It was Lennie’s first bookshop. Coming to and going from ‘Poppies’, he had seen it often enough before but had never gone in. Inside, it felt strange. The mustiness oppressed him. That people came in to buy this junk was unbelievable. He felt the discomfort that comes from being surrounded by what you don’t understand. His life was an attempt to play a single received role: Glaswegian hard man. Unfamiliar backgrounds made him forget his lines.
The other two people in the shop didn’t help. There was a tall man with a soft hat and a briefcase at one of the shelves in the middle of the shop. He had his back to Lennie. The only other person was the old man at the desk, who looked up over his glasses as Lennie came in. They made Lennie feel like an actor who has wandered into the wrong play.
He stationed himself at the shelf beside the window and hid behind a book. He picked a big one, the kind that would have been handy for doing press-ups, opened it and held it up without glancing at it. He was concentrating on looking through the window across the court to Poppies. It took a bit of concentration. It occurred to him that you could have planted tatties in the glass. He knew that Harry Rayburn was due to come out and he had left deliberately just ahead of him. Lennie shouldn’t have long to wait. Now and again he flicked a page.
‘They’re easier to read if you hold them the right way up, son.’
Lennie turned to see a face like Walt Disney’s idea of a grandfather. He would have done for the old man who made Pinocchio.
‘Ah’m Chinese,’ Lennie said. ‘Okay?’
But he turned the book round. The old man smiled and went on taking out books and putting them back in exactly the same place. He started to whistle, very tunelessly. The sound didn’t suit him. It was jauntily gallons.
‘Through the back.’
Lennie couldn’t be sure at first that he had heard it. The old man was back to whistling aimlessly. Lennie thought he must have imagined it. But it came again, very low and quick, hidden in among his whistling.
‘They’re through the back.’
Lennie looked at the old man. Now he was nodding while he whistled. Lennie looked round. The man in the soft hat was still standing in the same place, with his back to them. Lennie looked back at the old man.
The old man’s mouth formed, ‘Okay?’ and he winked. Lennie shook his head. The old man wound himself up for more whistling and Lennie knew he was going to say something else. Lennie couldn’t understand it. It seemed the only way he could talk was by whistling. It was like a very special impediment. Now he was in full whistle.
‘The special stuff is through the back,’ the old man hissed, and was whistling instantly.
Looking away from him, Lennie suddenly saw Harry Rayburn emerge from Poppies. Lennie watched the direction he was taking and calculated that he had just time to put this mental old sod in his place. He chose his cruncher and put the book back roughly.
‘Ye’re aff yer heid,’ Lennie snarled. ‘Even yer books is a’ secondhand. There’s no’ a new yin among them.’
As he reached the door, the old man called quietly, ‘Away, ya ignorant get,’ and then nodded smilingly to the man, who had turned round.
Rayburn was walking quickly. Lennie just managed to avoid getting knocked down as he crossed Argyle Street. Because the car blared its horn, Lennie dived into a shop doorway and counted five. When he looked back out, Rayburn was still walking. He had noticed nothing. Lennie smiled to himself and hurried until he was lying about twenty yards behind.
Rayburn crossed Argyle Street and went into Marks and Spencer’s. Lennie panicked. He didn’t want to chance going in and meeting Rayburn. But he didn’t know how many doors the place had. He started sprinting round the building. There were three separate entrances. He spun like someone caught in a revolving door. He hesitated, and then ran back to the first door. Nothing there. He started running back to the second door, checked himself, and returned to the first. Still nothing there. He waited. A dread seized him that Rayburn was walking calmly out another door and out of sight. Lennie raced, his body arching like a bow. Nothing. He was beginning to run with sweat. What was he buying, the shop? He ran to the third door. There was still no sign of Rayburn. Lennie ran back. He was leaning against one wall of the shop quite close to collapse when Rayburn stepped out in front of him, carrying a plastic bag.
Lennie straightened up. The rest was easy, except that Lennie, intent on watching Rayburn, bumped into an old woman and was detained by her until he almost missed Rayburn turning a corner, but he didn’t.
Rayburn took him on an elaborate detour that brought them eventually to Bridgegate. Lennie could hardly believe it had been so close all the time. One moment Rayburn was walking past a derelict building and the next he wasn’t. It took Lennie a few seconds to realise he had gone in.
Quietly, Lennie approached the building, keeping close to the wall. He stopped before the entrance and bent as if tying a lace, although his boots didn’t have laces. A young woman was looking in a second-hand furniture shop but she had her back to him. He eased the corrugated iron apart and slid in. The entry was damp and smelly. He listened. There was no sound from inside the building. He went all the way along the entry, listening, and there was nothing. He started up the stairs, very softly. He put his hand on the banister and it started to give. He pulled away as if it had burnt him. He waited again.
The stairs were very unsafe. He made the first floor and waited a minute. There was still nothing. The further you went, the worse the stairs were. He halted where the state of the stairs worried him. Then, just when he thought he had made a mistake, he heard the voices. Low, urgent voices, very eerie. In a building where no one should be.
Lennie buckled over to smother his giggle. Straightening, he looked up the well of the stairs. He barrelled his finger at the gloom and said softly, ‘Bang!’
He was like a wee boy whose finger shoots real bullets.