Jamie is twelve, and Jamie believes that home is where the heart is.
His hometown is not what you’d call picture-fucking-esque, ‘scuse the French. Steel is what keeps Motherwell going, Ravenscraig’s towers looming over her like the Four Horsemen of the Industrial Apocalypse. But beauty’s on the inside, and being inside Motherwell means being cared for. As long as there’s steel, nobody will ever want for a job. The world’s always going to be needing steel, right?
Jamie’s not aiming for a slot at the conveyor belts, though. Life, he figures, is simple: Monday to Friday, you work your job; Saturday, you see your mates, and on Sunday, you see to your afterlife. That’s got to be the most important part, right? Life’s going to be over soon enough, but the afterlife, that’s forever, and you’d better make sure it’s going to be a good one.
He’s going to be helping folk do exactly that. Wee Jamie MacDonald is going to become a priest.
When he tells his mam, she thinks it’s a great idea. The Church will take care of you, she tells him, better than she’s able to, what with the little one on the way and all. And perhaps up in Cardross they’ll put more than prayers and ministrations in your head. You might get a real education. Imagine that.
He writes home to tell her about the big, modern building with the tall chapel and the drafty hallways that he spends his days in. Tells her about his favourite priest, Father Duncan, and his mates, none of them as young as he but all of them just as devoted to their calling. Except the ones that turn tail and run, bloody loser-cunts the lot of them (‘scuse the French); feels like there’s another one every day. Like rats off of a sinking ship, except the Church isn’t sinking, of course; she’s the good mothership of hope and righteousness, and all those ratty bumwipes are going to drown in a sea of tears when they realise they abandoned the buoyancy of the Faith for so many empty promises.
As he gets older, his childhood scrawl settles into an angry scribble. Father Duncan tells him that while passion is a virtue, Wrath is a sin. Jamie tries to take it to heart, but like the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in Herod’s Temple, he’s weak in the face of indifference. Indifference, Jamie is starting to figure out, is what people have begun to call Sloth in order to maintain the illusion of their innocence.
He’s sixteen before he sees Motherwell again; spends two weeks at his mam’s while the seminary relocates from Cardross to Newlands. It’s about time they moved out of that shite old building, he tells her. Feels like he’s had this cold for years; you can’t build a monolith like that and expect not to incur some form of punishment. Pride’s a deadly sin, after all.
But it’s not going to be long anymore now. In a couple of years, they’ll grant him ordination. He’ll be able to finally do some good. Not a second too soon, judging by the state of the town. Turns out that the world always needing steel doesn’t mean the steel will always come from Ravenscraig.
Merrylee House is a former convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Immaculate Conception. It’s drafty, too, and filled with the ghosts of dead nuns (all the action we’re ever going to get, Frankie jokes, and Jamie has to explain to him in no uncertain terms that if he breaks his celibacy with a ghost, that’s still him breaking his fucking celibacy; getting no action is the fucking point, you ingrate), but it’s only an hour’s walk from Ibrox Park, so still a big fucking change from the Catholic testament to bad managerial decisions up at Loch Lomond.
Glasgow itself is nothing short of apocalyptic. Soot-blackened tenement blocks line cracked asphalt while rotting wood boards up abandoned storefronts. Here and there, a pile of rubble interrupts the line of dark façades, and Jamie’s never sure if that means someone tore down a building and didn’t have the funds to rebuild, or if part of the city simply preceded the rest and collapsed into the black hole of poverty that’s engulfing the township. Kids roam the streets, grubby fingers clutching half-deflated footballs. There’s a dumpster fire on every corner. And, of course, junkies everywhere.
They’re the ones the seminarians are supposed to be helping. About time someone did.
Nine months in, they come across a dead one. They find him slumped against a brick wall near where the hookers they’re supposed to be bringing the good word to are picking up punters. Jamie’s seen dead folk before, but old people dying in hospitals and asking for last rites is different from junkies dying in the street—especially when they do it right next to their traitor friends blithely continuing the good work of selling their bodies in order to poison them.
He shouts at them, rains fire and brimstone, because someone has to make sure they don’t end up like their friend. What do you think will happen, he wants to know, when on Judgment Day He asks you why you thought it was all right to live in immorality, and you have to say it was because you were too weak to resist the temptation of a needle? Hell, that’s what’ll happen, and that’s not a joke, that’s not a euphemism. It’s eternal fucking torture forever after, and if you think the Gorbals are bad, you have no idea what’s coming your way.
They don’t fucking listen, and before long, they rot into formation like a herd of stray cats. Let them come at him, he thinks. He’ll take them, every single scrawny abomination in the eyes of the Almighty God. Their fucking knives will splinter on the Lord’s Will, his righteous fucking armour. But Frankie’s pulling on his arm, so instead of starting a bellum sacrum, Jamie is dragged down the street and into an alleyway.
“Fuck—Frankie, let—Frankie, fuck off!”
“You fuck off! What do you think you’re doing, getting us bloody killed?”
“They just let him sit there!” It makes his gorge rise, makes his chest hurt. “He’s got a family somewhere!”
“Yeah, well, so do I, you massive psycho dipshit!”
They postpone the argument to find a constable, report the dead junkie, and head back to Merrylee House. Frankie’s no less mad when they get there, and calls him a fucking psychopath.
“Because I care when there’s dead people lying around in the streets? I think you got it the wrong way ‘round, mate.”
“Jesus Christ,” Frankie huffs, and for a moment looks like Father Kennian. “Find someone else to tag-team you. Fucking Genghis Khan in a cassock; I’m not going anywhere with you ever again.”
He slams his door in Jamie’s face, and Jamie’s left wondering why a man who remains indifferent in the face of pointlessly wasted life would ever choose the vocation of priesthood.
It’s two days later when he's pulled out of morning prayer and marched to Father Kennian’s chamber. He doesn’t know why until Father Kennian slaps a newspaper in front of him and points to an article on page four.
Did Catholic “Helping Hand” Cost a Glasgow Life?
It’s a short article, but what it lacks in length it packs in punch. Somehow, the wretched hack found out about the incident with the junkie, and he manages to argue rather convincingly that taking a harsh tone with them, telling them not to abort their children or inject poison into their veins, will drive them to OD and die. He’s blaming Jamie for the dead kid, but that makes no fucking sense, because the dead kid was dead when Jamie got there.
“What the f—” He swallows the word; Father Kennian is no fan of cussing. “Father, I have no clue what this guy’s on about.”
Father Kennian’s a big bloke, broad shoulders straining his robes, a ring of white hair circling his scalp like a halo. His hands are big and harder than they look, and right now they’re balled to fists. He looks really fucking mad.
“You miserable half-life, of course you don’t.” The newspaper is snatched out of his hands. “Your mother dropped you on your head as a child, obviously, but even so, what’s wrong with you? How did you not even think to report this?”
“I did report it! Frankie and me, we told the police about the dead guy.”
“To me! You have an altercation with members of the community, you come to me, and you tell me about it. You’re a representative of the Church! A deplorable one, apparently!”
That stings. “None of what’s in the article is true,” Jamie says, but the paper’s got it black on white, hard facts as written word tends to be. “I didnae fucking kill—”
“Don’t you dare take that tone with me.” Father Kennian’s on his feet, leaning over him like a menacing church gargoyle. “I’m not a seminarian, James. I’m an ordained priest of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and I’m telling you that your behaviour was grossly irresponsible. What do you think an article like this does to a soul already teetering on the edge? If they think we’re killing them, do you really think they’ll trust us?”
“Junkies don’t read the papers, Father.”
It’s nothing but the truth, but it earns him the righteous wrath of the Holy Roman Catholic Church at top volume. Apparently, he’s not only to blame for the one dead junkie, but for any junkie losing his life in the streets of Glasgow, and for every unborn baby scraped out of his mother’s womb, because the Church is the last line of defence against the onslaught of moral corruption that’s ravaging this day and age, and Jamie’s the weakest link that will make it all come down until Glasgow and Edinburgh become the Sodom and Gomorrah of the 20th century.
Thing is, he doesn’t even fucking disagree. What he’s seen of Glasgow, it’s got to be on par with Gomorrah at the height of its sinful existence. That’s what he was trying to tell the junkies. Get your shit together, or get to eternal damnation. But there’s no protesting the Holy Wrath of Father Kennian. Quite right, too. The Father speaks with the voice of the Church, after all.
It ends with Jamie in his cell, barred from all meals except supper, all services except morning prayer, and required to keep a vow of silence until further notice. It will give him time for contemplation, Father Kennian spits, and he’s right—the next few days, Jamie contemplates a whole fucking lot. He contemplates that there’s a great many more hours in the day than needed, especially when you’re stuck in a tiny, bare room with no windows. He contemplates Psalm 32, which is about guilt: when I kept silent, my bones wasted away. He contemplates that he is guilty of everything he stands accused of—must be, if Father Kennian says so—and how many years in purgatory a town full of dead junkies and aborted babies will add up to.
He also contemplates that newspapers don’t just fucking appear out of nowhere. They’re written by someone. If he finds the particular someone who wrote this particular article, he may get some clarity as to how the fuck it’s supposed to be his fault when junkies top themselves.
He’s not protesting it. He just wants to understand. Blessed is the man in whose spirit is no deceit.
They let him out after a week. First chance he gets, he makes his way into the city proper.
He’s got a copy of the newspaper, found for him in the backroom bin by the corner shop bloke. It’s the Evening Times, whose offices are in 195 Albion Street, and the offending article was written by one Malcolm Tucker.
Right fitting name, that, just off by one letter.
195 Albion Street is a fuck-off colossus of a building, black glass panes covering its shiny façade. The area it’s in is nice, nothing like Govan or any of the other bumholes spewed up and forgotten by the Industrial Era that Jamie usually frequents. Walking down the wide streets past the shops, most of which aren’t even abandoned, you could almost think Glasgow a nice city.
It’s only when he’s standing in front of the building that Jamie realises he doesn’t even know what the journo cunt looks like. But that’s what receptionists are for.
Women, Jamie has to admit, are still a wee bit terrifying. Up in Cardross, there’d simply been none—even the laundry was done by the seminarians, one of many ways to keep a gang of fifty boys and young men occupied. Glasgow’s brought with it the presence of more than the occasional female in Jamie’s life—a lot of them of the hooker variety, too, in skimpy skirts and tiny, see-through blouses.
The receptionist’s blouse is reassuringly opaque, but her make-up is a fucking sight, garish pink lips and dramatic, smoked-up eyes. Jamie does what he’s learned yields the best results; leans his elbows on the counter, shows his teeth, and makes sure his hair doesn’t lie flat. Frankie’s told him that his flirting’s so dirty it’s going to get him kicked out of seminary, but Jamie figures that as long as it’s no more than that, they can’t come after him. He’s seen Father Kennian do it, after all.
He’s told that all he’s got to do is keep an eye out for the Dustin Hoffman look-alike. You know, the bloke from that film about the American journalists with the spy in the garage and the flower pot. Young, sort of a wiry type, lots of dark hair. Always wears this brown jacket. She thinks he’s trying to look like Hoffman, but he’d never admit it. Bit of a chip on his shoulder, Jamie’ll know what she means when he speaks to him.
He takes position in the empty lot across the street. Employees start leaving around five, but by the time he spots someone fitting the description the receptionist gave him, it’s past eight, and he’s smoked every last fag he had on him.
“Oi!” He jogs across the street; then speeds up because the guy in the dark jacket does. “Oi! You there!”
“Fuck off!” Spat over one shoulder, it sounds more like a reptilian hiss than anything. Jamie grabs the guy’s arm.
“Malcolm Tucker? From the Evening Times?”
“Fuck—” The guy’s as scrawny as he looks and weighs next to nothing, so what Jamie meant as an emphatic but polite tug sends him stumbling, dark mop of hair flying. He grabs his own arm, shoulders coming up as he eyes Jamie with equal measures of hatred and trepidation. “Who the fuck wants to know?”
“You are. People never say that when they’re not—whoever.” Irritation mixes with the other expressions on the guy’s face. Seeing the contempt in his eyes, suddenly Jamie’s mad enough to go in for another shove. “You miserable fuck! It’s because of you that I spent last week talking to nobody but meself in my own fucking head!”
Tucker catches himself on the wall, leaves a handprint in the layer of dirt reaching up to the first floor. He cusses under his breath and flaps his smudged fingers like a flustered pigeon. “Stop fucking pushing me!”
Jamie’s mad, but Jamie’s also getting the impression that if he does anything more than push this guy a little, he’ll splinter like a cracked pint glass in the cold. So instead, he throws up his hands. “Well, stop publishing lies and slander about the Church, then. Don’t you have any respect?”
The man’s thin lips pull back into what’s probably a smile, but mostly just makes Jamie feel like he’s being prompted to give a dental exam. “Oh, you’re from the Church. Who are you, their fucking attack dog? Do they keep you in the shed and bring you out when some heathen’s throat needs shredding?”
“I’m a seminarian, all right? St Peter’s Seminary down in Newlands; we’re trying to help all of you sad sacks in this busted wreck of a city.”
“Oh. Oh.” Tucker straightens up. “You’re the left footer who threw up a stink down in Adelphi Street. Hey, mate,” and he holds up his palms, “I just write what my sources tell me.”
“Yeah, well, your sources aren’t worth shite, then.” The journo hack’s menacing glee makes Jamie feel wrong-footed. He’s not demonstrating the appropriate intimidation at being pushed around; instead, he almost seems to be enjoying it. It’s fucking weird. “Aren’t you newspaper types supposed to, what, get both sides of the story? I don’t remember you getting my story, I don’t remember you speaking to me about it.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
It’s like being offered fire insurance by a convicted arsonist, and Jamie hesitates. One thing he’s sure of, though—in a physical fight, he’d win. Should things get out of hand, all he has to do is start one. “Yeah,” he says. “I’d fucking like to talk about it.”
“All right, then.” Malcolm leads them back to the press building. “Step into my office.”
The lad’s name is Jamie, and in the harsh lights of the office he looks about twelve. The way he talks, he seems to truly believe that the Church is doing God’s work, that prayer heals heroin addiction, and that Hell is a real place filled with the burning bodies of unrepentant sinners.
He gets all glassy-eyed when Malcolm tells him the dead junkie’s name, and asks if the police found his family. His mam, Malcolm tells him after checking his notes, she came in eventually to ID the body. Jamie says he hopes she’s got someone to support her in this trying time, and he sounds so genuine that Malcolm quickly changes the subject.
Turns out Jamie is here because the article got him into trouble at the seminary, and he’s asking the ever-poignant question after the guilt of the individual. How is it Jamie’s fault that Tommy Barron died? How can Malcolm blame the Church for Tommy, and for everything else that’s going on in Glasgow’s streets? The Church is trying to help.
Malcolm starts to regret inviting him in. The last thing he’s ever wanted is to serve as a fucking moral authority for Catholic teenagers. But this is one of the big things that’s wrong in the world, the societal fallacy of relying on an archaic, spiritual institution for things the state should be providing, thereby giving it power it shouldn’t have in the age of secularism, and allowing the state to get away with things they should be held accountable for.
Trying to explain this to Jamie is like trying to explain gravity to a cat. His beliefs in the Catholic teachings are so brutally literal that it takes Malcolm some serious mental acrobatics to understand where he’s even coming from. If the Church is at fault, then he is at fault, Jamie argues, and he can’t be at fault because Tommy was dead before he even got there. His big blue eyes glaze over when Malcolm tries to explain the complex relationship between systemic failures and individual responsibility; it’s clearly beyond anything Jamie’s tiny Catholic mind has ever contemplated.
He’s nothing if not persistent, though, and doggedly insists on his point: the article, even just the headline, made a direct connection of guilt between Tommy’s death and Jamie, and that makes no fucking sense, because Tommy was dead when Jamie got there. Eventually, Malcolm has no choice but to concede. He does it through gritted teeth and with hatred in his eyes, but how do you argue against such bull-headed consistency?
Jamie doesn’t gloat; he doesn’t even look smug. If anything, he seems relieved. “So you’re saying it wasn’t my fault?”
“I’m saying that you’re not directly to blame for Tommy Barron’s death.”
“How’s that different from what I said?”
“It’s—” Oh, fuck it. “All right, it wasn’t your fault.”
“And you actually mean that?”
“Jesus Christ,” and a glance at the clock tells him that they’ve been going back and forth about this for near an hour. “How old are you?”
Jamie pouts. “Eighteen.”
“Right.” He looks younger, all blue-eyed innocence, but now Malcolm is noticing a hint of dark stubble along his jawline that puts him in a slightly older age bracket. Still a fucking child, though. “And they’ve got you out there dealing with junkies? On your own?”
“Not on my own. I was with Frankie.”
“Is he an actual adult?”
“Screw you, prick. He’s older than us, but I’m senior. He’s only been with the seminary for about two years.”
That takes a moment to process. “You’ve been with them for how long?”
“Five years.” He looks so proud, white teeth flashing. “Couple more, and I’ll be ordained. About time.”
It doesn’t happen often that Malcolm is at a loss for words, but this, he has no reaction to. Jamie takes no note of his paralysis; just shifts and throws a glance at the clock. “Shite.”
“Nothing.” He gets to his feet, gathers up his jacket. “Got to get back, is all. Thanks for seeing me.” The hand he holds out has dirt gathered under the nails. “Don’t go spreading any more lies about the Church, okay? For a soul teetering on the whatsit, the edge, an article like that could be the last thing they need to go over.”
“Teetering on the—” Malcolm doesn’t finish, just gets up as well and, even though he should know better, grabs a card off his desk. “Here. Just in case you ever need advice not based on fucking Catholic dogmatism.”
Jamie laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard, but he does pocket the card. “All right. If you need advice about what to do about your eternal soul, you know where to find us.”
He does indeed; places he’s sworn to never visit again as long as he lives. He walks Jamie out and watches him amble off into the dusk settling over Glasgow like a shock blanket.