Karen sips her coffee and meanders around the living room. In a corner, a television set shows a man in a garish sweater, bounding around a floating map. The same rain that smears the gaudy hills and lakes of his weather map, drizzles miserably down on Glasgow.
She looks out over the city’s west end. Tenement windows flood her top-floor, corner flat with light, even on the gloomiest of days. A double window looks out to the side, where Karen can see the flats opposite and watch the residents’ comings and goings from her elevated position, vicariously witnessing more than she gives away.
A bigger, bay-fronted window offers similar people-watching opportunities and a panoramic view across the rooftops of the 1990 European City of Culture. Past flats and shops to the north as far as the long, high sweep of Wilton Street. To the south-east, the route slopes down from the university, along Gibson Street towards the river and into the park where it climbs again to a statue of the mounted Lord Roberts of Kandahar, dripping in colonial bronze and silhouetted against the grandeur of Park Circus.
On the sideboard, a printer whirrs into life and begins to clatter and spurt out sheets of paper covered in intricate patterns of blues, blushes and browns. Andy gets up from the computer screen and picks up the top sheet, brushing it with his fingertips.
He raises his eyebrows and looks at Karen. Walks over and traces a line along her collarbone with his thumb. Craving spills out from under her ribs.
‘Fancy a night out in a dark, smoky club?’
Karen glances at the pieces of paper, determined not to be impressed.
She looks down at the floor.
‘Do you not have to run it past Ironside first?’
Audrey takes an age to open her door. Andy and Karen wait in the close, eyeing the cracked cream paint on Audrey’s front door and the plastic tartan nameplate with Nolan picked out in white. They hear the inhabitant moving, getting up from the sofa, into her wheelchair and then inching along the hallway, until she finally unlocks the door and peers out at them, blinking behind her thick glasses like a geriatric bush baby.
‘Hiya,’ she simpers, ‘Come away in.’
In the living room, they pore over the fake fivers, tenners and twenties. Andy has painstakingly guillotined them from the A4 sheets, and he shows Ironside the newly minted loot, pointing out the finer design details.
Looking for approval, Karen thinks.
Audrey smiles but shakes her head wearily in Andy’s direction.
‘Darlin’, these are good, but we’ll need to take the shine aff them. You cannae pass them like this.’
He nods in reluctant agreement. Audrey turns to Karen.
‘Gonnae get a side-plate out the kitchen, honey?’ she says breathlessly, need and demand jostling for position.
In the kitchen, Karen opens a few cupboards until she finds the right one. Audrey’s whole flat smells stale and in need of a proper clean, but the kitchen is something else. The cat, Castro, has a litter tray in the corner of the room and it is rarely empty. Diet-wise, Ironside is every hackneyed Glaswegian statistic brought to life and Karen suspects that Castro eats from the same menu as his mistress, if not the same polystyrene takeaway cartons.
Back in the living room, Audrey lifts a small pile of notes and fans them out on to the plate.
‘Cover that with cling film and microwave it for sixty seconds,’ she barks at Karen.
Taken aback to be included in this part of the operation, Karen looks at her neighbour’s smug face, greasy strands of fringe falling onto her crooked glasses. Audrey’s father named her after Audrey Hepburn. A less gamine, fresh-faced ingénue is impossible to imagine.
Microwave? Is this a trick? Will the pair of them wait for her to walk towards the door and then humiliate her? Not pointing and belly laughs. Just snide, complicit sniggers. She hesitates, but Audrey just lights a cigarette and Andy carries on methodically dividing the notes into neat heaps on the coffee table, so she turns and obeys the instruction. When she returns with the warmed-up money, she is given another pile to microwave while Andy and Audrey laboriously manipulate each piece until it starts to look like it’s spent months in the bottom of an old lady’s handbag.
This process takes the best part of the afternoon. When they finish, they leave Audrey washed-out and wheezing. There is always something imperceptibly wrong with Ironside, but Karen has yet to hear the name of a specific condition. Audrey variously uses crutches and a wheelchair to get about. To venture outside, she needs someone to carry her wheelchair down to the close mouth while she uses a crutch and the bannister to manoeuvre downstairs. She professes to be partially deaf, but Karen has noticed that, if she purposely whispers to Andy behind Audrey’s back, she will, more often than not, pick up the exact details of what has been said.
Upstairs, Andy and Karen have sex on the sofa. As she lifts and lowers herself onto him, Karen thinks about the benefit to the muscles in her thighs and considers whether Andy’s slight resemblance to Michael Hutchence might result in an orgasm.
Like the rest of the flat, the shelves and sideboard behind the sofa are cluttered and dusty. A pristine inkjet printer is the only brand-new item in the room. Everything else either belongs to the landlord, has been cast off by family or less cash-strapped friends, or acquired nearby from the second-hand shops on Great Western Road and Otago Street.
Even the inkjet doesn’t belong to them. Like the wads of counterfeit notes stashed downstairs, it is the property of Audrey Nolan, the funder of their joint enterprise. Ironside is currently on sick leave from her job which, from what Karen can tell, involves helping disabled people to get adaptations to their council houses. The printer was bought by means of sleight of hand with Audrey’s Access to Work money. Audrey is a paradox. Able to swindle and cajole while effortlessly occupying the moral high ground.
The inkjet printer is state of the art and costs more than the rest of their possessions put together. Andy chucks filthy socks and empty pizza boxes under their bed but he keeps the printer dust-free.
When they began counterfeiting, Karen hadn’t wanted to pass the money and Andy was full of bravado anyway, so it made sense for him to do it. He tried in a couple of corner shops, buying fags or crisps or a carton of milk. It didn’t work. Strip-lighting helped sharp-eyed shopkeepers spot a fake almost immediately. Andy blustered his way out of trouble or legged it if someone threatened to call the police.
The first time they had any success was at a gig in the Queen Margaret Union, where a temporary bar selling bottled beer was set up in the auditorium and money flew back and forth across a table. Illuminated only by random shards of light from the stage, the bottles cost one pound each. Andy passed a tenner and got ready to be unmasked but, to his surprise, was handed the drinks and eight bona-fide pound notes. Grinning, he walked back to where Karen was standing and handed her a beer.
‘Fucksake,’ he said, shaking his head incredulously. ‘I’m just relieved this hasn’t been a total waste of time.’
He had pulled her towards him and slid his hand under her top, his fingers worrying at her bra, as they watched a young guitar band run shambolically through a repertoire of sub-Stooges tracks.
Andy had drained the bottle and gone up for more. Halfway through her second beer, Karen had turned to him, pushed her palm into his crotch and widened her eyes.
‘Can I have a go?’
He fished out another tenner from his jacket pocket and gave it to her. Karen walked straight over and carried out an identical transaction. Nobody batted an eyelid. After the third drink, they both felt a bit giggly. That first night they had seen a couple of bands, had a few drinks and arrived home with a thirty-two-pound profit.
They had chanced upon a system and now had a rule book: crap lighting, part-time bartenders, not staying anywhere for too long. In the days and weeks that followed they habitually replicated this first victory.
Tonight, they wander down Gibson Street, past the entrance to the park and the boarded-up patch of waste ground where Eldon Street used to be, where they cross over at the roundabout on to Woodlands Road.
At the Halt Bar, loud music tempts them into the lounge where a band is playing. The place is dark and busy; the tables are all full and heaving with pints and Karen and Andy jostle sideways to take up a position beside an old-fashioned wooden and glass room divider with a shallow shelf on which they can perch their drinks. They are both wearing a similar denim and doc marten uniform to most of the other folk in the crowd. No-one gives them a second look. Andy hands Karen some money and she makes her way to the bar, bobbed hair and burgundy lipstick both dark against her pale skin. The bar is stowed out, three deep, so Karen edges her way in surreptitiously, firing wide-eyed apologies at the men and conspiratorial smirks at the women. There are three bar staff struggling to cope with demand but, eventually, Karen gets to the front, leans her elbow on the sticky wooden counter and waves her tenner in front of her face like the other customers. It looks exactly the same as all the rest.
Karen balances two pints of lager as she gingerly retreads her steps back to where Andy is watching the band and smoking a cigarette. The packet is still open, and she takes one, lights it and presses it to her mouth. When the band stops for a break, they drain their pints and move on. They carry on towards the city centre, twice passing notes at both the Variety and the Griffin then, emboldened by their success, gyrating drunkenly on the dance floor while chucking funny money with impunity at the staff in Joe Paparazzi. They both stagger home in the early hours of the morning and don’t wake till the following lunchtime, to find kebabs from the local takeaway half eaten and discarded in the living room.
Karen watches groups of mid-morning students on University Avenue. Imagines herself lugging a bag of books and folders up the hill to lectures.
Sometimes, in the afternoons, she goes into the circular Reading Room and sits with a notepad at one of the smooth wooden desks, pretending she’s studying English or Sociology or Film and Television Studies. She’d thought they would be urbane and relaxed, but the real students always look just as awkward as she feels, avoiding eye contact and shifting nervously in their seats.
She wonders if this is a good or a bad sign. There might be no realistic hope of redemption, no place in which she would feel at home.
Karen leans her head against the cool glass of the window until, eventually, the throng of intellectual youth dissipates. She chews her toast and stares at the strands of cars navigating the tight junction.
She doesn’t realise how quiet it is until she hears Audrey’s television burst into life in the flat below. The existence of Audrey is an assault on Karen’s senses. The stale smell of her flat, her cloying affectation, her ownership of the means of production and, worst of all, Andy’s pragmatic acceptance of her professed genius.
Andy surfaces. Walks into the living room and sidles up behind her. He wraps his arms around her and rests a stubbly chin into the nape of her neck.
‘You got a shift later?’
Karen nods, ‘Yeah, matinee and evening. I’m leaving about half one.’
‘I might come and meet you when you finish. If I get all Audrey’s printing done.’
Ironside has upped the ante over the weekend. Larger numbers of notes are required more quickly. Somehow, word has leaked out about the operation and Ironside now has a contact who wants to buy bundles of fake money direct. According to Audrey, this contact is impressed by the quality of the notes and is willing to pay four thousand pounds hard cash for forty thousand pounds of counterfeit money. Andy has spent Saturday and Sunday printing like a bandit, pausing only to catch a bus up to the office supplies outlet to stock up on paper and ink cartridges. Karen hasn’t asked who the contact is or what the money is intended for.
Andy settles down at the computer and the screen judders into life.
The subway is quiet in the afternoon. A train, lozenge-orange, marshals the stale air on the platform and spits it back out, whipping Karen’s hair about her face. In the carriage, the doors sook closed as she brushes a heavy comma of fringe from her eyes and settles back in her seat, headphones clamped to her ears, lost in a mix-tape.
At Cowcaddens, the sun comes out as Karen emerges from the underpass and walks along Cambridge Street. She ducks into the back of Littlewood’s to pick up a cheese salad roll from the food section for later and then heads to the cinema to start her shift.
Karen works as an usher, in this art-house cinema, two or three days a week. She likes the dark wood panelling and thick purple carpeting that bleeds out from the foyer, up the stairs and into the auditorium. She enjoys efficiently ripping customers’ tickets in half and stabbing them on a thick needle before wriggling her catch down a short length of maroon yarn. She relishes wielding her rubber-coated torch to guide late-comers down the aisles or to undertake searches for belongings dropped between seats.
Karen nods at the staff behind the glass-fronted box office, puts her jacket and bag in a locker and heads upstairs. Michael is already there. There are only two ushers for matinees, three in the evenings. Michael is a wisp of a young man, a final year interior design student at the art school who sports a ginger goatee but no moustache. He greets Karen with a smile that threatens to become too expansive for his narrow face.
‘What side are you wanting, Karen?’
Karen laughs. As if it matters, she thinks.
‘I don’t mind. You choose, Michael.’
Michael plumps for the entrance at the top of the bar, rather than the one fed by the main staircase. The bar isn’t open in the afternoon and most of the customers are students or pensioners who limit their spending to the price of a concessionary ticket. The chances of them entering the cinema via the kiosk or bar area are low, unless they visit the lavatory on the way. Michael has a huge textbook with him as well as a notebook and is keen to get a bit of studying done while the film plays.
This afternoon the film showing is Badlands, part of a Sissy Spacek season. In the last couple of weeks, Karen has seen pigs’ blood drip down Sissy’s loser prom queen’s face, watched as a preposterously-coiffed Spacek got the hell out of Butcher Holler and made it in Nashville, and now follows the denim-clad, freckled actress as she lusts after Martin Sheen’s t-shirt psychopath with a filthy hunger only a disenfranchised teenager could muster.
In the dark, Karen sits on a fold-down stool that is attached to the wall and stares up at the ceiling, a whirl of acoustic wizardry that looks like a top hat crushed in on itself. She drifts off, imagining herself riding south on a long desert highway, a heat haze in the distance. Just like the movies.
Andy is waiting when she finishes her shift. He’s leaning against the poster display wearing his 501s and a stone-washed denim jacket over a baggy patterned shirt. Karen kisses him, and they cross over the road. Andy takes out a packet of Benson & Hedges and they stop for a minute while he does that trick with a half-opened matchbox, to light their fags.
The night sky is still summer-bright as they stroll through Garnethill.
‘Did you get all the printing finished?’ Karen asks.
Andy shakes his head, ‘Not all of it, but a fair amount. The guy’s not picking up till the end of the week, but. It’ll be fine.’
‘What about the microwaving carry-on?’
‘That’s supposed to be Audrey’s department,’ Andy laughs, ‘I’ve given her what I’ve done so far. She’ll probably try and rope you in.’
Karen rolls her eyes and stubs her cigarette out on the pavement.
Sunday, and Ironside has arranged to hand over the counterfeit notes that have been printed, manipulated and organised into bundles, then secured with elastic bands and packed into a very cheap, very nondescript sports bag.
At the same time, Glasgow has been turned into a massive free music venue with stages set up on George Square, the Broomielaw and Glasgow Green. Thousands of people are expected to flood into the city centre. Karen and Andy are lying in bed, half watching the television coverage of musicians and local worthies being interviewed while council workers and roadies set up equipment around them.
‘Will we go and have a look?’ asks Andy.
‘I thought Audrey told you to meet Don Corleone and hand over the dough today?’ she asks him.
‘We can do both,’ replies Andy, ‘I’m meeting him in town anyway. And the guy’s name’s Stevie McPake.’
Karen sighs. ‘That’s a rubbish name for a gangster.’
Karen had expected the handover to be in a back-street boozer somewhere in the Gorbals or Maryhill, but Stevie McPake has chosen a large chain pub slap-bang in the city centre. Floor to ceiling windows seem designed to inhibit any nefarious dealings but Stevie, when he arrives, doesn’t appear unduly bothered.
Audrey has told Andy where the contact will be sitting and Stevie, unexpectedly relaxed and friendly, greets them and offers to buy them a drink. Andy asks for a pint but Karen sticks to vodka and orange. If they’re going to wander about watching bands, she doesn’t want to have a constant need to pee.
Stevie isn’t much older than them and the three of them share a temporary bond as foot soldiers, messengers for the real players. Stevie has placed a package wrapped in a worn Safeway’s poly bag on the table top and, as they get up to leave, he pushes it towards Andy. Then he lifts the sports bag containing the fake money as if, he, rather than Andy, had brought it in to the pub in the first place. Karen is surprised at how casual and seamless the transaction is.
At the Broomielaw, they can hear Billy Bragg, but can’t get close enough to see him. The sun has come out, so they decide to sit on a grass embankment on the opposite side of the river. Andy takes a tin out of his pocket and skins up while Karen lies back on the grass. When Andy hands her the joint, it is sticky with his saliva. She takes a few draws and feels the smoke scorch her throat before she is enveloped in a dislocated calm.
After a while, they cross back over and head towards George Square. Leaning into each other, a bit spaced out and wobbly, occasionally giggling uncontrollably at nothing. They squeeze into the squash of people and sway in time to the music. All the benches have been cleared away from the square and groups of lads are perched precariously on the statues of disapproving eminent Victorians. Karen has wrapped her jacket around her waist and can feel the sun begin to burn her bare shoulders. Another band comes on. Goodbye Mr Mackenzie launch into The Rattler and Karen is jumping up and down, holding on to Andy, who is jumping too. And they are both singing the words into each other’s faces. And the people next to them are singing and jumping and dancing. And the sun is strong. And everyone has their arms around everyone else. They are all going down the line, they are all going to a better time, they are all going to a better place.
It’s half past five and she needs to go to work.
‘Phone in sick,’ Andy says, ‘We could get something to eat and go to the Green.’
She shakes her head. ‘I can’t, it’s not fair. Anyway, I’ve sobered up a bit now. I could do with a sit down in a dark room.’
He looks at her. ‘Can I ask you to do me a favour?’ he says, ‘Gonnae take the money with you and put it in your locker?’
Karen hesitates. ‘I don’t know, Andy.’
‘Please? It’ll be safer there than on me, wandering about town on my own.’
Karen nods reluctantly.
Andy takes the Safeway’s bag from the inner pocket of his jacket and Karen slips it into her bag, a grey canvas satchel that she fastens carefully.
He kisses her. ‘I’ll come up and meet you when you clock off.’
She inches across the square, squeezing herself through the crowd until she is spat out onto a side street. Normally, it would make more sense to head through town, but Karen decides to avoid the crowds and road-blocks by skirting up the hill and doubling back on herself to get to the cinema.
Hoardings surround a huge construction site on the left-hand side of North Hanover Street. Music from the concert continues to reverberate off sandstone and concrete and tarmac. Buses brake and jolt and brake again, making slow progress to and from the bus station.
As she turns the corner, Karen fishes in her pocket for her fags but only a box of matches is there. She must have finished them earlier. Or maybe they fell out at the concert. She nips across the road to buy a packet at the kiosk in the bus station.
She rips the cellophane off the packet and lights up. There is a double-decker coach parked at the stance in front of her. Its display board says London (Victoria). A queue of people has formed. The driver is climbing down from the cab, carrying his cash dispenser.
‘What time are you leaving?’ Karen asks.
‘Just swapping drivers, hen,’ the man says, ‘My mate’ll be out shortly. Bus goes at six.’
‘I’ve not booked.’
‘Disnae matter. Just pay the driver, hen.’
Karen uses a nearby payphone to call in sick. She buys a ticket from the new driver and takes a seat on the upper deck. The bus judders and moves away from the stance.
It’s Andy’s fault, really, he was the one that suggested it. And she does feel a bit sick, if she’s honest.