2 December, 2012Issue 20.5Creative WritingFiction

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A Brief Perusal

Sam Reilly

Winner of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2012

“Do you have any criminal convictions?”

Liam gave a nervous chuckle and a furtive look around the office reception room, taking in the posh glass table, the plush leather sofas and reclining chairs, and the two bored-looking women sitting at their desks, watching him complete the application forms. The tiny box at the foot of the page was far too small for all the stories he could have told.

He closed his eyes a moment, sinking into the cushions. With the right kind of eyes—certainly not those of the bored secretaries—you could have read Liam’s entire criminal history from a brief perusal of his face. A small scar, where his head had hit the concrete before he had risen to his feet and lost composure, represented his conviction for GBH in 2005. A great pockmark told that, in 2008, he had sold one eighth of an ounce of cannabis to a fifteen-year-old boy in the small park in Garnethill, the police had seen the transaction and as he fled towards Sauchiehall Street he had tumbled down the steep hill on Garnet Street. And there were numerous marks on his person which indicated his arrest for eight counts of burglary and attempted burglary, most of which affirmed the punchline of his once-favourite anecdote: “Aye, it wis a fuckin’ vicious wee dug, so it wis”.

Of course, there are those who boast a far more impressive collection of felonial souvenirs and maintain a clean record. Liam lacked luck, or brains, or both. Each and every mark signified a stint in jail, his sunken eyelids the events of August 2018, when his once wide, absorbent blue eyes became fixed in a permanent, narrow stare.

As he fixed this stare upon the forms before him, Liam remembered his first innocuous step onto the rickety ladder of his long criminal career: watching “Layer Cake”. Daniel Craig had said, authoritatively, that bank-robbing was a fools’ game and that the easy way to make money was selling drugs. Right enough, Liam had thought, but his brother’s friend Gregor had been in Barlinnie for the last couple of years for selling coke, with another four to serve. And Daniel Craig got shot at the end. And he had never wanted to earn a fortune—never even thought about it—he had only wanted enough to keep him out of the house at the weekends. So when he had seen the advert for tax-free cigarettes on the Internet, he thought he had found the perfect crime. Surely, he thought, the police had more important things to deal with than one boy selling cut-price cigarettes to his friends. It had been quite successful, at first. He remembered the day when the first package arrived: he had woken up early to intercept the postman before his mother, and had taken the large brown package up to his room, torn it open and counted the packets three times. There were six cartons—sixty packets—and they had only cost him a hundred and twenty pounds. He doubled his money within a fortnight, doubled it again within a month, and within two months he had lost everything when a package of ten cartons was seized at customs and he was ordered to pay a large fine.

He had resolved to keep clear of crime after that, instead focussing on his exams at college and on his new girlfriend, Rosie. What happened next was sheer bad luck; there was no other way to describe it. He hadn’t done anything, and nor had Rosie, to prompt the torrent of abuse she received that night outside Solid Rock, and for what was only a natural reaction Liam had been imprisoned for Grievous Bodily Harm.

The following two years produced little more than Liam’s acknowledgement that, as far as careers went, he was fucked, and he emerged from prison with a plan to make a living as a petty, jack-of-all-trades kind of criminal. He committed the odd burglary, when the opportunity presented itself; he grew three or four marijuana plants in his flat, which for a while drew him an income of between two and five hundred pounds a week. He smoked far too much himself, though—he hadn’t been on his guard, that night in Garnethill, and the resultant search warrant proved that he had not once had the nous to conceal any aspect of his business properly. They found items reported as burgled by many different home-owners over the previous eighteen months; they found his plants, their crop he had harvested and treated, his scales, hundreds of small plastic bags, two mobile phones full of incriminating messages and large wads of cash.

Upon his release, years later, Liam had no money, a vague plan to ‘keep his nose clean’, and a basic qualification in bricklaying. He served out his probation repeating this dull mechanic exercise in building sites around the country, his paradoxical position as both crucial and utterly expendable to the final product drummed into him with every brick he set, with every finished home.

Gregor, meanwhile, had crafted his way to a fairly high standing within the hierarchy of ecstasy dealers, and over the days leading up to the end of Liam’s probation, his brother had a hand in organising an illegal rave out in the country north of Glasgow. The temptation to attend, bearing a hundred-odd of Gregor’s pills with the prospect of several hundred pounds, was far too great for Liam. The location offered safety both in numbers and isolation, he considered, and the paranoia his long prison sentence had instilled within him ought to have served him well, far better than the lackadaisical approach to crime which had defined and defiled his youth.

It was a clever, calculated train of reason which depended upon the one thing of which he was not capable: mental detachment. The music, the dancing, his own divine role as harbinger of ecstasy, the romantic unity of everything; and then there were those bent on disrupting it. And so he’d lost it completely; everything had seemed so perfect, until someone started trying to pick fights, smashed a bottle over some poor bastard who’d done no harm to anyone and all hell broke loose. His brother always said afterwards to friends and family that had Liam not taken charge, someone else would have had to. But then, they might have stopped a few seconds earlier; they might not have had their key protruding from their fist; they might, feeling the blood seep into their jeans, have paused just long enough for their brain to remind them that their prerogative was not–was never–to kill.

Something had subsumed Liam that night, and it continued to dictate the events of the next few days, finally releasing him in a hotel room in Constanta, Romania, eighty miles south of the Danube Delta. He had the five hundred pounds he had made from the rave and a week’s worth of facial hair. He was almost too tired to live.

Living, however, was all he could do. In time, he became rather attached to this idea. There were some people, he reasoned, who could remove themselves from life, could watch over it, as some great general watching over his army from a position of elevation, strategising, organising. Gregor could come away from Barlinnie having learned only how to avoid his previous mistakes. Liam was different: prison had touched him; being a dope-dealer had touched him; he had let his mistakes define him. And now, he knew not how, whether it was by some kind of divine intervention or some feeling within himself he did not understand, he had been led here, where he no longer needed to think of himself in those terms. In Constanta, he was not a murderer.

With the money, he bought a fishing boat. He learned Romanian with such applied, sustained vigour as he had never before exerted, and with these occupations he hardly considered himself for twelve months. In the end, it was almost as though he had never existed: he was, for a short time, stripped of everything from which he had been made.

So when they came, he was surprised by his pangs of longing for Scotland. He had known nothing there since he was very young but a desire to involve himself within the shady social system he saw around him; he would still be wanted for manslaughter, maybe murder. And yet he began to remember, from his days at college with Rosie, a vague faith in some other ideal which began slowly, insidiously, to pull him back to where he came from.

Liam schemed for months, inventing the history of his grandparents’ emigration, saving the money the Russian mafia would demand for their role in the story’s consolidation, and for his Romanian passport. He took British tourists out in his boat, inflecting his broad Glasgow accent with the occasional Romanian twang until they began to ask where he was from. “Scotland,” he might reply, “but I have lived here for many, many years, since I was a very small boy”. Or: “I was born in Romania, but my mother and father were from Scotland”. When his accent became so convincing that they stopped asking him altogether, he travelled to Bucharest to seek the mafia. It did not prove too difficult to find them; they operate quite freely in the streets at night, pushing all manner of narcotics on tourists and locals alike, and, after buying a switch-blade to defend himself if the need arose, he went in search of one of these low-level gang servants, hoping for a foot on the ladder.

It was with great regret that he applied himself once more to criminal activity; indeed, his meeting with the scarred, pierced, malicious skinhead of the ≈ûteoacƒÉ clan resulted, later that night, in his purest, most intense feeling of remorse for the life he had taken two years earlier. If Liam had never quite been this man’s Scottish equivalent, there was a time when many would have thought of him as such. He could hardly imagine the atrocities with which this allied him. He persevered though; criminality was no longer a way of life, or an idle distraction from life, or whatever it had once represented. It was a means to an end—to purity—to grace. There was even something romantic about it: the necessity of stepping over the smouldering remains of his previous self in order to destroy them, and be reborn.

He refused to choose his new name. “Sco≈£ian ceva”—”something Scottish”—was the only instruction he gave. It was the one part of the plan he hadn’t thought through; he’d allowed himself to be carried away with whimsical notions of fate. He might easily have been attempting to forge his new life under the name of William Wallace. “Liam Drymen” was not the worst outcome, but the fear that the policeman at passport control would read it and say to him, “Drymen’s a place, no’ a name, pal” gripped him all the way out of Edinburgh airport until, into the cool, evening air of September, he was released.

Liam Drymen. It was a name which fate had chosen for him, and which sheer power of will alone enabled him to embody with such singular involvement that even on those rare occasions when the shameful history of his previous persona burned his memory, he now maintained that it was “Liam” who had done it all, Liam who had overcome. That other name lived on only in the press archives and legend, reviled alike by those for whom it signified “friend”—”son”—”brother”—”killer”. And now Liam breathed deeply, wrote “No” in black in the little box at the bottom of the page, and signed his name. He tapped the bottom of the forms on the posh glass table several more times than was necessary to align them and tried to attract the attention of the bored receptionists.

Sam Reilly is reading for a BA in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford.