She lay warm and more than half asleep in the kitchen bed and heard footsteps going about. The waking fire purred and cracked. Water ran into the kettle, constantly changing its song. The radio was quietly on. She couldn’t see them, but ‘ – ready?’ her father said, and her mother murmured, and the hot smell of porridge rose, and the cold smell of milk. ‘Still sleeping,’ her mother said. ‘Let her sleep.’
But they stripped back the hard clean sheet and slapped lukewarm water on her belly and thighs. They wouldn’t let her sleep and they couldn’t get her clean. ‘You’ll never get that off,’ she wanted to say, but she couldn’t seem to speak.
‘Naw, you’ll have to dae that yersel,’ Pat Brady said, though he wasn’t there. Wouldn’t let him over the door, him and his smelly dog. ‘Kuwait?’ she said. ‘Who would call a dog Kuwait?’
‘Fancied the sound o it,’ Brady said. ‘An see, he likes it, he’s waggin his fuckin tail.’
They were flopping her over and back, tossing her from hand to hand. One was gentle and one was brusque but she didn’t like either of them. ‘Are you ready?’ Cameron barked, and she said ‘I don’t know. How the fuck am I supposed to know?’
Naw, I never said that. A wee librarian lassie like me?
They were handling her like a pillow and she much preferred to be in charge. ‘Tell you what,’ she said to Cameron, ‘let’s try it this way,’ but he wasn’t happy with that way, not at all. Flat on his back, a fixed smile, joy of sex, forget it. ‘Oh, all right,’ she said, and rolled off, and lay down.
Gentle, on the other hand? Never had the chance.
‘What’s your name, love?’ somebody said. She wasn’t able to reply. ‘Down by the – ’ people were saying. ‘Under the – Found her beside – Not sure if she – ’
‘Do we know who she is?’ said the soft Irish voice, warm as porridge and cream.
‘The state she was in,’ said the hard one, ‘I don’t suppose she knows herself.’
Knows herself, the tall white room echoed back. High ceiling. That’s good. No problem in the kitchen bed. But under the bed. And another day.
‘Ah, you wouldn’t want to let Mr Dinnet hear you saying that,’ murmured the gentle voice.
‘It’s well and very well for Mr Dinnet,’ the hard young north voice said. ‘He doesn’t have to clean them up.’
‘Nurse! Nurse!’ called Mr Dinnet, far away. He didn’t like to have to say it twice. Well, obviously he did, because once would have been quite enough. The gentle nurse went skittering off in a panic as if he might be going to skelp her arse for her. The hard one pulled up the stiff white sheet and tucked it in by numbers, one, two, three.
Ah, they can make mistakes too, Belle wanted to say to the gentle nurse. The surgeon came swaggering in through the swing doors and peacocked there in his frock coat and tile hat. Sideboards combed fluffy, thumbs in his oxters. No need for an operation here, sister! Give the fellow an aspirin and send him home! And the young guy with the brain tumour jumped off the suspension bridge on the way home. And Sir William the brain surgeon walks the hospital corridors to this day. Serve him fuckin well right.
Can’t see what’s under their fuckin noses. ‘Pull yourself together, Agnes,’ her father said.
The ward went quiet and Belle was lying in bed. In a bed. Funny that. Belle, that’s who I am.
That’s who I am?
In the opposite bed was a woman but it wasn’t her mother, who’d never made it this far. Other women to right and left. How can I see them, when I’m lying flat and so are they?
Not lying flat but floating free. Belle could see the whole ward, a mile long and more, two straight rows of beds marching into a pearly mist where white figures huddled by a great glass door. ‘It was for the best,’ somebody said. Not to Belle.
Above each bed was a high window reaching to the sky. Belle, floating, looked out. ‘What a fuckin mess,’ she said, and so it was, the old city, jumbled with red tenements and glass offices, gap sites, swooping motorways, bridges, walkways, stairs. Fireworks were going off because it was Hogmanay or Diwali or the millennium or some fuckin thing. She saw a canyon of a street threading through the rubble, through the clanging noise. Something very deep at its end.
She stood at the heavy swing doors of the ward. CLEMENT ATTLEE WARD, it was called. Funny that.
‘Go away, Patrick,’ she said. ‘Naethin to dae wi you.’
‘Sure aboot that, are you?’ Pat Brady enquired.
‘Are you ready?’ That wasn’t Brady. Not even Cameron. Maybe herself.
‘How the fuck am I supposed to know?’
She was alone. She was riding a steep escalator which ought to be going up but instead was going down. Faces glimmered on the painted walls, distorted, out of true. Until you were level with them, eye to eye, and then you wished them skew again.
‘All men,’ she pointed out chattily to Cameron. Naturally he hadn’t noticed that.
‘They couldn’t think of a famous woman!’ he brayed. ‘I wonder why!’
‘What about me?’
Cameron laughed. The doctor laughed. Kuwait the dog sat back on his hindquarters and panted with glee. It was very clear to see that he hadn’t had his trip to the vet, any more than the dogs before him, Kabul or Derry or Saigon or Yang. Cameron had all the equipment too, though you’d wonder sometimes in the panting sad night.
‘Costs money,’ Pat Brady said, and he was taller than her, and she was a strapping big girl. His hair was black and rough because barbers cost money too.
‘Besides which,’ said Belle. She stepped off the escalator and shouldered past the surgeon’s ghost and barged through another set of swing doors.
Fierce red winter sunrise making the broken glass on the wasteground wink scarlet and gold. Hard frost overnight and snow to come. So what fuckin else is new? She wrung out a cloth under the standpipe and began to sponge her neck, her tangled oxters, the sweaty channels under her breasts. The raw wind off the river scoured her goosepimpled skin. ‘That okay for youse?’ she yelled to the TV crew.
‘Just finish it off for us, Belle, there’s a love.’
On a monitor stuck up on the fence she could see the opening credits, though they wouldn’t get to that stage for months. ‘Working title only,’ the director assured her. Chronicles of a Bag Lady was the best they’d come up with so far.
‘But that’s no who I am.’
‘Oh, sorry, Belle, love, thought it was.’
Inch by inch with the dawn-cold washcloth over her skinny belly and thighs. Behind, between. ‘Thought you said I’d be able to get it aff,’ she complained.
‘No yet,’ Pat Brady said.
‘Yah, thanks, Belle, that’s excellent, we got a good effect with the light there.’
She put on her stockings, buttoned her skirt, zipped her boots, as the sun wheeled behind the tilting tower blocks. Camera tricks. She knotted her flaming orange silk headscarf under her chin and pulled her raincoat belt tight. One and a half times round her waist. ‘Have to fatten you up,’ Cameron said, clapping her on the bum.
‘What we want to know, Belle, is how you got here.’
She sat on the top of a hill as the cold light left the sky. Navy-blue clouds climbed out of the north behind the multicoloured high flats. Down among her plastic bags there was a rustle and a click of teeth. She kicked her booted heel against the bench and the sharp feet scuttered away.
‘The light’s going, Belle,’ they complained, ‘this isn’t going to work.’
‘I’m lookin for somethin,’ she said.
‘What would that be, Belle?’
‘If I fuckin knew I wouldny be fuckin lookin,’ she said. ‘Gonny stop callin me Belle every fuckin breath you draw?’
‘That’s who you are, isn’t it?’ the director said.
She hauled the food bag up on to her lap and found the jaggy rip where green teeth had got through. Past the bare flower beds at the edge of the pond she could see a big new plastic bag crumpled in a bin.
‘Aye but it’s no that simple,’ she said. ‘See if I go an get it? Come back and where’s ma fuckin bags? It’s happened afore now,’ she told the TV crew. They got busy and filmed it happening, the bags getting whisked up, raked through, chucked into the pond.
As she hooked the new bag on to a bent finger she heard the last evening sound: clang, clang, clang, clang, far away on all four sides, the parkies shutting the gates. Though you didn’t get parkies now. ‘They’re supposed to check,’ she said. ‘Dae they check? Dae they fuck. I could be dead on that bench and they’d let me lie.’ The cameraman filmed a blackbird chittering at her under a bush. Its deep soft feathers were the colour Patrick Brady’s hair used to be, but it looked at her with a cold park-keeper’s eye.
She found the place where the railings were wrenched apart. Incredible Hulk wuz here. Stiff as an old horse she clambered through, and the TV crew were on the other side already, filming her. Under the heavy sky she came to a street she knew. What used to be a street. Gawky high flats squared their courtyards around it, but one block of weeds and rubble was still there. One solitary tenement on its edge. Belle stared at the lit window three stairs up. Somebody was crying. ‘Can I go up there?’ she said.
‘Oh, we’ve got a lot to do before that,’ the director said. The soundman checked his levels, tuning out the crying and the panting sobs.
‘A constant process of demolition,’ the voice-over man said, though he wasn’t going to be dubbed in for weeks yet. ‘Knock down the tenements, build high flats. Knock down the flats, build a shopping mall.’
‘But what we’re saying, love, is that it’s all still there.’
‘Still there.’ Dipping, zooming, grainy black-and-white archive shots. The portico of a church. Old painted lettering above a shop door. A stream choked with rubbish, oozing under a bridge. ‘Layers, could we say?’ the director said.
‘There’s a whole street under the Central Station.’ That was Cameron putting his oar in. The director leafed through the notes on her clipboard, a bit annoyed. ‘Built over and it’s still there,’ Cameron was saying through his pipe-stem. ‘Cobbles, pavements, houses, shops, all still there.’
‘Wouldn’t the trains fall through?’ Belle said. Cameron wasn’t very pleased.
‘This we must see!’ the director cried.
‘It’s how to find it,’ objected Belle. ‘It’s no very easy to find.’ She started out across town. The sun rose again, because the director wanted it to.
‘Maybe that’s what you’re looking for, Belle,’ they eagerly said. And they started to run. All the way from the park to the golden ship on the steeple, to the poem in the middle of the river, to the graves of the tobacco lords, to the lost village, wherever the fuck that might be.
Crowds in the water-meadow of the willow trees, packed elbow to elbow so that you couldn’t get through. Belle walked along the street on the tops of their heads. ‘I didn’t know you could do this sort of thing here,’ panted the director at her back.
‘You don’t know much, dae ye?’ said Belle.
The mic flex got looped round someone’s neck. ‘Watch it, dickhead,’ advised the cameraman as the body bumped and swung above the crowd.
‘Don’t tell her,’ said the voice-over man behind Belle’s back.
‘She doesn’t need to know.’
Belle turned round, but everything had been cleared away. A coffin was being passed over the heads of the crowd, hand to hand. ‘Get a grip, Belle,’ they all said.
‘I want you to see this,’ announced Cameron, stopping in the middle of the street and bringing the whole procession to a halt, bang, bang, bang into each other’s backs like Laurel and Hardy. ‘A bank. There’s something safe about a bank.’ Pat Brady and the dog Kuwait stood in the street outside but nobody would let them in.
‘It’s shut, ya wanker,’ said Belle. ‘Look at the gates.’
‘Yes, look at the gates! Old pennies!’ trilled the director, and the camera zoomed into a close-up. The handles of the doors were bronze pennies bigger than Cameron’s head, and that was big. You only saw them when the door was shut, when you couldn’t get in. Cameron smoked his pipe and said ‘No career for a woman in banking, dear.’
‘Even Cameron knows better by this time,’ said the director doubtfully.
‘Could be Cameron’s dad,’ said Belle. ‘Like faither like son. Could be my faither come to that.’ Cameron slapped her bum and said ‘When we have a boy he’ll be another Cameron, of course.’ A black-haired lanky young guy passed the end of the street. ‘His eyes are too close together,’ pointed out Cameron. ‘Catholics, you can always tell.’
‘We must get the Art School,’ insisted the director. The street blossomed into Mackintosh roses. ‘It was his wife that designed them,’ observed Belle, batting them away, but Cameron didn’t hear her, nodding wisely and remarking ‘Cultural industries’ round his pipe-stem. They stood looking up at a cliff-wall with windows where you wouldn’t expect windows to be.
‘Get this,’ the director said to the cameraman. ‘It’s the south elevation and we can’t see it now.’
‘So how the fuck can you film it?’ objected Belle.
‘It’s there,’ the director said patiently, ‘we just can’t see it,’ sounding very like Cameron, and sure enough here came Cameron with news of this guy who knew somebody who’d take them down to see the buried village when his pal could get the key.
‘Well, I’d fuckin hope so,’ said Belle. ‘I’ve been lookin for it long enough.’
‘That’s no whit you’re lookin for, Belle,’ Pat Brady said.
They passed the Duke of Wellington’s statue, beaky and high on his horse, and she certainly wasn’t looking for that. ‘My lord returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top-boots,’ a distant voice said, though it might have been a different duke. He had a traffic-cone on his head and so had his horse. They were in George Square among another slew of statues. ‘In this whole town there’s only three statues of women,’ Belle said. Camera angles swooped and dipped so that you saw bits you didn’t usually see, but still not even an ankle under Queen Victoria’s skirts, sidesaddle on her pacing horse.
‘Better check that,’ the director said, making a note.
‘What about this lot?’ the cameraman objected, and across the façade of the City Chambers he ran a montage of sculptured women draped in flowing robes. Partly draped. ‘Aye, well,’ said Belle, ‘that’s Industry wi her tits oot, she’ll need tae watch she disny catch them in the rollers, an that’s a Nubian slave, they’ve let her keep her turban on. I’ll dae ye a statue o a real wumman,’ and she danced on an empty plinth with her raincoat and her orange scarf flapping in the breeze. The camera veered to look up her skirt.
‘We need to know how you got there, Belle.’
‘Ask Cameron.’ He climbed up on the plinth and tried some of his kinky stuff, backside foremost and over his knee, but Belle punched him out and there was still the one way he wouldn’t try. The cameraman ran out of film.
‘Get a grip, love, we’ve still got Rabbie to do. Says here he’s holding a wee sleekit timorous daisy?’ The statue gazing poetically at its upraised hand. ‘Can you see it, Belle?’
‘Some cunt’s nicked it again.’
And they were racing up the High Street in the teeth of a half-gale. Brady lurched out from among the lashing trees on the top of the hill, stinking like a brewery. Kuwait snapped at the director’s legs. ‘Jesus, how did the wino get into shot?’ the cameraman said.
‘Nasty piece of work. Eyes too close together. Born to be hung,’ said Cameron, or maybe Cameron’s dad. Or Belle’s father, come to that.
‘Where’s Belle? What’s the matter with Belle?’ they said, and the director explained: ‘It’s you we’re interested in, Belle.’
‘Get a load of this then,’ said Belle, ‘twice nightly, seats in all parts,’ and under King Billy’s statue she rolled with Brady on the short-mown grass. She hauled her drawers off and flung them away, nearly hitting the cameraman in the eye. Sparse hair rubbed her and she could feel how stringy and dry Patrick’s bare legs were. Likely so were her own. ‘Ah God, Pat, we wasted a lot of time,’ she said. Rose smiled at them, because Rose was dead.
‘There’s something we want to show you, Belle,’ they said.
They were standing in the street, the whole crew, ranged in a line along a bit of wall which most of them were too short to see over. No problem for Belle, who was floating in mid-air. Tin cans and toilet paper with a dribble of black water oozing between. The director got really excited. The cameraman nearly sprained his wrist keeping up with her demands. The voice-over man intoned it like an anthem: ‘All that can now be seen of the Molendinar Burn.’
‘Layers. It’s still there,’ the director breathed.
‘It’s a fuckin drain,’ said Belle. ‘Honks like one too.’
‘The oldest, deepest place,’ the voice-over man said. ‘Where the ox-cart stopped. Where Kentigern built his church. Where it all began. And it’s still there.’
‘It’s fuckin filthy.’
‘It is now.’
‘Youse are tryin to tell me somethin,’ Belle complained.
They were in the Merchant City and Cameron was quite at home, strutting between the sheer warehouse walls. ‘Wake up an smell the tobacco,’ said Belle, and it was Cameron’s pipe or maybe her father’s full-strength Craven A. ‘Very cold,’ the director noted in some excitement, and the voice-over man chimed in: ‘Round every corner we expect to see the ghost of a tobacco lord – ’
‘That’s no why it’s cold,’ said Belle. Nobody could hear the weeping but herself.
‘Are we looking for the old village? Is it anywhere near here?’
Down in the Trongate night was coming on and there was singing in the music hall, and a lot of jokes Cameron wouldn’t understand. Through the cobbled closes and in the courtyards you could hear guys and lassies scuffling and squealing, and there was a ghost pissing in the corner of a dim-lit pend. He looked over his shoulder and it was Pat Brady grinning with gappy teeth. ‘Sure me and Belle’s pals from way back,’ he said. ‘I can take yez there.’
He led them off the map into a net of courtyards and lanes. Smoky steam caught at their throats under the high glass canopy where you could fancy already you smelled the sea. They came to a blank wall with thirty years of moss where there used to be a door. 12/6 Return, said a freckle of yellow paper stuck to the stone.
‘Cheap at the price,’ said Belle.
‘Naw, this is right, we’ll find it here.’ But in the crooked lane with broken buildings above they lost their way. They had even lost the station, though it was there somewhere, they could feel it overhead, like a great foundered ship in the sky. Slimy green walls brushing their shoulders, shattered slates clinking under their feet. They stood in a square littered courtyard with the empty eyes of barred windows looking down. Through an archway they could see a pedimented door, but when they looked again it wasn’t there. Above them, under a sodium sky, the high bridge carried its bright beetles of cars, running, running on.
‘Canny be far away,’ said Brady. ‘I know a guy that knows a guy that knows a guy that’s got a key.’
‘Promises, promises,’ said Belle.
‘The thing is, Belle, we don’t know where it is,’ the director said.
‘We’re waiting for you to tell us,’ said the voice-over man.
‘Show us the way,’ said the cameraman. ‘Take us there.’
‘It’s no near here. It’s naethin but money here. Aye was. Is again.’
‘Yes,’ said the director, ‘we need to set that scene. Glass skyscrapers. Offices. Restaurants. Wine bars.’ And as she named them, up they sprang like a pop-up book, unfolding, extending, arrowing into the sky. You couldn’t see where the Molendinar was, or where the old village might be.
There was a door at the end of the street. Not a door, just the frame of a door, with the cold dawn wind blowing both round and through.