There were seven McSweenies in all. By now, all of them were men – the youngest was twenty-one and the eldest thirty-six. They were all different shapes and sizes – mostly, it has to be said, thickset – but one did not need to look at them twice to see that they were brothers. In fact, the McSweenies were so assortedly alike that they could have been a single person photographed at different stages of their lifespan.
One came from that period when a man is hale and he has that rubbed-apple shine to him that denotes high libido. Another was evocative of when a man is disillusioned with life or relationships and he has grown distant and sullen. Another had that grubbiness and belly fat that a man gets when he is in the throes of some immense private crisis. The rest were variations or links in this gallery of biography. The eldest was glassy-eyed and, when viewed alongside his brothers, he seemed almost to wear a tinge of decomposition.
One of them invariably had a girlfriend going at any given time and, whenever this occurred, he went to live at hers. I doubt that any woman would have felt safe for very long living in that semi in Eskbank. Here, the brothers’ sprawl, their games consoles and bunk beds, were compacted into an amazingly tight layout that faintly resembled the sleeping quarters in a submarine. Their mother even still cooked for them all, juggling huge volumes of pasta and meatballs, and somehow getting them all down on plates for the boys just as the last was in from work. The girlfriends, while it lasted, were also repelled that all of the dirty clothes that were silently delivered to her were silently returned, laundered and ironed.
The McSweenies generally looked hungry for a girl and resentful that the trick of how to get one had been never adequately divulged to them. If one of them had been a girl, then some helpful insights into femininity would have rubbed off on to the rest. Unfortunately, their parents had met under some inauspicious star that had cursed them to multiply only into boys. Mrs McSweeney used to comment sadly that if she had had a million children, they would have all been boys.
Her sons were usually employed across the south of Edinburgh, in garages, pubs, delivery firms, and for a particular supermarket that stood bleakly, like a fortress, at the border of their estate. In summer, however, they abandoned these jobs en masse to do gardens. They each had an implicit agreement with their employers that they could disappear for several months of the year, rather as certain migrating birds do. They liked being out in the open air, mowing lawns and hacking at hedges, typically around that thick belt of rich households with spacious, scarcely-used gardens between the Meadows and Blackford Hill. The McSweenies had a van and several cars between them and all of the necessary equipment. When asked about their summer work, they would remark wisely, as though it were a proverb, that “there’s money in gardens.” But I think that they would have done gardens if they were paid in sunshine and the smell of cut grass.
There was currently an old Chinese gentleman in Corstorphine who had a great deal of work planned for his garden. Mysteriously, he had phoned one of them. The McSweenies did not know where or from whom he had got their number. Their normal routine was to choose a lucrative-looking street and knock on doors until enough gardens had been volunteered. There was a solid consensus amongst the McSweenies that Dr Hwangbo, “the Chink,” was “creepy.” They racially abused him openly behind his back and they became sceptical or hostile whenever he tried to press his greasy, flavourless black tea on to them. He had money, though – there was that to be said for him.
One day, they were surprised to hear that he knew about their mother. Last November, before Christmas, Mrs McSweeney had been dismissed from the secondary school where she had worked for over fifteen years as lunch help. She had been accused of stealing and it was actually one of the pupils, an Indian boy named Amir, who had brought the decisive evidence to the school authorities. Next, the evening paper had profiled Amir, hailing him as “the boy detective” and commissioning a cartoon, from someone who drew cartoons, in which he was depicted as Sherlock Holmes.
The McSweenies were not eager to talk to Dr Hwangbo about their mother’s misfortune. They would always say fair-mindedly that she had been “accused of stealing” and this was as far as they were prepared to go. The truth was that she had been humiliated in front of people who she had worked alongside for decades. The school was also trying to withhold her pension.
Yet the brothers had been amazed when Dr Hwangbo had confided in them. “Me too,” he had insisted, wagging his head so matter-of-factly that for a few seconds they had struggled to believe what they were hearing. They had surrounded him, aghast and with their interest in him lit like votive candles by a monk’s hand. It was at that moment that everything dropped perfectly into place and they became an eternal, indissoluble unit with Dr Hwangbo anchored at their centre.
It turned out that Dr Hwangbo had been a teacher – a biology teacher, he had added grandly – and that a pupil had made an accusation that he had said lewd and suggestive things to her. It had been his word against hers and had things remained this way, it would have been insufficient to dislodge him from his position. But then the boy detective had claimed to have overheard Dr Hwangbo harassing the schoolgirl. To the boy detective, this had been simply another performance – just another crowd-pleaser. Dr Hwangbo had lost his job and his pension was now being threatened, in identical circumstances to those that had befallen Mrs McSweeney.
Someone would do something about that boy one day. Teach him a lesson – put him back in his place.
When Dr Hwangbo had said these things, in his dryly bemused voice, it had sounded so ordinary and reasonable that to a man the McSweenies had experienced an unexpected and almost exuberant feeling of relief. In truth, his story could not have pressed any more of the right buttons.
The McSweenies were always reading sentimental reports in tabloid newspapers, about luckless middle-aged men who were being maliciously accused of paedophilia and who had their entire lives turned upside-down before a jury finally came to the rescue and acquitted them. The complainants were always maddeningly infuriating, hiding behind official anonymity and never being made to answer for their mischief. The McSweenies collected these stories and, whenever one of them encountered a new one, they would recite all of the old ones to each other over again and admire them.
Yes, they agreed that someone ought to do something about that boy. People like that always got away with it. The powers that be were too slow to recognise what people like that were really like.