Farquhar McLay

Working At It

This morning when I coughed there was no blood in my mouth. It was something to feel pleased about. But I was wary at first. In sickness we like to play tricks on ourselves, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. I’d have tried anything just to boost morale or maybe just to relieve boredom. Then again, perhaps the blood-spitting itself had been the real trick. It had been with me for a week now, and I was beginning to get used to it. The sense of personal catastrophe had worn off. Evidently nothing new or terrible was going to happen to me. Not this time round, anyway. Just another of those dreary interludes to be endured as best one can. One can go on enduring it or try kidding oneself out of it. And when I coughed and could taste no blood I thought I might be trying to kid myself out of it. Maybe I was pulling back on the cough, depriving it of the necessary vigour to fetch the sputum up into the mouth. I took the last of the wine, smoked a cigarette, and waited. Although my tongue tasted like all manner of filth, the unmistakable tang of pulmonary blood was missing. It was a good prognostic. I got out of bed and went to the sink. I began to cough a bit harder. Still no blood. I was cheering up. It looked like a reprieve right enough.

I could now go to the hospital with an easy mind. It would be all right to go now, now the haemorrhaging was over. I was coughing for real now with no staining in the sputum. I could go to the hospital now with a good grip on myself.

When the blood is running out of you it’s another matter. You are theirs. I think of St. Francis kissing the leper. The medics like you on your back like that, all atremble, ready to submit to anything. Even a kiss will do. When Francis turned his back I'll bet she/he cursed his guts.

I only go near them when I know I have sufficient strength to walk away if need be. You should be able to hurl abuse at them when it’s called for. I find it is called for more and more these days. Make them earn all that superior glory they float on. Mostly you’re scum in their eyes, anyway. Don’t be timid scum. Be upstanding scum. Better an ingrate every time. Make it ugly for them. That’s your reality, that’s your world. Insist On your world. A far healthier experience all round. It’s a lovely feeling telling them to fuck off, you’re going home where you’ll live longer. And then you can laugh when they show their hand and turn nasty and make threats, and you can walk away feeling good, feeling safe.

I was at the door of the Burnt Barns when Cecil drew out the bolts. I needed more drink to wash the shit out of my mouth. After a couple of rums the hospital idea went right out of my head. It was a nice sunny afternoon. I decided to take a little walk in the sun. I made my way down Duke Street.

When I got as far as the Labour Exchange I noticed that the main building had re-opened after a long refurbishment, and remembering how I needed a new signing-card, and seeing how I was at leisure, I went in. I was curious to see the improvements. At first sight the place looked so swanky I nearly walked back out again. The new white flooring was so shiny I felt ashamed to walk on it. There were nice white curtains on the windows. There was air-conditioning, or so I'd heard. I noted, though, that the seats were still bolted to the floor. I placed myself in a bolted seat at the front of a cubicle that had a sign hanging over it saying: ENQUIRIES.

After a long time a clerk came. He looked very mistrustful. He had the look of a man who was permanently engaged in warding off blows. He was approaching with sideways gait, as if to present the smallest possible target to his enemies. When he saw me sitting there he not only looked worried, he in fact flinched. Then he went into a kind of dither and looked right and left and all about him as if he needed some help. Then he pointed to the door I had just come in by. “I can do nothing for you,” he said, “you're in the wrong place. You have to go to the Job Centre.”

He kept well back on his side of the counter. Maybe he thought I looked desperate, one of the alienated and desperate who have failed to come to terms with the iron contrasts of life in the great city of culture, a madman, not to put too fine a point on it. Or maybe the fumes of the drink had wafted across to him. I suppose he knew a chronic broo-wallah when he saw one. Some of us long-standing claimants can be trouble. In Partick I once saw a clerk pummelled and throttled till the life was almost out of him. I had nothing like that in mind. All I wanted was a new signing card. A UB40. Fungoid growths were sprouting on the old one which was crumbling to dust in my pocket.

I explained these things in timid and deferential tones. The quaint and simple nature of my mission disarmed him. He turned a wee bit more of himself to the front. He could be agile too. He steadied his glasses and leapt into a chair. Brisk and businesslike, he shifted about some papers on the desk, and with a slightly pained look pounced on one in particular, crushed it into a ball and consigned it to oblivion. Somebody's claim had failed the test.

He looked up. He tried a smile which died after a short struggle. He took out a packet of cigarettes and started to smoke. From a filing cabinet by his side he drew out a brand new green and white card. He handled it delicately. “Actually,” he said, casting a quick glance over his shoulder and speaking in a whisper, “you can forget the Job Centre. There's really nothing there. Times are bad, I’m afraid, very bad indeed. But we do what we can.”

I was pleased with him. He had the look of somebody I once knew. Who it was I couldn't quite get at first. At the same time I was certain I had not seen the clerk before, unless he was one of the old-time clerks refurbished along with the building. It gets wearisome seeing the same old faces every time I visit these places. It’s a relief when one dies at his post or gets a transfer. I imagine it’s a killer of a job. I’ve seen new clerks starting off, bright and crisp and perky, and in a year or two they’re as mouldy and decayed as my old signing-card.

In large letters the clerk wrote DUP in the top left-hand corner of my resplendent new card. He kept the card in front of him, lifted his head back for a better view of me, and took a deep drag at his cigarette. His nerves seemed to have calmed somewhat. He seemed in no hurry to terminate matters.

“Been laid off long?”

“Oh, yes.”

He shook his head in commiseration. He tut-tutted. “It's bad, I know, it's bad.” He carefully replaced the ballpoint in an inside pocket. “How long?”

“A lot longer than some.”

“Yes.” He shrugged. “It’s the recession.”

“But not as long as others.”

“No, well that’s something. And sometimes it’s as well to look at it that way. It’s no good getting depressed about it.”

“That's what I say. I don’t want to get depressed and go home and shove my head in the gas oven.”

“For heaven's sake” - once again the flicker of a smile breaking on the clerk’s face – “you’re still a young man. You mustn't give up hope.”

He was struggling valiantly to augment the smile. It was uphill work. He had seen last night’s telly. He had read the morning paper. The unemployed were taking to suicide in a big way.

“Look at it like this,” he ran on, throwing out his hands and looking about him, “there's always somebody worse off than yourself. Just think of somebody. Somebody who hasn’t got a hope. I’m sure you can think of plenty of people.”

“That's true,” I said, shuffling my feet on his shiny floor, “I was hearing about this man in Greenock. He’s been signing on for forty-one years. Think about that. Forty-one years in the dole queue. That’s like forty-one years of nothing. I have a bit to go to equal that.”

The clerk was aghast.

“Forty-one years? But that's his whole working life.”

“Aye, that's right. Can you imagine what that’s like - forty-one years in the grubber? Forty-one years o being ashamed tae haud yir heid up.”

The clerk was turning the idea over in his mistrustful mind. His nostrils twitched. Long experience in the bureau had left him hesitant and wavering. You could see he was beginning to scent something fishy about the man in Greenock. Then he puffed out his cheeks and gave me a sideways glance.

“Are you saying he was never offered anything in forty-one years?”

“Well, I hear it’s pretty bad in Greenock.”

“I mean was he able-bodied?”

“So far as is known. Mind you, I didn’t go into the whys and wherefores.”

“It does seem a very long time.”

“You think he was work-shy? A layabout?”

“Well -”

“Yes, well - just a minute. What if he was just ... choosy?”

“That's very often the same thing,” snapped the clerk, a rather severe look shutting his face down. “We get lots of scroungers in here. There’s a black economy, you know. Half the claimants here are moonlighting. We have to have a team of fraud investigators working round the clock.”

“So it’s come to that?”

“Indeed it has. It’s very sad but that’s the reality, let me assure you.”


“We know who they are. We get hundreds of anonymous tip-offs everyday. I could show you today’s list. We have about two hundred names and addresses already and it’s not even lunchtime. And we’re by no means the busiest office.”

“No,” I said, putting my pinkie into my right ear-hole and giving it a good wring, “I don't think the man in Greenock was at the fiddle. The way I heard the story, it sounded to me more as if the man had tried just about everything but couldn't get any kind of work anywhere. I don't know now if they said he had a trade or that. He was a Christian, though, and a teetotaller. It seems they had a bishop saying masses and everything. I mean Greenock’s a blackspot.”

“Well, right enough,” said the clerk, relenting, “I suppose he would have to be a very exceptional kind of scrounger to hold out for that length of time. It wouldn’t be me, I can tell you. I’d go mad first.”

Then it came to me. I suddenly knew who he put me in mind of with his anxious, over-the-shoulder glances, and why I mentioned the man in Greenock, who might or might not have been an invention. It was my uncle Larry, and uncle Larry was as real as you could get. Uncle Larry’s dread of eavesdroppers was manic. He only spoke in whispers, usually with his interlocutor pinned in a corner, and only the merest inch between rasping whisper and suffering ear-hole.

Uncle Larry had seldom done a day’s work in his life. On the day I left school and was freed from one set of frauds and fakers, along came Larry with bodements of even worse evil ahead. He had brought with him an unhandselled pair of dungarees which were still in the Greenlee’s parcel as on the day he’d bought them. - “Afore ye were born, son. Afore ye were born.”

I remember that day very well. Uncle Larry put a hand on my shoulder and took me to one side. He had sombre things to convey which were for my ears alone. I was cornered.

“Like it or no, laddie, ye’re a wurkin man noo, an I just hope ye’ll hae mair luck than what I had. You’re the breidwinner noo, don’t forget, and your mother’s luikin tae ye tae dae weel. There’s nae use in me fullin your heid wi a lot o damned nonsense aboot what’s in front o ye. Ships that saved the Empire and aa that rubbish. That's what they gie ye in the schuil but it’s crap, it’s aa crap. Never mind the bluidy Empire, you mind No. 1. Ye hear me? No. 1. Ye’re wurkin for No. 1 first and ayways. It’s a hard, sair struggle let me tell ye, and whatever wee bit they gie ye you'll hae earned it. But here’s a couple o tips tae steer ye right.”

Everybody was laughing. This must have been part of the joke. It did sound quite funny.

“Never come ower tae onybody aboot what your pay is; that's between you and the gaffer, naebody else. Ay watch what you’re sayin when ye hear fly guys slaggin the boss, for your words will be carried back tae him, stand on me. And mind ayways say YES SIR when the boss is talking tae ye, it’s no pee-heein, it’s just respect, and a wee bit respect costs ye nuthin. Never jyne in arguments about politics or religion - for there’s gey few wurkin men understaun a thing abot the yin or the other. Keep yer nose oot o aa that stuff. And above aa, watch your time-keepin, for bad time-keepin is a sure sign ye hate your work. You heed ma words and you’ll no go faur wrong.”

And with those words and air of high solemnity, my uncle at last relinquished his grip on the parcel. It was an affecting moment. The first and only time Larry ever gave me anything in his life. They togged me up in the overalls like people observing a ritual. I had come of age. The whole family marvelled and clapped me on the back and said what a lucky fellow I was to be going out into the world with a boilersuit like that, after it had been tended with such loving care for the better part of a lifetime.

Everybody had a good laugh, even Larry was laughing. There were loud guffaws whenever Larry’s admonishments were repeated - they seemed to be common currency. I myself laughed as much as anybody, inclining to my aunt Jessie’s opinion that “there were some maitters that Larry wudnae ken a haill lot aboot.”

And away I went on the Govan ferry, brimful of manly pride in my workman's togs, fledgling and unblooded though they were. It was a lovely feeling. This was the Clyde at the summit of its fame. The glory of the great Clyde ships. This was man’s work. Nothing else came near it. It was the highest imaginable calling, being a worker on the Clyde. I felt it in my bones.

All other jobs were dreary and drab, dark maggot-holes for wasting your life in. The Clyde, like the Gorbals, had all the romance and all the glory. You took height and strength from it. And I had been invited to be part of that. And I was proud that day in my innocence.

But my innocence wasn’t to last very long. It was soon dissipated in the terrifying reality. I had entered a bedlam of smoke, din, bad smells and gruesome toil. Industrial Clydeside was like a descent into hell.

The noxious fumes left me gasping for breath, and the evil smells made me want to vomit. My job was mixing asbestos, which they called “monkey dung” and fetching the stuff in two large buckets up and down a complicated system of ladders and catwalks to where the time-served men waited for it.

You never could get enough of it to them, or get it to them fast enough. All day long they screamed for the stuff, like a pack of hungry jackals. In a short time Larry’s long-spared boilersuit was splattered thick with “monkey dung.” My body too seemed to be polluted with the stench, and no amount of scrubbing could rid me of it. I very soon remembered No. 1. The Empire could sink in the ocean for all I cared. And my new status as breidwinner lost all meaning when I saw the miserable pittance I was bringing in. I began to keep my eyes peeled for a quick mode of escape.

It came after about six weeks. The apprentices’ gaffer, a squinny-eyed little toe-rag the name of Ramsay, got wind that three of us were up at the forge taking an unofficial tea-break. The can sat on the fire, brewing away nicely, with the three of us huddled over it, puffing at dowts and arguing about football - the only debate the dispossessed can engage in with an easy conscience. At the last minute somebody shouted a warning, and when Ramsay appeared we were all pretending to be busy at different tasks. But the tell-tale can still stood on the fire.

“Whose tea is that?” Ramsay bellowed. The rejoinder was off my tongue before I had time to think about it.


The others turned their faces away to laugh. But Ramsay knew they had heard and knew they were laughing, and with those three words and that hidden laughter my career in industry was blessedly at an end. The invitation to glory had been declined.

Ten minutes later I was sailing back across the Clyde, a measly two days wages in my pocket. I promptly disburdened myself of the dungarees and plopped them into the river. The hateful things sank like a stone. That was a while ago, and somehow or other I have managed never to pull on a pair since. Not that it has always been easy. Over the years I have had to devise some ingenious stratagems to avoid them. Not like today, with millions begging for the right to wear overalls, and being scornfully refused. Thus far, although I’ve had a few close shaves, I’ve been able to keep life and limb tolerably intact without having to offer myself on the labour market as a serious candidate for employment. I neither work nor want, as the phrase goes, and feel no shame in admitting it. I might in fact be a wee touch proud.

Believe me I do not hanker after wealth and luxury. In the way of living accommodation, all I ask is a bed and a wall. And in the matter of feeding, I have always thrived mightily on the simplest fare - things like porridge and spuds, lentils and sprouts.

Not that this started as a kind of morality. It was just what developed as I followed my best and my truest instincts with the utmost honesty I could summon. And my best and truest instincts are all for a quiet life, at a leisurely pace, in a sheltered spot undisturbed by the bossy and the meddlesome in whatever guise they may come at me. I am well aware it is far from an easy dream to make into a reality. But I have not yet given up trying. As to the morality of the thing, I believe I have at least as much on my side as the remote and exalted captains of “monkey dung” have on theirs. It doesn’t trouble me one bit.

As I sat there struggling with the impulse to impart the little fable of the dungarees, trying to calculate the chances of a favourable, or at least only mildly abusive, reaction, the clerk, using both hands, pushed my new signing-card over to me.

“Don’t be too downcast,” he said with a sigh, “there's no need. Let me say it again, the recession won’t last for ever. It’s not like in the bad old days when we had these slumps that went on and on till we got into a shooting war with our trade competitors. We have the EEC nowadays which means the different nations co-operate more. Somewhere in Whitehall, and somewhere in Brussels, right at this very minute, there are people, people who know about these things, sitting round a table and planning the recovery. You mark my words, there’s a boom on the way.”

Here was compassion for you. And here was faith. He was smiling. The smile had at last come to life on his mistrustful face. He was seeing me in overalls, my peeces in one pocket, my Daily Record in the other.

“Mind you,” he put in quickly, bending forward and speaking in a whisper, “you’ll have to be ready for the time when it comes. We don’t know the hour, we don't know the day, but be sure of one thing: it’s coming. So get yourself spruced up. Keep yourself active. Get onto a training scheme. Or the Job Club. Or why not try for a place in college? It’s never too late.”

He leant even closer, his voice deepened. “And just think of the advantage you’ll have when the jobs do come. You’ll be ‘way ahead of the others. ‘Way ahead.”

It was a euphoric moment for the clerk. He was in clover. He was a believer and he had a dream. At last he was smiling a real big smile all over his sick-haddock coupon. The palmy days would soon be here. Have faith. The clerk had delivered himself of the good news and he was in smiling clover. He was aglow. He would send me away happy, an offering to the Lord of Labour. I was not the failed claimant in Partick doing his nut. I was the leper under the kiss. Yes - take the bastard by the throat and don’t let go. Scream into his face:


Or no, no.

I pocketed the card and got up. Somewhere a telephone rang and went on ringing. In the background I saw a line of desks with clerks and clerkesses leafing through files. The telephone went on ringing. Nobody looked up.

I took two steps back, unbuttoned myself and peed - peed all over that shiny new floor, peed till the clerk’s bright glow and the light of the great new boom were all but extinguished.