24th February 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Comment: Notes from a niseach

Guardian of the pic ‘n’ mix

It was following that afternoon that this jolly green giant began to turn into an extremely nervous one. I would try to conceal myself in the shadows of Shawlands Cross in Glasgow, wondering if that skinhead might appear, imagining the crunch of his Doc Martens as he came towards me near the entrance of Sammy Dow’s pub, hearing the hiss of his voice in the darkness.

“See you, big yin. Ah’m gonnae get ye.”

It was easy to remember how it all began. A few months after my employment in Woollies began, freshly out of my home in the islands, I was all too aware of my inadequacies for the type of work I had chosen. Making my way across the city in a number 57 bus was a major expedition. Sometimes even getting myself understood was a problem. I would ask Emily, one of the less gifted members of the sales staff, to set the cans of, say, Winfield Magenta Super-gloss paint on top of one another on a shelf.

“Sorry . . . Whit dae ye mean? I cannae understand ye.”

And then a few minutes later, I would catch her muffled whisper to one of the other girls.

“See that big teuchter. Him in his vile green suit. I cannae follow a thing he says.”

There were other problems too. Some money was going missing from one of the tills; a sweet-faced blonde angel called Angela slipping a few loose fivers into the pocket of her overalls. For all my powers of observation, I was unable to catch the flurry of her fingers, the quick shuffle of her hand as it hid the cash away. The same problem was apparent when the cheap LPs started to go missing from their place in the racks. Even Inspector Clouseau would have caught the two men responsible for that theft. They were found to have crammed twenty or more records down the crotch of their over-sized trousers. During one of the hottest days of summer, the fact they were wearing huge, heavy coats should have drawn them to my attention, even more so the way the waistbands of their breeks were hoisted halfway to their chins by a set of colourful braces.

Yet now there was a chance of redeeming myself. It came in the form of the skinhead haunting the store for quite some time that day. He had all the usual paraphernalia of the type – clipped tight jeans; clipped tight hair-cut; clipped tight lips; boots that thundered and crushed insects as he patrolled the length of the store. One moment he was examining the stationary; the next he was examining some lipstick. Following that, he was looking at the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart among the cheap classical LPs.

“He’s not going to buy anything . . .” one of the supervisors, Joanna, predicted.

“He’s up to something” another girl said.

After watching him for the best part of an hour from my place at the top of the stairs at the side entrance, I decided it was it was time to act. Adjusting the lapels of my Green Suit, sticking out my chest and tightening my waistline, I marched towards him.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I said.

I caught the same look on his face as I had often seen on Emily.

“Uuuuuuhhhhhh . . . ?”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“But that’s no’ fair . . . Ah havenae done onything.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’ll have to go.”

“Uuuuhhhh,” he grumped again. “You’ve goat nae right.”

Despite his protests, he decided to obey me. Joanna was by my side as we followed him in the direction of the side entrance. A small, stockily built girl of roughly my own age, she had a tendency to flirt with me at every given opportunity. There would be an occasional wink, a slow long-drawn out remark, smile, flash of blue eyes when she looked coyly in my direction. I would have taken her attentions as a compliment if I hadn’t been aware that every young man that came into the store – even some of the older customers – was receiving exactly the same greeting, even the same flick of shoulder-length brown hair.

“Ah dunno why you’re picking on me,” the skinhead was muttering.

“I’m not going to discuss that,” I said. “Just you head out the door.”

“You could jist leave me alane.”

We were at the foot of the stairs by this time. The doors to the Arcade outside were just a short distance away. It was when he was around two steps up that he turned on me, his feet swivelling round. He dug into his inside pocket and took out a steel comb. Its handle tipped and sharpened, he flashed it in front of my face.

“Jist leave me alone!”

He stood on the step, refusing to move one inch further. The steel comb slashed through air once again, just missing me.

“Ah’m telling you . . . Jist leave me alane.”

“And I’m telling you . . .” My throat went dry, my words faded. “I’m telling you . . . Just leave the store.”

Thoughts rushed and scrambled through my head. I decided, somewhere deep inside me, that there was no way this man was going to get the better of me. He was about to leave the store whether he liked it or not. My foot went on the first step in order to make sure he was gone.

“Ah tellt ye . . . Jist leave me alane.”

The comb swished again, closer than ever.

“Get out of the store, please.”

“DONALD!”

It was Joanna who stopped me. It was her voice that yelled, her hand that tugged on the sleeve of my jacket. Her cheeks were brighter than ever, blue eyes narrowing, brown hair no longer neat and tidy.

Are you crazy? Are you crazy? The man’s nuts! He’ll kill you! He’ll kill you! Just leave him alone.”

I tried to pull myself away but she held on firm and tight

“Let me go,” I muttered. “Let me get him.”

“Donald . . .” she said again.

It was as if the word sent out a signal to him as well as to me. He made his way towards the door, glancing momentarily in my direction. His last words possessed the same flash of menace as the weapon he had held.

“See you, big yin. Ah’m gonnae get ye.”

The threat rang for a long time round my head. I could hear it echo as Joanna talked to me, criticizing my foolishness, how I had put my safety at risk to protect Woollies’ profits, their stock and products, their pic’n’mix, how it wasn’t worth it. No job was important enough to do that.

“You’re not from here,” she kept saying. “You’re from a quiet, country place. You don’t know what guys like that are like.”

Trembling, I nodded my head. It was true. For all I had seen hard men before – the one in the dance hall trying to fight all-comers with his leg in plaster, the Friday night drunk – there was one big difference between these individuals and the skinhead I had encountered. It all came down to the steel comb in his hand. It all came down to the blade.

Donald Murray

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