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PAYING FOR IT by Tony BlackFUNERALS MAKE MY EYES WATER. Don’t get me wrong, not in the ‘Oh, he was a lovely fellah taken from us too soon’ sense. That stuff, I can handle. Old ladies with waterbag legs shoving egg-mayonnaise sandwiches at you, I can just about manage. Slipping them in the pocket beside the scoosh bottle is no problem for me. That type, they never listen to a word you say anyway. Fire out ‘Is that right?’, or ‘Really? No, really?’, and they’re happy as Larry. Just don’t stray into the ‘And how’s your Finlay doing in New Zealand?’ minefield. Uh-uh. That can spell catastrophe.
It’s details like cause of death that have me filling up. Send me reaching for the twelve-year-old Macallan they roll out for such occasions. And hitting it hard. Not just because that’s what drinkers do. But because I know that, in my racket, it doesn’t look good to be moved by things like funerals and death.
It’s when death comes so close to home, stamps on your doorstep, then invites itself in that I wince. Really wince. I mean, who wouldn’t wince at something like this?
‘Gus. Gusgo. Gusie boy . . .’
The skill of the man, pure piss-artistry, to make poetry with my name
‘Gus, did you hear what happened before the . . . you know . . . ?’
Malky Conroy, one of Edinburgh’s widest gobshites, weighed his hands out in the air like he had hold of a mortar launcher.
‘Booka-booka,’ it was a pathetic attempt at gangster patter.
I tried to keep my tone serious. I mean, we were talking about a man’s death here. A man I barely knew, granted. I had met him twice, tops. But out of respect to his father I wasn’t going to mess about at Billy Boy’s funeral.
‘It’s the noise a shotgun makes,’ said Malky, ‘when it goes off, like.’
I gave him a nod, straightened my back. ‘Got ya.’ I tipped back the last of my Red Eye laced coffee, crushed the Styrofoam cup.
For reasons best kept between Billy and the grave, the poor lad found himself on the wrong end of a sawn-off shotgun one evening. One evening, sounds so civilised, doesn’t it? Not in the least. Unless you call finding a lad, barely into his twenties, with both barrels emptied in his face, civilised.
That’s the sight that greeted some old biddie walking her Westie at the foot of Arthur’s Seat one morning. The official verdict was suicide, but nobody was buying that.
‘Like I was saying,’ Malky crouched over, leaned into my lapels, ‘before they, like . . .’ He tried to whisper but in his pissed state it came out too loud. I moved my face away from the gobs of spit he flung from his mouth. ‘Well, you know what they did in the end. But before that, there was . . .’
Malky straightened himself and shuffled back a few steps. His Hush Puppies squeaked on the church hall’s laminate flooring. And then he did it. I couldn’t believe he did it, but he did . . . he touched the side of his nose and gave me a little wink.
It seemed a moment like no other. Make this a movie – that’s your Oscar clip right there. He felt on form, in his own mind. This was the juiciest slice of gossip he’d had in years and he itched to serve it up.
He shuffled again, got right up close. God, he looked rough, like Johnny Cash circa 2008. A white ring of dried spit sat around Malky’s mouth, catching in the corners, like the Mekong Delta . . . Jeez, you could have stripped the Forth Bridge with this guy’s breath.
‘Now, Gus, you never heard it from me,’ he said, ‘but I know for a fact there was . . .’ he looked over his shoulder, and then, he did it again, winked, ‘there was torture, his father told me so.’
‘Spill it, Malky,’ I said. Immediately, I regretted this, he belched up a wet sliver of lager-perfumed bile onto my tie. ‘Man, be careful there,’ I yelled, loosening the knot and tugging the wet loop of cloth over my head. ‘It’s ruined, Malky!’
‘Sorry, it’s the emotion.’
Emotion my arse, unless they’re selling emotion in six packs these days.
‘That poor boy . . . that poor bloody boy,’ he said.
‘What?’ Steering a drunk to his point, without having taken a good bucket yourself, is a task and a half. I felt ready to give up, try the sausage rolls. Then he hit me with it.
‘His fingernails, and his toenails – they were pulled out,’ said Malky. ‘Blood everywhere.’
‘Can you imagine the pain of that, Gus? Hell, it’s sore as buggery just catching one of those wee hangnails.’
I didn’t need convincing.
‘Plod said it was suicide, Malky.’
‘My arse! He moved in some shady circles, our young Billy.’
I felt loath to admit it, but Malky had my attention now. ‘Was that it, just the nails?’
‘If only it was, Gus. God, I hear they did his teeth as well.’
‘Think so. They say there wasn’t much to go on after the gun went off in his face. Must have pissed off some serious people.’
‘Have the filth any . . .’ I needed to use the word – no other came to mind – but it stung my lips as it passed, made me sound like a character from The Bill, ‘leads?’
‘They could give a tinker’s toss. He was mixing it with gangsters, man. I kid you not, he was into all sorts. One less for them to worry about now, though.’
‘What was he into?’ I couldn’t believe Billy had the marbles to . . . Hang on, it was precisely because he didn’t have any nous that Billy would get involved with this kind of thing.
Malky shrugged. He remembered who he was talking to. The shoulder movement wasn’t welcome and his frame looked fit to collapse before me. I felt glad, really. I’d no desire to hear any more. It sounded like a tragedy of the type to make you want to pack up and leave this troubled city.
As if I needed to look for reasons.
© Tony Black, 2008