[I wrote this story in the mid-1990s, for a workshop run by the late, great Aonghas MacNeacail when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow. It shows its age in the colour of the buses; in Glasgow now they are no longer orange. In the alternative Glasgow of this story, of course, they may still be.]
The central station of this northern city is built to resemble a harbour. The trains dock at the platforms like huge sea-monsters, gleaming fishes and breaching whales, electric eels and diesel-driven walruses which balefully study the land with great glass eyes. The concourse is awash with passengers who eddy here and there in brightly-coloured schools drawn back and forth by the immeasurable tides. On either side of the concourse ticket offices, supermarket outlets and coffee shops are housed in wooden buildings whose elegantly curved facades mimic the flanks of nineteenth-century merchant vessels riding at anchor. In the old days the shed was filled with the fog of steam, but now the air in the station seems crystal clear, like the air of the city it serves, and the stationary ships at the station are the only ships you’ll see apart from the hulks on the river which have been turned into casinos, restaurants and wedding venues.
The young man who sat on a suitcase in the middle of the concourse sighed and screwed up the paper he had been writing on. ‘Too fussy,’ he muttered. ‘There must be a way of catching a city in words that doesn’t involved turning it into the scenario for a second rate musical.’ He pocketed his notebook, picked up his suitcase and wandered out into the rain. This is why he failed to see the Flying Pict pull in at Platform One and a man get out carrying the future of the city in a violin case made of scratched black leather.
The tall thin man stood still for a moment on the platform. He was so tall and thin that the passers-by, who were mostly short, darted furtive glances at him as they hurried towards the concourse. His head was remarkable: flattened on top with a crest of black hair which spread out behind in a spiky ruff. He peered about with quick jerky movements as if he were spearing the air with his pointed nose. When he began to stalk after the other passengers dust rose from his shabby black coat and with every step his trouser-cuffs lifted to expose a length of yellow sock. The roof of the shed seemed to fascinate him. This was noticeable because to look at it he had to tilt his head sideways, as if his eyes weren’t mobile enough in their sockets to look upwards without assistance from his crane-like neck. His inspection of the roof had an odd effect on the passers-by. An urge to look up likewise possessed the people closest to the stranger, spreading outwards from them to their more distant neighbours like ripples on water. Some resisted the urge by setting their jaws and hurrying on, determined not to be tricked into showing interest. Others gave way to the impulse and raised their eyes. Each of these saw something different: a cage of girders, a metal cobweb, a harbourful of tilted glass sails. The ones who looked up collided with the ones who didn’t, muttered apologies and hurried on, looking foolish. One young woman bumped into the stranger himself. For an instant her gaze was filled with bright black eyes, a pointed nose, a crest of spiky hair. In that instant she noticed that his skin was raw and yellow as if it had been freshly plucked. The stranger said in a harsh voice, ‘I peck your pardon,’ but the woman only squawked and ran. She never travelled by train, had only taken the short cut through the station to escape the rain, and swore to herself she wouldn’t take it again if she could help it. You never knew what queer birds you might meet on the concourse.
Towards the station entrance stands a defused brass shell of the kind fired from naval guns in the Second World War. The rows of names on a brass plaque behind it betrays its function as a war memorial, but it also functions as a useful meeting place, an island amid the eddying crowds, and two men stood by it now with the bored but watchful expressions of professional loiterers. They both wore mackintoshes and unlit cigarettes hung from their long lean jaws. When they noticed the disturbance caused by the stranger they swung their heads in his direction and drawled to each other out of the corners of their mouths.
‘Would you look at that, Jeek. Walking this way, bold as brass. Must be – what, seven, eight feet tall?’
The younger man surreptitiously lifted his sleeve to look at a note he had written in biro on his forearm. ‘Black hair, yellow skin, dressed in black, carrying a bag. Fits the description, Bill.’
‘Jeek,’ said the older man, who was balding and wore his hair cropped short so the baldness wouldn’t show. ‘Jeek, you’re thinking again. Leave the thinking to me. Of course he fits the description. That’s because he’s the fella we’re here to meet.’
Jeek turned up the collar on his mackintosh to show that thinking was the very last thing on his mind. ‘What do we do, then, Bill? Do we grab him now?’
‘Jeek,’ said the older man with weary patience, ‘when I want your suggestions I’ll ask for them. Look around you, Jeek. What do you see?’
Jeek took the cigarette from his mouth and stared around him, trying to look haughty but succeeding only in looking haunted. ‘Eh – nothing, Bill. Nothing much, that is.’
‘People, Jeek,’ said the older man. ‘The place is full of people. We cannae grab him here, can we?’
‘Do we – do we follow him then, Bill?’ Jeek asked hopefully.
‘No, Jeek. I’ll follow him. You follow me. And try not to look so much like a fucking bent copper.’
At this point the stranger stalked past them and nodded amicably. ‘Coot evenink,’ he said, and continued his inspection of the roof. The two men froze into parodic statues of nonchalance, Bill suddenly absorbed in examining his jaw in the polished surface of the naval shell, Jeek thrusting his hands into his mackintosh pockets and growling like a dog. As soon as the stranger had passed they sprang into action. With hurried glances to left and right, as if calling the world to witness their anonymity, they trotted after their quarry. In his haste Jeek barged against an old woman who had come to look at the shell, as was her custom, and reminisce loudly about the war to anyone who cared to listen. ‘Well really,’ she shrilled after him. ‘There’s no respect among young people these days. Nobody behaved like that in the war, let me tell you. Manners counted for something then.’
By this time the stranger had stepped out into the porch of the station and was cocking one bright black eye at the ornate metalwork that framed the roof that guarded the station entrance from the elements. ‘Splen-tit,’ he cried, and plunged between two black taxis that had just roared into life at the taxi rank.
‘He’s headed up Slope Street,’ Bill bayed to Jeek as they narrowly avoided having their shins broken by one of the taxis. ‘Jesus he’s fast.’
And so began a game of tag up and down the streets of the northern city: an ungainly dance whose only rules were that the three dancers must avoid contact with each other at all costs. Either the stranger knew the streets like a native and was trying to shake off his pursuers, or else he was merely insane and his pirouettes and gyrations were the random products of a tortured brain. A little way up Slope Street he spun and seemed to be staring in ecstasy at a spot just above his mackintoshed followers’ heads. ‘Preathtakink,’ he trilled, and glancing round Bill saw that he was gazing at the massive corner tower of the Central Hotel, a mock-medieval chateau which dominated the north-west face of the station. Having vented his admiration, the stranger whipped round again and swooped up the incline of Slope Street, only to fling himself into the path of an orange bus a few blocks further on. The bus let out a screech of indignation and Bill gave a startled bark.
‘He’s nuts, I tell you! Where’s he headed now?’
The two men splashed impatiently in the gutter, looking for an opening in the traffic. When they finally stumbled into St Vitus Street they found the stranger performing a jerky triumphal jig in front of the building known as the Birdcage: a tall art-nouveau structure with many curved, barred windows that stoops over St Vitus Street as if it is melting. ‘Vot light! Vot crace!’ called the stranger to a group of little boys who had stopped under some scaffolding for a smoke. Then he was off again, waving one ungainly arm at the monolithic façade of a bank which looked as if it was aspiring to become the base of a Chicago skyscraper. ‘It traws your eye to the sky, sir, tuss it not?’ he cawed to an elderly tramp, who snarled in an unexpectedly pompous voice, ‘Go away! I don’t have any change!’ But by the time the tramp had shaken his torn umbrella at the stranger’s back, and almost been carried off into the sky himself by a sudden gust of rain-sodden wind, the tall thin man was already hopping down Renfield Street and pointing at the Casa di Vetro, which now houses a supermarket. It is modelled on a Venetian palazzo, but its slender columns, high arched bays and ornately decorated eaves are made of cast iron, a graceful marriage of Victorian engineering and Mediterranean exuberance, as the stranger did not fail to inform a woman who was pushing a shopping trolley towards the doorway on Eireachdail Street where she would spend the night.
The stranger stared for several minutes at the way the reflective windows of the Casa di Vitro mirrored the upper storeys of the neo-Gothic buildings that faced it and the racing clouds above their steeply-pitched roofs. Jeek and Bill were able to catch their breath, which was short and noisy from all the cigarettes their professional loitering forced them to consume. They noticed that when the stranger was still he was unnervingly immobile, as if his internal organs had ceased to move along with his limbs. They found themselves mesmerised by this stillness, so that when he suddenly sprang to life again and galloped eastwards towards Maskull Street it took them several seconds to react. Bill cursed as he set off after him. ‘If he’d packed a piece,’ he gasped to no one in particular, ‘and if he’d wanted to, he could have picked us off like bunny rabbits.’ The scenarios that presented themselves to Bill’s imagination were invariably savage.
They caught up with him on Maskull Street, craning his neck to get a better view of the pagoda-like structure that balanced on the highest point of the former office of a city newspaper. ‘Zere is another city, my frients,’ the stranger was explaining to a startled woman dressed in what looked like a lampshade, ‘up zere, apove your hets.’ The woman staggered off on high heels towards the relative safety of Argle street, with its crowds of shoppers, and for the first time Bill and Jeek found themselves alone in the street with the stranger. Maskull Street narrowed at this end to a kind of funnel, and just before it began to narrow, there was an opening on the left that led to an unlit cobbled alley. ‘We’ve got him now,’ Bill hissed to Jeek. ‘You take the right arm, I’ll take the left. We’ll have a nice chat with our long-legged chum in this wee side-street.’ With intense concentration the two men advanced on the exultant stranger from either side, their jaws thrust forward, their ears laid back. Bill was clenching and unclenching his gloved hands, which were as thick and clumsy as the paws of a bear. He had a mad gleam in his eye, and Jeek knew that this was one of the rare moments he had been living for through all those months – maybe years – of loitering. But before they could reach out to grasp the stranger’s elbows, the stranger took a long step backwards and wrapped his long, skinny arms around their shoulders, pinning them to his chest in a grip of impossible and terrible power.
Jeek found his nose pressed up against the stranger’s shabby coat. His nostrils were filled with a rank smell that reminded him of the time when his mother had made him pluck a well-hung pheasant on the kitchen table. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke.
‘My frients,’ the stranger whispered in an intimate croak. ‘I luff ziss city already. I vill make it my home. Putt I vill need somevhere to liff. Somevhere high up, viz pig vindows and a coot few. Do you haff any suchestions?’
Jeek thought he was going to suffocate, and the pressure on his shoulders made his bones creak. He began to struggle and strike feebly at the stranger’s side. He could hear Bill struggling more violently somewhere close by. Fear seized him: this was a monster, only a fiend in human form could have such dreadful strength. With a sudden wrench he freed himself from the stranger’s embrace and stumbled aside. At the same time Bill broke loose, letting out a volley of colourful curses. He was fumbling for something under his mackintosh; his face was purple. The stranger paid no attention. He merely spread wide his arms, with the violin case dangling from one hand, and proceeded to leap and twirl like an ungainly ballerina.
‘You see, I haff such plans,’ he crowed. ‘Such clorious plans. Ziss place iss ripe for transformation. For example, ziss old puilding,’ and he struck the wall of the abandoned office. ‘It iss empty! It shoult be full off life ant noise! Consider ze soarink imachination that coult conceive off such a puilding, that coult erect it stone by stone ant top it off viz a pacoda, yes a pacoda so high up, so far from ze dirt ant sqvallor of ze street! It is ass if ze architect so long ago foresaw my arrifal ant ze gifts I voult pring! I vill make zis city great, I tell you. Greater zan it hass effer been!’
‘For God’s sake, no!’ howled Jeek, and it was not clear even to him whether he was shouting at the stranger or at Bill, who had pulled out something black and gleaming and was pointing it with trembling hands at the stranger’s head. Curses continued to stream out of Bill’s mouth like brightly-coloured ribbons. ‘Bill, Bill!’ wailed Jeek. ‘Don’t do it, man! Ye’re mad!’
‘Did I ask for your opinion, Jeek?’ Bill shouted back. ‘Can’t ye see he’s tanked up to the eyeballs wi some kind of junk the likes of which we’ve never seen? What do you think he’s got in that bag of his? He’ll make this city great, all right; but not before I’ve plastered his brains all over it.’ As he spoke he shifted his eyes momentarily from the stranger, the better to fix his young accomplice with a withering stare. In that instant the two men found themselves alone in Maskull Street. ‘You stupid ape!’ roared Bill. ‘You let him escape again!’
Before Jeek could answer back, Bill had rushed down the funnel into the buzz of Argle Street. Jeek followed more slowly, shaken by his recent ordeal and hampered by the weight of the rain that had soaked his mackintosh. He stopped at the mouth of Maskull Street, looking into the busy thoroughfare, and watched in horror as several things happened in quick succession.
The stranger was bounding down the middle of Argle Street, dodging the traffic with nonchalant ease. His black coat flapped behind him, his violin case swung wildly from his right hand, and his yellow socks flashed at the throngs of astonished shoppers who had stopped to stare as he bounded by. The oddest thing about him was that his enormous feet never touched the ground; they kicked and thrust at the empty air two or three centimetres above the gleaming tarmac. After him ran Bill, with heavy thumping strides, his shoulders hunched, right arm extended, right hand clutching the gun. Bill’s arm jerked, there was an explosion, and the stranger gave a mighty leap that carried him high over the wet black roof of a passing taxi.
A second later Jeek heard the obscene and unmistakable crunch that a heavy vehicle makes when it hits a man.
His first thought was that the stranger’s leap had carried him into the taxi’s path, but an orange bus obscured his view and he couldn’t tell. Shoppers began to scream in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as if it was their duty as honest citizens, and the screams were taken up by other shoppers closer to Jeek who had no more idea than he did of what had just happened. He saw a man and woman look at each other inquiringly, pucker up their foreheads and start to scream with the perfect timing of opera singers. Jeek hurried along the pavement to where the screams were loudest, and saw that another orange bus had come to a standstill and that shoppers were now converging on it, again with an oddly businesslike air. A pair of scuffed black cowboy boots stuck out from under the bus. They belonged to Bill.
Something shiny lay in the gutter. Jeek picked it up. It was a life-size replica of a colt revolver, of the kind that Gary Cooper carried in ‘High Noon’. The stink of gunpowder still hung about the hammer: Bill had adapted the replica to fire blanks. Weighing the toy gun in his hand Jeek looked up and down the street. The stranger had disappeared: vanished into thin air. The young man had a fleeting vision of those nightmarishly thin and powerful limbs dwindling down to the width of a line drawn in ink on paper, then winking out altogether, leaving only a shadow behind. The rain plastered his hair over his eyes and dripped off the barrel of the revolver. Shoppers had begun to stare and point at him; those closest to him backed away, their mouths shaping little black O’s in their white faces. Men and women in official black with chequered hatbands forged their way towards him from left and right.
‘I saw him, officer,’ called a fat man in a yellow plastic anorak. ‘He gunned him down like an animal.’
Jeek contemplated brandishing the gun and making his escape after firing off a few rounds into the air; but that was exactly what Bill would have done. Suddenly the city felt heavy with menace. The dark clouds scudding overhead, the darkening concrete and stone of the sodden buildings, the merciless rain, the glare of headlamps which turned the raindrops into tiny flashing knives, the black of the tarmac that glistened like an underground river: the street had become a trap into which the dancing stranger had led them. Jeek dropped the revolver, lifted his face to the rain and began to howl.
‘Something about the devil coming to town,’ the fat man confided later to an anaemic policewoman. ‘Turned my blood to ice, I can tell you. Sounded just like a sad lost dog. I swear I won’t sleep a wink tonight.’
The policewoman wrote down his words very carefully in her notebook. Normally she would have taken little trouble to record such nonsense; but as she had pushed through the crowd towards the young gunman she too had seen and heard something remarkable. Perhaps it was merely some trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the rain and the passing headlights; but she could swear she had seen over the young man’s head a dense black cloud in the shape of a bird, bigger than any she’d ever seen, maybe five or six metres from wingtip to wingtip; and before it vanished she could have sworn she had heard it laugh.
The stranger stood in the topmost window of the Birdsnest. The window was curved like a Halloween lantern, and when it opened, the curve of the frame and the curves of the panes made the shape of a bird in flight. Dark shapes and lights mingled and moved on the streets below, which looked more than ever like rivers in motion as the rainwater splashed and spread across their smooth black surfaces.
When the stranger raised his eyes he met the eyes of an almost naked statue on the building opposite, the statue of a man who stooped beneath the weight of a sandstone portico incongruously perched on an upper storey far above any door it might have embellished – yet another of the pointless decorative features that encrusted the higher levels of buildings in this once prosperous city. The stone man glowered balefully at the stranger as if humiliated by the attention he was receiving. Leave me alone, his glower implied. I prefer to work unseen, as I always have.
The stranger nodded as if in agreement, turned his back on the street and went into the room. It was bare of furnishings. The Birdcage had stood for years now with advertising hoardings plastered all over it, urging passers-by to rent office space in its oddly shaped apartments, but nobody had accepted its invitations. Not, at least, till now. With a smooth single movement the stranger stalked to the middle of the room, knelt down on the wooden boards by his violin case and reached for the buckles with his long thin hands. The case sprang open. Inside, neatly packed in straw, lay six large eggs, glowing a mottled pale blue in the light of the streetlamps. The markings on the eggs made them look like pebbles from some distant beach, smoothed by tides for countless millennia. For the stranger they seemed to tremble with possibility.
‘Fery soon now, my little treshurs,’ the stranger murmured, smoothing their surfaces each in turn with feather-light fingers. ‘Fery soon you vill choin me in ziss place of empty nests. Togezzer ve vill fill zem, yes? And zen… and zen…’
Outside, the stone man continued to glower across the street at the open window, his shoulders bowed under the weight of the useless portico. It would be wrong to describe his work as loitering, but it was clear from his every curve that he had been doing it for many years. His glower had a world-weary look, as of one who refuses to be surprised by strangers no matter how tall, no matter how eccentric their movements, no matter how grandiose their plans. He would be watching, it seemed to say, till the moment came when he must spring into action.
It was hard to gauge what kind of action he had in mind.