Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Just Your Usual Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, 
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone 

Midwinter? How does December 24th suit you? Bleak? Glasgow, solstice-blasted, locked in a frozen embrace that would not yield, shivered and trembled, choked and constricted by its relentless sheen of white. And yet, here we stood on the silent street in a midnight dark, breath billowing in sinuous coils around our faces, subsiding slow and cold into the depths of shadow. Me and Linda Guthrie, the two of us wrapped and bumfled against the bitter cold, looking everywhere, saying nothing.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, 

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Well, not snow, in fact, because Glasgow would never be party to anything so heart-warming, rosy-cheeked and delightful as a white Christmas. It wasn’t the sentimentality we resisted – no, we loved that, properly calibrated. Try to pry a Glaswegian from a jukebox howling with the high-lonesome country wail of loss, prison, divorce, deceit and death – you can’t. But that is a different beast entirely. Tonight, there was no snow, just the hard bite of frost and ice, a spear of cold to the core. Long ago? Yes. How long? Try this: so long ago that I was still police constable Stephen McCabe, based at the old Orkney Street station, and Linda Guthrie was not a lover (not that night, not ever), she was another copper like me, exhaling great gouts of cloud into the still of midnight.

Linda Guthrie and I, in plain clothes, motionless in the cold, working a night-shift on Christmas Eve. Well, bad men didn’t (all) take the day off, and we were junior, so junior we still had damp patches; there was no doubt who would pull this shift, and this job.

“I don’t mind workin’ with a Catholic.”

“That’s awful fuckin big of ye, Linda. And I’m not, not so you’d notice.”

“The Pope’d still claim ye.”

“He’d claim a pawn ticket for a chocolate watch. Times are tough, over Rome way. Crowds are down. You have to count everythin’ you can.”

“How d’ye figure you’re not a Catholic anyhow? Thought that was you for life?”

“Well, that’s you and the Pope on the same page then. I beg to differ. You were a kid once, Linda, right? And you had no say in it? Nobody asked you, you couldny help it, it was just how it was? Ye’re a kid. Bein’ a Catholic is like that to me. Somethin’ somebody else made me without askin’ when I had no say in it. Now, you’re not a kid any get me?”

“Whatever you say – but it sounds like big MacPhee wasted his time sendin’ you down here the night then?”

“Sorry, don’t follow you – wasted his time how?”

“Well, he says to me, you’re on the night, aye? So I goes, aye, and he says we need to get a hold of Franny Meara, he’s been out of sight for a while. But...and here’s your bit, Stevie...we’ve got the nod off one of the CID’s wee narks that Meara always take his wee ma to midnight mass at Lourdes chapel. And...tonight’s Christmas Eve, so he’ll be above ground and we can take him. Who’s the biggest fenian on the night shift?”

“Whit? Me? That’d be Jackie Driscoll, no’ me! Christ...”

“Eh? Is he?”

“’course he is – you seen his tattoos? Fuckin sacred heart, virgin Mary...”

“Er, excuse me? How’d I see Jackie Driscoll’s tattoos? No’ my type. Nor my age, neither.”

“...right. Well, don’t be holdin’ yer breath waitin’ on detective, Linda. You’ve got a wee gap in your observation skills there.”

“Aye well, fuck you anyway, McCabe, but here we are all the same, eh?”

“And I’m here cuz I’ve got specialist skills in standin’ outside midnight mass? Big McPhee’s at it. Any tube could stand here and freeze their haw-maws off.”

“He said...he said mibbe we could do it at his ma’s house – Meara’s ma, that is. Cuz he’s got to go there to pick her up, like? But it could’ve kicked off, mibbe his brothers are there an’ all, mibbe we don’t see him go in and out, cuz she lives in they high flats over behind the college and there’s four lifts...anyhow, McPhee thought Meara would be less likely to get rowdy at the chapel. So, here we are. Here you are.”

“The other way to have played it would be to have sent a bunch of coppers over to the flats mob-handed, got Meara when he walked out the front – enough people, cover all the exits and also you’ve got enough bodies to stop any trouble. Stops all this drama outside the chapel.”

“No way, not tonight. McPhee’s got everybody else sweepin’ up all usual Friday night shite, plus your extra Christmas knob-ends. Only reason we’re here and not doin’ a tango through the puke at Govan Cross is that Meara’s show-up is one-time only. Jist cuz it’s Christmas and jist cuz it’s midnight mass. And give big McPhee credit for one thing – he knew that you’d know it started at half-eleven. Me mysel’, I’d’a shown up and wondered how I missed them all goin’ in.”

“Well, Sherlock, you coulda phoned up the chapel, or just made a big mistake. Modern police work. Fuckin great.”

“Well, would you rather be at Govan Cross or outside Lourdes chapel? Them’s yer choices, cowboy. How long’s it last, anyway, midnight mass?”

“A bit longer than usual. Kinna like a greatest hits.”

“Or a special on TV, like you get Christmas. Here, is this them comin’ out now?”

“No, just the early leavers. You have to laugh, they turn out in the middle of the night and don’t stay until the end. It’s not like they’ve got a bus to catch, or they need to beat the traffic rush.”

“One or two of they guys look pished.”

“Traditional. Bit of guilt, bit of a laugh, bit of Christmas spirit, bit of confusion. Plus, it does save them havin’ to go tomorrow, when they might be sober.”

“D’ye know what Meara looks like? I’ve just got his file picture. McPhee thought you might know him. Personal, like?”

“He’s not wrong. I do know him. He’s older’n me, obviously, but he used to be a face, y’know, around?...he knew my da, definitely. He should know me an’ all, in yon roundabout kinna way. I’ll clock him, don’t worry. He’ll not be movin’ that fast, if he’s got a pensioner in tow.”

“Here, see that women, nickin’ out early, is that...her off the telly?”

“Dunno, who?”

“Y’know, her, the...she reads the news.”

“Dunno, could be – they let Catholics do just about anythin’ nowadays.”

“See, there ye go – the Pope’d definitely claim you.”

“Okay, get ready. Sounds like the mass is about over. The music’ll start and they’ll be comin’ out in big numbers. Canny imagine Meara’ll be out early, but just in case they were sittin’ at the back, get your picture out and I’ll get up next to the door. Watch me. If they get past me in the crowd, I’ll point and you clock them. Go and talk to his mother. Just babble – ‘hello, Mrs Meara, long time no see, d’ye not remember me?’ Stop them for a second and I’ll be there.”

“Who gave you the stripes?”

“Fine, then. Hook him on the jaw and drag him to Orkney Street behind your chariot, I don’t care. Right, here everybody comes, arse in gear...”

The crowd ebbed out of the church, as if reluctant to leave its candle-infused glow and undulating shadows for the uncertainty of a chill midnight. The side doors had not been opened, so the worshippers were funnelled into one snaking exit rope, stepping gingerly down the stairway, easy for me to observe and discern, despite their dark, muffled overcoatage. One or two faces I recognised – was that Lorna McGunnigle, almond features easing awkwardly into a premature middle-age, rumpled and stretched by those prams she seemed always to be pushing and by the men she turned the lights out with? And Andy McGovern, his feet crunching on the stair-spread grit, stepping lightly down for a fat man, no resistance to the doughnuts and steak bakes of the shop he worked in.

The flow slackened, thinned and drained almost to a halt, a sprinkle of slow movers and priest-chatters finally ambling through the doors, bye Father and happy Christmas to you cast over shoulders into the warm yellow-glowing chapel. Last of all, arms linked, were Franny Meara and an old woman who was owning the role of Franny Meara’s old ma. They were oblivious to me, or anything else, as they tiptoed down the salty steps, the least icy square feet in the neighbourhood, but still, that underfoot bite warned ‘be careful’. I waited until they negotiated the last stair and stepped forward, warrant card proffered and laid my hand on Franny Meara’s arm. I felt him tense and then slacken as he saw, first, the card and then my face.

“Francis Meara, you’re under arrest. You do not have to say anything -”

“Fuck, man, you serious? Right in front of my wee ma? At midnight mass? That’s no’ for real.”

“How’d ye prefer it? Gunfight at the livery stables? Five in the mornin’, drag you out yer kip in the scud, bounce yer arse down three flights and never mind the skidmarks? This way is good, Franny, this is wise.”

“Hey, it was that Wee Pedro grassed us up, right? Wee Pedro the wanker.”

“’mon we’ll get into this motor here and you can worry about who you’re blamin’...come with us, Mrs Meara, we’ve got some business with your Francis here. We’ll give you a run home, eh?”

“Are you...are you the polis?”

“Aye. Who else’d have business with him?”

“Huh. Fuckin typical. Ye can stick yer run.”

“Long walk home. Franny’ll not be with you. Dangerous town, this, they tell me. Long walk home.”

“Aye, well, if I get raped and murdered, you’ll be to blame.”

“Mibbe, but it’ll be you gets raped and murdered. I’d rather be me.”


“Car’ll be warmer. And we know where you live, sure.”

Franny Meara had no interest in the conversation; he knew his mother could hold her own in a row with coppers. Instead, he was looking at me – or, as he would probably regard it, looking into my face.

“Whoa, hold up there...I know you. You’re Joe McCabe’s boy. Aw aye, that’s who you are. Whit a fuckin gyp. Lifted by Joe McCabe’s wee snotter.”

“My name’s on the card I showed you, so aye. Mrs Kerr’d be that happy you kept up with yer readin’.”

“...ah, how is he, yer old da? Aw, that’s right, faithful departed intit? Heard he came second in a wee bit metalwork. That right?”

“No secret, that. But the world’s doin’ okay, all the same, eh? Funny how that goes...not for you, obviously, not this minute, but...big picture? S’okay. Eb’dy’s happy, foreby Franny Meara. What’s that tell you?”

“Look at me, takin’ my ma to midnight mass, and you, pishin’ on yer da’s memory, and I’m the bad guy?”

“Correct again. You are the bad guy. But since I never finished the caution, that won’t count as a confession.”

Linda, standing next to Mrs Meara without touching her, clapped her gloved hands together. I expected her to say “abracadabra!” She didn’t.

“...if you two are finished showin’ your dicks? I’m freezin’ and, much as I like the OT, there’s a fridge fulla chardonnay at home I’d like better. In the motor? Now?”

I manoeuvred Meara over to the car and Linda, scrambling quickly out of the cold, kicked the Mondeo into life. She opened the back doors to let Mrs Meara climb in; she couldn’t, not unaided, and I was not letting go of her son until she was inside. 

“Linda, a hand? To get the lady into her taxi?” Grunting, she clambered back out of the vehicle and opened both the rear doors, easing the old woman in, without thanks but also without reproach. Handcuffed, her son followed.

“If you see that wee fud Pedro, tell him his card’s marked.”

“I dunno who it was put the word on you, Franny, but don’t blame him. Or her, whoever it might’ve been. We caught you at the chapel. I was you, I’d blame God.”

I locked the car door on Franny Meara and his bradawl-eyed mother, muttering low words of bad intent at me.

Peace on earth, or something.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

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