HORLA FICTION (February 2019)



By David McVey

I STOOD by the front window, waiting in the darkness for Roddy, watching the streetlights glinting on the knife I would use to cut his throat.

I’d lived in this squat with Roddy and various other transient losers for about a month or so. I suppose I was at what they call ‘rock bottom’; no further to fall, nowhere else to go. I’d met Roddy through our mutual dealer and had learned that this flat above the old bookies’ was where Roddy and his crew hung out.

It was one of those buildings from the early 1900s with a shop unit below and a flat above, once linked internally but the flat now only accessible by a stair round the back that you reached through a narrow pend between the bookies’ and the next empty shop unit. The flat had been empty long before even the bookies’ shut. I crashed there one night and never really left. I was simply accepted.

People came and went, crashed out, were sick, got spaced out and eventually left. I had nowhere to go so I was there for the duration, for the company. Then Roddy got the money.

One Saturday night he clattered into the squat carrying two bulging plastic carrier bags. I was alone in the house, watching telly, but he just burst past me, barging through the room and into the bedroom that he had long claimed as his own. Nobody else ever went in there.

They weren’t banned or anything – it wasn’t that kind of place – but it was Roddy’s den in Roddy’s place and we all respected that. He came back out without the two bags to speak to me and he was shaking and whimpering like he was coming off something.

He trusted me. All of the crew did, something to do with them thinking I was ‘posh and that’. So he spoke as confidentially as he could in his agitated state. ‘Davie boy ye have tae listen tae me man I’ve struck it big pure big fuckin big man!’

‘What’s up, Roddy?’

‘I’m tellin ye Davie boy, this is pure big by the way. Ye know Carstairs the moneylender guy?’

I did. Everybody did, whether or not they’d been in his clutches.

‘Well, anyway, a couple o his heavies were out collecting for him,’ Roddy continued, ‘and I fell in wi them and helped them and we took the money tae Carstairs lock-up place and when they wurnae lookin I took two of the bags away wi me and there’s thousands in them, Davie, Thousands!’

‘Thousands? Thousands? They’ll notice, Roddy. Carstairs will waste you when he finds out.’

‘Naw, Davie, look, Carstairs’ guys are idiots, idiots, he disnae trust clever folk. They’ll no notice the bags are gone and when Carstairs finds oot that the amounts don’t tally he’ll blame them. I’m in the clear – I just have tae make sure that I don’t do anything daft. I just sit on it for a while, weeks, months, cause it’ll look dead suspicious if I give it some, spending pure hundreds all of a sudden, know what I’m saying?’

‘Where will you keep it?’

‘I’ve got a cupboard in my room. Cannae really just shove it in the bank, eh no? Don’t tell the other guys. I mean, they’re pure diamond mates but I don’t trust them and they’re pure aff their heads, eh?’

I knew what he was saying and at some points in my life would have been touched by his naive trust in me, moved to loyalty perhaps. But as I explained earlier, I was at rock bottom. I had nothing and he had money, thousands of pounds, and I wanted it.

I thought and planned and came up with a scheme. But this scheme meant I had to get away from Roddy’s place, cut my connection to it. Just a few days later I told Roddy that I had to leave. Folks I knew in Edinburgh, I told him, wanted to see me and had offered me a place to crash and I had decided to go there for a while. He nearly cried and we hugged and I told him to go careful with all that money. I did my best to seem quite genuine in wishing him all the best.

I was the only one he’d ever trusted with a key to the place and I made a great show of handing it over. What he didn’t know was that I had had it copied at a key bar a day or two earlier, an act that had taken most of the money I had left. I left the squat with all my belongings, everything I had in the world, in a single Poundland carrier bag.

It can be a curse, having good parents. Dad had been an engineer in a machine-tool factory – when Scotland still had industries like that – and was a union official, an elder in the kirk and the kind of man everyone looked up to and respected. Mum was a primary teacher with a reputation for being behind much of the good work that happened in our community.

Of course, the children of admirable and upright parents often go off the rails. Usually, it’s a form of rebellion, making a virtue of rejecting their goodness and decency. But it wasn’t that with me. No; I admired my parents, wanted to emulate them, wanted to be like them, but I knew that I wasn’t capable. It just wasn’t in me.

I made a mess of my exams at school so Mum and Dad sent me to try and get qualifications at our local further education college. But I was on self-destruct by then and soon dropped out, left home and was on the streets. Now I was nearly 25 and things couldn’t get any worse, but I knew where there was money, perhaps a couple of grand, perhaps even more. With that kind of money I could get back on the rails, try to become a normal member of society again. There wasn’t even any need for rehab. Poverty was already cleansing me.

Of course, from the start I realised that Roddy had to go. If I sneaked back in and took the money he’d know it was me; I the only person who knew where it was and I was the only person who knew that Roddy had it. And what would he do then? Put it about to Carstairs that it was me who had got the money from his thick heavies? That would be the end for me. Yes, Roddy had to go.

I lived rough for a week, while I was supposed to be over with my pals near Edinburgh. My plan was to go to the flat when it was empty, get the money, wait for Roddy to come back, kill him, and then make my escape. I’d be in the clear. Everyone knew I was away somewhere and so what if my prints were all over the flat? I’d lived there, hadn’t I?

And so I waited there with my cold blade and cold heart, the darkness fallen and the gaudy sodium light spilling in from the street and bringing chilly fire to the blade. The two plastic bags of money – depleted, I noticed, so Roddy must already be drawing on it – sat beside me as I carried out my vigil by the window.

(Cont next column)

And then I remembered Mum and Dad.

Was I really trying to claw my way back to respectability, reach out to my parents and become part of the community again, by cutting the throat of a pathetic junkie and stealing the money he’d already stolen from a dangerous moneylender?

I suddenly realised how extreme my plan was. I seized the moment and couldn’t get out of the flat quickly enough. I wondered what Roddy would think when he saw his two bags of treasure sitting in an obvious spot by the window. Perhaps he had new people staying there, and they would find it. It struck me that if there were new members of his crew, one of them might have arrived and found me there. I shivered; what would I have done?

Not far from the flat, the town’s Main Street crossed a sluggish, rubbish-choked burn. I leaned briefly over the parapet of the bridge and dropped my knife and my key to Roddy’s flat into the burn. I waited just long enough to hear the tiny twin plops, and then hurried off.

I can’t say that my parents welcomed me with open arms; but then I had arrived on their doorstep after not being in touch for years, dirty, dishevelled, probably having aged a good deal since they last saw me, so I hardly expected them to. Yet they took me in all the same despite many reasons to distrust my motives and my sincerity. They seemed to sense that I had reached the very bottom of the barrel, was fully aware of the fact myself, and was now determined to climb back out again, however haltingly.

I moved into my old bedroom – some of the posters still on the walls – and Mum and Dad watched with satisfaction as I emerged, clean and shaved and neatly-clothed, eating properly and putting on weight again.

But they never saw me in the night. I regularly woke up in a sweat of horror, palpitating from dreams that dwelt on the person I’d nearly become. I had gone to Roddy’s flat to rob him and kill him and spill his blood and when the dream reached the point where the blade sang and the blood spurted and the life went out, I learned something about myself; I learned that, if I had stayed, if Roddy had turned up, I would have done it.

This was troubling self-knowledge and I struggled under the effort of concealing my pain from Mum and Dad. Dad had newly retired and Mum was only working jobshare in the local primary. They came back from a trip to the supermarket one afternoon, and as I helped them unload, Mum said they’d met a friend of hers who worked as a supervisor there. ‘Isa was saying they were looking for part-time staff,’ she said, ‘and I said you might be interested.’

And so on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings I dressed in my supermarket-branded polo shirt and fleece and got the bus into town. In the supermarket I stacked shelves and emptied shelves and helped to unload deliveries and, after a while, was even trained to work on the checkouts, eventually being allowed to serve the public. It was a humdrum life, but one I felt some pride in; here I was, holding down a job. I chatted amiably with my new colleagues, though without really making new friends, got out of the house, acted like a normal human being and arranged that the majority of my tiny earnings were transferred immediately from my bank account (itself a novelty) into my parents’ joint account. ‘Removing temptation’ my Dad called it and he was right.

And yet my old life was always tangible. The supermarket was set just back from the old Main Street and from some places in the vast car park you could see the flat and the old bookies’, still empty, beneath it. I often thought about Roddy.

Then one evening as I stacked some tins of vegetables, there he was, scurrying towards me in that hurrying-yet-not-going-anywhere walk of his, clutching a twelve-pack of cheap lager and a bottle of wine. I turned and faced him and readied myself for the meeting but he sailed on past and made straight for the checkout.

The man I had come within minutes of murdering no longer recognised me. Why should he? I was washed and shaved, my hair was clean and trimmed and neat and I was wearing the supermarket’s uniform. Perhaps most importantly, I was gainfully employed. I was no longer the person he’d known.

I wondered if he was still hoarding the money, or if he was slowly bleeding it away on lager and wine.

It was a couple of weeks later that I left after work and jogged towards Main Street, hoping to catch the five-past-ten bus. But something was up; no traffic was flowing. A blue flicker came from the direction of Roddy’s flat and I was conscious of large gatherings of people moving about the street and crowding close to the flat. I walked towards the crowds and pushed roughly past some of the rubberneckers.

A corral of plastic police incident tape enclosed the building. Two police cars and an ambulance squatted on the roadway in front of the bookies’. There were several uniformed police officers, one guarding the entrance to the pend and others swaggering around, babbling into walkie-talkies; one or two others were interviewing witnesses. I overheard conversations between people nearby. ‘Aye, murdered the guy… cut his throat… blood everywhere… he had money hid away…’

Someone had murdered Roddy. Cold as it may seem to say, there was nothing too surprising about that. He lived that kind of lifestyle, in that kind of world. But people had heard about the money, had heard that Roddy’s throat had been cut. It was as if someone had committed my murder, the one I had planned. I ran off along the Main Street towards the bridge over the burn.

I saw why the traffic had been held up. More police incident tape blocked off the entire breadth of the street where it crossed the burn. A policeman stood on the bridge, peering over the parapet and shouting instructions to frogmen.

‘Aye, son,’ said an old woman nearby, ‘ye cannae get alang the street that way. They’re dragging the burn for a weapon. Awfy, isn’t it?’

They would find my weapon and perhaps my key as well. Could fingerprints and DNA survive on metal that had been underwater for weeks? I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I began running, running from the flat, from my murder, from that street, that town, from my parents, from my rebuilt life.

I’m running still. I fear the police and I fear Carstairs. But I still wonder about what happened in that flat. Had someone replicated my crime? How had they found out about my plans? Was some agency beyond the human punishing me for what I had once planned to do?

Of course, even knowing the answers to those questions won’t help me now.



David McVey (behind the horse, which we believe is ‘Fizz’) lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire, Scotland. He’s published more than 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.