The Big Man                                                                                                                                                                        Posted 9th January 2014

`Look,' one of the three boys in a field said as the white Mercedes slid, silenced by distance, in and out of view along the road. The boy had bright red hair which the teachers at his school had learned to dread appearing in their classrooms for it meant mischief, a spark of social arson.

'A shark. A great white.'

His two companions looked where his finger pointed and caught the melodrama of the gesture. The one who was holding the greyhound said, 'Kill, Craigie Boy, kill,' and the big, brindled dog barked and lolloped on the leash. The red-haired boy started imitating the theme music from the film Jaws and the other two joined in. Their voices hurried to crescendo as they saw the car disappearing over the top of a hill.

The car moved on under a sky where some cloud-racks looked like canyons leading to infinity and others were dissolving islands. There, floating in the air, were the dreams of some mad architect, wild, fantasticated structures that darkness would soon demolish. They were of a variousness you couldn't number.

`Five,' the biggest man in the car said. He was called Billy Fleming. He spoke without expression. His face looked mean enough to grudge giving away a reaction.

There was no immediate response from the other two. A boring journey had made reactions in the car sluggish. Each was in his own thoughts like a sleeping-bag.

`Five what?' the driver said after a time, thinking it wouldn't be long until he needed the lights. His name was Eddie Foley.

`Dead crows. That's five Ah've counted. Two on the road. Three at the side of it. They should take out insurance. What are they? Deaf or daft? Always pickin' on passin' cars.'

They came to a village called Blackbrae. The council houses at the edge of it, badly weathered but with well-kept gardens, led on to private houses lined briefly along each side of the street. These sat slightly further off the road, solidly and unelaborately built. Designed less to please the eye than persuade it to look elsewhere, they were squat fortresses of privacy. It was hard to imagine much vanity in possessing them. Yet the meticulous paintwork or the hanging plant in a doorway or the coach-lamp on the wall beside a recently added porch suggested a pleased possessiveness. The names, too, had a cosy complacency. There was Niaroo and Dunromin and, incredibly enough, Nirvana. A passer-by might have wondered at how modest the dreams had been that had found their fulfilment here.
The street turned left towards a hill that climbed back into the countryside. Changing gears, Eddie Foley hesitated in neutral and gently braked.

'I think we're lost,' he said. 'Did Fast Frankie mention this place?'

`Has anybody ever?' Billy Fleming asked from the back seat.

`Ask,' the third man in the car said.

At the top of the hill a small obelisk with a railing round it was outlined against the sky. On a bench beside it two men sat and a third stood with his foot on the bench, nodding towards the others. In the hollow of the hill, where the car was, there were mainly closed shops. A building that claimed to have been a garage was empty and derelict. Asphalt patches in front of it might have been where the pumps were. The owner's name was a conundrum of missing letters — Mac-something. The only indication of life between them and the men at the top of the hill was outside the Mayfair Cafe. The name was carried on a white electric sign, not yet lit, projecting from the wall. The letters declaring the name were slightly smaller than those beneath, which announced a brand of cigarettes, so that it was as if the identity of this place, obviously a focal point of the village, was dependent on a company that had no connections here.

Five teenagers were standing outside the cafe, two boys and three girls. One of the boys, the smaller one, was doing an intricate but very contained soft-shoe shuffle with his hands out, palms towards his friends. He was wearing jeans and a black tee-shirt, sleeves rolled up to show his biceps. The others were laughing. Eddie Foley put the car in gear, eased along the kerb towards them and stopped. He loosened his seat-belt, leaned across the empty passenger seat and pressed a button. The window hummed down slowly enough for the group on the pavement to become aware of it. The dancer gave his friends a theatrical display of amazement and leaned down towards the open window.

`That was terrific, mister,' he said. 'Could ye do it again?'

`Thornbank?' Eddie Foley said.

`Naw,' the dancer said. 'My name's Wilson.'

'I'm looking for Thornbank.'

'If ye give us a lift, we'll take ye.'

`It's either right or left or straight on,' one of the girls said.

The wit of it crippled the others with laughter. They leaned helplessly on one another and the girl herself had to admit how good it was, her pink hair coming to rest on the shoulder of the taller boy. Eddie Foley pressed the button and the window went up as the car moved off.

`The natives don't seem very friendly,' he said.

`Maybe we shoulda brought some coloured beads,' Billy Fleming said. `Children,' the third man said, 'grow up into shites quicker every year.'

He was a small man with thinning hair. He wore nice rings and he had grey eyes that were so cold the flecks in them could have been crushed ice. He was Matt Mason.

Eddie Foley took the car up the hill and stopped across the road from the three men at the bench. He got out of the car and went over to them. Two of them looked about forty. The one with his foot on the bench must have been over sixty. He was the one who spoke.

`Yes, sir. Can we help ye?'

'I'm looking for Thornbank.'

Te're well out yer way here,' one of the men on the bench said. 'Where ye comin' from?'


'Ye woulda been better holding the dual carriageway tae outside Ayr,' the third man said.

`Ye're wrong, Rab,' the older man said.

In the car Matt Mason and Billy Fleming watched but couldn't hear what was being said. They saw the conspiratorial noddings of the three men before they formed into an advisory committee for Eddie. They saw the pointing gestures, one of the seated men standing up and doing an elaborate mime of directions. They saw Eddie nodding towards the obelisk. In the soft light of late evening the scene had a simple dignity, four men silhouetted against the vastness of the sky in a mime of small preoccupations.

`What's he doing?' Matt Mason said. 'Getting a history of the place?'

Eddie came back across and got in the car. He waved as he drove away and the three men waved back.

`Ah know where we're goin' now.' he said. 'They were nice men.'

`We're not here to socialise,' Matt Mason said.

`That was a monument they were sittin' beside. To the men from the village. Died in the First and Second World Wars. One of them was holdin' somethin'. Some kinda tool. Ah hadny a clue what it was for. Imagine that. Ye would think ye would know what it was for. Ah mean, this isny Mars.'

'Is it not?' Billy Fleming said and glanced across at Matt Mason for confirmation of his sneer.

Matt Mason looked back at him and then looked down at Billy Fleming's trainer shoe resting on the back of the driving seat. The foot came off the seat and rested on the floor. Billy Fleming checked that the fawn upholstery wasn't marked.

The black and white trainer shoes were part of a strange ensemble. They were topped by jeans and then a black polo-neck cashmere sweater, over which he wore an expensive-looking grey mohair jacket. It gave him an appearance as dual as a centaur. Above, he was a kind of sophistication; below, he was all roughness and readiness to scuffle. The face linked the two: a bland superciliousness overlaid features that bore the traces of impromptu readjustment.

`Ah was goin' to ask what it was,' Eddie said. That tool thing. But Ah felt such a mug, Ah didn't bother.'

Neither of the other two responded, and Eddie pursued the subject in his mind. The strange object the man had held and the solemnity in the darkening air of those names carved on the obelisk — names he imagined would mean much to most people in the village — had combined to make him feel what strangers they were here, the carelessness of their coming, rough and sudden as a raiding-party. He had sensed in the talk with them a formed and complicated life about the place, a strong awareness among them of who they were, mysterious yet coherent with a coherence he couldn't understand. It was an uncomfortable feeling, as if he were a hick from the city.

The atmosphere in the car intensified the feeling. They seemed to be travelling within where they had come from. The plush upholstery appeared foreign to the places they were passing through. With the exception of Billy's jeans and trainers, their city clothes would have looked out of place outside, as if they had come dressed for the wrong event. The smoke from Matt Mason's cigar surrounded them, cocooning them in themselves.

Negotiating the winding ways, Eddie felt himself subject to the unexpected nature of events, the way an outcrop of land suddenly threw the road to the left, the recalcitrance of a hill. These roads were less invention than discovery. They weren't merely asphalt conveyor belts along which sealed capsules fired people from one identity to the next as if they had dematerialised in the one place and rematerialised in the other. These roads made you notice them, rushed trees towards you, flung them over your shoulder, laid out a valley, flicked a flight of birds into your vision. They made Eddie aware of a countryside his ignorance of which was beginning to oppress him with questions that baffled him. What kind of people would live in that isolated farm on the hill? What kind of trees were they?'

'Flowers,' he said suddenly. 'The names of flowers. Ah always wanted to know a bit about that. Ah canny tell one from another. That's true. Ah've got bother tellin' a daisy from a dandelion.'

`Six,' Billy Fleming said. 'That was a cracker. Only thing that wasn't mashed tae a pulp was its beak. Definitely the prize-winner.'

Eddie became aware of Matt Mason's silence. He had learned to be wary of that silence. He decided to push his misgivings aside. He was here on a job for Matt Mason. It wouldn't do to confuse his loyalties.

`Fast Frankie's not too hot on the directions,' he said, reidentifying himself with the other two and their purposes. `Ah hope his information's more reliable. Ye think the big man's what he says he is?'

Trankie thinks he is,' Matt Mason said, and remembered the time in the Old Scotia with Frankie talking.

Fast Frankie White was a handsome quick-eyed man with a smile as selective as a roller-towel. He had been born in Thornbank — so he should know what he was talking about — and had left it by way of petty theft. He still went back there from time to time, usually when he was in trouble, to wrap his widowed mother's house round him like a bandage. He often said more than it was wise to believe but in the Old Scotia he had sounded convincing.

`Okay. Ye've got a decision to make. Fast. Ah know. But Ah'm tellin' ye. He's yer man. No question. Ah've known him for years. He's the man ye're lookin' for. And easily worked. A big, straight man. Straight as a die. That's what ye need, isn't it? Honesty's the best raw material in the world. Especially the poor kind. He's gold for you, Matt. A rough nugget, certainly. But you could shape him into anything ye want. What's he got in Thombank? What's anybody got in Thornbank? He's on his uppers. Been idle for months. Used to work in the pits. How many pits are there now? Was working up at Sullom Voe for a while. But the wife didn't fancy the separation. See, that's the secret. That's how you're goin' to get him. He's a great family man. An' what's he providin' for his wife and weans? You can offer him a way to do that. He'll bite, Matt. Ah'm tellin' ye, he'll bite. And once he's got a taste, yell have him for good. An' all they're goin' to be able to do . . . With this man? Come on!'

Matt Mason remembered the image of Frankie with his arms crossed in front of him. He had swung his arms apart, hands up, with the brightness and activity of the pub behind him. It was the gesture of surrender we're supposed to make when faced with a gun.
`Different class,' Frankie White had said.

In the almost dark a pit-bing loomed on their right. It was overgrown with rough grass, a man-made parody of a hill. The despoliation of the countryside around them made them feel more at home. Inside the car they enlivened into a conversation.

`Not long now,' Eddie said. 'If he's that good, what's he doin' living in a place like this?'

Matt Mason smiled to himself.

`Maybe he likes the quiet life.'

`He better learn not to like it then,' Billy Fleming said.

`We'll find out how good he is,' Matt Mason said.

Eddie put the lights on.

`He'll maybe not come,' he said.

`Same time every Sunday, Frankie says,' Matt Mason said.

`The Red Lion,' Eddie said.

`Funny name for a hotel,' Billy Fleming said. 'Ye wonder who thinks them up.' The arrival of darkness had welded them into a group with a unified purpose. The variousness of the countryside was obliterated. It could have been anywhere. There was only the familiar interior of the car and the headlights blow-torching their own path through the night. Matt Mason looked at his watch. `We'll be in good time,' he said. He looked across at Billy Fleming. 'You ready?' `Born ready.'

In the dim light he looked as if he might be telling the truth. The big shoulders seemed to be filling most of the back seat of the car. The face, planing intermittently out of obscurity, looked relentless as a statue. He carefully took off his wrist-watch and wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it in his jacket pocket.

Everybody knows and doesn't know a Thornbank. It's one of those places you've driven through and never been there. It occurs in conversations like parentheses. 'It took us four hours to get there,' someone says, 'and the kids were fractious after two miles. We went the Thornbank road.' Hearing it mentioned, outsiders who know of it may still have to think briefly to relocate it. It's the kind of place people get a fix on by association with the nearest big town, knowing it as a lost suburb of somewhere else.

In Thornbank's case the big town is Graithnock, the industrial hardness of which dominates the soft farmland of the Ayrshire countryside around it. Graithnock is a town friendly and rough, like a brickie's handshake. It is built above rich coalfields which have long since run out, ominously.

By the time the coal was gone, Graithnock hardly noticed because it had other things to do: there was whisky-distilling and heavy engineering and the shoe factory and later the making of farm machinery. But the shoe factory closed and the world-famous engineering plant was bought by Americans and mysteriously run down and the making of farm machinery was transferred to France and the distillery didn't seem to be doing so well.

Not much in the way of coherent explanation filtered as far as the streets. At meetings and on television men who looked as if they had taken lessons in sincerity read from the book of economic verbiage, the way priests used to dispense the Bible in Latin to the illiterate. All the workers understood was that there were dark and uncontrollable forces to which everyone was subject, and some were more subject than others. When the haphazardly organised industrial action failed, they took their redundancy money and some went on holiday to Spain and some drank too much for a while and they all felt the town turn sour on itself around them.

For, like John Henry, Graithnock had been born to work. It was what it knew how to do. It was the achievement it threw back into the face of its own bleakness. It liked its pleasures, and some of them were rough, but the joy of them was that they had been earned. The men who had thronged its pubs in its heyday were noisy and sometimes crude and sometimes violent, but they knew they were stealing from nobody. Every laugh had been paid in sweat. The man who had embarrassed himself in drink the night before would turn up next morning where the job was and work like a gang of piece-work navvies.

When there was nowhere for him to turn up, what could he do? Like so many of the towns of the industrial West of Scotland, Graithnock had offered little but the means to work. It had exemplified the assumption that working men are workers. Let them work. In the meantime, other people could get on with the higher things, what they liked to call 'culture'. At the same time, the workers had made a culture of their own. It was raw. It was sentimental songs at spontaneous parties, half-remembered poems that were admitted into no academic canon of excellence, anecdotes of doubtful social taste, wild and surrealistic turns of phrase, bizarre imaginings that made Don Quixote look like a bank clerk, a love of whatever happened without hypocrisy. In Graithnock that secondary culture had been predominant. While in the local theatre successive drama companies died in ways that J. B. Priestley and Agatha Christie and Emlyn Williams never intended, the pub-talk flourished, the stories were oral novels and the songs would have burst Beethoven's eardrums if he hadn't already been deaf. But it was all dependent on money. Even pitch-and-toss requires two pennies.

When the money went, Graithnock turned funny but not so you would laugh. It had always had a talent for violence and that violence had always had its mean and uglier manifestations. Besides the stand-up fights between disgruntled men, there had been the knives and the bottles and the beatings of women. The difference now was that contempt for such behaviour was less virulent and less widespread. Something like honour, something as difficult to define and as difficult to live decently without, had gone from a lot of people's sense of themselves. Sudden treachery in fights had assumed the status of a modern martial art, rendering bravery and strength and speed and endurance as outmoded as a crossbow. An old woman could be mugged in a park, an old man tied and tortured in his home for the sake of a few pounds, five boys could beat up a sixth, a girl be raped because she was alone, the houses of the poor be broken into as if they had been mansions. This was not an epidemic. Few people were capable of these actions but those who weren't were also significantly less capable of a justly held condemnation. That instinctive moral strength that had for so long kept the financial instability of working-class life still humanly habitable, like a tent pitched on a clifftop but with guy-ropes of high-tensile steel, had surely weakened.

Theorists rode in from time to time from their outposts of specialisation, bearing news that was supposed to make all clear. Television was setting bad examples. Society had become materialistic. Schools had abdicated authority. The hydrogen bomb was everyone's neurosis. What was certain was that Graithnock didn't know itself as clearly any more.

Even physically, the town had been not so much changed as disfigured. Never a handsome place, it had had at its centre some fine old buildings that had some history. They were demolished and where they had been rose a kind of monumental slum they called a shopping precinct. As a facelift that has failed leaves someone looking out from nobody's face in particular so Graithnock had become a kind of nowhere fixed in stone. The most characteristic denizens of its new precinct, like the ghosts of industry past, were alcoholics and down-and­outs.

Thombank, as the child copes with the parents' problems, was suffering too. A lot of the redundancies from Graithnock had come here. But there were apparent differences. The same television programmes reached Thombank, the schools had much the same problems, the hydrogen bomb had been heard of there too. But a stronger and continuing sense of identity remained. One reason was, perhaps, its size. It was a place where people vaguely felt they knew nearly everybody else. This absence of anonymity meant that in Thombank they were often, paradoxically, more tolerant of nonconformism than people might have been in bigger places. Difference was likely to become eccentricity before it could develop anti-social tendencies.

There was in the small town, for example, a group of punks, working-class schismatics who had seceded from their parents' acceptance of middle-class conventions. Their changing hair colours, purples, greens and mauves, their earrings that were improvised from various objects, their clothes that looked as if they were acting in several plays at once, all of them bad, were not admired. But they were mainly confronted with a slightly embarrassed tolerance, like a horrendous case of acne. Of Big Andy, who led a local punk group called Animal Farm and whose Mohican haircut stood six-feet-three above the ground and seemed to change colour with his mood, it was often mentioned in mitigation that his Uncle Jimmy had been a terrible fancy dresser. Genes, the implication was, were not to be denied.

This communal sense of identity found its apotheosis in a few local people. Thornbank knew itself most strongly through them. They were as fixed as landmarks in the popular consciousness. If two expatriates from that little town had been talking and one of them mentioned the name of one of that handful of people, no further elaboration would have been necessary. They would have known themselves twinned. Those names were worn by Thornbank like an unofficial coat of arms. These were people to whom no civic monuments would ever be erected. They were too maverick for that. Part of their quality was precisely that they had never courted acceptance, refused to make a career of what they were. They were simply, and with an innocent kind of defiance, themselves.

There was Mary Barclay. She was in her seventies and fragile as bell metal. They called her Mary the Communist and although nearly everyone in the town thought Communism something historically discredited, a bit like thalidomide, the epithet as it applied to her carried no opprobrium. It wasn't that the term defined her so much as she qualified the term. She was Marx's witness for the defence in Thornbank. Her life had been an unsanctimonious expression of concern for others. While helping everybody she could, she had also helped herself without inhibition to what in life injured nobody else. She had lived with three men and married none. She had buried the one who died on her, decently, and been loving to her two daughters who, as far as anybody knew, had never reproached her. She was who she was and you could take it or leave it, but you would have been a fool to leave it.

There was Davie Dykes, known as Davie the Deaver, which meant if you listened long enough he would talk you deaf. But it was mainly good talk. He told elaborate and highly inventive lies. Each day he reconstructed his own genealogy. His ancestry was legion. At sixty, he still refused to be circumscribed by his circumstances. Here was just a route to anywhere.

There was Dan Scoular. His place in the local pantheon was more mysterious. He was young for such elevation, thirty-three. His most frequently commented on talent was a simple one. He could knock people unconscious very quickly, frequently with one punch. It wasn't easy to see why such a minimal ability and of such limited application should have earned him so much status. It was true that Thornbank, like a lot of small places which may feel themselves rendered insignificant by the much-publicised wonders of the bigger world, had a legendising affection for anything local that was in any way remarkable. There were those who kept a Thornbank version of The Guinness Book of Records: the heaviest child that had been born here, the fastest runner in the town, the man who had been arrested most for breach of the peace. But that hardly explained that converging ambience of something achieved and possibilities to come in which Dan Scoular moved for them.

Their name for him was, perhaps, a clue. They called him 'the big man'. It was an expression used of other men in the town, of course. But if the words were used out of any explanatory context, they meant Dan Scoular. Though he was six-feet-one, the implications were more than physical. They meant stature in some less definable sense. They had to do with his being, they suspected, in some way more inviolate than themselves, more autonomously himself. They had to do, perhaps most importantly, with the generosity and ease with which they felt he inhabited what was special about himself, his refusal to abuse a gift or turn it unfairly to his own advantage. For he could be quietly kind.

Yet the image the people of Thornbank had of him was false. They had mythologised his past and falsified his present. They had made him over into something that they wanted him to be. 'He's never picked on anybody in his life,' was a remark so often made in Thornbank in relation to Dan Scoular that it had acquired a seeming immutability, like a rubric carved on a plinth. It was a lie. It conveniently excised from public recollection a few years of his youth when his prodigious capacity for aggression had functioned on his whim and no casual encounter in a pub or at a dance was safe from its explosive arbitrariness.

`He's never looked at another woman,' the oral history said. Perhaps they should have asked his wife Betty, an attractive and spirited woman, about that.

`He's his own man, that one,' was a refrain that no one contradicted. But it was more an appearance than a fact. Dan Scoular didn't know who he was. He felt daily that people were giving him back a sense of him that in no way matched what was going on. His statue didn't fit.

But what they needed him to be they had partly accustomed him to pretend to be. He meant something in the life of Thornbank and he tried to live inside that meaning as best he could, like a somnambulist pacing out someone else's dream. They looked to him to confirm that things were more or less all right. If he was as he had been, living along among them, coping quietly, things couldn't be that bad. Like the Mount Parish Church clock, he was a familiar fixture by which they checked how things were going. Like that notoriously erratic timepiece, he was misleading. Thornbank was in no better state than Graithnock. It was just less aware of its condition. Dan Scoular was becoming desperately aware of his.

Failing marriages are haunted. They have lost the will for mastery of the present and the future looms as re-enactment of the past. Every day is full of the ghosts of other days, most of them emitting unassuaged rancour at small and large betrayals. New possibilities drown in their lamentations.

That Sunday Betty had wakened first. She heard the voices of the boys downstairs, beginning the statutory quarrel. The sound pulled at her mind like a tether: did you imagine your thoughts could wander off for a moment by themselves? She wondered briefly if their noise had wakened her or if they had been waiting poised like demonic actors, cued into automatic conflict by her consciousness. She rose and put on her housecoat, careful not to waken Dan. It wasn't something done out of consideration but because it postponed the time when they would have to talk. That was the first small, renewed betrayal, confirmation of where they had come. It was a message in code, delivered to him though he was asleep. He would understand it when he woke.

(The Big Man is available now from Canongate)