Maureen Cullen

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Maureen was born in West Dunbartonshire and now lives in Argyll and Bute. She is a retired social worker who specialised in fostering and adoption. In 2015, she gained an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University where she studied poetry and short fiction. She has been shortlisted in various competitions, including The Fish Short Story Prize and The Bristol Short Story Prize. In 2016, she was published by Nine Arches Press, along with three other poets, in Primers 1. She has poetry published in a range of magazines, including Shooter…and The Interpreter’s House. She has stories published in Prole, the Hysteria Anthology, the Evesham Anthology, Leicester Writes Anthology, Stories for Homes Volume 2, Willesden Herald New Short Stories 10, Northwords Now, The Bristol Prize Anthology 2018, and online at Ink Tears and Creative Writing Ink. Her current project is a collection of linked short stories based in a fictional town in the West of Scotland.

Trip Switch

Fergus thumbed out another doup, tossed it in the litter can at the borstal’s porch, ventured a few yards up the brae tae the corner and scanned the road. Nothing. He straightened his uniform jacket, pulled down the cuffs of his shirt, and checked his watch. The fags hadnae shifted the sour taste he had in his mouth since taking the phone call after the special hearing at the High Court. This was a bad case for The Vinel. Half an hour should be enough for them tae get here on a Saturday morning. Where the hell were they?

            It was bad news weekend. Kennedy shot tae death in Dallas right in front of the wife, and those FBI men loping helpless at the side of the limousine.

            Somebody wasnae doing his job, that was for sure.

Fergus was about tae take out his fags again when a van crunched its way down the drive and rumbled tae a stop. Keeping a close eye on its occupants, he secured the Borstal door open wi the wooden stop. A scurry, a yelp, and a skelf of a lad was bundled out, shoulders making tae clout the guards at every turn.

The aulder Uniform, hands like shovels, thrust papers at Fergus’s chest. ‘No pretty reading, better watch yersel. Tae next hearing. Three weeks.’

‘Nae cuffs here.’ Fergus’s gander rose at the man and his pronouncements.

‘When he’s ower the threshold.’ The guard prodded his delivery ower the step and the boy stumbled. Fergus moved tae steady him, only tae be shaken off. A crack of cuffs and the Uniforms lumbered back tae their van.

Wide arses in fat jobs.

Fergus toed away the doorstop and let the doorsigh shut. The boy was wire tense. Fergus inched close, just enough tae see the fine web of hair on the lad’s nape, and the bloom of blue at his temple. The boy’s eyelashes flickered as his head dipped. A weak ray of sunlight caught a droplet mid-lash, which might have become a tear if it hadnae melted away wi a blink. Fergus almost reached out tae touch the boy’s sleeve, tae reassure him, but the pulse in the thin neck told him tae stay back. He held his breath, clutched at the keys in his pocket and let his body inch forward, worried any sudden movement might trip a switch. Two steps forward and the boy stirredbehind him, plimsolls squeaking as he followed Fergus along the corridor tae the backof the building until they reached the dormitory. Fergus fingered the keys out of his pocket. He slid one intae the keyhole, a turn, a pop, holding the door tae his chest, knee controlling the velocity, pushing it open an inch at a time until it widened tae display the dorm. It was smaller than the rest wi only two sets of bunks, four lockers, a central dome of a light and a high window. A bundle of clothing sat middle of a lower bunk.

Fergus sloped tae the far wall, allowing the boy a clear view. He raised his arms, palms outward tae invite the lad in, aware of eyelids pale as crescent moons, of shoulders bent as if water could slough right off them.

‘Ah’ll leave ye here,’ he said. ‘Ye’ll no share this room. Call me Mr Machrie. Ah’ve sorted out some gear for ye. A senior boy’ll come and show ye the ropes. If ye need me later, ah’ll be around.’

He left in bad need of a drink and a fag.

He’d never been much of a drinking man, but he’d like tae clear the taste of boak circling his mouth. And shift the sight of his auld pal Paddy Donnelly’s coffin on the shoulders of his uncles, carried down Church Road, Mister Donnelly so shaken he was barely able tae walk behind them.

He hadnae thought of that for years.

Forthe rest of the day, and the next, the boy kept himself tae himself. Everybody else kept out of his way.Once or twice, Fergus passed a remark, but the boy aye moved his arse. Fergus wanted tae give him a good shake, tell him tae buck up. But he knew those tactics never worked. He’d find another way.

He wasnae one tae give up on any boy, no matter what he’d done.

An opportunity came during the games’ session. The boy stood alone at the side of the playing field, staring at the match.

‘No want tae have a go?’

The boy pinned Fergus’s gaze, challenging him.

Fergus looked away.

A twist of boot lifted turf before the boy swaggered down the line. Fergus’s jaw tightened as the lad veered off tae the class block. He almost jogged after him tae haul him back by the neck.

But itwasnae worth making a fuss about.

He let it go.

At breakfast on the third day, one of the residents, Andrew Carr, swaggered up tae the boy as he ate alone at the table furthest from the counter. Dolly, the cook, looked up open-mouthed from her ladling, face flushed under her soot black hair and nodded tae Fergus in warning.

The clodhopper scratched away the seat, slumped down across from the boy, elbow ower the back of the chair, swinging to and fro. The boy’s head was set fast tae the window, at the wall of the latrines. Carr opened wi a gaff. ‘So, wee man, whit ye in fer?’

When this didnae merit a reply, Carr stood up and moved closer on his tree trunk thighs. His breathing became loud wi the effort of standing still.

The room folded in, like a soaked cardboard box.

Fergus’s thigh muscles tensed.

The boy didnae shift.

Carr swung around tae face his pals, his grin bursting like bubblegum when he saw the drooping heads, heard the shuffling feet. Picking up their signals at last, he swivelled back tae the boy who was now rising from his seat, eyes smouldering, a pulse beating at his temple.

Fergus moved. He gripped Carr by the collar and jerked him back, enough tae begin what soon became a willing slide back tae his mates.

‘Keep him here.’ He nodded tae one of the lads.

‘Nae bother, Mr Machrie.’ The lad gripped his pal by the sleeve.

Having dumped Carr, Fergus shifted his weight tae the other leg and dipped towards the boy. He looked intae eyes that glistened wi menace before the whites slanted away. The boy sank back down, awready switched off.

Fergus sat back in his seat, the canteen stirred and Dolly flicked the tea towel, pursed her lips, and raised five fingers. He took a deep breath, slowing thethrum of his heart.

She joined him a few moments after the trill of the class bell.

‘Close one, Fergie son.’

He flinched but kept shtum. Nobody got tae call him son anymore, but she had the privilege of age. And the privilege of kin, being his wife’s aunt.

‘Aye,’ he allowed. He lit up, petrol teasing his nostrils.

‘Plenty talk goin on.’

He shook his head. She’d consulted her register of births, marriages and deaths, and the special file wi aw the town’s gossip. ‘Expect so.’

‘Ye look a bit worried yersel, son.’

‘No me.’

‘Dinnae kid a kidder.’ Her eyes seared him tae his seat. He needed tae offer her something. Otherwise, she’d keep drilling.

‘He’s a powder keg, right enough,’ he said.

‘Bad choice of words.’ She tilted her jet-black beehive.

He could never work out how the hell that creation defied gravity.

She said, ‘Getting younger every year. Whit’s he, fifteen?’

‘Fourteen.’

‘When’s the trial?’

‘Three weeks. Shouldnae be here. We’re no Remand.’

‘We’re whitever the courts say we are.’ She took a drag, puckered her cherry lips, deepening the herringbone lines around her mouth. ‘It’s no like you, but.’

‘What?’

She stilled, elbow on the table, smoke curling past her ear. He felt the lash before the sting. ‘Tae be actin like a big feartie.’

A flush seared his neck and cheeks. He stubbed out his fag and plonked his hands under the table tae steady them. ‘C’mon Dolly, ah’m no feart of a wee boy.’

She stood up and stroked his arm. ‘Ah didnae say that.’ She padded away, lifted the counter flap, and disappeared intae her kitchen.

He left the canteen, snatched his scarf and jacket from the peg behind the office door, and murmured tae the boss that he’d be back in a bit. The bite of the Clyde’s arctic blast would clear his mind.

He strode the road downhill tae the bridge against a thief of a wind, stopping for his newspaper at the tobacconist’s, the counter still covered wi pictures of the Kennedy assassination, aw saying Ruby would fry.

Which was awright wi Fergus. Let the bastard sizzle. He had no right tae take matters intae his own hands.

After folding his Daily Record intae his jacket wi the ten-pack of Capstans, he darted across the road tae take the Elver’s path. Approaching the palings at the tumbling water he felt for his lighter, teased the packet from his chest pocket, fished out a fag, tickled it between top teeth and tongue and bent his body, giving shelter tae the spurt of flame. His hands quivered and the bugger needed reigniting three times before the tip took a glow. He puffed till it had life enough tae take the slate of the wind.

 Aye, this boy was getting tae him awright.

But any attempt tae approach was met by flint. Those eyes were aye scanning the ground except when cornered. Then they sparked alight. But that was aw outside bravado. He’d seen plenty of that before.

It was up tae him tae cut through.

Why else dae the job?

He leant against the railing and sucked in his cheeks. A pucker of his mouth, a swirl of satisfaction and then the release.

He didnae know enough. Could catch in his mind’s eye the tail of an idea but it flicked away. Should’ve stuck in at school. Mostly, it didnae matter, herding boys from class tae canteen tae football field. Och aye, he got on fine wi them. He was fit, kept himself in shape, the lads knew that. They knew he wouldnae take any carry-on but would be fair on them. He was damn good at his job. But this boy?

This one would be in and out like a peep of gas.

Setting his shoulder tae the wind he took the path downriver, tugged almost off his feet at the confluence of the Elver and the Clyde. A gull paddled on an air current before wheeling round wi a mournful screel. He pulled the scarf ower his mouth. He’d make for the park, have another fag, and then get back tae his work.

The wind bowled him intae a shelter, and he sat down, dimly aware of the whiff of urine. A crisp poke flapped in a wire bin. He fumbled for his pack, lit up and stared out at the broiling Clyde, some hundred yards down the park. The river rumbled past, gulls swinging on the wind, veering west, past Havoc Shore, tae find shelter on the crags. He seldom went back tae that side of town, preferring tae avoid the street where he lived as a boy, where he’d stood wi the neighbours in the road, watching the great cloud of smoke, listening tae the crack of flames, the shouts, the running feet, his heart thumping ten tae the dozen, unable tae move as Paddy Donnelly’s house went up in flames.

A boy himself, Fergus couldnae dae anything tae help.

He was only twelve for Christ sake. Only a fuckin wean.

But he hadnae even crossed the street. Stayed nice and safe where he was, out of harm’s way. His dad had fought tae get intae the house, but it was awready a tinderbox. In the morning, Fergus got out of his tumbled bed and peered at the scorched windows. Nothing anybody could’ve done.

He shuddered and took in a cold gulp of air, down tae his stomach.

Later came the metal shutters that made the house look like a grinning monster and didnae hide the licks of soot around the windows. It stayed like that for months, long after they took three coffins down the road, ower the bridge, and through the high street tae the church, the faces of the men like ghouls in their collective grief. Aw Fergus could see, as he stood wi his dad and the other men lining the road, was the look of terror in Paddy’s eyes at the window as he screamed Fergus’s name.

And him stuck tae the tarmac, no able tae move a muscle.

Since then he’d seen some sights in India during the war, men cut in half by explosions, but somehow the pale oval of his pal’s face was worse.

He flickedaway the column of ash on his fag, sucked in a draw, frowned at the burning tip, and deadened it between thumb and finger. He heard Dolly again. ‘No like you… tae be acting like a big feartie.’ Fluid rushed tae his throat, his nose, his eyes, filling his head tae busting. He rubbed his temples and kicked the bin. The crisp poke took flight.

The boyhadnae even been proven guilty. Least, he was too young tae hang. But maybe he deserved the rope.

Maybe it was too good for him.

Fergus squeezed his eyes shut but imprinted on his mind was a picture of the boy’s white fingers poking a petrol rag through a tenement letterbox, setting it alight at one end, a bitter, twisted purpose searing his face. He must’ve known fine and well two wee lassies would burn tae death. Fergus took the boy by his scrawny neck, encased the cords and bumps, nails gouging soft flesh and pushed him against the tiled wall of the close. The boy’s face swelled scarlet until the eyelids drooped.

A pulse of rain angled intae the shelter. Fergus wrapped his arms around his shivering body and rocked. Rocked until the whack in his chest eased. He remembered the boy on the first day, his eyes in the light, a teardrop caught mid-lash.

‘He’s just a fuckin wean.’

Fergus stood up, and wi the wind willing him on, went back tae work.

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