An extract from
The summons came, as always, via a call to Ryland’s private line. The appointed hour was 8.30 p.m., the place: Lombardini’s on the top floor of Princes Square shopping centre. A reservation had been made in the usual name. On his arrival, the waitress informed him that they’d been expecting him and showed him to a table for two.
Alone at the small balcony table, Ryland gazed out at his surroundings. The square had first opened to the public in the late eighties, coinciding with Glasgow’s great renewal as a City of Culture – a gaudy, glitzy affair, all designer shops and glass elevators, designed to inject some cosmopolitan glamour into the lives of the commonfolk. Multiple conversations mingled with snatches of half-recognised lyrics as neighbouring restaurants pumped out competing songs. He could see why the venue had been chosen. Anyone listening in would be hard pressed to hear anything over the din. Not that he was unduly worried about being eavesdropped on tonight. His wasn’t a face you tended to see splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Being a backbench MSP for the third-largest party – or third-smallest, depending on how you wanted to look at it – did have its advantages when one wished for anonymity.
His dining companion arrived over twenty minutes late and without even the grace to muster an apology. Huffing and puffing, he collapsed into the seat opposite, summoned a passing waiter with a florid wave and ordered himself a dry martini. As the waiter departed, he folded his pudgy hands across his round little belly and gave what was presumably meant to be a smile – though, given his rather unfortunate features, it looked more like a leering grimace. He was a short, bug-eyed little man with the jowly cheeks, grossly protruding bottom lip and non-existent chin that seemed to afflict so much of the political establishment. He had a name, of course, but Ryland had privately christened him the Poison Dwarf.
‘So, laddie, how does life find one this fine evening?’
‘Can’t complain, all in all.’
Ryland was hoping they could skip the pleasantries and get straight to business. He could think of umpteen things he’d rather be doing on Hogmanay night than spending it in the company of the Party’s vice-chairman and go-to hatchet man.
‘Splendid, splendid. And the good lady wife? She fine and dandy? Been having rather a rum time this last year, by all accounts.’
‘Doing much better since she started seeing that chap Hugo recommended.’
‘New doc an improvement on the old one, hmm? Marvellous, just marvellous.’ The Poison Dwarf gave another of his unfortunate smiles, then turned to his menu. ‘What looks good?’
They continued in this vein for another quarter-hour – the bland, hollow enquiries as to the wellbeing of significant others, the trading of war stories about their respective Christmases. It wasn’t until starters and main courses had been ordered, and they’d nearly finished the first round of drinks, that the Dwarf finally deigned to move beyond the banalities.
‘You’ll have heard the rumblings about the Farmer,’ he said, nonchalantly picking a fleck of dandruff off the collar of his pinstriped three-piece.
The Farmer. Archibald Adam Croft, sixty-four-year-old leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, so nicknamed not because he was one but because he represented the fiercely rural constituency of Selkirkshire North, coupled with his fondness for being photographed in rolling fields, decked out with flat cap, jodhpurs and hiking staff. The surname didn’t hurt either.
‘I’ve heard rumours,’ said Ryland cautiously.
‘Oh, they aren’t just rumours, dear boy. It’s all but official now. In the coming months, the dedicated but charisma-deprived leader of our little group in Holyrood will announce his retirement from the front line, ostensibly on health grounds. Not keeping too well these days, they say. Dicky ticker.’
‘Not for us it’s not.’ The Dwarf tapped the side of his nose. ‘Events, dear boy, events. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Elders have been – shall we say ambivalent? – about the man’s performance for some time now. The phrase “shoogly peg” springs increasingly to mind. Oh, they were content enough to put up with him for a spell – let him settle in, give him a couple of elections to find his feet. Right sort of chap, y’see.
‘Anyway’ – he paused, glancing left and right, as if concerned that the nearby creeping ivy might have sprouted ears – ‘of late, the Elders have begun asking questions. The Party successfully turned around its fortunes down south a few years back, which begs the question: why is its northern chapter still firmly perched on the remedial step, placing third or even fourth in election after election? Well?’
Ryland said nothing. He suspected an answer would be forthcoming irrespective of his input.
‘Image.’ The Dwarf stabbed the table surface with a stout index finger. ‘The prevailing wind is that a new approach is needed. Out with the tweedy landowners and in with… well, the sort of people that actually win elections. Some charismatic young go-getter who can inspire folk’s imaginations and persuade the average voter that we’re not just the party for octogenarians and the landed gentry. And if he can do a respectable job of not looking repulsed whenever someone thrusts a photogenic infant into his arms, so much the better.’
He was referring to a notorious incident during the last election campaign when an enterprising strategist had arranged for a local Party member to hand her newborn to Croft, anticipating a photo op of the sort that won votes from young mothers. Far from taking the stunt in his stride, Croft had immediately become stricken with horror, the expression on his face suggesting he would have been more at ease if someone had handed him a bundle of steaming manure. Not to be outdone, the baby had promptly begun to howl, and both child and party leader had had to be separated from one another before things got any worse. The Conservatives had gone on to lose the local seat, which they’d previously held since the Parliament’s opening in 1999.
Ryland allowed himself a thin smile. ‘What you’re saying makes a measure of sense, but the difficulty surely lies in finding someone who fits the bill. Not to put too fine a point on it, but pickings aren’t exactly rich among the current crop.’
‘Oh, I can think of one or two names.’
The Dwarf cocked his head slightly to one side and extended his oily smile.
Realisation dawned on Ryland. ‘You cannot be serious.’
The Dwarf spread his arms. ‘And why not? You can’t deny you tick all the requisite boxes. Don’t tell me you think you’re not up to it.’
‘It’s not that. It’s just…’ He paused to collect his thoughts, then took a measured breath and went on, ‘Well, for starters, I’m a list MSP, and a backbencher at that.’
‘Why, my dear fellow, so much the better. I doubt there’s a single figure on the frontbench not mired in corruption and sleaze. You’ll be a fresh face – no existing baggage attached. I’m telling you, laddie, it’s all grist to the mill.’
‘Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves here? Who out of the current mob would back me? I’d need—’
‘One hundred nominations, yes.’ The Dwarf was growing impatient. ‘Hardly an insurmountable challenge. And the support of at least a handful of elected representatives, past or present. Again, that can be arranged.’
Another furtive glance in both directions of traffic, and another drop in volume, so that Ryland now found himself having to lean forward to make him out.
‘Our mutual friend,’ he said, ‘very much wants to see this happen. He intends to make it abundantly clear to the relevant people that your successful application is to be little more than a box-ticking exercise, and that your bid will have the full weight of the Party machine behind it.’
The latest mouthful of G&T turned to oil in Ryland’s mouth. Our mutual friend. Should have guessed he was behind this.
‘It’s the bright young things who’ll secure our future, you know.’ The Dwarf was in full flow now, savouring the sound of his own voice. ‘Even the most dyed-in-the-wool of the old guard are coming round to accepting that. The face of the new, trendy, modern conservatism: more relatable, more in touch with the hoi polloi. Public school but not too public school. The Jockos will never elect an Old Etonian, that much we know. But a poor boy made good who’s retained just enough of the local patois to pass muster as one of their own? Therein lie the seeds of our eventual rebirth, dear boy.’
Seeing that his previous efforts had fallen entirely on deaf ears, Ryland played his last card. ‘Truth be told, Alice has been hankering for a move back down south for some time. Climate up here’s never agreed with her, you see. Too much damp. Bad for her allergies. And just between us, last time we rubbed shoulders, the PM was making favourable noises about a seat down there becoming available in the not too distant future. And, well, that’s a gift horse one can’t exactly afford to look in the mouth.’
The Dwarf’s smile faded, all trace of bonhomie leaving his features. ‘Let’s be toe-curlingly honest for a moment, dear boy. This isn’t up for negotiation. Our mutual friend has made his feelings quite clear. Always remember, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’
Ryland didn’t reply. His mouth tasted like ash, and his glass had chosen this most inopportune of moments to be bone-dry. The hubbub of conversation around him continued unabated. On the speaker system in a nearby café, Mariah Carey was butchering Auld Lang Syne. Like oil and water, some things just weren’t meant to go together.
The Dwarf continued to fix Ryland with his icy stare. ‘He put you where you are today, and he can and will see to it that everything you’ve acquired – the wealth, the status, that asinine column you write for the Spectator – goes up in smoke the moment you’re no longer useful.’ He paused to take a sip from his own, irritatingly full, glass. ‘As for holding out in the hope that there’s a better offer waiting in the wings – some safe seat in the Shires where the local bumpkins will elect a donkey provided it’s wearing a blue rosette – forget it. The grandees of the Home Counties would never have it. Public school but not too public school, remember? And the accent you’ve gone to such pains to mask?’ He tutted. ‘No one’s buying it. But put in the man-hours, do as you’re “telt”, and we might just let you manage our wee Scotch region more or less as you see fit.’ He inclined his head to one side, smiling the smile of a man who knows he holds all the cards.
Not for the first time, Ryland reflected that those whom fate had deigned to make his political bedfellows were a truly remarkable bunch: the only people he’d ever met who were capable of both sneering and cringing at the same time. People who knew they were a breed apart, but who also knew their place in the hierarchy and relished their status in life’s natural pecking order.
‘You shit,’ he said. ‘You absolute shit.’
‘The Elders expect Croft to announce his intention to stand down by March. April at the latest. And by expect, I naturally mean insist. That means a spring campaign, making the most of the brighter days and longer nights, followed by the election in July or August. Gives us ample time to build your profile: get you in the right papers, shake hands with the right community leaders. You know how the charade goes.’
‘I do indeed,’ said Ryland, his tone devoid of any emotion.
The Dwarf smiled. ‘So pleased we understand one another. We’ll meet again early in the New Year. Discuss strategies, personnel, begin sowing the seeds of our future triumph, all that rot. Breathe not a word to anyone in the meantime. Not even your better half.’ He drained his glass. ‘I, ah, shan’t stay for dinner after all. A pleasant New Year when it comes. Give my regards to the good lady wife.’
He got up, threw on his coat with a flourish and strode out, giving Ryland a brisk pat on the shoulder as he passed.
* * *
Ryland was so deep in thought when the waiter brought his food that he barely noticed. He had much to ponder. They had him over a barrel; trussed up like the proverbial Christmas turkey. He was used to being treated like a piece on a board; to the feeling that others besides himself were in control of his life’s trajectory. And yet, even as he sat there, silently cursing the Poison Dwarf and the Elders and their mutual friend and the ground they all walked on, the words of a former leader of the party to which, for better or worse, his fate was intertwined, came to mind:
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
Stirring words, no doubt, but he’d always considered them just that: words on a page, to be trotted out as the climax to a rousing speech or as part of some generic appeal to the virtues of entrepreneurialism and self-sufficiency, in a pull up your socks and stop moaning about your lot in life sort of way. Now, though, he wondered if perhaps he should be taking them to heart himself. Though the situation he found himself in was neither of his making nor his choosing, it also presented him with an opportunity few men even dreamed of – provided he had the mettle to grab the bull by the horns.
Carpe diem and all that.
Monday 24 June 2013
Get a degree. Get a job. Get ahead.
It sounded so simple in theory, it was almost a surprise it hadn’t worked out in practice.
Name? Zoe Joan Callahan. Age? Thirty-one years, six months and seven days. Place of birth, current residence and quite probably death as well? Glasgow. Occupation? Housekeeping operative at Neptune House overlooking the M8 motorway. At least that’s what it had said on the application form. In reality, it amounted to twenty-one and a half hours a week hoovering floors and scrubbing toilets with nary a word of gratitude from the men in suits who occupied each of the building’s five floors.
Ambition in life?
It could be worse, or so she told herself. At least she had a job – something not everyone in her circle could claim, particularly given the current economic climate. She also had a roof over her head. A somewhat undersized roof suffering from an acute onset of mildew – but again, it was more than some people had. And she was IN A RELATIONSHIP – one which, against all the odds, had lasted the course and was still, if not exactly the hotbed of passion it had once been, a reassuring constant in her life for which it seemed churlish not to be grateful.
Still, it was hard not to look at her life and wonder what she had actually accomplished in the last thirty-one years, six months and seven days. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ was a question she’d been asked by a succession of teachers and guidance counsellors during her six years of high school. She’d never had an answer back then but had always assumed one would come to her when it actually mattered. ‘Never mind,’ they’d said when she looked at them blankly. ‘You don’t have to make up your mind for a long time yet.’ Now, having inhabited this earth for three decades and counting, she couldn’t help but feel she should have figured it out by now.
Get a degree?
Check – a 2.1 in Media Studies from Glasgow Caledonian, class of 2002.
Get a job?
In a manner of speaking.
Get tae fuck.
* * *
It had just gone quarter past four when she stepped out into the street, the interview over, her name no doubt struck off the list of prospective hires the moment her back was turned. By her reckoning, she’d been in there just over seven minutes. As such, she didn’t hold out much hope for a call-back. Mind you, it would probably have helped her case considerably if she’d been able to remember, while she was sitting in the hot seat, just which particular job she was actually interviewing for. In the last few weeks, she’d been responding to postings willy-nilly, with the result that they all blended together in her mind like so much gravy.
By the time she’d completed the brief walk up the road to Central Station, she was already sweating into her Sunday best and cursing her ill fortune to have been born with the red-haired, pale-skinned complexion of an undiluted Celt and an aversion to the sun that bordered on pathological hatred. The forecasters had been warning of a heatwave to hit in the next couple of weeks that was to last till at least the middle of July, but it was already plenty hot by her reckoning and she wasn’t sure she could survive another month of it. It was bad enough being forced to endure her own private torment. What made it far worse were the constant exaltations about how wonderful it was by all and sundry, even as they fanned themselves with newspapers or dabbed their moist necks with tissues. She was convinced that, deep down, most people hated the hot weather almost as much as she did and just pretended to like it because of social conditioning. She’d long ago concluded that it was easiest just to respond to the endless variations on ‘Gorgeous weather, in’t it?’ with a smile and a bland ‘Aye, in’t it just’, even as she silently wished them a slow, painful death. Or at least a moderate-to-severe case of sunburn.
As the train wound its way west, she rested her head on the window, headphones on, Amy Macdonald in her ears, and gazed out at the view of the riverside passing by before her. Past the Squinty Bridge, the Hydro and the Armadillo, towards the newly gentrified harbour area where the old granary building used to be. Rotting cranes on one side of the river, luxury flats on the other: it said something about the disparity in opportunities faced by the city and its residents. The cranes were no longer in use, of course, but they were kept around as a bit of eye-candy to be enjoyed ironically by the yuppies who’d moved in on what was once the beating heart of industrial Glasgow.
The train came to its juddering halt at Partick Station and she joined the exodus of passengers heading into the terminus, then down the stairs and out into the open air. The pavement was packed, the pedestrians kitted out in an array of summer dresses, shorts and tank tops, along with the odd bewildered-looking figure in a duffle coat or fleece, either caught unprepared for the uncharacteristically warm weather or steadfastly refusing to believe it wasn’t just a mirage.
The flat that had been Zoe’s home for the last three and a half years, give or take, was on the first floor of an old four-storey tenement a stone’s throw from the station, bang in the middle of the studenty part of Partick and flanked on either side by salons, betting shops and takeaways. On the ground floor directly below the flat, A Taste of India was gearing up for another night on the trot. Heat belched from the open door, accompanied by the charcoal smell from the tandoori oven. It seemed perverse that anyone could have a hankering for spicy food in weather like this, but the sunshine appeared to have done nothing to dent their trade. Zoe wondered what was lined up for her dinner. Rabbit-food as usual, most likely.
A gust of hot air greeted her as she let herself into the flat. It was even warmer inside than out, thanks to the heat from the oven rising up through the floorboards. In winter it was a godsend when it came to the leccy bill, but the summer months were always unbearable.
‘Zo? That you?’
The voice came from the living room, rising above the chatter of the TV. Zoe winced and considered making a run for the bathroom and locking herself in. Her indecision proved fatal, and before she had time to even rehearse the lies she was going to tell, Carol was coming towards her and Zoe was dutifully proffering her cheek for the customary peck.
‘So? How was it?’ Sounding for all the world like Zoe had just returned from a trip to Saturn rather than a crappy interview for a crappy job in a crappy office.
‘Eh, hard tae say, really. Ye know what they things are like.’
She tugged her pants out of her bum-crack and eyed the bathroom door at the other end of the flat longingly. Carol’s presence had created a traffic jam: the corridor was narrow even before you took into account Carol’s bike, propped against the wall, and the various cardboard boxes and items of furniture piled high on the right-hand side – hangovers from Zoe’s old family home that she’d refused to part with when she moved in.
‘You answered all their questions? Made sure you covered all the competencies?’
‘Aye.’ Zoe found her eyes straying to the condensation stains on the ceiling behind Carol’s head.
‘Well then, you gave it your all. No one can ask for more than that. Now it’s down to them.’
‘They said they’d loads of interest in the job, so it’s a bit of a long shot, really.’
Carol tutted. ‘You always do that.’
‘Sell yourself short.’ She reached out and touched Zoe’s chin, lifting her head slightly. ‘There’s enough people in this world that are more than willing to put you down without you doing it yourself.’
Zoe forced a smile and thought what a duplicitous scumbag she was, standing here accepting Carol’s praise as if she’d put her heart and soul into it.
Carol smiled. ‘Come here, you.’
As she leaned in to kiss Zoe, the walls began to rattle as a train sailed by on the down line – a constant annoyance that all but cancelled out the convenience of living so close to the station.
Zoe took the opportunity afforded by this interruption to make good her escape.
‘Just gonnae freshen up. I’m pure boggin.’
She pulled away from Carol and squeezed past her, heading for the bathroom.
* * *
When she emerged some twenty minutes later, Zoe could hear Carol bustling to and fro in the kitchen, while a droning voice she recognised as that of the presenter of the five o’clock local news emanated from the living room. She wandered through and flopped on the sofa facing the TV, disinterested eyes drinking in the sight of the sharp-boned woman seated in front of her giant window overlooking the Clyde, reciting the day’s events in her usual blandly measured diction.
‘…we afforded the Council the opportunity to tell their side of the story, but no one was available for comment.’ She paused momentarily before launching into a fresh item. ‘The race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland continued apace today, with all three candidates attending a hustings in Glasgow. The event, held behind closed doors for party members, was one of several being held up and down the country ahead of the new leader being crowned in August.’
Zoe was zoning out already. Politics didn’t interest her except in the most rudimentary sense: more money for hospitals good, more money for bombing brown people bad, and so on. She’d been vaguely aware that a leadership election of some sort was taking place but had paid no heed to the personalities involved. Coming of age in Scotland following the great rout of 1997, during which every single Conservative MP had lost their seat, the Tories were little more than a distant southern bogeyman, the punchline to any number of off-colour jokes – yeah, he’s a twat, but at least he’s not a Tory twat. She knew, as a born-and-bred Glaswegian – living in the heart of Red Clydeside, no less – that she was supposed to hate them, even though at times she was at a loss to remember why.
‘Tomorrow we’ll be hearing from Fergus Leach, who served as the outgoing leader’s depute and had been tipped by the pollsters as favourite to win. But today we hit the campaign trail with the backbencher who, in the past few weeks, has emerged to challenge the established narrative. So who is Dominic Ryland? Our political correspondent, Siobhan McCaffrey, spent the afternoon with him.’
The camera cut to an outdoor scene: a well-tended children’s play-park somewhere in the West End, where a tall, sandy-haired man in his early forties, a gratuitously large blue rosette pinned to his lapel, was down on his hunkers in a sandpit, an amiable grin plastered across his features as he attempted to converse with a gaggle of toddlers who clearly couldn’t care less about the oversized intruder. As the footage continued to play, a woman’s voice began to intone in perky, overly accentuated tones.
‘It may look like fun and games, but running for leadership is serious business, and no election this year is likely to be more hotly contested than this one. Dominic Ryland – born to humble beginnings in a Bridgeton tenement, now being called the charismatic new face of modern Scottish Conservatism.’
‘Oh, great. Him.’
Zoe turned to find Carol standing in the doorway, arms folded. She neither looked nor sounded best pleased.
‘How? Who is he?’
‘Just this guy they’re bigging up as the great white hope of the Tory party. Cos he… I dunno, cos he’s under retirement age and does a passable imitation of not being a lizard or something.’
Zoe turned back to the screen. Ryland was schmoozing some yummy mummies, giving big, exaggerated hand gestures, making them all laugh. ‘And if these Hillhead mums are anything to go by,’ McCaffrey’s voiceover continued, ‘he certainly seems to have the common touch.’
The report cut to a fresh scene. Ryland was facing the camera, a microphone directed towards him by the off-screen McCaffrey. ‘Dominic Ryland, you say you’re standing on a platform of renewal and engagement, pledging to transform both the party’s image and its approach to winning elections. What’s wrong with the current model?’
‘Well, Siobhan,’ Ryland purred, ‘quite simply, it hasn’t been working. We’ve come back fighting down south, and yet up here we remain stuck in the doldrums. I don’t believe there are fundamental differences between voters north and south of the border, and yet we’re faced with a vast discrepancy in terms of electoral results. What I’m saying is that, until the party in Scotland is able to take a long, hard look at itself and make an honest assessment of what it’s been getting wrong, it can’t hope for a revival in fortunes.’
There was something oddly pleasant about his voice. He had one of those strange, unplaceable accents – kinda Scottish but kinda not really, like the ones you heard coming out of the mouths of journalists and pundits who’d spent too long living in London. They always sounded vaguely patronising to Zoe, but at the same time they spoke with such authority that you had to assume they knew what they were about.
‘You were only elected in 2011,’ said McCaffrey, ‘and during your time as an MSP, you’ve never held a frontbench role. What makes you the person to spearhead that revival?’
Ryland gave a little self-deprecating laugh. ‘I think you effectively answered yourself there, Siobhan. If you look at every Scottish Parliament election since 1999, it’s the same crusty old faces appearing again and again. And no harm to them as individuals – some of them are personal friends. But as a great man once said, The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. It’s time for fresh faces and fresh thinking.’
Carol snorted. ‘Christ, he’s like a wind-up toy. Lob him a softball question, stand back and watch him go.’
‘Wheesht!’ said Zoe, eyes not leaving the television. ‘I wanna hear this.’ In spite of her long-standing antipathy towards politicians of every hue, she found herself unaccountably enamoured by this man and his melodic voice.
Ryland was facing the camera now, McCaffrey all but forgotten as he addressed the viewers directly. ‘And frankly, I think the electorate are just waiting to be given a reason to take a punt on something different. Folk are sick and tired of being let down by the other parties, whether it’s the economic incompetence of the official opposition or the endless constitutional grievance-mongering of the current regime. They want political representatives who’re willing to address the bread and butter issues – the issues that real, everyday people care about. Those are the values I stand for.’
‘What values?’ exclaimed Carol, gesticulating at the TV with her entire arm. ‘Tell us what they are. Name a policy. Go on, name just one.’
‘Look,’ Ryland went on, ‘let’s not be coy. The general consensus is that our party is somewhat… distant. Out of touch with the concerns of the ordinary punter. But I’m not like that – far from it. I grew up not a million miles from here, in Bridgeton.’ He even pronounced it ‘Brigton’, like a veritable local. ‘My mother, a formidable woman, raised me single-handed in a council flat with no central heating, sharing a toilet with five other families. I know what it’s like to grow up with nothing, to put in the hard work, to raise myself out of poverty, and I know the sort of problems ordinary, hard-working families are facing. They want someone who’s willing to take responsibility – someone willing to step up to the plate and say, This isn’t good enough. Something needs to be done.’
‘Oh, come on!’ Carol shouted. ‘Jesus Christ, challenge him! Debate him! Do your bloody job, woman!’
Zoe stared at her, incredulous. ‘Who shat in your ice cream sundae?’
‘This guy.’ Carol waved at the TV. ‘He’s a fucking hypocrite is what he is. Dines out on his roots and his single mum but he represents a party that’s cutting unemployment benefit and child maintenance support to the bone. All these contradictions and no one ever calls him on ’em. What’s the point of having a so-called free press if they’re not actually going to hold the likes of him to account?’
Zoe had no answer to that. She didn’t really understand the ins and outs of what Carol was saying, or whether it was even accurate. She turned back to face the TV screen, where McCaffrey was now bringing things to a close.
‘Before we let you go, what’s your pitch to the party members who’ll be voting in this contest – particularly those who might have reservations about supporting an unknown?’
Ryland paused to think. When he spoke, he once again addressed the camera rather than McCaffrey. ‘Look, I know how it goes. Many of you will be looking at me right now, thinking, Who does this jumped-up upstart think he is, coming in and telling us we’ve been doing everything wrong for the last fifteen years? And I get it. If I were in your shoes, I’d be wary of me too. No one likes change, especially when you’ve been doing things the same way for so long. But you know what? Sometimes it takes an outsider to say, Wait a minute – maybe we need to take a step back and fundamentally reassess our way of doing things. And if we’re not willing to change, to make the difficult decisions, maybe we need to think about turning to someone who will.’
He paused and gave a conciliatory ‘I’m a reasonable guy’ sort of smile. ‘I’m not asking you to recant your long-held political beliefs. I have the greatest respect for the Party, its values, and yes, its members. All I’m asking is for you to take a chance on a fresh face. The worst that could happen is that, three years from now, we find ourselves no better off than we are already. But if you elect me as your leader, I truly do believe we can turn things around, transforming ourselves from a party of perpetual opposition into a government-in-waiting.’
‘Dominic Ryland, thank you very much.’
The screen went blank with a soft foom as Carol snatched up the remote and switched it off.
‘And that was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party,’ she deadpanned.
‘I never heard of him before,’ said Zoe. She felt slightly sheepish for admitting it and wondered if he’d been the talk of the tavern for ages now and she just hadn’t noticed.
Carol turned to look at her. ‘And what did you make of him?’
‘He seems…’ She shrugged helplessly. ‘I dunno. Kinda reasonable. He talks a good talk, anyway.’
Carol sighed sadly. ‘Got it in one. He’s got the gift of the gab. His gums flap but he says nothing. But that doesn’t matter cos he’s able to charm people with his smile and his smooth words, and no one stops to point out that actually, no, he’s just a vacuous waste of oxygen who’d sell his own granny down the river in return for a sniff of power.’
Zoe shrugged. ‘Pretty much like every politician, then.’
It was the wrong thing to say.
‘That’s just it, though – he isn’t. He’s not some toffee-nosed land baron who couldn’t relate to the public if his life depended on it. He’s a different breed altogether. He’s plausible. Likeable, even. And these days, that’s enough. Folks’ imaginations don’t get fired up by integrity or well-reasoned policies. They just go with their gut. Oh, I like him. He seems like the kinda person I could have a beer with. But we’re not talking about some bloke you’re gonna shoot the breeze with on a Friday night down at the pub. It’s about the future of this country. And what worries me is that there’s a very real chance of him winning this contest and that shower of reprobates riding into power on his coat-tails.’
She was getting herself so lathered up about it that Zoe desperately wanted to laugh, if only to defuse the tension in the air. But she knew that was positively the worst thing she could do under the circumstances. So instead she turned to Carol, tilting her head and smiling affectionately.
‘Aw, lookit you, my fiery Amazon queen. Anyone ever tell you ye look dead sexy when you’re about to have a coronary?’
And there it was: the familiar sag of the shoulders, the lowering of the head, the rueful half-smile, all of which indicated that the flare-up was at an end. ‘Don’t. I know you’re making fun of me.’ But she couldn’t hide the inklings of a smile. ‘I was agitpropping again, wasn’t I?’
‘Like a champ.’
She gave Zoe’s shoulder a brief squeeze. It was a small gesture, but, in its own way, more loaded with unspoken meaning than a million I-love-yous.
Zoe gazed up at her, wrinkling her nose. ‘Ach, it’ll never happen. What right-thinking Scot’s gonnae vote them lot into power?’
For a moment, Carol stood there in silent, sober contemplation. ‘It’s not the right-thinking ones I’m worried about,’ she said eventually.
* * *
Zoe sat by the open window, forlornly searching for a non-existent breeze while, next door, Carol got ready for work. The street below was a hive of activity, the late afternoon sun’s rays glistening on the roofs of the slow-moving cars and buses. At one point, Partick had been a burgh in its own right, but in 1912 had been annexed by the city of Glasgow, a move that some with particularly long memories still believed amounted to a hostile takeover. The true fundamentalists would have it that the area’s boundaries were Partick Cross in the east and Crow Road in the west. For most, however, the question of where Partick ended and where the rest of the world began was a lot more nebulous. Dumbarton Road was its main thoroughfare, beginning at the western edge of Kelvingrove Park and snaking its way along the course of the River Clyde, in so doing incorporating everything from the cosmopolitan West End to the less prosperous locales further west, and everything in between. It was rarely quiet and never boring. No matter the time of day, there always seemed to be people coming and going. And, as Zoe watched, the stairwell door on the other side of the road – the one sandwiched between Cash Converters and the alluringly-named VapeStation – opened and a woman stepped out.
She was the sort of woman who couldn’t fail to attract attention – and, judging by her getup, that was very much her intention. Tall, leggy, with long silky hair and a sequin dress which showed off just enough of her upper legs to hint at the gap between her thighs, she looked about as out of place on Dumbarton Road as a condom wrapper on the steps of the Vatican. She paused to look both ways, then turned and began making her way up the pavement, heading east towards the bright lights of the city centre.
‘There she goes again,’ Zoe said as Carol entered the room behind her. ‘Every night at five-thirty, just like clockwork.’
Carol joined Zoe at the window, following her gaze. She’d changed into her work gear: dark jeans, black T-shirt with the ‘Pulse’ logo emblazoned on the breast pocket.
‘S’all right for some – out partying in her glad rags every night, then slinking home in the wee hours to spend the rest of the day in bed.’
Carol arched an eyebrow. ‘I’m not sure she’d describe what she gets up to as “partying”. Though I suppose that’s what it is… in a manner of speaking.’
‘How? What does she do?’
‘She’s a good-time girl. A lady of negotiable affections.’
Carol smiled thinly. ‘She’s a hooker.’
‘No!’ Zoe turned to stare after the departing woman, then back at Carol. At the sight of her face, Carol burst out laughing.
‘I never…’ Zoe began, feeling her cheeks beginning to colour – though whether in response to the nature of the revelation or Carol’s amusement, or both, she couldn’t quite be sure. ‘I mean, ye wouldnae think. No to look at her, anyway.’ She shot Carol a suspicious glance. ‘She’s not really… is she?’
‘Oh, she is.’ Carol’s lip curled in such a way that Zoe couldn’t be sure whether it signified disapproval or mirth. ‘You honestly had no idea?’
‘Not a scooby.’
She wondered briefly whether, like the guy on the TV who was running for election, this was a piece of common knowledge she was somehow deficient for not being aware of. But then, Carol always had a far better idea of what was going on in the neighbourhood than she did. She noticed things Zoe didn’t. Put two and two together. Talked to the neighbours and got wind of things almost before they happened. If she said it was so, it probably was.
Still, she couldn’t quite believe it.
‘Pure mad, in’t it? I mean, ye don’t exactly expect to find out ye’ve got someone like that for a neighbour.’
‘Well, where are they supposed to live? In a reservation for fallen women?’
Zoe lowered her eyes, sensing that she’d said something objectionable. With Carol, it was so easy to say the wrong thing in jest. There were so many times when Zoe would find she’d inadvertently crossed a line by saying something that was regarded as culturally insensitive or insufficiently politically correct. She got the feeling this was one of them.
Carol stirred. ‘I’d better head. Just so you know, I’ll probably be late back. We’ve got this shit-hot local band playing live tonight and it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll get off.’ She gave Zoe a brisk peck on the cheek, then straightened up, brushing a strand of dirty blonde hair out of her eyes. ‘I left something in the fridge for when you get hungry. Oh, and if you can mind and do the dishes, that’d be awesomesauce.’
This was the reality of their relationship these days – these brief moments of crossover in-between one of them coming home from their work and the other heading out to theirs. It had only gotten worse since Carol had got the assistant manager’s job. She was forever staying late to cash up, or going in early to do the accounts, or some variation along those lines. It was a long time since their shifts had aligned sufficiently to actually do anything together – even something as rudimentary as sitting down to a shared meal. Parallel lives and all that.
Zoe remained by the window, watching as Carol emerged into the sunlight, wheeling her bike, then hopped on and pushed off up the pavement. She made it look so effortless, a lithe figure sailing past the dawdling pedestrians. As her gaze followed Carol up the road, Zoe inadvertently allowed her eyes to stray towards the university bell-tower, rising up in the distance beyond the rooftops and shimmering slightly in the late afternoon smog, as if it wasn’t entirely corporeal. It was hardly the first time she’d done that – indeed, living within a mile of the place, it was difficult to avoid catching sight of it – but she nonetheless averted her eyes immediately, suppressing an involuntary shudder at the memories bubbling up inside her.
To take her mind off them, she headed through to the kitchen to see what was in the fridge for her. The answer, it turned out, was an orzo salad topped with spinach and feta, the prospect of eating it holding only marginally more appeal than wet cardboard. Nevertheless, she took her boring salad through to the living room and sat on the sofa watching a boring programme about a boring suburban couple who were trying to sell their boring flat and relocate to the boring countryside. Then she dutifully washed her dishes at the sink and left them drying on the drainer. She tried texting a few of her pals, but none of them were in the mood for a meet-up. Couldn’t, they said. Work night. Going to a residents’ association meeting. Taking care of the weans. She wondered when it was that they’d all grown up and become so dreary and sensible, and why it hadn’t happened to her yet.
The sun sank lower in the sky, painting the sandstone buildings outside blood-orange. The roaring traffic grew quieter, giving way to the lively chatter of the passers-by – folk from all walks of life, with their own stories, their own hopes and aspirations. The evening wore on, punctuated at regular intervals by the familiar tremor in the walls and floorboards as another train passed through Partick. Eventually, darkness fell, and she gave up the ghost and went through to bed, where she spent a good hour tossing and turning in a tangle of sticky linen before throwing off the covers and lying spread-eagled atop the rumpled sheets. When that too failed to bring sleep, she got up and sloped through to the living room, where she sprawled on the sofa, half-watching the late-night snooker through half-closed eyes with the volume low.
* * *
The sun was low on the horizon when she heard feet pattering on the pavement outside. She made her way over to the window and peeked between the curtains. It was the woman Carol had outed as a prostitute, looking a little more dishevelled than before but otherwise none the worse for what had presumably been a successful night’s business. She walked barefoot on the cooling pavement, stilettos tucked under her arm. Zoe watched as she let herself into her building, the door closing behind her with a soft click. Then, silence. The street was still and deserted once again. Every man and his dog had gone home to their bed.
Taking this as a sign that she should do the same, she killed the TV and dragged herself back through to the bedroom. She was on the verge of finally drifting off when she heard the familiar sound of the key turning in the lock. She was dimly aware of Carol padding about the bathroom, getting ready for bed, then of her coming in, getting undressed and sinking down next to her.
‘Hey,’ she said softly.
‘Hey,’ Zoe murmured.
She was about to ask how the gig had gone when the alarm clock on the nightstand began to rattle and wail – its incessant tone, which she hadn’t the energy to silence, informing her that it was 5.30 a.m.
Time to get up and go to work.
In the days that followed, things continued in much the same vein as they had for as long as Zoe could remember: working her weird and thoroughly antisocial shifts at Neptune House, whiling away the mid-morning to early afternoon downtime on her split shift days wandering around the shops on nearby Sauchiehall Street, ogling the clothes and DVDs and other things she couldn’t afford. Her working pattern hardly seemed like the most efficient use of anyone’s time, let alone hers, but presumably someone with a really big spreadsheet had calculated that it allowed the firm to save X amount on its national insurance contributions or whatever.
The call came at just after two o’clock on Friday afternoon while she was vacuuming the top-floor conference room. They weren’t supposed to have their phones on them while they were on duty, but Zoe had seen the super using hers on the sly and had taken that as a green light to do likewise. She fished the humming device out of her pocket, frowning at the unfamiliar number on the screen.
A man’s voice. One she didn’t recognise.
‘Aye – who’s this?’
‘Zoe, it’s Peter Martin from Azura Solutions. We met earlier this week. The interview for the clerical assistant’s post?’
‘Oh… oh yeah.’ She tried to sound upbeat and relaxed, but it came out sounding as if she was over the moon to hear from a long-lost pal. ‘How ya doin’?’
‘I’m doing good, Zoe, yeah.’ A pause. ‘Listen, is this a good time to talk?’
‘Ach, you know me, Pete. Just hingin aboot waiting for ya to call.’
‘Heh heh, yeah, great stuff, great stuff. So Zoe, first of all, I’d just like to thank you for your interest in the post and for coming to see us on Monday.’ He sounded nervous, and the fact that he kept repeating her name only made him seem doubly so. ‘As you know, we received a high volume of applications, and the pool of candidates was unusually strong…’
If she’d been labouring under the forlorn hope that she might somehow, against all the odds, have landed the job, those words laid that notion to rest once and for all. Folk didn’t tend to throw around a bunch of caveats about numbers of applicants and overflowing talent pools if they were gearing up to tell you, Congratulations, see you at 9 a.m. sharp. They did it when they were trying to let you down gently.
And now she was no longer listening. She still heard his voice; heard its conciliatory tone, distantly registered the various stock phrases being trotted out. Difficult decision. No reflection on you. Elected to go with a candidate more suited to the role. But she’d stopped actively processing his words in any meaningful sense. There seemed little point. He wasn’t telling her anything worthwhile. She knew she’d been shit. He knew she’d been shit. Why pretend otherwise? Might as well just rip the band-aid off and get it over with. She muttered a quick, insincere thank-you and hung up.
Truth was, she felt nothing. There was nothing special about today’s call. It was only the latest in a long line of rejections, and she was way past the point of taking it personally or letting her hopes be dashed. They’d been obliterated long ago.
She rang Carol, more out of duty than because she had any desire to talk to her.
‘Hey. It’s me.’
‘Zoe? You still at work?’
‘Aye.’ Beat. ‘I didnae get it.’
‘The job. They gave it to someone else.’
She pictured Carol standing in the middle of the flat, phone to her ear, free hand on her hip, brow furrowed as she racked her brains, trying to work out which job they were talking about. Might as well have saved herself the effort.
‘Oh, baby,’ she said eventually, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What did they say?’
‘You know. The usual. “Thanks but no thanks”.’
‘No, what I mean is, did they give you any feedback? Some pointers for doing better next time?’
A pause. She could practically smell Carol’s disapproval coming down the phone line.
‘Well, there’ll be other opportunities.’
‘Course there will.’
‘Aye, and more rejections.’
She sighed. ‘What?’
A moment’s hesitation. When Carol spoke again, it was in her I’m not angry with you, just disappointed voice. ‘You know, maybe firing off applications all over the place, shopping yourself to anyone who’ll give you the time of day… maybe that isn’t the best strategy. Maybe…’ A strained sigh. ‘Maybe, if you identify what it is you actually want to do in life and focus on pursuing that, maybe you might start to have a bit more success.’
‘Aye well,’ Zoe muttered, ‘it was you who pushed me to find another job in the first place.’
‘Only cos you’re always going on about how much you can’t stand your current one!’
‘Guess in future I’ll keep ma mooth shut, then.’
Another long, disapproving pause, then: ‘We’ll talk more about this when you get home.’
‘Cannae fucking wait,’ said Zoe, and hung up.
She parked herself on the table and let out a sigh of utter despair. She was the one with the university degree. The one who kept going on about how shit it was having no money all the time. She wished she could take it all back – wished that, instead of getting arsey, she’d nodded and uh-huh’d at Carol’s entreaties to better herself and said, Yes, darling, in future I’ll try harder. She ought to call her back now and apologise, then spend the rest of her shift giving serious consideration to how she was going to make it up to her. But she couldn’t face it. Couldn’t face having to admit that she’d been the one in the wrong. Couldn’t face the further blow to her self-esteem it would represent. Instead, she decided that, tonight, she was going to stay out very late and get very shit-faced indeed.
* * *
She finished up at work and set off, heading towards the city centre. After wandering around aimlessly for a while, she ended up at Casa Mona, a recently opened tapas place on West Nile Street with a big glass façade and an impressively well-stocked bar. It looked a little too urbane for her tastes, not to mention seriously out of her price range, but she was experiencing a strong compulsion to spend as much of the money she didn’t have as possible, just to compound her misfortune. Besides, if she managed to get drunk enough she might cause a scene and give the chattering classes something to keep their tongues wagging for a while – the prospect of which appealed considerably to her baser urges.
She made for the bar and, settling into a chair, caught the attention of the goateed youth serving drinks.
‘What’s the most expensive drink yese do?’
‘Elixir margarita,’ he said, without having to think about it.
‘Between you and me, tastes like cat piss.’
‘Make it a double, then.’
When it arrived, the drink did indeed have a taste that she could believe corresponded to that of feline urine, but she surmised that it would improve proportionally to the quantity consumed, so she downed it with abandon and ordered another.
She was well on her way to finishing her second when she became aware of a gaggle of people sitting at a nearby table. There were five in total – three men and two women, in the midst of a heated debate of some sort. Or, at any rate, two of the men were, their adamant voices vying with one another and with the tasteful accompaniment of flamenco music coming from the wall-mounted speakers.
‘I’m not saying he doesn’t put in the hours. Christ knows, he’s always at his desk when I get in and most days he’s still there when I leave—’
‘Which, my dear Raymond, says all too little about his work ethic and all too much about yours.’
There was general laughter from the group, and Raymond, who was in Zoe’s line of sight, appeared to take this with good humour. ‘Yes, yes, all right. I’m not wedded to the job, and I make no apologies for that. But my point is, when our esteemed colleague was elevated to middle management, there was no indication that we mere mortals would be saddled with the classes he now considers it beneath his status to teach.’
Zoe allowed herself a knowing smile. She should have pegged them as a bunch of academics. Most of the ones she knew were more than capable of starting a fight about an Oxford comma at a Buddhist retreat. They all had that lethal combination of limited self-awareness and no internal filter which made confrontations like this hard to avoid whenever you got two or more of them in a room together.
‘I don’t think it’s so much that he thinks he’s above it,’ said another voice – a woman’s. ‘You have to take on board how much his workload has increased.’
‘I should hope so, at sixty-five K a year,’ said Raymond.
‘Now you’re just being glib,’ said the woman, and with a jolt of surprise Zoe realised she knew who that voice belonged to. ‘He’s effectively doing the work of two people.’
‘Is he now? Well, hold on one minute while I get out my teeny-tiny violin.’
He pursed his lips and mimed playing said violin. But Zoe was no longer looking at him. Her attention was focused instead on the woman who’d spoken. She had her back to Zoe, but Zoe didn’t need to see her face to know who she was. The short stature; the dark, shoulder-length hair; the rigid, straight-backed posture; and most of all that clear, tinkling Kelvinside enunciation – there was only one person they could belong to.
It had been three or four months since Zoe had last seen Anna Scavolini in the flesh, and these were hardly the circumstances she would have chosen for a reunion. For one thing, she was in no mood for putting on her happy mask and pretending everything was hunky-dory. For another, she still had enough self-respect to not want to be caught drinking alone at a bar like some saddo. But, by the same token, she was loath to just slap some money on the counter and slip away like she had something to be ashamed of.
By chance, Anna turned at that moment and, before Zoe had a chance to look the other way, their eyes locked. Anna’s initial expression was one of surprise, perhaps even verging on alarm, but it quickly gave way to a smile. She rose slightly and gestured to Zoe to join her. With escape no longer an option, Zoe fortified herself by downing the remains of her glass of cat piss, hopped down from her stool and approached the table.
‘Zoe!’ Anna was out of her seat now, the smile plastered across her features a bit too overdone to wholly convince. ‘This is mad! What are you doing here?’
‘Och, y’know. Just eyeing up the local talent.’
Anna nodded, a trifle too enthusiastically, then appeared to suddenly remember her manners. ‘Oh, um… everyone, this is Zoe.’ She gestured to each of her companions in turn. ‘This is Raymond, and Larraitz, and this is Xavier. And you already know Daniel.’
The man seated next to Anna, the only one of the four Zoe had met before, gave a benign smile and a nod. Zoe returned both, though they required some effort on her part. Anna and Daniel had been together for just over a year, and had been living together for a little more than half of that. He had dark curly hair, a neat little beard and little round glasses – as well as, by Zoe’s reckoning, at least ten years on Anna and a pressing need to shed a few pounds. Zoe didn’t like him. Not because he was unpleasant or obnoxious or anything like that. On the contrary, he was always the epitome of politeness; the sort of man you could picture giving up his place in the queue to little old ladies and spending his weekends volunteering to pick litter with the community council. It was just that he was so utterly, irredeemably vanilla. She couldn’t fathom what Anna was actually doing with him. Anna, who’d been adamantly single all the time Zoe had known her and who’d once said that the day she started showing signs of looking to feather her nest was the day Zoe had permission to take her out back and shoot her, but who now seemed content to settle down and play house with a man who looked like he wore sleeveless wool cardigans and dunked his digestives in his tea.
‘So what’s the occasion?’ Zoe asked brightly.
‘Oh, um,’ Anna gestured to the other woman in the group, ‘Larraitz just had a paper she co-authored published in the International Journal of Criminology. We’re having a little impromptu after-work celebration.’
‘Come and join us,’ said Larraitz.
Zoe felt herself beginning to back away. ‘I dunno. Wouldnae wanna crash the party.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Xavier. ‘The more the merrier.’ He was already on his feet, offering her his seat. ‘What’s your poison?’
Zoe stole a glance at Anna, whom she got the distinct impression was a little uncomfortable with these two different sides of her life colliding like this.
‘Aye, all right, then,’ she said, sparing Anna the embarrassment of having to formally adopt a position. She slid into the chair vacated by Xavier, who went off in search of one from another table.
‘So what is it you do, Zoe?’ said Larraitz.
‘Me? Oh, sort of a jack of all trades, me. A bit of this, a bit of that. Whatever pays the bills.’
‘Zoe studied Media at Cali,’ Anna said brightly, as if she thought this was a helpful contribution. Zoe felt like kicking her under the table. Given the choice, she’d rather this lot thought she was a bum with no qualifications instead of a bum who was sitting on a halfway respectable degree.
‘Really?’ Raymond both looked and sounded genuinely interested. ‘So what’s your take on the way the press are reporting this cash-for-access scandal at the City Chambers?’
To her deep discomfort, Zoe found the whole table gazing at her in anticipation of some profound insight. She shifted awkwardly, wishing she had the first clue what the guy was babbling about.
‘To be honest,’ she said eventually, ‘I don’t really follow the news. I mean, chances are they’re gonnae be lying tae ye anyway, so, way I see it, might as well just live in a state of blissful ignorance.’
The others said nothing. They just stared at her in a mixture of confusion and discomfort. A ripple of awkward laughter spread round the table. Only Anna didn’t join in.
‘Quite right,’ said Xavier, giving an approving nod.
‘I’ll drink to that,’ said Larraitz, raising her glass.
‘You know,’ said Daniel, turning to Raymond, ‘I did read a piece about a study which showed that people who watch Fox News are actually less informed about current affairs than those who don’t consume any news programming…’
And so the conversation ran on, with Zoe already cold-shouldered, her contribution deemed nothing more than a launching-off point for a deep and philosophical discussion that, of course, went right over her head. Every now and then, one of them – usually Anna – tried to bring her into the talk, but the damage was done. The rest had pegged her as an idiot, the proverbial child sitting at the kiddies’ table while the adults discussed matters of great importance. After a while, she got up, making the excuse that she was going in search of the loo. They were so busy debating the finer points of Chomsky’s propaganda model that they barely even noticed her leaving the table.
* * *
It would be fair to say Zoe and Anna’s friendship had survived a lot: six years of high school together, a decade with no contact whatsoever, and the elephant in the room that was the events of December 2009 – events which had cost Zoe’s brother, Victor, his life, and had left her struggling to come to terms with the realisation that her only sibling had been both a rapist and a serial killer. A year later, when Anna had moved back to Glasgow, Zoe had instantly leapt on this as a chance to hit the reset button; to go back to a simpler, happier time before all the badness had come into her life. She’d been convinced they would immediately rekindle their old dynamic from their schooldays, making up for all the years Anna had spent out of the country and out of touch.
The reality had proved somewhat different. Despite once again living within a mile of one another, their paths seldom crossed, the gulf between their respective social circles an increasingly widening chasm and Anna’s calendar always full, consisting of an endless series of conference trips and speaking engagements. Last year, she’d spent three months on secondment to the University of Vienna – a fact which Zoe had only discovered after she’d already been back for over a fortnight. Fair enough, Anna had obviously made a good name for herself, and Zoe couldn’t begrudge her that. But at the same time, she could never shake the suspicion that Anna was going out of her way to not cross paths with her. And she could guess why. She wanted desperately to tell Anna that it was OK, that she didn’t hold her responsible for what had happened three Christmases ago, that it didn’t have to come between them. But she couldn’t do it. The right circumstances never arose – and besides, the wounds were still too raw.
She’d been standing outside for about fifteen minutes when she sensed a presence behind her. She knew, even without turning, who it was.
‘Come back inside, Zo.’ Anna drew alongside her, arms wrapped round herself – even though, by Zoe’s estimation, it was still plenty warm.
‘I dunno. Mibby.’ She turned to Anna with an apologetic grimace. ‘Ach, look, you’re better off wi’out me in there lowering the intellectual bar.’
‘Is that how you think I see you?’ Anna looked so genuinely shocked that Zoe immediately regretted saying anything.
She gave a wan smile. ‘Nah, but… well, ye’ve got to admit, they’re your people, no mine. I dunno anything about journals and propaganda models and what have ye.’
‘Maybe.’ Anna gave Zoe’s shoulder an affectionate nudge. ‘But I bet there was only one person at that table able to recite every line from Showgirls by heart.’
Zoe cackled, throwing her head back and snorting through her nose. ‘And tae think they call theirselves intellectuals.’
Anna smiled and rubbed Zoe’s arm. ‘I am glad we ran into each other.’
‘Aye, me too.’
They fell silent, content to stand in one another’s company for a while. The sky above them was turning to a bruised purple.
It was Anna who broke the silence. ‘Is everything OK, Zo?’
Zoe frowned. ‘In what way?’
‘Just… in general.’ Anna hesitated. ‘Only it looked to me like you were drinking on your own.’
‘No law against that.’
For a moment, she said no more. Then, sensing Anna’s gaze still firmly fixed on her and knowing there was no way she was going to just leave it at that, she let out a deep sigh.
‘I got knocked back for a job earlier.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’ Anna made it sound like she’d just told her the world was ending in forty-eight hours. ‘What kind of job was it?’
‘Just a clerical thingy. No biggie. But ye know – would’ve been a foot on the ladder.’
‘Well, for what it’s worth, they clearly don’t know a good thing when they see it,’ said Anna.
Zoe said nothing. She felt sheepish and substandard and useless and a dozen and one other adjectives her brain was too pickled to dredge up. Of late, she’d become increasingly aware of her own inadequacies whenever hers and Anna’s paths crossed. Once upon a time, their differences hadn’t seemed to matter. If anything, they’d only made their friendship stronger. She’d always known that Anna was smarter than her, better off than her, had bigger boobs than her. But growing up, none of that had mattered. Neither of them had had anything to prove. At no point had there ever been any sense that they were in competition with one another, even when they were in the same classes, studying for the same exams. Now, however, each and every one of Anna’s fresh successes simply made Zoe’s own failures taste that much bitterer in her mouth.
‘I thought…’ Anna paused again. ‘I thought maybe it was because of the trial.’
Zoe just blinked at her. ‘Trial?’
‘Gavin Price’s trial. It’s…’ Anna trailed off as she looked into Zoe’s eyes. ‘You didn’t know.’
A jolt ran up Zoe’s spine. It seemed to lodge in her throat, causing her to have to force the words out. ‘Know what? What’s happened?’
‘They… they’ve set a date,’ Anna stammered, unable to wrest her eyes away from Zoe’s. ‘The thirteenth of July. I really thought you knew.’
‘I came here straight fae work. I havnae had a chance to—’
‘No, no, what I mean is, it was set weeks ago. The date. I rang as soon as I heard. You were at work, but Carol said she’d…’ She stopped short as the realisation that she’d just put her foot squarely in her mouth hit her.
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. ‘But what? What’d she say?’
Anna blinked rapidly, doing her wide-eyed I’ve-just-shat-myself thing. The implications of what she’d just revealed were lost on neither of them.
Zoe had known, from the snippets of information she’d been able to glean about the way things were progressing, that it was only a matter of time before there was a date for the trial, so the fact that there now was one wasn’t exactly a total bombshell. It would have been nice not to have been hit with it out of the blue, but she was already over the shock. What remained was the sense of betrayal, of being kicked in the teeth, of having the wool pulled over her eyes by Carol. No question about it, it had been a deliberate omission. You didn’t take a message about something as significant as that and simply forget to pass it on. And for what? What had she thought she was going to achieve? Was she trying to protect Zoe? To stop the old wounds being ripped open again? Showed how much she knew. The wounds had never healed. They still burned, each and every day. Some days the pain was less acute, some days more, but it was always there.
In Carol’s absence, Zoe instead focused her ire on Anna. ‘Ye could’ve got me on my mobile.’
‘I know. I should have. Sorry.’
But then you’d have had to talk to me, wouldn’t you? And you’ve been going out of your way to avoid that.
‘It was in the papers too,’ Anna added, as if this counted as mitigating circumstances.
‘You know I don’t read those.’
Anna winced, biting her lip. She reached out and gave Zoe’s arm a gentle squeeze. ‘Come back inside. It’s getting cold.’
Zoe didn’t look at her. ‘You go. I’ll come in a bit.’
Anna hesitated, and Zoe could picture the strained anxiety etched across her features. After a moment, she gave Zoe’s arm one last squeeze, then turned and headed back inside.
Zoe didn’t move. She stared up at the sky, watching the sun sink lower behind the rooftops. A light breeze drifted down from the top of the street, stirring her hair. Anna was right – there was a distinct nip in the air now. Behind her, the warm lights of Casa Mona beckoned. But she didn’t go back in. Now, more than ever, she wanted to be on her own. There had to be somewhere in this city where she could get smashed in peace and quiet.
She switched off her phone, arched her shoulders and began to walk.
Thursday 16 May 2013
UNIVERSITY LECTURER RAPE TRIAL GIVEN GO-AHEAD
BRAVE VICTIM BREAKS HER SILENCE
A date has been set for the long-awaited trial of a former Glasgow University lecturer. Gavin Price, 31, will stand trial in July for aiding and abetting the rape of his former girlfriend.
Price, it is alleged, pressured the victim to attend a raucous after-school party with him in December 1999. There, he failed to intervene while four other boys – all former pupils of the prestigious Willow Bank Academy – subjected her to a brutal and sustained group assault. The prosecution asserts Price knew in advance that the rape would take place, and that he and one of the other boys, his cousin Andrew Foley, even planned the incident together.
Four years ago, Price attained some notoriety as the sole survivor of the so-called Kelvingrove Park Murders, which claimed the lives of four men as well as that of their killer, Victor Callahan. The Tribune understands Price’s former girlfriend has named Callahan and three of his victims as her attackers.
Now, in a sensational development, we can reveal that the alleged victim has waived her right to anonymity. Jennifer Guilfoyle, 30, believes that, by going public, she will encourage other rape survivors to pursue their attackers in the courts.
‘My daughter has suffered in silence for more than a decade,’ her father, Mr Anthony Guilfoyle, a former detective superintendent, told the Tribune, ‘and the fact that four of the individuals responsible died before facing proper justice has been a source of deep pain for us both. Though it has been incredibly difficult for her, my daughter believes that only by securing a conviction in a court of law can she achieve any measure of closure.’
Various provisions exist to protect vulnerable witnesses in court, including giving evidence via video link or behind a screen. But Ms Guilfoyle has declined all such measures, and has requested that the public gallery remain open for the duration of the trial, breaking with normal convention for sexual assault cases.
‘I feel strongly that this trial should not be held behind closed doors,’ she told us in a pre-written statement. ‘I don’t want him to be able to hide. I want the public to see him for what he is.
‘I want to look him in the eyes. I want to show him that, though he caused me immeasurable pain and suffering, he didn’t break me.’
Depute Hector Quaid QC will lead for the prosecution, while Price will be defended by Euan Streule QC. The trial will commence at the High Court on 13 July.
She let her legs set the course, navigating the warren of lanes between the main streets of the city centre. As darkness settled, she found herself in the Merchant City – once home to Glasgow’s tobacco barons, now the beating heart of modern yuppiedom. Here, the lights were brighter and the pavements cleaner, and as Zoe traipsed into the Madeira Bar and Guesthouse, she felt like she was committing an incendiary act, trespassing on land to which she held no claim.
As she sat propping up the bar, Vodka and Coke in hand and a refill on its way, she cast a disinterested eye over the clientele. Most were your typical Merchant City fare: city slickers in shirtsleeves and crumpled ties, kicking back after a gruelling week gambling the nation’s finances on the stock markets, or whatever it was they actually did to earn a crust.
At the other end of the bar, a woman in her mid-twenties was sitting on her lonesome, swirling a tall glass of some colourful mixer in her hand. She had a beguiling sort of glamour about her – provocative and classy all at once. In any event, the short, sleeveless cocktail dress she had on was working for her. Zoe wondered if her date hadn’t shown, though she couldn’t for the life of her imagine any red-blooded male standing up someone who looked like that. Maybe she just came here because she liked the vibe. She seemed strangely familiar, and Zoe spent several minutes staring at her through the alcohol-induced haze that clouded her vision before she realised why. She was her neighbour from across the street – the one who went out every evening and didn’t return till sunrise. At that moment, she glanced in Zoe’s direction and caught her looking. Then, as if having complete strangers gawping at her was a perfectly normal state of affairs, she raised her glass to Zoe in silent toast and turned to face forward once again.
The bell above the front door jangled – an unnecessary touch, for the new arrivals were making their presence known all by themselves. There were three of them, all men. A little older than the rest of the crowd, perhaps, but kitted and garbed in much the same fashion. The leader of the pack was a fair-haired, good-looking guy in his forties, taller than his two companions and, again, vaguely familiar in a way Zoe couldn’t place. She had a feeling she’d seen him on TV at some point, which wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility: more than a few soap actors and other minor celebrities called the Merchant City home. The way the other two orbited around him, laughing at his jokes while simultaneously positioning themselves to shield him from any unwanted encroachments, certainly suggested he was some kind of big noise.
Zoe half-watched, slurping the remains of her Vodka-Coke through its straw, as one of the two groupies – the slightly pudgy one with the cropped black hair and close-set eyes – collared a passing waiter. Some words were exchanged, the waiter nodded profusely and gestured to the men to follow him. He ushered them through a door marked ‘PRIVATE BAR’ at the back of the room. A moment later, the woman in the cocktail dress, who might as well have had ‘This Evening’s Entertainment’ stencilled on her well-formed arse, finished her drink, slipped off her stool and headed in the same direction.
Zoe turned back to her own drink. It was a surreal sort of night – the sort that started with drinks, then moved on to sexy dancing, then copping off in a toilet cubicle with some guy whose name you hadn’t caught. And then, before you knew it, you were waking up in an unfamiliar bed with a dodgy tattoo you couldn’t remember consenting to. Zoe actually had woken up with a dodgy tattoo once, following an all-night bender in her uni days – a gecko just above her right ankle, the significance of which was as much of a mystery to her as everyone else. She didn’t do that sort of thing anymore, of course. That had been the old Zoe, before Carol had come along and domesticated her. Mind you, she could think of worse ways to end a day of soul-crushing disappointment. She knew, from the warm, slightly tingly sensation in her body and the way her surroundings kept slipping in and out of focus, that she was well past the point of being completely sozzled. Time was slipping by, and she was well aware that she should have been home hours ago. She thought about calling Carol, letting her know where she was, but swiftly concluded that, given the mood she was in, the only possible result would be a monumental screaming match.
In any event, she concluded that the solution to all her problems was more drink, and signalled to the bartender for another refill.
* * *
She awoke with a splitting headache and an acute sense of dislocation. She was lying face-down on something soft, which upon closer examination turned out to be a bed. Momentary panic set in, only to dissipate as she realised she was both alone and fully clothed. No unexpected tattoos either, at least not in any of the obvious places. That too was something.
As the fog cleared from her eyes, she eased herself upright and took stock of her surroundings. She was in one of those blandly tasteful guesthouse rooms – the sort with floral pattern wallpaper and pictures of generic rural landscapes hanging on the walls. An itemised receipt lay on the nightstand, consisting of a breakdown of the evening’s drinking plus the cost of a night’s stay. They might as well have just taken her wallet out of her arse pocket and helped themselves. Add to that the cash she’d frittered away at Casa Mona, and the night’s frivolities had cost her half a month’s wages. She was going to have a hell of a lot of explaining to do when she got home.
Her neighbours in the next room were having what might euphemistically be described as an intimate moment. Loud groans of both the male and female varieties mingled with the creaking of bedsprings, followed by a crash as something fragile hit the floor. All right for some, she thought. It had been nearly a month since she and Carol had last done the business, and of late their increasingly infrequent encounters between the sheets had developed a distinct air of going through the motions. At least these two, whoever they were, seemed to enjoy an element of spontaneity in their love life, even if it did involve wanton destruction of hotel property.
As she lay there listening to the continuing sounds of frenzied rutting, she became aware of a new and pressing need, growing in intensity with each passing second: the need to empty her bladder. She didn’t want to move, but she knew she’d have to sooner or later. So, gingerly, she slid her feet onto the thick carpet and eased herself upright. Once the room stopped spinning, she had a quick look around. It wasn’t en suite (of course not, that would have been too convenient), so she headed out into the corridor in search of the facilities.
The toilet on the first floor had a giant ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign on its door. She made her way downstairs, clutching the handrail in case her feet chose to give way under her. A couple of drinkers were still propping up the bar – lonely, solitary types whose own problems no doubt gave hers a run for her money. Arriving outside the ladies’, she found her way once again barred, this time by a yellow plastic ‘CLEANING IN PROGRESS’ sandwich board. The hum of a floor polisher emanating from within told her this wasn’t simply a ruse to give her a UTI.
‘Fuck it,’ she said, and pushed open the neighbouring door.
The gents’ was, thankfully, deserted, though she doubted anyone would have actually challenged her in any event. From past experience she knew that, if you acted like you belonged there, most people were too disconcerted to say anything. She chose the least disgusting-looking of the four cubicles, locked the door, dropped her drawers and alighted on the throne. As she sat there, doing an uncanny imitation of Niagara Falls, she eyed up the various messages scrawled on the walls and door by the resident graffiti artisans. Some wit had written the words ‘ARTS DEGREES’ above the bog-roll dispenser, with a little arrow helpfully pointing downwards for the slow-off-the-mark. It would’ve been funny if it didn’t hit so close to home.
The well had run dry and she was just beginning to make a move when she heard the door opening, followed by feet on the vinyl flooring and men’s voices. She froze, half off the seat, undies still around her ankles, and listened as they drew increasingly near. There were two of them, the tone of their voices indicating a familiarity bordering on chummy.
‘So, a good time was had by all, I trust?’
‘She knows what she’s about, that one. And the bod on her!’ A low, appreciative whistle. ‘My eyes were out in stalks, let me tell you. Where the devil’d you find her?’
‘A gift from our mutual friend, with his compliments.’
‘Tell our mutual friend he has impeccable taste.’
Zoe thought she recognised the second voice – a curious blend of muted Scots and the strangulated vowels of a southerner.
The footsteps stopped directly in front of her cubicle. She heard the familiar sound of zips being undone, followed by piss splashing on porcelain as the two men blessed the urinals.
‘Oh, I meant to say’ – the first voice again, deeper and more obviously local than the second – ‘I’ve arranged for you to have a sit-down with Greg Forsythe next week. Nothing too formal – exchange pleasantries, identify areas of common ground, that sort of thing.’
‘Christ, really? That great clod? You’ve got more chance of meaningful conversation with a Border Collie.’
Carefully, Zoe took the door off the latch and eased it open a crack. Facing the urinals, their backs to her, were two men in dress shirts and slacks, pissing together in harmony. Men, she concluded, were weird: in so many respects afraid of showing intimacy to one another, yet perfectly relaxed about communal urination.
‘Now, now. The community council plays a vital role in improving public accountability and fostering social cohesion.’
‘A vital role in wasting taxpayer money, more like.’ The man with the wonky accent sighed. ‘All right, all right. I’ll shake the fat slug’s hand and tell him what a bang-up job he and his merry men are doing. Sound good?’
‘I’ll have Cheryl update your diary.’
Both their taps, it seemed, had now ceased dripping, and as Zoe watched through the crack, they headed for the sinks, disappearing from view. She strained to hear their voices over the sound of running water.
‘Listen, Steve,’ said the plummy one, ‘about what we were discussing earlier… I’m afraid there’s a bit of a mess to be cleared up in Room 108. You know how it is. In the heat of the moment, you lose control, things get a little out of hand…’
A brief, awkward pause. ‘Well, I’m sure she knows better than to say anything.’
‘That’s what I’m counting on. Still, I feel we should impress upon her…’
‘Say no more, Dom, say no more.’
Dom? That rang a bell too. Zoe was on her feet now, ear pressed against the laminate partition, trying her damnedest to make out what was being said over the roar of a blow-dryer.
‘Knew I could count on you. And I trust you’ll ensure the good lady is sufficiently compensated for her discretion? To be kept off the books, of course.’
‘But of course.’
‘A round of Dutch courage before we proceed, then? I gather the bar’s still doing a trade.’
‘Always a pleasure, never a chore.’
The door slammed shut. Two sets of footsteps receded.
Zoe knew now where she’d heard that voice before. Knew too where she’d seen the person to whom it belonged: the same sandy-haired bloke who’d come striding in with his posse and disappeared into the private bar.
Dominic Ryland, darling of the media and would-be leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
And the vigorous humping sounds from the next-door bedroom, so innocuous at the time, now took on a decidedly more unsavoury tone – the groans less those of a couple in the throes of passion than those of a powerful man bending a struggling woman to his will.
She was out of the cubicle before she even had her jeans buttoned. She bombed it up the stairs, not bothering with the handrail this time – the urgency of the situation seemed to have given her an agility that belied her recent alcohol intake. She pelted along the first-floor corridor, eyes skating over the numbers on the doors. 105, 106, 107… She reached the door to Room 108 and wrenched it open.
Her neighbour the courtesan was crouched on the floor amid a sea of broken glass, spilt wine and tangled bedclothes, dabbing at her lip with a bloodstained paper tissue. One of the straps on her cocktail dress was torn, and her bare shoulder showed painful-looking red marks in the shape of fingerprints. She spun around, frozen in fear, staring up at Zoe with her one good eye. A rivulet of blood trickled from her nose. They faced one another, motionless, the only audible sounds the competing rasps of their harried breathing.
‘We have to get out of here,’ said Zoe.
The woman didn’t move.
Taking matters into her own hands, Zoe grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. They took off, the woman following Zoe wordlessly as she strode down the corridor, heading in the opposite direction from the bar. Down a flight of concrete steps at the back, they found a fire escape. As Zoe shoved the panic bar, an alarm began to peal. It was still ringing in her ears as she burst out into the back lane, dragging her neighbour behind her, stiletto heels clacking on the cobblestones. There were no sounds of pursuit behind them, but as she ran, Zoe didn’t dare look back for fear that, if she did, she would see Dominic Ryland or his accomplice standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the light, watching them go.
To be continued...