The Hanging Shed
There are no windows in a hanging shed. Only a sadistic architect would provide a last glimpse of the fair green hills. The same goes for paintings or potted plants. You’re unlikely to divert the condemned man from the business in hand with a nice framed ‘Monarch of the Glen’ or a genteel aspidistra. Besides, he’ll only visit once. Wearing a hood.
Before the war I was taken to the hanging shed of His Majesty’s Prison Barlinnie. Years after, I can close my eyes and recite every dismal detail and dimension as though they were tattooed on my eyelids.
Think of a clutch of grey monoliths scarring the countryside on the outskirts of Glasgow. Each solid rectangle studded with tiny barred windows, the roofs festooned with Victorian chimneys. Like houses drawn by an obsessive child. The whole ugly mass surrounded by a tall grey wall. Focus in on the central courtyard and the building known as D Hall. Inside is a standard prison set up: a high vaulted chamber with galleries facing each other across a gulf. Cells stud the walls on each level. Metal decks bridge the galleries. Metal staircases connect the levels.
There is one special cell on the third floor. Its occupant has nowhere to go except across the short bridge and through the plain wooden door on the other side. Take the walk. Go through the door. Eyes open.
Inside, the air is inert and the white walls press inwards. In the centre, set in the floor, is a trapdoor. Alongside, and surely connected, stands a lever. There are three square holes in the ceiling directly above the trap door. You can see the long retaining beam in the room above. A noosed rope dangles from the beam through the central hole. The two other holes gape invitingly, ready for rush hour in the hanging shed, three at once. Jostling for position on the trap door.
Today a lone figure stands on a chalked T in the centre of the trap. A broad leather strap binds the upper body. A hood covers the head. The noose is draped over the hood and round the neck. Soft leather coats the noose. No abrasions here for a tender neck. The noose is held in place by a brass slip to make sure it tightens quickly and efficiently. To snap rather than throttle. The mark of a civilised society.
A man in a blue uniform walks across the echoing floorboards. He grips the lever and grins. There is a shocking clang and thud and the trapdoor falls open. The joist in the room above gives out a tortured creak as it takes the weight. The figure plunges into the void of the floor below where a slab waits. The rope hardens and trembles like a plucked guitar string. The guard sneers at the white faces of the four new constables being shown round for their edification. He signals to the guard below to take down the dummy.
I can conjure it now, lying on my back, rocking in the top bunk of the overnight train to Glasgow. But this time the dummy has a face. Beneath me and all around me I feel the Royal Scot hurtling through the night, steel wheels clacking remorselessly on the rails. Occasionally the great beast splits the tomb-black landscape with a midnight shriek and I listen for an answering call that never comes. I’m going home for the first time in two and half years, and the thought of what I have to face there fills me with a hot mix of anger and dread. I take another pull at my cigarette and watch the tip glow and die, and the smoke drift and swirl away.
Four carefree days ago I was sitting in my wee attic room in South London. I was having a good spell. Almost a week of sleeping better and drinking less. Maybe the two were connected. My newly polished shoes – army indoctrination – were sitting by the door ready for their sprint to Fleet Street. The spring sun was already banking through the skylight window. I was hunched over the table nursing a second mug of tea while reading yesterday’s Times and my own paper the London Bugle . Know your enemy, my old drill sergeant used to say. Besides, I enjoy the adverts on the front of the Times. In their way they give as clear a picture of Britain as the inside news pages. Stories of a hard-up country where gentlemen were selling their fine leather gloves , or where an ex-officer, RAF, DFC would make excellent private secretary. Where trained mechanics were searching for work as drivers, and war heroes were on the lookout for gardening jobs or other manual exercise. The fruits of victory were bitter enough for some.
I supped my tea and counted my blessings. In the last month I’d started to get a steady trickle of freelance assignments from the Bugle and there was a chance of a full-time job. I was making enough money to afford food, fags and Scotch, not necessarily in that order. But at least I would no longer simply be drinking away the last of my demob money. Two weeks ago I’d dragged my flabby body round to Les’s Boxing Academy on the Old Kent Road and – aching limbs apart – I was already getting back a sense of physical well-being. Something I hadn’t felt since the build-up and hard training for D Day. After a few days of the glums last week I was daring to hope that I was nearing the end of the tunnel. Sunshine on my face would be good. Such was my upbeat mood that I’d been crooning along with Lena Horne and whistling a tuneless descant to Artie Shaw on the Light Programme. Even my first fag tasted sweet instead of just satisfying a craving.
Then the phone rang down in the shared entry.
I glanced at my watch. It was just after seven fifteen. Someone was starting early. I knew Mrs Jackson wouldn’t answer it unless she’d cranked up her hearing aid; I wondered why her daughters had bothered getting the phone installed. Her voice was so loud it made the device redundant. The other three households in our entry rarely got calls, but we were all happy to chip in to pay for the rental. I sprang to my door, still in my slippers and collarless. I could have done with another fifteen minutes of paper-reading and crossword-filling, but maybe the Bugle was calling. I dived down the three flights of stairs and grabbed the shiny black set.
‘Yes, hello? Brodie here,’ I gasped.
‘Is that Mr Douglas Brodie?’ A posh voice. A professional voice. An operator’s voice.
I got my breath back. ‘Yes, that’s me. Doug Brodie.’
‘Please hold the line, I have a call for you. Go ahead, caller, please put your money in now.’
I heard the clank and rattle of coins going in. Several. At least a bob’s worth, which meant long distance. My mother using her neighbour’s phone? An accident? Bad news comes early. A man’s voice started up. Scottish accent, West of Scotland. Like mine. Like mine used to be.
‘Is that you, Dougie boy?’
A bucket of ice splashed down my neck. No one called me Dougie now. It had been Brodie for a decade. The voice scratched at my memory, but I couldn’t put a face to. Wouldn’t. My mind simply rejected the likelihood. For it was an impossible voice from the days of bows and arrows, spots and whispering girls. Of fist fights that ended in bloody lips and trembling anger. Of a great betrayal that gnawed at me still.
‘Who’s this? What’s happened?’ I pressed my palm against the wall for support, feeling the cool plaster suck at the heat of my hand.
‘That’s a big question,’ said the voice.
My mind was fumbling with memories. The timbre and cadence were heavier and slower, but oh so disturbingly familiar. I knew who this was, but didn’t, couldn’t believe it. How could it be him?
‘Let’s keep it simple then. Who… are… you?’
With new strength: ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know me, ya Proddy sod?’
That did it. The mocking West of Scotland greeting. I saw his face, a wee boy’s face. Pawky, we called it, cheeky, with his big silly grin and his fringe of black hair. We played soldiers back then, erupting from our trenches against the machine guns of the Boches. Seeing who could die on the barbed wire with the greatest panache. Shug Donovan – or Hugh, when we started going out with girls – beat us all. He’d fall in a cartwheel of melodrama, great anguished cries and flailing arms. He grew tall and handsome, black hair and blue eyes, like an advert for a Celtic bard. The girls loved him and his easy smile. I hated him for the same reasons, especially for the one girl that fell for him.
I hadn’t seen him since I left Kilmarnock for Glasgow University back in ‘29. I heard odd snatches about him from my mother down the years, though she knew I hated every mention. He was a journeyman cooper at Johnnie Walker’s at the same time I was making my way in the Glasgow police force. In ’39 I went into the army, the Seaforth Highlanders, my dad’s old regiment, though I was a lowlander. Donovan ended up in the RAF, Bomber Command. A tail gunner. A guaranteed way of getting yourself killed for real. Which is exactly what happened.