A moment that changed me: patrolling my home city as a rookie cop showed me nothing is what it seems

My first night walking around the back streets made me feel as if someone had lifted Glasgow up like a giant rock to show me the unmentionables underneath

I was fiddling with the buttons on my too-big raincoat. It was 1987, and before the uniforms cops wear now – I may even have been wearing a serge skirt and thick tights underneath. Shirt, woolly jumper, tunic straining on top. So it was just as well the raincoat flapped miserably wide around my bulked-up form. Strathclyde’s finest, let loose on an unsuspecting Glasgow.

It was 3am, straight after break, and my sergeant had decided I’d work the second half on foot. For the first half of my first nightshift as a uniformed cop, I’d been ensconced in a patrol car. The driver who was to be my neighbour for the duration (none of this hand-picked “tutor” nonsense then) was clearly delighted. “Sit there, keep them open (pointing to my eyes) and that” – drawing a zip along his own mouth – “shut.” We had spent the time from 11pm till 2am cruising the perimeters of the division, with my neighbour pointing out landmarks and quizzing me about my background. “You got a gimmick or a wire?”

I’d heard that phrase a few times already, police shorthand for “What’s your background, why did you join and where do you see yourself going?”

“Em, just graduated from uni. And I won the prize in training – for academic excellence? Oh, and my dad’s a superintendent.”

He’d snorted. “Aye, you’ll be alright.”

But I wouldn’t – and I think he knew that. Cops are pretty good judges of character.

“A” division covered Glasgow city centre, and was mostly patrolled on foot. As a brand new constable, I’d survived one week of early shifts, and had already become proficient in processing shoplifters and directing traffic. Plus – bizarrely – I met the Three Degrees (crowd control has its perks). But there comes a time in the life of every probationer when you have to see the sights. It might be a dead body in the mortuary, or that car accident you can’t forget. For me, all that was to come. Tonight, I’d just be getting to know my city. In an entirely different light.

Karen Campbell in Glasgow in 1987 with the Three Degrees.
‘Crowd control has its perks’ … Karen Campbell in Glasgow in 1987 with the Three Degrees. Photograph: Courtesy of Karen Campbell

Those streets you’re so familiar with in the place where you’ve grown up: streets where you shop, travel to university, queue up to see a film? They look very different when you’re in uniform, in the dark, walking through all the spots your mother told you to avoid. Overnight, Glasgow was transformed into a netherworld of Dionysian excess but also Dickensian lack.

In the city’s grid layout, most streets have their mirror image in the lanes that run behind. After a few nights, I’d learn which were dead-end or dog-leg, which were preferred by drug users or kerb-crawlers. But that first night, I was just learning they were there. It felt as if I’d stepped through the looking glass, or someone had lifted up Glasgow as if it was a giant rock, and shown me all the unmentionable stuff beneath.

“Unless you’re after housebreakers, keep your torch on. Walk down the middle, never at the edges,” said my neighbour. “One, it shows you own the streets and two, you’re more vulnerable at the margins. You never know what’s there.”

In this new, parallel universe, the backstreet was cobbled, and stank of various fluids. I stood on something squidgy, just as my neighbour went: “Watch where you put your feet.” There was a curious thickness to the air. Not quite silence – I could hear the city still, buzzing beyond the high walls, but it was muffled. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I could see a couple against a wall, deep in the throes of passion.

“Ho!” my neighbour bellowed. “Put it away and take it home. Now!”

The couple jumped, and so did I. They skulked past, muttering. And I was fiddling with my buttons because I didn’t know where to look.

“Right,” said my neighbour. “You deal with the next one.”

“Next what?”

He shrugged. We kept walking. Further along, the lane narrowed, and I could see a shadow, low on the ground. The shadow moved. It was a man, lying in a doorway. At least I thought it was a man. I could see a mass of red curly hair above a sodden tweed coat.

He was somebody’s red-headed son. That was the first thing to come into my head.

I crouched to check him, but my neighbour stopped me. “Just leave him.” He told me the man’s name. Said F had been a doctor once, but that “something terrible” had happened, and he had turned to drink.

“But what do we do?”

“Nothing. Let him sleep.”

We carried on down the lane. There were many times in my service when I encountered that man, and so many others like him. Occasionally, you could offer limited help, but often, just letting someone sleep was the best you could do.

Other cops told different stories about F – that one of his patients had died. Or that he’d lost his family in an accident. Maybe some, or all, or none of these things were true. But the point is – he had a story. F had had a life before, and relationships and reasons and moments where he’d slipped, and struggled and probably reached out for help, just like everyone else I would meet on the streets.

Those streets shocked me so much that first night, when I realised nothing is what it seems. People, places – they all have facades, and hidden aspects, and facets that catch the light differently, depending on which angle you view them from.

Paper Cup by Karen Campbell is published by Canongate (£14.99)

Karen Campbell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A moment that changed me: my boss discovered my secret blog
Bored working in a law firm in Brussels, I filled my time writing anonymously online about love, life – and how dull my job was. Then my colleagues found my posts ...

Emma Beddington

18, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: I visited my parents’ old home
I grew up in Kenya, surrounded by souvenirs of my family’s time in southern England. Years later, I retraced their steps in Croydon

Eric Otieno Sumba

30, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: ‘Applying to be a spy felt thrilling – until a stranger approached me on a train’
One lunchtime, bored at work, I began the application process for MI5. It felt like a whirlwind romance, until an eerie and unexpected encounter

Emma Hughes

27, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: ‘After 102 days in intensive care, I finally came home’
A year after I left hospital, I’m still getting over the Covid that almost killed me. But I’m not going to waste another minute of my life

Ray Connolly

17, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my grandmother was moved into a home – and her history erased
My family rehomed my grandmother and she slowly stopped telling the stories that brought people and places so vividly to life – the stories that had soothed me when I was a child

Catherine Donnelly

07, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my family moved into a shelter – and I yearned for my childhood home
My single mother struggled with the cost of bringing up three children, and we lost our house. Today, I still dream of it

Colleen Hubbard

03, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: my dream job healed my excruciating pain
The autoimmune disease lupus had ruined my life until I landed an interview at the Southbank Centre. After years of trying to fit in I’d found my tribe – and a way to get better

Christina Patterson

27, Apr, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: I was so desperate to leave home I agreed to smuggle 80,000 Bibles into the USSR
One day a man in a tan mac and a comb-over appeared at my family’s door. I have no idea how he found me but he had an exciting proposition

Pieter Waterdrinker

02, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: I met my soulmate at Istanbul airport security
As a recently divorced British Asian Muslim, I didn’t expect anyone to understand my mix of culture, faith and life experiences. But the woman who became my best friend saw past my aloof exterior

Saima Mir

11, Aug, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: ‘I visited a therapist – who offered me an exorcism’
I thought I was going for a routine therapy session. But Wendell had other ideas

Johnny Daukes

16, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM