Someone was hammering on the door. John MacGregor opened his eyes, finally realizing that the smoke detector’s muffled beeping was not a part of his exquisite dream. Neither was Jackie’s voice. She was shouting his name, threatening to crack the cheap plastic door panel with her increasingly aggressive pounding.
“I’m sorry,” he shouted, “I’m coming!”
“Let me in, John. It’s easier if you just open the door!”
He got to the door opened it. She moved past him, not saying a word. As she stormed past, he smelled smoke and with the residual aroma of the perfume she’d worn.
“Your shirt is inside out. Damn it, John! You set your bed on fire!”
“I’ll put it out,” he said, “I’m sorry, let me get it. Jackie, let me put it out.”
She exhaled loudly. He wondered what time it was. Her heavy footfalls stomped across his room and she lifted the heavy ashtray, the glass bumping hard against the bed frame. She pounded or slapped the mattress of his bed, coughing loudly.
“You’re going to burn us all to death.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Now the whole building is going to smell.”
She wrestled with the window, grunting with muted anger. Eventually, the window creaked upwards and the cold morning air rushed in, bringing the railway sounds with it and the less welcome stink of the garbage beneath the window. He wrinkled his nose and held his arms out to her.
“I’m sorry, I must have fallen asleep. What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s almost eight o’clock, in the morning.”
“I must have missed the ashtray, that’s all,” MacGregor said, “and your little present ended up paying for itself. The smoke detector, I mean.”
She laughed wryly, then moved closer. Her hands were on his collar, brushing against his neck so wonderfully as she jerked and adjusted his clothing with obvious irritation. He was oblivious to her irritation for a moment and just enjoyed her presence. He couldn’t help but smile.
“This is inside out,” she said, softening a little. “Oh yes, John. Smiles and laughter. It’s all so perfectly funny. Burn to death, burn us all to death. Dress like a hopeless… hopeless derelict.”
“A tramp, John.”
“All you need to do now is spill the ashtray all over yourself and then you’ll be the complete epitome of a hopeless case – in anyone’s eyes.”
She drew in a quick breath, making her mistake all the more evident. For the badness of it, he decided to take advantage of her faux pas.
“That would be anyone’s eyes but mine, Jackie.”
Her hand pushed against his chest; a little too rough to be completely playful, but not too hard that he would fall over. She withdrew from him so quickly that the cold morning air from the open window swirled around him. He shivered with it, his smile dissolving into his standard grimace.
“Because I’m blind,” he said, “and I can’t see anything.”
“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 the air, clearing the smoke away. The back of his right hand bounced against something soft and round. Jackie let out a yelp of surprise and alarm.
“That is even better,” she said, “now my breasts are being… pounded by the poor, helpless, blind man who tried to burn me to death.”
He laughed quietly.
“I’m sorry about the smoke. The place is going to stink now.”
“You need to wake up, John. You need to wake up and get your life sorted out.”
He tried to think of something to say. He tried to stand in front of her, as he sensed she was about to leave.
“I’m awake. I am awake.”
A train rumbled by on the lines below, headed for the small railway station a few hundred meters east of MacGregor’s flat. A cold Autumn wind was blowing into the room as a disgruntled wasp bumped and buzzed against the window.
He felt her moving again. Shaking his head, he raised his hands.
“Keep away from me!” Jackie laughed, “I know what you are up to.”
Jackie closed the window, but she didn’t latch it. They were on the second floor and there was no way for an intruder to climb in from the overgrown, disgusting and unused drying green below. She walked back towards him, moving close by him yet again. He felt his breath catch in the back of his throat. He had to resist the temptation to lean away from her. He felt suddenly nervous, but he didn’t know why. A cold shiver was running down his spine, paralyzing him as he struggled to understand his emotions. Before he could react her hands were on his shirt, tugging at the collar. Then, without warning, she pulled his shirt up and over his head.
He leaned in, instinctively, preparing to kiss her. But she pulled away sharply.
“What?” she said, “what are you doing?”
He laughed nervously to cover his embarrassment. He couldn’t hear her breathing anymore and realized that she was holding her breath. She released it in a long, whistling sigh.
“Alright,” she said. “This shirt stinks, so please take care of it.”
He decided 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.” She was referring to the couple in the room at the end of the corridor, the heroin addicts who habitually stole from the others tenants. “Then I have an interview for yet another position that I totally will not get.”
“I remember you telling me,” MacGregor said. “It means more hours, but further away.”
“Well done for remembering,” she said, “it makes me feel I’m not talking to myself when we’re together.”
“Don’t cry over the stolen milk. They’ve probably found some way to inject it into themselves.”
“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. The new job is more hours in the week and a little further away, but there’s a chance it could become a full-time teaching job.”
“How far away?”
“Far enough that I’d have to find a new place to live, somewhere a little more suitable for human life.”
“Now you’re just trying to offend me.” He was joking, but only just.
“You know I don’t mean you. But, I mean everything else. The bathroom is absolutely disgusting; no matter what I do to it. The kitchen cooker is deadlier than anything I could ever cook. There’s black mold in new places every day. This isn’t somewhere for people to live, John, it’s just a place to exist.”
“I don’t suppose it helps when your flatmate sets his bed on fire,” MacGregor said.
Jackie didn’t reply. He imagined her expression and in his imagination, she was frowning. He was just another one of her problems, another thing to darken her day.
“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, wonderful, heat. The wildly pleasurable sensation of Jackie’s presence lingered for an eternal five or six seconds, then her body moved away. She was walking away. The conversation was over.
“Wash your shirt,” she said, “and wish me luck.”
And then she was closing the door. He wanted to tell her to stay, but it was too late. He listened to her walk across the carpeted hall to her own room. She unlocked the door and it clicked shut. He went to sit on the edge of his bed and stared sightlessly towards the door. Ten quiet minutes later, Jackie left her room again. The heavy outer door opened and her heels clicked down the first flight of stairs; soon lost in the background grumble and moan of Glasgow’s awakening south side.
The telephone in the hall rang about thirty minutes later, but nobody answered it.
The phone rang three more times. It irritated MacGregor, but he wouldn’t have thought to answer it. The drug addict was in his room and MacGregor heard his moans each time the phone rang. Jackie hadn’t returned from her trip and there was nobody else around to pick the phone up.
Jackie returned to the flat as the phone rang for the 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. She answered the phone and spoke quietly as he strained to hear. He heard his own name mentioned, which was an unwelcome surprise. Jackie said a few more words he couldn’t quite hear. His heart leaped as she walked towards his door. Moments later, she gently tapped the wood panel.
“Phone call,” she said, “for you!”
He found the door easily enough - he knew every last centimeter of his room - and opened it wide enough for Jackie to enter. She didn’t step forward.
“Phone call,” she said. “He says his name is Fraser. Do you know a Fraser Millar?”
He was stunned to silence for a moment.
“Fraser? Er, yeah. Jesus Christ, yes. I know him from way back... before.”
He touched his hands to his face, realizing that he’d left his dark glasses on the edge of the bed.
“He’s on the phone.”
“He’s on the phone?” MacGregor walked back to the bed to retrieve his shades. “Jackie, can you just tell him I’m not here?”
She didn’t come into the room and just waited outside. She’d never done that before. He wondered if she’d been shocked to see his eyes without the glasses, then he recalled she’d seen him quite a few times already without the glasses on.
“He says he’s a friend from the service,” Jackie stated, still outside the room.
“I know where he’s from.” MacGregor found a little cruelty coming to his words. “I’m f… not… ah ... I don’t want to speak to him right now.”
She made the disgruntled tut-tut that he’d somehow grown to enjoy. He opened the door wider, hoping she’d invite herself in. She didn’t. He could feel her staring at him. He imagined her standing, tall, arms folded under her chest and her expression one of confusion or frustration.
“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 was about to answer, but she had jogged back to the phone. He realized that Fraser must have overheard and would realize that he was, of course, in the flat. He hoped Fraser would get the message and not call back again. He heard Jackie dismiss the caller, the handset clicking back onto its hook. She returned to his door, breathing hard. He was still standing inside the room, waiting for her to enter. She just stood outside, her throat rasping a little with each breath.
“You want to come in? You’re standing in the doorway like some kind of… sentinel.”
“Yes, a sentinel. A big, foreboding presence. 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, “and you 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.”
“Did you know that it’s just past lunchtime? And you’re talking about going to bed? Well boo-hoo, Mr. Crybaby. If you’re going to be full of depression I’ll just leave you alone for that.”
Her words struck him like a slap in the face, yet he enjoyed them and knew he needed to hear what she’d said.
“No, it’s cool,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
He turned the kettle on. It already had enough water in it. He figured that the electric meter had about another five or six uses in it before he had to feed it another coin. There were a half dozen fifty pence lying on top of the meter.
“Tell me about the interview.”
The kettle started to click and creak as Jackie told her story. 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. That, and she’d screwed up the interview a little by letting her nervousness get the better of her. She’d also forgotten to buy the milk that the drug addicts had stolen.
“Will you come down to the shop with me? To get the milk?”
“To Ashraf’s?” MacGregor said, “I can probably manage that.”
“Well done.” She clapped her hands together. “To know that I’ve managed to entice you out of the flat for even five minutes is enough to brighten my day.”
Jackie finished her coffee, then said she had to do something in her room. She told MacGregor that her absence would give him time to shower before they went to the shop. He took the hint, picking up on Jackie’s delicate way of telling him he stank. He gathered up an armful of reasonably clean clothes along with his wash bag and towel and made his way 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 realized what he had been missing. He stayed in the shower too long and the meter nobody ever seemed to feed ran out. Luckily, he’d already rinsed the soap off his body. He returned to the room, already dressed in his now slightly damp clothes.
“Don’t you feel better?”
Her voice surprised him. She had returned to his room, which he now realized he’d foolishly left unlocked.
“You don’t value your possessions,” she said, “not with those two ready to grab anything they can get their hands on.”
“Yes,” he said, “did you just 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 to 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.
“Are you serious?” she laughed, “it’s sticking up all over the place.”
He repeated the action another few times.
“Ready,” he said.
He’d met Jackie five or six weeks ago. She’d spent ten minutes shouting and cursing in the hall before MacGregor had confronted her. It turned out that the drug addicts had broken into her room, stealing fifty pounds. Before that, she’d been the heavy footfalls and the occasional muttered curse he would hear in the morning, or the scream of anger in the evening when she went into the kitchen to find her food pilfered. She didn’t belong in the dismal bedsit, he thought, and he couldn’t understand why she’d stayed so long. Most of the decent tenants left quickly once they realized what they were getting into.
It was time to leave. 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 way through the passage 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, and it was getting harder every time. He was finding more and more excuses not to leave. He knew that it wasn’t the right thing to do, but he kept telling himself he’d do better tomorrow.
Tomorrow, tomorrow. Always tomorrow. The place to put everything that you know will never happen. The safe place that’s always a day away.
He shivered, shocked at her hand brushed against his.
“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 managed them without her assistance, but it felt nice to have her 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.”
She laughed quietly, barely a sound at all. They took a step into the warm sunshine. The pathway smelled of urine, but the street smells blowing in with the chilly October air brought a cacophony of odors to MacGregor’s senses. Most of them were the same ones he enjoyed 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. Jackie gripped his arm roughly.
“Come on. We’re outside now.” Her voice sounded irritable, the tone jarring.
“That’s what I… like… about you; your total lack of sympathy.”
The Albert bar wasn’t far away. They had to cross the street away from the Ashraf brothers’ shop, then walk past the hairdressers on the other side of the road. Jackie tugged him across the road, pulling at his arm in jerks that were almost painful.
“Ow,” he said eventually, “are you okay?”
“You want someone to feel sorry for you?”
He let go of her arm, or he almost did; the break seemed to be mutual, though he was sure he’d been the first to move.
“You know, I don’t even know the answer to that,” he said. “I don’t think so. I really… don’t know.”
She took his arm back and gripped it tightly. She started off again without a word. 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 realized.
“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 heard the familiar creak of the Albert bar’s heavy. Warm air and the smell of a stale beer soaked musty carpet drifted past MacGregor’s face. 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 said. “Mostly I depend on the sympathetic to lead me around.”
“We’re good for that, aren’t we?”
Jackie ordered a glass or red wine and a large Southern Comfort and lemonade for MacGregor. The drinks were made and arrived quickly.
“Where do we sit?” Jackie asked.
“Follow me,” he said, taking advantage of her slip. “Let the blind lead the sighted for once.”
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 MacGregor. But MacGregor 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 strong hands catching him.
The voice was familiar. He felt a jumble of emotions at the sound. The first was anger directed towards Jackie. The next was an inexplicable and cursed fear, fear manifesting itself for no good reason. The anger and fear quickly subsided, replaced by a strange kind of embarrassment.
“Fraser,” MacGregor said, rallying. “Let me get you a drink.”
“I’ve got one,” Fraser said, “I’m sitting right here at this table.”
He felt Jackie touch his arm. Not to lead him, just an unspoken question; but he knew exactly what she wanted.
Was this okay? Did I do the right thing?
“It’s alright,” MacGregor said, “let’s go 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. MacGregor wasn’t a fan of the dark, Irish stout. Fraser had never been too picky about what he drank. He was still wearing the same Kouros aftershave and he was still smoked the same God-awful Turkish cigarettes.
“You must be Jackie,” Fraser said, “I’m Fraser.”
MacGregor felt the table move, wondering if Fraser had leaned in to kiss Jackie’s cheek. He didn’t hear anything that sounded like a kiss. Jackie introduced herself a little too nervously and he felt a pang of jealousy. There was a clinking sound. Jackie and Fraser had touched glasses. Fraser whispered the word, “Success”.
MacGregor felt his temper flare. “I don’t like being maneuvered like this.”
He felt Fraser’s big hand on his forearm, squeezing hard.
“It’s me, pal,” Fraser said.
“Come on, John,” Jackie said, “you guys are friends. You shouldn’t hide from your friends.”
Her words - and the embarrassment associated with them - made MacGregor’s anger rise further. “Nobody was hiding. I just didn’t feel like coming to the phone.”
Fraser was laughing. The slow, deep laugh MacGregor remembered from so long ago.
“I’ve caused a lover’s tiff.” Fraser’s north Yorkshire accent was stronger than MacGregor remembered. “Sorry, guys. I didn’t know we weren’t all on the same page. Come on, John, let’s have a drink together, eh?”
MacGregor jumped to his feet. His knee banged against the table. It stung and he squeezed it with his left hand.
“There aren’t any lovers here to have a tiff, Fraze. Jackie and I are 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. I heard you telling Jackie that you weren’t there, man. You need to keep your voice down if you’re going to pull that kind of thing.”
“I’m not hiding from anyone!”
Nobody said anything else. The barmaid cleared her throat, indicating her displeasure with the escalating argument. MacGregor waved in the general direction of the bar.
“Sorry!” he said.
“Jesus Christ,” Fraser whispered, “it’s not as if there’s anyone else here.”
MacGregor was annoyed that Jackie would manipulate him into meeting Fraser here, but he was also embarrassed and disappointed. He’d been looking forward to a little alone time with Jackie – time outside the bedsit. 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.
“So how have you been?” Fraser asked.
MacGregor 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 carefully lifted the glass to his lips and tasted the beverage.
“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?”
“I’m running my own security agency,” Fraser said, “Working for a government agency right now. Big bucks, man. It is big bucks.”
“Are you still in… Maidstone?”
Fraser laughed. “I was never in Maidstone. We’re in Dartford. Susan and me, that is. Oh, and I have a 3-year-old son Matthew. Hold on a minute, I’ll show you a photo.”
The last remark was directed, obviously, towards Jackie.
“What a handsome young man,” Jackie commented. “he looks just like you.”
“Really?” Fraser laughed. “Well, we like to think he has Susan’s natural Aussie health and vitality.”
Jackie laughed. There was something about the sound that set MacGregor’s teeth on edge.
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… 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.”
MacGregor 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 ignited a long forgotten passion inside him, a zest for life he’d not felt for many years.
“What can you do about my situation? Have you become a millionaire? 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. As if I’d give you one, anyway. 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 danger,” MacGregor rasped. “I was offered all kinds of shit after the accident. All the latest high tech accessibility stuff helping me ride a desk all day. I didn’t want to end up sitting on my arse and—”
“I’m not talking about desk work. Shit, she’s coming back.” Fraser moved in closer, his voice quiet. “Look, you need to get rid of her so we can talk.”
It was harder to get rid of Jackie than MacGregor had thought. He wondered if she felt protective of him or whether she was attracted to Fraser. Fraser had already mentioned his wife – and their young son. MacGregor wondered if Jackie was interested in his Army stories. She’d often shown an interest in MacGregor’s background, though he’d never shared much about his time in Northern Ireland.
“If you don’t mind, boys, I’ve got an errand or two to run,” Jackie announced, “John, you’ll manage back without me, won’t you?”
“Er… yes, sure.”
“You’re leaving now?”
“Well, yes?” she said, “you’ve got business to discuss. I’ve got milk to buy and laundry to pick up. Things to do, things to do…”
“I’m starting to think this is a setup,” MacGregor said, forcing humor into his tone.
“Fraser, it was nice to meet you.”
“Likewise, darling,” Fraser said, “take care now.”
Within seconds she’d left the bar. There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“Alright.” Fraser’s voice was low and carried a hint of excitement and mystery. “So how are you finding being blind?”
MacGregor scratched his nose, sliding his dark glasses down a little. He laughed lightly, shaking his head.
“Well, obviously, it’s absolutely great fun. I am loving every single minute of it.”
“Don’t be daft, now, that’s not what I meant,” Fraser said. “I mean, are you sort of used to it? Can you... find your way around and shit like that? Do you need that girl Janice—”
“Jackie, aye. Do you need her to help you find your way around?”
“I manage just fine on my own. I’ve been blind for five years now. It’s a long time, Fraze.”
“That’s good. That’s what I need.”
MacGregor 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.
“What are you talking about?”
“Let’s nip out for a smoke, eh?”
“Shit,” MacGregor shook his head. “Alright.”
MacGregor felt the cold air like a splash of water on his face. He heard Fraser click open his zippo lighter, then there was the overwhelming odor of the strong tobacco. Fraser handed him a cigarette. After a slight pause, he accepted the smoke. A boy racer zoomed by, the oversized exhaust overwhelming MacGregor’s senses for a moment. The car vanished in the direction of Queens Park, grinding its plastic spoilers over speed-bumps as it went.
“You’re looking for someone who’s used to groping around in the dark? What’s it for, a late night blindfolded orgy party?”
“I’ve already recommended you. You’re perfect for this, John,” Fraser paused for a moment. “Christ, even if you’re not perfect, they don’t know need to know. It will all be good money.”
MacGregor laughed. He coughed loudly. The cigarette was strong. “Who’s they?” He Asked. “And what use do you think I’m going to be to them?”
“It doesn’t matter who they are,” Fraser said quickly. “Just some people I’m working for right now. They’re looking for someone who knows their way around in the dark. You’re the only person I know who’s used to being in the dark.”
“I don’t know—”
“You’re perfect for this, John, and they’re going to pay an absolute fortune. Enough money to get a place somewhere decent.”
A police siren sounded far away. Heading towards the city center. Across the road, football fans cheered at a near miss. MacGregor dragged on his cigarette, shaking his head.
“I haven’t been doing all well lately, Fraze. I don’t know if I’m up to... whatever this is.”
“It won’t be difficult.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you. Not unless you tell me that you’ll do it.”
“It’s a few days of work. Maybe a week or more.” Fraser explained. “It comes with a huge five figure payoff. Five figures. And a high five figure, at that.”
MacGregor considered Fraser’s cryptic offer, nervous to agree to anything on the spur of the moment like this. 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.” MacGregor 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 a real mess.”
“So what’s new?”
Fraser was laughing. MacGregor gave him a few seconds before he interrupted.
“Really, I’m a mess - a wreck.”
“It’s five figures, mate,” Fraser seemed oblivious to his words. “I’ll be there to watch out for you, trust me.”
“I don’t know.”
Fraser finished his cigarette. MacGregor decided to toss what was left of his. They went back to the bar.
“You said Inverness? Is that where I’d need to go? How would I even get there?”
“We’ll get going as soon as you decide,” Fraser enthused. “We’ve got a beautiful place to stay, just north of the city. Come on, just tell me that you’re in.”
“It’s a lot of cash,” MacGregor said, “I’ll give you that, but it feels like it has to be something pretty dangerous.”
“It isn’t. Look, they need your skills as a blind man. Finding your way around and all that, I guess.”
“I don’t even know if I’d have made it here without Jackie.”
There was a long pause; too long. Fraser was looking him over, he could tell.
“You could find your way back if you needed to, though, couldn’t you?”
There was something about Fraser’s tone that made MacGregor hesitate. He was about to say that he couldn’t do it, but a shred of pride pushed its way through his fear. He nodded his head slowly, feigning confidence.
“I’ve come here a few times on my own.”
It was a lie; he’d come to the Albert bar - alone - only once before since losing his sight. It had been over a year ago – and he’d gotten lost during the trip back to his flat, Jackie eventually rescuing him after he’d persuaded a passer-by to phone the flat.
“Alright, then let’s have a go at it,” Fraser spoke excitedly. “Let’s just go and do that right now.”
The Southern Comforts had served to settle MacGregor’s nerves. The idea of finding his own way back to the flat seemed amusing and challenging. At the very least, it would give Fraser an indication of what being blind was all about.
“Okay,” MacGregor said, “let me fascinate you with my skills.”
They left the bar. Fraser stayed behind MacGregor as they reached the heavy door. MacGregor could hear him breathing noisily. Then the door opened and the noise of the city washed over him like a wave. A heavy vehicle with a diesel engine trundled by slowly, looking for something, over cautious or maybe just a bad driver. Then there was the ringing of a bicycle bell, the cyclist on the pavement and passing by too quickly. Fraser cursed loudly, the bike clattering on regardless.
“Here we go,” MacGregor spoke. “Now, watch this.”
He flicked open his white cane and started walking towards the curb. 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. MacGregor 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.
Crossing the Albert road was easy enough. MacGregor waited between parked cars as three cars whizzed by. A fourth slowed down and the driver considered stopping but sped up at the last second. There was a break in the traffic and MacGregor stepped out from between the parked cars and into the road. Fraser was speaking.
“So, how often do you get shagged these days?”
MacGregor laughed, shaking his head. He continued across the road. It was only a few meters wide. A parked car blocked their way. He tapped against the lower part of its sill with his white stick.
“Not very often.” He edged around the car. “Are you offering? You might have gone that way, but I’m still straight.”
“Maybe later,” Fraser replied, “but probably never. What about that tall bird, what’s her name? Jasmine?”
“Aye. So how often are you two… ah… doing it.”
“We aren’t anything. She lives in the same flat. In one of the rooms. It’s a bedsit. We share the kitchen and the bathroom.”
“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,” MacGregor said, “Jesus, Fraser!”
MacGregor 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,” MacGregor said, the tone of his voice wavering. “We’re on Albert Road. Need to turn left on to Albert Drive. It isn’t that far.”
It was further than MacGregor remembered. He only realized 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,” MacGregor agreed. “To be honest, I’m surprised this place is still here. It’s been about ten years since I’ve been to it.”
“Back then I lived in the top floor flat across the road from the Mosque. You visited me there about ten years ago. 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! You turned up one day with a crate of beer and told me about this security gig you had. They were looking for people and you said you’d get me a job. After you went back to Germany I queued all day at the passport office waiting to get an emergency passport.”
“Oh shit, what happened then?”
“I couldn’t get in touch with you anymore. Don’t you remember? Darf eek herr Fraser Millar sprecken? You told me to say that.”
The kebab shop owner served them both, interrupting the conversation. Fraser left the ordering to MacGregor. In fact, Fraser had made his way between the two plastic tables back to the heavy glass door again. MacGregor heard it open noisily on its rusted hinges.
“I remember Germany. Driving around some faceless VIP for twenty-four hundred Deutschmarks a week. I never even learned who he was, either. Sehr gut! Very good, good money. I 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.”
MacGregor knew where Fraser was going. He started to eat his kebab and waited patiently. A few minutes later, Fraser returned and thumped a heavy crate of beer down on the table.
“Surprise!” Fraser said.
“Yep,” MacGregor smiled, “I thought that’s where you were going.”
Fraser tore apart the crate of Tenants Lager. He offered one to MacGregor. MacGregor 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 that sounded like a curse. MacGregor waved his other hand in the air.
They ate quickly. MacGregor knew that some of the food was going onto his T-shirt, but he was too hungry to care. He finished his beer quickly, enjoying the way it subdued the strong chili 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.”
MacGregor popped the lid of his beer 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.” MacGregor shrugged. “This kebab is amazing.”
“Aye,” Fraser said, “pretty good.”
It took another two cans of Tenants Super Lager for MacGregor to finish his kebab and the cheesy garlic bread that Fraser insisted on ordering but just couldn’t manage. Fraser carried the crate as MacGregor led the way back to the flat. This time, it was much easier. Instead of going along the back road, MacGregor turned onto the busier Victoria Road.
“I’ve walked this way a few times,” MacGregor said, “I know it a lot better than the back 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. “I’m not supposed to help.”
“Okay,” MacGregor grumbled, “fair enough.”
They made their way along the wide pavement on the east side of Victoria Road, heading south towards Queens Park. MacGregor had walked this road many times before, but not since losing his sight. The thought sobered him a little. He began to move more cautiously, his steps becoming smaller and uncertain until his right ankle bumped against a heavy object blocking the pavement. He tripped, falling into something soft and squishy. As he tumbled, MacGregor realized 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, colliding with Fraser.
MacGregor avoided falling right into the fruit stand, but Fraser and the box of beers fell heavily to the ground, a few stray cans of lager hitting the ground beside him and bursting open with a foamy hiss. MacGregor landed on his right side, away from the fruit stand. He collided with the beer crate, which Fraser was still hanging onto.
MacGregor felt like he was having trouble breathing, though he didn’t know why. Fraser was swearing quietly and MacGregor could hear anger Fraser’s words. Another guttural voice spoke nearby, rattling off words in a language MacGregor did not understand.
“Come on, man.” Fraser was speaking to the shopkeeper. “Just look at the state of him? Give us a break, eh?”
“You are too drunk for this time of day.” The shopkeeper said, his English carefully slow. “You should have some decency, for goodness sakes.”
“Alright, alright,” Fraser said, “here, just take this.”
There was a ruffle of bank notes. The shopkeeper gave a grunt but seemed satisfied. MacGregor exhaled loudly. Fraser’s right hand suddenly gripped his.
“Come on, man. Look at the state of you.”
“What do you mean; look at the state of me?”
“Come on. Let’s just get you sorted out.”
MacGregor was acutely aware of Fraser’s hand on his elbow but did not refuse it. He kept contact with Fraser all the way back to number five. Barely a word had been spoken between them as they walked. MacGregor 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 fruit, that’s all.”
“Aye, ok. But you were freaking out back there, weren’t you? I thought you were going to pass out or something. What was that all about? There were people there laughing at you.”
“That’s just bollocks.”
MacGregor finally pulled free of Fraser’s grip. He waited in silence for more, but Fraser didn’t have anything else to say.
“I’m blind, remember?” MacGregor snapped.
“You’ve been blind for five years. Five years is a long, long time. I didn’t expect you’d still be pissing your pants about it.”
“I tripped over Ashraf’s oranges.”
“Screw Ashraf’s oranges. It’s everything, man. I mean, look at the state of you!”
“You’ve been here for five minutes, Fraser. You don’t know me. I got winded when I fell, or something.”
“Man, you were rolling around in that fruit like we were in a sitcom.”
MacGregor realized 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.
Fraser’s breathing was loud. MacGregor swallowed his embarrassment.
“Come on, Fraser, I’ve been on my own here for a long time, but I‘m the same person.”
Fraser didn’t answer. He might have grumbled something under his breath, but MacGregor wasn’t sure. They reached the flat and the heavy door was locked. This usually meant that the drug addicts were trying to pick the locks on his or Jackie’s rooms, the locked door providing the two scumbags an extra second or two to retreat back to their own plastic paneled hovel.
Bearing this in mind, MacGregor unlocked the door swiftly, even though he figured the addicts would already have heard them coming up the stairs.
“Anyway, you said you’d watch out for me on this gig.”
“I suppose I did, aye.”
They entered the flat. Fraser didn’t say anything. MacGregor found his way to his door in about twelve steps. Fraser followed, still quiet. MacGregor opened the door to his end room in the musty smelling bedsit.
“Let me put this crate down,” Fraser said, “Jesus Christ, I might as well just throw it on the floor. What a mess this place is in.”
MacGregor heard the sound of dishes being moved. Fraser made a grunting sound of disgust. MacGregor couldn’t remember the last time he’d cleaned the sink. Fraser opened a can of lager with a click and a hiss; MacGregor felt cold metal bump against the back of his hand. He accepted the beverage without a word.
“This place is a tip,” Fraser said, “we have to get more drunk as quickly as possible.”
“I know,” MacGregor drank a generous amount from the can. “Christ, that’s still pretty good when it’s warm. Well, do you still think I can be of any use to you?”
Fraser didn’t say anything. He cracked open another beer and immediately started drinking heavy gulps. He offered no reply to MacGregor besides a noncommittal, watery, grunt.
“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 like this. I’m sure every blind person doesn’t just live in their own vomit and shit. I didn’t realize how… fucked-up you’ve let yourself get. This is a real pain in the arse. There goes twenty thousand pounds for a start.”
“What’s that? Twenty thousand pounds for what?”
“For bring you to them.”
MacGregor laughed out loud. It was a choking reflex that made amber liquid leak 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.”
MacGregor 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. Fraser took the opportunity and MacGregor heard the worn springs creak as Fraser’s heavy, lank frame settled into the chair. MacGregor 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 anything?”
Now Fraser laughed his booming, loud and - somehow - reassuring laugh.
“It’s not the same, but it’s sort of the same. Twenty thousand pounds instead of… something like eight hundred Deutschmarks, I think it was. But you didn’t come through for me back then if I remember right?”
MacGregor had to count to ten. He literally felt like his might suddenly explode with rage. All that stopped him was the relief of hearing the change in Fraser’s tone. He put the can of lager to his lips, his hand was shaking.
“You absolute fucker!” he muttered.
“What?” Fraser protested innocently. “I was working for Schichau Seebeckwerft in Bremerhaven. I remember it well. It’s in the north, where that movie—”
“I don’t really give much of a fuck where it is, Fraser. 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 times. Darf ich herr Fraser Millar sprechen, bitte!”
Fraser laughed quietly. He was trying not to. It only made MacGregor angrier.
“Darf ich herr Fraser Millar sprechen, bitte! Darf ich herr Fraser Millar sprechen, bitte! Fifty effing times, Frase.”
“I left that hotel, I think.” Fraser mused, incriminatingly. “I forget why, but I think one of the Irish guys might have demolished everything in his room one night. So we all had to go live someplace else. A nice place by the river. I can’t remember its name. It’s funny. I always wondered why you didn’t call.”
“Because I didn’t know you had moved to another hotel, you stupid bastard!”
Fraser was still laughing. MacGregor 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 pay for it.”
Fraser was still laughing. MacGregor 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 Millar sprechen, bitte!” MacGregor choked out the words. “And every time the 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 neck back then. I really could have. Herr Fraser Millar 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 friend!”
“You weren’t blind then!”
The laughter died suddenly. MacGregor 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.”
MacGregor put the can to his lips. This one was warmer than the last, but he had enough alcohol in his system 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,” MacGregor said. “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 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 happened in Portadown? I loved Portadown. That’s where I met… whatshisname… Terry. His sister made soda bread.”
“The lost Civil Servant, remember?” MacGregor referred to the British Army’s standard SA-80 assault rifle, nicknamed by troops who found that the weapon 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 him panic when we were looking for that thing. They never found it, did they?”
“We never found it,” MacGregor said, “who knows where it ended up. But someone, somewhere, found it I’d guess. I’m surprised that didn’t get us thrown out. Christ, how could Hereford even consider you with that on your record.”
“If they knew about it, nobody ever mentioned it. I was too fat and lazy for the selection process. I knew that on the first day, but I made it to the third. It was murder – almost literally.”
They both laughed.
“You were right to get out when you did,” Fraser said. ”Do you… ah… do you ever hear from Carol Anne?”
“No. Last I heard she was doing alright,” MacGregor said. “She spoke to dad not long after we broke up. He said she was sorry about what happened, but she said she thought she was going in the right direction. She was surprised I’d gone back to Glasgow. He said she was worried I didn’t have anyone here.”
He hadn’t thought about Carol Anne in a while. Strangely, the first thing he thought of was her bright yellow dress. The dress she’d worn when they’d met on the bridge. He crushed his forehead with his left hand, trying to squeeze the memory out of his mind. It didn’t work.
“Let’s change the subject,” he said, “tell me what’s happening in Inverness.”
“Truth be told, I don’t really know all that much. I just know it’s pretty important. Something’s going on twenty or thirty miles further north of the city. They’ve moved in some heavy hardware and there’s more on the way, and people too.”
“Tell me they’re not going to do any experiments on me.”
“Definitely not, they said. The guy in charge is an American called Braverman. CIA or something. They need people who are blind. I really don’t know what for. I don’t have that kind of security clearance.”
“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 all injured in service. Eyesight stuff, like you.”
MacGregor exhaled tiredly. He could no longer think clearly. The excitement of the day had caught up with him, 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, MacGregor didn’t hear him. The almost empty can of beer rolled onto the floor and under the bed, joining the rest of the dirt and debris there.