An extract from
Imagine a scene in deep midwinter, as still and immaculate as a Christmas card. One of those painterly, fine art cards designed to conjure up nostalgia for a childhood half-remembered and yet not quite real. The slopes of Kelvingrove Park are coated with a dusting of freshly fallen snow, bathed in the last lingering light of the fading day. The air is calm. The park lies empty. The windows of the outer circle of houses overlooking the park emit their filtered yellow-orange glow.
A timeless scene.
A perfect scene.
Such a shame to spoil it.
You barrel headlong downhill, ploughing on as the chilled air fills your lungs, stinging them, burning them. Your heart aches and hammers so hard you swear it’s going to shatter your ribcage. You run like you’ve never run before. Like your life depends on it.
And behind you, they come for you. Your pursuers. The hounds to your hare. Gaining on you with each passing second. And though you’re almost spent, you know they won’t tire so easily.
The bottom of the slope draws near. Bare-naked trees rise up to meet you, their gnarled branches twisted painfully like the arthritic digits of an old man’s hand. Beyond them, the university bell-tower looms straight and tall – two hundred and seventy-seven feet of stone, a silent witness to all that passes before it. As cold and uncaring as the air itself.
Your foot catches on a tree-root, hidden beneath the snow. You go down, hands first, a blanket of white engulfing you. As you kneel there at the foot of the hill, your ragged gasps forming plumes in the air, they close in around you, pressed trousers and polished shoes forming a semi-circle. You cast around wildly in search of an escape route, but there is none. The game is up. The hare is caught.
The ranks part to let him through. Taller than the rest, he advances towards you, blotting out your view of the sun. He reaches down – a slender, long-fingered hand, brushing a strand of hair from your eyes, then lifting your chin, tilting your head back.
A last burst of defiance rises from some unknown depth. You stare up at him. You won’t close your eyes or look away. He won’t break you. He won’t make you beg.
Then, from off to the side, just beyond your field of view, a balled fist connects with your head.
And the darkness swallows you whole.
Thursday 17 December 2009
Anna shivered and sank deeper into the collar of her coat. She’d forgotten how cold Glasgow was in December.
It was warm in the cab, almost too warm, but the memory of the bitter chill outside lingered on, as she and a dozen other commuters had stood under the awning outside Queen Street Station, all jockeying for first dibs on the next taxi to pull into the rank. It had been below zero when she had touched down at Gatwick that morning, and the snow, which had begun as her train crossed the border late in the afternoon, continued to fall thick and fast.
As they circled George Square, she peered out the window. The condensation had turned the Christmas lights outside into a hazy kaleidoscope of red, green and blue. Beyond them, she could make out the shapes of the Millennium Hotel, the City Chambers – all the landmarks that she knew by heart, no matter how long it had been since she’d last clapped eyes on them. She leaned back, shutting her travel-weary lids and soaking up the sounds around her: the tick of the meter; Elvis (Costello, not Presley) tinny on the tape deck; a patchwork of guttural voices on the cab firm’s radio, their ayes and naws barely audible over the hum of the engine. Every so often, the driver would respond in a murmur so low it was a wonder any of it was understood. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe they just enjoyed hearing the cadence of each other’s voices, clinging to the semblance it provided of human contact as they wound their lonely ways through the city. Like far-off ships signalling one another in the night.
Her phone was vibrating against her thigh. She stirred and retrieved it from her trouser pocket. The screen identified the caller as ‘RED MENACE’.
‘Anna?’ Zoe’s voice boomed breathlessly in her ear. ‘Where the hell are ye?’
‘In a taxi. Just leaving the station.’
‘Aw, you are kiddin’ me. What did ye do – take the scenic route?’
‘Dunno if you’ve noticed, Zo, but it’s foul out there. Actually, it’s a wonder I was able to—’
‘Excuses, excuses. Just tell yer chauffeur to put his foot down, right? Let him know it’s an emergency. How’s am I supposed tae start this party without best pal number one?’
‘Heh, yeah. I’ll tell him. See you in a bit.’
She hung up and sank back into the upholstery, her eyelids drooping once again.
‘Local girl, aye?’
She looked up. Her eyes met the driver’s in the rear-view mirror.
‘Whereabouts ye from, love? Jordanhill? Hyndland?’
The posh parts of Glasgow. The parts where people who spoke like her didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. And he wasn’t too far off the mark.
The skin around his eyes crinkled in amusement, suggesting he knew better. ‘Aye, figured as much. Home for the holidays, then?’
‘Something like that.’
Realising he wasn’t going to get anywhere with her, he made a disgruntled noise and shifted his eyes back to the road. As they passed under the shadow of the City Chambers, its beleaguered Saltire bucking and whipping in the wind, the reassuring cloak of quiet anonymity descended once again.
Just how she liked it.
* * *
Zoe was waiting for her next to the Wizard of Paws store on Argyle Street, her hair a flaming red beacon in the dark. As they pulled up to the kerb, her face lit up, and she broke into a run, tottering on her irresponsibly high heels.
‘Hey, you! What the fuck have you done with your hair?’ The hug which followed all but knocked the wind from Anna. ‘God, it’s one of they nights, in’t it? Pure – fuckin’ – Baltic. Been standin’ out here for the last half-hour, practically freezin’ ma nips aff. That’s your fault, that is, for bein’ such a slowpoke.’
‘Nice to see you too. Happy birthday, slapper.’
‘Aye, you too, doll, you too.’ Another asphyxiating hug for good measure.
Freshly released, Anna looked Zoe up and down. ‘Well. I do declare you don’t look a day over twenty-seven.’
She was being facetious, but only slightly. Newly twenty-eight or not, Zoe still bore a striking resemblance to the exuberant teenager Anna had known growing up and, under the right light, could probably still pass for one. She was clearly trying to make an impression: liberally applied eyeliner, a leopard skin print parka and a sparkling mini-dress that shone and glittered every time she moved, which was to say constantly.
‘Girl’s gotta make an effort. You don’t scrub up too bad yersel, hen. Though you’re lookin’ a bit peely-wally, if you don’t mind ma sayin’. You really been livin’ it up in the Med or did you get on the wrong plane and end up in Iceland? Mind you, I suppose it hasnae all been cocktails and sunbathin’. So do I have to call you “Doctor” now or what?’
Anna gave what she hoped passed for an easy smile. ‘Still the same old Anna.’
Zoe beamed, apparently satisfied. Reaching into the inner pocket of her coat, she produced a hip flask. ‘Here, get this down you. It’s good for what ails ya, whatever that is.’
Anna eyed the flask dubiously. She’d never understood the appeal of drinking before a party. It suggested you had low expectations for the venue, or the people in whose company you were going to be spending the evening, or both. Still, when in Glasgow… She took the flask and tipped a mouthful of the foul-tasting vodka down her throat, gagging on it like a child swallowing a particularly noxious medicine after being told It’s for your own good, darling.
Zoe snatched the flask and swigged from it with considerably more gusto, then tilted back her head and emitted a howl of pure animalistic glee.
‘All righty, let the festivities commence!’
* * *
The place Zoe had chosen for said festivities was Pulse – a trendy nightclub deep in the bowels of the West End which catered primarily towards the student crowd from the nearby university. In other words, people up to ten years younger than Zoe – or indeed Anna, who felt increasingly like she was descending into the mouth of Hell as they made their way downstairs towards the steady beat emanating from the basement. As they reached the bottom, it became a full-on sensory assault – the music, an incessant, overpowering, mind-numbing beat that made her sinuses ache… the pulsating gel lights, bathing the club and the mass of gyrating bodies in a constantly alternating array of primary hues… the stuffy, artificial air, ripe with the tang of cheap deodorant and spilt liquor…
Zoe, who by now had shed her parka, grinned at Anna. ‘Is this place not mental?’
‘Mental’ sounded about right, though Anna doubted they shared the same definition of the word. Still, Zoe’s party, Zoe’s rules.
The birthday girl craned her neck, scanning the crowd of revellers. She spotted some people she recognised and waved manically at them. ‘Some pals fae work,’ she explained. ‘Listen, get us a coupla drinks, grab us a seat. I’ll do the meet-and-greet, then we can have a proper catch-up.’
Wondering how they were going to have a proper anything with such an almighty racket blasting in their ears, Anna watched as Zoe strode across the floor towards her pals, yanking her dress down at the back in a futile attempt to retain a sliver of decency.
Ignoring the voice in the back of her head telling her she still had time to make good her escape, Anna negotiated her way through the throng, making for the bar, where a pair of bartenders – one female, one male – valiantly fought to keep up with a never-ending barrage of orders for tequilas, Bacardis and a slew of mixers she’d never heard of. Waiting for someone to notice her, she leant against the bar and turned to watch the revellers doing their thing. Those who weren’t dancing occupied an array of tables and sofas towards the back of the room, shrouded in semi-darkness beyond the reach of the lighting fixtures. Scanning the sea of bodies, she picked out Zoe in the middle of the floor, sandwiched between two admiring men a good decade younger than herself, showing off her moves. Anna wondered whether this was part of the meet-and-greet.
No one would ever describe Zoe as conventionally attractive, but she was so open, so blasé, so comfortable in her own skin that what a detached assessment might describe as imperfections – the snub nose, the gap in her front teeth, the cornucopia of freckles covering her face and shoulders – instead became interesting quirks that complemented her character. At any rate, boys had always seemed to like her, though Anna had never been sure whether it was because they fancied her or because they saw her as one of the lads. A bit of both, probably.
‘What can I get you?’
She turned to find the female bartender – a blonde beanpole wearing the regulation black T-shirt and skinny jeans sported by all the staff – eyeballing her expectantly.
‘Sorry. Miles away. Um… Vodka Martini and a glass of Prosecco.’
The Vodka Martini was for Zoe, assuming her tastes in liquor were still the same – and, given that nothing else about her seemed to have changed, Anna felt reasonably comfortable in her assumption.
The woman set about preparing the drinks in the brisk, no-nonsense manner of the perpetually harangued. As she worked, she nodded past Anna’s shoulder. ‘Friends of yours, that lot?’
Anna chanced a glance at the dancefloor. ‘Not as such.’
‘Figured. No offence, but this doesn’t exactly strike me as your sort of place.’
‘None taken. And it’s not. I’m just here for a friend. It’s her birthday do and – well, I couldn’t exactly say no.’
‘Ah – you’ll be talking about Zoe.’
‘You know Zoe?’
‘Everyone knows Zoe.’
Anna smiled. ‘Right enough, yeah.’
Clutching the two glasses, she picked her way back through the crush and staked her claim on a vacant sofa far enough from the dancefloor that she might just be able to hear herself think. Zoe, she saw, was still giving it her all. She’d left her two admirers to their own devices, their appetites unsatiated, and was now bopping along to the music with a gaggle of twentysomethings, both her drink and her promise of a proper catch-up with Anna seemingly forgotten.
Oh, well. She raised her Prosecco glass. Your good health, Anna.
* * *
If time flies when you’re enjoying yourself, the reverse is also true. Five minutes became ten, ten became twenty, and by the time a half-hour had passed, Anna was wondering why she’d ever agreed to this in the first place. Not that she begrudged Zoe a good time, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that she was very much the third wheel of this enterprise. If she’d delayed flying out by another day, she could have avoided this rigmarole altogether and treated Zoe to a night out of her own – preferably somewhere where they played music below the volume of a jet aircraft.
She sipped from her Prosecco, trying to make it last. She knew from experience that, in these situations, it was all too easy to end up drinking yourself into oblivion. In a futile attempt to make it look like she wasn’t just twiddling her thumbs waiting for the earliest opportunity that she could reasonably suggest calling it a night, she alternated between swallowing tiny mouthfuls and checking her phone for messages. Not that she had any. Only a select few people had her number, and most of them were work colleagues who were well aware she was on leave.
The sound of something being plonked down on the table in front of her made her lower her phone and look up. The female bartender was standing over her. A fresh glass of Prosecco sat before her.
‘But I didn’t order—’
‘Aye, true enough, but that one over there wouldnae take no for an answer.’
The bartender jerked a signet-ringed thumb over her shoulder. Anna craned her neck to see beyond the gyrating youths. A man stood at the bar, resting a casual elbow on the counter, a glass of his own in his hand. He was tall, chiselled, dressed in a pale designer suit clearly tailored to fit him. In a venue populated almost exclusively by T-shirts, jeans and halter-necks, he stood out like a sore thumb. Catching her looking at him, he raised his glass and tipped her a wink. She turned away with a scoff, ready to tell the bartender to take his drink back and instruct him to stick it somewhere intimate.
But there was something about that profile, about the high bridge of that nose, that gave her pause. She knew that nose. Had spent far too much time admiring it from afar during her teenage years.
She chanced another look at him. He was still standing there, still watching her, smiling mischievously.
Andrew Foley – all six foot two of him, as effortlessly cool now as he had been then. More so, in fact. The intervening years had been good to him, sculpting him into a fine figure of a man. Her heart might not have actually skipped a beat, but there was a very definite intake of breath, a light fluttering in her stomach. Even now, as he began to make his way towards her, glass in hand, she found herself self-consciously tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, sitting up straight, plastering herself with the sort of smile she hoped conveyed pleasant surprise rather than the feelings of mild panic that were firing off in all directions.
The bartender raised an eyebrow. ‘Take it yous two are acquainted, then? I’ll leave you to it.’
Before Anna could object, she melted away, leaving her to scramble awkwardly to her feet to greet him.
‘It is Anna, isn’t it? I was sure it was. Now, of course, I’m beginning to fear I might’ve made a most almighty prat of myself.’
Anna shrugged airily. ‘It’s me.’
He laughed, took a step towards her, then remembered his glass and paused to deposit it on the table. Then came the hug – an embrace Anna’s teenage self would have killed for, enveloping her in the smooth folds of his suit.
Calm down, Anna. Don’t be going all wobbly-kneed and googly-eyed. Act your age.
‘Well,’ he said, when he broke apart, ‘this is quite the surprise. I had it in my mind you’d eloped to Paris.’
‘Rome. I did. I mean, I literally just got in this evening.’
‘And of all the bars in all the towns in all the world…’ He grimaced. ‘Sorry. That sounded infinitely less corny in my head.’ He gestured to the sofa. ‘May I…?’
* * *
And so, for the next hour or so, they sat having as intimate a conversation as was possible to have over the din from the speaker system. They covered all the usual ground, including their respective post-school academic pursuits and current employment. Andrew had done well for himself: a partnership at a top accountancy firm secured on the back of a first-class honours degree from University College London. To tell the truth, Anna was a little surprised he’d chosen to settle back in Glasgow. She’d always had a sense of him being someone who was destined to Go Places. He must have had an offer he couldn’t refuse. That, or a deep-rooted attachment to the Dear Green Place she herself didn’t share.
As the conversation flowed, so did the wine. Andrew ordered multiple refills, which he insisted on paying for, and as time crept on, his mood grew more sombre. His old mum wasn’t keeping too well, he said. She’d suffered a run of bad luck over the last few years in the form of one serious ailment after another. Having lost her own father to the Big C nearly three years ago, Anna could sympathise.
‘D’you still see them much?’
‘Much as I can, yeah. But you know how it is. Work, life – all that jazz has a nasty tendency to get in the way. Truth be told, I don’t see them nearly as much as I’d like… or should.’
Anna tried to remember the last time she’d seen her own mother – or even spoken to her on the phone.
‘Well, you’ve got your work cut out,’ she reasoned, attempting to simultaneously banish her own situation to the back of her mind and offer Andrew a glimmer of comfort. ‘Especially if you’ve got a family of your own now.’
Andrew looked puzzled. ‘Family?’
‘Well, you know – the old…’
She’d noticed his wedding ring almost straight away. In fact, her eyes had instinctively gone to his ring finger, looking for one. It hadn’t come as a surprise; someone as eminently eligible has himself would undoubtedly have been snatched up post-haste. Still, it had been hard not to feel a slight pang of regret, if only for old times’ sake.
He realised what she was getting at. A frown crossed his features. ‘Oh. You know, I’d never really thought of it like that.’
‘No kids, then? Well, there’s still time… I mean, if that’s what you both want…’
She felt slightly foolish now. She hadn’t meant to pry, or to make any assumptions about his private life or ambitions for the future in that regard.
Andrew gave a somewhat strained smile in return. He fingered his ring self-consciously, then gestured to their empty glasses. ‘Another fill-up?’
She could all but hear the shutters coming down.
They continued in this vein for a while longer, though the mood had taken a turn for the awkward. Anna was beginning to feel the call of nature and at length excused herself, secretly glad of the get-out. Leaving Andrew with glass in hand, she picked her way through the crowd to the ladies’, where she was forced to join a line of other women while what she strongly suspected was a sexual liaison of some variety went down in one of the cubicles.
When she returned some ten minutes later, Andrew was gone. His glass sat abandoned on the table. Initially, she assumed he too was making use of the facilities. But as time passed and he still didn’t return, she was forced to conclude that she had indeed said something to put his nose out of joint and that he’d voted with his feet.
She got up and made for the stairs. The atmosphere in the basement was decidedly stale, and she craved fresh air. As she climbed the steps, she became aware of voices above her – or rather a voice. Its tone was despondent, verging on maudlin, and it took her a moment to recognise it as Andrew’s. She advanced up the last few steps on tiptoe and halted at the door leading out to the cloakroom, from behind which his voice was coming. She strained to make out the words, but it was easier said than done with the incessant doof-doof-doof emanating from the basement.
‘I’m sorry. I just needed to hear your voice. I couldn’t face it, you know? Couldn’t face going home to her. She doesn’t understand me, babe. Not the way you do.’
What followed was drowned out by the noise from downstairs. When she was next able to make him out properly, he was going for the conciliatory approach. ‘I want to make it work – I do. It’s just… I don’t know. But not yet. I need time. Time to prepare her. To make her understand. Believe me, I will find a way for us to be together.’
Anna felt a surge of disgust. There was little doubt as to what was going on here. And now she heard a new sound – a sound so incongruous, it took her several seconds to register what it was. Andrew was crying. Not full-blown sobbing, but rather a quiet snivelling that could only be described as pathetic. ‘All of this,’ he was saying, ‘all of this is a test. We’ll come out of it stronger, babe, I promise you. I don’t want this coming between us. I—’
There was a sudden gale of laughter beyond the door. It opened, and two silken-haired young women, wearing skirts almost as short as Zoe’s, came clattering over the threshold. Anna pressed herself against the wall, partly to make way for them and partly to ensure Andrew wouldn’t see her through the open door. The pair paid her not the blindest bit of attention as they tottered past in their stilettos.
As their chatter faded, Anna again strained to listen for Andrew’s voice, but she heard nothing more. If he was still there beyond the door, the conversation was over. She suddenly realised just how grubby she felt. Whatever the moral rights and wrongs of what Andrew was up to, she was acutely aware she’d been eavesdropping on a man during an intensely private moment.
Feeling unexpectedly disappointed in him and more than a little in herself, she made her way back down to the basement. She’d just reached the sofa, his half-empty glass the only sign he’d ever been there, when Zoe came bounding over, flushed from the dancefloor and positively glowing.
‘Havin’ fun yet? Is this place not pure amazeballs?’
Anna would have used several other words to describe the place before the one Zoe had alighted on, but right now, none of them were coming to mind. She still couldn’t escape the feeling that Andrew’s abrupt departure and subsequent distress were in some way a response to something she’d said – more specifically, the enquiry about family. She glanced back at the glowing exit sign above the stairs, half-hoping he’d have a change of heart and come back.
He didn’t, and as time passed, their encounter became an increasingly distant memory. Zoe came and went periodically over the course of the night, checking Anna was OK and that she always had a drink in her hand. They never did get round to that catch-up she’d promised, but Anna half-welcomed the isolation, the lack of introspection and the fact that none of Zoe’s extended network of friends and acquaintances deemed her to be of sufficient interest to bother her. She was fast developing a tension headache from the noise, but at least nobody was asking her to dance or trying to proposition her. So what if she cut a rather sad and lonely figure, quietly sipping her drink like the only guest at the ball without a date? Some of us enjoy our own company, she told herself, with enough conviction that she almost succeeded in convincing herself.
The night, and the party, wore on.
At the actual moment of impact, he thought he’d been punched, such was the sudden and intense pressure in his lower abdomen. It wasn’t until he looked down and saw the blade buried deep in his gut that he realised what had actually happened.
The lack of pain surprised him. It ought to have been excruciating, but he felt nothing more than a dull throbbing at the point of entry. It was growing in intensity, but it still didn’t fit with the fact he had a knife handle sticking out of him. He should be… what, screaming? Writhing in agony? Those seemed like the natural responses. The responses he’d be expecting if the boot was on the other foot.
His attacker pulled the blade free, and the pressure subsided. A warm, wet, almost pleasant sensation began to expand from the area, soaking through the fabric of his shirt. In the silence of the still night air, he heard the pitter-patter of droplets splashing onto his shoe.
It took him a moment to realise it was blood. His blood.
His assailant didn’t move. He – it was a he, wasn’t it? – simply stood there, watching him, features obscured under a dark hood. Waiting.
His vision was beginning to fade. A profound light-headedness was taking hold. His knees buckled. He reached out, grasping in the figure’s direction, but his fingers closed on air. He flailed with both hands, trying to steady himself, but to no avail. His legs gave way. And then he was falling, falling, falling, and the snowy carpet was rising up to meet him.
Slowly, torturously, he rolled over onto his back. The bruised night sky gazed down at him, and with it his attacker – a dark shape like a hole in the sky. The blade glinted in his hand as he drew it back, ready to finish the job.
In that instant, terror gripped him. It couldn’t end now, not like this. A man shouldn’t die alone, he thought. He should die loved and surrounded by friends and family. And there were so many things he still wanted to do, things he wanted to say, if only he could muster enough breath to form the words.
With considerable effort, he filled his lungs with air. ‘Please,’ he whispered.
He sensed, rather than saw, the figure smile.
They stepped out into the eerie quiet of the witching hour, Zoe swaying tipsily behind Anna. The street was empty. A light fog hung in the still, moist air. The cold cut to the bone, and they shrieked and yelled various profanities as they huddled under the neon sign above the doorway, clutching themselves in an attempt to keep warm.
At least it was no longer snowing.
They soon realised their chances of flagging down a taxi were slim to non-existent, and Zoe, evidently beginning to regret the quantity of alcohol with which she’d flooded her system over the last several hours, declared that she couldn’t face her bed till she’d washed it all down with something thoroughly greasy and artery-clogging. Anna suggested the all-night café on Gibson Street. It had been a regular haunt of theirs back in the day, and its bacon butties achieved that rare symbiosis of edibility and potent hangover cure.
The thoroughfare known as the Kelvin Way is about a half-mile long, connecting Argyle Street in the south to Gibson Street in the north. During summer, when the trees on either side are in full bloom, it is a pleasant walk, providing ample opportunities to observe the various eccentricities of students and the middle classes in their natural habitat. That night, however, there wasn’t another soul to be seen as Anna and Zoe tramped north, Anna dragging her travel case behind her. To their left, the university loomed beyond iron fencing at the top of a gentle slope. To their right, Kelvingrove Park was an ominous, unlit swathe of undulating, snow-clad slopes and dark clusters of trees.
As they walked, Zoe chattered endlessly, telling Anna about this school friend and that, listing who’d got hitched, who was up the duff, who was earning eighty grand and who’d vanished without a trace. Most of the seemingly endless stream of names meant little to Anna, who nodded and made noises of interest, shock or mirth as appropriate, taking comfort from the fact that, whatever the stresses of her own life, Zoe’s seemed enviably uncomplicated, consisting primarily of a succession of short-term menial jobs, punctuated by meet-ups with friends and the consumption of copious quantities of alcohol.
People who didn’t know Zoe well were always a bit surprised to find out she had a degree. Most took one look at her, listened to the way she spoke and decided she must have left school at sixteen after barely scraping through her Standard Grades. In actual fact, Zoe had done reasonably well at school, seeing it through to the end of sixth year and going on to do a BA in Media Studies at Glasgow Caledonian. They used to joke that this was a statement about the class divide between them: Anna was posh enough to get into the Sapienza and live the high life in Rome, while Zoe had to make do with Glasgow’s ‘other’ university. It was a slightly unfair knock against a perfectly respectable institution, but Zoe loved to make out she’d been dealt a bum pack of cards in life by virtue of being born with the wrong postcode, and casting herself as a delinquent drop-out suited her narrative.
They’d met on their first day at Willow Bank Academy and immediately hit it off in spite of – or perhaps because of – their obvious differences. It was a fee-paying establishment and therefore populated almost exclusively by offspring of the well-to-do and well-heeled. Anna had ended up there because, as far as her parents were concerned, it was the done thing. Zoe, a rough-talking working-class kid from Ruchill, was there because her grandmother had scrimped and saved to send both her and her younger brother there, suffering from the tendency to lionise private education that afflicts many who have never experienced it for themselves.
Despite their differing social and economic fortunes, Anna and Zoe soon realised they had a great deal in common. They liked the same music, laughed at the same jokes and both ranked fitting in with the crowd low on their list of priorities. They’d been inseparable all through high school, and all Anna’s most cherished memories from that time involved them doing something together. Lying side by side on the hillock at the top of Ruchill Park on warm summer days, listening to music from the same CD player, one earbud each… sitting in the back of RE class trading notes on boys they fancied while their teacher wittered on about some god neither of them believed in… cannonballing starkers into the November sea on a mutual dare during a day out in Ayr, then frantically trying to locate the keys to the hut where they’d left their clothes… and of course the succession of sleepovers spent beneath the same duvet, their noses almost touching, whispering to one another into the wee hours. More than just friendship, the bond between them had been every bit as intense as that of soulmates, siblings, even lovers.
All of which made it all the more surprising that they’d failed to keep in touch once they went their separate ways. They had, of course, started off with the grandest of intentions. Bit by bit, however, communication had dried up. Phone calls were allowed to ring out and answering machine messages ended up being deleted. Emails remained unread in inboxes for longer and longer and eventually stopped being sent altogether. And deep down, Anna knew she was the one who’d been most at fault – the one who’d been so wrapped up in her burgeoning academic career she’d allowed their friendship to wither and die.
They were about two-thirds of the way to the café when a strangled wail rent the air. They stopped dead in their tracks, Zoe clamming up mid-sentence. They looked at one another, then their surroundings, searching in vain for the source of the cry.
‘What d’ye figure that was?’ said Zoe, when no further disturbances followed. ‘Some sorta animal?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Anna, ‘but I’m not sure I want to stick around to find out.’
‘Where’d it come fae?’
‘The park… I think.’
They both gazed out across the dark, nebulous expanse of Kelvingrove Park and to the lights in the windows of the row of houses up at the top of Woodlands Hill on its eastern edge. Their warm, reassuring glow seemed achingly distant.
‘Prob’ly just a fox or somethin’,’ said Zoe. ‘We’ve got ’em up in Ruchill too. Should hear the racket they make when it’s mating season.’ She was trying to sound upbeat, but it wasn’t mating season, and there was a distinct tremor in her voice.
They pressed on, redoubling their pace. They no longer spoke, both focused squarely on reaching their destination as quickly as possible.
They were just coming to the last set of traffic lights before the end of the Kelvin Way when a figure came into view in front of them, emerging from the fog like an apparition. He wore a dark hooded top. His head was bowed low, obscuring his face. They parted to let him pass, both sensing that it was in their best interests not to get in his way. He strode through the gap between them, his shoulder colliding hard with Anna’s. They turned to watch as he continued to head south, back the way they’d just come. Within moments, he was swallowed up by the fog again. His footsteps receded into nothing.
Zoe tugged Anna’s sleeve. ‘C’mon, let’s get a move on. Too many weirdies out here the night fer ma likin’.’
* * *
They were glad beyond measure to reach the café. And yet, even once they were safely installed in a window bay with a taxi on the way, Zoe tucking gleefully into her bacon butty, Anna’s mind continued to churn. The scream might have been nothing. The figure in the hoodie might have been completely unconnected. And yet…
She looked at Zoe, HP sauce running down her chin, and decided to keep her own counsel.
After Zoe had finished eating and gone in search of the loo, Anna sat alone at the table, drumming her fingers on the surface, her misgivings about the way they’d handled what had happened out there growing by the second. Had anything happened out there? For her own peace of mind, if nothing else, she had to find out.
* * *
She entered Kelvingrove Park by its northern entrance at the foot of Gibson Street, leaving behind the streetlights and their reassuring sodium glow. She’d often walked through the park as a child, though only a handful of times after dark, and always with friends. During daylight hours, people walked their dogs in it, whiled away their lunch hours on the park benches and, in the summer months, even indulged in the odd stint of sunbathing on those rare sunny days. After dark, however, it was a different story. Even as a schoolgirl, word had reached her tender ears that it was the stomping ground of rent-boys and their clients, and, over the years, it had been host to several violent attacks, muggings and sexual assaults.
Which was precisely what had made her throw caution to the wind and risk her own neck. If she opened the papers the following morning to discover some poor soul had been assaulted while she and Zoe were skipping up the Kelvin Way, nonchalantly discussing trivialities, she’d never forgive herself. She slipped a hand into her coat pocket and gripped her keys, the longest protruding between her clenched fingers like a knuckle-duster.
At first, she could barely see her own feet, but after a few moments, her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and she was able to make out the shapes of the snow-flocked trees and the wrought iron fencing that flanked the footpath. It was less dark in the park than it had seemed from the street. True, the clusters of trees on either side of her were as black as charcoal, but the terrain itself was readily visible, the snow a dull purplish grey.
The ground began to slope steadily downwards. Using the torch on her phone, she picked her way south, following the winding trail towards the centre of the park, where all paths converged at the Stewart Memorial Fountain. Up ahead, she could just make out the imposing shape of the monument to the Highland Light Infantry, beyond which lay the stone bridge that straddled the River Kelvin.
was perhaps four hundred metres from the fountain when she heard it: a shrill, clear wail of anguish, coming from beyond a thicket of trees up ahead and to her left. She stopped dead. There was no doubt about it. Whoever – or whatever – had made that noise was also the source of the cry she and Zoe had heard on the Kelvin Way.
She remained stock still and listened but heard nothing more. She took a few more faltering steps, then stopped once again. What she saw caused her blood to turn to ice.
Less than fifty metres away, a shape was moving among the trees. As she watched, it emerged from the thicket and stumbled onto the footpath: a man, bent over almost double and clutching his stomach. He tottered unsteadily, turning this way and that, as if trying to work out where he was.
She drew herself up to her full height – an admittedly underwhelming five foot two – directing the beam from her phone onto him. His shirt was untucked; his belt hung loosely from his waistband, the buckle trailing behind him. It crossed her mind that she might have inadvertently broken up a transaction between a client and one of the nocturnal denizens of the park who plied their trade within its confines. She began to feel slightly foolish. In fact, she was on the verge of actually apologising when she saw it.
Large quantities of blood, trickling from a wound in his lower abdomen, covering his groin area, his shirttails and the legs of his trousers. He was doing his best to stem the flow with one hand, but it was leaking between his fingers like water from a punctured hose.
She heard herself gasping. He must have heard her too, for he turned in her direction and looked directly at her. Light from her phone picked out the contours of his face.
Her breath caught in her throat. She knew him. Gone was the cocky smile, replaced by a contorted, painful grimace, but every other aspect of that face was instantly recognisable. The strong jawline, the high-bridged nose…
Seemingly galvanised by her appearance, he began to stagger in an uneven line towards her. She found herself reversing, shuffling backwards, the beam of her phone’s torch trembling as she trained it on him.
It was barely a whisper, but the air was so still Anna heard it with crystal clarity.
She couldn’t move. Her legs refused to obey her brain, which was screaming Help him, help him, help him over and over. He took a few more faltering steps towards her. Her phone and keys fell from her trembling hands.
He tottered, his legs giving way under him. He fell against her, clawing madly at her, clutching the hem of her coat. She recoiled instinctively, trying to push him off, but his weight bore down on her, and it was all she could do to prevent her own knees from buckling. She found herself supporting him in her arms, each ragged breath he took reverberating through her own body.
With a last effort, he lifted his head. Their eyes met, and she knew she was looking at a dead man.
And he knew it too.
lips trembled. He opened his mouth, but instead of words, a thin trickle of blood oozed from the corner of his lips. He was choking. His grip on her tightened, then loosened.
Andrew Foley went limp and sank to the ground, leaving twin vertical streaks of blood on either side of her coat. He landed face-down in the unblemished snow and lay still.
To be continued...