3. Joe takes up Art as a means to an end, and encounters an adversary worthy of his steel - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe withdrew hurriedly into the shelter provided by a conveniently massive Victorian sculpture of Lacoon and his sons as McPherson strode past him out of the gallery and down the stairs. Through the coils of writhing serpents he peered cautiously to check that the old Scotsman was not looking back. He also took the opportunity of a quick assessment of what the other man was up to, the stranger who, Joe was now convinced, was the key to Dex’s whereabouts. He was still at the far end of the gallery; apparently engrossed in a careful perusal of the exhibition, and making notes on his catalogue. Joe, strolling with apparent casualness, passed him moving on into the next room of the exhibition, deploying his own catalogue so as to obscure his face as he did so.
The next room contained a nightmarish collection of works by a group of German modernists or Vorticists or Whirligigists or whatever they chose to call themselves. By far the worst was a lunatic group of tormented-looking oils, none measuring less than eight feet by six, by one A. Hitler. Joe amused himself for a few moments composing a stiff letter of complaint to whichever misguided soul had persuaded the unknown artist to give up his day job.
The echo of sturdy boots striding determinedly over bare polished gallery flooring gave Joe the clue he needed. His quarry was on the move.
Unhurriedly, with the air of someone who has had all the culture he can reasonably take for one day, Joe strolled back into the next gallery, noting the back of the stranger’s Burberry vanishing down the stairs. He followed briskly, and suppressed an urge to swear when he came across the stranger bent over at the foot of the gallery stairs, apparently wrestling with a recalcitrant bootlace. Left without option, Joe, keeping his eyes dead ahead and whistling slightly, continued with unbroken pace out of the gallery and into the street.
There was a conveniently located tobacconist on the other side of the road. Joe strolled into it and, slightly randomly, purchased a packet of throat lozenges, a box of matches and twenty Woodbines. There was, fortunately, an elaborately gilded and decorated mirror in the shop hanging behind the tobacconist’s head. In its dim and speckled depths he caught a glimpse of his quarry coming down the steps of the gallery, shooting a swift, assessing glance to left and right, and then, apparently satisfied that he was unobserved, setting off at a brisk trot eastwards.
Joe paid, dropped his purchases into the pockets of his own Burberry, concluded his brief, desultory exchange with the tobacconist about the prospects of Celtic for Saturday, and left the shop. The stranger was heading towards a tram-stop. Joe took care to keep behind the hurrying throng on the street, his soft hat drawn well down on his head.
The tram drew up; the waiting passengers piled aboard. Joe, calculating his moment to a nicety, swung aboard just as it was moving off. A sidelong glance told him that the stranger was about halfway down the tram. Joe took a seat just near the door, and was relieved when the person sitting next to him got off at the next stop. He shuffled along the hard wooden seat to the window, turning his face away from the inside of the tram to peer out into the gathering gloom, projecting an air of surly uncommunicativeness and shielding his face from scrutiny by his fellow passengers. When a large woman with a multiplicity of shopping bags sat down next to him on the outer seat, completing the effectiveness of the screen, he felt he could have kissed her.
The tram rumbled on; from what Joe could tell through the steamed up, grimy window the districts through which it was passing were getting more down-at-heel with every passing stop. The elegant shops and stylish restaurants started to be replaced by second-hand furniture dealers and fried fish shops. There were, too, the signs of increasing industrialisation; from time to time they passed foundries, shaking with noises, screeching with steam, and the glow of the furnaces in the gathering dusk giving them the air of being outposts of hell.
The passengers were thinning out; the tram was obviously getting close to the end of the line. Joe was just beginning to wonder whether the stranger had detected his presence and decided to call his bluff by proceeding on with him until they found themselves the only two passengers left at the terminus, when he caught a glimpse of reflected motion in the window. His quarry had risen and was coming down the central aisle. Joe, hurriedly, turned his own head away. The bell rang; the tram lurched to a stop, and the stranger descended.
The second the tram was in motion again Joe made a brief, exasperated exclamation, and leapt to his feet, brushing past the large lady with the parcels with a muttered apology, and caught the tram conductor on the shoulder.
“Sorry, but please could you tell me what was that last stop? I’m beginning to think I’ve may have been carried on past where I should have got off.”
Deliberately, he had adopted the silly-ass tones of one of Charlie’s mess-mates; a fatuous-looking man who, before his luck ran out over Shanghai at the hands of an anti-aircraft battery, had been one of the coolest and most deadly RAF fliers Joe had ever known.
It had its effect. Everyone on the tram goggled at him in concert, rather as though he had removed his soft hat only to reveal he had a unicorn’s horn on his brow.
Joe smiled disarmingly, and added the wholly superfluous information,
“You see; I’m a stranger in town.”
An elderly man in flat cap and muffler seated on one of the nearer seats said,
“Ye dinna say? Weel, that explains how ye cam not tae reecognise McAllister and Smalleys’ works; even when the mon himself was travelling with us at the time.”
Joe’s heart leapt. Once he had rejected the idea of following his quarry off at the same stop - it might have worked had there been a crowd alighting at the same stop, which was what he had hoped for when he boarded the tram in the first place - his plan had been to find the name of the neighbourhood, leap off at the next stop, and hope to pick up the cooling trail by racing back along the tram-lines in the hope his quarry would not have hopelessly vanished into the maze of little shops and blackened factories before he got there.
Now, it seemed, he was at last getting a break.
He leaned easily against one of the wooden tram seats, and said,
“And who would that be?”
The elderly man looked at him suspiciously.
“And what interest would ye have in knowing?”
Joe’s mind raced. What interest, indeed, could he possibly have in pursuing enquiries about random strangers? For that matter, what possible legitimate business could a person of the background his borrowed accent had just indelibly proclaimed him to be have in this part of town at all?
With a bubbling sense of hilarity - it was, after all, in at least one sense so hideously, incredibly appropriate - he turned a serene face towards the old man, and said,
“Oh, didn’t I say? Beastly rude of me. You must have thought me most frightfully nosy. I’m a journalist, don’t you know. And my editor’s got a bee in his bonnet that a series of articles on how the industrial heartland of Britain is recovering after the Depression will be just what our readers want to read. Uplifting, you see. Splendid chance for the subs to write patriotic headlines: “How Britain Bounced Back” and all that. Full of local colour. Anecdotes about impressive local characters. That sort of thing.”
He pulled out the Woodbines from his pocket, and offered his informant one, lighting one for himself when the other accepted.
The remaining handful of passengers on the tram looked even more impressed. One of them - a wiry, hard-bitten man with half his face pocked and bitten with the scars of what Joe assessed as most probably powder burns from a damp rifle misfiring at close quarters - expressed the opinion that if the newspapers down in London had taken it into their heads to put Andrew McAllister into their pages they had more sense than he’d ever been inclined to give them credit for. Another - an equally hard-bitten type with his forearms (heroically bare in the November gloom) entwined with the tattooed sea-serpents that Joe would have been prepared to swear were the peculiar hallmark of a half-Cherokee, quarter-Irish practitioner of the art who plied his trade in the narrow streets which run up from the dockside in Valetta - opined that if the newspaper were to describe McAllister with anything approaching accuracy then the London readers would be hard put to believe it.
“Because,” he added pungently, “to hear the Londoners talk, you’d think there was no-one North of the Border but bare-naked savages, and they idiots into the bargain.”
Joe made his eyes light up with interest. To say the truth, it hardly required much acting. However, he summoned up the native caution which only those who knew him exceptionally well would have suspected him of possessing, but which had played its part in belying the axiom that declared there were old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.
For, to say truth, tonight he felt as thought his reckless youth was back in an era well back before the Flood.
And claims to represent anything like the Times, the Manchester Guardian, or, God forbid, even the Chronicle, which could be disproved by a single telephone call, were right out.
He emitted a high, nervous giggle.
“Oh, don’t call us a newspaper. My editor would have my guts for garters, as they say, don’t you know? Fearfully vulgar and hearty. We’re a periodical publication. But look here; this stuff sounds like exactly the sort of thing my editor wants me to bring back. Tell me more about this Mr McAllister?”
They looked at him in vague, but helpful puzzlement. Eventually the tattooed one (who had mentioned in passing that his name was Jamie) said,
“Well, as ye’ve seen, he’s no the man to waste a ha’pence on himself where he can avoid it. No takes a tram where he can walk, ye understand, and doesna keep a car or anything o’ that sort, though he’s been the sole owner of that business since 1932, and has the reputation of being a very warm man indeed.”
There was a murmur of assent from the interior of the tram; plainly this trait met with the general approval of the frugal people of the neighbourhood.
Jamie wagged a finger. “He’s careful, but he’s no mean, you ken. You’ll be aware we’ve been suffering somewhat awfu’ with the influenzey in this district? No? Well, it seems a day or so ago Mr McAllister’s foreman was taken real bad with it at the bench - temperature of 106 degrees and all - and what did Mr McAllister do?”
He paused impressively, and then wagged his finger again.
“Nothing else but send the man home back to his lodgings in a cab at his own expense, that’s what I heard he did.”
There was a collective awed indrawn breath which rippled through the tram. The pock-marked man (who appeared to answer to the name of Douggie) whistled through broken teeth, and said,
“Man! McAllister must have some regard for him.”
Unexpectedly, another voice piped up from a seat towards the front of the tram.
“Would McAllister’s foreman be the wee Yankee laddie who settled Geordie McGeown’s hash for him?”
Douggie looked across at the new speaker, a thin dark-haired man with sunken cheeks, intensely bright glittering eyes, and a persistent, hacking cough.
“He would be that, Angus. Oh, and I’ve heard tell it was a grand fight, right enough. Geordie McGeown swaggering out of the workshop for all the world as if he was the Cock of the North, and next thing he knew he was on his back in the gutter, spitting his two front teeth back out from where the wee Yankee boy had pushed them. Man! I’d have given a tooth of my own to have seen it.”
Joe hung on to his assumed persona with a Herculean effort.
“Well, this all sounds like absolutely wonderful stuff. Perhaps I -“
The tram lurched to a sudden halt, and all three of his informants, as well as most of the rest of the passengers, rose to leave. The frustration of being so close to finding Dex - and clearly he needed finding, being evidently seriously ill on top of all the rest of it - and losing it at this late stage almost drove Joe to distraction.
He tried a last desperate throw. He looked across at Angus, Douggie and Jamie.
“Perhaps, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry to get straight home, you’ll let me buy you a drink or so and you can tell me about it.”
He giggled again.
“Editor’s expenses. Of course.”
And he put his hand into his Burberry pocket and allowed himself to jingle the handful of change that lay inside.
The three men’s eyes swivelled towards him. Jamie nodded.
“Oor local will be the Duke of Argyll,” he informed him. “We’ll be seeing you there in the Public -“
He assessed Joe, and abruptly seemed to change his opinion. “We’ll be sending someone round to the Lounge Bar to collect you in a quarter o’ an hoor. Because, you ken, Angus might be advised to make his excuses at home first, if you were minded to make it a long talk, with him not long being married, ye ken, and the mistress fretting as it is with her at the moment if he’s late home without explanation. And Douggie here knows of a laddie or so who you might be interested in talking to, also.”
He smiled, disarmingly, into Joe’s eyes. Not without a flicker of that same hilarity he had felt earlier, Joe noted that if he had been the gumptionless London journalist of his creation, he would now be on the point of being taken for all he might be presumed to be worth, and then some.
As things were - Jamie, Douggie and Angus had absolutely no idea of how much more valuable to him their information was than anything they might be proposing to make him pay for it.
And he certainly wasn’t planning to enlighten them until he’d wrung them dry.
He assented eagerly to their proposition.
The tram came to a halt, and they disembarked to go their separate ways. None of them remarked upon a ragged little figure sitting at the back of the tram, who ducked himself well down behind the seat-back as they were leaving. And none of them heard the same urchin - a ten-year old ruffian known as Wee Tammie throughout the length and the breadth of the Broomielaw - declare haughtily to the conductor, upon his subsequent detection - the tram then having rounded the terminus and being well on its return journey to the city centre - that, “He didna doot that Meester McAllister o’ McAllister and Smalley would see the Tram Company right once he heard the news he had for him.”
Approximately thirty seconds later Wee Tammie - spitting with rage, howling imprecations and the beneficiary of a thick ear at the hands of the conductor - was summarily ejected into the night. And, shaking a fist at the departing lights of the tram, which seemed to be jingling its bells in pure mockery of him, he set off with head bowed but spirit unbroken against the driving wind in undeterred pursuit of the man himself.
For his reading of the penny dreadfuls and Sexton Blakes that fell occasionally in his way, and which were seized upon with the avid hunger of a passionate reader forever starving for his proper fodder, had told him that the tendrils of the international villain’s organisation could stretch even so far as to encompass a humble conductor for the Glasgow and Paisley Combined Electric Tramways Corporation.
And the only thing for a hero to do was to meet everything thrown at him with dauntless courage and bottomless ingenuity.
Two days later the Managing Director of the Tramway Company was surprised to receive a hand-delivered envelope, containing the princely sum of twopence half-penny and a civil note to the effect that Mr Andrew McAllister presented his compliments and had pleasure in tendering the debt he believed himself owing to the Company, trusting that in the light of the amount concerned and the shortness of the time that it had been outstanding the Company would be minded to overlook the question of interest.
Like Wee Tammie, Andrew McAllister had great faith in the merits of always going to the top when dealing with any organisation.