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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.