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A good start to a novel (shortlisted CWA Debut Dagger)?


“Get yourself up, di’ye hear?” Ma Moore’s brogue booms from the foot of the stair. “

I don’t know why I bother,” she says to someone else. “He’s been up there since Hogmanay, four days talking to himself, no bloody life.”

A shiver courses up my arm, the one hanging out of the bed, fingers like ice; the rest wrapped in a cocoon of blankets and coats, tight like a mother’s shawl.

“Just leave me in peace,” croaks from beneath the clothing-bank. “I’m sick.”

“A bloody cold, Murphy,” she bellows. “Sick me arse.”

My head peeps above the coats to look through ice covered window. “Typical Glasgow night, dreich as sleet, cold as death, unforgiving as spite. I’m staying put.” The head submerges again.

“They delivered your booze,” Moore says. “That’ll get him up.”

“My order’s arrived?”

The coats lower revealing my face. Extricating from the humpy, I shimmy my legs from the bed, sit up, and put the back of the hand to the brow, followed by a thermometer pushed under the tongue. “Feckin’ flu, no doubt.” The bedside lamp grasped turns a harmless dark space into a danger zone. Reality kicks in as the shambling wreck gets onto its legs, lifting a coat or two from the bed to rewrap it. The lino is cold on its bare feet as it slips on the worn sheepskin slippers. I straighten the half shape to orient by the light giving shadows.

The thunder rumbles again. “Do you bloody hear me, Murphy? Are you coming down?”

She’ll send him away, she’s done it before.

“Just pin him down long enough for me to get there,” returns, fumbling with my trousers to find a crumpled twenty. “Be easy for you, ex pro wrestler.” I stack another coat over my shoulders and shuffle through the sitting room. “Head scissors used to be her trademark.” I get into the hall, then to the door of the flat, exposing only enough skin to turn the key and open it. “Don’t send him away, you’ve done it before. I don’t want to go to Oddbins in this weather.” I push back the rolled-up draught-blocking rug with my foot and go out to the top of the stairs. “Been bloody conned,” I carp. Moore is down there, right enough, but so is Paula, my erstwhile colleague in crime, and one time spouse. “Just what I need, the thought police.” To me, DCI Paula MacInnes, Glasgow Pitt Street, appearing at my door always meant, “Big feckin’ trouble.”

“And a Happy New Year to you, hermit,” she says, in that smart-cop-brass necked-kind of way. “No’ answering your phone these days, nor your door intercom?”

“Might’ve done so, had it been a nice kindly woman, no’ an annoying bad-hat like yourself. Why’re you invading my privacy?”

“Privacy? Hibernation, you mean.”

“What I do in the comfort of my own home is my affair.” I rest my elbows on the bannister wishing it were a bar. “Comfort being a generous term,” I lob. “Anyway, I may have the flu.”

Ma shakes her head. “And who did you catch it from, the close cat?”

“Why are you here, Paula?” he asks.

“Just a multi-fuckin’-murder,” she says, in the way I well remember.

“Oh, fine,” I say, sweeping my coat around like a Shakespearian actor’s cloak.

“Not wanting to hear the gory detail?” Paula winks at Ma Moore.

I turn to head back to the flat. “Not the least bit interested.”

It doesn’t stop her though. “There’s a psycho in Glasgow,” she says with sufficient gusto.

“There’s one here too.” I nod towards Ma.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Moore gives one of those faces.

“He’s one of yours,” Paula says.

“Nothing to do with me.”

“This guy does it in groups.”

“So do swingers.”

“On the hill in Kelvingrove Park, an elderly councillor, her husband and her son.”

My ears perk up. “Three, when?”

“Couple of hours ago.”

“It’s not my stuff no-more.”

“I need you there wi’ me.”

She wants you there wi’ me.

“Paula, this shrink retired on health grounds, mind?”

“I mind.”

She waits for it.

“Not that our breakup had anything to do with it, oh no.”

“Murphy, we need to get over there; right?”

There’s no contest between the park and my bed. “I’m ill.”

“Aye, a walking liver disease. Your car’s waiting, sir.” The woman with no sympathy for my sorry state.

“What’s it to you,” I say, defeated. I go back inside, but not before a defiant thrust. “Aw shit, be good to get the fuck out of this igloo—” I shiver as the coats fall to the floor as I put on a shirt. “—into a warm bar.” I struggle with the Docs. “Where I can find some feckin’ privacy.” The last word ricochets down the stairs.

I sit, take a breath and span the room. I raise my eyes to look, as if it’s the first time I’ve noticed the mess. I’ve been here since my last high, since I hit rock bottom. Self-produced paintings adorn the walls: a tiger, a great white, a mosquito – killers all, remnants of an old hobby and a retreat from a stressful profession. Scattered books and textbooks mainly, lie across the floor; remnants of a life of analysis. An old winged-back chesterfield chair, like myself that has seen better days, takes centre stage. A drained glass lies on its side on the table, flanked by a platoon of empty bottles, to remain in attention until my weekly environmental health sojourn, forestalling an invasion of flies, rats… social workers.

“Forty-nine-year-old, divorced, ex-professional man, living in a shitty Partick pied-à-terre, and that’s why I talk to myself.”

They raise their eyes simultaneously.

“You’re a Doctor, Murphy,” Paula lobs back.

“Aye, but not the medical kind, not of the body—”

“You’re a doctor, the mind, how it works, a PhD.”

“Erstwhile, failed psychologist. I know my worth.”

I was a psychological adviser, with an ability to track those who left something of themselves behind: patterns, characteristics, sometimes clues. Men with distinctive ways and traits, types so dissimilar to their normal fellows, that the broad indiscernible road, in ever diminishing breadths, often became a well-worn path.

Though it was never enough for me to find the man and establish who he was, I needed to know why: why he did what he did. So much so it made me sick, sick of it and him too. My men fell into similar patterns: been caused pain - will cause pain; been controlled, exploited, manipulated - will control, exploit, manipulate; no one cares for me - I don’t care for others; people hate me - I hate them back; life hasn’t given me anything - I’ll take what’s mine by right. My job became a drudge. Then simultaneously, my illness and the voices arrived, invading me, tormenting me.

“It drove me mad.”

“It made you bad, Murphy.”

I had always hoped there would be one in