– The Ballad of Billy G –
When I stepped off the bus in Charlotte Square on that winter night, the three of them were so close together and caught up in their own laughter that they almost knocked me down. Billy G recognised me instantly. His eyes were bulging, and he was grinning widely. Stoned out of his mind, I figured.
‘How’re you doing, my man?’ he cried, coming closer and giving me a mock hug, acting like he was a wiseguy in a Mafia movie.
He looked pale and cold and grimy under the bright lights of the square. There was a lot of stubble on his chin, and his long, dark hair hung limp and greasy. He wasn’t wearing a coat, but as if in token recognition of the cold he had turned up the collar of his thin jacket. That jacket – the bottle-green one with the extra-wide lapels, the diagonal side-pockets and the rows of tiny buttons along the bottom of the cuffs; the one that had been made especially for him by Cowan Tailoring down in Leith – used to be his pride and joy. Now it was misshapen and shabby. In fact, the overall shabbiness of his appearance shocked me. He was so unlike the bright-eyed, clean-shaven, well dressed, young man whom I had first met only a year before.
‘Still working in that shit-hole in the Ferry?’ he asked, not giving me the chance to answer his first question. ‘I had to get out of that place, man. It was doin’ my fuckin’ head in.’
Again not waiting for an answer, he continued quickly, looking puzzled this time.
‘What’re you doing here anyway, man?’
He gave me space to reply at last.
‘Yeah, still working in the Arms,’ I said. ‘But weekends only. I’ve got a full-time job here in Edinburgh now. And a flat up Dalry Road.’
I thought that was it. I had answered his questions. Now I could walk away and leave him and the others to their revelries. But it wasn’t to be.
‘Fuckin’ amazin’ coincidence!’ Billy G exclaimed. ‘Fuckin’ amazin’, man! We live up that way, too!’
By ‘we’, I presumed that he meant him and Kondi, his girlfriend, who was snuggling into his side, her arm wound tight around his waist. Most of her head was lost inside the wide collar of her maxi-coat, but I could still see that her eyes were glazed and that she had that usual enigmatic smile on her face. Stoned as well, I guessed. I didn’t know whether ‘Kondi’ was her first name or her last name, or even her real name. Nor could I remember what her voice sounded like; she spoke so seldom, and then only to Billy G, softly and close up. I did remember the night when the pair of them fell out. That was when she went down to the shore at the back of the hotel where Billy G and I worked and walked, fully clothed, into the sea. She would have kept on walking had Billy G not gone in after her and dragged her back. ‘A fuckin’ weird chick’ was what he called her then. None of us disagreed with him.
In wiseguy fashion again, Billy G put his free arm around my shoulders.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’ll walk up with you. We’re on our way there anyway.’
Then he stopped for a moment, suddenly remembering the third member of their group.
‘Oh, by the way,’ he laughed, ‘this big radge here is called The Bear. And he’s my best fuckin’ mate.’
With his burly frame, which seemed even more burly in his army greatcoat, and with his bushy black beard and his shock of black hair, both of which were festooned with numerous tiny, coloured ribbons, there was a menacing, pirate-like aura about The Bear. His appearance was one that you wouldn’t forget easily. I had met him only once, a couple of years before, during the brief period when I had been a university student. We sat one lunchtime in Greyfriars Bobby Bar, sipping lager and discussing politics. He came over as an affable enough guy, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he was a dealer. I remember him sitting there, quietly watching the gullible, young folk who frequented the place. He was like a lizard, ready to pounce on his prey and deal his poison to them. The Bear was grinning at me now. I could tell that he was stoned like the other two, but in a much more controlled way than them. Although he said nothing to me, I detected a flicker of recognition across his reptilian eyes.
We set off round the corner into Hope Street. We were spread out across the pavement, with Billy G and Kondi in the middle and The Bear and I on either side of them. There was a long walk to my flat – along Shandwick Place and West Maitland Street and then halfway up Dalry Road – and I didn’t relish making it in their company. I was cold and hungry. After a five-hour stint behind the bar, I was also tired. And I had work the following morning. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible, eat some supper and drop into bed. Instead, I was forced to trail along beside them while they dawdled, giggling and cackling among themselves. I was with them, but not part them. But at least I was spared any further questions from Billy G.
As I walked at his side on that uncomfortable journey, I had plenty of time to observe Billy G’s behaviour. He was as high as a kite; that was for sure. I had heard rumours that after disappearing from the Ferry at the end of the summer he had become immersed in the drug scene in Edinburgh. Seeing him up close like that – and in the company of The Bear – more than confirmed those rumours. And I was horrified to think that he had injected something in order to get into his present condition. It had all been so different that day when the Boss brought him into the bar and introduced him as a new member of staff who would be working alongside me and who would be living on the premises. He was younger than me, but not by much. The story was that he had emigrated to Canada with his parents some years before, but that he had recently returned alone to his home area and was now fending for himself for the first time.
Right from the start, Billy G was a likeable guy; keen and hard-working and friendly. Because he was tall and slim and good-looking and charming to boot, he was very quickly regarded as an exotic Adonis by many of the town’s teenage girls. With his feather cut hair, his Ben Sherman shirts, his tailor-made suits and his Chelsea boots, he was fastidious about his appearance. He was also fervent about his music. In his off-duty hours, he was often to be seen toting his Blues albums around the town. He had albums by Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix and Taste, among others, but his most cherished one was by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company; that was the album with the bright yellow, comic strip cover – ‘Cheap Thrills’, it was called.
Billy G was no angel, though. He smoked dope, a habit that he had brought back with him from Canada. As a result, he associated closely with a few of the toerags in the town who could supply him with the gear. He was very circumspect about his habit, however, the penalty for getting caught with cannabis being much more severe back then. He only ever made joints and smoked them when he was in his room and the hotel was closed for the night. The hiding place for his stash was a hole that he had scooped out of the wall at the back of the skirting board in the corner of his room immediately behind the door. He would smoke while he was lying on his bed, usually with the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ drifting in the background. And, paranoid about being raided by the Police at any time and losing his job into the bargain, he would always clean up afterwards, using one of the hotel’s Hoovers to suck up the evidence.
So that was the Billy G whom I came to know – the popular, young guy behind the bar; the dedicated follower of fashion; the roguish Lothario and pot-smoker. Then it all went wrong for him. I don’t know if it was Kondi or the dope to blame for his decline. Maybe it was a combination of both. What I do know is that as soon as Kondi appeared in the bar for the first time – mysteriously and silently one night, like the Lady of Shalott searching for Sir Lancelot – he attached himself to her, losing interest in his job and making frequent forays into Edinburgh, where she lived. It was there that he fell into a different kind of company; the kind in which he had access to drugs that were much more powerful than lowly pot and could give him a far bigger high. Whatever its cause, his decline was rapid. After several no-shows at the bar, and by mutual agreement with the Boss, he packed his bags and left with Kondi in tow. And there he was again only a few weeks later, dishevelled and stoned and laughing like a hyena on a frosty November night.
I was so caught up thinking about the change in Billy G that I almost went past the door of the tenement in which I lived. I stopped abruptly, but the others didn’t notice and carried on.
‘That’s me,’ I called out after them, praying that they wouldn’t want to come in to see my flat.
They were a couple of yards further up the road when they came to a halt and turned round.
‘So that’s where you are,’ Billy G shouted, pointing to the door behind me.
Then he looked diagonally across the road and pointed to the top floor of the tenement on the corner of Dalry Road and Orwell Place.
‘That’s us up there, man. Top flat. I bet you can see us from your one.’
My little flat was at the rear of the building, overlooking a bleak quadrangle two floors down, but I didn’t argue with him.
‘Anyway,’ he continued, ‘it was fuckin’ great seein’ you again, man. We’ll need to come and see you some time.’
His tone had changed. He didn’t seem so jolly, and he had begun to shiver. It was as if he was now in a desperate hurry to get home.
‘Great,’ I said half-heartedly, hoping upon hope that he would never enter my stair and vowing that I would never answer my door if he did come knocking at it.
The three of them began to cross the road. Relieved, I watched them go – Billy G, the junkie, with his weird chick and his reptile dealer. Off to shoot up again, I supposed. Then, shaking my head, I slipped into my stair.
After heating up my flat, and after having something to eat and ironing a shirt for work the next day, I suddenly remembered that, being a Sunday night, it was bin night. So I was back at the same spot about an hour later, placing my bin next to the others at the side of the pavement. It was after one o’clock, and the street was deserted by that time. I don’t know why, but for some reason I looked up at the windows of Billy G’s flat. There was a light on at one of the windows. Then the light went off. Then it went on again. Then off. Then on. Off and on. Off and on. Either someone was actually switching the light off and on, which I thought was unlikely, or the light was on some kind of loop, which was more likely and the sort of thing that would amuse a bunch of junkies. I could picture the three of them, stoned again, giggling and cackling like before, with Billy G’s music blasting from his stereo and drowning them out. Some satanic licks from Hendrix, maybe. Or Joplin rasping out ‘Summertime’.
‘Psychedelic, man,’ I said scornfully to the offending window. Then I shook my head again and hurried back to the warmth of my flat, feeling righteous.
When I began my shift at the bar on the following Friday evening, I learned that Billy G had died. Overdosed on heroin, they told me, in a squalid flat in Edinburgh on the previous Sunday night. The Police found him after the neighbours complained about the noise; ‘Voodoo Chile’ had been playing at top volume on a loop on his stereo, apparently. There had been no sign of Kondi, so it was assumed that he died alone. He was only nineteen years old.
‘What a waste,’ the Boss said.
‘And still a teenager, for fuck’s sake,’ someone else remarked.
I didn’t tell any of them that I had run into him that night.
That was back in the winter of 1970. The Swinging Sixties had fizzled out. The Summer of Love was already a distant memory, its innocent hedonism having long ago been swallowed up by a more sinister culture of hard drugs and addiction. Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac that year; he walked off into the wilderness, his mind and his genius blown forever. And Billy G’s other heroes, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both died that year within a few weeks of each other. Like Billy G, the drugs took hold of all of them.
Kondi was never heard of again, but The Bear continued to prosper – for a while, anyway, until they locked him up in Saughton Prison for a long time. He became a legend there. He still had long hair with little, coloured ribbons in it, but the hair was white and his face was yellow and wizened. As a ruse to scare the youngsters on remand, he used to come out to the prison yard, blinking in the sunshine, pretending that he hadn’t seen daylight for twenty years. I wish, Billy G. I just wish.
– o –