Wee Horrors (by James Kelman)

The backcourt was thick with rubbish as usual. What a mess. I never like thinking about the state it used to get into. As soon as a family flitted out to the new home all the weans were in and dragging off the abandoned furnishing & fittings, most of which they dumped. Plus with the demolition work going on you were getting piles of mortar and old brickwork everywhere. A lot of folk thought the worst kind of rubbish was the soft goods, the mattresses and dirty clothing left behind by the ragmen. Fleas were the problem. It seemed like every night of the week we were having to root them out once the weans came in. Both breeds we were catching, the big yins and the wee yins, the dark and the rusty brown. The pest-control went round from door to door. Useless. The only answer was keeping the weans inside but ours were too old for that. Having visitors in the house was an ordeal, trying to listen to what they were saying while watching for the first signs of scratching. Then last thing at night, before getting into bed, me and the wife had to make a point of checking through our own stuff. Apart from that there was little to be done about it. We did warn the weans but it was useless. Turn your back and they were off downstairs to play at wee houses, dressing-up in the clothes and bouncing on the mattresses till all you were left hoping was they would knock the stuffing out the fleas. Some chance. You have to drown the cunts or bum them. A few people get the knack of crushing them between thumbnail and forefinger but I could never master that. Anyway, fleas have got nothing to do with this. I was down in the backcourt to shout my pair up for their tea. The woman up the next close had told me they were all involved in some new den they had built and if I saw hers while I was at it I was to send them up right away. The weans were always making dens. It could be funny to see. You looked out the window and saw what you thought was a pile of rubble and maybe a sheet of tarpaulin stuck on the top. Take another look and you might see a wee head poking out, then another, and another, till finally maybe ten of them were standing there, thinking the coast was clear. But on this occasion I couldn't see a thing. I checked out most of the possibilities. Nothing. No signs of them anywhere. And it was quiet as well. Normally you would've at least heard a couple of squeaks. I tramped about for a time, retracing my steps and so on. I was not too worried. It would have been different if only my pair was missing but there was no sight nor sound of any description. And I was having to start considering the dunnies. This is where I got annoyed. I've always hated dunnies - pitchblack and that smell of charred rubbish, the broken glass, these things your shoes nudge against. Terrible. Then if you're in one and pause a moment there's this silence forcing you to listen. Really bad. I had to go down, but in the second one I tried I found some of the older mob, sitting in a kind of circle round two candles. They heard me come and I knew they had shifted something out of sight, but they recognised me okay and one of the lassies told me she had seen a couple of weans sneaking across to Greegor's. I was really angry at this. I had told them umpteen times never to go there. By rights the place should've got knocked down months ago but progress was being blocked for some reason I don't know, and now the squatters and a couple of the girls were in through the barricading. If you looked over late at night you could see the candle glow at the windows and during the day you were getting the cars crawling along near the pavement. It was hopeless. I went across. Once upon a time a grocer had a shop in the close and this had something to do with how it got called Greegor's. Judging from the smell of food he was still in business. At first I thought it was coming from up the close but the nearer I got I could tell it was coming from the dunny. Down I went. Being a comer block there were a good few twists and turns from the entrance lobby and I was having to go carefully. It felt like planks of wood I was walking on. Then the sounds. A kind of sizzling - making you think of a piece of fucking silverside in the oven, these crackling noises when the juice spurts out. Jesus Christ. I shouted the names of my pair. The sound of feet scuffling. I turned a comer and got a hell of a shock - a woman standing in a doorway. Her face wasn't easy to see because of the light from behind her. Then a man appeared. He began nodding away with a daft smile on his face. I recognised them. Wineys. They had been dossing about the area for the past while. Even the face she had told a story, white with red blotches, eyes always seeming to water. She walked in this queer kind of stiff shuffle, her shoes flapping. When she stepped back from the doorway she drew the cuff of her coat sleeve across her mouth. The man was still giving his daft smiles. I followed. Inside the room all the weans were gathered round the middle of the floor. Sheets of newspaper had been spread about. I spotted my pair immediately - scared out their wits at seeing me. I just looked at them. Over at the fireplace a big fire was going, not actually in the fireplace, set to about a yard in front. The spit was fashioned above it and a wee boy stood there, he must've been rotating the fucking thing. Three lumps of meat sizzled away and just to the side were a few cooked bits lined in a row. I hadn't noticed the woman walk across but then she was there and making a show of turning the contraption just so I would know she wasn't giving a fuck about me being there. And him - still smiling, then beginning to make movements as if he wanted to demonstrate how it all worked. He was pointing out a row of raw lumps on the mantelpiece and then reaching for a knife with a thin blade. I shook my head, Jesus Christ right enough. I grabbed for my pair, yelling at the rest of the weans to get up that effing stair at once.