This post is long, but try as I may (and I’ve been trying for a week, now) I can’t find a way to split it into smaller chunks that will still be authentic. Despite what I said yesterday about stories needing to be shaped, sometimes true stories just flat refuse to slot obligingly into a conventional space. Unlike stories made up from imagination, whose characters and events can be chopped and changed and turned inside out to fit, the real people in true stories demand, and are owed, their due place. In writing, as in life, the Soutar brothers have stubbornly resisted attempts to cram them into a predetermined pigeonhole.
It took me some after I joined the schoolroom centre to be sure which of the brothers John and Alec I was addressing if I saw one of them on his own, and I wasn’t the only member of staff to find it difficult. When they were side by side, you could see that John was a little more pinch-faced and sharper-featured than Alec, but when they were apart, it took a moment or two to be sure. In spite of their peas-in-a-pod-ness, the brothers were not twins. John was the elder, and he was far more taciturn in manner. Most of the time, John was barely monosyllabic. When you spoke to him, you were lucky to get an “Iphm” in return. Alec wasn’t what anybody could call talkative, either, but he was more excitable than his brother, and could appear aggressive if he thought he wasn’t being listened to.
As young men in the 1960’s, both brothers had worked as labourers ‘doon at the docks’, helping to shift crates and sacks of cargo, and sweeping out warehouses between consignments. Alec enjoyed the occasional reminiscence about incidents from his working life: “John, d’ye mind on the time when….?”
Containerisation had been the death of manual jobs on the docks. As Alec put it, ‘wan loon wi’ a crane, workin’ by his lane self’ could move volumes of cargo that had once required hundreds of pairs of hands. As I understood it, the brothers had been out of regular jobs ever since. They shared lodgings and a mutual atmosphere of simultaneous solidarity (against the rest of the world) and intermittent antipathy (between themselves). Like all the trainees, they survived on Housing Benefit and Income Support, or ‘the Broo’, as out-of-work benefits are known in Scotland, from the days when the payments were dispensed by the Employment Bureau.
Having had a working life, neither of the brothers was taken in by the ‘pay packets’ handed out by the Centre. Alec especially made no bones about finding it insulting that the Centre should try to kid him on that an amount that wouldn’t even buy you a pint of heavy, was a week’s pay. He took the money, of course; for people as close to the breadline as he and his brother were, any cash was welcome, but would mutter about when he had been doing a real job for real wages.
“Proper man’s work, proper pey, no’ sweetie money fur bairns.”
The ‘pay packet’ was a repeated insult to Alec’s self-esteem, and we staff were careful not to offer further injury to his pride. We made sure to let him know that we had heard and understood him, by repeating his own words (or a paraphrased version of them) back to him. We didn’t try to persuade him if he was resistant, and if we wanted him to do something, we would frame the request as him doing us a favour.
The supervisor had no truck with such an approach, and on her – mercifully infrequent – visits, freely castigated the brothers as ‘that lazy pair’. She would demand to know why they were loafing about with their hands in their pockets instead of sanding down desks (or whatever), as they were supposed to be. John simply turned his back on her, but Alec would be spitting with fury after she left: “Yon bitch ca”s this work! She widnae ken work ef it bit her erse! Ah’m a workin’ man, Ah’ve daen proper man’s work! Proper man’s work fur proper pey! Ah’m no’ takin’ orders fae that bitch o’ a wumman!”
“You’re not for being told what to do, and I’m not for you getting away up to hi-do and roaring about the place. Maybe if we put our heads together, you could help me find a way to sort the problem, Alec?” said the manageress, thoughtfully. “What if…. ” She called over one of the male care workers, Dave, and they went into huddle with the brothers. To judge by the cackling, whatever was being plotted appealed strongly to the brothers’ sense of humour.
“So we’re agreed, then?” said the manageress, as she emerged from conclave.
“Oh, aye, mistress!” said Alec enthusiastically. “An’ ‘hank you!”
The manageress laughed. “She aye comes and nips my head after she’s clapped eyes on you two; if she doesn’t see you, we’ll all get some peace! You’ll be doing me a favour.”
“Oor pleasure!” said Alec, gallantly.
“Iphm!” said John, sounding as unimpressed as ever, but he looked slyly amused.
Thereafter, the supervisor’s arrival was the cue for Dave to remember that it was time for the brothers to ‘return that video’, and they would all put on their coats and exit nippily through the side door. The video shop was next to a little cafe, where the three of them could sit at the back by the counter, drinking tea out of thick white mugs, while the brothers smoked the poisonous skinny roll-ups they favoured and ran surveillance on the Centre entrance. As soon as the supervisor’s car drove away, they would saunter back over, grinning conspiratorially and evidently buoyed up by having got one over on authority.
Alas, a video swerve wasn’t possible the day that Alec came in with a letter from ‘the Broo’, which he couldn’t read. In convoluted officialese, it summoned him to an interview to answer allegations concerning infractions of benefit regulations.
“Do you have any idea why the Broo want to talk to you, Alec?” asked the manageress. Alec didn’t, so she let him go into the workshop and phoned his social worker. The social worker had no information either, but undertook to make enquiries and said he would accompany Alec to the interview.
The manageress frowned. “Dave, you’ll need to walk Alec down to the DSS. If he thinks he may be in trouble, he’ll just go AWOL and then this stushie will only get worse. And I want you -” she swung round on me – “to go with them and keep tabs on what’s being said while Dave deals with keeping Alec calm.”
We walked down to the DSS office on the appointed afternoon, with Alec muttering apprehensively between us. The social worker met us at the office doorway, his face sombre, and we climbed the stairs to the big, dusty-grey, crowded waiting room with the glassed-in interview booths at the front. The social worker took a numbered paper ticket from the circular red dispenser and after a long wait, the indicator machine clacked over to Alec’s number. We crowded into a booth, but when the DSS clerk saw the letter, he buzzed us through a door at the side into a sort of corridor lined with more booths, and directed us to one of these for a ‘private’ interview.
Another DSS clerk appeared behind the glass, shuffled papers, and then laid out what can only be called the case for the prosecution. Alec, it seemed, had been seen working in town, and his benefits were going to be docked. Mr. Soutar, said the clerk, had a prior record of transgressing the rules on casual working. She addressed Alec loudly and distinctly.
“YOU REMEMBER, MR. SOUTAR, WHEN THERE WAS ALL THE TROUBLE ABOUT THE TATTIE-HOWKING?”
“Ah’m no deif,” grumbled Alec, neatly evading the question of his work on the potato harvest.
The clerk’s lips pinched. She turned to the social worker again.
“Mr. Soutar has had the situation explained to him in terms suitable to his understanding – YOU KNOW, DON’T YOU, MR. SOUTAR, THAT IF YOU EARN ANYTHING, YOU HAVE TO TELL US RIGHT AWAY?”
“Aye,” said Alec.
“So no further allowance can be made for his mental handicap.”
Dave and I were puzzled as to when this alleged working could have happened, since Alec had been attending the Centre every day, but the clerk said that Alec had been observed by DSS staff several times in town, working in the evenings.
Alec was indignant. “Ah’m no’ workin’! Ah wis jist helpin’ ma pal cry the papers.”
In the late afternoon of each day, casual newspaper-sellers collected bundles of the local evening paper from the printworks and hawked them across town from makeshift pitches in doorways. To attract customers, the vendors called the headlines out in a characteristic, but generally incomprehensible, ululation. This peculiar noise was (I presume) the origin of the term ‘crying the papers’. Alec had been taking part of his friend’s bundle, so that the man had, in effect, had two pitches, meaning that his papers sold out quicker.
“So you were receiving money!” said the DSS clerk.
“An’ Ah gie’d it a’ tae ma pal,” retorted Alec.
“Your pal didn’t let you keep any of the money?” said the DSS clerk.
“Ah didnae want it,” said Alec.
The social worker and the DSS clerk had a bit of a sharp argument at this point as to whether Alec’s pal could be deemed to be employing him, and whether helping someone out unpaid constituted ‘working’, with the social worker telling the DSS clerk, in so many words, not to be such a nitpicking fool.
“So you receive no money afterwards?” persisted the clerk. “You are not rewarded for your time or labour?” Alec looked blankly at her. “Tell me again what happens,” said the clerk.
“Ah cry the papers. Ah gie ma pal the money. We go tae the pub an’ he staun’s me a pint.”
“Payment in kind!” said the clerk, triumphantly. “We take this sort of thing very seriously! Claiming Income Support whilst working constitutes fraud, which renders you liable to loss of benefits and fines of… “
“Hang OAN a minute!” said the social worker. The arguments broke out again, louder. At last, the DSS clerk agreed to seek authority not to pursue the matter, provided Alec stopped helping his pal with the papers.
The social worker took us back to the Centre. “I’ll need to come in to reinforce this with Alec.”
With the manageress, we went into the office, where the social worker tried to impress on Alec that he could not work for payment in cash or kind. Alec, who had been frightened and subdued in the DSS offices, was still frightened, but felt safe enough, in more familiar surroundings, to become loudly assertive. “Ah’m NO workin’! A pint’s no’ pey!”
“But you heard the Social Security lady say it is pay, didn’t you?” said the social worker.
As usual, contradiction wound Alec up. “Yir a” talkin’ bollox! Ye bunch o’…” The obscenities spilled out at top volume. To add to the confusion John came bursting in to find out what was upsetting his brother, contributing his own shouts of “Oi! Oi! Oi!” to the hubbub, until Dave persuaded him that he could best help Alec by staying quiet.
The social worker stood rather helplessly by the door. “I’m sorry, Alec. I ken you were just doing your friend a good turn. But rules are rules….”
“Fuck AAFF!” bellowed Alec, by now not merely beside himself, but far past reasoning or even hearing. He was crying, shouting, punching the wall and thumping the furniture, so that only fragments of sentences were audible. “Bliddy weemen! … man’s work … wisnae working … pocket money … on’y helpin’ … “
The social worker made to speak again, but the manageress shook her head at him. We all stayed still and silent. Slowly, the phrases ran down into hiccups and snorts. At last Alec drew a long, shuddering breath, drew his sleeve across his face and looked round.
With his face smeared with tears and snot, he still had a dignity about him as he said, jerkily but with resignation, “Ah’m no’ tae help ma pal oot or the Social will stop ma Broo.”
“That’s about the size o’t, Alec,” confirmed the social worker.
“An’ Ah cannae let ma frien’ staun’ me a pint.”
“Not without losing some of your money.”
“Ef Ah wis still a workin’ man, naeb’dy wid stop him staundin’ me a pint.” Alec stared unseeing in front of him and his tears began to flow again. He said, “Nae job. Nae money. An’ nae frien’s.”
The social worker said, “You can still be friends with your pal.”
Alec didn’t spare him a glance; his eyes stayed fixed on nothing. “No, Ah cannae. Ye cannae be pals wi’ someone ef’n ye cannae help them oot an’ they cannae treat ye. Helpin’ oot an’ treatin’ is whit pals dae.”
Dave moved to sit opposite, so his face was in Alec’s line of sight. He said quietly, “You feel you’re being forced to give up your friendship. You can’t afford to be friends with your pal any more because you will be docked money if you do the friendly thing and help him out. Or if he does the friendly thing and buys you a drink.”
Alec focussed on him and nodded miserably. “Aye. An’ it’s no’ fair.”
“No’ fair,” said John’s voice, unexpectedly. “Basterts.”