I suppose my answer currently is that I write in order to achieve some sort of catharsis. Those who know me will also know that my soulmate and muse of twenty-five years passed away recently. I found myself constantly reliving the horrible events surrounding her passing. I wasn’t grieving properly. I wasn’t moving on. So I set down my feelings in writing in a short story called Man Up, which you’ll find on this site. Both the act of writing that story and the story itself gave me some release. I’m moving on now.
I’ve been there before, searching for release from the memory of awful events in my past. Some years ago, I was recovering from the effects of a near-fatal stroke. But it wasn’t just my body that needed to mend; my mind was also out of kilter. Every night, my brain had me replaying, in minute detail, the tragic circumstances that led to my father’s untimely death when I was a teenager. I couldn’t get those details out of my head. I wasn’t sleeping properly. So I wrote my father’s story in a novella called The Bookie’s Runner, which you may have heard of. Its publication laid some ghosts to rest and helped me sleep better.
I’m still trying to exorcise the memory of other awful events, the ones that led to that catastrophic stroke. I’ve been writing a novel, The Percentages Men, about those events. I’ve blogged about the progress of the novel here before, most recently in a post called Best Served Cold. It’s taking me a long time to put it together (30,000+ words to date), but I am finding that the process of describing the people involved and their antics is laying some more ghosts to rest.
So an awful lot of cathartic writing so far. However, there was a time before all that when I actually wrote for a living. No, not as an “author” – that only happened post-stroke, post-retiral – but as a businessman. You see, the business was research and its primary product was a research report. And a good research report had to set out facts and opinions and conclusions not only clearly, concisely and jargon-free, but also in an interesting way, a way that held the reader’s attention. Even if I do say so myself, I was rather good at it. I enjoyed it, that’s for sure.
And there was a time even before then – well, long before then – when I had to write to keep myself from going to jail. Or at least I thought that was case. The memory of that particular incident was what prompted this post.
It was 1973. I was twenty-three, not long married to my first wife, Ann, and living in a rented second-floor flat in a street full of tenements in the Abbeyhill area of Edinburgh. The narrow street was lined on both sides with tenements so that it resembled a dark canyon. In stark contrast, the back of our building had an unspoiled view of the lushness of Holyrood Park and the majesty of Arthur’s Seat. At weekends, Ann and I were often to be found walking in the park and sometimes climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat. And that’s just what we had done on the bracing, windy Sunday afternoon in question.
After we had returned to the flat, I sat down in an armchair and dozed off. I was tired – happy-tired, I think you would call it. But my nap wasn’t to last more than a couple of minutes. I was awakened by the harsh jangle of the bell in the hallway. The little brass bell was the original from when the tenement was built in the late nineteenth century. So was the brass bellpull on the outside wall at the foot of the building. So were the wires that ran the length of the stair and connected the bellpull to the bell in our flat. And, of course, they were all in perfect working order.
If we had been smart, we would have disconnected the bell months before. But we weren’t. We were young and stubborn. You see, we refused to give in to the bunch of young lads who regularly rang the bell from the street before running off and hiding. The lads – three, sometimes four, sixteen and seventeen year-olds – lived on the same street. When we moved in, we discovered that at night they were congregating on the landing below ours, smoking and playing cards and generally “hanging out”, as the Yanks would say. My first task, therefore, was to chase them off and suggest they loiter in their own stairs. They went and didn’t return. The bellpulling was their revenge.
Usually, we ignored the bellpulling. We knew who the culprits were. And we knew they would be well out of sight by the time we reached the bottom of the stair. But on that particular Sunday I couldn’t ignore it. I was angry – Black Irish angry. I had been woken rudely from an enjoyable slumber. The peace of the afternoon had been shattered. But more than that: our privacy, our space, had been invaded.
So off I went. Down the stairs. Out into the deserted street. I walked up to the next stair and looked in. Nobody. The same with the stair after that. They were in the third stair, three of them sprawled across the first landing, smoking and laughing and joking.
“Isn’t it about time you guys grew up, eh?” I shouted as I climbed the steps up to them. “Leave the fucking bell alone, eh? Or I promise you’ll be sorry.”
There were no denials – no sounds, in fact. I stared at them for a few moments longer before turning and heading down the steps. That was when it dawned on me. One of them, the one in the middle – I forget his name, but let’s call him Geordie – had been smirking at me. The smirk told me that nothing was going to change. The bellpulling would continue. So I turned back and wiped the smirk off Geordie’s face with a right hook to his nose.
Then all hell broke loose. While I moved in closer to Geordie to prevent him from retaliating, his two companions leapt on my back and began to punch and kick me. Ignoring their blows, I grabbed hold of Geordie’s hair and tried to do as much damage to him as I could. But I knew that the three of them together were getting the better of me. It was Ann’s intervention that saved me. Her angry shouts reverberated throughout the stair and seemed to bring us all to our senses.
She took hold of my arm and pulled me out into the street, where we were confronted by Geordie’s father. He was a bus driver, a portly, loudmouthed, belligerent man whose voice could often be heard echoing across the tenemental canyon.
“I’m getting the Polis on you, boy,” he screamed in my face. “You should pick on someone your own age. You’re nothing but a bully.”
A bully? I remember saying to myself. There’s three of them. And every one of them is at least six inches taller than me. A fucking bully?
I was beginning to lose it again. But thankfully Ann dragged me away before I could say or do anything.
As soon as we returned to the flat, the adrenalin overwhelmed me and I erupted in tears. When I went to the bathroom to wash my face, I found that I was still clutching a clump of Geordie’s hair.
Not long afterwards, two policemen came to the door. They were both young and considerate – and apologetic. They were sorry, but they would have to charge me with assault, which one of them duly did. The same policeman explained that I would receive a citation to appear at the Police Court to answer the charge.
“My advice is to plead guilty,” he said. “You really don’t have a leg to stand on. You’ll probably just be fined. And that should be an end to it.
“When you receive the citation,” he added, “my advice as well is to write a letter to the court. That way you’ll be able to explain any mitigating circumstances. A letter usually helps.”
I did as he suggested, taking considerable time to compose the letter before I submitted it to the court. You’ll probably just be fined, the policeman had said. But as the date of the court appearance grew nearer, I became increasingly nervous. By the time Ann and I arrived at the Police Court in Torphichen Place on the appointed Monday morning, I had convinced myself that I would be spending at least the next month in a prison cell. I had even nipped into Boots on the way there and bought a new toothbrush.
Walking into the Police Court was like stepping back in time. The dark oak-panelled room probably hadn’t changed in the best part of a hundred years. It was arranged more like a lecture theatre than a court, with defendants and spectators seated alongside each other in tiers that led down to a sort of pit, over which towered a large bench occupied by a single Magistrate with the powers to both fine and imprison. When their cases were being heard, defendants were required to stand in the pit and address the Magistrate.
As Ann and I were taking our seats, I caught sight of Geordie further up the room. One of his arms was in a sling, there was a strip of Elastoplast across the bridge of his nose and he was sporting a neat, round bald patch in the centre of his crown. All dressed up in a suit and shirt and tie, he was seated between his mother and his obnoxious father. It seemed that Mister Bus Driver had taken time off his work to witness justice being dispensed on his son’s behalf.
If I hadn’t been so nervous, I might have enjoyed the entertainment offered by the court. The first cases heard concerned those wo had been held over the weekend in the police cells below the court. There was a procession of very rough-looking prostitutes, who all pled guilty to soliciting and trooped off to pay their fines. There was a succession of young men who had been arrested variously for drunk and disorderly conduct, fighting and thieving. They also all pled guilty and left to pay their fines. Then it was my turn.
I have to admit I was terrified as I stood in the pit, my legs shaking. The Magistrate read out the charge and asked me how I pled.
“Guilty,” I answered in a small voice.
“Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” he barked.
“I-I s-sent in a l-letter…” I stuttered.
He thumbed through the file in front of him and found my letter. From the expression on his big red face when he began to read it, I knew I was on a winner. Here at last, he must have thought, is someone who can string more than two words together.
When he finished reading the two-page letter, he peered down at me over the top of his spectacles.
“Well, have you learned your lesson, then?”
“I certainly hope so. Stay out of trouble and next time call the Police.”
The he returned the letter to his file and added in a louder voice, "Admonished."
My heart sang. “Thank you, sir,” I said, also in a louder voice.
As I left the pit to find Ann, it was my turn to smirk at Geordie. I gave both him and his fat father the biggest, most full-frontal smirk I could muster.
And that letter? Well, like I said, I spent some time writing it. I couldn’t reproduce it today, but I do know I explained in it that the bell ringing was only a small part of the problem. The main problem was the harassment of my wee, frail, defenceless wife by the gang of youths. For months, they had been harassing her at every opportunity – when she returned from work, when she left the flat to go to the shops. It had gotten so that she wouldn’t venture into the street without me accompanying her. So when they rang the bell on that Sunday afternoon, it was the last straw for me and I just snapped. I said I realised now that it was wrong to take the law into my own hands. I also apologised for my actions and promised they would never recur.
Yes, it was a case of weaving truth with fiction. Ann was wee, all right, but she was neither frail nor defenceless. Apart from the bellpulling, there hadn’t been much harassment to speak of. And as for Ann being scared to go out on her own, not a chance!
So the letter was my very first piece of semi-fictional writing – and it had impressed. It wasn’t long before I had embarked on writing a full novel, a futuristic Cold War thriller that imagined a Sino-Soviet invasion of Western Europe in 1980. It was called The Olive Branch. But that, as they say, is another story.