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.
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.”
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)