given him. Getting nowhere quick he changed tack and
took an axe to the door but, after half an hour, the back door showed no signs
of budging. Metal doors are pretty effective barriers to entry.
In frustration Jimmy threw the lock pick away and for
reasons that were pure serendipity, I picked it up and asked if I could have a
go. The gang laughed but Jimmy said he didn’t care so I tried my hand.
To tell you it felt right from moment one is an
understatement. It felt great. As soon as I poked the wire into the key hole I
knew I was on a fresh road. It just felt perfect. Like an extension to my hand.
I twisted and turned and the clicks of the levers
being worked were Mozart playing in my ears. I hadn’t a Scooby what I was doing
but after a few seconds the lock popped open. Jimmy swore for ten seconds
before pushing past me and into the back shop.
It would have been nice if my first job had been a
success but it wasn’t to be. True, the safe existed but it was bolted securely
to the concrete floor and would have taken ten men ten days with a pick axe
each to even worry it. On top of this there was a sign, taped to the front of
the safe, which read:
‘Jimmy. If you are
reading this, I’d think about taking a holiday – permanently.’
We all ran and three days later we heard that Jimmy
was in the Southern General with an assortment of broken bones.
Shit happens like an evil dose of the runs when you
play with the big boys.
My new found skill was soon in demand. I foolishly
bragged about it and I was picked up by Martin Sketchmore, a rare anglophile in
our midst, an old acquaintance of Michael Tolt and, to top it all, a fellow Partick
Thistle nutter – go figure.
‘Been hearing that you are good with locks.’
His accent was thick with somewhere in
not thick enough for me to place it. I nodded.
‘Got a job for you.’
It was a doddle. A little house breaking. The home of
a Mrs McCafferty as it turned out. Top floor flat in
in the east end of the city. Easy pickings. She was at the bingo and Martin had
his eyes on her husband’s paypacket.
‘She keeps it behind the clock. Friday night, the old
man brings it in, takes out his beer money and the rest is for her. Today was
bonus time at Mellowes.’
Mellowes was a small engineering works that Martin skivvied
in and Mr McCafferty gaffered for. Hence his intimate knowledge of all things
mantle-piece in the McCafferty household.
Martin had planned to go in earlier in the evening but
a few pints got in the way and, later that Friday we could be found climbing
the stairs to the McCaffertys’ home - ears alive for any sounds.
At the top of the last flight I was faced with a storm
door. It was locked but a few seconds with a piece of wire and a nail file and
it was open.
The inner door was all glass - swanky as hell for
those days. Martin pushed me to one side and booted the glass. Shards showered
around us and before they could settle Martin was in and out, pay packet
stuffed in his pocket. The McCaffertys didn’t make it out of the bedroom before
we were gone.
It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be in.
I got a tenner for that job – Mrs McCafferty’s old man
must have got a hell of a bonus for Martin to pay me a tenner.