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issue 44: September - October 2004 

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Echo
Des Dillon

Note: A Scottish "close" is an entrance to a tenement building that leads out into the area at the back, rather like a tunnel.

Although my son Joe lives in a rough area he’s never really been a ned. He’s more your Goth or Mosher or whatever them kids in black call themselves. White make-up and mangled music. Skateboards and scooters. He’s managed to dodge all the things that hit me square in the face when I was a teenager. I suppose he lives in a different town from the one I live in. When I walk along the main street I see back-stabbers and danger. He sees potential new birds and computer geek pals. Maybe that’s what they mean by parallel universes.

I remember what it was – we were going to buy Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits. I was trying to turn Joe on to The Boss. He never knew me the first ten years of his life and I was always making up for that. He was nineteen at the time, Joe, big and gangly but despite being a Goth he was open to any kind of music. I’d already got him into Leonard Cohen and I thought he’d appreciate The Boss. I seen Jimmy The Hoover in the distance and nudged Joe.

– See him, Joe – he was the best shoplifter in the town. Jimmy The Hoover’s his name.

It was no exaggeration. Jimmy The Hoover had been banned out every shop of note by the time he was eleven. When he was twelve the Callons would drive him all over Scotland to do his thing. They had him on fifty-fifty. He was famous for it.

– He’d walk in, Joe, I said, and shoom! Hoover stuff up his sleeves. Watches, Sony Walkmans, toasters, kettles, videos, tellys and couches.

Joe laughed. As far as I knew Jimmy was two years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous – a changed man. I shouted him over.

– Jimmy!

That’s when I seen he was steaming. He was two steps forward, another one forward for good luck and one to the side. Any side. A carrier bag in each hand pulling his arms down like anchors. The bus swerved up onto the kerb to miss Jimmy as he staggered across to me and Joe. The bags swung out and hit me on the legs before his Buckfast breath enveloped us and his big red face shuffled its features. I realised I could’ve got away cos he was only beginning to recognise me.

– Aww! All right big fullah, he says so the whole main street turns round.

– I heard you were off the drink Jimmy? At the meetings?

He gave me a face between apology and defeat. Offered me a can of Super. But I was still off it. Fourteen years all in. But I didn’t want to rub it in or put Jimmy down. He offered one to Joe. Joe just screwed his face up politely. I was trying to make some quick small talk and get away.

– They’re doing Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits at five ninety-nine in Woolies, I said.

note.gif (119 bytes)Born down in a dead man’s town, sang Jimmy. Loud. – First kick I took is when I hit the grou – ound. End up like a dog that’s been beat too much…

My body was leaning away from him in case he got to the chorus. But he stopped abruptly. He’d finally worked out who I was cos he shouted out,

– Stevie!! Your David’s up the chinkee’s close.

I looked at him with a big what? on my face.

– David an his bird. This is our cargo. They’re up the chinkee’s close.

Shit! If I don’t go up and see him Jimmy’ll say – seen your Stevie and his son on the main street. David’ll ask if he told me he was there. Jimmy’ll say aye and I’ll be all the cunts. If I do go up I’ll be in the lion’s den. Anything can happen up closes. Then I thought – ach! For all it’ll be anyhow? A minute or two chewing the fat with my young brother. How hard could that be?

Up we go through the reverberation of our own footsteps. The light and the sounds of the main street fade behind us. David’s bird’s a beached whale with dyed blonde hair. Sharon’s her name. She’s sitting on the wall and I swear the wall was bending underneath her. She’s not right, the lassie. She was pregnant for two and a half years once. Told the family she was two months and as time went by she kept on saying she was overdue, the doctor said it would definitely be in the next week.

– Anytime now Alice, she’d say to my Maw. It was hard to tell if she was pregnant or not so at first nobody was suspicious. But once she was twelve months we started to click. After that my Maw and sisters just humoured her. Is that right, hen? Aw that’s a sin. Can they not do anything for you? Bring you on? Something like that?

– I’ve to go in next week Alice, she’d say, they’re going to seduce me. But nobody laughed. It was a liberty to laugh at her.

– Look who’s here! Jimmy says and David turns at an impossible angle. His right arm is crooked out in front of him and a can of Super swings from his thumb and middle finger,

– David, look who it is! Look who it is! Sharon’s shouting.

– For what hic do we owe the honour! David says. – For what do we owe the honour! Hic.

He came and flung his arms round me. By this time Joe was pressed against the wall, watching. He’d slipped in to a parallel universe without noticing. This one.

– Must be a special occasion. That’s all I can say – must be a special occasion, Sharon’s shouting as David cries all over me.

Sobbing so much I could feel his chest pounding off mine and his back going up and down like a boned balloon. And d’you know what was going through my head? Not his tears. Cos you can never trust the tears of a drunk. The only thing they’re sincere about is where their next drink’s coming from. What was going through my head was, I hope he doesn’t spill that beer on me. If he does I’ll stink of alcohol. I’ll have to walk along the main street. People’ll smell it and think I’m back on the drink. In this town it’ll only be a matter of hours before my Maw hears about it and starts worrying about me all over again. But then I thought – he’s an alcoholic, he’s not going to spill a drop. He’s got the can in a mechanically sound pivot between his thumb and middle finger. The beer stays parallel to gravity as the can goes every which way. I’d done that manys a time myself in my drinking days. So I let him cuddle me safe in the knowledge that he’d not spill a drop. In the background Sharon was still shouting. I couldn’t really hear at first cos David was yelling.

– Shut it you. This is my brother come to visit me. Keep your mouth shut!

But she keeps on going and that’s when I hear what she’s saying.

– I want a cuddle, Sharon sobs. – I want a cuddle.

At first I think she’s taking the piss but when David breaks off to slap her in the face I see she’s not. She’s deadly serious. She does want a cuddle.

– What did I tell you? says David and slaps her. The slap echoes round the place. It’s ring diminishing as her pain increases.

– Fuck sake David, says Jimmy and pulls him back.

David punches Jimmy full force on the chest. Jimmy reels onto his arse looking up at me. And I know, and Jimmy knows, and David knows, the only reason David’s not getting a doing off Jimmy is because I’m there.

Sharon stops crying.

– I only wanted a cuddle. I was only asking him for a cuddle.

David lifts his hand again and I grab it. He was never very strong and I always was. So I pulled him gently back and went over to Sharon. I got down on the wall beside her. My hands couldn’t even meet behind her. She grabbed me and locked her fingers at my back. Pulling. As if she was trying to pull herself right out of that miserable existence. I knew she’d been abused when she was young but now I could actually feel it. Nothing: not the smell of drink, nor the stink of tobacco, nor stale sweat, nor the waft of piss, could’ve stopped me giving her a cuddle. When I loosened my grip she held on more. Tighter and tighter. I tried to let go but she squeezed.

– Don’t let me go, she kept saying. – Don’t let me go.

She might not’ve been right but she knew what she needed. Intuitively she knew. A tear came out of me then cos I knew there was no way she was ever going to break free. I decided to hold her for as long as it took. Bruce Springsteen would have to wait.

After a minute I heard Jimmy crying. Jimmy The Hoover. The Fastest Shoplifter in the West. A legend. Crying.

– What about me? He was saying. – What about me? I want a cuddle.

Sharon let me go.

– Give Jimmy a cuddle, she said. – Jimmy needs a cuddle.

Jimmy was over in the corner and his cheekbones were wet. I gave Joe a look as I passed him. I don’t know if he ever knew what that look meant. But I tried to say – sometimes there’s things in life you’ve got to do Joe. Sometimes you’ve got to look over and beyond your prejudice and disgust and disappointment. Sometimes you’ve just got to love. But I don’t think he got all that.

I took Jimmy and held onto him. Man drowning at sea. Jimmy had been sober a few years and we both knew what that meant. Some bit of him was trying to climb back out again. But it was all caving in. Tumbling.

– Everything’s going to be all right Jimmy, I said. – Everything’s going to be all right.

But I knew, and Jimmy knew, and everybody up that close knew everything wasn’t going to be alright. Everything was going to be far from alright. Jimmy pushed me away, looked in my eyes and said,

– You better get out of here big man. This is no place for the likes of you.

– Don’t you tell my brother what’s good for him and what’s not Hoover! David shouted.

– Don’t hit him Jimmy, I whispered. – Not unless he hits you - then just do what’s necessary.

Jimmy told me he’d look after David and kissed me on the cheek.

– Coming Joe? I said.

– Eh aye! He was and quick. Joe had that what kind of a crazy place is this? look on his face when we were walking out the close. Then a pique of guilt made me turn, go back in and thrust twenty quid in David’s hand. He’s going to get drink anyway and my figuring is the sooner he gets to where he can’t take any more the better. Or maybe that’s not it. Maybe that’s me trying to moralise. To be the good guy. I think the truth of the twenty quid is more like this: I know what it’s like to be choking for a drink and have no money. David took the twenty and was crying. This time the tears were real. But they turned from despair to anxiety to anger to aggression and he went for me. Lunged in with a big haymaker of a punch. It was a postcard job. I could’ve made a cup of tea as I waited for it to come over. I dodged sideways. Jimmy held him back and David started ranting.

– Embarrassed to walk down the main street with your brother?

– What? I said.

– Embarrassed to walk down the main street with your brother?

– Nobody said nothing about walking down no main street David.

But he kept repeating himself so I said, – Come on then, we’ll walk down to The Fountain and back.

He spat on me. That was his answer to that.

– I’m not walking down no fuckin main street so you can show off that you’re sober! Oh look at me everybody! I’ve been off the drink for ninety years!

He swung a punch and hit the wall. Danced about sucking his knuckles and blamed that on me too.

– Look what ye’ve made me do he kept shouting, look what you’ve made me do!

There was no talking to him. I decided it would be best if I went. Joe was hanging about the edge of the close not knowing to be embarrassed or not.

– I’m away, I said with no venom nor emotion that you could detect.

– See you later, said Jimmy.

– Thanks for the cuddle, said Sharon.

– It wasn’t that when you were up this close with us ya prick! shouted David and ranted, bringing up the past. I was nearly out the close when he shouted it.

– He’s an alky Joe - did ye know that about your Da? Eh. A dirty no good alky! He killed his best pal, Joe, did ye know that? A punch Joe. One punch Joe. He’s a murderer.

Jimmy The Hoover clamped his hand over David’s mouth. But it was too late. The word echoed along the close and fell out onto the main street. People were walking in an arc round about it. Whether they knew it or not - they had heard it. And Joe had heard it. As I left the close I could hear their voices lessen and lessen. It reminded me of something I had read recently in a book about Romans. Echo was a nymph who was in love with Narcissus. But when he didn’t love her back she pined away till only her voice remained. Only now I couldn’t tell if it was David pining away or me.

Out on the main street was a different world for me and Joe. The sun was shining and people came and went about their business. Joe sighed the way you do at the end of a blinding movie. Like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan or Rutger Hauer’s speech on the roof in Blade Runner.

– Come on Dad, we’ll go and get that CD, he said. He never mentioned what David said. And he’s never mentioned it since. We were lucky. We got the last Greatest Hits and I raved all the way back to the car about it. He got in just before me. I took a second to look at him and say a prayer or make a wish or whatever it is I do – that he’d not end up in the darkness of some close breaking his whole family’s heart. We drove off and at The Fountain I could see the close in the distance. Like a black hole in the brightness of the street. I watched it in my wing mirror till it disappeared into a dot and I wondered if I’d ever see my brother again. Joe turned the CD up and The Boss sang loud and clear,

note.gif (119 bytes) Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse, that sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry…

 

Des Dillon 2004

See also The Blue Hen

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author bio

Des DillonDes Dillon was born in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1960, and read English at Strathclyde. A former teacher, he now writes for television, stage and radio and has taught Creative Writing at the Arvon Foundation. In addition to a poetry collection, Sniz (1994), and a short story collection, The Big Empty (1997), Dillon has published seven novels, including Me and Ma Gal (1995), shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, and voted winner of the World Book Day survey to find the book that revealed the most about contemporary Scotland. His play Six Black Candles, about his six sisters, was a critical and commercial success in Edinburgh this year, winning a Theatre Critic’s award. Dillon was Writer in Residence at Castlemilk, Glasgow, between 1998 and 2000, and currently lives in Galloway.
See the British Council Des Dillon webpage.

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issue 44: September - October 2004  

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