Sounds: footsteps crunching over broken glass; the buzz of an intercom, metallic crackle as the handset is lifted in an upstairs flat, but no speech; sharp click as the door is unlocked. Hand still held, he is guided into an echoing stairwell and urged, almost gently, towards the stairs. Sweat pricks his forehead under the blindfold and the smell of stale urine is sharp in his nostrils as he gingerly climbs, step by step.
One landing. Two. Three. And stop.
“This way.” He feels the breeze of an open window and hears dogs fighting below, then another door is opened and he is pushed through into sudden warmth and a carpet-muffled hubbub. A TV in a nearby room is silenced as the blindfold is pulled off and he finds himself blinking in a dim corridor. It’s not what he’d pictured.
“Bring him through,” says a gruff voice from the room at the end of the corridor. Mike, who has guided him this far, rests his hand on his shoulder and answers his glance with a nod, and through they go. They enter a room with large windows on two walls (corner flat, he thinks), tastefully decorated - furniture plain but good quality, lush patterned rug over deeply polished floorboards, pale walls interrupted here and there with art prints and mirrors: he notes the details, but these unremarkable surroundings serve only to frame the room’s only occupant, who sits upright in a straight-backed chair, unnervingly still, hands bunched into fists on his knees
“You the boy kens Boyesie?” The voice is cold, the stare piercing.
“The fuck you daein here?” This is an unexpected question. He had been summoned and so imagined the seated man must know the answer better than he did himself.
“Em, Mike says, ye ken, ye might huv a bit ay work for us…?” He glances at Mike, who is staring fixedly out the window.
The seated man still hasn’t moved, hasn’t broken his stare. “And why the fuck wid one ay Boyesie’s boys want tae work fur me?” This was closer to the script: Mike had warned him he might be asked something of the kind.
“I’m no one ay Boyesie’s…”
“Ye’re fae Campside, aye?”
“Well that mak’s ye one ay Boyesie’s, if ye ken it or no.” The blank eyes boring into him won’t let him break the gaze, but he can sense other people in an adjoining room. He begins to worry.
“Listen, Ah’ve no fucking loyalty tae Boyesie, okay? The fucker sells coke ootside the primary school. My wee nephew goes there, it’s ootay fuckin order.” The seated man, John McAllister, stands up and walks towards him till he’s nose to nose. Still staring - don’t blink, don’t flinch. A minute passes.
The war between the Campside team and the Hawsden Boys had been escalating over the past year. Tensions had always existed, particularly in the border between the two territories (a border which a casual observer would miss completely but which was indelibly engraved in the minds of the protagonists), but of late a number of attacks and reprisals had led to civilian casualties and a rising panic in the local press. The number of no-go areas had increased, leaving several families stranded, bewildered in the middle of a tide of vandalism, violence and petty crime. The most noteworthy incident had been the daylight shooting of Collum Dickie, McAllister’s predecessor as the top boy in Hawsden. He had been a legendary hard man and a nasty piece of work, but the general impression was that Dod Boyes, the Campside boss, was the up and coming gangster and the man to watch and avoid. McAllister was as yet untested: so far, though, he seems pretty impressive.
“Okay.” He breathes again. “Your name, son?”
“I’m Paul, em, Paul Wallace.” A flicker.
“You anything to dae wi Jenny Wallace?”
“Aye, Jenny’s my big sister.” There’s the flash of a smile on McAllister’s face, quickly gone.
“Went to school wi Jenny. Good lass. For Campside.” Paul doesn’t know what to make of this so he waits. McAllister returns to his seat and beckons Paul to sit on the couch. As he does he notices Mike has gone - where did he go?
“Listen Paul. You’re in big fuckin trouble son. Just comin here, ho, that’s you.” McAllister makes a cut-throat gesture. “Curtains. An ye ken fit? I’m no meanin’ Boyesie. I’m meanin’ me. You’re double fucked son.”
Paul swallows. “I don’t…”
“You see,” says McAllister, ignoring the interruption, “either yir here because Boyes sent ye, in which case Ah’ll kill ye. Or yir here because you want tae piss on his chips, an he’ll kill you - or, if ye dinny manage to piss on his chips, Ah’ll kill you. How dis that sound?”
Paul is sweating now but this is nothing he hadn’t expected. “Look, Mr. McAllister, Ah’m no exactly sure whit Ah kin dae for ye. But I sure as fuck canny dae onythin for Dod Boyes. That lump ay shite has turned Campside intae a fuckin war zone, an he’s the last person tae suffer for it. It’s kids, man, kids in the streets are getting shot at. Anyone doesny pay homage tae the greasy wee shite, they’re targeted. People’s fuckin grans are getting bricks through the windae.” Paul is angry, genuinely angry, and part of him is pleased at how clear this must be showing. Anyway, McAllister seems convinced.
“Maks ye hink Ah’m ony different?” Now this was unexpected and Paul hasn’t even asked himself that question. He thinks for a minute, growing surer that other ears are listening nearby.
“To be honest, I couldny gie a fuck. Ah dinny live here. Ah bide in Campside. Anybody can dae anything tae get that wee toerag aff his high-horse, Ah’ll be quite happy.” McAllister looks at him. Those are cold eyes, cold, hard eyes.
“Meanin, fitivver it taks?”
Paul swallows again, nods. McAllister holds the gaze a second longer then turns to the open door leading into the adjoining room. “Okay boys, in ye come,” he says. Five men come in and stand behind Paul. Mike isn’t one of them.
“Right boys. We’ve a new friend. Paul.” Short silence. “Paul. We’re no pissin aboot here. Things bad in Campside? Well, they’re fuckin dreadful in Hawsden. The place is a fuckin mess boy. That’s Boyesie too. So we’re aboot tae change things. Really, fuckin, change things. This is endgame time.”
Paul shifts in his seat. No-one knows where he is, there are five heavy breathers standing behind him and the lean-faced man in front of him is looking slightly unhinged.
“Spikkin ay folks’ grans. Boyesie’s gran. Ken far she lives?”
“Answer the fuckin question.”
Dod Boyes’s grandmother had been the subject of a particularly hysterical example of the recent spate of newspaper articles on the trouble. Some editor somewhere had clearly felt that Dod Boyes, drug baron, murderer and vicious piece of shit that he was, was insufficiently horrific on his own merits. The answer? To contrast his lifestyle with that of his one surviving relative, his grandmother. She led a life of disappointed respectability, appalled at her grandson’s doings, in a terraced house on the west side. The human interest just leaped off the page.
“She wis in the paper,” Paul says. He doesn’t like the way this is going.
“She wis in the paper. You’re right.” The five figures behind him shift, apparently getting restive. “So Boyesie likes tae involve people’s grannies in his business, does he?” Paul doesn’t answer. “Ah’ve got a job for you.” Shit. Shit. “A token ay yir goodwill, like!” This was a bad idea. What the fuck has he got into? “Aye, a wee jaunt tae the west end, Ah think. And listen son. Fuck this up? It’ll be the last thing ye ever dae.”
* * *
One horrible hour later and he’s standing between a rhododendron bush and a potted bay tree, finger on the doorbell. Whatever he had expected from his visit to Hawsden, this was worse. So much worse. The bell rings, an old fashioned ding dong.
For a minute nothing happens and he hopes beyond hope that there’s no-one home. Not that that would save him. He’s stuck now. Something Boyesie wouldnae huv the baws fur in a fuckin century. McAllister had been standing again, gloating with his plan. That wee shite wouldnae’ve thoughtay this! This is gonny change ivvery-fuckin-hing.
Through the frosted glass of the front door, Paul sees movement. She’s home. The movement is slow, punctuated. He guesses that each step necessitates the slow lifting of a zimmer frame. Her hunched shape looms closer. He wants to turn and run. He has nowhere to go.
Stick to the script. Choice is a thing of the past now. He knows what he has to do. McAllister was very, very clear about that.
The old woman is now close enough to make out a reddish shawl. She looks pixillated, like she’s been blurred to protect her identity. Zimmer lifts, falls. She shuffles closer. “Just a minute,” calls a wavery wee voice which sounds distressingly like his own grandmother’s. (Stick to the script!) Four sparrows create a brief whirlwind of brown feathers as they chase each other round the foliage to his right. A vapour trail bisects the sky above him. He shakes.
Her hand reaches out, undoes the latch, chain and mortise lock in slow succession. Then she grasps the handle, pulls it down and the door swings open. Keen grey eyes look up at him and he can feel a trickle of sweat run down his back.
“Yes?” she says, politely inquiring. He knows what to say.
“Yes?” As if she could be anyone else. He feels short of breath.
“Mrs. Boyes…” He can’t do it! It won’t work! What if he’s seen?
“What can I do for you son?” asks the nice old woman before him. He braces himself. He really has no choice. There is only one outcome here. He follows the script.
* * *
Forty five minutes later, Paul Wallace is back at the old woman’s house. The sparrows are still squabbling in the rhododendron. He doesn’t ring the bell - he has the key now. He lets himself in. Through the vestibule, down the musty corridor. Into the kitchen. In a chair by the kitchen table is the figure of Mrs. Boyes - right where he left her.
He has been carrying two loaded bags of groceries and he lifts them onto the table. The old lady looks up.
“Here’s yir messages, Mrs. Boyes,” he says.
* * *
Reprisals were slow in coming. It was generally assumed that the Campside Team had been slowed by their total disbelief. When the response came, however, it was spectacular.
In the dead of night, McAllister’s entire street was attacked. Fences which had long lain broken and rusty were mended and painted. Dog-shit was cleared from grass verges and broken glass was disposed of carefully. The front door of McAllister’s flat was sanded down and repainted and the graffiti stained walls were whitewashed. It was a humbling display of influence, and many of the Hawsden gang feared that a total loss of face had been inflicted.
John McAllister had other ideas. The very next day, the wasteground at the very heart of Campside was declared off limits as scores of dangerous men barred every entrance. Some were unabashedly armed. Any of Boyesie’s footsoldiers that came near were quickly sent packing. All they could report back was a great deal of noise coming from the wasteground, and a regular convoy of vans arriving and departing. When, at four in the morning, Boyes had finally assembled a retaliatory force big enough to evict the intruders they found them already gone, and in their wake, a staggering sight.
The wasteground was transformed. It had been flawlessly turfed. Saplings had been planted in winding avenues from the neighbouring streets to the centre of the ground, where there now stood a gleaming playground for kids - there were swings, slides, a climbing frame and a pirate ship. Park benches were sensitively placed around the new park, one bearing on a brass plaque the words “Dedicated to the people of Campside, with respect, from the Hawsden Boys”. Dod Boyes was incandescent.
This new phase of the troubles was relentless. Stray dogs were taken from Hawsden, trained as guide dogs and donated to charities for the blind. A mobile library made ever-more daring forays into Campside, improving literacy levels among primary school children and serving as a meeting point for previously disaffected families. Broken streetlights in Hawsden were mended and decked out with colourful bunting, raising the spirits of all but the furious gangsters. Campside junkies were covertly contacted and taken to an excellent rehabilitation centre in Switzerland, at great expense. Many returned cured and reformed, and determined to make their community safe and prosperous. The pitted and broken roads and pavements of Hawsden were exquisitely resurfaced in the small hours of the morning. Teenagers from both sides were given travel grants by their antagonists, encouraged to go and see the world and do some voluntary work overseas. The police were nowhere to be seen.
Paul Wallace continued to get Mrs. Boyes’s messages, twice a week, despite regular written threats from her less-than-grateful grandson. McAllister had also employed a live-in carer for her, as well as a chef and a housekeeper. The old woman was very pleased, though rather mystified, at the way her life had changed of late. By the time the chauffeur-driven car appeared, she had almost come to expect such things.
When both territories had been forcibly improved to the point of being unrecognisable, there were few gestures left the gangs could make. Freshly washed cars sparkled on every street. Billboards displayed fine art. Gifted musicians provided live music from a proliferation of covertly-erected bandstands. Hawsden claimed the moral victory by being the first to hand all their weapons in to the police. Campside quickly followed suit, and trumped them by exposing all the main drug routes into the city and effectively bringing the trade to an end.
And, eventually, the border between the two territories disappeared completely. The war was over.