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Crimson Pirates

Rating: PG

At first they took no notice of Benny Black. He was just the 'funny wee man' who lived at the top of the stairs. Squat, swarthy, dark and muscular, flat-capped Benny was a charge-hand at one of the Dundee mills. They didn't see much of him during the week, but he seemed to spend most of the weekend sitting at the top of the outside stairs in front of the toilet door. They could understand that. The attic rooms at the top of the buildings were tiny and, in good weather at least, it was natural enough to want to sit outdoors and have a smoke. It became something of a joke: "If you want to ha'e a keich aroon here, you hav' tae step ower Benny Black." But it was not a comfortable joke.

More than once his mother came back from the toilet with a dark look on her face. Only once did she let her feelings show: "That Benny Black looks at you as if he's undressing you. It's not decent." She seemed close to tears, which shook Paul. His mother never cried, not even when pleurisy ripped through her lungs and a hot poultice blistered her back. He caught Joe's look; it was darker than mum's. Evening fell more quickly than usual.

The boy knew how his mother felt though he couldn't have put it into words then. A few days earlier he was having a piddle when Benny pushed the door open. It had never crossed his mind to bolt the door. He was only having a pee.

The man stepped in, reeking of booze and sweat, and pushed the door closed behind them. He was already fishing himself out of his baggy overalls.

"Dinnae worry, we're a' men here," he laughed.

Paul was mortified. He tried to force the urine out of his bladder, which seemed to have entirely the opposite effect. Benny put his free arm around the boy's shoulder.

"Yoor ain o' Cathy's laddies, aren't ye? Yoor a bonnie laddie, you look like yoor ma." Paul could hear him splashing into the bowl like a waterfall, his own thin trickle felt puny in comparison.

"Ye hiv'nae got a dad, hiv ye? Every laddie needs a dad, tae learn things like. Go on, ha'e a look at it if you want, touch it, it'll no bite ye. Though it might bite yer ma." He laughed again.

Paul twisted under his arm and away, pushing himself into his pants, not caring about the piss on his fingers and down his front. He only wanted out of there, away from the smell of him and the claustrophobia of that dingy cubicle. He took the steps three at a time, jumping the last four. He got inside, closed and snibbed the door, stormed into the backroom, threw himself on the bed. Something was wrong. He wasn't sure what it was, but whatever it was, it was wrong.

He was still on the bed when Joe got in from school. He hadn't cleaned the grate, he hadn't set the fire, and it was his turn. He hadn't even listened to 'Tammy Troot' on Children's Hour.

"You lazy wee ... whit's wrang?"


"Come on, tell me."

"It's nothing, just leave me. I'll set the fire in a minute."

"Tell me, or I'll tell mum when she comes in."

Paul sat up on the bed and faced Joe. He felt a chill inside but with the cold came a certain calm. "It's that Benny Black. I dinnae like him."

Joe's face darkened. He pushed his hair away from his eyes, grey-green like his father's. He became very still. Paul knew the signs. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach.

"Has that man been bothering you?"

The boy wasn't quite sure what bothering meant, but he guessed it meant making him feel uncomfortable when he shouldn't.

"He came into the toilet, I was having a pee. He took a pee beside me. He shouldn't do that. He should wait like everybody else, or just do it in the sink if he's desperate. Shouldn't he?"

"Did he bother you?"

"No, he didnae bother me, but he said things about mum and that bothered me."

Joe didn't interrogate his brother further.

"He's been bothering mum," he said. The stillness was unnerving.

"Why doesn't mum tell Mike or Pierre or even Meg McDougall? They'll stop him bothering mum."

"They're not family," said Joe. "This is family. We keep this in the family. That's the way mum would want it."

This was beyond the boy. He already had some conception of their family as an entity, of them distinct from all others. He'd even drawn diagrams to demonstrate this: concentric circles with his mother, brother and sister at the centre, granny and granddad in the next circle, aunties and uncles in the next, cousins in the next, and so on till he reached their relatives in France. Their numbers were said to be legion but as he knew nothing beyond their putative existence, they were of hypothetical interest at best. His mother rarely took anything beyond the inner circle, so how could the family resolve the business of Benny Black? The more theoretical this became, the more fascinated and calm he felt.

"Naebody bothers oor mum," said Joe sliding off the bed. "Now get up and set the fire. I'll get the coal oot o' the bunker."

Assistance like this from Joe was unheard of. Paul followed him off the bed and headed for the fireplace, much cheered and much relieved, switching the radio as he passed. He could breathe now. Joe had everything in hand.

That Friday evening Joe surprised them all.

"We're going to the show," he announced. Joe never took Paul to the cinema unless under direct orders from mum. What was more, Paul had no money, having invested that week's allowance in a bumper edition of the Hotspur.

"I'll pay him in," he shrugged throwing Paul his black leather jacket which he was never allowed to touch, let alone wear.

He pulled on the jacket and twirled in front of the wardrobe mirror. "Aw, for Christ's sake, ye wee jessie," came his brother's hiss.

"Sorry, Joe," he gulped and followed him out of the front door.

"Be back by nine," came their mother's voice. "Don't let him sit through the second show."

Outside he dared question his brother. "Are we really going to the show, Joe?"

"Yes, we are. We're going to meet John Patterson and George Gardiner at Delanzo's and then we're going to the show. The Rialto."

"What's on?"

Joe kept walking. Paul hurried along in his wake. Surprised and suspicious, but elated to be treated as one of the gang. Real life must be like this.

"The Crimson Pirate. Burt Lancaster and that wee dumb and deaf dwarf. It's a couple of years old but it's okay."

He was thrilled. Some of the older boys at school had seen The Crimson Pirate when it was first released. Everyone agreed it was brilliant. Now it was his turn. He was suffused with a warm glow that embraced everything, including his brother.



"Thanks for taking me. I'll let you read my new Hotspur, it's the bumper edition, I'll let you read it before me."

"I don't read that shite. Now hurry up and keep up with me."

The Bosquet brothers met John Patterson and George Gardiner outside Delanzo's. They immediately went into a huddle with Joe that excluded Paul. He stood on the fringe trying to look like one of the gang. After a few whispered moments they strolled off to the Rialto where Joe true to his word paid him in. He was parked on an aisle seat - "Sit there, don't move." - while Joe, John and George took their places centre row. They were secondary, he was primary, they might be seen, it made sense.

The heavy velvent curtains swished open and the Pearl & Dean anthem swept him into the programme. By the time an athletic, bare-chested, devil-may-care Burt Lancaster flashed his loopy grin for the fourth time, he was so absorbed in the movie he hardly cared if anyone else was in the cinema. He thrust every thrust, parried every parry and swung through the riggings as if his life depended on it. Bugger black leather jackets, that was real life up on the screen.

"My sidekick Ojo, the deaf dumb dwarf mute, is imprisoned. My lovely Consuela in the arms of the villainous Baron Gruda. And I, Vallo, the Crimson Pirate, am in chains." This was definitely not Kansas. (The Astoria had revived The Wizard of Oz only two weeks earlier.)

"Come on, we're going."


"I said 'Move. We're going.'"

"But it's only ..."

It was not a hard kick, but it was hard enough. Paul hobbled into the aisle and was hustled towards the Exit, his attempts to catch a last glimpse of the Crimson Pirate thwarted by the heads and shoulders of John Patterson and George Gardiner. The last thing he saw was Burt Lancaster's manic grin disappearing under a pile of enraged Spanish soldiers.

Outside he was hurried along to the low wall that separated St Mary's Catholic Church from the Lochee Public Baths and Wash House, the Steamie, where Paul helped mum do the washing on a Saturday morning. 'Helped' is something of an exaggeration; he helped by keeping out of her way, except when the heavy, soaking-wet sheets were man-handled from the steam boilers and forced through the six-foot mangles. Two or three women were needed to turn the massive handle for the first squeeze-through. He did his bit though it was not much help to have a small boy dangling from the handle when it reached the top of the up-stroke.

They sat on the wall and received instructions from Joe. George was to take the public houses in the High Street, John the pubs between the Rialto and the railway bridge at Muirton Road, Joe would patrol the pubs in the side-streets, and Paul would mind the hammers.

Mind the hammers!


What hammers?

The boys opened their jackets. Each carefully took out a coal hammer and hid it behind the section of the wall on which they sat. He was not to move. He was not to touch the hammers. He was not even to look at them. If anybody asked him what he was doing, he was waiting for his big brother, just waiting, that was all.

The boy could formulate the question in his mind but he could not articulate the sounds necessary to ask the question aloud. He could feel tears burn somewhere behind his eyeballs.

Joseph took him by the chin and turned his face towards his own. His grey-green eyes glittered in the lamplight.

"Benny Black. He's not going to bother mum anymore. Right?"

He waited.

Paul felt his stillness wash over him. The tears were gone. He raised an eyebrow. He almost smiled.




"Are we gonna dae him in?"

"Don't be such a silly wee shite."

The boy dangled his legs against the wall and hummed 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', a Saturday morning favourite on the radio. He imagined several possible endings for the Crimson Pirate though it was difficult to have Burt Lancaster swinging through the riggings 'where the bluebirds fly'.

There was a slight breeze. He wished he could wear long trousers like Joe and the others, but he couldn't till I reached secondary school. At least shorts gave him access to his knees; he could pick off the crusted scabs, greyish brown against skin mottled by lamplight.

"Why then, oh why can't ... ?"

A flurry of boys and whispers.

"He's coming up Flight's Lane."

"That means he'll tak' the Burnie."

"Come on, get the hammers."

They hurried down the back streets to Burnside, passing between the front doors of St Mary's and the Steamie. There were lights on in both. Cleanliness next to godliness, Paul'd heard someone say.

It was dark down the Burnie, only a few gas lamps flickering. On one side the high walls of Camperdown factory. On the other some of the meanest dwellings in Lochee. The boys slid along as close to the walls as their shadows. Scared, thrilled and frustrated, he was bitter that he'd been given no hammer. Maybe he was only nine, maybe he was in shorts, but he deserved a hammer.

"There he is."

His heart thudded beneath the leather jacket. There he was. Benny Black. Lurching along the Burnie. Bouncing every now and again into the factory wall. He was small and squat but he was strong, had to be strong if he was a charge-hand in the mill. He was small but he had big hands, big, dirty, hairy hands with big flattened thumbs. Tackety boots, greasy dark overalls, a flat bunnet on his dark greasy hair. Benny Black was small, but he was a man and they were only bairns.

"Paul, keep a look out at the bottom of the brae. He'll go up it to get into Whorterbank. Whistle if you see anybody coming."

Benny staggered across Burnside to the brae. Leaning against the high stone wall of the Wary with one hand, he fished for himself inside his overalls. They could hear him splatter against the wall, see the steam rising from the hot piss, hear him chundering away to himself. Paul felt his arm round his shoulders again. Remembered his remarks about their mother. If I had a hammer ...

They were on him, like ferrets onto a rooster. George Gardiner, the biggest and heaviest of the three, threw himself at Benny's back, Joe took his legs, and John Patterson jumped and hit him on the back of the neck with a hammer. They heard the 'oof' of Benny's breath as his lungs emptied and the crunch as his face hit the wall. Down he went like a sack of bobbins falling from a jute cart.

"Turn 'im ower."

They rolled him over. George dropped arse first onto Benny's stomach. There was a gurgling sound followed by a fountain of vomit from his lips. It arched in the air and came down with a wet slap onto his chest. "Ye dirty bugger," hissed George giving the fallen man a sharp tap on the forehead with his hammer. "Keep yer vomit aff meh claes."

Joe and John kneeled on either side of the man's legs. Joe raised his hammer, John raised his. They smacked Benny's shins simultaneously. A gargled scream. "Harder." The hammers rose and fell. Paul could hear bones break, splinter, fragment under the systematic pounding. George parked his big backside over Benny's mouth. He farted and giggled, "Sorry, Mr Black."

"That's enough," said Joe, rising to his feet. "He won't be bothering anybody for a long time now. Will you, Mr Black?"

"Will I give his cock a smack for luck?" asked John Patterson.

"Wash your mooth. My wee brither's here," said Joe. "Get up, we're going. Wha's fur chips? Eh'm buying."

There was a scramble as the boys assembled around their host. They stuck the hammers down their trousers, hitching them onto the snake belts, then cut along the Burnie heading for Lochee High Street and Delanzo's. Nobody looked back. Nobody mentioned Benny Black. Rain was starting to fall.