by William McIlvaney
strange opening chapter introduces the novel in a manner similar
to that of "The Sound and the Fury", which is told through
the mind of an idiot. This chapter attempts to capture the mental
state of an emotionally disturbed murderer.... just after the
- Running was a strange thing.
The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of
passing cars batted your eyeballs. Your arms came up unevenly
in front of you, reaching from nowhere, separate from you and
from each other. It was like the hands of a lot of people drowning.
And it was useless to notice these things. It was as if a car
had crashed, the driver was dead, and this was the radio still
playing to him.
- A voice with a cap on said, 'Where's
the fire, son?'
- Running was a dangerous thing.
It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt.
Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll.
Strollers are normal.
- The strangest thing was no warning.
You wore the same suit, you chose your tie carefully, there was
a mistake about your change on the bus. Half-an-hour before it,
you had laughed. Then your hands were an ambush. They betrayed
you. It happened so quickly. Your hands, that lifted cups and
held coins and waved, were suddenly a riot, a brief raging. The
consequence was forever.
- And the meaning of everything
was changed. It had no meaning or too many meanings, all of them
mysterious. Your body was a strange place. Hands were ugly. Inside,
you were all hiding-places, dark corners. Out of what burrows
in you had the creatures come that used you? They came from nowhere
that you knew about.
- But there was nowhere
that you knew about, not even this place where you came and stood
among people, as if you were a person. You could see who people
thought was you in the mottled glass. His hair was black, his
eyes were brown, his mouth wasn't screaming. You hated his ugliness.
There was a green bottle with what looked like a fern inside
it. There was a nose with enormous nostrils. On the black surface
there were cloudy streaks where the wipings of a cloth had dried.
A man was talking.
- 'See ma wife, son.' He was speaking
towards where you should be standing. 'See when Ah go in here
the night! Be like "The Sands of Iwo Jima". Ah've been
away since yesterday mornin'. Met an old mate yesterday after
ma work. Christ, we had a night at his place. One half borrowed
another, ye know! Ah wis helpin' him to get over his wife. Died
ten year ago.' He was drinking. 'Ah think Ah'll go out an' get
knocked down. Give me an excuse.'
- You used to think things like
that could be a problem, too. You cried when you broke a vase
your mother liked. You hid the pieces in a cupboard. You worried
about being late, offending somebody, things you shouldn't have
said. That time wouldn't come again.
- Everything had changed. You could
walk for as long as you liked in this city. It wouldn't know
you. You could call every part of it by name. But it wouldn't
answer. St George's Cross was only cars, inventing destinations
for the people in them. The cars controlled the people. Sauchiehall
Street was a graveyard of illuminated tombstones. Buchanan Street
was an escalator bearing strangers.
- George Square. You should have
known it. How many times had you waited for one of the buses
that ran all through the night! The Square rejected you. Your
past meant nothing. Even the blade man on the black horse was
from another country, a different time. Sir John Moore. 'They
buried him darkly at dead of night.' Who told you his name! An
English teacher who was always tired. Yawner Johnson. He told
you interesting things between yawns. But he hadn't told you
the truth. Nobody had. This was the truth.
- You were a monster. How had you
managed to hide from yourself for so long! Some conjuring trick-
to juggle smiles and nods and knives and forks and walks for
the bus and turning the pages of a paper, for twenty years to
make your life a blur behind which what was really you could
hide. Until it came to introduce itself. I am you.
- George Square was nothing to
do with you. It belonged to the three boys walking tightrope
on the back of a bench, to the people waiting in the bus-queues
to go home. You could never go home again.
- You could only walk and be rejected
by the places where you walked, except the derelict tenements.
They were big darknesses housing old griefs, terrible angers.
They were prisons for the past. They welcomed ghosts.
- The entry was dank. The darkness
was soothing. You groped through smells. The soft hurryings must
be rats. There was a stairway that would have been dangerous
for someone who had anything to lose. At the top a door was broken.
It could be pushed closed. Some light came in very dimly from
the street. The room was very empty, some plaster from the ceiling
on the floor.
- It was strange how little blood
there was, just some dark flecks on the trousers, so that you
could imagine it had never happened. But it had happened. You
were here. The body had been like leprosy. You were the leper,
a contamination crouched and rocking on its haunches.
- The loneliness was what you had
made of yourself. The coldness was right. You would be alone
from now on. It was what you deserved. Outside, the city hated
you. Perhaps it had always excluded you. It had always been so
sure of itself, so full of people who didn't open doors tentatively,
who had a cocky walk. It was a hard city. Now all its hardness
was against you. It was a mob of bitter faces turned towards
you, it was a crowd of angers all directed against you. You had
- Nothing to do. Sit becoming what
you are. Admit yourself, the lust hatred of every other person.
Nowhere in all the city could there be anyone to understand what
you had done, to share it with you. No one, no one.
Return to Literature