I’m finishing up a new novel entitled Blacker. I’ve included the first two chapters below, if you’d like to read them. This is a very rough first draft. If you are interested in this story, drop me a line. All comments are welcome. Please contact me by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A blind and reclusive ex-serviceman becomes a reluctant hero after he is called upon to investigate a deadly threat to the entire human race.
Warning, Blacker contains strong language and is recommended for readers aged 21 years and over.
Coming along nicely and looks to be on track for a summer release. Note that this is new copy as of 15th April 2016. So if you saw it before then, this version should be better!
Chapter One: Fire
Someone was hammering on the flimsy plastic panel of his bedsit door. Somehow, he’d incorporated the smoke detector’s beeping into his dreaming. He opened his eyes, trying to remember what the dream had been about. Jackie was outside, calling to him with forced restraint. Her hand rapped against the door – threatening to crack the semi-transparent plastic sheet.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted, “I know, Jackie. I’m sorry! I’ll get it.”
“Let me in, John. It’s easier if you just open the door!”
She sounded more frustrated than angry, he thought. It was easy enough to find the door. He got to it in a few seconds. Outside, Craig shouted something that he didn’t really intend Sloane to hear. Sloane ignored the drug addict’s loathsome moans. He opened the door enough for Jackie to enter. She moved passed him pretty closely, but she careful enough not to collide with him. She didn’t say a word as she moved past him, but he turned to follow her. He could smell the smoke now. She had washed her hands using the lavender and pine soap she’d picked up. He could smell that too.
“Your shirt is inside out,” she snapped, “Damn it, John!”
“I’ll put it out,” he said, “I’m sorry, let me get it. Jackie, let me put it out.”
He heard her exhale loudly. She wanted him to hear it. She was upset. He wondered what time it was. He heard her stomp across his room. Then he could hear her lift up the large glass ashtray that she’d gotten him some time back. She tapped it against something and then pounded it hard against the corner of the bed that he’d set on fire.
“You set the bed on fire,” she said sharply, “You’re going to burn us all to death. And your shirt is inside out. And now the whole building is going to smell.”
He heard her struggle with the window. Then he heard the window slide upwards and open. The cold morning air rushed in, along with the sound of the railway below. The stink of the garbage piled up in the drying green assailed his nostrils much worse than the burning newspaper and tobacco.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly, “I must have fallen asleep. What time is it anyway?”
“It’s almost eight o’clock,” she said, “in the morning,” she added quickly, “Craig and Jilly told me that your room was on fire. Actually, Craig said you had burned to death.”
“Maybe in his fucked up loser drug addict fantasy world,” Sloane grunted, “I missed the ashtray, that’s all. And your little present ended up paying for itself. The smoke detector, I mean.”
She laughed. He could smell something else besides the old fashioned soap now. Something sweet and familiar. It was coming from her breath, he thought, or maybe she had spilled some on her clothes. He wondered why it smelled so strong, but then he realised why. She’d moved in close to him. Then her hands were on his collar.
“It’s inside out. All you need to do now is spill your ashtray all over yourself. Then you’ll be a completely hopeless case – to anyone’s eyes.”
She drew in breath too quickly, he thought. It made her mistake more evident. For the badness of it, he decided to twist the knife a little.
“Anyone’s eyes but mine.”
Her hand pushed against his chest. A little too rough to be completely playful, but not too hard that he would fall over.
“You’re breaking my heart,” Jackie whispered, “You know what I think about sympathy. If that’s what you are wanting, you will not get it from me.”
He loved the way that she pronounced her words. She spoke so carefully. The occasional flaws in her English pronunciation made him feel warm inside too. He smiled in her general direction, then waved his hands in front of his own face, clearing the smoke away. The back of his right hand bounced against something soft and round. She let out a yelp of surprise and alarm.
“That is even better,” she said boldly, “Now I am being groped by the poor, helpless, blind man who tries to burn us all to death.”
He laughed quietly.
“I’m sorry about the smoke,” he said, “The place is going to stink now.”
“The place already stinks. McQuade will not even notice – if he shows his dullard head. Which he won’t, because the shower needs to be repaired. But you need to wake up, John. You need to wake up and get your life sorted out.”
“I’m awake. I am awake.” He considered his next statement for a moment, “I’m not the one drinking Southern Comfort at eight o’clock in the morning.”
There was a moment of silence. A train rumbled by, headed for the Cathcart road station a few hundred metres east of the Victorian building. A cold Autumn wind was blowing into the room as a disgruntled wasp bumped against the closed top third of the ancient warped glass window.
“So I’m sitting in my disgusting little room drinking spirits at eight o’clock in the morning? Do you think we are living the same life? Do you think you are getting yourself confused with me?”
He laughed again, shaking his head. Again, he raised his hands. This time, they were in a defensive position.
“Keep those hands away from me!” she joked, “I know what you are up to. Anyway, you are wrong. I haven’t, of course, been drinking today. You have me confused with yourself, maybe. Hmnn?”
“Jackie, I can smell Southern Comfort from a mile away.”
“My, my. What a wonderful talent you have,” she jibed, “Detecting booze from a distance. And drinking it too, I would guess. But you are wrong this time. It isn’t Southern Comfort. You’re smelling my perfume, perhaps.”
“It’s not that,” he said a little too quickly, “It smells just like Southern Comfort.”
She stepped away from him. He heard her close the window, but she didn’t latch it. They were on the second floor. There wasn’t any point in latching it. Besides, if anyone was going to break in it would be either Craig or Jilly. But Craig was doing pretty well these days. He hadn’t tried to kill himself for a good two months. Jilly was around more often than not, which Sloane supposed helped keep Craig from falling into the absolute pits of despair that drove him to his frequent bouts of theft, self-harm and limp attempts at suicide.
He heard Jackie walk back to him. She’d been standing at the window for a few seconds. He wondered if she had been looking at the railway track or the mountain of litter beneath his window, where the bin store was. Unspeaking, she moved towards him. Her body was closer to his than any other person’s had been in over four years. He felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. He had to resist the temptation to lean backwards away from her. He felt suddenly nervous, but he didn’t know why. His cheeks were burning and he felt his breath catch in his throat. A cold shiver was running down his spine, paralysing him to the spot as he struggled to understand what he was feeling. Before he could react to her proximity, her hands were on his shirt collar again. She was tugging his shirt upwards and, in a moment of agonising bliss, Jackie pulled his shirt up and over his head.
“You need to get this in the wash,” she told him sternly, “You’ve got yesterday’s dinner and breakfast all over it. Give it to me and I’ll…”
She stopped talking. He’d pulled back a little too abruptly. His mouth was open, still waiting for the kiss that he’d momentarily fantasised about.
He laughed nervously to cover his embarrassment. He couldn’t hear her breathing anymore and realised that she was holding her breath. She released it in a long, whistling sigh.
“Alright. Then it is nothing.” Her voice was soft and pleasant to his ears. Her hands gave one final, half-hearted, tug at his collar, “But this stinks, so please take care of it.”
“Alright.” He decided that it was time to leave the subject of his personal hygiene, “What are you doing today? Anything good?”
“I have a fantastic day ahead of me, thank you for asking! First, I have to buy milk to replace the carton that silly girl has stolen from me – again. Then I have an interview for yet another position that I totally will not get.”
“I remember you telling me before,” Sloane said, “More hours, but further away. And don’t worry about the stolen milk. They’ve probably found some way to inject it into themselves or something.”
“I think they pour it down the sink just to spite me,” Jackie growled, “I need to get my own fridge. Anyway, listen and focus – ok? Yes, more hours and further away. But it could lead to a full time teaching position. And maybe I’ll be able to find somewhere a little nicer to live. Or somewhere suitable for human life, at least.”
“You know I don’t mean you. But everything else. Absolutely everything else. If we’re not being set on fire by the drug addicts outside we’re being robbed by the ones inside the flat. The bathroom is absolutely disgusting – no matter what I do to it. The kitchen cooker is death trap. Or the parts of it that still work are. This isn’t somewhere to build a life, John. This is somewhere to… exist.”
“I don’t suppose it helps when your flatmate sets his bed on fire,” Sloane said quietly.
She didn’t say anything. He imagined what her expression was. Had he hit the nail on the head? Was he just another one of her problems?
What the fuck? Of course you’re one of her problems. She only came into the room because you were in the middle of burning the place down to the ground. She probably ranks you right up there with Craig and Jilly. You’re every bit as useless to her as they are. No, it’s even worse than that. At least she doesn’t give a flying fuck about them.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” he said, “Thanks for telling me about my shirt. I’m sorry about the fire. I’m sorry that you’re stuck in this shithole. You deserve way better than this. I mean it.”
She stepped towards him again and he felt her hands move towards him. But they stopped short of his neck. He could sense them hanging in the air. They gave off a faint heat that he could feel and he detected the smell of washing up liquid and hand cream. The wildly pleasurable sensation of Jackie’s presence lingered for an eternal five or six seconds. Then her body was moving away from his yet again. The conversation was over.
“Wash the shirt,” she said, “and wish me luck.”
And then she was closing the door behind herself. He listened to her walk across to her own room. She unlocked the door and closed it softly behind herself. He went to sit on the edge of his bed and stared towards the door. Ten minutes later, Jackie left the building. He could hear her heels clicking as she went down the first flight of stairs, but then the sounds were lost in the background grumble and moaning of Glasgow’s south side. The telephone in the hall rang about thirty minutes later, but nobody answered it.
The phone rang three more times. Craig was in his room and Sloane heard him shout for someone to answer it each time. Carrie’s old room was still unoccupied and Jackie hadn’t returned from her bus ride into the city centre. Sloane didn’t want to answer the phone. He’d lived in the flat for a year and nobody had ever called him. Nobody even knew he was here.
Jackie returned to the flat just as the phone rang a fourth time. He could hear her turning her key in the lock quickly, trying to beat the phone. The door opened on the fourth ring. He heard her answer the phone and speak quietly to whoever it was on the other end of the line. He heard his own name mentioned, which surprised him. Then Jackie said a few more words that he couldn’t hear. Moments later, she tapped the wood panel of his door gently.
He found the door easily enough. He knew every last centimetre of his room. He opened the door enough for Jackie to enter, as she normally would, but she didn’t.
“Phone call,” she said, “Do you know a Fraser Mackay?”
“Fraser? Er, yeah. From way back… before.”
He touched his hands to his face, realising that he’d left his dark glasses on the edge of the bed.
“He’s on the phone?” Sloane walked back to the bed to retrieve his shades, “Jackie, can you tell him I’m not here?”
She didn’t follow him into the room. She was waiting outside. She’d never done that before. He wondered if she’d been shocked to see his eyes without the glasses. But then he recalled that she’d seen him a few times without the glasses.
“He says he’s a friend from the service,” Jackie stated, still outside the room.
“I know where he’s from,” Sloane spoke a little cruelly, “But I’m not… ah … I don’t want to speak to him right now.”
She made the disgruntled tut-tut that he’d grown to enjoy. He was back at the door now, opening it wider and hoping that she’d invite herself in as she usually did. But she didn’t. He could feel her there staring at him. He imagined her standing, tall, with her arms folded under her chest. Her expression might be one of confusion or frustration. It was difficult to read from the tone of her voice.
“Alright. I’ll tell him that you aren’t here,” she said, “Later you have to tell me what service Fraser is referring to. It will be a lot more interesting than my story of the day, I think. You remember? My interview?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but she jogged back to the phone. He realised that Fraser must have heard that he was, of course, in the flat. He hoped that Fraser would get the message and not call back. Somewhere in his mind, it occurred to him that Jackie wanted to talk about her job interview. He heard her dismiss the caller and place the phone back on its hook. Then she returned to his door. He was standing inside the room, waiting for her to come in, but she just stood outside. He could hear her breathing. It sounded like she was growling a little with each breath.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “You want to come in? You’re standing in the doorway like some kind of… sentinel.”
“Yes, a sentinel. A big, foreboding presence,” he shivered with some kind of relief as he exhaled hard, “Won’t you come into the room? You’re freaking me out standing there like that.”
When she didn’t make a sound, he put his hands out by his side.
“You really have a way with words,” she said, “You sure do know how to flatter a woman.”
“Well are you going to come in? Are you mad at me for something?”
“I’m not mad at you. But I’ll have a coffee if you have time.”
“Oh I have time,” he said, “I’ve nothing planned until around midnight.”
He almost said something about frantic masturbation, but his inner censor managed to kick in just in time. Instead, as she walked past him into the room, he simply mentioned that he would be trying hard to get to sleep. But it sounded equally pathetic and he expect, as she was about to, that Jackie would call him on it.
“Splendid,” she laughed, “So before I can tell you about my day, I have to listen to you demolish your own before its even begun. Did you know that it’s just past lunchtime? And you’re talking about going to bed?”
He turned the kettle on. It already had enough water in it. He figured that the electric meter had about another five or six boiling in it before he had to feed it another fifty pence. There were a half dozen or so lying on top of the meter.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, “Tell me about the interview.”
The kettle started to click and creak as Jackie told her story. It took a few minutes to boil and he made the coffee with reasonable skill.
The interview had not gone well. She was underqualified for the position and one of the other candidates had already been working as a teacher’s assistant in the school. She’d also forgotten to buy the milk. But that wasn’t so big a problem, as there was a little shop below the flat that she’d go down to later.
“Will you come down with me?”
“To Ashraf’s?” Sloane said, “I can probably manage that.”
“Well done,” she said cheerfully, “To know that I’ve managed to entice you out of the flat for even five minutes is enough to brighten my day.”
The coffee wasn’t particularly good, but Sloane enjoyed spending time with Jackie. It turned out that she was also underqualified for the position she’d pursued. That and she’d screwed up the interview a little by letting her nervousness overcome her. She conceded that travelling would have been a problem, unless she bought a car. Sloane offered to drive her, if she bought one. This made them both laugh.
He almost finished his coffee. Jackie finished hers. She said she had to do something in her room and told him that would give him time to take a shower before they went out. He took the hint, realising that was Jackie’s delicate way of telling him that he stank. He gathered up some clean clothes and took an armful, with his washbag and towel, into the bathroom. It had been four or five days since he’d had a shower and as soon as the hot water hit him he realised what he had been missing. He stayed in the shower too long and the meter that nobody ever seemed to put any money into clicked off. Luckily, he’d rinsed the soap off long minutes ago.
She was sitting in his room. On the edge of the bed, perhaps. Or maybe in the spongey armchair with the wooden armrests.
“Yes,” he said, “You let yourself in?”
“Well, you left the door open so I thought I’d let myself in before anyone else did. Are you about ready to go?”
“Is there a rush?”
“Not really. But I thought it would be nice to pop into the Albert for an afternoon drink.”
“What about the milk?”
“I’ll get that later. How long do you think you’ll take to get ready?”
“I’m ready now,” he said, “Just let me get some money.”
“What about your hair?”
He frowned and then pushed the fingers of both hands back through his damp hair.
“Ready,” he said.
He had a little money hidden in various places throughout the bedsit room. He didn’t care if Jackie knew where any of his little stashes were. The money was hidden, mostly, from Craig and especially Jilly. But since he’d shown Jackie how to protect their door locks from being opened by credit cards he didn’t worry too much about the drug addicts breaking into his room. They’d fixed both their locks after Craig or (most likely) Jilly had taken fifty pounds from Jackie’s room. Jackie had spent ten minutes shouting and cursing in the hall before Sloane had confronted her. That had been their first meeting, five or six weeks ago. Before that date she’d been the heavy footfalls and the occasional muttered curse he would hear in the mornings as she left the flat or the scream of anger in the evening when she went into the kitchen. Now she was the only person he’d spent any real time with in years. Whilst the idea of leaving the flat did not appeal to him, spending more quality time with Jackie would make it worth his effort.
They left the building. He felt a pang of anxiety as the smell of disinfectant drifted into his senses along with a cold, soft waft of the outside world. Petrol and diesel fumes , making their through the vennel and up two flights of stairs. A latent hint of smoke and charcoal from the fire down by the bin storage area. He was going outside. It was never easy. It was getting harder.
“Yep,” he said, “I don’t know what it is, to be honest. Just feels… weird.”
She started down the stairs.
“Stay close to me,” she said, “I’ll protect you. Do you want to take my arm?”
“Okay,” he said.
He’d managed the stairs on his own eight or nine times. He could have done it without her assistance, but it was nice to feel Jackie’s arm hooked around his own and her body pressed against his. She was about an inch taller than he was and strong enough to bear his full weight if he took a tumble. But he didn’t. They made it to the bottom of the stairs with relative ease. He hoped that she wouldn’t let go of his arm. She started to pull it away from him, but he held onto her with a subtle insistence.
“Alright,” she said, “We made it this far. Ready to feel the sun on your face?”
“Go for it.”
The vennel smelled of urine, but the street smells blowing in with the chilly October air brought a cacophony of odours to Sloane’s senses. Most of them were the same ones he would enjoy when he sat on the edge of his window, wondering if the fall to the hard concrete below would be enough to kill him. The sounds of the city were different now. The traffic seemed unbearably loud. People were shouting and arguing. He felt himself tense up. Jackie gripped his arm almost roughly.
“Come on,” she sounded a little irritated, “We’re outside now.”
“That’s what I… like… about you,” he spoke loud above the noise of the Ashraf brothers arguing, “Your total lack of sympathy.”
The Albert bar wasn’t far away. They had to cross the street away from the Ashraf brothers and then walk past the hairdressers. Jackie tugged him across the road. Again, he felt she was treating him a little roughly. Was she annoyed with him? Frustrated, maybe?
“You want someone to feel sorry for you?”
It had taken her almost a minute to speak. They’d passed the hairdresser and the boarded up front of the little immigration place. She sounded like she was out of breath, but it wasn’t that. He let go of her arm. Or he sort of let go of it. The break was mutual, though he initiated it.
“You know, I don’t even know the answer to that,” he said eventually, “Maybe. I really don’t know.”
She took his arm back with a speed that surprised him. She gripped it tightly and quickened her pace. She was almost dragging him along. He stumbled, almost tripping over something large and soft and squishy. A black bag of litter at the edge of the pavement, he realised.
“Jackie you’ve gone mental,” he laughed, “What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t feel sorry for you,” she grunted.
“I know that.”
They crossed the road to the Albert bar. He recognised the sounds of football and the smell of cigarette smoke from the doorway of the Hampden bar on the other side of the road. The Albert bar was a much quieter place, especially when there was football showing at the Hampden bar.
“So if its sympathy you’re looking for…”
“I’m not looking for any sympathy,” he almost shouted, “It’s just something I said, that’s all! I’m sorry. I just thought you were being a bit rough, that’s it. Damn in, I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.”
“Alright,” she said smartly, “I don’t have it in me, John. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t believe in it. Sympathy is for the devil, remember?”
They were outside the heavy wooden doors of the Albert bar. He vaguely remembered telling Jackie, after more than a few Southern Comforts, what he thought about sympathy.
“That’s right,” he smiled, “It is. Nobody benefits from it but the devil.”
He heard the door creak open. Warm air and the smell of a stale beer soaked musty carpet drifted past Sloane’s face. She pulled him inside, but he felt embarrassed and slid his arm from under her own. She might have guessed what he was doing because she didn’t try to take his arm back. He pulled his folding cane from the inside pocket of his hip length leather coat and flicked it open. Jackie let out a surprised yelp and then she laughed a little too loudly.
“My goodness, you got me there. I didn’t think you even had one of those.”
“I don’t use it that much,” he explained, “Mostly I depend on the sympathetic to lead me around.”
She told him that he had a strange sense of humour. Then she ordered a drink for herself and his usual tipple. He hadn’t been in the Albert bar for a long time, but the middle aged and matronly barmaid remembered or knew enough to serve his drink in a short glass.
“Where do we sit?” she asked without thinking.
“Follow me,” he said, taking advantage of her slip.
With his drink in one hand and the white stick in his right, he tapped his way across from the bar to the lounge seats at the north end of the bar. There were three tables there, he remembered, and normally they were fairly empty. The Albert bar itself was a morgue most afternoons.
“Watch it!” she warned.
It was a little too late. The man coming from the bathroom collided with Sloane. But John was used to collisions and spilled only a few drops of his drink. He kept his balance too, even if he was surprised to find that strong hands catching him.
He felt a mixture of emotions tripping over each other and stumbling just like his body stumbled in the dark. Surprise – and joy – at the sound of the strong man’s deep tones. Anger, at Jackie’s betrayal. Fear. Fear for no reason he could decide. Then a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment all at once.
“Fraser,” Sloane said, “Let me get you a drink.”
“I’ve got one,” Fraser Mackay said, “I’m sitting right here at this table.”
He felt Jackie touch his arm. Not to lead him. Just a touch. Gently, like a question. Somehow, he knew exactly what she wanted to know.
“It’s alright,” he said quietly, “ Let’s sit down.”
They sat down together at the corner table. Jackie was on his right and Fraser sat across from him, his back to the bar. Fraser was drinking something that smelled like Guinness. Sloane didn’t remember him ever liking that before. But he also remembered that Fraser had never been too picky about what he drank. He was still wearing the same kuoros aftershave and he was still a smoker.
“You must be Jackie,” Fraser said, “I’m Fraser.”
Sloane felt them shaking hands. Sloane wasn’t sure if Fraser leaned in to kiss Jackie’s cheek or not. He didn’t hear anything that sounded like a kiss. Jackie introduced herself a little too nervously. Sloane felt a pang of jealousy. He held a clinking sound. They’d touched glasses together. Then Fraser, damningly, whispered the word “Success”.
“I’m blind, not fucking deaf,” Sloane snapped, “And I don’t like being fucking manoeuvred like this.”
“Fucking, fucking, fucking,” Jackie scolded, “Come on, John. You guys are friends. You don’t hide from your friends.”
“Nobody was hiding. I just didn’t feel like coming to the phone.”
Fraser was laughing. The slow, deep laugh Sloane remembered from long ago. He hadn’t heard Fraser laugh since the accident.
“I’ve caused a lover’s tiff,” Fraser’s laughed, his north Yorkshire accent breaking through stronger than Sloane remembered, “Sorry, guys. I didn’t know that we weren’t all on the same page. Come on, John. Let’s have a drink.”
Sloane jumped to his feet. His knee banged against the table. It stung and he squeezed it with his left hand.
“Fucking hell!” Sloane grunted, “There aren’t any no lovers here to have a tiff, Fraze. We’re flatmates. That’s all.”
“Sit, please,” Fraser said, “I knew you were in that bedsit anyway, so don’t think Jackie here betrayed you or anything. You’ve lost a wee bit of the stealth factor, mate. I heard you telling Jackie that you weren’t home. You need to keep your voice down if you’re going to hide like that.”
“I’m not hiding from anyone!”
Nobody said anything else. The barmaid cleared her throat, indicating her displeasure with the escalating argument. John Sloane waved in the general direction of the bar.
He took a deep breath. He was annoyed that Jackie would manipulate him into meeting Fraser Mackay here, but he was also embarrassed and disappointed. He’d been looking forward to a little alone time with Jackie – outside the bedsit. And he wasn’t up to meeting with Fraser – especially not with Jackie in tow. Slowly, and still debating the decision to stay, he placed himself back into the vinyl sofa a little further away from Jackie than he had been before.
“So how have you been?”
Sloane placed his hand on the glass in front of him. It felt cold and heavy and familiar. He lifted it a half inch and turned it around before placing it back on the table. Finally, he lifted the glass to his lips and tasted the beverage carefully.
“I’m doing alright. I haven’t really done all that much for a while. Just living the quiet life, getting used to things being the way they are. What are you doing these days?”
Fraser had moved on from the SAS. He now called himself an independent security consultant working for a government agency that he couldn’t name. That was all he’d say about his employers and the exact nature of his work. Sloane wasn’t all that interested, but Jackie wanted to know a lot more than Fraser was willing to tell. Fraser told all the old stories that Sloane already knew about. Of his current life, he stayed a little sketchy. He was living in Dartford, just east of London. He was still married to Susan, whom Sloane vaguely remembered. She had been short and voluptuous. An Australian blonde with wide hips and a large smile. They had a three year old son, Matthew. They’d bought, outright, a semi-detached 3 bedroom mini mansion with a two car driveway, an apple tree and French doors leading into a dining room. He drove a black Mercedes SLK and owned a red Jaguar e-type which stayed in the drive next to the Merc, covered in a plain tarp.
Sloane was jealous of just about everything Fraser Mackay told him. But worse than the jealousy was the embarrassment he felt about his own situation. Broke, unemployed and effectively imprisoned in a cheap and nasty little bedsit flat with a shared bathroom and a thin sheet of plastic protecting him from the thieves he shared the place with. He breathed a sigh of relief when Jackie excused herself to visit the ladies’ room. When he was certain that she was out of earshot, he let out a long moan and turned to his old colleague.
“I’m so glad everything’s going so well for you, Fraze. But your life makes mine look like… Fuck’s sake, your life makes my life look like it isn’t even a life. Jesus Christ, I’m glad Jackie’s gone to the…”
“I’m glad too,” Fraser interrupted, “Yep, my life is the shit and yours looks pretty fucked from where I’m sitting. But I might be able to do something about that.”
Sloane felt his heart jump to his throat. He trembled, almost visibly, as a strange sensation electrified him for a moment. There was something in the way Fraser had said his last words that made Sloane feel… hopeful. The feeling was one he hadn’t felt in a long, long time. It only lasted a moment, but in that instant Sloane had felt more alive than he had for years.
“Fuck it,” he growled, “What can you do about my situation? Unless you’ve become a secret millionaire, I don’t see my life changing any time soon. Anyway, I don’t want anybody’s handouts. I’ve got that much pride…”
“Shut it, okay? I’m not talking about a handout, John J. I’m talking about a chance for you to get back into the game. To maybe kick start some kind of life for yourself.”
“No fucking danger,” Sloane rasped, “No… fucking… danger. I was offered all that shit before after the accident. Working a desk with all the latest high tech accessibility options. I didn’t want to end up sitting…”
“I’m not talking about desk work. I’ve got a field assignment. Shit, she’s coming back,” Fraser whispered, “Look, you need to get rid of her so we can talk for a bit, okay?”
It was harder to get rid of Jackie than Sloane had ever realised it might be. He wondered if she felt protective of him or whether or not she was attracted to Fraser. But Fraser has already mentioned his wife – and their young son. Maybe she was interested in his stories. She’d often shown an interest in Sloane’s background, though he’d never shared much about his time with the armed forces. Mainly because he didn’t have many stories to tell. Fraser seemed to have a bottomless bag of stories. But Jackie eventually took the hint and slowly extricated herself from the bar. By that time, Sloane was starting on his third Southern Comfort. Fraser continued to nurse his first pint of lukewarm Guinness.
“Alright,” Fraser spoke softly, careful that the barmaid didn’t hear him, “So how are you finding being blind?”
Sloane scratched his nose. He slid his dark glasses down the bridge of his nose. Enough, he hoped, that Fraser could see his useless eyes. He waited a few seconds, uncertain if Fraser had noticed what he was doing. Apparently, the tall northerner had not.
“Tell me, then,” Fraser pushed, “How are you finding it?”
Sloane took a long swig from his glass. He laughed lightly, shaking his head.
“Well, obviously, it’s an absolute fucking laugh riot. I am completely loving every minute of it, as I’m sure you can see. I am living the dream, Fraze.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Fraser said, “I mean, are you used to it? Can you… find your way around? Have you adapted to losing your site. That girl… Janice?”
“Aye, Jackie. Do you need her to help you find your way around? And are you screwing her?”
“No and no.” Sloane groaned, “I manage just fine on my own. I’ve been blind for five years now. Its a long time.”
“It’s a real blast, Fraze.”
“No, I mean good because you’re used to it.”
“The darkness. To not being able to see where you are. It doesn’t freak you out.”
Sloane emptied his glass. This drink hadn’t lasted half as long as the one before. The next one wouldn’t last very long at all, he decided.
“What are you getting at?”
“God damn the fucking no smoking laws. Who’s idea was that anyway?” Fraser said, “Let’s nip out for a smoke, eh?”
“What are you getting at?” Sloane repeated, “About me being used to the darkness.”
“Let’s go for a smoke.”
“Shit,” Sloane shook his head, “Alright.”
He felt the cold air like a splash of water on his face. He heard Fraser click open the zippo lighter he habitually carried. Then he smelled unusual, strong tobacco. Fraser handed him a cigarette. He took it as they stood outside the bar. A boy racer’s oversized exhaust filled the scene with an impenetrable wall of noise. It disappeared down the road, headed for the park and crashing over speed-bumps as it went.
“Thanks,” Sloane said, “So you’re looking for someone who’s used to groping around in the dark? What’s the op? A late night blindfolded orgy party?”
“I’m not looking,” Fraser sucked his cigarette greedily, “I’m recommending. Or I have recommended you. You’re perfect for this, John. And even if you’re not, they don’t know shit about shit.”
Sloane laughed. He coughed loudly. The cigarette was strong. He recognised the blend. It was reminiscent of the Turkish blended Camel’s Fraser had smoked long ago. But these were stronger. Not altogether unpleasant, just a bit harsher on the throat.
“It doesn’t matter. People I work with. Or people who work with the people I work with. Its all layers, these days. One hand doesn’t know what the other foot is doing. But they’re looking for someone who knows their way around in the dark. Someone who can find their way around in the dark. You’re perfect for this, John, and they’ll pay you an absolute fortune. Enough to get out of that stinking grief hole you’ve landed up in.”
A police siren sounded far away. Heading towards the city centre. Across the road, football fans cheered at a near miss.
“I haven’t done all that much lately, Fraze. I don’t know if I’m up to… whatever this is.”
“It isn’t going to be difficult, but I promise you its interesting.”
“What is it?”
“Can’t say. Not unless you tell me that you’ll do it.”
“I want to tell you. It’s pretty exciting. But I can’t.”
“It’s one or maybe two weeks of work,” Fraser explained, “With a five figure payoff. Five figures. And a high five figure at that. But I need to know if you’re in or not.”
Sloane had to smoke his cigarette carefully. Despite the fact that he was generally smoking second hand tobacco wrapped in newspaper, Fraser’s new Turkish blend was really rough. He thought about Fraser’s cryptic offer. He was nervous to agree to anything. He wanted to make some kind of excuse to get away from Fraser and back to his bedsit.
“I don’t know. I need to think about it.”
“There isn’t time. I can’t be more specific than that right now, but there isn’t the time. You need to tell me that you’re in and we need to be in Inverness before the end of the day.”
“Shit, Fraze, I’m not up to that,” Sloane blurted, “I’m… I can’t just leave here. I… I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything for years. I’ll be honest with you Fraser; I’m pretty fucked up.”
“So what’s new?”
“I’m a mess. I’m a wreck.”
“Five figures, John,” Fraser said, “It’s a lot of money. A chance to start over. I’ll watch out for you, mate. Trust me.”
“Can’t you just tell me what its all about? Why do you need to be so weird about it?”
Fraser laughed. He tossed his cigarette away. Sloane felt it tumble through the air in front of his nose.
“It’s all weird, John,” he said, “Come on, lets get another some more drinks in.”
They went back into the bar. Sloane still had a half glass of Southern left but he finished it quickly to get his fourth drink. This time there wasn’t any ice left, which annoyed. The lemonade wasn’t completely flat, but it was getting there.
“Inverness? How will we get there?”
“We’ll drive up just as soon as you decide,” Fraser enthused, “Three hours and we’ll be there. We’ve got a beautiful place to stay. Just north of the city. Just tell me that you’re in.”
“I don’t know if I can just leave here,” Sloane verbalised his fears, “I don’t know what’ll happen to my benefits. My rent.”
“Fuck it all,” Fraser said cheerfully, sensing that Sloane was leaning towards a positive decision, “Really, mate, just fuck it. John, you’re wearing your breakfast all over your shirt. You haven’t shaved in fuck knows how long. Your breath smells like anus, man. Like a unwiped sweating anus! So who gives a fucking fuck about the rent or the benefit office?”
Sloane swallowed most of his drink, the Turkish cigarette still making his throat ache.
“My breath is really that bad?”
“Aye! I can’t believe Janice didn’t even tell you about it before now.”
“Jackie,” Sloane corrected automatically, “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me about my shirt,” He laughed suddenly, like a cough “Anus breath. I like that.”
“Aye, I’ve still got it,” Fraser said, “So are you coming with me to Inverness, or are you going to stay here in this grief hole.”
“I don’t know,” Sloane breathed, “It’s a lot to think about.”
“Its two weeks of work, tops,” Fraser pushed.
“What do you want me to do? What’s it all about?”
“Consultancy. The people I work with need a blind guy.”
“For what? Experiments and shit?”
“Nothing like that.”
Fraser’s breath smelled of Guinness mixed with the strong, distinctive Turkish tobacco. Sloane leaned away from his old buddy to avoid the other odour coming from Fraser’s mouth. He was losing a tooth somewhere. The combination of smells was revolting.
“Then what is it all about? You have to give me some kind of hint before I decide.”
“Christ, you’re hard to get. Five figures. That’s tens of thousands of pounds. You can buy yourself all the tarts you want for that kind of money. And you can maybe get a decent place to live. This will be brilliant for you. I can’t say much more than they need someone who can’t see. They’re not going to poke you with needles or make you jump through hoops. They needed a blind guy and I thought about you.”
“That I can’t tell you about – unless you tell me that you’re in.”
Sloane sat silently for a moment. He didn’t know what he was doing in the little bedsit flat. He was alone there, save for Jackie. And Jackie was doing everything in her power to get out of the place. Then he’d be totally and completely alone. She had no idea what kind of sad case he had become. He’d been careful not to talk too much about the old days. Jackie was interested, but he never told her much. It kept her coming back. Or so he thought. There was also the fact that she felt sorry for him, even if she often told him that she didn’t believe in sympathy.
He’d known her for almost a year. They spoke almost daily. They were friends. Surely she wouldn’t disappear if he left for two weeks… And she might think a little more of him. And the money. The money.
“It’s a lot of cash,” Sloane said, “Feels like it has to be something pretty dangerous.”
“It isn’t. Look, they just need your skills as a blind man. Nothing more than that.”
“My skills as a blind man?”
“Finding your way around and shit, I guess.”
“Fraser, I don’t even have any skills like that. What do you think when you lose your sight you become super sensitive with all your other senses? I don’t even know if I’d have made it here without Jackie’s help. I’m sort of a mess these days.”
There was a long pause. Too long. Sloane could feel Fraser’s eyes looking him over. He could almost see the thick, black eyebrows furrowed as Fraser surveyed the ramshackle appearance of his old friend.
“Aye, but you’d find your way back to the flat if you needed to, wouldn’t you?”
Sloane hesitated. He nodded his head slowly.
“Usually Jackie is with me,” he said, “But I’ve come here a few times on my own.”
The last part was a lie. He’d come alone only once before. It had been over a year ago now. He’d become disoriented before he’d gotten past the Hampden bar. He’d ended up at the Mosque at the end of Dixon avenue, a quarter mile away. A quiet Asian woman had guided him back to the Albert. He’d stayed there until Jackie had come home from work. She had not been as impressed with his display of independence as he’d hoped. In fact, she’d not even mentioned his adventure. She’d simply told him that she’d assumed, after all the time he’d been blind, that he was already finding his way around. She had been quite right. In five years he should have been able to make his way around the whole city, but he’d spent most of those years hiding in his little bedsit.
“Alright, let’s have a go at it,” Fraser said, excitedly. “Let’s just go and do that right now.”
The Southern Comforts had served to settle Sloane’s nerves. He would have said no. But suddenly the idea of finding his own way back to the flat seemed more amusing than challenging. At the very least, it would give Fraser an indication of what being blind was all about.
“Okay,” Sloane said eventually, “Let me fascinate you with my skills.”
They left the bar. Fraser stayed behind Sloane as they reached the heavy door. Sloane could hear him breathing noisily. Then the door opened and the noise of the city washed over him like a wave. A heavy vehicle moving along Pollockshaws road. Something too large for this part of the city, Sloane thought. It vibrated the walls and windows even two streets away. Closer, the murmur of voices in the Albert bar. Voices to the right. Maybe five metres away. A couple of Asian women talking about something in English with a smattering of words that Sloane couldn’t make out. A diesel engine car or van passed by slowly, as if the driver was looking for something. Sloane heard the ting of a cyclist’s bell. He braced himself instinctively, sensing that the bike was on the pavement. It passed by in front of him, Fraser cursing a little too loudly as the cyclist weaved around on the pavement.
“Here we go,” Sloane spoke, “Now, watch this.”
He flicked open his white cane and started walking towards the kerb. He felt confident. And it felt good to have Fraser around. The drink had removed the nervous embarrassment he’d felt about meeting his old friend. Now, the journey home actually felt like it might be a bit of fun.
Fraser touched his arm, his touch resting there too long. Sloane started forward, tapping the stick against the paving slabs. He didn’t use the stick all that often. It took him a few tries to keep the tip from getting stuck in the cracks in the paving stones.
“We’re off”, Sloane said, “There’s no need to hold onto me.”
“I like it,” Fraser said, “It feels romantic.”
Crossing the Albert road was easy enough. Sloane waited between parked cars as three cars whizzed by. A fourth slowed down and the driver thought about stopping for him, but didn’t. Then there was a space in the traffic – apart from the cyclist that Sloane did not hear until the bike almost ploughed into him. He stepped back a pace, pushing Fraser off balance. The bike soared past, its bell chiming gently as an apology. Sloane felt Fraser close behind him again. He stepped out from between the parked cars and into the road. Then, distractingly, Fraser was speaking.
“So, how often do you get shagged when you’re a blind guy?”
Sloane laughed, shaking his head. He continued across the road. It was only a few metres wide. He guessed, correctly, that a parked car would block their path. He discovered the lower part of the car’s sill with the lower part of his white stick.
“Not very often,” he replied as he negotiated the obstacle, “Are you offering? You might have gone that way, but I’m still straight.”
“Maybe later,” Fraser replied, “Maybe never. You’re doing a pretty good job of this van here.”
“Okay, now that helps a bit,” Sloane said, “I thought it was a car. Now I just need to find my way round.”
“Go on then. But how often do you get any? I guess you’re not with that tall bird, what’s her name?”
“Aye. So how often are you two… ah… doing it.”
Sloane found the front bumper of the van and started working his way round to the front of it. There was another vehicle parked close to the van, but there was enough room to squeeze through.
“I… don’t know.”
“You don’t know what? If you’re having sex with her?”
“That wasn’t the question, I thought. But, no, we’re not anything. She lives in the same flat. In one of the rooms. It’s a bedsit. We share the kitchen and the bathroom. We’re kind of panda friends.”
“We’re stuck together in the flat. Otherwise I guess we wouldn’t be anything.”
“I know what a bedsit is,” Fraser said, “So you’re not getting any right now? She’s pretty hot. Not that it matters to you now. Or does it? Can you… tell if a bird is hot or not?”
“I can tell,” Sloane said, “For fuck’s sake, Fraser.”
Sloane turned right. There were voices approaching. Young adults arguing about something on Youtube. The Hampden bar was on the left, almost as noisy as the group of three or four that swarmed past him. The air was thick with smoke from a few quiet smokers somewhere outside the popular bar.
“Let me concentrate,” Sloane said nervously, “We’re on Albert road. Need to turn left onto Albert drive. It isn’t that far.”
It was further than Sloane remembered. He only realised that he’d missed Albert drive when he smelled the kebab shop on the next street. He’d never known what that street was called. There was a bar opposite the kebab place. It was a little more up market than the Hampden and Albert pubs. Fraser didn’t seem concerned that they’d taken a detour. He became excited about the idea of getting a kebab.
“Haven’t had one in years,” he said, “Looks like you do know where you’re going after all. You instinctively led us here.”
“Maybe,” Sloane agreed, “To be honest, I’m surprised this place is still here. It’s been about ten years since I’ve been to it. And that was just that once, with Paul. They do pretty nice kebabs, even if we were usually too drunk to enjoy them.”
“An old friend. I met him when I lived in the Dixon Avenue bedsit. He was a Royal Highland Fusilier who’d just left the army. A heavy drinker. We lost touch a long, long time ago.”
Sloane paused. He’d been Paul’s drinking buddy after moving into Dixon Avenue. Their friendship had been based around Paul’s alcoholism and the almost abundant free supply of wine, lager and cider.
“It was the top floor flat across the road from the Mosque. Just round the corner. You visited me there before you joined the army. About ten years ago, I think. You were working in Germany. Do you remember? You were going to get me a job there.”
“I don’t remember,” Fraser said, “I remember Germany. Did I say I’d get you a job?”
“Yes, for fuck’s sake. I had to go get a passport. I wandered about the passport office all day waiting to get one. Then I couldn’t get in touch with you anymore. Don’t you remember? Darf eek herr Fraser Mackay sprecken? You told me to say.”
The kebab shop owner served them both, interrupting the conversation. Fraser left the ordering to Sloane. In fact, Fraser had made his way between the two plastic takes back to the heavy glass door again. He heard it open.
“I remember Germany. Driving around some faceless VIP for twenty four hundred Deutschmarks a week. I never even learned who he was, either. Sehr fucking gut! Very good, good money. I fucking blew every bit of it. But it was a fun time. I can remember coming to see you now. We came here, didn’t we?”
“Okay. Anyway, can you manage here a minute? I have to go get something.”
Sloane nodded slowly. He knew where Fraser was going. Ten minutes later, he’d started to eat his own lamb doner kebab whilst Fraser’s stayed warmer still wrapped in its packaging. Fraser returned and thumped the crate of beer down on the table’s surface.
“Yep,” Sloane smiled, “I thought that’s where you were going.”
Fraser tore apart the crate of Tenants lager. He offered one to Sloane. Sloane took it and opened the can. He could feel the foam cascading over his knuckles. The kebab shop owner said something in his own language. Sloane waved his other hand in the air.
They ate hungrily. Sloane knew that some of the food was going onto his t shirt, but he was too hungry to care about it. He finished his beer quickly, enjoying the way it subdued the strong chilli sauce. He fumbled for a second can and tore one free of the plastic wrapping.
“Cheers,” Fraser took the offered can, “See, that’s what I’m talking about. You’re pretty good without your eyes and all that.”
Sloane tore his own can free. He popped the lid and took a long swig. Fraser was laughing.
“John, it’s all over your shirt, man.”
“Everything,” Fraser laughed, “Chilli sauce, mostly. But you’ve got enough there to scrape off for a snack later on.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” Sloane shrugged, “This kebab is amazing.”
“Aye,” Fraser said, “Pretty good.”
It took another two cans of Tenants Super Lager for John Sloane to finish his kebab and the cheesy garlic bread that Fraser insisted on ordering but just couldn’t manage. Fraser carried the crate as Sloane led the way back to the flat. This time, it was much easier. Instead of going along the backroad, Sloane turned onto the busier Victoria road.
“I’ve been this way a few times,” Sloane shouted, “I know it a lot better than the other way. Just don’t let me trip over anything. And tell me when we’re about to turn left onto Albert road.”
“That’s sort of cheating,” Fraser complained, “You’re supposed to be able to find your way back without seeing. Like a homing pigeon.”
“A homing pigeon isn’t blind is it,” Sloane laughed, “You mean a bat or something.”
“Whatever. It’s still cheating.”
They made their way along the wide pavement on the east side of Victoria road, heading south towards Queens Park. Sloane had walked this road many times before, but this was the first time he’d been here since losing his sight. The thought sobered him slightly.
“I’ve never come this far from the flat since the accident.”
Fraser’s response was a reflex, Sloane realised. As he staggered along, Sloane tried to think of an answer. The obvious response was that he’d allowed his fear to get the better of him. But it was more than that. The shame of what had happened also played a part, even if he was a stranger in this city.
“I don’t know,” he said after some time, “I just…”
Sloane’s right ankle hit hard against a heavy object that was blocking the pavement. He’d been moving slowly and cautiously, but the wooden crate of oranges still surprised him. He tripped over it, falling into more of the fruit that had been carefully placed in front of the grocer’s shop. As he tumbled, Sloane realised where he was and what he was falling into. He twisted his body to the right in an effort to avoid ruining the fruit stand altogether. He collided with Fraser and the open crate of lager, but avoided falling into the fruit stand itself. Fraser fell heavily to the ground, a few stray cans of lager hitting the ground beside him. Sloane landed on his right side, away from the fruit stand. He collided with the beer crate, which Fraser was still holding onto.
“Watch what you’re daein, you!”
The voice was young and shrill. Sloane had fallen in front of a young mother. He realised this as the wheels of her rolled into the side of his head.
“Fuck’s sake!” the girl moaned, “You ought tae ken better. Ye pair o drunken bums at this time o the day. Honestly…”
The complaints stopped abruptly. The girl mumbled a quiet obscenity. Sloane knew that she’d realised that he was blind. He waved his hand in her general direction, shaking his head and smiling weakly. He laughed quietly at his own foolishness, struggling not to damage more of the fruit.
“Sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he smiled in the direction of the Glaswegian, “And I couldn’t decide what fruit I was going to roll around in today.”
He tried to get to his feet, but only succeeded in stumbling further into the crates of loosely stacked fruit and vegetables. He felt the white stick leaving his fingers. He fumbled for it, but his hand became lost in a cold, pasty mess of squashed fruit.
“Language. Fuck’s sake, can ye no see ah’ve got a bairn?”
“You’re the one doing all the swearing!”
The second voice surprised John Sloane. It was obvious the woman’s young partner. Moments later, Sloane felt a rough hand slap hard against the side of his head.
“I can hit a blind guy as well, ye ken.”
Sloane reached out towards the sound of the voice, but he was struck again in the eye. This time, it felt like a fist.
He was still struggling amongst the fruit, trying to get his feet. There was laughter and more swearing from the crowd that had assembled. Sloane heard a scuffle.
“That’s enough,” Fraser barked, “You two get out of here before I kick both your arses right up through your fucking necks.”
Sloane felt like he was having trouble breathing, though he didn’t know why. Fraser was swearing at someone, but he was keeping his voice low. Sloane could hear anger in his old friend’s voice. A loud, booming voice said something in a language Sloane did not understand. He guess that it was the shopkeeper. Fraser said something quietly to this man too, but Sloane could make out the words this time.
“Come on, man. Look at the state of him? Give us a break, eh?”
Sloane exhaled loudly. He heard the young mother laughing – or thought that he did – but she sounded like she was further away now. People were shuffling away from him. Then, almost shockingly, Fraser’s right hand was pulling at Sloane’s.
“What do you mean, look at the state of me?”
“Come on,” Fraser’s voice was much less friendly than it had been, “Let’s get you fucking sorted out.”
Sloane was acutely aware of Fraser’s hand on his elbow, but did not refuse it. He kept contact with Fraser all the back to number 5. Barely a word had been spoken between them as they walked. Sloane wasn’t sure what had happened. As they made their way up the concrete steps, he decided to speak.
“What?” Fraser’s voice echoed loudly, “What what?”
“You know what. What’s going on? I fell in some fucking fruit, that’s all.”
“Aye, ok. But you were freaking out back there. I thought you were going to pass out or something. What was that all about? There were people there laughing at you.”
Sloane finally pulled free of Fraser’s grip. He waited in silence for more, but Fraser didn’t have anything else to say.
“I’m fucking blind,” Sloane snapped.
“You’ve been fucking blind for five years. Five years. I didn’t expect you’d still be pissing your pants about it.”
“You fucking fucker!” Sloane growled, “I tripped over fucking Ashraf’s oranges.”
“I don’t give a shit about Ashraf’s fucking oranges. You were lying there like a pitiful fucking wreck, man. The wee tart with the bairn didn’t even want to tell you off. She was embarrassed, Gaj. And so was I.”
“You’ve been up here for five fucking minutes, Frase. Why don’t you just fuck off if that’s what you think of me? I got winded when I fell, or something.”
“Man, you were rolling around in those fucking melons and shit for five minutes.”
Sloane realised that they’d reached the heavy outer door of the flat. He stopped outside. He wasn’t sure who would be home. He couldn’t remember where Jackie had said she was going. He’d also lost track of the time of day and didn’t want to ask Fraser. He wondered if Fraser had been exaggerating his lying on the fruit stand for five minutes. His memory of the event was vague. He doubted that Fraser would lie about him blacking out, if that’s what had actually happened.
“I told you I was a mess,” Sloane said quietly, “I just remember falling onto the fruit. I didn’t realise that I’d been lying there all that time.”
Fraser’s breathing was loud. Sloane swallowed his embarrassment.
“Come on, Frase. It’s still me. I’ve just kind of got into myself a bit…”
“Got into yourself?”
“I’ve been on my own here for a long time.”
Fraser exhaled loudly.
“Oh fucking hell. Now you’re going to make me start crying?”
“Fuck you, Fraser,” Sloane growled under his breath, “I’ve been living this life, not you.”
Sloane found the heavy door locked, which was never a good sign. Usually, Craig or Jilly would do this prior to trying to break into the other rooms. He unlocked the door swiftly, even though he knew that the addicts would have heard them coming up the stairs.
“Anyway, you said you’d watch out for me.”
They entered the flat. Fraser didn’t say anything. Sloane found his way to his door in about twelve steps. Fraser followed, still quiet. The door was still locked, which was a good sign. He was pretty sure that Jilly hadn’t Sloane opened the door to his end room in the musty smelling bedsit.
“So I’m no good to you now, then, am I?”
“Let me put this crate down. Jesus Christ, what a mess this place is. Where do you want me to put this?”
“Just anywhere you can find a spot. It doesn’t fucking matter.”
Sloane heard the sound of dishes being moved. Fraser made a grunting sound of disgust. Sloane couldn’t remember the last time he’d cleaned the sink.
“Sorry about that.”
Fraser opened a can of lager. Sloane felt it being pushed into his hand.
“This place is a tip.”
“I know,” Sloane drank a generous amount from the can, “Christ, that’s still pretty good when its warm. Well, do you still think I can be of any use to you?”
Fraser didn’t say anything. He cracked open a can for himself. Sloane heard him drinking it.
“Jesus, so that’s it then? You’re just going to fuck off and leave me like this?”
“Give me a break. It’s not my fault that you’re living in your own little pity hole. I’m sure every blind person doesn’t just live in their own fucking vomit and shit. I didn’t realise how… fucked up you’ve let yourself get. This is a real pain in the fucking arse. There goes twenty thousand fucking pounds for a start.”
“What’s that? Twenty thousand pounds for what?”
“For bring you to them.”
Sloane laughed out loud. It was a choking, reflex that made him spill amber liquid from his nostrils.
“You were getting a finder’s fee for me?”
“I was going to get a finder’s fee for you, but how the fuck can I bring you to them? I was blinded by the… fuck it! I didn’t think that you’d still be like this after all these years.”
Sloane fumbled around to find the end of his bed. He decided that he was going to sit there and leave the tattered Queen Anne chair for Fraser Mackay. Fraser took the opportunity and Sloane heard the worn springs creak as Fraser’s heavy, lank frame settled into the chair. Sloane considered his next statement carefully. It was a question that he’d wanted to ask Fraser many times. A question that came associated with a bunch of different emotions
“Is it the same as the last time? Some company you work with looking for staff? And they’re paying you twenty grand for someone who can’t see fucking anything?”
Now Fraser laughed.
“It’s not the same, but it’s sort of the same. Twenty thousand pounds instead of… something like eight hundred Deutshmarks, I think it was. But you didn’t come through for me back then, if I remember right?”
John Sloane had to count to ten. He literally felt like his might suddenly explode with rage. He put the can of lager to his lips, but his hand was shaking too much.
“Fucking fucker!” he muttered, “You fucking, fucking fucker!”
“What? I was working for Schichau Seebeckwerft in Bremerhaven. It’s a shipbuilder in the north, where…”
“I don’t really give much of a fuck where it is, Fraser. It was like twenty years ago. I spent eight hours waiting in line to get my passport sorted out. Then I called that hotel you said you were staying at. Like fifty fucking times. Darf ich herr Fraser Mackay sprechen, bitte!”
Fraser laughed quietly. He was trying not to. It only made Sloane angrier.
“Darf ich herr Fraser Mackay sprechen, bitte! Darf ich herr Fraser Mackay sprechen, bitte! Fifty fucking times.”
“I left that hotel, I think,” Fraser mused, incriminatingly, “I forget why we had to leave. I think one of the Irish guys literally demolished everything in his room one night. We had to go to some other place. I can’t remember its name. It’s funny. I always wondered why you didn’t call.”
“Because I didn’t fucking know you had moved to another hotel, you stupid bastard! I spent all fucking day waiting in line for that bloody passport.”
Fraser was still laughing. Sloane shook his head. He laughed too. He didn’t even know why.
“Fucking hell, I can’t believe you. Do you know how much I want to punch your face you stupid bastard? It cost me something like forty quid. And you said you’d fucking pay for it and all, do you remember?”
Fraser was still laughing. Sloane suddenly found himself hysterical. He almost fell off the corner of the bed.
“I can’t remember,” Fraser laughed, “I’m really sorry!”
“Laugh it up, fucker! Darf ich herr Fraser Mackay sprechen, bitte!” Sloane choked out the words, “And every time the fucking guy on the other end of the phone would say a bunch of shit in German that I couldn’t understand. I could have wrung your fucking neck back then. I really could have. Herr fucking Fraser Mackay sprechen herr sprechen zee!”
“You have to stop. You’re going to make me die laughing.”
“Yes, die laughing at how you screwed over your blind fucking friend, fucker!”
“You weren’t blind then!” Fraser protested.
The laughter died suddenly. Sloane emptied his can and crushed it in his hand. He heard the sound of another can opening and then it was in his hand.
“What happened to you, really?” Fraser coughed softly, “After I went back to Germany, I mean.”
Sloane put the can to his lips. This one was warmer than the last, but he had drank enough now that it didn’t really matter. The liquid felt good as it slid down his throat.
“I did something really, really stupid – and ended up like this,” Sloane grunted, “It doesn’t matter. So, you’re getting twenty thousand pounds for a blind guy. It must be something pretty important, yeah?”
“Fucked if I know,” Fraser said, “I’m just the errand boy, pal. But come on. Tell me what happened to you. I heard the stories, you know, but…”
“Donaldson, Brizo… a few of the guys who were there.”
“Brizo wasn’t there.”
“Donaldson, then. It was at Hereford, wasn’t it?”
“I never made it to Hereford. That was all you. You were the one who tried to join the SAS. I already accepted that I had absolutely no fucking chance in Hell of passing their selection process. Not just that, but I was already at the point where I couldn’t stomach any more Army. It’s all your fault, really. When you went to Hereford everything just started to be just… boring.”
“It’s my fault,” Fraser said evenly.
“If you’d stayed with the Royal Highland Fusiliers – stayed with me – I think I’d have lasted a bit longer. Maybe. I don’t know. Like I said, I was sick of it. What happened in Portadown took the guts out of me. I never recovered from that.”
“What the fuck happened in Portadown? I loved fucking Portadown. That’s where I met… whatshisname… Terry. His sister made me soda bread.”
“The lost Civil Servant, remember?” Sloane referred to the then-new SA-80 assault rifle, thus nicknamed because it could neither be fired or made to work, “The rifle and lieutenant Shitster?”
Fraser laughed loudly.
“Aye, I remember Lister. Can’t believe I forgot the lost SA-80. Shit, how can I forget that and Shitster’s weasel face. You know, it was almost worth two weeks in Curragh Camp to see his face when we were looking for that fucking thing. They never found it, did they?”
“We never found it,” Sloane said thoughtfully, “Who knows where the fuck it ended up. But someone, somewhere, picked up an assault rifle and thirty rounds of 5.56 milly. I’m surprised that didn’t get us thrown out. I’m surprised Hereford even considered you with that on your record.”
“Fuck’s sake, the SAS didn’t even know about the lost rifle. If they did, nobody ever fucking mentioned it. That wasn’t the problem with Hereford. I was just too fucking fat and lazy to pass selection. I knew that on the first day, but I made it to the third.”
They both laughed together.
“At least you made it there,” Sloane offered, “After the first week in that shithole prison I was already thinking of leaving.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Fraser Mackay mused, “I remember it as being a bit of a laugh.”
“Some of it was.”
There was a long pause. Sloane wondered if Fraser was waiting for him to talk. He didn’t feel like saying anything else. Thinking of the Irish military prison had, of course, made him think of the nurse.
“What happened to her in the end?” Fraser asked, reading Sloane’s thoughts.
He hadn’t thought about her in a long time. Not for any length of time. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead with the knuckles of his right hand. If he pressed hard enough, sometimes he’d see the occasional colour. He pressed against his temple for two seconds before the faint orange circle presented itself. By then, of course, Fraser was laughing again.
“Jesus, you’re literally squeezing the information from your brain. What happened to her, then?”
“I really don’t know. She went back to Belfast. Back to her old life, I guess.”
“I know that, but what happened after that?”
Sloane was feeling lightheaded. He wondered if it was the beer or the thought of Carol Anne. He hadn’t allowed her into his thoughts for a long time. He’d always made a conscious and almost desperate effort to avoid thinking about Carol Anne. But it had been a so long now that he was used to the idea of shuffling those thoughts conveniently into the dark recesses of his mind.
“What happened to her or to me?” he asked, irritated to find his thoughts coerced towards something he’d rather forget.
“Obviously, to her,” Fraser interrupted, “I know what happened to you.”
“Carol Anne just went back to Belfast,” Sloane grunted, “That’s all I know. She just left it all behind. She didn’t just leave me, but everything here. I was the reason she came to Glasgow. After the accident.. I don’t know. She said she couldn’t stand what I’d become.”
There was silence. Sloane thought about Carol Anne. He remembered the softness of the long, black hair that he’d loved running his fingers through. Her eyes had been large and round; deep, dark oases of wonder that he’d yearned for long after she’d gone. Her perfume was the ghost of a memory that, once, had been much more vivid. For years after her leaving, he’d occasionally encountered the delicate floral aroma that he’d always thought belonged solely to her.
“What did you become?”
It took a while for Sloane to answer the question. The words were at the front of his brain, weighted with bitterness and impotent anger. Sloane opened his mouth to release the pressure.
“Fucking blind!” he spat, “I became fucking blind and useless.”
It wasn’t the truth. They both knew that. But Sloane didn’t want to tell the truth. He imagined that Fraser already knew the truth. He’d lost Carol Anne, or – to be more accurate – he’d pissed her away whilst wallowing in self pity. He’d taken his frustrations out on her and she’d slipped out of his grasp. When he’d realised what was happening, he still couldn’t stop. As he’d tightened his grasp, she’d begun to struggle free of the relationship. In the end she had practically bolted from their life together. He couldn’t think about her anymore and swallowed the rest of his thoughts, washing them down with the last of the warm beer. Fraser eventually spoke, the sympathetic tone of his voice surprising John Sloane.
“That sounds really harsh, John. And a wee bit cruel. But enough of the useless. You’re going to be pretty useful in a wee while, okay? And pretty fucking rich too.”
Sloane reached for the diminishing crate of beer. He reached it before Fraser could help, tearing a can free of the plastic.
“Well, I’ll believe it when I see it,” Sloane said.
For the first time, there was an uncomfortable silence. Sloane could hear Craig and Jilly shouting in their far distant room. Somewhere else, one of the students had their TV turned up loud in an attempt to drown out the noise. Sloane fumbled for one of his cigarettes. There were only a handful left, but offered one to Fraser anyway.
“I think she’s doing alright,” Sloane said quietly, “She called my dad not long after she left. He said she was sorry, but she sounded like she was going in the right direction. She was surprised that I’d gone back to Glasgow. He said she was worried that I didn’t have anyone here.”
“What about Avaline? Where did she go?”
“My sister? She’s living in England somewhere. She’s a cleaner or a house sitter or something now. Her new man seems ok, but I’ve never met him. Dad said her new guy was ok. He couldn’t be worse than Keith. Aveline and I haven’t been in touch since dad died. She doesn’t know I moved to this flat. Nobody does.”
“Sorry about your dad. What happened?”
“Heart attack. He’d had one when he was in his sixties and his heart had been damaged or something. It never stopped him getting around or just generally living his life. He was about to turn 78 and just didn’t wake up. Mum and Geoff took him to Little France but he didn’t wake up. He’d had a heart attack in his sleep. He had another one a few days later and died. I was there with him for a while. Saw Avaline for the first time in years. Of course, fucking Geoff wouldn’t come into the hospital at all. I stayed with mum and Geoff. Mum wasn’t fit to go visit dad. She couldn’t get out of bed by then. Geoff was just playing video games in his bedroom the whole time, like nothing was happening. Mum wasn’t happy to see me. I don’t know why. I left as quick as I could after dad died. I didn’t even make it to the funeral. It was just totally fucked.”
“Sorry, man. Sounds really tough. Geoff’s your brother, right?”
“Right,” Sloane answered, “Haven’t seen him since mum died. He was a fucking mess. Had to get sectioned in the end because he couldn’t cope with being on his own.”
Sloane felt a wave of dizziness. He’d lost track of how much he’d drunk. He wasn’t used to it. He knew it had been too much – especially if he was talking about Geoff and his mother.
“Okay, I think this conversation has more or less reached rock bottom,” Sloane said, “Back to this job you’ve got for me. What’s involved, really?”
“Truth be told, I don’t really know all that much. Just that its pretty important,” Fraser’s voice was low and secretive, “I know something’s happening up north. Further north than Inverness. All I know is that it’s something pretty weird and interesting. They’ve been bringing guys up from Hereford. There’s a psychiatrist and a bunch of scientists. There’s more people on the way.”
“Not fucking experiments?”
“Definitely not, they said. The guy in charge is an American called Biehn. I think he’s CIA or something. Whatever it is, they need people who are blind. I don’t know what for.”
“People? I’m not the only blind person involved?”
“That’s right. There are a couple of guys flying up from Birmingham. Ex-special forces. I haven’t met them, but they were injured in service.”
“Oh shit, Fraser,” Sloane was nervous, “It’s a military op?”
“Not so much,” Fraser said quickly, “The other blind guys are ex SAS and a retired old guy from 2 Para. The scientists are civilians. You guys are the only ones who have military experience. That’s all I know, besides that its somewhere north of Tain and it kicked off just a few days ago.”
Sloane exhaled tiredly. He could no longer think clearly. The excitement of the day had caught him up, along with the three double Southern Comforts and the six cans of beer. He laid down on the bed, closing his sightless eyes.
“We’ll find out, I suppose,” he murmured, “I’m just going to close my eyes for a minute, Fraser. Just a minute, okay?”
Fraser didn’t answer. Or, if he did, Sloane didn’t hear him. The almost empty can of lager rolled onto the floor and under the bed, joining the rest of the dirt and debris there. Fraser Mackay lit a cigarette and smoked a half of it. He stubbed it out halfway through. The old armchair wasn’t very comfortable, but he’d drunk enough that it didn’t really matter. After five minutes of quiet and almost vacant thought, Fraser fell asleep too.
Chapter Two: The Visitors
Someone was hammering on the flimsy plastic panel of his bedsit door. Sloane blinked and coughed. He was lying on top of his little bed. As he went to the door, he tripped over Fraser Mackay’s sleeping body. There was a pile of beer cans in the way too. Some of them were not empty. Sloane stumbled through them as Fraser moaned and Jackie’s palm slapped against the plastic panel.
“It’s four o’clock in the effing morning!” he heard her say, “This is getting ridiculous, John! Come on, open up!”
He was trying his best, but stumbling over the discarded refuse of the previous night put him in the wrong corner of the room. Jackie’s slapping brought him back round to where he wanted to be, but he kicked Fraser in the side of the head this time as he passed. Fraser swore at him. Sloane reached the door and fumbled with the lock. It opened. He thought that he felt Jackie push past him, but it was someone else. A heavy body with hard soled shoes. And there was a second man of smaller stature. This man sidled past Sloane carefully with more care. Meanwhile, Jackie was trying to get into the room. But someone was pushing her back out. It was the big man, Sloane realised. The door was closing. Jackie was pushing against it from the outside, grunting quietly. Sloane leaned forward, finding the door handle. He tensed the once powerful muscles of his right arm.
“The lady doesn’t need to be involved in this,” the big man grunted. His accent belonged to the south of England. Every word was carefully spoken. Sloane couldn’t decide if the man had speech problems or if he was trying to sound menacing.
“She’s already involved,” Sloane said.
The push and pull contest went on for a few more seconds. Then Sloane sensed movement from the centre of the room. The smaller man had made some kind of signal or gesture. The pressure on the door disappeared. Jackie moved into the room.
“Jack,” it was Fraser’s voice, but he was still somewhere on the floor, “Oh fuck, what’s going on?”
“The situation has changed,” the smaller man replied. He was an American. Much younger sounding than the middle aged mountain man that accompanied him, “We have to leave immediately.”
“What situation?” Jackie asked, “Leave for where?”
Sloane could hear Fraser staggering around. Empty cans of beer were going everywhere. There was a thud as what could only have been the ashtray hit the floor.
“John?” Jackie pushed, “Leave for where?”
“I didn’t know… sorry. I didn’t know you were talking to me,” Sloane said quietly, “Ah, I don’t know where…”
“Miss, I’m afraid that this is not any of your business,” the big man said, “Do you mind leaving the room so we can…”
“Thank you, Sharpe,” Jack interrupted with calm authority, “This will move much more smoothly if we just keep things nice and calm. Mr Sloane, I presume? I’m Jack Biehn. This is my associate Taylor Sharpe. I’m afraid that there’s been a development. We need to leave right away. Please, would you come with me. I’m sorry, Miss. I didn’t catch your second name,”
“Its Glenn,” Jackie replied, “Jackie Glenn.”
“Well, Miss Glenn, this is what we would call a matter of national security. I’m not sure how much Mr Sloane has told you…”
“Everything,” Jackie lied, “I know everything.”
Fraser coughed. Sloane heard the sound of the brass lighter working. He reached an arm out towards the sound. He could feel the heat from the zippo’s flame. He could smell the heavy smell of petrol. He heard the lighter snap shut again. Fraser handed him the lit cigarette. Sloane brought it to his lips and inhaled greedily.
“There’s to be no smoking in the car,” Sharpe gruffed.
“We’ll toss them before we get to the car,” Fraser said, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“I’m coming too. I know everything about this already anyway,” Jackie spoke with flawless assuredness, “So I’m coming with you guys. Whether you like it or not.”
“How can you know everything about this?” Sharpe almost laughed, “I bloody don’t even know everything about this?”
Sloane heard Jackie draw a slow breath. She didn’t know what to say next, he thought. She was making a little time for herself. In the end, she didn’t need the pause.
“I’m sorry, Miss Glenn, but that won’t be possible.” Biehn interjected, “I wish we did have room for everyone, but we just don’t. So I’m afraid you’ll have to find something else to do with yourself this morning. Mr Sloane? Will you come with us now?”
Jackie didn’t rise to Biehn’s insult. Sloane felt her tugging with discreet insistence at his sleeve.
“What’s going on, John?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” he said in her general direction, “I don’t know what’s going on here. No more than you do.”
There was a third man, Sloane realised. He’d been standing outside the room the whole time, but only now was stepping inside. Sloane could smell kuoros aftershave. Fraser had worn the scent years earlier when they’d become friends. But not anymore. There was a strong smell of medicated shampoo. Something that smelled like a bad sinus infection. The kuoros mixed with the shampoo smelled quite disgusting.
“Miss Glenn, my name is Robert Hall. Bob Hall,” the voice was young and cheerful. An overly caffeinated Starbucks employee or an Asda store nightshift worker who’d been smoking crystal meth during his toilet break, “I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have. Just think of me as your personal liaison. That goes for all of you guys.”
Sloane wondered who the Hell Robert Hall was talking to. He realised that some of the other doors in the bedsit had opened. Sleepy, drunken and confused faces must have been peeking out. Suddenly, Sloane felt a strong arm hooking under his elbow.
“Time to leave,” Sharpe grunted, pulling Sloane towards the door.
“For fuck’s sake!” Fraser said, “You can knock that off. We’re fucking coming.”
“Cigarettes out!” Sharpe snapped.
Sloane relaxed his arm enough form the big man to loosen his grip. Then he pulled it away with a swift motion. He stepped away from the big man. He felt Fraser’s hands on his shoulders.
“Easy big man,” Fraser said, “Sharpe, just get the fuck away from him. We’re coming. But we’re going to finish our smokes first.”
“John, I want to come with you!” Jackie said.
Sloane turned to her. He frowned. He didn’t understand why she wanted to come.
“It’s alright,” he said, “If there isn’t room, you should stay.”
Sloane felt Sharpe’s fingers touching his elbow again. Then there was a rush of air in front of his face as Fraser’s hand left his shoulder. He heard Sharpe gasp in shock and anger.
“I said fucking leave it,” Fraser snarled, “I meant it. For fuck’s sake, Jack, can’t you control your dog?”
“Alright,” Jack Biehn sounded impatient, “We’re wasting valuable time here. Mr Sharpe, as we piss around in this dingy little shithole our time is slipping away. Smoking or non smoking? It doesn’t matter. Let’s all of us just get out of here while we still can.”
Biehn’s words affected Sharpe. Sloane felt the big man’s presence receding and, finally, he could hear the big man’s footsteps retreating out of the flat. The outer door opened and Sloane could hear Sharpe’s hard soled boots thundering down the concreate steps.
Biehn’s breathing sounded ragged, like he’d just finished a sprint. His exhalations were heavy and quavered with tension.
“Gentlemen? Shall we please get on with this?” he said, “I know enough to tell you that we really are running out of time. Mr Sloane, you’ve obviously agreed to help us out. Well, if you’re going to be of any help at all we need to leave immediately.”
Sloane smoked his cigarette. A long, hard drag. He could feel the heat from the burning edge close to his knuckles. Fraser’s left hand was still on his shoulder. He felt the long fingers tapping him there.
“I’m ready when you are,” Fraser said, “Nice meeting you, Jackie. Goodbye, Jackie Glenn!”
There was something strange in the way Fraser Mackay said the last part, Sloane thought idly.