And now at The Ox, we welcome a raw punk kid… well, not so raw, not much of a punk, and certainly not a kid… it’s me.
I’ve written a bunch of novels and short story collections… They probably haven’t rocked your world yet, but you can make a wee start here.
The story below is from Suckerpunch, which you can pick up here (UK) or here (US). I’ve also written a lot of essays and book reviews for Booksquawk. The early articles are collected in Paper Cuts (UK and US).
Maggie Murphy’s Home For Bad Boys
The turquoise paint on the walls of the close reminded Jamie of the ultramarine blue of the swimming baths, and he began to open and close his mouth like a fish.
“Blub. Blub. Blub.”
The whistling of the wind up the stairwell was another signal. It had that seashell quality reminiscent of the public pool, the echoing cries of the boys and girls. In imitation of this he began to shriek, like a gull.
His mother hoisted a hold-all out of the back of the car. “Stop that,” she said. “The man’ll come out and give you a row.”
Jamie closed his mouth as if holding his breath and continued to swim around the bottom floor of the close. Beneath his new trainers, the granite floor was clean, the white painted borders around the turquoise unspoiled.
“Have you knocked your gran’s door?”
“No. Which one is it?” Jamie had been here a few times before, but not recently – he couldn’t remember anything about it. Mostly, gran came over to visit them.
“Never mind, we’ll go together.” She huffed and blew a strand of blonde hair away from her forehead. Perhaps she was tired from lifting the bag – but the bag wasn’t heavy at all, Jamie knew. He had lifted it earlier on. It was easy.
He left her to it as he ran up the stairs ahead of her, his feet a machine gun rattle. An army seemed to echo behind him. He was at the head of his men.
The boy passed big, dark green doors on either side of him on the first landing, the names on them stark against brass and silver. Up another floor, he came to one marked ‘Mulhearn’ – gran’s name.
Jamie could reach the doorbell and had pressed it half a dozen times before the door was snatched open and his gran stood there, fierce behind her owlish glasses, bosomy and thick-set as a carven idol.
“What’s all that racket?” she said. “What a noise! Mr Thomlinson will come out and give you a row.”
“Hi gran,” Jamie grinned. “I’m coming to stay with your for a bit.”
“Yes, your mum did mention that. Come on, get inside.”
Jamie’s mum gave her gran a hug while Jamie went through to the living room. There were photos all over the walls, on coffee tables and the wall unit. One of Jamie when he was a baby, wearing a banana yellow romper suit. He hated that photo, but there were cooler ones; his cousins Elspeth and Rory, in party clothes at a Christmas party; one of his mum with very long hair and her swimming costume on; loads of his granda, who wart in heaven now. Perched on the shelves of the wall unit, a tantalising array of perfectly-polished porcelain figurines, animals and boys and girls. He would need to stand on the telephone table unit to reach them, he decided.
The grey carpet felt strange beneath his soles – Jamie was only used to the wooden flooring in his house and the tiles in school – absorbing the sound of his footsteps. He trailed a finger along the dark green settee, making a darker furrow in the material. Gran had curtains that looked like goal nets, and lampshades with flickable tassels on them.
Gran came in, carrying Jamie’s holdall. “Now, I’ve got a DVD player and a Sky box, so you can watch your all your programmes.”
The TV was really old; black rather than silver, and with a bendy screen rather than a flat one. His dad had warned him of this, and his mum had in turn warned him not to mention it. He couldn’t help but point out the massive silver box on one of the shelves underneath the set, though.
“That’s my video, son.”
“What’s a video?”
Mum and gran laughed at that. “Oh, it’s a relic,” mum said. “Ancient technology, left behind by aliens a long time ago.”
Jamie frowned and pouted, not liking being left out of a joke. He took off then. “Where’s my room?”
“It’s your Auntie Jill’s old room… wait a second!” Gran bellowed.
“He’ll calm down,” Jamie’s mum said. “Promise.”
“Och, don’t you worry yourself. Don’t forget, I raised our John. Biggest fidget on God’s earth even when I had him in my tummy. Jamie’ll be a doddle compared to him.”
“I don’t know, mum. Jamie’s a handfull for anybody. I sometimes wonder if Satan spiked my drink one night.”
“Well, I’ll threaten to take him to church. That should keep him quiet.” She touched her daughter’s wrist. “Don’t be worrying about it. You two just enjoy your weekend.”
“Call us, if there’s any bother at all. You’ve got Tony’s mobile number as well as mine, just in case?”
“Of course I have. Now, don’t be spoiling it by worrying about MacGubligan. You need time to yourselves.”
Jamie’s mum nodded. “I really appreciate this. I feel so bad going away without him.”
“Put it out of your mind.”
“I’ll bring you back something nice. Now, he’s got loads of clean socks and pants and a few changes of clothes. I’ve put a wee toilet bag in, toothpaste and some shower gel, and his special shampoo. Oh, one more thing; sometimes he gets frightened if he wakes up in the night. Thinks Jaggy Jammies is after him. So I’ve packed a wee night light. He’s had it since he was a wee boy.”
Jamie’s gran frowned. “A bit old getting, for that.”
“I know he is, but it’s better that than he gets into bed with you.”
Jamie’s mum gave him a kiss and a big hug. He felt sad that she was going, but he transferred this into petted-lip obstinacy, an anger at being abandoned that he had no idea how to express. He knew the sound the heavy front door would make throughout the close if he had slammed it shut, an explosion that would repeat and repeat and repeat for a long time. But he didn’t dare, allowing it to close softly behind her.
“Right, you can help me put your clothes away,” Gran said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Then you can have a biscuit, if you’re good. And cheer up – she’s coming back for you. She’s just going on a wee holiday with your dad.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s their anniversary.”
“That’s right. Come on now. There’s separate drawers for your jammies and your clothes. Shoes go in the cupboard, on the rack. Come on! Chop-chop.”
He yawned. “Have you got a football, Gran?”
“A football? What do you want with a football?”
“So I can go out and practice in the back garden.”
“You bloody will not! Football, he says. No, there aren’t any footballs in here. You can go through and watch a DVD or something in a minute.”
“Can I get my games out?”
“In a minute!”
Gran fluffed up the pillows in Auntie Jill’s old room and spread the four corners of the quilt, perfectly. Auntie Jill was cool; it didn’t look like a girl’s room at all. There were a lot of posters of bands on the walls, guys with guitars and funny hair, and the wallpaper was blue. Auntie Jill lived in London now where she had a Right Good Job, and had probably taken all her other stuff like CDs and earrings.
There was one photograph left on top of her dressing table; Auntie Jill, wearing a big red wig and a Union Jack dress. There were four other girls in the picture with her; one of them wore a little black dress and was sucking in her cheeks for the camera. Another one had on a tracksuit and a Liverpool strip; another had blonde pigtails like Daisy Fulton had one time at school, and a black girl had on a leopardskin sort of dress. They were all kicking their legs up, and there was a name for that sort of dance, can-can.
Auntie Jill had really big boobs. Jamie stared at them, thinking of nothing at all, while gran packed away the clothes without any of his help at all.
“So, what’s these games, then? Is it something you need to plug into the television?”
“Nope, it’s the little games you hold in your hand. I’ve got Batman.”
“Batman? I thought you liked Spider-Man.”
“He’s alright, but Batman’s a better fighter.”
“Hmph! Next it’ll be Superman.”
“He’s rubbish. It’s so obvious he’s Clark Kent, really.”
“Hasn’t he got glasses on when he’s Clark Kent?”
“I know, but it’s so obvious.”
“I think your Uncle John had a lot of Batman comics when he was a wee boy.”
“Have you still got them?”
“You know, I just might.” Jamie’s gran smiled. “He might have left a few things through here.”
Jamie followed his gran through to the hall. There was a cupboard door in there, near the front door. She pulled it open and clicked on a light, revealing a tight space dominated by a large chest of drawers. Gran pulled open one drawer, and the treasure was revealed.
“These are all your Uncle John’s old cars and soldiers and things. I’m sure you’ll find something to play with in here. Elspeth and Rory usually do.”
He delved into a pile of glinting metal and plastic. Pitted metal cars. Green plastic army men, frozen in attitudes of war, one of them in the act of hurling a grenade. The rubber tracks on a tiny Matchbox tank, pliant and spongy. A little ambulance whose doors opened. Broken Subbuteo men, a set of goalposts without a net. Badges; one of them with little men who looked like Weetabix on it. Darth Vader himself, missing a lightsabre but sporting a black plastic cape that someone had chewed; he had a wee nibble himself and spat a fragment out. Other little figures, tiny people he didn’t recognise but whose arms and legs could be twisted this way and that, made to fight, just like the Star Wars guys. Someone had conveniently left Action Man’s trousers down, saving Jamie the trouble of unbuttoning him for a peek. He gazed for a long time at the pancaked penis, ran his hands along the weirdly textured hair, flicked the eyes left-to-right with the little switch at the back of his head.
A giant orange Tonka truck emerged from one of the drawers, rusted in places and encrusted with dirt but still in good order. And best, best of all, a glow-in-the dark skull badge, true treasure, green in the gloom of the cupboard. He fit it to his jumper, taking care not to nick himself with the needle.
He reached for the top drawer. The old brass handle took a little teasing, but soon he got his fingers around it and eased the compartment out.
Row after row of comics were in front of him, more paper spines than could easily be counted. Some were encased in plastic, reverently placed; others were dog-eared and grimy, yellowed and curling at the edges. The prices on some were impossibly low – 8p, 12p – just as the dates were ancient, signs of an unimaginable past – 1981, 1983. He flicked through some Batman ones kept in plastic, but it was the grubbier papers at the front that drew his eye. 2000AD, they were called, and there were dinosaurs, robots and guys with laser guns on the front. There was another set with a blond football player on the front, in a red and yellow strip. Roy of the Rovers. These all looked neat; Jamie grabbed a handfull, pulled out a pile of the coolest-looking toys, and was just wondering how to transport all of these into the lounge when he noticed his gran wasn’t there with him.
In the time it would take to click one’s fingers, if one could, in the half-light of that grey afternoon, gran’s house seemed totally different. The eyes of the porcelain figurines perched on a shelf behind him were black holes, swallowing up light; the treasure trove chest of drawers seemed to grow large in front of him, oppressive. In such a place, in such a dusty old cupboard, Jaggy Jammies could easily hide.
He belted it up the hall, causing some picture frames to rattle along the wallpaper. He burst into the living room, where gran was sat reading a paper.
“Do you have to run everywhere, Jamie? That makes an awful racket.”
“Sorry gran, I can’t reach some of the comics at the top drawer.”
“Och! I’ll be made to regret this, I truly will.” She grunted as she got to her feet. “Okay, I’ll help you pick a few out. But that’s you done for a wee while, okay?”
“Who’s this Jaggy Jammies, anyway?” Gran squinted at the TV, nostrils flaring, as Jamie’s MonsterBallz DVD crashed, strobed and screeched, accompanied by breakneck fusion guitar solos.
Jamie drank a glass of milk down, sleeving off the moustache. “Nobody.”
“You sure? Your mum says you get this silly idea that there’s somebody called Jaggy Jammies trying to steal you.”
“Nope. There’s no Jaggy Jammies.”
“Good. I’m glad you said that. Because you’re old enough to know that there’s no ghosts, no monsters, and no Jaggy Jammies.”
“What about God and the angels? And the holy souls?”
“They’re different,” gran said, barely breaking stride.
“They’re things of God. The ghosts you see on silly films and TV programmes are made up. Special effects. There aren’t any ghosts.”
“There’s a holy spirit.”
“And that’s what I said – different thing. Ghosts are made up. God and the angels and the holy spirit aren’t. You feel them in your heart.”
“What about the devil?”
“He’s down in hell. Jesus put him there.”
“Is it like a jail?”
“Yes. Exactly like that.”
“What if he gets out?”
“You don’t get out of hell.”
“Why not just kill him? Why put the devil in a jail forever?”
“The devil is there to tempt us. It’s a way of testing our faith.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it’s a way of knowing how good a person you are. That was God’s plan for the devil.”
Jamie pondered this for a second or two. “Would Jesus put me in hell?”
“Just watch your programme.”
A Spanish dolly perched proudly on top of the cistern, almost engulfed by a massive flowing flamenco dress, tiny little maracas held in her hand. Jamie tore the skirt upward instinctively, and gasped as a fresh toilet roll was revealed. He imagined ladies in Spain waddling around with giant toilet rolls hidden under their skirts, and he started giggling.
“What are you up to in there?” Gran called through the door.
“Nothing,” he said, but he was shaking with suppressed laughter. He pulled at the first folded-down corner of toilet roll underneath the dolly’s dress. It unfurled surprisingly easily. So easily, in fact, that an off-white streamer of it soon shot out and collected in the toilet bowl, wrinkling on contact with the porcelain sides. He stopped the cylinder’s revolution with his hands, but the naked fact of the sheets of paper wadding up the bowl remained. He flushed and watched, fascinated, as the sheets uncoiled automatically with the suction.
“Right, mister, you’ve been in there long enough! Wash your hands and get out.”
Resisting an urge to peek beneath the line of the doll’s modest decolletage, he rearranged her attire then ran his hand under the cold tap before unlocking the door.
Gran stormed in. “Bloody knew it!” she said, smoothing down the dolly’s dress. “Typical bloody male!”
“I needed to blow my nose,” he said. “I wanted to get some more toilet paper.”
“Oh, you’re becoming quite the little liar, aren’t you? You said that without blushing! Well, I know someone who can fix that.” She waddled back down the hall.
For a moment Jamie thought she might call his mum and dad and get them to come back, and his heart soared. He followed her into the living room just in time to see her lift the receiver on her phone and dial a number. She arched her back, one hand on the base of her spine, as she spoke.
“Hello. Is that Maggie Murphy’s Home For Bad Boys?” She glowered at Jamie. “Oh, hi Mrs Murphy. Yes, this is Mrs Mulhearn. I’ve got a special case here needs looking at. It’s a wee boy. My grandson, Jamie. He’s six years old and he is getting very cheeky. Do you think you might have a cell ready for him? Oh, not quite yet? Well, do let me know when one’s available. And remember; no TV, no video games, no DVDs, no sweeties and biscuits. Just bread and water to eat, and scratchy jumpers to be worn all day… Yes, that would be fine. No, there’s no need to come round. But I’ll call you if I need you. You can take him away until his mum gets back. Thank you.” She slammed the phone down, and Jamie leapt in fright.
“Now then. You heard what I said, I take it? Good. Maggie Murphy’s Home For Bad Boys is where you’ll end up, my lad, if you don’t start behaving yourself! Now sit on that couch, watch your DVD, and give my head peace.”
“Who’s Maggie Murphy?” He pictured the true demon of his childhood; not Jaggy Jammies, but Mrs Foley, a terrible dragon lady who had taken his class for a couple of weeks when Miss Heffernan was off. She had worn a great flannel skirt that chafed as she swished past your seat, and her purplish hair was the very definition of witchy woo. Jamie had put his hand up and asked to go to the bathroom one time, but she had said no. “You had the chance to go at playtime; you must wait till lunch,” she’d said. And then Jamie had… well, Jamie didn’t like to think of it.
Gran saw his face change, and she regretted what she’d done. “Hey, don’t worry, I’m only kidding. Maggie Murphy won’t be coming round or anything. But you need to behave, alright?” She ruffled his hair. “Silly boy.”
He spent the rest of the afternoon making Darth Vader fight another action figure who had a beret and camouflage trousers. Despite a clear reach advantage, Vader was losing to the square-jawed goodie. But Jamie engineered a comeback, having Darth head-butt the army guy repeatedly with good hard plasticky clacks. Then gran called him through to the kitchen.
She was coughing into the sink, and he hesitated in the doorway.
“It’s alright,” she wheezed, “I just need you to go in the drawer by the side of my bed and get out my inhaler. The left side.”
He went through to a sombre room, with everything in brown down to the lightshades. A double bed, tiny lights casting deep shadows. On the bedside table, a black and white picture of granda, who wart in heaven. He had very black hair and enormous teeth. In the drawer, where she said, was the inhaler. Tommy Kendricks at school had one just like it.
He scamped back through to the kitchen. Gran was holding her throat, her back heaving with the effort to breathe. She took the inhaler and triggered it.
He got her a glass of water, on his tip-toes to reach the taps.
“Good boy,” she said. “Good lad.”
As tea time approached, he started drawing on the clean white sheets of his new pad. “What’s that you’re doing?” gran said. “Is that a lion?”
“A dragon,” he said, scoring inside his pen-lines with a green felt tip.
“Oh, I thought it was a lion. I thought that was its mane.”
“That’s its spikes. Its wattles.”
He flicked over a fresh page, a good sharp sound, then described long, jagged spikes. Eyes, teeth and obscenely long fingers followed.
“What’s that, another dragon?” She set down a china cup, fascinated.
“No. That’s Jaggy Jammies.” He took a bright blue felt tip, his favourite, and coloured in Jaggy Jammies’ eyes. There was a vinegar smell.
“I remember you mum had a wee brownie she was scared of.”
“A what?” he spluttered.
“A brownie. A demon. Not real, obviously.”
“A brownie!” he started giggling.
“His name wasn’t Jaggy Jammies. It was Hairy Boabie.”
Jamie looked almost aghast. “Hairy Boabie!”
“Yep. Your mum thought Hairy Boabie lived in the cupboard under the staircase at our old house. It used to be a coal cellar, a long time ago. It was… what are you laughing at?”
He could barely move for laughing, his voice high and girlish. “Hairy Boabie…. oh, ha ha!” Tears squirted out of the corners of his eyes.
“I know what you’re laughing at, you little pest! You’re too young to be laughing at such things. Och!”
He could not keep his face straight. His shoulders wriggled and he snorted laughter.
“Right, that’s it!” She lifted his colouring pad and slapped it shut. “No more drawing! Into your room!”
“But I was only laughing at the picture. I was drawing Hairy Boabie.” The side of his face twitched at those gloriously rude words, and he giggled anew.
“Into your room, I said! Go on!”
He went through the comics in his room. The 2000AD ones were the best – there was a giant crocodile in one of these, and it ate some guy in a sewer. There wasn’t much blood or anything but you could see the guy dangling from its mouth, and he screamed, “Noooooo!”
From Auntie Jill’s room, you could hear people coming up the stairs. Heavy footsteps. They stopped outside Gran’s door, and the doorbell went.
“Hi Liz, how are you?” It was a posh lady’s voice. Not unlike Mrs Foley’s.
“Oh, not bad, you know.”
“Did you take a wee turn? Let’s have a wee look at you then.”
Jamie cracked open the door and had a peek. The lady who’d come in was much taller than gran, with a long straight back and a light coloured coat and… surely not… a battleship grey skirt, with severe black shoes shone to within an inch of their lives.
His breath stuttered in his throat. She had called Maggie Murphy. Because he’d laughed at Hairy Boabie.
Jamie stole along the hallway, the carpet absorbing his footsteps, and he listened in at the door of the living room.
“Is he about now?” Maggie Murphy asked.
“I sent him to his room, he was acting up a bit. My daughter said he does that for attention, likes to show off and act the fool.”
“Aye. Typical male, then,” the new lady said, primly.
Gran chuckled. “Isn’t that the truth?”
“Okay, do you mind if I take a wee listen?”
“No, go ahead.”
“He won’t come in, will he?”
“It’ll be fine if he does. We’ll just send him to Maggie Murphy.”
Not Maggie Murphy, then. But one of her followers, her henchwomen, come to fetch him. He didn’t hesitate; he didn’t hear the polite laughter of the lady, or her instructions to breathe in, breathe out. He took off.
He thumped along the hall, rattling the ornaments as before, past the old cupboard. He tore open the front door and he was soon free, leaping down the stairs, cymbal crashes and bass drums echoing through the close. After a blur of doors the mouth of the close appeared. His plan was to head across the road to the little patch of spare ground visible through a wee lane. He could hide in there, get into cover along the treeline and climb to the top, keeping an eye out for Maggie Murphy’s agent of doom with her horrible scratchy skirt.
He zipped out onto the road between two parked cars and then he saw everything with perfect clarity, in the most minute detail. The red paint of the car; the gleaming silver of the wheeltrims and alloys, the full lock on the wheels, the crucifix dangling from the neck of the driver and the open mouth of the girl in the seat beside him.
It didn’t hit him. He stood there in the road, totally confused and shocked, as the tyres screeched just like they did on the telly.
“What are you doing?” said the driver, voice muffled behind the windshield, eyes bulging. “What are you doing?”
The car’s horn sounded at last, and that finally stung Jamie into life. He ran back onto the pavement, where gran and Maggie Murphy’s henchwoman were already running towards him, gran’s breasts bouncing comically underneath her top as she limped over to him, and the stethoscope dangling from the neck of the doctor, yes, the doctor of course, silly boy, silly boy.
“Yes. If you could come over and get him tomorrow, that would be fine… I hope you don’t mind, I let him have a look at your comics… Well, what does it matter if it’s the Batman ones or not, John? Christ alive, you’re thirty-seven years old! Yes… Okay. He’s got all his clothes. I think he’ll maybe have more fun with you anyhow. Yes, it’s just till Monday morning. Alright then. Thanks, son. Goodnight.”
In Auntie Jill’s old bed, Jamie’s eyes drooped at long last, the room lambent in the orange glow of the night light. The sound of gran putting the receiver in the hall down had been a sort of catalyst for sleep, something final but also reassuring. She looked in on him, an adept at not waking children up for a long time now, and gazed at his wiry little body, huddled among the fresh sheets. She stared at him a long time, then made her lonely way up the hall to her room.
Underneath the bed, Jaggy Jammies stretched and yawned, before folding his arms in on his chest and then allowing himself to drift off. He never could get to sleep before the boy.