Weighted by Christine Findlay
Christine Findlay, BOOKMARK Hon President and author, better known for her Colonel's Collection of short stories for children, has just received a 'Highly Commended' award from King Lear Prizes 2020 https://www.kinglearprizes.org.uk/shortstory for her story - Weighted.
Specifically set up during the Covid outbreak, over 2000 competitors applied.WEIGHTED It was Sandy, the coal man, who triggered it. On a crisp November morning – the 18th to be exact. – sliding towards another year, another anniversary.Rab happened to be passing No 42 as Sandy McTear, a featureless, blackened shape, heaved sack after sack onto his bone-thin shoulders. Grunting with the effort, he stooped ever lower with each load until it looked as if his frame was so compressed it would never straighten. And watching this, quite suddenly Rab felt his own lanky body bend and buckle. After ten years of drifting in a strange, weightless atmosphere, he finally succumbed to the pull of gravity and hit the ground with a thud. Time hung suspended as he lay stunned on the cracked paving. Gradually his head cleared to a light fog and he squinted up at a fuzzy, black shape topped by what appeared to be a pair of tufted horns. His whole body began to tremble: bony knees knocked with a hollow rattle, stomach lurched and gurgled, teeth chattered inside his head.‘I ken . . . I ken it’s YOU!’ Rab gasped, addressing the horny shape. ‘You’ve come for me at last.’ “Horny” bent down to raise the quivering figure to a sitting position but his efforts were met by an onslaught of flailing arms and jabbing feet. ‘Calm doon, Rab It’s me . . . Sandy . . . Sandy McTear. Do ye no recognise me?’ His question was met by a stream of incoherent jabbers. ‘Mercy, I think yer concussed, man.’When the fog finally cleared, Rab found himself propped against the gate post of No 42 with ‘Horny’, a.k.a. Sandy, squatted down beside him, peering into his eyes as if searching for motes of coal dust. Rab gazed down at himself, taking in the sad state of his best tweed jacket, now sporting a jagged tear in the right sleeve. His brown cord trousers had fared no better: bloody knees poked through a pair of flapping holes. ‘Are ye alright?’ Sandy speired, dust-blinkered eyes squinting into Rab’s face. A queer, clouded look met his gaze.‘I’m no sure but I need to get hame – and now. Can you give me a lift? Hitch a ride on the lorry?’ The coal man gawped at Rab as if he’d uttered the bluest of all blasphemies.‘This lorry is the property of HG Simpson and Son,’ he protested. ‘It’s no a local bus service!’ Blood trickled steadily from Rab’s grazed knees and pooled in deep trouser creases - crimson on cord. ‘Ach well, I suppose I could make an exception - just this once, mind.’Back home, Rab stripped off his bloodied clothes and bathed his wounds. Gradually, his mind cleared. He knew what he had to do. His epiphany on the road to Damascus, or rather to Ayr Town Centre, had crystallised everything. But he’d wait until the streets had cleared.Later, jacket collar pulled up against prying eyes, he set off from home as the church clock tolled the hour - seven long, mournful notes. His route cut through Craigie Park where in spring and summer Rab often passed a pleasant sunny morning sitting on a bench, soothed by the tranquility. Now, however, gloomy shadows swallowed flower beds, reaching out their twitching fingers to snuff out the few remaining glimmers of light. He quickened his pace, propelled by the urgency of his mission.Ten minutes later, he was on King Street, backlit by a line of skeletal street lamps casting a sickly yellow glow over the lightly-frosted pavement. The sign above the Police Station was unlit. He puffed into the chilling evening air and watched his breath mist the gloom.Reaching for the door, he hesitated. The clarity of purpose which had sharpened his mind a few hours ago was fading with the light. What was he doing? He’d survived perfectly well since it happened. Why change course now?‘After you,’ said a voice. Rab birled round and found himself staring at a police uniform covered in a scrambled egg design of pips and braid. Panicked, he tried to dodge round the figure but his path was blocked by the policeman’s imposing frame. ‘Come in. We’re open all hours. The duty sergeant here will help you,’ said the officer, propelling Rab gently through the door and into a small reception area dominated by a huge, mahogany counter. Rab’s sharp blue eyes darted round the room, searching for an escape route. Brown, paint-chipped walls loomed on all sides. The senior officer who had met him at the door stood beside the exit, arms folded. Waiting.‘Can I help you, Sir?’ the sergeant’s voice, polite but firm. He pulled down his coat collar and nervously smoothed his silk tie.‘Aye, I need to . . .’ His voice came out a cracked whisper. He started again. ‘I want to make a statement . . . about a murder.’Two hairy caterpillars which passed for the sergeant’s eyebrows, visibly curled. ‘A murder, you say?’ Rab tugged awkwardly at his collar and bent his head – a hint of a nod. The officer sniffed loudly, strained his generous bulk across the desk and stared fixedly at Rab. Without taking his eyes off his target, he reached into a drawer and produced a form. ‘Name?’ ‘Rab . . . Robert Burns.’ The duty sergeant squinted over the top of his rimless glasses and glared. ‘Robert Burns?’ Rab managed a sort of lop-sided smile. ‘My mother was real fond of our Bard.’ ‘Address? Telephone number? Date of birth? . . .’ The questions rolled on relentlessly until Rab interrupted the flow.‘Look, I just want to make a statement. That’s all.’ ‘Yes, I heard you, Sir, but procedures have to be followed,’ insisted the sergeant, casting a virtuous glance in the Chief’s direction.‘That’s okay, Sergeant, I’ll take care of this,’ said the latter, unfolding his arms and directing Rab into a sparsely-lit corridor towards a door marked ‘CID’.‘Take a seat, Mr Burns,’ said the Chief, pointing to a chair piled high with documents and stranded in the middle of the cluttered room. ‘I’ll see if I can find someone to take your statement.’The door swung shut with a whisper of a click. Having dumped the papers on the floor, Rab sat in the stiff-backed chair and took in his surroundings. The scene could have come straight out of an episode of “Shoestring” - littered desks, overflowing in-trays and used coffee mugs. Up above, a faulty strip light sputtered angrily. A chunky-looking computer, standing to attention on a paper-free island, mocked the chaos. Checking for signs of CCTV, Rab eased himself off the seat and tiptoed towards the door. Coming here had been a stupid idea. Probably born out of his concussed state. And yet . . . In that moment’s hesitation, he lost his chance. The door opened briskly just as Rab scuttled back to his chair.There were two of them - smartly groomed in matching suits and haircuts. ‘Detective Inspector Stewart,’ said the one who appeared to be in charge. ‘And this is Detective Constable Macleod.’ Rab stood to shake hands but his long, thin legs seemed to coil round each other like a heavy chain, weighing him down. He stumbled back into the chair, mumbling a greeting.The inspector cleared a space on the nearest desk and perched himself on the edge.‘Now, Mr Burns, you say you’ve something to tell us about a murder.’ He glanced at his colleague, now armed with a small recording machine. ‘We don’t have any outstanding murders in this area at the moment. Who was the victim?’‘My wife.’The two detectives exchanged looks.‘Your wife? Tell us all about it,’ smiled the Inspector.Like someone who has clumsily popped the cork from a champagne bottle, Rab poured out his story in a froth of words.‘We were walking the Heads . . . it was so easy . . . I couldnae believe it at the time . . .’ And suddenly, he could see it all in flint-sharp focus, the images he had suppressed for all these years. Until this morning, in fact.Helen had been what his BT engineer work mates regarded as the “perfect” wife: uncomplaining, attentive, compliant. And he had agreed with them - in the early years. Then gradually that uncomplaining voice, that endless repetition of the “nice” word like a single-note lament, had itched and scratched at him until it drew blood.The conversation that Saturday morning in early June, ten years ago, was typical of their exchanges.‘I’m off to the hairdresser’s, love, but I’ll be back in good time for your lunch.’ She smiled, throwing on her faded cardigan and clapping down her furze of greying hair. ‘Maybe we could manage a nice wee walk after tea - if that suits, of course.’‘Aye, fine.’He hadn’t planned it - just happened. They’d set off about six, parked the car in Greenan car park, then set off along the beach.The tide was out and the sea lay listless in the bay, occasionally ruffled by a light, waltzing wind. A pair of oyster catchers, calling to each other in shrill, piping notes, searched the tideline, stabbing their bright orange beaks deep into the sand. A solitary sandpiper teetered along the shore, trying to balance its plump body with its long tail. ‘Swee-wee-we’ it called again and again. But no answer came. ‘Nice to be out in the fresh air,’ Helen said, staggering a little in the soft, wet sand.‘What about the hair?’ Rab asked mechanically.‘Och, it’ll be fine.’ A puff of wind lifted her faded blue scarf exposing neat rows of newly-set curls.Soon, they were passing the ruins of Greenan Castle, grey-faced and forbidding. Perched high on the cliff, it gazed out to sea, forever on guard. In the evening sunlight, its profile resembled some huge sea monster, jaws open wide, ready to swallow its unsuspecting prey. ‘Ugly brute of a place that, do ye no think?’ Rab commented.‘Actually, I think it looks real bonny in the sun - sort of lonely as if it’s waiting for something to happen.’‘A wee bit fanciful, Helen,’ Rab snapped, feeling the irritation scratch his tongue.‘You’re probably right, Rab. I got carried away with the sun and the sound of the sea.’They walked on in silence, each listening to the gentle ‘whoosh’ of the tide as it eddied round rock pools. The sun slipped lower in the sky, blushed pink and streaked with wispy clouds.‘We’ll head up here,’ Rab said eventually, pointing towards a steeply rising path that led up and round to the weathered cliff-heads. He looked down at his wife’s footwear - a pair of gaping slip-ons. Why didn’t the woman show more sense? Deftly, he balanced on a rock, showing off his own well-waxed boots. ‘You’ll get grand views at the top,’ he said by way of grudging encouragement.‘Aye, of course,’ Helen agreed, ‘It’ll be nice up there.’ Rab set off at a cracking pace, enjoying the challenge of the steady climb up to the fence line which ran along the cliff edge. Behind him, he could hear Helen’s breath come in shallow rasps and he smirked. Her own fault. Should keep herself fit, like him. Gym twice a week and regular outings with the Ramblers’ Club. Cresting the top, Rab looked back down the path and watched Helen’s dogged progress with mild indifference. From up here she looked like a labouring seal, flapping about trying to keep her balance. He shifted his gaze to the sea way below. Even standing behind the relative safety of the fence, he felt mildly woozy looking down. The suck and glug of the tide rose on the updraft, punctuated by the raucous cries of wheeling gulls. ---------------------------------------------------------‘Coffee, Mr Burns?’ The sound came from a long way off. Rab struggled to track it. Gradually, his focus settled on a coffee machine sputtering and sighing in the corner of the room.The D.I. in the matching suit thrust a cup into Rab’s hands and prompted, ‘You were saying, Mr Burns, you were out walking at the Heads of Ayr when something happened.’‘I pushed my wife to her death, that’s what happened, Inspector!’ He heard his voice punch through the fog. ‘We were walking along . . .’‘One moment, please,’ interrupted the inspector. ‘Exactly when did this “incident” take place?’Without hesitation, the date slid off his tongue, ‘Saturday, 18th June, ‘76.’ ‘Your wife’s name?’‘Helen . . . Elizabeth . . . Burns.’ The names hovered expectantly in the room, as if waiting for their owner. ‘Her date of birth?’Noisily, Rab cleared his throat, playing for time. He’d never been one for birthdays, didn’t believe in all that wasted expense. ‘She was a year younger than me and I’m sixty five.’‘Got that?’ the inspector asked, turning to his colleague. ‘Get the file.’ The constable left the room. Rab sipped nervously at his coffee - strong and bitter. As soon as he’d begun to translate the images into words, he’d felt the full force of his confession hit him like a solid blow. He looked down at his well-polished brogues and tried to shift their position but they refused to budge. Weighted, that’s how he felt, pinned down. All those years of floating above his crime, weightless, impervious to the sullen shifts and tugs of daily life, he’d lost his centre of gravity, drifted aimlessly but happily enough from one day to the next. Until now.In the space of a few minutes, he’d plummeted to earth, guilt fuelling his descent. Like Icarus, carried on the confident updraft of denial, he had tried to fly too near the sun. Instead, here he was nailed to a chair in a drab police office, guilt gnawing at the very marrow of his bones. Suddenly he felt naked, exposed to the ever-watchful eyes of the detectives and all those other hidden spectators. Clumsily, he tugged at his jacket, sending his coffee cup spinning across the room. ‘Och, sorry!,’ he gasped, straining to pick up the nearest shards just as the second officer came back into the room, clutching a battered-looking file. ‘Leave that, Mr Burns. My colleague will clear it up later.’ For a split second, the constable opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, a hint of a smile on his lips.‘No problem, Sir.’The inspector waited until his colleague resumed his seat and flicked through the file until he found what he was looking for. A trapped blue bottle buzzed frantically in the overhead light.‘Found the case notes, Constable?’ The latter nodded. ‘Would you be so good as to read out the coroner’s verdict at the inquest?’ There was a pause, followed by an impressive cough. ‘The entry is dated Monday, 22nd June, 1976. In the case of Mrs Helen Elizabeth Burns,’ he began in a melodramatic stage voice, ‘the coroner recorded a verdict of - “accidental death”.’ The constable sat expectantly as if anticipating his audience’s applause.‘I know . . . I ken fine what the coroner said but it’s no true. Can ye no see? That’s why I’m here. I killed her . . . and I want to put that down on paper.’There was a brief exchange of glances between the two detectives.‘You can give us a statement, if you like, Mr Burns, but the coroner seemed in no doubt at the time. Let’s hear the rest of the story first of all,’ invited the inspector.Rab leaned in towards his listeners.‘I’d reached the top of the path that leads round to the Heads,’ he began, ‘and was taking in the view when Helen - my wife - eventually joined me. She was fair done in at that point so I suggested she have a wee seat. - on the inside of the fence. It runs along the edge of the top field,’ Rab explained. ‘But she was quite insistent she hadn’t walked all that way up the path to sit behind a fence. So, she sat down right at the edge of the cliff path and raved on about how bonny it looked. By this time - it must have been about half seven or so - the sky was streaked wi’ great ribbons of pink. “Like candyfloss,” she said.’Rab paused and glanced up at his audience. ‘I hadnae planned to do it, you know. It just sort of happened - as if someone else was inside my body, making me do it.’‘Go on,’ prompted the inspector, stifling a yawn.‘Quite suddenly the wind got up a bit and the sea seemed to change its mood - calm one minute, wild and angry the next. “Come on, we’ll walk to the next bend, then cut back down to the beach,” I said to her. I was afraid the weather would really close in and we’d be caught in the rain. She wouldnae have been happy about that - new hairdo and a’ that.Then just as we reached the bend, Helen stumbled in these daft shoes she’d on and reached out to grab hold of me. Well, she was on the inside and when she latched onto my arm, her nails dug into ma skin. Next thing she’s shouting, “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” in that whiney voice of hers and twisting her face into a big apology. But she’s still clinging on to me. It wis sheer agony.’ The images came in rapid flashes, like shivering frames from a silent film. Small beads of perspiration dripped noiselessly from his upper lip. Rab swatted them aside like irritating flies.D.I. Stewart straightened and slid to the edge of the desk. ‘And she let go. That’s what happened, isn’t it? She saw you were in pain and let go, falling backwards as she did so,’ explained the inspector.‘No . . . no it didnae happen like that.’ ‘Dropped by a passing seagull, then?’ muttered the DC. The inspector frowned and clicked his tongue.‘How did it happen?’ he asked.Carefully, Rab steepled his fingers, focusing hard on the apex. ‘In those first seconds, I couldnae think for the pain and then I heard her voice . . . a pathetic sort of wheedling in my ear . . .and I knew then this was my chance. I tore her fingers from my arm and kicked out at her feet.’ The apex collapsed and Rab’s head sank to his chest.‘Would you like to take a break now, Mr Burns?’ Rab didn’t move, deaf to the question. A moment later he resumed his story, his voice thin like a worn thread.‘She seemed tae freeze, like a comic statue, her lips drawn back in a twisted smile. And then she was gone. There wis a cry, kindae thin and long - like a lost peesie. And then just the wind, the wash and the gulls.’The room held its breath, straining to catch the echoes.Barely suppressing a knowing smile, the inspector turned to the constable. But, to his surprise, his young colleague’s face registered rapt attention, eyes firmly focused on Rab as if caught in a moment of suspended disbelief.‘When I finally looked down, I couldnae make out anything clearly . . . it was like a swirling mist in front of ma eyes.’ As Rab spoke, he removed his glasses, rummaged in his pocket for a tissue and rubbed the lenses repeatedly. ‘They didnae find her body for a week.’ he said finally, replacing his glasses. ‘Washed up on Girvan beach.’‘Burial or cremation?’ asked the inspector, turning to his colleague whose attention was still firmly focused on Rab.‘Detective Constable, did you hear me? Burial or cremation?’ The young man jumped, spilling the folder’s contents. Scrabbling about on the floor, he finally retrieved the papers and sorted them into order.‘After the inquest and post mortem, the body was released for cremation, Sir.’‘Thank you, Constable.’ While this little pantomime was playing out, Rab sat motionless, head sunk deep into his chest. ‘Mr Burns . . .?’ Immediately, Rab raised his head. Now his dark, brooding eyes seemed to glow with a pleading intensity.‘I know, you’re going to read me my rights,’ he said. ‘That’s what you do when you charge someone isn’t it?’The Inspector stood up and moved across to Rab’s chair.‘No . . . we’re not going to charge you, Mr Burns,’ he said resignedly. ‘We can’t at this point. Apart from your “confession” there’s no evidence to warrant your arrest. Your wife’s body was cremated so that rules out an exhumation. And then there’s the coroner’s verdict.’ The inspector urged Rab out of his seat. ‘Go home, Mr Burns. I’ll speak to my senior officer in the morning and we’ll be in touch.’‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ Rab said, a sudden dawning lighting his expression. ‘It’s not a question of believing, Mr Burns. It’s hard evidence we need. And in this case, there’s very little of that. We’ll be in touch. Good night.’ He turned to his colleague. ‘See Mr Burns out, Constable.’ ____________________________________________________________Outside the moon was up. Empty pavements danced with frost. Rab’s solid, leather shoes crunched through the surface, sending tingling echoes across the street. He walked in a daze, struggling to make sense of events which had started with a vision and ended in rejection.Blindly, he stumbled into the park and sank onto the nearest bench, bathed in an eerie light. Trees and shrubs threw a shadowed zigzag across the ground while up above, the sky blazed with a myriad pulsating stars.He tried to refocus, running over the police interview, straining to recall details of the officers’ reactions. But, even in rehearsal, his perspective was one-dimensional, except for the inspector’s parting look that came back to him now. ‘It’s hard evidence we need . . . And . . . there’s very little of that.’ ---------------------------------------------------------------------------‘What was that all about then, Constable Macleod?’ asked the Inspector as the latter shut the station door on Rab Burns.‘What do you mean, Sir?’‘You looked as if you were being taken in by his story?’The constable studied the inspector’s face. ‘Well, he seemed so sure as if . . .’‘As if he’d rehearsed his story for our benefit. That’s the way I see it, Constable Macleod.’ Placing an avuncular hand on the young officer’s shoulder, he added, ‘It takes time but you’ll learn. The world is full of folk like Rab Burns, weighed down by imagined guilt and driven to make false confessions. It happens all the time. My advice to you is to forget all about Mr Burns. Think of the paperwork you’ve saved yourself.’And grabbing his coat from behind the front desk, he called back, ’I’m off. See you in the morning.’Macleod watched the inspector’s back disappear through the door which closed with a dull thud. ‘You off too then, Jack?’ the desk sergeant called across. ‘Jack? You gone deaf?’‘What? Going home? No . . . not yet,’ he said, hugging Burns’s folder to his chest. ‘Just want to check a few things. Won’t be long.’---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Frost seeped up through the park bench, chilling every fibre of his body. Stiffly, Rab rose, pushing against a leaden weight pressing on his head. He set off aimlessly, his mind whirling with fragmented images of Helen – eyes, hair, lips, shoes, that final cry . . . Step by step, the fragments flew - round and round, then out, caught by the breeze and lifted into the night sky. Gradually, he felt a lightening in his step, an upward lift which travelled from feet to legs, legs to neck, neck to head. He was floating, free and easy on the updraft. He set his compass: a perfect night for a walk out to the Heads.