Edge of the Grave
When Jimmy Dreghorn was twelve years old, Rab Hunter held a cut-throat razor he’d stolen from his older brother Billy to Dreghorn’s neck, causing him to pee himself in front of at least three lassies that he fancied—Dreghorn liked to keep his options open back then, when he was young enough to think he had any.
Six years later, as they lay trapped together in the mud and blood of the Somme, Dreghorn would watch Rab Hunter die and wonder where all the hate he’d once felt had gone. “F***in’ hell, Jimmy,” Rab would say in a child’s voice, and then fall silent, staring without seeing, his eyes never leaving Dreghorn’s.
The girls who’d been there that day in the no-man’s-land between their schools were Ina Beattie, Louisa McCallum, and Rachel McAdam. Ina, not the brightest or the prettiest, who ingratiated herself with the so-called hard men of both schools with whatever else she had to offer, pointed at the puddle and laughed, which cut Dreghorn almost as keenly as the razor.
Louisa had been scared and tearful; only two years later, she would be dead of TB. But Rachel had stood up to Rab as if he wasn’t twice her size. She didn’t even flinch when he motioned with the razor as if to cut her, boasting that this was the blade that had given Matt Johnstone his big braw smile.
A few weeks earlier, Dreghorn, kicking a ball on his way home, had turned the corner into Ballater Street to see Johnstone on his knees, whimpering, hands covering his face, blood seeping through his fingers, and Billy Hunter standing over him with the open razor in his hand.
There was a girl with Johnstone, pretty, frozen with fear. Billy touched the handle of the razor to her chin, forced her to look him in the eye.
“It’s your own fault,” he said, “going with a worthless wee shite like that when you could’ve had me.”
He lowered the razor, wiped the blade gently on her breasts, turning the white of her blouse red. “Too late, now, though,” he said. “No’ after he’s been up you.” He closed the blade with a snap and sauntered off.
Dreghorn often thought of Rachel and the sympathy she’d shown after Rab had let him go. He’d just stood there in his wet trousers, unable to look her in the eye. Afterward, although he developed an easy charm and humor with other girls, whenever he saw Rachel he was back in that moment, weak and embarrassed in front of the last person he wanted to see him like that. That was partly why, years later, on his last night in Glasgow before shipping out for France, he found himself up a close with Ina, kissing hungrily, as they pulled at each other’s clothes while the rain teemed down outside. She laughed at his fumbling the way she had when the razor was touching his throat, and he drove himself into her hard, not caring, wishing she were someone else.
It was a sin, Father Nolan would say; though not, he figured, as much of a sin as taking cold, careful aim at an enemy soldier stumbling blindly across the mud, or driving a bayonet into a man’s belly over and over again, or splitting open a skull with the sharpened edge of a shovel.
All of which Jimmy Dreghorn had done before he turned eighteen.2
Saturday, 1 October 1932
A face; pummeled beyond all recognition. An open tenement door, darkness within, blood smeared across the cold stone floor. Dreghorn wanted to lift the woman from where she lay, but was scared to move her in case he made her injuries worse.
Archie McDaid leaned against the wall, head bowed. Usually, Dreghorn went in first, a quiet understanding between them, never talked about. This time, McDaid had gone further in, baton drawn, as Dreghorn had rushed to the woman. He’d stumbled straight back out, stunned. A glimpse was enough.
“Just a boy,” he’d said, voice cracking.
The woman whimpered, and Dreghorn’s stomach tightened. He knew what she was asking, but couldn’t answer, not the truth. He spoke softly. “Don’t worry, hen, I’m the polis. There’s an ambulance on its way. You’re going to be all right.” He hoped he sounded like he believed it.
He got to his feet. McDaid looked up, tears in his eyes, clearly thinking of his own children, and Dreghorn felt a rush of affection for the big man.
He brushed it aside. It didn’t do to show weakness or compassion, not in their position.
“F***in’ pull yourself together,” he said.
The house was the same as the one Dreghorn had grown up in, one room and kitchen to hold an entire family. An overturned table, a shattered chanty, the torn curtain of the alcove box-bed hanging by a single hook, the imprint of a small body on the mattress. Further into the darkness was the range, the big oven that should have been the heart of the home. The fireplace below contained only ashes. He gazed around, sensed the horror in the corner, daring him to look.
At first, he hoped the sticky matter on the edge of the range was spilled food, but the sad little form on the floor told another story.
The lights of a passing tram shone briefly through the thin blanket pinned over the window. The boy was wearing only a simmit, his skinny limbs startlingly white in the shadows. About six years old, Dreghorn reckoned; hard to tell with the malnutrition that stalked the tenements.
He visualized what had happened, in shaky black-and-white-like newsreel footage. The mother bludgeoned to the ground, the chanty emptied over her and smashed. The curtain ripped away in a frenzy to reveal the terrified boy in the alcove. His little body, weighing next to nothing, swung against the iron range again and again.
Dreghorn had seen a lot of corpses, dead from natural causes or the brutalities of warfare, but he was glad when the tram light faded.
There was a commotion on the landing. McDaid was questioning the neighbors who’d finally found the boldness to emerge, ordering them to bring blankets and tea for the victim, to show some of that community spirit the tenements were famous for.
A shape blocked the light, an ambulance man in the doorway. “See to the woman first,” Dreghorn said, his voice pulled from the depths. “Nothing you can do here.”
He went out onto the landing. McDaid angled away from the crowd, speaking low. “Victim’s Peggy Bryce. Her man’s one Thomas Bryce. Runs with the Billy Boys, supposedly, though he’s nobody I’ve heard of. He was out drinking. Came back raging, yelling his head off. Nobody bothered too much. A regular occurrence.”
Dreghorn scanned the neighbors gathered on the landing and hanging over the banister above, saw a woman watching forlornly as the ambulance men eased Peggy Bryce onto a stretcher. She held his gaze for a moment, then a man—her husband, presumably—drew her away. She pulled free, went to say something, but stopped as the door behind her opened, and a little girl about the same age as the Bryce boy came out blinking in the light. The woman swept the child into her arms and hurried inside. The husband strutted after her, giving Dreghorn a smug look. The door echoed like that of a prison cell as it swung shut.
Outside, the tenements loomed high on either side, the walls the color of dried blood. Dim light emanated from some of the windows, others as black as sin. Above the rooftops the sky shimmered red, the furnaces of Dixon’s Blazes ironworks raging through the night a few streets away.
One of the ambulance men stayed inside the vehicle with Peggy Bryce. His colleague shut the doors, nodded to Dreghorn, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Another ambulance had arrived, but it wouldn’t be heading to the hospital, and was waiting only for the police photographer to finish at the crime scene.
In the squad car McDaid was relaying information to Central Police Headquarters in Turnbull Street via the radio. It was still a novelty; the only lifeline on their early beats was the Acme Thunderer whistle that street bobbies still carried. He had surreptitiously turned on the engine to keep warm. For a man of the islands, he was a big girl’s blouse when it came to the cold.
“You’ll maybe be needing this, no?” Dreghorn turned to see the woman from the landing holding out the jacket that he had taken off and put under Peggy Bryce’s head. “You’ll catch your death,” she said.
“It’ll have to catch me first.” He smiled, the warmth and sincerity surprising her, and gratefully slipped on the jacket. “Is your wee yin all right?”
“She’s fine, still half-asleep. Bit of luck, she’ll think she was dreaming.”
“She’s about the same age as the Bryce lad?”
“Aye, went to the same school. They used to play together. Don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”
“What was his name, the boy?”
“After his old man?”
The woman snorted. Dreghorn took a pack of Capstan Full Strength from his pocket, offered her one. “Listen, Mrs. . . . ?”
“Logan. Lizzie.” She took the cigarette, didn’t meet his eye. “Somebody should’ve done something. Your lot. This lot.” She nodded at the tenement, dark and oppressive. “That poor wee boy’s life was a misery.”