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I’d been slipping down the west coast when the police took me in. They said, “We want to know your whereabouts on the thirtieth.”
“The thirtieth’s not even happened yet,” I told the officer hanging over me.
“Of last month.”
“I can show you,” I said. “I’ve got proof. It’s all writ down.”
They said I had twenty-four hours to present my documents, my notebooks. I couldn’t leave town in that twenty-four hour period. They’d given me a cheque that I could exchange for a night in the guesthouse across the river from the station.
The woman there wasn’t pleased to see me. She probably got a lot of passing trade from the police. Who knew what kind of pervert she was letting under her roof? Still, a cheque was a cheque. She scurried up the stairs to show me my room, pointing out the communal bathroom on the way. “That’s closed ten ‘til four,” she said.
“What if someone wants it during the day?”
She said, “Go in the road for all I care.”
There was a man my age smoking outside the guest house. I’d seen him when I went to check in and he was still there when I came back out again. “You from there?” he asked, pointing his rollie across the water to the station.
I said, “Yep,” and asked for the ingredients for a cigarette.
He tore off a miserly pinch of baccy and dropped it in my palm. “Me too,” he said. “I’ve got forty-eight hours. Can’t leave town.”
I told him I only had twenty-four and he blew out his cheeks. “Serious stuff,” he said.
I said, “Maybe.”
He had this area on his cheek where the veins showed through in a purple cluster. It was small but you couldn’t take your eye off it. You wanted to put balm on it for him. It was like a jellyfish moving across the surface of his face.
“What sort of money you got?” he asked. I showed him what I had, which wasn’t much. We crossed the bridge and went to the pub. I bought a jotter and pen from the newsagents on the way.
“You writing your memoirs or something?” he asked, placing the pints on the table.
“I need it for the police. I need it to show I was elsewhere last month.”
“A diary. Let me see.”
He looked over what I’d written while he was at the bar. He laughed. “Your penmanship.”
“I don’t write much anymore.”
He tore the page out and reached for my pen. “Let me show you.”
I watched him write, and I drank some of my pint. His tongue poked out the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. “There,” he said, sliding the notebook over.
I was’nt round her last month. I was working on the ships all summer and I only just got here recent so if there was anything going on back then im the last one you should be talking to.
He asked me what I thought and I nodded. “It’s good stuff.”
“I got all my qualifications. All good marks.”
“I was hoping for something more… Like, I wrote it before I knew they were interested in me.”
He said, “Be like that then,” and tore the page out the notebook. It went into his pocket, folded. “I’ll save this for someone who can appreciate good work.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you’d take it so personal.”
“Forget it.” He shook his head. I was already regretting going in with this person. That happened to me often. I would turn up someplace and fall in with whoever I came across first. They would always end up getting me in trouble or depressing me with their talk.
“Here,” said the man, fishing in his pocket. “Look at this.” He pulled out a tiny square of newspaper and unfolded it. It was a page three he’d clipped from the Sun. “What do you think of that?” The picture was destroyed from what looked like years and years of folding and unfolding.
I said, “Very good.”
He put the picture away. “There’s no pleasing some folk.”
We finished off our pints through the quietness that followed. I didn’t have enough cash for another round, so we went back over the bridge. The woman in the guest house was livid because it was half ten when we knocked her up. She pointed at the sign by the door. Last admittance – 21:00.
Before we separated at the top of the stairs, the man grabbed me by the arm. He said, “You need to learn how to treat people. You’re going to end up in hot water.”
I shook him off and went to my room to lie down. There was a radio alarm by the bed and I set it to go off early, so I’d have time to work on the diary. I could hear the man grumbling next door as I tried to sleep. It sounded like he was bouncing a tennis ball against my wall. I knocked. “Go to sleep,” I shouted through.
He knocked back, four times.
I washed and dressed as quick as I could, making no sound at all. I didn’t want to rouse the man next door. I had him pegged as a person likely to follow around those who’d wronged him. There was no one awake in the whole house, not even the owner.
There was a whole pack of gulls sleeping in the river. I held onto the handrail as I walked along beside it. The pack was making a sound, but I couldn’t see any one gull opening their beak or even moving their head.
Up past the river’s bend I found a café that was open. The Saturday girl brought me over the tea and said breakfast would be another ten minutes.
I said, “That’s fine.”
“You’re on your holidays?” she asked.
Emptying two packs of sugar into my tea, I shook my head. “Just on my way through.” I held up my jotter. “Got some work to do.”
The light coming in through the big café windows was that special sort of early morning light. The kind that energises you but makes your eyes ache with tiredness too.
The girl asked what sort of work it was. She didn’t seem to have anything else going on. I guessed the breakfast took care of itself once it was started.
“It’s a project,” I said. “I’m writing a fake diary for last month.”
She said, “Ooh,” and sat down at my table. She looked at my blank jotter. “You’ve not done much. What is it then? Like an art project?”
“It’s sort of like an art project.”
“Do you want some help?”
I said, “Go on then,” and she opened the jotter and grabbed the pen. I watched her work. She was left handed and the parting in her hair was the sharpest I’d ever seen. She asked me if it needed to be every day and I told her it didn’t matter as long as it covered the thirtieth.
I could smell burning, so I left the girl writing and went into the back. The bacon had set the grill on fire. There was something about how you don’t put water on a fat fire, so I searched around for an extinguisher or a damp flannel.
“Didn’t you smell that?” I asked the girl. “The grill nearly burnt down.”
She looked up from the jotter. “Oh no. It does that. Here, come and see.”
Her handwriting was beautiful. She could’ve written a bible.
August 30th. I was out on the lake with my friends. We rowed boats and had a picnic on the bank. The weather was fine and I went to bed early, a little drunk.
I told her what I thought of her handwriting.
“Oh,” she said. “The beans.”
While she was away, I looked at her writing some more. It was something else. I never thought a person working in a café would write like that.
“How does it look?” she asked, pushing the breakfast in front of me.
“It looks good. I can make good use of this.”
I was lying. This would be no good to me. The police would never believe I’d spent an afternoon on a lake. I enjoyed the breakfast. The girl came out and asked me how it was. “Very nice,” I said. “Listen. Do you want to go for a drink?”
We arranged to meet on the bridge at eight o’clock, so she’d have a chance to go home first and change. I walked back to the guesthouse, cursing myself for getting distracted and neglecting the diary. My jotter was useless, and, of course, the man was waiting for me.
“Hey,” he said. “I need a word.”
I tried to go around him but he stepped to get in my way.
“I need a word,” he repeated.
“Look. I’m sorry for being rude about your writing. Is that it?”
“It’s nothing to do with that,” he said. “I don’t care about that. I want the money back you owe me.”
He was mad, I realised. That was why he lived in a guest house and had veins in his face you could see through the skin. I asked him what money?
“The pub,” he said. “I was buying round after round and you just sat on your fat arse, never even putting your hand in your pocket. I must’ve spent forty, fifty quid on you.”
It seemed silly to try and tell the man that we’d only had a pint each and that I’d paid for them both, because of how mad he was. I tried to get past him again but he tried to grapple with me. I grappled him back and we went on like that until the owner came out and split us up.
“I’m at the end of my tether with you lot,” she said. “No amount of money’s worth all this.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ll be gone in no time. He’s the one you need to worry about.”
He exploded. “She doesn’t have to worry about me either. I look after myself.”
I missed being in the country. The fresh water smells. The loneliness. I told them both to get stuffed and I hurried upstairs to collect my bag. I leaned the jotter against my knee and wrote a few entries inside. I didn’t have time to try and work out a proper alibi, just scribbled down whatever came to mind. The front page, the girl’s handwriting, I put in my breast pocket, folded up.
I left the man and the owner bickering in the road. They called after me, but I walked on, over the bridge to the station. I told the sergeant on the desk I was presenting myself.
He said, “Oh yes?”
I showed him the jotter. He looked at it and smiled. He typed some details into the computer. He said, “I’ll need to put you somewhere until someone can deal with you.”
The bed in the cell was made of the same stone as the floors and walls. Really, it was just a raised area of the floor. I lay down and rested my head on the pillow-area. They’d given me a lads’ mag to keep me occupied. I started to flick through it, then I thought about all the men who’d have handled it before me. There was a toilet in the corner without a seat.
Some time went by. The whole day in fact. No one came to get me. I knocked on my door and shouted, but still no one came. It went dark outside and I hoped I’d be done by eight. They could do what they wanted to me, as long as I was done by eight.
I was taken down a corridor to a room with two police in suits. They were very polite. The blond one was holding my jotter. “What do I have here?”
“That’s my diary for last month. The other one said he needed to know my whereabouts for the thirtieth. What time is it by the way?”
“And you thought this would do it? A handwritten diary?”
“Well it shows what I was doing doesn’t it? See there. The thirtieth.”
The other police, the brown haired one, leaned in. “Anyone can write something down. Don’t make it true.” The pair elbowed each, grinning. They were amused by me.
“Can I ask something? What’s the time?”
The blond one checked his watch. “Seven.”
“So that’s all you have?” laughed his mate. “We were thinking more along the lines of, like, proof. Like evidence. Like someone we can contact you verify your whereabouts. Not a handwritten diary.”
I told them I must’ve misunderstood.
It had been a hard summer. I’d run sheep round the hills in Galloway before coming down to Cumbria for weeks of backbreaking fieldwork. I’d fallen in with a bad sort there too, the kind of man who wanted to sit up late in the hut, lapping whiskies, describing the sex he’d had. There was no shame in the pile of bondage magazines he left lying beside his bunk. He let it slip one time that he wasn’t allowed to vote, so I knew he was a criminal or a psychotic of some kind. John Blister.
We worked a job together in Cumbria, hand planting fruit and veg for a man styling himself an organic farmer. My hips would ache at the end of every afternoon, but we would drive the miniature tractor back up to the huts, Blister and I. He would already have the bottle of High Commissioner out, glasses clinking, as I was parking the tractor and hiding it beneath the big beech branches.
“I’m sick of it,” Blister told me, lying on the floor of the hut.
“Sick of what?”
“Of this. Fat fucken farmers. No job security. They need something taken off of them.”
I helped myself to another whisky and shrugged. “I know,” I said. “It’s shite, but what can you do?”
He said, “I’ve got an idea,” and poured the High Commissioner into his gob.
I nagged him all night to tell what his idea was, but he wouldn’t budge. I wonder if I was worried then, or just interested in whatever scheme he was working on. I remember laughing with Blister before we fell asleep.
Another day, he came running down from the farmhouse. He shouted after me, “You’ll never guess what’s happened.” I went up to farmhouse to see what was inside.
I didn’t bother to collect any of my stuff from the hut once I’d seen, just went straight out onto the road. I knelt over to throw up in the ditch. John Blister was standing outside the farmhouse, watching me. I’d got about fifty miles and two days south before the police picked me up.
The blond one said, “We have you at the farm.”
The brown one, “We have your whole record here.”
“All you have is a diary writ on the back of a fag packet.”
I touched my face and thought about what they were saying. I thought about what the time was. “The man responsible’s in the guest house over the road,” I said, which made the pair of them start.
“What’s his name?” asked the blonde one. “What does he look like?”
I told them he had this big blood blister over his left cheek. That made them really start.
“That’s Lingfield. We’ve got him in for perving. He was on the farm too?”
A uniformed officer took me back to the cell. He coughed while he waited for me to take my boots off. By going on tiptoes over the pillow area I could peer through the crack in the window. There was the girl from the café, loitering on the bridge. Her words were pressed between my chest and the wall. I was impressed by how long she waited for me. It was longer than most had.
The man they called Lingfield kicked up some fuss when they brought him in. He was yowling like a fox in heat. They put him in the cell next door and he bounced off the walls into the wee hours. When I heard the guards going past, I pawed at the window in the door. “Hoi,” I said. “You have to let me out now. I’ve told you everything I know.”
The guards didn’t answer. Lingfield screamed out.
When I was younger I thought the country was all I’d ever need. The smell of water. The loneliness. But I always ended up falling in with the wrong sort. It was a habit of mine. Left to my own devices I was no trouble at all but I always fell in with the wrong sort. I lay down on the mat someone had laid out in my bed area. When I closed my eyes I saw Blister showing me the organic farmer, leaning over the table, blood seeping from the gusset of his dungarees.
I resolved that when I got out of there I would change my ways. I would get my eight hours every night, I would eat all the vegetables I could stomach. I would sit down in a comfortable chair and be quiet.