It happened on her way home from the casino one morning, Helen noticed the two men through the side passenger window. A pair of homeless guys. One was tall and skinny, the other smaller, heavier built and walking with a limp, quite a bad limp. They approached the traffic lights and were going to cross the road in front of her taxi, right in front of its nose. The lights were red but set to change. Surely the men knew that? The tall man was having to walk slowly to stay abreast of the other, almost having to stop. He was full bearded and wearing a woollen cap. Although he was taking small steps Helen could imagine him striding out, his stride would be long and it would be hard keeping up with him. There was something else about him, to do with his shape and the way he walked, just something.
Would they make it across in time? Only if they hurried. They wouldnt hurry, not them. You could tell just by looking. They went at their own pace and that was that.
Helen looked away, then looked back. Her workmates Caroline and Jill were beside her in the back seat but hadnt noticed the drama. The lights would change and the taxi would move. What would they do? Nothing, just keep walking. Oh God, Helen hated this kind of thing. Why did she even notice? Typical. She always had to. Other people didnt.
Only it was so tense, too tense.
Caroline and Jill were chatting about something else together, Caroline’s husband, the never-ending saga. They hadnt noticed any of it. But the taxi driver had. This was Danny, one of the regulars; Helen saw his eyes in the rearview mirror, no doubt wondering the same as her; would the men make it across before the lights changed to green as surely they must, they must. Why was it taking so long? Another car pulled in on the outside lane.
Helen was holding her breath. She didnt realise this until suddenly she breathed in and it made a sound. The tension was just—my God, but they walked so slowly. Alkies, muttered Danny, but they didnt look drunk to her.
They reached the kerb. The small man’s limp really was bad, even painful. Perhaps he had been in an accident. Then the tall skinny one, there was something about him too the way his elbows crooked, his hands in his side coat pockets. It was him Helen was watching. He was not in the slightest drunk. She recognised something, whatever it was; a kind of deliberate quality, in how he moved, slow but not slow; slow in his movements but not in his thoughts, seeing everything, even himself.
Helen settled back further in the seat. She didnt want him seeing her. Why didnt the lights change? This was the longest ever.
At the moment the amber joined the red the two men stepped out from the pavement onto the road. The exact moment. This was when they did it. It was so weird. At this time of the morning too, with everything so quiet, so peaceful. Helen could hardly believe it and was glad of the shadows there in the back. She didnt like being in taxis with poor people seeing her, as though she was rich, she wasnt. It was silly but sometimes she felt it. They were directly in front of the taxi. It lurched forwards a tiny fraction. Danny must have raised his foot on the accelerator pedal for one split moment only but it was enough for the lurch and the tall skinny guy turned his head and stared in at him and at Helen and the other two women. He was not that old either. Only how he looked, wild, wild-looking, wild as in—not dangerous. People might have thought it, almost like crazy, they would think that too, he was not, only mannerisms, how some people
Brian, it was Brian, her brother Brian.
How could it be but it was, it was his movements and his shape my God Brian, it was Brian. The car in the outside lane had rolled forwards then halted. The lights were green.
The taxi quivered but couldnt move. How far had the pair travelled? Hardly at all; they didnt care. So aggressive! Brian was not aggressive. It was his physical shape but not his behaviour; the way he was staring in at them, so intimidating, and forcing them to wait. And Danny was waiting my God, he hated that. Patience, patience. Whoever heard of a patient taxi driver? He rushed everywhere, giving people rows. Not this time. Helen saw his head lowered, not drawing attention to himself. Usually he was tough or acted like it. Helen had seen him before with other drivers, he never backed down. He would take them all on, that was how he acted. This was different. These two homeless guys made it different, they were going at their own pace and everybody else could wait.
Now the taxi was moving. Helen opened her eyes, seeing out the window. Danny shifted from second gear up to third, the engine roaring and rushing on, venting his anger and annoyance. Jill exchanged looks with her. The car in the outside lane must have been behind them, so too the homeless guys. Caroline had the phone in her hand and was smiling. I wanted to take their picture, she said, but I was too scared! Did you see his face? the one with the scraggy beard, the tall one?
Helen looked at her. Caroline gave an exaggerated shiver. Imagine meeting him on a dark night!
She spoke in a whisper. Why did she whisper? What was the point of whispering? So silly, just so silly, and not nice either, as though there was something horrible, it was prejudice pure and simple.
Are you alright? asked Jill, leaning to Helen, nudging her arm.
Yes, said Helen but she wasnt alright at all. Just weird, that was how she felt. Caroline chattered on about his height and how he was so so thin and his beard and all of it, like as if something was wrong with being tall and with a beard, or being thin.
Why people are thin my God what kind of world was it, for having no food, they get made to blame, if you dont have enough to eat and end up thin it becomes your fault. It wasnt fair. Scraggy. That was a beard, so if you didnt comb it or shave it, if it was a beard, whatever men did—how could they if they were homeless and didnt have any scissors or razors? how could you blame them? Wild and scraggy, it wasnt fair talking like that and like he was dangerous. Not if it was Brian, he was not dangerous, never. Now Caroline was wanting to text her husband, even although he was asleep in bed. Why? What did she want to say? She didnt know anything. There wasnt anything to know. Except how he looked. Jill too. I thought he was creepy, she said.
It wasnt like Jill to say that. People were prejudiced. And Danny heard her and was listening. Helen saw his eyes reflected in the rear mirror. The word “creepy” could be said about a lot of men. She didnt much like Danny. He acted as if he was there to protect them. But was he? No. Would he? No. Danny was there to drive his taxi and that was that, just get on with the job and make his money, that was him. He shouted back over his shoulder: What you think about them then eh, dirty filthy buggers! Dont give a rat’s toss! Go where they want, walk where they want. They do what they want, whatever they want! I would run over the fucking top of them.
Oh watch your language you! called Caroline, but with a smile.
Danny waited a moment before replying. It’s alright for you lot, working inside your casino, I’m out here on the street. Guys like me got to deal with them animals!
They are human beings, said Jill.
He wasnt listening. It reminded Helen of somebody, her ex-husband of course, the same mentality. Men like them didnt listen, they talked. Not so much talked as boasted, how good they were and all what they did and how they got the better of everybody else. That was Danny to a tee. He had his “message” for comfort, wedged down the side of the driver’s seat. He called it “the message” but it was a weapon. If anybody tried it on with him, he had “the message” and they would get “the message.” Whoever it was, just let them try it and he would bash them. He had shown them it. A solid big shifting spanner. If ever they messed with him, he would break their skull. Even without the weapon he would take them on. Although why anybody would want to mess with a taxi driver was beyond him. They had to be thick if they did because you mess with one you mess with them all. Other taxi drivers would be there in a moment. Every driver within a stone’s throw, they would rush to back up a mate in trouble: that was how they operated. One for all and all for one.
That was what he said, and looked fierce while saying it. It might have been male boasting but that didnt mean it was false. Only this time was different, the two homeless guys made it different. What was it about them? Something.
Helen didnt see Danny as a coward. Neither was her ex. But they were not like the toughest, the real dangerous ones. When you worked in casinos you saw them. They had that certain quality. It didnt matter the nationality, it was them as individuals, a thing they had that was dangerous, like a twisted mentality. Other men left them alone, just like now with the homeless guys. Except if it was bravado, if they had had too much to drink and were beyond the sensible stage. Then they tried to speak or joke with these dangerous ones, like they were on an equal footing. It was childish. The dangerous ones smiled or else ignored them but eventually they didnt; it might only be a stare but it was enough to call their bluff like in poker at the late stage, when somebody gets asked the question: You raising or what? What you doing? It is up to the bluffers what they do but whatever it is it will be a real thing with a real consequence. Bluffing doesnt come into it. If they arent ready for that then stop the stupidity, just shut up, go away.
Danny had kept his head down. It was the best thing too because what if he hadnt? The way the tall skinny one was staring at him. You didnt know what would happen. Some could be calmed. Some couldnt. That is part of the threat. What if they lose it altogether. These dangerous ones are telling you that, this is what they mean. Better stop it now, better leave me alone. Some men made you shiver. Nobody knew what they might do, and who to. Females or males, it didnt matter. They were capable of anything and would do it to anybody. Even children, poor innocent children, if they got in the way. Only look at them the wrong way, and if they lost their temper. If they had a knife, or just the violence, jumping and kicking, kicking people’s heads. That violence was everywhere. So if that was Danny’s worry, it might have been, and quite right too, why take chances. Except he didnt phone for help, why not? If these other drivers would have come to his rescue, why didnt he? Two homeless guys, surely that wasnt a worry? And if it was Brian, Brian was not dangerous, he wasnt.
So weird. Imagine she told Caroline and Jill. What would they say? Nothing. There wasnt anything really. Stop the car! Go and see him! But would they say that? No, they wanted home, home. Anyway, they would think she was mistaken.
How could it be Brian? He wasnt even in London. But he was in England, the last she heard, he was working in Liverpool. Mum must have told her.
They hadnt seen each other for twelve years. Gran’s funeral. He had come home for that. Not for Dad’s, he didnt come home for Dad’s. He came home for his grandmother but not for his father.
Sad. It was another world. She shifted on the seat to see through the rear window. The taxi had left the riverside several streets ago, passed down a slope and beneath a railway bridge, turning and passing the place where the old mortuary building stood, near where they held the car-boot sale on Sundays. Her and Mo came regularly. Mo was her boyfriend. She and her six-year-old daughter lived with him. Her street was the first drop-off point, thank God. She would be there in ten minutes, in thirty lying beside him. The very thought! But it was true, Mo was like normality. If only she could close her eyes and count to ten, then open them again and there she was beside him. She sat back on the seat. Jill was looking at her. Helen smiled.
An hour later and she was home but still sitting in the kitchen, still wearing her coat and shoes. She held a photograph in her hand. Others lay on her lap, and a few on the floor. She brought them out as soon as she got home. It didnt depress her seeing them but neither did it cheer her up. Family was family. No matter what. People said that and it was true. Blood is thicker than water. If it was Brian it was Brian. It was so unlikely. But if it was. She smiled for some reason, a weary smile, ironic also. Families dont finish. You run away but they catch you up. Families are ghosts. Presences. What if he had recognised her?
She drew the coat about her shoulders, feeling a bit shivery. She should have gone to bed. Of course she should have, she had been working all night, she was tired and cold. A gas-boiler system gave the heating and hot water but made such a noisy clanking sound she never switched it on first thing in the morning in case it wakened the entire household. Mo said it needed an overhaul. Probably it did but he was wondering if he and a mate could do it themselves, and they couldnt. People had to be qualified for that job. Gas can be dangerous.
Anyway, tenants shouldnt have to overhaul the heating system, even if they know how, it was the landlord’s job. Mo took matters on that he should have left alone. It wasnt his business.
She glanced at the photograph in her hand: one of her mother seated with a baby in her lap. The baby was Sophie. You couldnt tell the important thing which was Mum’s lack of interest. That was something for a child to know about her own grandmother. Eventually she would. Children come to know these things. It was sad. Who was the loser? Not Sophie. If Mum wanted to be foolish that was her.
Imagine a child and she didnt go to you. A mother to daughter was something but a grandmother? What could a little child have done to deserve that? Nothing at all. It was not possible. It could only come from the grandmother. The truth revealed was the relationship between the grandmother and her own daughter. That was so glaring. How Mum was with Sophie was how she had been with Helen. She never had been close to Helen, never.
It was sad and didnt have to be. That made it sadder. It would have been so easy for it not to be the case. Sophie could be standing next to Mum and taken her hand the way children do, just reached up and taken her grandmother’s hand, and Mum would—what? what would Mum do? She would look at the hand: a tiny hand in her own; her granddaughter’s hand. She would wonder at that, why children are so trusting. She would think to let go the hand because that would be her inclination but wouldnt be able to because that tiny hand, the child’s hand
Children take things for granted, and why shouldnt they? In the nursery back in Glasgow parents had been encouraged to stay with the children for periods of the day. Helen stayed occasionally and saw how a child looks at you to see if you are friendly. They look at you. If you arent friendly they see it in you, even the smaller ones like if you try to lift them and they arent yours. People do that, they lift up a child and the child doesnt want to be lifted. She does but she doesnt.
Not by somebody strange. If it was Sophie: Leave me leave me leave me! Mum Mum Mum, and kicking and kicking and the person would have to put her down and just smile, pretending it was okay. It happened once when Mo was with her, in that same nursery and Sophie started screaming at a man who lifted her. He was one of the fathers. Sophie fell and he picked her up. He didnt see Mo or if he did he didnt think he was the parent. Mo was Asian so how could he be? That would have been the man’s thinking. It was accidental. The man had acted instinctively, and Sophie too. The teacher said she was “overreacting” which made it sound like Sophie’s fault and that was total nonsense. Sophie screamed and thank God she screamed. It was right that she screamed, she was defending herself. Girls have to; just dont lay a finger on me, dont dare lay a finger on me, and if anybody did, God help them. Screaming was so important. Men could laugh but it was. It was men had to learn. Some did and some didnt.
“Overreacting.” It was so wrong to say that. And another woman saying it made it worse. The child was reacting. So would anybody if a stranger came along and grabbed you. Why did he? Oh because she had fallen. Excuse me? Helen didnt accept that argument. She didnt care if it happened in other cultures, if people went around lifting people up. Or if it was the olden days, oh they do it in the olden days. This was not the olden days. What right does a man have to come along and lift up a little girl? He doesnt have any right, not for that, that is just like a violation, almost it is.
Helen glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, lifted the cup to swallow what was left of the tea but it was cold and she replaced the cup. It was nice seeing the photographs of herself and Brian. They were close. And there were other photographs. Mum must have had them, and of the older generations.
She yawned again, she should have been in bed. But she wouldnt sleep, not now, thinking about everything, she wouldnt be able to, she knew she wouldnt, just worrying about things all the time over and over, worry worry worry, then when daylight came, oh well. Helen made to rise but forgetting the photographs on her lap and they landed on the floor. It was another cup of tea, she had been going to boil the water. Stupid, but that was her.
She left the photographs on the floor. Her eyes were closed. An image in mind, sort of memory. Whatever, it had gone. These images, what else to call them, you expect to see the person and you dont.
An image isnt a person, it only makes you think of the person. Although if it is yourself, if you are the person, you as a child. The supposed-to-be happy time, when life is supposed to be good. People said that, they didnt mean it. Boredom and lies and just what it was, dishonesty. Childhood was not something to look back on and wish things were the same nowadays. Not for Helen anyway. God knows how Sophie would come out of it all.
Those lives were mostly gone now, the older generation. Helen’s own grandmother would have been eighty-three had she been alive. She was Mum’s mother. Dad’s died when she was young. Helen had never known her.
Life goes on but people dont, individuals.
Excerpted from Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman. Copyright © 2013 by James Kelman. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.