HEART OF BLACKNESS
by Jacky Cowper
Bright in the sunshine and dull as ditch-water in the long and cold winter. I sat at the side of my crumpled bed nursing the hangover to end all hangovers.
It must have been that seventh jaegerbomb. I always have one too many.
The dreams had been particularly vivid last night – strange writhing forms in strange streets and stranger sounds all around.
Shit. I must have been in Murrayfield again.
I thought about the toilet – had a vague memory where in my one bedroom flat it was. Hoped I wouldn’t mistake the drying cupboard again.
I got to my feet. At least I think I did. I could have crawled. The image in the mirror on the back of the bedroom door was frightening. My old ‘I love Yugoslavia’ t shirt was grimy. The stains suspicious. Was that blood? Then I remembered the can of Barr’s raspberryade I’d swigged when I got home in an effort to rehydrate myself overnight. Yes. That worked. The stains weren’t so scary now. But I’d have to do a washing today. I punched the mirror in frustration. Shit. Shit. Damnation. Shit and buggery. My hand!
I keep forgetting I broke my mirror and replaced it with a metal one. That was another bloody shellac nail pinging off into the furthest reaches of the room.
I decided to go back to bed, but as I was trying to figure out which bit was duvet and which bit was fitted undersheet (it really wasn’t obvious), there was a loud, firm rap at the door.
I pulled what I hoped was duvet and wrapped it round my entire body. Using bits of furniture for support I made my way through to the living room and into the wee vestibule behind the front door. I couldn’t see who was there because the six foot three man who had fitted the spy lens didn’t take five foot two bauchles into consideration. Answering the door was always a marvellous mystery tour.
I flung it open. It was Harry Ford. My neighbour. A wizened 78 year old whose main claim to fame was that he still had all his own teeth. No mean feat by that age, I can tell you. I’ll likely be on saps by 60 myself.
“You left your phone on the landing again.” he said. Damn. I must have put it in the recycling box again while I tried to work the door lock using both hands and possibly a foot.
“You’ve got a call.”
Now I could place the strange music that I could hear. Robbie Williams singing Angels. And there was me thinking I was hallucinating.
“You look like shite by the way.” He added helpfully. “You need a cauld shower. That’s what we used to do in the army. Cauld showers. They fair blaw the cobwebs aff.”
I looked at him in what I hoped was a menacing way. “Jist say what you mean, eh? Dinna sugarcoat it y’hear.”
I looked at the caller display. Mother. Shit. What was wrong now?
Cautiously I thumbed the wee green phone and the display darkened.
“Hello?” I asked. “Anybody there?”
There was an eternity of scratching on the other end. She likely had it upside down again.
“Mum? What’s up?”
“Ah there you are.” The voice on the other end was sharpened to a rusty point after years of players kingsized. “Yer awfy faint.”
“Mum, have you got your hearing aid in?”
“Of course I have. Do you think I’m some kind of idiot? Ach, hang on. This bloody thing is upside down again. Why can’t they make a phone that looks like a phone?”
“Mum, you’re on the landline.”
“And what is THAT supposed to mean?”
“Look mum, let’s not get into this now. What’s up. What are you calling for?”
“It’s Ailsa. She didna come home this morn. I need you to find her.”
My sister’s precocious seventeen year old niece. She’d started as a bubbling bobble head of golden curls and a winning smile, but through the years had changed into a willowy heartbreaker with waist length golden waves and blue eyes that could slay at 50 feet.
“Isn’t she in Dundee?” I asked.
“Yes, mum replied, but your brother is in Glasgow on a job for his firm and your sister is in a right state. You need to come and find her.”
I looked round at the trashed flat and thought about the washing.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there on the 12 o’clock train.
On the journey courtesy of Scotrail, I sorted things through in my mind and called my sister.
She was, as my mother had warned, in a right state.
“She’s never done this before.” she wailed.
“Yes she has,” I said. “There was that night she was with Carly and the other time she stayed over at Benita’s house.”
“But I’ve called both of them.”she wailed. “And they said she went to a party on the Blackie.”
The Blackie. Blackness Road. A subdivision of a long road that meanders through the Hawkie (The Hawkhill) and out towards Menzieshill. A mass of flats, shops and businesses. She could disappear into that jungle for long enough.
“Did they no go with her?”
“No,” says sister dearest. “She met Malkie Blair from the school and went off with him. They didna want to intrude.”
“Ok dokey, then. It’s a start.”
I arrived in my old home town and just breathed in the air for a while, getting my bearings. Then I coughed heartily.
I turned left from the station and set off up towards the High Street and on to the Blackie.
I waited round for a taxi or a bus but eventually flagged down the only vehicle I could see – a pedicab being driven by a largish guy called Grant. At least that’s what his badge said.
I climbed into the back and settled my dowp into the plastic seat. Wondered briefly if I was going to be kidnapped. “Dae ye need a blanker fir yer knee?” He asked helpfully, thrusting a dirty looking scrap of cloth that looked like he lay on it when he was fixing his chain.
“Naw, no thanks. I’m good.”
“Well if ye chinge yer mind it’s jist below the seat.”
I watched as he tucked it into a modified supermarket basket cunningly attached to the bottom of the bike seat by what looked like a bent coat hanger. That explained the muck then.
His heart fell. That’d be a bit uphill pedalling then.
“And if we could get there before three that’d be grand….”
Grant set off, his thighs pumping the pedals of the bike hard but making surprisingly little in the way of forward motion. If I was getting kidnapped it was in slow motion and I could probably safely do a Hollywood roll out of the back and not even get a bruise.
Spray from the road flew up and I had to move to one side to avoid it. Fortunately the blanket took the brunt of it. We moved slowly through the streets, almost meandering.
The natives looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and amusement as we passed. It was entirely possible they had never seen a pedicab before.
“Grant,” I said. “You look like a young guy with your finger on the pulse.”
“Whit?” he puffed.
“You look like you know what’s going on round here.”
Grant signalled with his hand and pulled in to the side of the street. He was red faced and panting.
“Sorry missus,” he gasped. “I canna pedal and talk at the same time. Whit is it ye want?”
“Naw, it’s the wrang time of day for a party.” he said.
“No, I mean, I’m looking for information about where there was a big party in Blackness last night.”
“Aw right.” he said, his voice starting to return to something resembling a human again.
“Maybe,” he said. “I took a lassie out to a place in Kelso Street last night about 9pm – or 21 hundred, as we say in the personal transport business.”
“Can you take me there please?”
“Aye, no bother.” he smiled. “But no talking ’til we get there.”
I returned his smile.We had an understanding.
Kelso Street was a nice looking line of detached houses in their own gardens. Grant let me off at a red door and didn’t manage to make his escape before I told him to stay put.
Blackness was definitely on the up.
The door was answered by a beautiful young woman in a bikini. “Are you here for the tanning?” she asked, opening the door and inviting me in.
The front room contained about six young ladies in various stages of undress, highlights and extensions, and a put-upon looking older woman with a sinister looking narrow black tent in one corner.
The girls were passing round glasses of Aldi’s best plonk.
I declined the one offered to me. I was on business, after all. And frankly, my hangover had not gone away. It was just hiding.
“Not the tanning,” I said. “I’m looking for my neice, Ailsa Craigs. She was at a big party in the Blackie last night and she hasn’t come home. Her mum is going ape. Any of you guys know her or where she might be?”
The girls looked at each other and then the one who had answered the door spoke up.
“Aye, I know Ailsa. She’ll be fine. She was here for a while but she went to a karaoke session in one o’ the flats. I think Malkie lives there.”
“What number could that be?”
They conferred again, and poured out more fizz.
“I think it’s number 85.” There was a general nodding in agreement.
“85 it is then. Thanks doll.”
“No problem,” the girls said almost in unison.
Then they turned back to their tanning session.
Grant was having a fag in the street when I came back out. “Should you really be smoking with a job like yours?” I asked him, trying not to sound like his mother.
“Well,” he says. “The way I see it is that smoking is unhealthy, but cycling is very healthy, so I kind of think one cancels out the other and I’m just left even.”
I frowned. I was fairly sure that wasn’t really how it worked, but never mind.
“To the flats now, Grant, please. Number 85.”
He groaned a little. More uphill.
He was game. I’ll give him that. Within ten minutes we were making a sedate but steady pace onwards up the road.
Number 85 appeared on the left and he stopped. From the colour of his face, I was seriously trying to remember my ABC first aid course.
I was just about to hit the ‘service’ button when strange music made me stop and hold off. It seemed to be coming from round the back somewhere.
The greenies were enclosed in a six foot high brieze block wall. I walked along, following the music. I could see through the decorative stonework that there was a gathering on people round the back of number 85.
Music and dancing. And there, in the middle, like some kind of living Godess, was Ailsa.
She sat on the raised up wall of a flower bed, holding court. She had a white ox eye daisy behind one ear. Apparently the party was still going on.
I put my foot into the decorative bricks and pulled myself up. I managed to swing one leg over the top of the wall, planning to drop, panther-like into the midst of the revellers but my lace caught in the stonework and I fell into the garden into the middle of the party in a heap that I hoped looked more dignified than I suspected it might.
Fortunately a young man with a can of cider broke my fall. At first he thought he’d pulled an angel, but when he realised I was older than his mother, he panicked and tried to run.
At that moment, Ailsa spotted me.
“That’s my auntie Karen, Jimmy.” She laughed, her voice tinkled like fairy bells in snow. “Bring her over here.”
The boy obeyed. I reckoned if Ailsa ever went in to the Law, she could make a whole lot of money representing seriously bad people.
She chucked him under the chin and patted his head. “Thanks Jimmy.” Jimmy accepted the slight touch with undisguised gratitude and left to join the party again.
“Your mother is worried sick about you. Why did you not go home?”
She looked surprised. “Why would I go home? The party’s not finished yet. As you can see….”
“I’m here to take you home. Come with me.” I took her hand and began to move towards the door. I was damned if I was going over the wall again.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m waiting.”
There was a hush as a young man walked in to the back garden. The crowd of revellers parted to let him through. Someone pushed a flower into his hair and I watched as they closed in behind him.
“Six margheritas, three meat feasts and one vegetable supreme, plus your free bottle of coke.”
He held the large cardboard boxes aloft.
Someone shrieked, and the crowd fell upon him like a single crazed beast.
A young woman brought Ailsa a large slice of margherita pizza and she nibbled it delicately. “Now I can go,” she said.
Grant wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad. He had two people to pull now – but at least it was downhill. And the added bonus was that he had Ailsa in the back.
I gave him a hefty tip and waited with Ailsa for her mum to come and pick her up from the High Street.
It was getting dark by the time I got back into the train for home. I watched as the city retreated and the lights reflected in the Tay as we pulled over the bridge.