As they neared the corner, Mungo halted and shrugged the man’s hand from his shoulder. It was such an assertive gesture that it took everyone by surprise. Turning back, Mungo squinted up at the tenement flat, and his eyes began to twitch with one of their nervous spasms. As his mother watched him through the ear-of-wheat pattern of the net curtains, she tried to convince herself that his twitch was a happy wink, a lovely Morse code that telegraphed everything would be okay. F. I. N. E. Her youngest son was like that. He smiled when he didn’t want to. He would do anything just to make other people feel better.
Mo-Maw swept the curtain aside and leant on the window frame like a woman looking for company. She raised her tea mug in one hand and tapped the glass with her pearlescent pink nails. It was a colour she had chosen to make her fingers appear fresher, because if her hands looked younger, then so might her face, so might her entire self. As she looked down upon him, Mungo shifted again, his feet turning towards home. She fluttered her painted fingers and shooed him away. Go!
Her boy was stooped slightly, the rucksack a little hump on his back. Unsure of what he should take, he had packed it with half-hearted nonsense: an oversized Fair Isle jumper, teabags, his dog-eared sketchbook, a game of Ludo, and some half-used tubes of medicated ointment. Yet he wavered on the corner as though the bag might tip him backwards into the gutter. Mo-Maw knew the bag was not heavy. She knew it was the bones of him that had become a dead weight.
This was all for his own good and yet he dared stare up at her with a doleful look. It was too hot for his nonsense. He was fraying her nerves. Go! she mouthed again and took a swally of the cold tea.
The two men idled at the bend. They shared a sigh and a glance and a chuckle, before putting down their bags and lighting cigarettes. Mo-Maw could tell they were itchy to be gone – these narrow streets didn’t like unknown faces – and she could see it took patience not to goad her boy on. The men were canny enough not to pressure Mungo, not so close to home, not when he could still bolt. Their slitted eyes kept flicking towards him, watching, waiting to see what the boy would do next, while their hands ferreted inside their trouser pockets as they peeled their ball sacks from their thighs. The day would be muggy and close. The younger man fiddled with himself. Mo-Maw licked the back of her bottom teeth.
Mungo raised his hand to wave up at the window but Mo-Maw glowered down at him. He must have seen her face harden, or perhaps he thought waving was childish, because he aborted the gesture and grasped a fistful of air, which made him seem like a drowning man.
In his baggy shorts and his oversized cagoule, he looked like a waif dressed in hand-me-downs. But as he pushed the cloud of curls away from his face, Mo-Maw saw his jaw tighten, and she was reminded of the determined young man that he was becoming. She tapped the glass again. Don’t you scowl at me.
The younger of the two men stepped forward and laid his arm across Mungo’s shoulders. Mungo winced at the weight. Mo-Maw saw him rub at his sides, and she was reminded of the tender purple bruises that were blooming across his ribs. She tapped the glass, Oh fur God’s sake, jist go! At this, her son lowered his gaze and let himself be led away. The men were laughing as they clapped her boy on the back. Guid lad. Brave lad.
Mo-Maw was not a religious woman but she stretched her pink fingernails to the heavens and wiggled them as she cried hallelujah. She tipped her tea into the parched spider plant, and filling her mug with fortified wine, she turned up the music and kicked off her shoes.
The three travellers caught a corporation bus into Sauchiehall Street. Glasgow was in a rare swelter and they had to push upstream through rowdy gangs of shirtless men already poached pink from the sun. City benches were lined with thick-armed grannies, proper in their hats and good wool coats, and sweating heavily across their top lips. As sticky-faced weans skipped across the street the women pulled their heads into their fleshy chests and dozed in the heat. They reminded Mungo of the tenement pigeons, big lazy doos with their eyes half-closed and their heads swallowed by neck feathers.
The city was alive with the sound of buskers competing with the battle rattle of a practising Orange band. Like chirruping songbirds, the Orangemen’s piccolos made a sweet trilling sound against the heavy thump of a Lambeg drum. The tune was so affecting that an older, refined-looking gentleman was lost in reverie and weeping big dewdrop tears. Mungo tried not to stare at the sight of a man crying so openly. He couldn’t be sure whether the man wept in anguish or with pride. There was the glint of an expensive watch band peeking from out of his suit sleeve, and Mungo decided, based on no other information, that it was too ostentatious, too indiscreet to belong to a Catholic.
The men lumbered in the sunshine. They were weighed down with armfuls of thin plastic bags, a satchel filled with fishing tackle, and a camping rucksack. Mungo could hear them complain of their thirst. He had known them only an hour, but they had mentioned it several times already. They seemed always to be thirsty. “Ah’m gasping for a guid drink,” said the elder of the two. He was already beetroot-red and overheating in his thick tweed suit. The other man ignored him. He was walking bandy-legged, as though his tight denims were chafing his thighs.
They led the boy into the bus station and with a rattle of coins they boarded a coach that would take them out the north side of Glasgow and towards the green hills of Dumbarton.
By the time they fought their way to the plastic bench at the back of the bus the men were sweating and hard for breath. Mungo sat between them and made himself as small as possible. When one of them looked out the window he studied the side of their face. If they turned his way, he would feign interest out the opposite window and try to avoid their eyes.
Mungo braced his chin on to his chest and tried to stop the nervous itching that was spreading across his face as he watched the grey city go by. He knew he was doing that thing again, the crinkled nose, the blinking, the face that looked like he might sneeze, but never would. He could feel the older man’s gaze upon him.
“Ah cannae ’member the last time ah came oot of the city.” The man’s voice had a raspy quality, like he had a throatful of dry toast. He would occasionally inhale in the middle of a sentence, wavering, like each word might be the last one he managed. Mungo tried to smile up at him, but there was something ferrety about the man that made it hard to look him in the eyes.
The suited stranger turned back to his window and Mungo took this opportunity to study the length of him. He was an angular man in his late fifties or early sixties, but the years had clearly been hard. Mungo had seen his kind before. The young Protestant hooligans off the scheme often hounded men like him for fun, rounding up the jangling drunks outside the working men’s club, taunting them towards the chip shop and then swooping as the last of their coins fell from their burst pockets. Neglectful eating and hard drinking had withered and jaundiced him. There was too much skin over too little fat, his yellow face wrinkling like an overripe apple.
The man’s tatty jacket was mismatched with a pair of dress trousers, the knees of which sagged like more stretched-out skin. Underneath his jacket he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with an advertisement for a plumber on the South Side, the neck was torn and separating from the body. Mungo wondered if perhaps these were the only clothes he owned; they smelled musty, as though he wore them through smirr and shine.
Mungo felt strangely sorry for him. The man was trembling slightly. Years spent hiding from daylight in dark pubs had given him the nervous reactions of a whippet pushed out into the snow, and he had the small darting eyes and long twitching limbs of a mistreated dog. He seemed on the verge of bolting.
As the last of the high-rises faded from view, the suited man made some small sounds, filling the empty air, inviting the others to join him in conversation. Mungo braced his chin to his chest and said nothing. The younger man was scratching his crotch. Mungo watched him from the corner of his eye.
This man seemed to be in his early twenties. He wore indigo denims and his belt was laced under the logo so as not to obscure the proud Armani badge. He was handsome—or he must have been close to it once—but there was something already spoiled about him, like good butcher’s meat that had been left out. Despite the heat he had been wearing a puffy bomber jacket. When he removed it, Mungo could see his arms were roped with lean muscle that spoke to a heavy trade, or years of fighting, or both.
His hair was clipped short. His fringe had been combed forward in a gelled line, the hairs formed little saw-toothed points, as though they had been cut by pinking shears. Mungo stared at the damaged skin of his knuckles. He was honey-coloured in the way Scottish people seldom were; perhaps his family were chip-shop Italian or Spanish by way of the Black Irish.
Any trace of that romance was lost as he said in flat, glottal Glaswegian, “Haw. Dinnae be botherin’ wi’ auld St Christopher.” He spoke without looking directly at either of them. “He’d bore the arse aff a horse.”
Mungo was left to ponder why he was on a bus with St Christopher, while the other man went back to picking his nose. As the man’s pinkie searched the inside of his nostril Mungo noted how he wore sovvie rings on all of his fingers and that his forearms were snaked with interlocking tattoos. He was a man covered in words: from the logos on his chest, to his shoes, to his jeans, to his skin. He had written on his flesh with a sewing needle, women’s names, gang names: Sandra, Jackie, RFC, The Mad Squad. Here and there, the blue biro-ink had bled, it wept beneath his skin like a watercolour and tinted him a pretty violet hue. Mungo read his arms carefully. He committed as much as he could to memory.
Excerpted from Young Mungo © 2022 by Douglas Stuart; reprinted with the permission of the publisher Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.