By Alex Gray
The old man grasped the head of his walking stick, feeling its curve snug within his palm. A glance at
his hands might have revealed the yellowing knuckle joints and dark, mottled skin, the fingertips stained ochre from years of rolling his own cigarettes: signs of old age and decay along with the necessary stick. With his freehand he pulled open the green-painted door of the close, letting it fall shut with a slam behind him. For a moment he paused in the shadows of twin hedges that flanked the pathway, fingers fumbling the buttons of his jacket. Then, turning into the street, he blinked, dimly aware of the lamps beginning to glow with a faint amber light against the deepening blue.
Twilight was not his favourite time of day. The setting sun was a glare against the lenses of his thick spectacles, any peripheral vision merely grey-hued shapes leering at him from the buildings on either side. Yet he had to be out; had to make this slow journey from his home to the
corner of the street.
Earlier, an insistent voice had made him put on his raincoat, wrench the walking stick out from its place in the hall stand and make his painful way down several flights of stone stairs leading to the street. That same voice had made him swallow down a thin line of phlegm, making him feel the dryness in his throat, inviting him to slake this nightly thirst. It was a voice he always obeyed.
The sound of laughter made him falter for a moment and look up. They were there again, those young hooligans from across the landing, sitting outside the pub as if they owned the place. And, although it was not a summer’s evening, he saw that the girls were clad in skimpy blouses, the young men sitting hunched towards them, wavering lines of smoke rising from their cigarettes. He would have to pass them in order to reach the pub door, make a detour around the table and chairs that cluttered up the pavement. For a moment he wanted to raise his stick and shout curses at them, tell them to clear off, but instead he lowered his eyes and shuffled past, hoping they might leave him in peace.
As he passed them he could hear whispers, but not the whispered words. Then more laughter, raucous laughter like crows squawking above a rubbish tip, the sound of it following him around the corner and on to the threshold of the Caledonian Bar. He could feel his heart thumping and, as he imagined their eyes turned to watch him enter the pub, the blood flushed his cheeks into angry spots of colour. But then the loud beat of music from an unseen source drowned out everything as he peered into the gloom, searching for a vacant seat. Even before he took his customary place in the corner the barman was pulling his first pint.
‘There, Mr McCubbin. A wee packet of crisps as well, eh?’ Ina, the barmaid with the purple hair, was smiling down at him, laying his pint mug carefully on the paper mat. ‘What d’you fancy the night? We’ve got in some nice ham-flavoured ones,’ she went on, shaking her head as the old man chose to ignore her, lifting the glass to his lips and drinking deeply.
‘The captain’s in one of his moods,’ Ina remarked sourly to Tam, the barman, who merely nodded at the old sailor and directed his glance at the next customer with a tilt of his chin that served as a question.
Derek McCubbin sat still, his back to the window, listening to the familiar jangle from the taped music, sighing into the night as distant images from seafaring days long gone flitted across his vision. For it was more than a mere physical thirst that drove him here night after night; the drink helped him to forget his age and infirmities, old memories smothering this present wretchedness, memories that could almost make his bitter lips twist into the grimace of a smile. They would replenish his glass a few more times during the evening before the old man made his way back along the street, tapping his stick against the
cold hard stones.
* * *
Outside the pub Kirsty Wilson shivered.
‘Want to go in?’ the other girl asked her, running her fingers down Kirsty’s bare arm, making goose bumps appear along her friend’s skin.
‘Och, it’s just that old man across from our flat,’ Kirsty replied. ‘Gives me the creeps.’
Eva Magnusson took her hand away, reaching up instead to smooth her own fine blond hair as the wind
began to blow the dust around their feet. ‘Thought you were cold,’ she remarked.
‘You feart of Mr McCubbin?’ the big red-haired boy opposite them laughed suddenly, stubbing out his cigarette on the metal ashtray. ‘He couldnae hurt a fly, that old codger.’
Kirsty wriggled uncomfortably. Rodge was right, of course. The old man was just that: an old man who didn’t see too well and who needed a stick to amble along the street every night.
‘You shouldnae be like that, Kirsty,’ another of the boys protested mildly. ‘D’you not feel sorry for him, all on his own like that?’
‘Och, he’s probably got other old men he meets in the pub every night,’ Kirsty said, sensing an argument beginning and knowing she was going to be worse off if she didn’t capitulate right away.
Colin shook his head, pressing home his point. ‘He’s always on his own. I’ve seen him,’ he added thoughtfully.
‘Poor old Daddy No Mates!’ Eva pulled a face then laughed and the others laughed with her as they always did.
Kirsty sighed quietly. Eva was the acknowledged favourite of their group whom everybody adored. Even the girls from uni didn’t bother trying to compete with her because what was the point? Colin, Gary and Rodge pretended that they were cool about living in the same flat as Eva Magnusson but Kirsty knew fine that any one of the three would hop into bed with Eva given half a chance. Especially Gary, she thought, watching the dark-haired English lad narrowing his eyes as he smiled over his glass. Colin and Rodge weren’t Eva’s type at all: Rodge was like a great bear, more at home on the rugby pitch than in the classroom. Or the bedroom, come to that, she grimaced, remembering a recent drunken night that neither of them ever spoke about. And Colin Young was just too nice for a girl like Eva Magnusson; too nice and too normal. The boy next door, Eva had called him once when the two girls had been discussing the lads, and she had made it sound like a sort of insult. No, Kirsty told herself, that wasn’t fair. Eva was never unkind about anyone; that was what was so endearing – and maddening – about her. You might envyher Scandinavian blue eyes and silvery blond hair but you simply couldn’t dislike her.
‘You’ve just got a suspicious mind, Kirsty,’ Gary told her. ‘Like your old man.’
‘Aye, well, maybe,’ Kirsty agreed. Having a dad in the police force was what had swung it for her in getting a place in Eva’s flat, she was sure of that. Mr Magnusson had been well impressed when she’d told him that her father was a detective sergeant in Strathclyde Police.
‘Ever think of joining him?’ Rodge asked. ‘Not a bad job for a lassie nowadays.’
‘No.’ Kirsty shook her head. ‘I’m more like my mum. Definitely going to be in the hospitality business.
Preferably somewhere warm.’ She shivered again and looked up at the darkening clouds.
‘You should be your own person, Kirsty!’ Eva said suddenly. ‘Don’t let your parents dictate your life for you.’
‘Aye, you get a wee place on the Med and we’ll all come for holidays,’ Colin joked, glancing from one girl to the other, eyebrows raised in surprise. But the Swedish girl’s smile was back almost at once, her sweet expression belying the vehemence with which she had spoken.
‘Come on, let’s go back to the flat,’ Eva said, getting up and looking for the pink cardigan that had slipped off the back of her chair and was lying on the ground.
‘Here.’ Colin scooped it up and wrapped it around her shoulders, a simple gesture that would have impressed Kirsty but that Eva only acknowledged with a faint smile as though it were her due.
‘Five go to Merryfield Avenue,’ Colin murmured as he fell into step with Kirsty, Eva and the others already several paces ahead of them.
Kirsty looked at him sharply. Did he think they were kids playing some sort of a game? Well, if that’s what he really thought, he was happy enough to take part in it, wasn’t he? Or was his remark directed more towards Eva? Kirsty followed her flatmate’s wistful gaze. There was no doubt in her mind that Colin Young was well and truly smitten and for a moment she felt sorry for him.
‘C’mon,’ she said, linking her arm in his. ‘I’ll stick the kettle on and make us all a cuppa. Okay?’
Colin grinned at her suddenly. ‘Know what, Kirsty Wilson? You’re going to make someone a great wee wife one of these days.’
Detective Sergeant Alistair Wilson drained his mug of tea and gave a satisfied sigh.
‘Good day?’ Betty asked with a smile.
‘Aye,’ her husband replied, leaning back on the kitchen chair. ‘Just like old times,’ he murmured.
‘Fancy having Lorimer back in the division again,’ Betty remarked. ‘You were all pleased to see the back of Mitchison when he got his transfer, but I bet none of you ever guessed who his replacement would be.’
‘No. Thought Lorimer would be up in Pitt Street for a good while longer when he made detective super.
Cutbacks.’ Alistair shrugged as though that single word explained away the myriad changes within the Strathclyde Police. He picked up his empty mug.
‘Another cuppa, love?’ Betty asked.
‘Aye, why not,’ the detective sergeant nodded. ‘Hear anything from our Kirsty today?’ he asked.
Betty Wilson shook her head. ‘She’s awfully busy. All these assignments. Wasn’t like that in my day. We had alot more practical stuff to do.’ She wiped the table top idly with a flick of her cloth, folded it neatly then laid it across the side of the kitchen sink.
‘Well if she turns out to be half the cook you are, pet, she’ll be doing fine.’ Alistair patted his wife’s ample bottom affectionately as she passed his chair.
‘Don’t know if that’s what our Kirsty wants,’ Betty replied. ‘Think she has her sights set on something more to do with the hotel trade.’ She bit her lip. Kirsty had been glowing with enthusiasm on her last visit home, telling her mum all about the opportunities for graduates that lay overseas. Although it was still only October she had already applied for summer jobs next year in hotels as far apart as Mallorca and the Channel Islands. It was something she hadn’t told Alistair yet. Kirsty was his darling, their only child, and the thought of her spending months away from Scotland would hit him hard, she knew.
‘Well, she works all hours at the weekends in that hotel to pay her rent, doesn’t she?’ Alistair replied. ‘And look at the tips she gets from some of those visitors!’ he added, a note of pride creeping into his voice. ‘Ach, she’ll do well, will Kirsty, wait and see.’
* * *
‘Penny for them,’ Maggie Lorimer said, looking at her husband who was gazing into space as they sat on either side of the kitchen table, the remains of their Sunday dinner between them.
‘Just thinking that it was good being back amongst the old crew, actually,’ Lorimer said, stretching his arms behind his head and yawning. ‘You don’t realise how much you’ve missed them till you go back.’
‘And they welcomed you with open arms,’ Maggie chuckled. It was no secret that her husband was popular with the other officers in the division.
‘I think so,’ he said lightly. ‘Anyway, now that the posting’s been confirmed that’s them stuck with me.’
Maggie Lorimer picked up the newspaper she had been reading, the smile still on her lips. His promotion had been well deserved even if his career path had been somewhat circuitous.
After serving in his divisional HQ as a DCI, William Lorimer had been promoted to detective superintendent and seconded to the Serious Crimes Squad at police headquarters for the first half of the year. However, massive changes to the structure of the force and budgetary constraints had resulted in the decision to mothball the unit, and he had waited for several anxious weeks to find out if he was to be posted back to his old division in place of the outgoing detective superintendent, Mark Mitchison.
I’ll see what I can do, was all that Assistant Chief Constable Joyce Rogers had told him. But it had been said with a knowing smile and a tap to the side of her nose. Och, it was as good as his, Maggie had insisted, back in the summer when they had taken their annual trip up to Mull for a much needed break. And she had been right.
Now he was back in Stewart Street it was as if he had never left the place.
Maggie thought about the city centre police headquarters for a moment; a squat low-level building huddled amidst tower blocks yet standing out with its bright blue paint and that customary chequered strip. It was close to the motorway on one side and to the top of Hope Street on the other, yet Maggie Lorimer had never once set foot inside A Division, preferring to meet her husband after work in one of the small bistros that were a short walk away. You don’t want to see what goes on, Bill had said to her
once when a high profile prisoner had been detained there. And he was right: Maggie listened to what her husband told her, accepting that there would always be a lot left out of any story involving serious crime and glad that she saw a different side to the man who dealt with criminals in his working life.
What neither the detective superintendent nor his schoolteacher wife could have guessed at that moment was the effect that one particular crime would have on them both.
From Swedish Girl by Alex Gray. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Gray. Reprinted by permission of Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.