Clockwork Orange

Glasgow Style

Safe Journey?

Short Stories by George Donald

A Subway Tale

The Glasgow Underground subway system has been serving the public for as long as any of its passengers can remember. Just as the coal smoke of the now redundant steam train evokes happy memories for many of today's pensioners, the smell of the subway calls to mind similar memories for the native Glaswegian. For the vast majority of its passengers, the subway is simply a means to get to and from work. Steadily rocking its human cargo back and forth, the travellers sit facing each other on the horsehair bench seats. As the blackness of the coal dark tunnels streams past the windows, they try to avoid staring at the blank face opposite. Heads bowed, they pretend to be engrossed in their morning or evening papers, or chins tilted slightly upwards, striving to read the defaced cardboard adverts that promise cheap haircuts, cheaper meals and rock bottom priced drinks at an assortment of venues throughout Glasgow. The adverts seldom change and by the passengers' third journey, they can usually repeat the words without prompt. Warily descending the flight of steps at Cessnock Street Underground Station, the stairs wet and slippery from the countless shoes and boots that tramped snow into the covered area, the middle-aged woman saw with relief the Underground train sitting at the platform and slipped through the doors of the carriage, hearing them quietly sigh behind her as they closed. Not for the first time Agnes McConville regretted her inability to drive. Sitting primly in her seat and swaying slightly against the movement of the carriage, her coat wrapped about her and her black patent handbag gripped tightly in her hands, she focused on the clear reflection in the opposite window. The drawn face that stared back showed a pale-faced woman in her late fifties, shiny dark hair greying at the temples that was neatly pinned back and curled into a tight bob. The eyes mirrored her lonely sadness. This time of the year always reminded Agnes of her mother.

The Christmas office party that afternoon at the small, but select restaurant in Middleton Street had been little short of a nightmare. Almost thirty years she had clerked for Brown and McGonigle and still she forced herself to endure the annual embarrassing ritual. It wasn't the gentlemen partners, dears that they were but the young men and feisty women - boys and girls really - that they employed these days who took some getting used to. She had learned to tolerate the whispered jibes and sniggers in the office. It was during the meal when the free wine donated by the partners loosened previously closed lips that she heard the snide comments being bandied about. She had tried to pay no attention to the juvenile giggling, but the references to her being 'unwed and at her age' cut far deeper than she would ever like to acknowledge, even to herself. She had to admit the meal had begun well enough and at first she did enjoy pulling the crackers, smiling again at the small toys and fancy gifts they contained. The small, metal folding nail scissors might even come in handy. But then the antics of some of the girls as they continued to imbibe! Really! Agnes had seen the party was getting out of hand and feigning a headache, left early, pretending much to do at home before her imaginary visitors arrived. Not that she really had anything planned or even anywhere to attend. Her brother and sisters seemed happy to believe that one or the other would invite her to Christmas dinner. Not that any of them deliberately ignored her loneliness, or so she would have herself believe. She remembered with quiet pleasure that last Christmas dinner she and mother had shared. Two years since she had gone, the cancer finally taking its toll. Departed this life for the peace and tranquillity that she so richly deserved and Agnes missed her; or at least missed the companionship. She frowned as she recalled the faces of her two sisters and her brother; their constant assurances that they were grateful to her, for without their thoughtful Agnes being at home with mother, 'where we would all be?' Of course living with their partners and their families in their own homes, it was easy to be so admiring of Agnes, for she knew that by sacrificing her personal life to care for their bedridden parent, it eased their own burden and guilt.'Good old Agnes', she thought with subdued resignation. 'What would we do without her?'

The train rumbled on towards Kinning Park, stopping to discharge and pick up the few evening commuters. She smiled inwardly. It seemed the journey home to her empty flat always gave Agnes time to reflect on her family and their attitude towards her. She had grown weary of their irregular calls when mother was alive, had not missed their furtive glances at wristwatches or the clock as they timed their dutiful visit against an evening watching a favourite soap on television. Not once could she recall any of them offering to care for their mother, not even one night to allow Agnes time to herself. At first she had attributed it simply to thoughtlessness, considered perhaps that it might never had occurred to them that their dull and plain sister might wish to spend some time treating herself to a cinema or theatre trip. She inwardly groaned. 'But with whom would I go?', she asked herself. 'What was the point of enjoying a night out on one's own? You know what's right for Mum," they'd smilingly patronise her, "what medicines she needs, what she likes to eat." "You're the best, Agnes," they were fond of telling her, the words absently tripping off their tongues as they shrugged into coats to return home, "what would we do without you?" And of course mother would always agree, never imagining their visits to be duty rather than affection. Her loving son, her loving daughters, she would tell Agnes; flattered that they would take time from their so busy schedules to visit their ailing mother. Hadn't they done well for themselves with their nice families and lovely houses? How proud of them she had been, recalled Agnes, almost immediately regretting her bitterness.

The subway shuddered to a halt at West Street and the doors slid open. A gentleman of about her own age, his neatly trimmed moustache adding character to his ruddy face, smartly attired in a Burberry coat and a chequered bunnet atop his head of grey hair, smiled softly at her with bright blue eyes as he passed her by and took a seat at the other end of the carriage. Agnes was taken aback and quickly looked down at her feet. 'Surely he can't have been looking at me?' she nervously thought. She grasped her handbag that little bit tighter, her knuckles showing white, not daring to turn her head or even glance towards him. Yet the pleasure of his slight attention had drawn a flush that rose slowly from her neck to her cheeks.

A metallic voice on the speakers above the platform announced a five-minute delay. The groans of the dozen or so passengers scattered the length of the carriage was plainly audible.

A couple of minutes later, she heard the sound of a football song being loudly and hoarsely sung and then he appeared. Standing a good six inches taller than Agnes's five feet three, the skinny youth with the cropped hair and the tattooed hands staggered drunkenly into the carriage, banging against the open door as he entered. His leather jacket was heavily adorned with chains and metal badges that seemed to indicate his support, she saw to her surprise, for the Nazi party. Beneath the unzipped jacket she could see that the once white tee shirt bore fresh stains where he had apparently spilled beer and his denim jeans were torn at the knee from a recent fall. The high black boots he wore with the bright red intertwining laces were badly scuffed. She thought him to be no more than twenty years of age.
Sullenly, he stared at her before flopping into the seat opposite."'What are you looking at, you old tart?" he spat at her.
Shocked, she quickly lowered her head to avert her eyes from his threatening gaze.The youth began to sing off-key and while he did so, she watched from beneath lowered eyes as he fumbled in his jacket pocket for a small machine. She thought it was a tape cassette player or one of the new fangled things the young Temp at the office used; an Ipod player, she was sure it was called. Still singing loudly, he plugged two small plug-like speakers into his ears and sang along even louder. The noise was deafening and the words he shouted were offensive. The music was being played at such a high pitch that Agnes could plainly hear it from where she sat. Pretending to cough, she raised her head slightly and looked to see if she could move to another part of the carriage and away from the young ruffian. He caught her glance and sneered at her.
"What's up you old bag? Don't you like me or something?" Deliberately he spread his legs out wide, stamping the heels of his boots down hard on either side of her shoes.
If she had to move, she realised she would have difficulty stepping over his upturned booted feet.
He leaned forward and she flinched as he reached out a fist and waved it at her. "'Think you're better than me or something, you smelly old cow! Sit where you are or I'll belt your ear, so I will!" Her throat had tightened and she could hardly breathe, such was her fear as she stared at him, unable to avert her eyes from his drunken gaze. There was a sudden hiss as the doors of the carriage closed and with a gentle bump, the train began to depart from the station. The youth sat back and burped loudly, his eyes beginning to close as the alcohol overtook him. Even with the few feet between them, she could smell his beery breath. A shadow fell over her and she turned in surprise, the white haired gentleman was standing beside her, his clutched bunnet in one hand.
"I'm sorry to trouble you madam," he asked politely,"but is this young man bothering you?"
The youth stared at the elderly gentleman with a bemused sneer on his face."Who do you think you are, you old git? Superman?" then burst out laughing, amazed that the old guy would even consider squaring up to him.
The gentleman ignored the thug and holding onto the overhead strap, leaned down and spoke softly to Agnes."Don't worry my dear," he smiled at her as he straightened up.
Her eyes widened in surprise as he knowingly winked and walked towards the front of the train, disappearing through the connecting door into the front carriage. The youth, trying desperately to keep his eyes open, laughed and leaned towards her. "'That your boyfriend, you old bag?" he sneered at her. He sat back and lifting a buttock from the seat, loudly passed wind.
Agnes was disgusted.
The thug laughed loudly at his own juvenile behaviour and settling himself into the seat, closed his eyes, his head lolling back and forth to the gentle rhythm of the train. The music continued to blare from the earpieces.

An angry madness overtook her. A rage that had built up over years of unappreciated sacrifice and devotion. That this…. bullying thug…. with his disgusting language and body odours, would threaten her while she minded her own business? Her eyes intently fixed on his snoring form, she quickly withdrew the small gift that had tumbled from the Christmas cracker and opened the scissors wide. Her body tense, she slowly stood upright with the scissors firmly grasped in her hand, swaying with the movement of the train as she bent over the youth.Her fury was such she ignored everything else, intent only on what she had decided to do and completely unaware that the frightened eyes of her few, fellow passengers were upon her. The train began to slow as it approached the station at Bridge Street. She reached forward, the small scissors in her hand and stared hard at his waxy face as she leaned down to use them. Quickly she sat down, shocked at what she had done, but the youth did not stir.

The train shuddered to a halt and slowly the young thug came to, his glassy eyes fixing with puzzlement on the implacable face of Agnes. The doors hissed open as the youth stared at her, then his face turned to spiteful rage. She felt odd, strangely calm, yet resolved that this thug would not see the dread that enveloped her."You are a disgusting young man," she told him, her eyes levelled at him and voice brittle with uncontrolled anger. "Whoever your parents are, I have no doubt they must be very ashamed of you!"
He made to rise, both hands bunching into fists.
She continued to glare at him and steeled herself for his onslaught, determined that he would not see her fear but neither Agnes nor the youth had seen the figures rush through the door.
The gentleman, his bunnet grasped in his hand, pointed at the youth."'That's him officer!" he cried out loud.
The first of the two burly policemen grabbed the shocked youth by the collar of his jacket and literally hauled him from his seat. The second officer bustled into the narrow space, took hold of his arm and both frogmarched the bewildered thug from the carriage.
The turbaned train driver stood beside the door, grinning at Agnes."You all right there love," he asked in a broad Glaswegian accent.
Agnes was stunned. She could only stare at the concerned face of the white haired gentleman.
"I didn't abandon you, my dear," he smilingly explained. "I'm afraid I'm a bit past rolling around the aisles of a train with a young, fit lad like that so I thought it more prudent to have the train driver contact the Transport Police and have them meet us at this station."
She had a mad, overwhelming urge to reach up and hug this kind man. But her legs failed her and, with tightness in her throat, could only stare and nod her thanks.
"I think the lady is in a wee bit of shock there pal," muttered the train driver behind him, worry etched on his bearded face.
"I know just the cure," replied her hero, reaching down and gently taking her hands in his. It hadn't escaped his notice and he was pleased to see this mature and attractive lady wore no wedding ring. "There's a wee café in Bridge Street, not far from the station. We'll go there for a cup of tea," he assured the driver. "Come along my dear, I'm taking charge of you from here," he firmly promised her.
To her own surprise, Agnes allowed herself to be guided through the door by her new friend, who introduced himself as Davie. He led her along the platform, a protective arm around her shoulder as they passed the two police officers, standing with their handcuffed and loudly protesting prisoner.She heard one officer mutter "Breach of the peace", but her eyes were fixed on the youth, who now close to tears, ignored her as he whined and complained, apparently oblivious to the thin, newly snipped wires that trailed from each of his ears.