The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chapter Eight: Empty Spaces (Part I)

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
And I can run away from you, I can!
- The Gingerbread Boy (St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1875)

A fine drizzle hung like mist around the street lamps along the narrow road between the sea and the steep, washed-out slope of the land, when the boy strolled out of the darkness and walked up to the red-and-white barrier marking the entrance to the marshalling area for the Scrabster-Stromness ferry. He wore threadbare Jeans, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, and scuffed and muddy oxblood boots. One of the shoe laces was black, the other was a bright neon orange. He had taken care to pick the hay from his clothes and from the dirty blond hair, and to wash the dust from his face, but there hadn’t been much he could do about the bruised cheek and the black eye, almost swollen shut, nor about his angry, closed-off expression.

For a while he loitered at the edge of the darkness and waited for check-in to begin. He tried to light a cigarette, but his lighter, a Zippo with the Tarot Death Card motive, was out of fuel.

When check-in began, he carefully observed the procedure from a distance. Just as the signs proclaimed, everybody, whether travelling with a car or on foot had to show a photo ID. The boy felt a slight annoyance at the terrorists, whose attacks 7 years earlier to the day had changed the world and made his form of travel so much harder.

The signs also proclaimed that no tickets were issued to unaccompanied minors under 16 years of age. Not that it makes much of a difference, he thought, I don’t own any legitimate ID anyway. And he doubted any kind of sob story could get him through here. After watching everything for a while he decided that he would easily get past the controls onto the marshalling area, with the terminal building, the long access road to the pier, and the passenger transit building. The problem would be the check points in the passenger transit building and the walkway up to the ferry.

He almost enjoyed the problem. It distracted him from other thoughts and memories. He briefly considered trying to swim to the ferry. The romantic commando style pleased him, but he quickly dismissed the idea as far beyond his abilities – the ferry would be much too tall from the surface of the water. He then considered trying to find someone a year or two older than himself with features similar enough to pass the picture check, and steal his ID. But there wasn’t anyone like that visible at the harbour. Also, he thought, such a person might easily notice the theft before the ferry arrived in Stromness and get the authorities to search for him. He didn’t fancy police officers searching the boat, cornering, and arresting him. And he had no intentions of going back South, to Thurso or beyond, to look for a suitable mark.

In the end, he thought his best chance would be to hide in one of the cars. He slunk undiscovered onto the large car park where the cars waited in neat queues for loading. Most passengers had gotten out, in spite of the chilly, damp weather. The sky had begun to grey in the East, and they were stretching their limbs, eating sandwiches and drinking hot beverages from thermoses, or using the toilets in the terminal building. The boy walked through the rows of cars as if belonging to one of them, and carefully considered his options.

He decided on a dark blue van. The driver, a burly man with a grim, ogerish face and a snake tattoo around his thick upper arm, locked the van with a remote and left for the terminal building. The boy peered through the windows. There were no other passengers inside, and several cardboard boxes had been stacked in the space behind the back seats. Careful to appear casual and unselfconscious, he took up position behind the rear doors, where he would be unobserved by the driver upon his return.

When the van beeped once and flashed its lights, and the doors unlocked with an audible clunk, he quickly opened the door, slipped in, closed it and crawled underneath the back seats. There, he figured, he would be invisible from the windows and from the front seats.

His stomach cramped with fear and excitement, as always when he had committed himself to a plan, and was now helplessly waiting whether it worked out or whether he would be caught. The van’s engine growled itself awake. The driver turned on the radio. Amy Winehouse’s hoarse, plaintive voice filled the space between them.

“So we are history, your shadow covers me, the sky above a blaze that only lovers see.”

Then the van jerked into motion, rolled slowly forward, rumbled over the ribbed metal ramp, and into the belly of the ship. When the driver killed the engine again, the boy had already braced his feet against the struts holding the seat, ready to push himself forward. As soon as he heard the door being opened, he shot out of his hiding place and to the rear door. Hoping the overall thundering, throbbing noises of the ship and the other cars would cover his exit, he opened the door, slipped out, ducked around the corner of the next car, straightened, and walked away casually.

On deck the peach and salmon glow on the Eastern horizon had faded back into the Prussian blue of a gloomy day. Two girls had taken advantage of the lull in the rain, and were standing by the guardrail, looking out at the emptiness of the open North Sea. They were chatting in fluent Gaelic, telling each other giggling gossip, when the bruised boy approached them.

They interrupted their conversation and eyed him curiously, but friendly. He struggled to ask his question.

“Can you tell me what this means in English?” He cleared his throat and blushed, trying to pronounce what he had been told, in halting whispers in the dark of the night five days before: “Hah Geul Ah-kum orsht.”

He had to repeat it twice. The girls giggled again.

“Wis she a bonnie lass?” one girl asked.

Helpless the boy shrugged, their reaction already confirming what he had been most afraid of. When she told him, he thanked her, blushing even worse.

After two hours the ferry docked in Stromness. He just walked off together with the other foot passengers. Nobody challenged him, and he disappeared in the narrow, steep alleys.

Sunday, 8 May 2011


It’s not a breeze cause it blows hard.
Yes and it wants me to discard
the humanity I know
Watch the warmth blow away.
- Incubus: The Warmth (1999)

Chapter Seven: Storm (Part VII)

The air in the cottage was cold when the grey morning filtered in through the shutters, but Sim’s naked body, next to me under the thick down covers, radiated heat. For a while I stared a the ceiling, and beyond it I saw all the ceilings under which I had woken in the past, in my mum’s flat, in juvie, in the flats of strangers, in the guest room of aunt’s, in the pit in Leeds, in all those hostels, in Dewey’s tent, and the different skies I had woken to when there had been no ceiling, from the night of being buried to the lost time in the Mullardochs.
I turned my head and looked for Sim’s face, peaceful and asleep, being slowly lifted out of a sea of shadows that clung to him, that caressed his cheeks and temples, the dark locks stuck by dried sweat to his forehead, his lips and neck, that clung to and caressed all of that like a mother saying good-bye to a child forever.
It took me a while to realise what the feeling was that filled me then. It took me a while because it had been so long since last I had felt it. It had been 484 days, to be exact, I later figured out since the day Hendrik first kissed me. The feeling was bliss, the sort that makes everything else meaningless.
And then, as if sensing my gaze, he opened his own eyes, sleepily, and smiled – a puzzled, content smile, almost as if in wonder where he was. I know it is impossible, but I swear that in that moment a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds, found its way through the blinds covering the windows, graced his face, and made his eyes glow like a clear, cool, mountain lake in the spring sun.
“What’ss t’ time?”
“Not sure. Around seven. Maybe bit before.”
He smiled again and without letting his eyes leave mine tentatively moved closer, as if expecting me to push him away. When I didn’t he carefully laid himself into the crook under my shoulder, his head on my arm. Like that first kiss, in the holiday home, it was as if he entered my embrace like someone testing and then immersing himself in unknown water.
He pushed the covers down and ran his dirty fingers over the tat on my chest: A clock-face framed in two curved words, “pain” above it, and “killer” below.
“Is tsat whit ye feel?”
“Not now, no. But at the time it was very, hm, comforting.”
He took my arm, the one below his head, the way one wraps oneself into a coat an looked at the silver scars running along it inside, from the wrist almost to the inside of the elbow.
“Whit wuss ut tsat ye gat first?”
“I got the tat afterwards. After I… got back. To remind myself that the option remained. That even if I didn’t do it, every day would bring the day closer that…” I trailed away without finishing the sentence. Sim nodded.
“Wull ye tell us hou ye dead ut?” He looked back into my face. “Tsat’ss why tae ye Sassenach.”
“I know,” I said, running my hand softly through his curls. “I’m not all stupid, ye ken.”
“Och aye te noo,” he said, deadpan. And then: “Wull ye?”
I let my head drop back into a pillow. “I…” I faltered, took a deep breath, tried it two more times. But I didn’t find any words that didn’t either make it sound ridiculous or pathetic. “Not now, okay?”
Something must have stopped him from pursuing that one. Instead he pushed himself up on an elbow and began to inspect my body.
Last night we had done everything in darkness. Sim had wanted to turn on the light, but still in the role of the teacher I had advised him to try it by touch, smell, taste, and sound at first. Like with picking a lock, those senses are far more useful in sex than sight, and as long as we can we rely far too much on our eyes. It diminishes our world. And like the good Padawan that he was, Sim had heeded that advice then. But now he took the chance to fill in the blanks that particular experience might have left him with.
He touched the blackened, L-shaped scars on my shoulder almost with reverence. Two nights before, sitting by the lake, I had told him about Julie and about Ponyboy. Sim made as if to kiss the scar, but in the end didn’t.
“Hou mony tattoos uss’t tsat ye hae?”
“Three. Painkiller was the first one.”
“Whan wat uss tsat ye hae’t made?”
“Three years ago, pretty much.”
He whistled, a real boy whistle from between his lower lip and his upper incisors. “Yer paurents alloued tsat?”
“Are you daft? My mum totally lost her rag, every time actually. But it wasn’t like she make me wash it off, could she?”
“Daur say no. Shaw us t’ issers?”
I rolled onto my belly and showed him the barcode on my bum cheek with the tiny words – in some dot matrix font – “sold under sin” printed underneath.
“Hendrik had me get that one. He paid for it… in a way.”
Sim nodded. “And t’ last ane?”
I showed him my other shoulder, opposite the scarred one. The tat there looked unlike the painkiller and the barcode tattoos a little amateurish, in a pale blue ink. It was a three-layered piece of cake with what might have been a cherry on top.
“That one’s from juvie. My mate Sebi did it with a sewing needle and ballpoint pen ink.”
Sim thought about it for a while, then he smiled. “T’ cake uss a lee?”
“Och aye.”
I was still grinning back at him when the bed cover began to slide off the bed and off both of us. Sim caught it quickly, but not quick enough to keep me from noticing the welts on his back, and buttocks, and his upper thighs. He covered them as if nothing had happened, but there was a weariness in his eyes now as he tried to gauge my reaction. I didn’t show any reaction, I’m sure, but I probably kept my face blank for just too long. But, anasını satayım, too many things suddenly made sense:
Why Conall had been so ready to believe me, and why his father hadn’t. Why Sim had tried to get me away from the house, and why he had been so sore when he came by the next day. Why he was so skilled an emotional reader, and such a master at misdirection. And all the little, bitter comments.
When I didn’t say anything, he echoed me: “Och aye.”
What else was there to say – except that question that burned inside me. Had it been because of me, because he had warned me? A question didn’t dare to ask, afraid of what obligations it might put on our friendship.
Instead I asked: “What’s on the agenda today?”
I think Sim was relieved when he laid down on the bed next to me. At least he didn’t move away.
“Want tae come wi us tae kirk?”
“Don’t you think that’d be risking a bit much?”
Sim grinned at me, his beautiful, crazy, wild grin. “Nae at aw. Te day uss kirkin at Saunt Lorcán’s. Tsat means t’ kirk wull be fou o’ fowk, wi t’ pipe band, and awbody clappin haunds wi t’ priest and aw. Smookin ye in and oot wull be a pure skoosh!”
I hemmed and hawed, feeling very uneasy, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and his excitement was catching. The thought was kind of thrilling. And anyway, I never could refuse him anything.
He had told his rents he was spending the night at a friend’s. The friend was in on it, more or less, and used to covering for Sim. Sim rode together with me to the A832, but dropped me off there to loiter behind some rocks and wait for him. I had taken the Zimmer Bradley along and spent the next 45 minutes in the company of Rumal and Orain, until Sim returned together with Conall and Caena in the Defender Pick-Up. The rest of the family had ridden either with neighbours or in their dad’s saloon.
Sim reintroduced me to his brother and sister, who he declared loudly to be trustworthy, and Conall excused himself for having almost gotten me nabbed.
“Masel uss sae sorry, Danny. A really dinnae expect fer ma paw tae actually gae and clipe on ye.”
I tried to take it with some grace, which I might have gotten off reasonably well, and they complimented me and Sim that with the new hair cut, dye job, and different clothes none of those who had seen me before would recognise me as long as I staid in the background.
The church itself was a big, grey, squatting block of a building, and brimming with festive worshippers. Once we arrived there, Sim bade me stay behind, and dashed off – turned out he was one of the altar boys and had to change before service. But as soon as he was away, a young man, early to mid twenties, walked up to me. He was wearing dark slacks, brown suede shoes, and a moss green blazer. He had Sim’s dark curls and bright blue eyes.
“Hey. A’m Aidan. Ye must be Danny.”
Carefully I shook his hand. He was tall and look good in that charismatic way that has nothing to do with looks and that people have who see more than they let on and who can form an opinion without sharing it.
“I’m Sim’s brother. He asked me te look efter ye, while he’s busy.”
Aidan was there in the company of his girlfriend, Lydia, who in turn had a younger brother, John, who was in Sim’s year at the local High School. Aidan left me with Lydia and John while he said hello to his mother and his siblings. He no longer lived at home, and, apparently, wasn’t currently on speaking terms with his father. Lydia started to chat with me, but it was awkward with unspoken chunks of life barring us every way. When John asked me about football we were all very relieved.
That mass was the first time I actually prayed to God again since ‘Nette’s death. I prayed the way I had done before she had gotten sick, the way she had taught me. In prayer you do not ask God for anything. If you have eyes in your head and a brain to understand what you see, you know that God does not change His plans because of the whims and wishes of humans. And if anyone ever comes to you with tales of miraculous cures, ask them why no amputee, however deserving, however hard praying, ever re-grew the littlest finger, let alone an arm or a leg? What, God does cancers and comas but no missing limbs? No, there is no heavenly wishing well. Prayer, done properly, means giving thanks for the world as it is, and listening for God’s voice, to tell you how you can contribute to its beauty and splendour.
Fittingly the sermon’s theme that day was Job 37:14 – “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.”
I reserved the right to heed or not to heed his words, as I saw fit, but we both – God and I, like God and Job before – knew that to do either was at my own peril. So I knelt down, in all the earnestness of my heart, and swallowed my pride, and for the first time in 3 ½ years I gave thanks. For, though I knew that my life was fucked up beyond belief, on that morning I was grateful for it indeed.
Afterwards Sim dodged his rents, and joined Aidan, Lydia, John and me. It was clear enough that Sim and Aidan shared a special closeness. Amongst his brothers Conall might have been Sim’s every day best friend and companion of many small adventures, but Aidan, the oldest of the siblings, was Sim’s hero and role model.
Aidan had come with Lydia and John in his extremely sexy black Toyota MR2 roadster, a car he had treated with luxurious contempt: The inside smelled of smoke, dope, and spilt beer, and there were parking receipts, betting stubs, and crushed cigarette boxes littered about. Aidan took me along, first dropping off Lydia and John at their rents’s place, and then me at the cottage. On the way there, along the A832 and down the port hole riddled cart rut across the moor, Aidan quizzed me.
“Sim thinks pretty big of ye.”
“He thinks pretty big of you.”
“Aye,” Aidan laughed and tried to dig a pack of fags from the breast pocket of his blazer. I leaned over, got it out, lit a fag, and gave to him. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.”
“So. Oniweys.” He took a puff and hemmed and hawed a bit. “I’ll ask ye straight up. Are ye plannin’ on playin’ some sort o’ con on him and ma family? Or usin’ him fer some other crooked deal?”
“What makes you think I would do that?”
He looked at me through a screen of smoke.
“Sim told me just enough about ye te hae me worried, but nae enough to know what yer up te.”
“Did he now.”
“Look. I dinnae care what the two o’ ye are doin’ up here, as long as ye daena play fause wi ma wee brother.” And when I didn’t say anything: “Ye see, Sim doesnae put trust in fowks. But fer some reason I cannae fathom, he put his trust in ye.”
Not enough to warn me about you, I thought. But then, he probably put more trust in you than you deserve yourself. Do you really know your own brother so little?
I took a fag for myself. The cottage appeared at the end of the track. The car shuddered and shook on the uneven ground.
“I have no intention of playing false, Mr. MacLeod. I have no intention of hurting Sim. But…”
I searched for words outside amongst the heather, the crags and pools, and didn’t find any. Aidan stopped the car. He opened the door, dropped the fag end onto the ground and extinguished it with a well practiced twist of his right brown suede shoe. He looked at me and nodded. “Aye. Life sometimes deals us a shite hand.”
We both got out. There was a hint of the sea on the air.
“Well, Danny.” Aidan offered me his hand across the roof of his roadster. “If ye’re ever in need of a place te stay, feel free te come te me.” And he handed me his card, naming him a solicitor, and giving his address in Port Maree.
When I saw Sim again later that day, he was in a foul mood. Tourists had rented the cottage and would be arriving on Wednesday. Our time together had gotten an official time limit. But – he had to grin at the cleverness of himself – he had strategically annoyed his dad into giving him the chore of making the cottage presentable for the tourists. That meant he also had an official reason to come by after school on Monday and Tuesday, which he did.
The weather was rather dreary and cool, but we still had a blast. On Monday I met him at the gates of his school and together we played two cons I had dreamed up. The marks were day tourists passing through, minimising the threat to Sim of being caught, and the nature of the game made maximum use of the fact that he was well known to the locals, while I was a stranger as well.
Tuesday we rode the horses to the tip of the peninsula and swum in the sea. Later we fished in the lake. And later still I helped Sim clean up the cottage while he introduced me to his favourite Scottish punk band, The Real McKenzies. And then he put on Nick Cave and we practiced dancing some more. From dancing one thing lead to another, and ended with him kneeling in front of the bed while I buggered him energetically.
Had we been caught doing this before 1861, it would have meant death by hanging for me. Until 1980 it would have meant penal servitude for life or no less than 10 years. (Though only if I had been of legal age myself, I suppose. I never understood the British rules regarding the age of criminal responsibility.)
This is what it meant in 2008:
Suddenly Sim grew pale as death and stared over my shoulder. Someone had come in under the cover of Nick Cave singing about the Mercy Seat.
I turned around as fast as I could, given the circumstances, and could hear Sim wince as I did. Then my ears were ringing and I stumbled backwards and fell over the edge of the bed, the entire left half of my face in sickening flames.
Over me stood, face contorted by rage, fists balled and in the air, Sim’s father. I have no idea what he screamed or even if it was English, Scots, or Gaelic, but the meaning was clear enough: “I will kill you.”
I doubt though that he really had that resolve. Few do. He just thought it was the correct and manly sentiment to show at such a moment, and  that in the end some judicious violence would suffice. Of course neither of us knew that he had actually succeeded, but that it took one year and two months for the impact to run down the skein of fate and finally break my body.
I was still stumbling to my feet, hampered by jeans and boxers bunched around my ankles when Sim – his legs were untangled and naked but for a single, vividly orange sock – jumped up and went between his dad and me, begging – begging! – him to stop.
His dad caught him with a backhand slap to the temple that sent Sim flying across the room like a rag doll, until the corner of a table connected with his head and broke his flight curve.
He crumpled to the floor like a heap of wet clothes.
I told you I sometimes see red?
I assume I must somehow have gotten out of the jeans, and I must have grabbed whatever I got my hands on, Sim’s heavy-duty bicycle lock as it turned out, and I must have attacked Mr. MacLeod.
I only remember that I heard two sound: Furious and insane sounding bellowing – that must have been me – and then a soft whimpering. The red haze receded enough for me to realise that the whimpering had come from Sim’s limp body. That was enough to bring me back into the real world.
Mr. MacLeod was lying on his back, his right wrist and leg apparently broken, his face almost as pale as Sim’s had been when he had seen him. And I was standing above him, the bicycle lock held high and about to be brought down with all my strength onto his head.
I still wanted to murder him. That is not a figure of speech. I wanted to see his skull crack, his face split, and his brains run across the floor in a pink, frothing mush. I wanted to stomp into that mush and make it squish. I wanted him to be eradicated from this earth.
But the rage was fading almost as quickly as it had come. Having heard Sim’s one whimper had been enough to cut away the bottom of my heart and to let everything boiling in it fall out, leaving nothing but a terrible and cold emptiness.
Keeping the lock firm in hand I retreated to Sim and knelt down net to him, to feel his pulse. I didn’t feel it, but I was probably too shaken to do so anyway. He was breathing though, so he was still alive. There was blood pooling under his head and I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I didn’t dare move his body for fear of doing more damage.
Instead I fished his mobile from the pocket of his jacket – a jacket he had hung over the back of the chair – now knocked over – just an hour ago, when we had still been laughing. And hugging. Dancing. And kissing.
Pushing aside premature grief was very hard.
I concentrated on dialling emergency services.
“There has been an accident. Someone has been hurt at the head. He is losing a lot of blood. Unconscious. Fourteen years.”
She wanted to know where I was. I asked Mr. MacLeod. When he didn’t answer right away, I roared at him and hit his broken leg with the lock. He roared, too, in pain, and then told me what I needed to know. I passed it on to the shocked emergency operator and hung up.
I got dressed, gathered up my few belongings, stuffed everything in the nylon backpack Mr. Roth had given me, and waited by the window. I had expected an ambulance, but when I heard the helicopter, I knelt down next to Sim and gave him a small kiss on the forehead and, ignoring his father, hurried out of the house and hid amidst the birches.
I watched the medics carry Sim and his dad away. I saw that they had put a serious looking inflatable brace on his neck and that his face was uncovered. I couldn’t give tuppence about his dad.
When the helicopter had left, I picked up the bike Sim had left again carelessly lying on the gravel of the cottage, and rode off.
I went to Aidan’s place, the one noted on the card he had given me. There was no police car at his front door. When he opened the door for me, he was holding the telephone in his hand.
“I heard. What happened?”
I stumbled over my words, anger and grief and self-reproach tying my tongue. With a few quick, precise questions he sussed the situation.
“Stop apologising,” he said absentmindedly. “I know ma dad.”
I took a deep breath. I looked at him hard. Then I said:
“If you know your dad, you know he will put all of this on me.”
Aidan looked up, his face a question mark.
“I want Sim to live,” I continued. “I don’t see what I can do to help beyond this, but if there is anything, I will, even if it means going to the rozzers. But if your dad thinks he can finger me for Sim’s attacker and get away with it he’s wrong. If none of you will speak up, I will. I’ve seen the marks he left on Sim. Everything will come to light and he will go down with me.”
Aidan still didn’t react.
“I don’t know how badly you want to see him in jail, but they got my voice making that 999 call. They have me shouting at him and hurting him. My fingerprints are all over that cottage, and probably all sorts of other traces. And my prints will eventually lead them to everything about me. You’re a fucking solicitor, you do the math.”
He looked back at me for a while, thinking. I believe he was really pondering whether he should let both me and his dad go to jail. But then he took his phone again:
“Ma? It’s Aidan. I know, I’m on ma wey there. But ye must listen now, ma. Send Iona te the wee cottage. She must scrub it doon. No, everything. Change linen, and do every light switch and door knob, water tab. Anything somebody might put his hands on. No, ma, if ye daenna want yer husband in jail fer a very lang time, ye will dae it. Richt noo! Aye, A’ll see ye there. And ma? If ye get ther first, make him shut oop until A’m there, too, aye?”
He turned to me, looking grim and a bit sick. “I have te go now. Ye can stay or leave. There’s food in the kitchen. Help yerself.”
It was one of the longest nights of my life. I spent most of it sitting on the windowsill, staring out at the street, expecting police cars. I finished all my fags, remembering with each one the two boxes of Marlboro Sim had brought me. Remembering every damn thing we’d done together.
I got up once to pee, and another time to drink some water from the tab.
The sky was greying when Aidan returned.
“He’ll live. It’s a fracture and they say his brain is swollen, but they say he’ll make it.”
I slumped down in a corner against the wall.
“Ye gotta leave. They dinna believe our yarn aboot the accident and ye havin’ been chust a hiker passin’ through, but I daena think they’ll be able to pruive anything, once ye’re gone.”
I nodded. I gave him my e-mail address, in case he or Sim ever wanted to contact me later, and we went down to his car. We rode in silence. The land was still just as beautiful as it had been when Conall had taken me. He let me out at Braemore Junction. We shook hands, and he said farewell cordially enough, but there was little doubt he wished I had never set foot in his family’s house.
Then he took off, in his sexy black roadster. I stood where he had let me off, at the car park for Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach. I was 1,971 kilometres from Lake Iešjávri, as the crow flies. 1,971 kilometres and 86 days. And 1,533 kilometres and 191 days from a little, run down farm house in Lower Silesia.
And 3,026 kilometres and 393 days from that dinghy Greek guesthouse near the Aegean Sea.
Not that any of these places would have meant shit to me then. All I knew, as I stood there, was that I couldn’t go south. That I couldn’t go back.
So I struck out my thumb and waited for a northbound car to take me along.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Chapter Seven: Storm (Part VI)

The sun was slowly dying in a bloody swamp of stringy clouds above the Hebrides when Sim returned. He came on horseback.
“Ower t’ muir uss t’ shortest wey,” he explained as he dismounted. He was keeping two coins palmed, one in each hand. One of them fell to the ground as he tethered the horse to a tree. He picked it up with an apologetic shrug.
“Hae tae haud at practeesin, richt?”
“Right,” I said, and I couldn’t have felt prouder.
“Sae, whaur uss we gaun?”
“I had the other cottage in mind, the one a bit down the shore. It seems to be empty at the moment.”
“T’ McDonagh boothy?” His face fell. “Tsat’s dreich. Naessin tarein bit stour’s sel and moose-wabs.”
“Nothing there but what?”
He rolled his eyes: “Dist and speeder wabs.”
“Oh. Yes, which is why it’s a good place to practice. We’re not going to knock over Fort Knox on our first try, are we?”
The disappointment on his face remained.
“Okay,” I relented. “How about we try your rents’s house, later, when they’re asleep?”
Sim shuddered. “Certes, and tan ma paw kin catch ye lairnin masel hou tae be a berglir? Tsat’s a mischancy thochtie, mate.” Then his face brightened: “Och! Masel ken chust t’ perfit goose. Ut’ss in Port Maree, bit ut’ss geylies oot-t’-way. Ut’ss belangin tae somebody frae Edinburrae, bit ut shoud be emptie te noo.”
“You are crazy, you know that, Sim MacLeod?”
Aye. Masel uss, ussna A?” He grinned. “C’mon, aff we gae.”
He climbed back onto the horse and scooted to he very front of the broad saddle. “Ceana telt msel ye ken hou tae ride. Ye tak t’ reins.”
I stepped into the stirrup he had just taken his own feet out of, grabbed the saddle horn, and swung myself into the saddle behind him. He leaned back into me as I reached around him on both sides to take the reins, and I had to think of Hendrik and the rides on his motorbike.
Without waiting for his directions I nudged the horse into canter and went to the narrow path across the moor to Port Maree.
“Och, ye awready ken yer wey aboot,” Sim commented.
“It pays to know your exits. If you want to be a thief, you better keep that in mind.”
Bitterly he muttered: “A leart tsat lesson lang syne, mate.”
Silence settled over us as we rode through the chilly September night. He snuggled his back against me and I kinda hoped he didn’t notice my wood, but I had told him enough for him to be forewarned, and anyway, he neither joked about it nor shied away. A low waning moon winked heartlessly through ragged clouds and the lonesome beauty of the land burned itself into my soul forever.
The house Sim lead me to was a nice, modern, flat-roofed holiday home at the north end of the village, set back a bit in the hills above the beach. We left the hose tethered to a clump of wild gooseberry bushes in a hollow hidden from the village behind the last crest of the shore-side hills. Sim wanted us to camouflage ourselves Ranger style, with mud across the faces and grass and leafy twigs and heather stuck across our clothing, but I stopped him.
“Bit ut’s really wirkin. A wis amang t’ best at ACF fieldcraft.”
“Airmy Cadet Force. At schuil. At’s tis paramilitary sivival trainin, ken, Bear Grylls like. And masel uss guid, guid at’ut. Pent and ryss and t’ like, tay brak t’ contours, mak ut real fickle fer t’ issers tae ken us fer human.”
“Ryss?” – “Twigs, man. Twigs, and grass, and leafs. And pent fer t’ face. Make-up.”
“Yes, Sim. I believe you are really good at paramilitary survival, and if it was a matter of getting shot at or not, I’d agree. But you’re going to break into an empty, unprotected house. It’s our job nobody sees us at all, with twigs or without. And if we are caught, you can always say, we were just bored and had a look around for a laugh. At best you get a slap on the wrist for trespassing. But if you show up in bloody camouflage, that’s not going to stick. When they see you meant business, they get you for B&E. That’s no joke. We are breaking into a house.”
He sobered a bit and followed me over the wall, across the sloping lawn, and to the front door. By then the moon had set, and the only light came from the street lamps beyond the wall and the bushes. Sim wanted to take an electric torch from a pocket. I held the wrist.
“No light,” I whispered. “The beam of a torch at night is really suspicious. Someone who has a right to be here would turn on the porch light, and if they were coming or leaving they’d have a car down by the street and everything.”
“Bit hou wull we appen t’ door?” he whispered back.
“I’m going to teach you how to pick a lock now. And that is done by sound and touch anyway. Here, gimme your coins and take these.”
In the darkness I pressed two small tools into his hands, a safety pin and a small flathead screwdriver I had taken from a tool box back in the cottage.
“To pick a normal security lock you need a pick – that’s the safety pin in this case – and a tension wrench – the screwdriver. The pick has to be both thin, so you can get it inside the lock and move around inside, and strong, so it doesn’t bend away once you start to poke at things. The wrench has to be able to administer torque, that is pressure on the cylinder, turn it, you know, like a key would. So it needs to fit into the slit and apply pressure on the sides, but leave as much room as possible so you can still move the pin freely. It’s always a sort of compromise.”
I showed him how to apply torque with the screwdriver and the guided his other hand with the pin into the lock. While I had waited for Sim that evening I had bent the last three millimetres of the pointy end of the pin upwards with some pliers.
“The thing about the pick is this: Most stuff, like paper clips, especially those made of brass or copper, are too soft. Once you try to press against the pins inside the lock, they bend somewhere along the long part between your grip and the little bent pointy end. And those covered in plastic are usually too thick to get inside properly. So you need something made from steel, but stull just pliable enough so you can bend the end 90 degrees without it snapping off.”
“Like a sauftie-preen?”
“For example. A good, long, not too thick steel paperclip can work, too. Really fine hacksaw blades can also be good. Wire is mostly too soft, but that depends. Okay, now feel around inside the tumbler. Scrape the pin along the bottom. Can you feel how the point keeps catching?”
“That’s the pins. There is 5 to 8 pins in a lock like this. Each pin is actually two steel pins and a spring pressing against them. When a key is inserted the teeth of the key push each set of pins exactly so that the break separating them – remember, it’s always two pins and a spring – is aligned perfectly with the side of the cylinder, so that one pin is exactly outside, and one is exactly inside. But when you remove the key, the springs move the pins so that they go across the line and pin the cylinder in place, so it can’t turn. Got that?”
“What you want to do is push each set of pins so that the crack between them is aligned perfectly with the cylinder wall and you can turn the lock with the wrench… the screwdriver.”
“Bit winna t’ springs push t’ pins back, ance A muive tae t’ neist ane?”
“Spot on, mate. That’s why you need to keep torque on the cylinder with the wrench all the time: Not so much you can’t push the pins anymore with your pick, but enough so the pins don’t slide back in. Once you get a feel for it, you can actually hear and sense the tiny click when a pin separates at the crack.”
“Och, ut’s fickle, eh?”
“It’s a lot harder than it mostly looks on the telly, but it’s not magic either. Just try to feel and hear and imagine what’s going on inside the lock.”
“Uss’t up or doon tsat A thrimmle t’ pins?”
“Can be either way. Depends on how the key is put in. You always push the way the teeth of the key are pointing. In Germany it’s usually downward. I think it’s the same here. I read that in America it’s usually upwards, but I’ve never been there myself.”
“Doon, richt.”
And then I settled down and let him work on it. I knew that the first time takes forever. And it did. It took Sim almost three hours, and he was bathed in sweat at the end. It’s not easy to stay crouched in front of a door, keep constant but delicate pressure with a tool not really good for the job with one hand and try to make tiny adjustments in a space you can’t see with the other.
Once, after about half an hour, Sim wanted to give up.
“A cannae dae it, Dana. A wull be here awe nicht.”
“I got time. So do you. Or do you have somewhere else to be?”
“Naw, atweel no. Bit tis maun be gey dreich fer ye. A tsocht we would hae fun te nicht.”
“I got time, Sim. You want to learn this or not?”
After that he concentrated on the lock.
I learned a lot about Gaelic cussing that night. It’s not only very strenuous, but it also incredibly frustrating. Every time your tension torque slips all the pins you already got into the correct position will slip back, and you have to start from scratch.
But he kept at it, and around two in the morning he turned the cylinder with the screwdriver once around we heard the latch slide back one setting.
Then the cylinder caught again and the door was still locked.
“Whit’s wrang?”
“It’s a double lock. Most are. You need to turn the key twice before you can open the door. But of course as you turn, the pins slip back, so you need to pick it all over again.”
“Och nae. Nae!” And he followed that with a long stream of Gaelic obscenities. “Ye kenned at woud happen?!”
“Yep. Well, I was pretty sure it would.”
“And noo?”
“Here, let me try this.”
I took another safety pin from my pocket and took the screwdriver from Sim. I applied the screwdriver and pushed the second safety pin into the lock and ratcheted it quickly in and out in a somewhat jiggly sawing motion. After a few seconds the cylinder turned a second time and this time the bolt inside slid all the way back and I could push the door open.
Sim stared at me with open mouth.
“Hou’d ye dae tsat?”
I grinned and pressed my second make-shift lockpick into his hand. He felt it and realized that I had not given it a single 90° twist at the end, but had rather bent it into a zig-zagging shape, not unlike a normal key, only that all “teeth” were roughly the same size and shape.
“Sometimes this works, too. You must apply the right amount of torque but then you can try to simply jiggle the pins quick enough and hope they will all catch at the right spot. Works a lot faster than picking each pin individually.”
An Taigh na Gall ort!” Sim spat a couple of nasty insults my way. “Hou wisna ye at telling masel tsat rich oot?”
“Sorry, I’m just a simple Englishman,” I said, grinning. “When you get excited I can’t understand you. What did you just say?”
“Feech! A askit: Why dinnae tell me hou tae dae tsat richt awa?”
“Seriously, Sim? Because now you actually learned how a lock works. Now you also know why this trick works. Now you understand a lock. And anyway, ratcheting doesn’t always work.”
“Hou lang uss it whan ye pick a lock?”
“Depends on the lock, of course. But normally I got it down to about 20 minutes. But that took a lot of practice I mostly practiced on the door to the roof. It was pretty difficult, and nobody ever bothered me when I sitting at the top of the staircase.”
I opened the door wide.
“Please, come in.”
The house was exactly what you would expect from a holiday home when it wasn’t it use. Lots of pine wood, and carpets and cushions in subdued colours and patterns that inured them against stains and dirt. The fridge door was propped open with a neatly folded kitchen towel, and in the cabinets remained a bag of sugar, a carton of salt, and an open pack of rice.
Sim went to the fuse box and turned the power on. Then he turned on the lights in the living room. I thought about telling him not to, but the windows were shuttered, the curtains were drawn, and the room itself, on the lower level, was hidden from the street behind the wall and the hedge.
“Hey, leuk here!” Sim had found a bottle of Scotch in one cabinet. We opened it and took turns drinking directly from the bottle.
Then Sim turned on the stereo and began to dance in the middle of the room. I sat down on the couch, lit a fag, had some more Scotch, and watched him. When he noticed me watching, he said: “C’mon. Dance wi us.”
“Dance wi us.”
“But we’re both blokes.”
“Aye. And tsat baszers ye, pìobair?”
“I can’t dance.”
“Nowey!” Sim laughed. “Ye canna dance? Masel wull lairn ye! C’mon.”
For a second I thought about telling him to fuck himself, but then sighed, put the fag between my lips, and went over to him.
“Ut’s gey easy, Dana. Leuk. Ye pit yer caurie haund here and gie’s isser. Sae. And noo ye coont tae fower, wi t’ muisic. Ane, twa, tsree, fower, ane, twa, tsree, fower…”
I concentrated on matching his steps and after a while I actually got into the rhythm. Then Sim stopped and knelt down by the rack with CDs. He went through it and then pulled one out.
“Tis uss a Walz. Haud on.”
He put the CD into the player and then Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman began singing: “I know I stand in line you think you have the time…” Sim came back over to me, took up position again and showed me the gentle swayin one-two-three steps of the Walz.
And then we danced. For real. Slow, and close, to this insipid, silly, clichéd, soppy song. His nails on his fingers on his hand on my shoulder were dirty and badly cut. He smelled of sweat and horse. His belt buckle pressed against my crotch. From his nose his breath came through the neck of my T and was hot and chilling at once on my chest.
In this plain, almost anonymous living room of the empty holiday home I had taught him to break into, drunk on Scotch and excitement, success, and our own daring, we danced.
And when Nicole Kidmen left the stage and Robbie Williams started into the brassy “Do Nothing Til’ You Hear From Me”, Sim looked up into my eyes and with a burning face asked hoarsely: “Will ye lairn us t’isser stuff an aw?”
And when I didn’t answer right away: “Ye ken, whit ye dae wi…”
Not wanting to make him spell it out, I kissed him as gentle as I could. At first he tensed, and I had to think of Tim, and wondered if I had made a mistake again. But it wasn’t the same tension, there was no real shock in Sim’s body language, more a shivering, excited fear, and when his tongue met mine, it was as careful as a testing of the water. Careful, but curious.
After a while we cleaned up, turned off the lights, and rode back to the cottage. This time I used the bed. And Sim stayed.