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Authors: Gordon Ferris

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Pilgrim Soul (26 page)

BOOK: Pilgrim Soul
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THIRTY-NINE

I skidded down to St George’s Road and then plodded up the hill to Sam’s house, experiencing vividly what was in store for me in my dotage. I clung where necessary to the railings as my clown feet skited off the icy paths. I paused at the top and waited till my heart stopped pounding before pressing on. I pushed open the front door and stood swaying, as though my body had taken a puncture. As I wrestled with my coat, the lounge door opened at the top of the stairs.

‘Douglas, is that you?’

‘Yes. Yes it is. You’re back.’ Relief washed over me.

Sam walked slowly down the stairs and stopped near the bottom. Her face was screwed up with caution.

‘Are you all right, Douglas?’

‘I’m tired, Sam, just tired. It’s good to see you. When did you . . .? How were the meetings?’

‘Never mind all that. There’s some soup in the kitchen. On the simmer. Come and eat.’ She helped me off with my coat, then my scarf and jacket, like a mother helping her six-year-old after a tough day at school. She even steadied me as I swayed. Then she took my hand and led me downstairs. I held on to the bannister as I went, and wondered how I was going to get back up this flight.

The heat from the oven and the smell of Scotch broth stirred something in me, an echo of childhood, of sanctuary. I flopped at the table and undid my tie. Sam bustled about and laid a spoon and a steaming bowl in front of me. I wouldn’t have objected to her feeding me. We slurped quietly at our soup and I felt warmth and life flow into me. Throughout, she kept a wary eye on me and smiled encouragingly when I looked up at her. When I had finished she took the bowl away and tided things up in the sink. The next thing I knew she was shaking my shoulder gently.

‘Douglas? Come on, Douglas. Let’s get you to bed, my dear.’

I raised my head from my crossed arms and rubbed my creased face.

‘Did you put something in my soup?’ I tried to ask, but it came out drunk.

‘Wheesht.’

She helped me rise to my feet and I swam through fatigue, out of the kitchen and up the stairs. My feet were those of a deep-sea diver. Sam even gave me a push at one point. She helped me out of my clothes and easily beat off my attempt to bring her down on to the bed with me. I felt the sheets being pulled up and the quilt tucked round me like a winding sheet, and I was gone.

‘Room service.’

I grappled with my pillow and turned to the voice. ‘What? What’s . . .?’

‘Tea, Douglas. Here you go.’ I managed to open my eyes in time to see Sam lay a cup and saucer on my bedside table.

I struggled to sit up. My watch was still on my wrist. It was eight o’clock.

‘Sam, how splendid of you. Do I have a long grey beard? I feel like Rip Van Winkle.’

‘You don’t look
that
old. You were needing the sleep.’

I rubbed at my face and sipped some tea. She was looking at me apprehensively.

‘How was Edinburgh?’

‘A real grilling. They’d heard a lot of it from Iain already, but they were keen to know what I’d learned. I felt I was devilling again. Now they’re talking about getting me over to Edinburgh for a big trial. Completely unrelated to Hamburg. That’s how it works. How are you feeling?’

‘Like I’ve been a pain in the backside lately, Sam. I’m sorry.’

‘Just lately?’ Her face softened. ‘I’m the one that’s sorry. I got you into this mess. If I hadn’t got you involved with those bloody thefts last year. And the murders. And then to rope you into the Hamburg trials . . .’

I reached out and touched her lips to silence her. ‘You weren’t to know I’d be such a big jessie.’

‘That’s the last thing anyone could say about Douglas Brodie.’

‘They don’t know me as well as you.’

‘I didn’t know you well enough – what happened to you with the Belsen trials. I thought you’d just been some sort of reporting officer. I had no idea . . . You should have told me.’

‘I didn’t want to talk about it. Even think about it. Why should I burden other folk with it?’

‘I’m not other folk.’

‘What
are
you then, Sam? To me?’

We stared at each other for a long moment. Then she broke into a smile at the same time I did.

‘I’m your landlady and this tea is the nearest you’ll get to room service. Now, Douglas Brodie, it’s time I went to work. Glasgow today then over to the dragon’s lair tomorrow.’ She stood up, pulled her skirt down, leaned over the bed and kissed me on the forehead.

‘Is that part of a landlady’s duties?’ I called as she sailed out of the door.

Long after I heard the front door close and her shouted
Byeee
, I forced myself up and on to unsteady feet. I felt hollowed out. An empty gourd. I went through the routine that got me to the hall, shaved, fully clothed and warmed by tea and toast and jam. I jammed on my hat and set out into the winter’s day.

As I passed his office, Eddie jumped out and grabbed my arm.

‘Come by, Brodie.’ He pulled me into his fug. ‘Sit doon man. Now then, are you going to take some time off or what?’

‘I’m fine, Eddie. Really.’

He studied me. ‘Oh aye? You’re like death warmed up, so you are. Take a few days off. Other folk are coming down with the flu. Why not you? We’ll manage. We’ve got a few more days of your Hamburg stuff to use. Ah’ll knock something up if need be.’

‘I’m better here. Better working, Eddie. What have you got for me?’

‘Well, there’s the thieving-from-the-kirks story.’

‘Collections?’

‘Pews. For firewood.’

I laughed at the image of some rough household feeding their fire inch by inch with a long bench.

‘Leave me to it. I’ll phone around.’

I picked up my pencil and a fresh sheet of paper. To get me in the mood I began toying with headlines such as ‘Purgatory for Pew Pinchers’ and ‘Fires of Hell for Kirk Robbers’ . . .

‘See! Ah telt ye! He’s been like that for hours now.’

I grew aware of Eddie’s voice. Close. I lifted my head. Eddie was hanging over my filing cabinet. He was talking to someone and pointing at me. I blinked and turned my head. There was a small crowd. Two men and, behind them, Sam, looking anxious.

One of the men spoke. ‘He’s in a dwam right enough.’ It was Duncan Todd. Who was he talking about? What did he want?

The other man leaned closer. His face was familiar but thinner and older than I remembered. And there was a white scar cutting through his red hair like a wide and wayward parting that finished up just above his right eye.

He said, ‘Hello, old pal. It’s been a while.’

I stared at him until he was fully in focus both visually and in the pantheon of my mind.

‘Hello, Danny. What are you doing here?’

Sam pushed herself forward. ‘I asked him to come, Douglas. We thought he could help.’ Her bonny face was lined with concern. Help me? Why were they all here?

‘Help? What for? What doing?’

‘How about Nazi-hunting, Brodie? Ah’m good at that.’ Danny McRae smiled wolfishly at me.

FORTY

Sam cut in. ‘Let’s get him out of here. Douglas? We’re all starving. We’re going to take you back to the house and give you some tea. OK?’

‘Tea? What time is it?’ I peered at my watch. It said three in the afternoon. I’d lost half a day. Had I fallen asleep? From all the fuss going on it seemed more than that. My legs started to shake. My feet were drumming on the floor. The shakes seemed to be travelling up my body. I couldn’t control it. Panic flooded me. I wanted to run.

‘Douglas! Douglas!’ Sam wrapped herself around me. I held her tight. My lifebelt. She cooed and stroked until I’d calmed. She faced me.

‘Why the tears, Sam?’

‘I’m not. I’m fine.’ She stroked my face. ‘Can you boys help him? Let’s get him home.’

Danny and Duncan crowded round me and I felt their arms lift me to my feet. That was nice of them. I swayed but they kept me up. They pulled on my jacket, stuck my hat on my head and threw my coat over my shoulders. They all but frogmarched me out of the newsroom. It seemed very quiet and people were staring. Should I wave?

We stumbled down the stairs and out into the chill afternoon. The freezing air hit me and I slumped, but the boys were still holding me up. Was I drunk? Did I have secret bottle in my desk? Just another reporter whose drinking session had got out of hand? A taxi was waiting with its engine running. Sam went ahead and opened the door. I stopped.

‘Wait. Wait – a – minute! Danny! Danny boy. What the hell are you doing here? Heard you were beating up the London polis.’

Danny smiled that ferocious smile again. ‘That’s me. They deserved it.’

‘Good man. Did they do that to you?’ I indicated the scar still visible beneath the brim of his hat.

‘Naw. I had this done professionally. Gestapo. In France. Ah’ll tell you later.’

They poured me into the taxi. Sam and Danny joined me, squeezing me between them. Duncan waved us off. They coaxed me into the house and up to the library. I sank into a deep leather armchair and tried to clear the fog in my brain.

Sam lit a fire while Danny patrolled the bookshelves, picking up one book after another, flicking through it and putting it back. Then Sam returned with a tray of steaming soup and half a loaf. She made me slurp it down and I could feel it warming my very bones. She and Danny took a bowl each. Life began returning to my body. Then, warmed inside and toasting in front of the flickering fire, I let sleep overwhelm me.

I woke to the sound of the clock chiming five. Danny was sitting reading. Sam had her glasses on, peering at the crossword. They looked up as I stirred. It was as though this pair had always been in my life and were now in their proper places. I nodded to Danny and cleared my throat.

‘It’s good to see you, Danny.’

He put his book down. ‘Back with us again, old pal?’

‘How did Sam track you down?’

‘Through Duncan. As it happens, he and I have been in touch just lately. I get the occasional Glasgow paper in London. Just to see what this mad place is getting up to. And I found that a certain newshound for the
Gazette
has not only been writing the headlines, but generating them.’ He grinned. It was good to hear his Ayrshire accent again. The lilt of home.

‘You’re a fine one to talk.’

‘True enough, Brodie, we’ve both earned a certain amount of notoriety.’

‘You win, Danny, hands down in the infamy stakes. As I recall, you were up for murder.’

He bristled. ‘You ken what newspapers are like. It was a set-up by my old boss in the SOE, Major Tony Caldwell. The shit! Pardon me, Sam.’

‘It’s all right, Danny,’ she said. ‘From what I’ve heard that seems to sum him up. What happened?’

‘Caldwell recruited me into the SOE. He dropped me in France a month before D-Day near Toulon. He was used to coming out personally to control the wider ops in that part. Seems he took up with a girl – a Resistance fighter. I don’t know what happened – row or something – but he killed her. And then stuck the blame on me.’

I saw his eyes cloud.

‘Did
you
know her?’ I asked.

‘Oh aye, I kent her fine. I fell for her too.’ He shook his head. ‘Anyway, her pals betrayed me to the Gestapo by way of punishment. Can’t say I blame them. Ended up in Dachau. With this.’ He pointed to his head. ‘The Yanks got me home, and after a while I began looking for Caldwell.’

‘Did you get him?’ I asked.

He stared off into the flames. ‘Yeah. Finally. He’d been at it again. Got the taste for it. Five other girls murdered in London. Street girls. But yeah, I got him.’

I didn’t ask what he meant. Danny McRae was a persistent sod. We were both detective sergeants before the war, and I’d seen him in action. He was three years younger than me but they called us the terrible twins. And that was just our fellow officers.

Sam said, ‘How’s the head now, Danny?’

‘Aye, well, there’s the thing. I’ve got a plate in here.’ He knocked on his head where the scar ran. ‘So that’s fine. But I still get bad heads. And dreams. Let’s call them nightmares.’

‘Snap,’ I said ruefully. ‘Though I don’t have a lump of metal as an excuse.’

‘Douglas, with what you’ve been through, you don’t need another excuse.’

‘Maybe, Sam.’ I turned to Danny to change the subject. ‘But other than upsetting the polis, what have you been doing down south?’ I asked.

He laughed. ‘Playing detectives. I hung out a sign. “Finders Keepers”. I’m a private investigator. Can you believe it?’

‘I can believe anything about you, Danny. I’m doing a bit of freelancing myself. Does it pay?’

‘Keeps me in Black & White.’

‘Your taste hasn’t improved.’

‘Ah’ll drink anything, as you know, Brodie.’

Sam cut in, ‘Before the pair of you take that as a cue to start celebrating this reunion, you need to eat something more, Douglas Brodie. Anyway, it’s too early in the day.’

While she was gone, Danny and I inspected each other.

‘She’s a fine lady, Brodie. You’re a lucky man.’

‘Am I?’

‘Are you going to marry her? You should.’

‘She’s a hard woman to pin down.’

‘You mean you huvnae asked her.’

‘We keep dancing round it. But what did she say about me? Why did she get you up here?’

He leaned forward and spoke softly. ‘She said you were having a bad time. Nightmares. Shouting in your sleep. That you’re just back from the Hamburg trials and that it dredged up a lot of bad stuff.’

‘I guess so.’

‘I know how that goes, Brodie.’ He rapped his skull. ‘But it’s more than just physical. I’ve seen a good few brain doctors this past year or so. Psychoanalysed until I didnae know my own name. Even some shock treatment.’

‘They plugged you into the mains?’

‘It was like having your brain scrambled. Afterwards it goes calm, but in bits. Then over a few days it starts to join up again. You start remembering better.’

‘This was the result of Dachau?’

He looked down at the carpet and nodded. ‘It was shite, Douglas. Absolute shite.’ His head came up. His features were suddenly made gaunt and savage by the tension in his jaw and neck muscles. ‘How did they get like that, Brodie? How does anyone – any human being – get like that?’

BOOK: Pilgrim Soul
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