I said to Archie, ‘But you could get put up against a wall and shot’.
My wee brother was standing huddled beside us in the close, out of the wind and rain, but his teeth chittering. Ma had told me to take him out from under her feet. But Danny knew better than to hang about with us big boys.
Archie was a ginger nut, his red hair matching his cheeks. Not for him the tea-caddy on the high shelf, when the family silver—sixpences and shillings—was needed most. Money for emergencies was as foreign to him as the Parish’s fustian jackets and trousers and newish tackety boots the rest of us wore before the war. He’d even gone barefoot, with his knock-kneed brothers and sisters, in the slush and snow when he was wee. His da drunk the money his mother never had and beat her for good measure. He was big and broad shouldered and she sloped away to nothing but a whimper with matted hair in a bun, the colour of Archie’s.
A glaikit smile crept across Archie’s ruddy, wind-reddened cheeks. ‘We might make a few bob.’
Half-pennies and pennies weren’t our only currency. We collected bottles and jam jars from bins. Rich pickings if we went further afield and into city centre, but there were always other gangs of boys waiting to pounce on unfamiliar faces straying into their turf.
I paid two Jeely Jars at the doors of the La Scala for seeing stars. Archie sneaked in. Ready to wrestle lions and tigers, like Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller’s name, Archie pointed out sounded suspicious. German enough for loose lips to sink ships. We were jumping on the back of the flea-ridden seats, giving him a roasting and them a dusting, rooting for the crocs to catch the former Olympic champion in the glowing rivers of the big screen.
Archie was ever practical, rolling drunks and emptying their pockets. I’d only ever heard him squeal once. I think it was in surprise. A broad-shouldered man in a muffler catching him a clip to the nose, when Archie thought he’d been lying on the street long enough to be sparked out. But crocodiles do that. Play dead. The drunkie had booted him up and down the broken pavement and cobbled street until he got tired, and weaved away, going towards the Saltmarket and God knows where. But Archie had already curled into a ball. He’d plenty of practice with his own da. Nothing could hurt him.
Not for him chalk dust on a slate, the rounded copperplate of Abbotsford school, or working hard to get an apprenticeship in the yards or Dixon Blazes the blast furnace that lit up the sky like the Clydebank Blitz, but not just at night. Twenty-foot high gates were there to keep Irish Catholics out, even if you were born in Glasgow. Everybody knew that. Archie, whose family were poorer than most, best of us all. It schooled us with a primitive sense of justice.
Archie’s sunken chin edged up a fraction. ‘You in or no?’
‘I’m in,’ Danny shrilled.
I hit him a whack on the side of the head.
He clutched his face and started bubbling. ‘I’m tellin’ Ma.’
‘No you’re no,’ I told him. ‘And you’re too wee to go, anyway.’
He peeked at me through his fingers and tried to squeeze out some more tears. I slapped him a glancing blow on the back of the neck, where his collar was up, but not enough to hurt.
‘Leave him alane,’ Archie growled.
‘Whit’s it got to dae with you?’
Fists clenched and my chest was stuck out, leaning in, with my green eyes squinting at him. He was the same and game. I was a head bigger than Archie, but we’d never fought. We’d shared more than the blackened sandstone of a single-end, broken floor boards, burst pipes and broken communal lavvies on the stairs when shite and pish splattered the stairs and washed the smell of carbolic away, and we had to clean our feet with bits of newspapers going out and in. The only rule that made it workable: keep your head down and don’t stick your neb in other people’s business. Archie had broken it and he had to pay. We both knew that.
But he hung back in a way he wouldn’t normally. I’d broken the rule too. A Friday night. Da flush with wages and flush with work. Ma thought it would last forever. She sent me out for chips. It was snowing in drifts and so cold even the rats left the ground unmarked and bided in their holes. There wasn’t a soul about when I returned with the package of fish and chips, wrapped in headlines and clutched close to my chest. Then I heard quick steps muffled by the snow. I whirled around. He’d smelt the chips and vinegar. And the next minute he was pressing against me shaking, clutching onto my hand to get warm. I could tell he was starving. I peeled open the fish and chips, careful to keep Ma and Da’s portion separate. Handed him a bag of chips. He used it to warm his hands, held it up to warm his cheeks. I had to help him unwrap it. I hadn’t the heart to take a chip for myself, but had to feed him like a little bird, holding them out one by one and watching him swallow, until he’d enough strength to stand more freely. We never spoke about that. That was another rule.
I swung a punch, but he moved and it caught him on the top of the shoulder. I took a step back because he was as good with his forehead as he was with his hands and gave no quarter. But Danny booted him in the shins.
‘Little bastard,’ he muttered, and took a step sideways, clipping him a blow on his sticky out ears. He started laughing.
‘That hurt,’ cried Danny with a thin, plaintive cry.
I told him, ‘You’ll hurt mair, if you don’t dae whit your telt from noo on’.
‘It’s no fair,’ Danny said.
Archie searched his pockets for the remnants of a dout darkened by shreds of tobacco he’d picked from ashtrays, and when he was stuck, from the streets. The makings held together with Rizla paper. He’d been smoking since he’d been knee-high, and had no fear it would stunt his growth. He struck a match against the close wall and sucked on the burning fag end, expanding his pigeon chest, and holding his breath, like a sleeping man at a feast scared to open his eyes.
‘Twosies,’ I uttered the magic words.
The pungent smell falling between us. He held the fag with wistful care between finger and thumb, warming the inside of his cupped hand. Taking another, last drag, he passed me the fag.
‘You in or whit?’
I had to nip it hard between two fingers, and felt the burn on my lips as I sucked in the last of the dout, before flicking it away.
I licked my lips. ‘Suppose so.’